Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki and Winners and Losers of the Week in Tennis

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2014

Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki and Winners and Losers of the Week in Tennis

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    Rafael Nadal is ready to play tennis, and we look into his comments as he readies for Brazil's Rio Open and its introduction to the ATP tour.

    Caroline Wozniacki gives a curious self-appraisal of her career. Her reality may differ than the views of typical tennis critics. This proved more interesting than Li Na's early loss.

    Deep in the heart of February, tennis continues with its mixed bag of ATP tournaments. One was full of good competition, another with bad luck to lose Nadal, and the third too ugly to talk about (but we only spend one slide on it).

    Our latest installment of the "Winners and Losers" column is a momentary review of the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in professional tennis.

Winner: Rafael Nadal's Return

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    Tennis fans are the winner here. Any tournament benefits from having Rafael Nadal participate. A few weeks after his Australian Open final loss to Stanislas Wawrinka, he is ready to return to competition at the debut of the Rio Open in Brazil.

    Nadal has made a career out of comebacks, and it begins with a short memory and forward-thinking outlook.

    A couple of weeks ago, Nadal said in an interview with COPE Radio (h/t to Latino Fox News) that his last match was "the worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court." He added that it was more difficult for him to recover from that defeat:

    The soul is good. It wouldn't be right to say I was not well after all the things this life has given me. I am a person that takes losses very well, I always have been, and I really do not think about them anymore after a few hours. This time it's taking me a little more.

    Much of Nadal's success has been through his resilience. He responds well when backed into a corner. It's his mental fortitude that fuels his drive, and he will need to play with his usual confidence. He knows that the clock is ticking on his opportunities to win more Grand Slam titles, but that now is the time to respond. He expressed his optimism to SI.Com:

    'I cannot predict the future for how long I will be here competing well,' he said. 'I can't say when that's going to end. The only thing I can say is today I feel happy about what I am doing. I am feeling motivation mentally to keep playing, to keep competing well.'

    The mind and attitude seem to have recovered, but how about his back? We will see the results this week.

Loser: Andy Murray

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    It seems that it will still take time for Andy Murray to find his best form. At Rotterdam, the second-seeded Scot needed three sets to advance past the second round against young Dominic Thiem. Then he was handled easily by Marin Cilic, 6-3, 6-4.

    Was it just a case of running into the streaking Cilic, or was there a lot more rust to rub off Murray's game?

    Murray will have another month-and-a-half to get match time on hard courts, including Masters 1000 tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. These are opportunities of which he would normally be considered a top contender, but he will need to demonstrate that his back injury is behind him.

    So let's put Murray on the yellow-light watch list. Will he return to his No. 2 form this spring, or will he languish all the way through the European clay-court season in hopes of defending his Wimbledon title?

    It's premature to sound the alarm on a career rut, but sometimes we look back at champions like John McEnroe and Jim Courier, never realizing that their "slump" would be the end of their Grand Slam contention.

    In Murray's case, it's probably just a setback, but the end can come quickly to even the very best players in the world. Expect him to be back at full strength at least by summer, his favorite part of the year.

Winner: Dominic Thiem's Scrambling Save

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    Andy Murray needed three sets to defeat Dominic Thiem in Rotterdam's second round, and he came away impressed with Thiem's talent, according to ESPN UK: "It was unbelievably tough with a lot of long games. Maybe fun for the fans, but not [for me] to play against a talent like Dominic Thiem. We'll be hearing a lot from him."

    The 20-year-old Austrian is closing in on the Top 100. He can hit a one-handed backhand, scramble and play with a confident flair. Watch the video above for a glimpse at this athletic talent. There is also a nice profile from ATP.com that breaks down some of the particulars to Thiem's skills.

    For tennis fans who enjoy looking at prospects younger than Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, Thiem is another must-watch youngster to put into the mix with Australian teenagers Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Loser: Caroline Wozniacki

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    There's really no sugar-coating the latest loss for Caroline Wozniacki, a straight sets second-round affair to No. 72-ranked Yanina Wickmayer. At least Rotterdam is only 353 miles from hometown Odense, Denmark; because her career needs a rebirth.

    Her two-year slide from the No. 1 ranking, that she last held in January 2012, seems to be picking up the kind of downhill speed needed for Alpine skiing. Maybe she should hop on over to Sochi and try her feet at that.

    Right now denial seems to be her stance, telling Aljazeera "I don’t think anything has gone wrong [with the fall in rankings] and being world No. 1 for two years is a pretty good effort."

    It's also telling that Wozniacki seems satisfied with her career, even in voicing her hopes for a Grand Slam title. "I've achieved basically anything I could on the tour," she added to Aljazeera.

    OK, whatever. We will tell her that there is nothing wrong with this week's burnt bagel. Munch away, Wozniacki.

Winner: Ernests Gulbis

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    Ernests Gulbis has the tools, talent and brashness to be a big winner on the ATP tour, but he has been as up and down as an elevator. His erratic forehand has improved. Ditto with his composure. He has a big serve, wonderful backhand and oozes with self-confidence.

    All of which were on full display at Rotterdam as he blitzed Grigor Dimitrov and No. 1-seed Juan Martin del Potro en route to the semifinals.

