Victoria Azarenka clinched the year end No. 1 ranking on Friday, with another come-from-behind win at the WTA Championships, this time over Li Na. I have to take a moment to praise her efforts throughout the year. While the biggest thing about Azarenka (at least to some tennis fans) may be her screech, she’s shown tremendous grit and game throughout the season, making a statement with her first Major in Australia and ending with a suitably loud “WHEEEE!” with this accomplishment in Istanbul. Even if she loses the tournament (she plays Sharapova in the semis and could face Serena in the finals) she’s proven once and for all that she’s a “real No. 1.”
Also playing, and winning, a spot in the semifinals today was Agnieszka Radwanska, who faced this year’s big (little) surprise, Sara Errani, in a very live round robin match. Radwanska showed once again that she has the patience and cunning to beat anyone, coming back from a set and 4-5 down to win the match 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-4. Her reward is a semifinal date with Serena Williams, who is undefeated so far in Istanbul.
So we have No. 1 vs. No. 2 and No. 3 vs. No. 4 fighting it out for a place in the finals. It’s not too big a leap to call this the women’s version of the Big Four (Agnieszka playing the role of Andy Murray, pre-Olympics glory.) What a fabulous way for women’s tennis to end the year.
On the men’s side, we’re playing regular old ATP 500s, but for Fed fans (who me?) there’s something special about Basel. It’s Roger’s home tournament, where he rubbed shoulders with the pros as a young ballboy and where the stadium now bears his name. Knowing Roger, he eats up whatever pressure he feels playing in front of his home crowd with the same appetite as the ballkids eat up Roger’s pizza at the end of the tournament. It’s no wonder he’s won 32 of his last 33 matches in Basel.
Roger had easy passage into the semis on Friday, beating Benoit Paire 6-2, 6-2 in under an hour. He gets wild card Paul-Henri Mathieu in the semis. Another Frenchman, Richard Gasquet, is still alive in the draw, having beaten Mikhail Youzhny in his quarterfinal. It surprises me to learn that this win puts Gasquet 10th in the rankings race, and in contention for one of the final two spots in the World Tour Finals. Am I the only one guilty of writing Richard off as an almost-ran, a bright talent on a long, slow fade to a career in French TV commentary? It’s nice to see the flashy Frenchman earn another chance to rise to the top.
Gasquet’s semifinal opponent will be Juan Martin del Potro, who clinched the 6th spot in the World Tour Finals earlier in the week. The Argentine faced fellow-giant, Kevin Anderson, in his quarterfinal on Friday, and had to come back from a set down to win the match.
In Valencia, David Ferrer will face Ivan Dodig and Jurgen Melzer will play Alexandr Dolgopolov in the semis.
There was some interesting non-tournament news coming out this week, as Rafael Nadal announced his withdrawal from both the Paris Masters and World Tour Finals. Though he will be missed at these flashy events, especially the WTF, his announcement came as no surprise. What did surprise me was hearing that he has yet to hit the practice courts – his rehab apparently still focused on the gym and his yacht. It will be fascinating to see how quickly he gets back in the “swing” of things after such a very long time without a racquet in his hand. Assuming he bows out of November’s Davis Cup final vs. the Czech Republic in Prague (the one playing opportunity left for him this season) and returns to tour in Australia, we’ll have a huge storyline shaping up in the first couple months of next season. I can’t wait.
Also of note was the news that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is teaming up with coach Roger Rasheed after flying solo for over a year. I liked Jo as the solo artist, the cheerful lone wolf swinging his way through the field on his own wits and talent. But as a true Tsonga fan, I am ultimately relieved that he’s taken this step. A new coach means renewed focus and developing strategy. Rasheed’s a veteran – he spent the last three years coaching (or at least trying to coach) Tsonga’s friend and countryman Gael Monfils – and I thinkhe can help Jo-Wilfried make a breakthrough or two. We’ll see how it goes at the World Tour Finals, and perhaps this partnership will give us another interesting storyline in the coming season.
But for now, let’s just enjoy the tennis this weekend!