Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams and Winners and Losers of the Week in Tennis

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams and Winners and Losers of the Week in Tennis

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Nobody was surprised to see Rafael Nadal win the Rio Open in Brazil, but it was not so easy.

    A Williams sister won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, but it was not World No. 1 Serena.

    There were several star-laden comments this week coming from Juan Martin del Potro, Pete Sampras and Uncle Toni Nadal. Which one of them was dealt our weekly Burnt Bagel award?

    This week's edition of "Winners and Losers" has a little bit of variety as February hits the home stretch for a highly anticipated spring season of tennis. As always, this is commentary for the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in professional tennis.

Winner: Juan Martin del Potro Rips Davis Cup

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    Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

    Maybe Juan Martin del Potro figures he needs to focus exclusively on his own stagnated tennis career. He might be tired of hearing about his talent and potential. Certainly, he should not have to feel added pressure to perform as the Davis Cup savior for Argentina.

    Last week, Del Potro aired his frustrations about his unhappiness in being linked with Davis Cup. He released a statement through the AP, via Tennis.com:

    In November I wrote a letter showing my displeasure with the double standards and hypocrisy prevailing around Davis Cup. Since then, nothing has changed, but has gotten worse. Profound changes are needed to correct the mistakes that have been repeated over the years. I will not allow my name used to justify accusations that are a smoke screen. I never asked to name a captain and always respected the decisions of others, even if they have not respected me. Out of consideration for the people who follow me, who enjoy tennis, who have a memory and know what I've done in the Davis Cup and Olympic Games, for the sake of the silent majority who like this sport and to stay far way from insulting rivals or punish someone from their country, I will not play the Davis Cup for the rest of 2014.

    Whatever the details and accuracy to these comments, or if this is at all linked to his dislike with popular former star David Nalbandian, is beside the point.

    Tennis stars like Del Potro are playing in 2014 when the individual stakes for tennis rewards are competitive and fierce. They are often badgered through the media for the sake of national pride, and their reputations are at stake. When a star loses, there are no rewards, only criticism.

    Maybe other tennis stars will continue to voice their grievances with antiquated Davis Cup.

Loser: Simona Halep's Foot Injury

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    Osama Faisal/Associated Press

    Simona Halep had had only one day to pack up her Doha trophy before racing out to Dubai and unpack the ice off her aching Achilles heel.

    She trailed 6-1, 1-1 in her opening match at the Dubai tournament before retiring with an Achilles injury. WTA physiotherapists recommended that she take 10 days off, according to ESPN.

    Time and again we see finalists in this predicament. Often they carry nagging injuries and fatigue into another week of grinding tennis and they pay the price. They want to compete or not disappoint the fans or venues they have committed to, and they are frequently hampered.

    Case in point was Roger Federer's appearance at Gstaad, Switzerland, last July. He had a bad back, but he did not want to disappoint his home country. He lost to unheralded Daniel Brands in his opening match and had to be sidelined without the conditioning he needed to prepare for the U.S. Open.

    It's easy to wonder how or why athletes must retire with seemingly small injuries or skip tournaments, but tennis requires great physical endurance. It's a human sport with real injuries, and athletes all respond differently.

    It's our loss Halep couldn't compete, but it's something we will continue to see week by week with all players.

Winner: Pete Sampras' Endless Praise

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    Aijaz Rahi/Associated Press

    Recent years have seen legendary superstar Pete Sampras much more comfortable with the media than in his playing days. He was once considered bland and boring, but it appears now that Sampras has had a personality transplant.

    It's refreshing to hear an athlete from a previous generation look kindly on his successors, even as they obliterate many of his cherished records.

    For years, he has held Roger Federer's cape and continues to insist the Swiss star can keep winning Grand Slam titles.

    A few weeks ago, Sampras was bowing to Rafael Nadal, saying the Spaniard "could very well get 17, 18 majors when it's all said and done," according to BBC Sport.

    Djokovic? Sampras can deliver metaphorical chest bumps with the Serbian star's success. Last year, Sampras said to the AP via SI.com that Djokovic could be No. 1 for years to come.