    We've seen this movie before with Gulbis and other Top 30 talents. They look like world-beaters at times, but rarely show the consistency needed to contend for Masters 1000 titles. Gulbis is always a dangerous competitor, but we never know which Gulbis we will see from one match to the next.

    So it was hardly surprising when Gulbis got drilled in the semifinals by Tomas Berdych, 6-3, 6-2.

    Still, he is worthy of being labeled a winner this week. Will he continue to trend up during spring tennis?

Loser: Top Seeds at Rotterdam

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    Rotterdam showed a deep field of competitors this past week, but also a lesson in why the favorites are inconsistent performers. Only three seeds made it to the quarterfinals, and only Tomas Berdych lived up to his No. 3 seed. Judge for yourself:

    No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov fell in the second round to Ernests Gulbis.

    No. 7 Mikhail Youzhny was dropped in the first round by wildcard Dutchman, Igor Sijsling.

    No. 6 Tommy Haas survived Fernando Verdasco but fell in the second round to Jerzy Janowicz.

    No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was crushed in the second round by Marin Cilic.

    No. 4 Richard Gasquet lost in the second round to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

    No. 2 Andy Murray was defeated in the quarterfinals by Marin Cilic.

    No. 1 Juan Martin del Potro was ousted in the quarterfinals by Ernests Gulbis.

    There are plenty of reasons that tennis fans are most interested in watching and following the very top champions like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. They have been consistently great for years, and they are recognizable and dependable performers to the sports world.

    This week was a chance for each of the top seeds to show his worthiness in winning a respectable title in a strong field. But they collectively tripped over their feet.

    It's not going to get easier when the calendar flips to March. Who will step up and for how long is anybody's guess.

Winner: Tomas Berdych

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    It has been 16 months since Tomas Berdych happily waved to the crowd as a new title winner. He had to earn this one by defeating a tough field and being the only top seed to exceed expectations. His finalist opponent, Marin Cilic, had been scorching hot with his serve and game.

    But this time it was Berdych who came through with excellent serving and big groundstrokes. When he is able to dictate his offense, he is awfully tough. He was also fortunate not to play someone who could get him to run around and play more defensively. Hats off to Berdych.

    Honorary mention as well for removing his vertical-striped referee shirt that made him look like an Argentine soccer defender. We won't give him the golden breadstick but will extend our heartfelt relief that we can recognize him as a tennis player once again.

Loser: U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships

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    OK, good job to Kei Nishikori for winning the U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championship. I guess we can't completely blame him for showing up to win. Besides, the home of Elvis Presley has some nice parting gifts, as the photo above plainly shows.

    But it's also a representation of why a gimmick tournament should not be on the ATP calendar. Yes, it's February and the weather in the U.S. has had some angry belches lately, but why promote indoors tournaments at all this time of the year? If it's not October or November, this shouldn't happen.

    The field at Memphis wasn't exactly filled with second-level stars, or third or fourth. Besides Nishikori, the next four seeds were as follows (with current world ranking): Feliciano Lopez (No. 27); Lleyton Hewitt (No. 38); Lu Yen-hsun (No. 46) and Marinko Matosevic (No. 55). Lopez and Matosevic didn't win a match.

    Memphis is a culturally historic city that helped spawn blues and rock 'n' roll. It has Graceland, barbecued ribs, the NBA's Grizzlies and plenty of things to see and do. But this tennis tournament is completely out of tune with the rest of the ATP. Time to change stations.

Winner: David Ferrer's Buenos Aires Title

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    David Ferrer is the consummate tennis professional. He will fly to any end of the earth for a title, and the week proved to be a perfect example of why.

    Ferrer had been slated to play at Rotterdam's 500-point hard court tournament. Then Rafael Nadal pulled out of Argentina, and suddenly Ferrer was changing planes and jetting on down to Argentina.

    The choice was simple. His former option had been to face another eight Top 20 players and gamble on getting 300 points by making the final. His new opportunity gave him the No. 1 seed on clay and only a few veterans like Fabio Fognini, Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Robredo for a title. These are players Ferrer can handle. Throw in sunny Argentine weather and door No. 2 was a no-brainer.

    Then he went out and won each match in straight sets, dropping Almagro and Fognini and picking up the 250 points and $84,060.

    Ferrer is an excellent tennis player and points vulture. He must travel more than other players and compete with total tenacity week in and week out. And he must be given props for seizing his opportunity. We will give him a nice golden breadstick for showing the tour how it is done.

Winner: Simona Halep

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    OK, we cheated a bit by ending with two straight winners, but Simona Halep cannot be ignored.

    The young Romanian is proving her worth as the hottest mid-level tournament winner on the WTA since last summer. Her latest piece of hardware was earned as the champion at the tough Qatar Open.

    Halep had to defeat three Top 10 players including Sara Errani (No. 7), Agnieszka Radwanska (No. 4) and Angelique Kerber (No. 9).

    The best thing about Super Simona is how hard she plays each point. She is not afraid to go for the lines at the right times, and she seems impervious to pressure on critical points. She is showing that she can compete for Grand Slam titles in the near future.

    It's still too early to call her the next big star in women's tennis, but don't bet against her.