    OK, so Sampras likes being a fan club. It's easy to love Pistol Pete's enthusiasm for the current generation of stars. Somewhere, former rival Patrick Rafter must be thinking, Where was that in the late 1990s?

    Could he make a broadcasting career out of gushing over stars and throwing out Greatest of All Time comments as frequently as he once served aces?

    John McEnroe just might have to move over.

Loser: More John McEnroe?

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    Evan Agostini/Associated Press

    Newsflash: John McEnroe will be appearing more on ESPN with an additional role on radio.

    Really? You Cannot Be Serious!

    McEnroe, who once stormed around as a petulant tennis star, was perfect media fodder during his playing  days, but he was completely unabashed moving into the TV tennis booth. He offered popular technical analysis, color and opinionated insight for over two decades, most notably for NBC and ESPN.

    He's never stepped out of the spotlight, playing exhibition matches of all sorts, appearing in movies and at Knicks games and even hosting a talk show. And now he is looking to talk more on radio.

    Will it ever end? As long as there is a microphone or camera, McEnroe will be there. He's the universe, always expanding his star power.

Winner: Venus Williams

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    A week ago, it would have seemed like an easy prediction to say that Williams would be holding the Dubai title trophy. But how many would have thought it would be Venus, not Serena?

    But there was Venus, playing her own brand of consistent, power tennis that hearkened back several years. She didn't just win, she dominated every set, and made us forget that she is a 33-year-old veteran struggling through the ups and downs of being healthy enough to play on a regular basis.

    Her winning could do much more than move her up 15 spots in the WTA Ranking (No. 29). Venus has her smile and confident countenance. She could be ready to make waves in the WTA once again, and at least be the dangerous opponent nobody wants to face.

    Now comes the recovery. Then it remains to be seen if she can replicate her success this spring. We're a long way from discussing if she can win an eighth career Grand Slam title, but it's nice to see her enjoy the ride for at least a week.

    She also received unanimous acclaim in snatching this week's coveted Golden Breadstick. Winning has not tasted this good in a long time.

Loser: Serena Williams

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    While Venus Williams was cruising to her Dubai championship, Serena Williams had a very different week:

    1. She decided to take a late wild-card entry to Dubai because she was bored with practice in her comeback from an aching back.
    2. She exchanged a few words with Jelena Jankovic at the end of their quarterfinals match.
    3. She was unfocused in her semifinal loss to Alize Cornet, and claimed that her turtle-like start to the match had been foreshadowed, according to WTA.com: "I started out extremely slow. I have actually been looking at a turtle every day - it's a really cute turtle in the hotel. I think it's so cute. Maybe I was too influenced by it. I need to play better than that if I want to be playing on the professional tour - maybe I can go to the amateurs."
    4. Afterwards, she said she was “embarrassed" at her errors and performance.

    So it wasn't Serena's finest week of tennis. Tennis fans also missed out on an all-Williams final for the first time since last decade.

    At least Serena's presence is never boring, but she might have got more than she bargained for in her attempt to play her way back into form. Maybe that was still better than hitting practice balls, listening to Green Day and getting her nails done.

    Just don't expect that Serena will be making a trip to the pet shop to purchase herself a turtle.

Loser: David Ferrer

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    Leo Correa/Associated Press

    Last week, we applauded David Ferrer's title in Argentina. He travels a lot of miles and plays mid-level tournaments with scarcely a changeover break, let alone a vacation.

    It could be catching up to him quickly, as evidenced by his 6-4, 6-4 semifinal loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov.

    Following his French Open final appearance, Ferrer has looked increasingly tired. He is dropping more matches to players that are seeded well below him. He has lost 18 times since the French Open, and 16 of those were to lower seeds. Granted, just about every player he plays is seeded lower, but he used to eat up talented, underachieving players like Dolgopolov.

    Are his legs suddenly losing their spring? He played slow and looked old in his semifinal match, though maybe the prospect of facing Nadal in the final did not add any extra enthusiasm.

    But let's be honest: Another Nadal vs. Ferrer match is a heavily scratched CD with the same broken tune. We don't need to replay it again, ever.

Winner: Ernests Gulbis

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    Ernests Gulbis continued his momentum from last week, and this time went the distance to win the Open 13 title in Marseille, France. He defeated favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with another dominating serving display, 14 aces and 77% percent winning on service points, according to ATP World Tour.

    And now Gulbis has marched up five spots to No. 18 in the rankings. Just how far can he keep climbing?

    My long-term goal in tennis isn't to be Top 20. It's to be No. 1," Gulbis said in ATP World Tour. "Anything less than that wouldn't make me fully satisfied. I don't want to get to 30 years old, look back on my career and say I didn't make something of it."

    At least Gulbis' ambitions are slightly higher than Caroline Wozniacki's. The 25-year-old Latvian has never been afraid to speak his mind, but how realistic is his goal?

    He has five titles and powerful shots but an erratic history. Last year, he was also hot at this time of the year, taking the Delray Beach title and riding a 13-match winning streak into his Indian Wells fourth-round match versus Rafael Nadal. He lost and continued on with sporadic bursts of good and bad tennis.

    Can he now start winning Masters 1000 titles and competing for titles on all surfaces? Could he indeed be a Grand Slam winner one day by emulating Ironman Stanislas Wawrinka?

    One thing's for sure: Nobody wants to play Gulbis right now.

Loser: Uncle Toni Nadal's Mind Games

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    Mark Baker/Associated Press

    Rafael Nadal's uncle and lifetime coach, Toni Nadal, will now and then come out with his unique perspective of the tennis world.

    Last summer, Toni told Spanish reporter David Nadal (h/t Matt Cronin of tennis.com) that he has nothing to hide when it comes to coaching Rafa from the sidelines, even citing his age as the reason for his bold admission.

    Looks like Toni's advancing age (53) means he is going to continue to add psychological observations surrounding Rafa. Tennisworld translated a French Interview from We Love Tennis in which Toni insisted that Rafa is not as physically imposing as other top tennis stars:

    In my view, there are a lot of players whose physical are well above: Monfils, who is monstrous on that front, Tsonga, Djokovic, terrible on that front ... And then Ferrer! Yes, Ferrer, Monfils and Djokovic are the very best. So Rafa does not really make a difference on that, no. It is in the mind that the fact it is in the head it is very strong.

    This seems like a surprising comment given that Rafa has always been identified by his physical endurance and strength. Even as a 19-year-old French Open champion, Rafa was immediately pegged for his cut-off sleeves, rippling arms and thick legs. Not as physical as his rivals?

    So what is Uncle Toni's purpose in playing Zen Master?

    1. Tiresome repetition in trying to prove that his nephew has had to overcome at least some physical limitations from an underdog role.
    2. Rafa's mental toughness is better than everyone.
    3. Looking for new ways to motivate Rafa.
    4. Looking to take pressure off Rafa.

    Sorry, Uncle Toni, but you can't say this after 13 Grand Slam titles and as perhaps a veiled attempt at explaining Rafa's physical breakdown at the Australian Open. Your comments might have some validity, but have a gaping hole in the middle, kind of like this week's Burnt Bagel.

Winner: Rafael Nadal

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    Leo Correa/Associated Press

    Winning the final of the Rio Open in Brazil proved to be the easier match on his way to the tournament championship, 6-3, 7-6 over Alexandr Dolgopolov.

    But it was his semifinal match versus 40th-ranked Pablo Andujar that proved to be the real nail-biting test. He had to survive two match points and very aggressive play from his inspired opponent.

    Props to Nadal for winning the title but there are still some of the usual concerns:

    His lower back is not quite right and this could continue to be troublesome as he readies for Masters 1000 tournaments, star competitors and his furious clay-court ambitions.

    Nadal will need to combat increasing attempts from players who take the initiative to attack them. Most cannot pull this off, but players who are large and hit powerful strokes can push him around a bit. Even smaller players like Andujar know they must let everything hang out.

    The World No. 1 will be taking everyone's best shot, but that's just business as usual.