Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and Winners and Losers of the Week in Tennis

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2014

Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and Winners and Losers of the Week in Tennis

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Roger Federer made front-page news with wins over Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych on his way to claiming the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Champions.

    Down in Acapulco, Mexico, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov showed his grit for tiebreakers as he outlasted hot Ernests Gulbis and Andy Murray on his way to the title. Is this only the beginning of his rapid rise to the top of the tennis world?

    There were also casualties to injuries and a couple of ridiculous tennis moments.

    February went out like a lion, and this week's "Winners and Losers" commentary is the latest saga in the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in professional tennis.

Loser: Juan Martin del Potro

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Injuries are the landmines in professional sports. Every athlete trains and works to fulfill his dream, but one misstep can make his career a nightmare. Juan Martin del Potro has had his share of war wounds, but they continue to threaten his career.

    Del Potro had to retire in his first-round match at Dubai because of a left-wrist injury, the same one that bothered him in Australia. Tennis.com reported his disappointment and concern:

    I don't feel really well. My wrist is hurting a lot and everybody knows what happened to me four years ago with my other wrist.

    It was really tough to play today. I tried everything. I cannot be the player I would like to be.

    The big Argentine has extraordinary talent to crush baseline strokes. He has strong forearms, good movement and reach and the ability to win a Grand Slam title. He proved that by winning the 2009 U.S. Open. But his wrists have undermined his career.

    Some athletes learn to play through injuries or succeed in spite of them. World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, despite his ballyhooed difficulties with injuries, has continued to peak in and out with great tennis.

    We don't specifically know the extent of del Potro's latest wrist injury, but how much of this will weigh on his mind as well? How easy is it to continually rehab, keep up with conditioning and start again? When he has to return with even a nagging pain, will he be confident to hit over the ball, or hit the kind of slice that led him to the 2013 Indian Wells final?

    It feels unfair to del Potro's career, but if he cannot conquer the injury demons, his byline will read like a modern-day Achilles.

Winner: International Premier Tennis League

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    Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

    Will the designs of the International Premier Tennis League materialize into a genuine tennis stage for stars?

    The Guardian reported that top stars, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, are considering the five-city southeastern Asia tour sometime in the offseason (November-December). Nadal could receive $1 million per night.

    Is this real? It's the brainchild of Mahesh Bhupathi, a doubles player from India who is developing his business acumen.

    The hype and speculation has already begun to work its magic in attracting attention, and the money seems to be enlisting the stars. But there have been many kinds of upstart leagues and exhibitions in sports that have overwhelmingly failed to parlay their show into sustainable success. It could be a gimmick that may or may not get off the launching pad, let alone soar.

    There are also questions to wonder about the players. It's a perpetual topic to point out just how grueling the tennis year is and how players must pace their bodies to maximize their careers. For those who participate in the IPTL, there might not be an offseason at all. Could it lead to Australian Open doldrums and more injuries?

    Furthermore, the lure of dollars seems to outweigh everything else. Take Nadal. His marriage with nagging and chronic injuries would figure to remove him from contemplating participation in the IPTL. But Nadal has also had a history of playing in exhibition events, even with his checkered health.

    The winners could be the fans and possible success of the new league. Could it become a legitimate venue and expand? Could it rival a small portion of the ATP and WTA tours and cause player prize money to increase?

    Tennis fans will keep their eyes open with interest, and new ideas should get a winner's seal for the sake of progress. At this point, it remains to be seen if this idea will ultimately turn into a big winner or loser.

Loser: Acapulco's Grigor and Genie Stunt

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    Rahman Roslan/Getty Images

    Acapulco, Mexico has not only turned their courts from clay to hard, but has also joined the ranks of ridiculous pre-tournament hype. Tennis has used exhibitions and showmanship stunts for decades, but has it reached the point of overkill?

    In 2005, it was stunning to see Roger Federer and Andre Agassi hit tennis balls on the helipad at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.

    By 2007, Federer and Rafael Nadal staged a crazy "Battle of the Surfaces" match with a court of half clay and grass, divided at the net.

    Lately, these gimmicks are more routine, even with Nadal and Novak Djokovic facing off on an Argentine cargo ship at the Perito Moreno Glacier.

    But enough is enough. Now Acapulco is using potential stars Grigor Dimitrov and Eugenie Bouchard to face off on a floating-raft court—for lack of a better description.

    The net effect? Who cares. Grigor and Genie is not interesting. Scan the photos, if you wish.

    The scramble for tennis originality is a deflated hot-air balloon flapping on the hot sands of some forlorn landscape. Meanwhile, somebody is probably figuring out how to send players to the moon.

    Yawn.

    Next slide, please.

Winner: Dominika Cibulkova

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Dominika Cibulkova does not seem satisfied with losing in the Australian Open final. She has moved forward this week, bagging the Mexico Open and reaching No. 11 in the WTA rankings.

    She stands at only 5'3", but Cibulkova seems to maximize her efforts with a fiery spirit. Her baseline game has flair and feistiness, but, most importantly, her belief is growing. It's often the difference-maker for young or talented players who look to become consistent contenders.

    There's room inside the WTA's Top 10-pool, and Cibulkova should certainly prove to be better than her 2013 French Open second-round ouster.

    It's also amazing to note that Cibulkova has earned 50 percent more prize money in the first two months of 2014 than in any previous year of her career.

Loser: David Ferrer

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    Hugo Avila/Associated Press

    Is this the beginning of the end for the Energizer Bunny of tennis? Last week, David Ferrer looked tired. Now he has been derailed. He had to pull out of the Acapulco tournament quarterfinals with a left thigh strain. How often do tennis players retire while leading a match? Ferrer (6-4, 2-2) was clearly hampered.

    The global miles are adding up, and injuries are never welcome. Nobody depends more on being fleet-footed and full of high-octane energy for each and every point. Anything less, and he is not a Top 50 player.

    Will he recover in time for Indian Wells and Miami? Can he play with all his admirable gusto during the most important clay-court stretch of the year?

    He's going to need more than a fresh battery.

Winner: Attacking Tennis Stars

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    The attacking tennis player is having success in puncturing the baseline grinder. Both of the marquee matches for Friday's semifinals at Dubai and Mexico followed the same match patterns and outcomes:

    In Dubai, Roger Federer lost his first service game to Novak Djokovic and played conservatively from the baseline in the first set. He attacked in the second set, coming inside the baseline more often and forcing Djokovic to respond to pressure.

    A few times, Djokovic went for too much, thinking Federer was coming in, even when it didn't happen. Not all unforced errors are really unforced. It changed the tempo of the match, shortened points and put the match on Federer's racket. He won.

    In Mexico, Grigor Dimitrov lost his first service game to Andy Murray and played conservatively from the baseline in the first set. He let Murray send a barrage of groundstrokes to his backhand and lost the first set, only approaching the net six times.

    Dimitrov attacked the net 16 times in the second set and was more often hitting forehands inside the baseline. Murray suddenly could not grind out the match and fell victim to some of Dimitrov's forehands and soft touch. Dimitrov controlled the final two sets and won. He hit more winners (37-23) and unforced errors (56-34), but the risks ultimately outgained the mistakes. He won 26 of 33 points at net.

    Attacking tennis is the way for players like Federer, Dimitrov and Stanislas Wawrinka to counter the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Rafael Nadal. We are seeing this shift with more success early in 2014. The clay-court season will be another kind of test, but the ATP is featuring deeper, more competitive tennis in the Top 10. And the contrast of styles is bringing more intriguing matchups.

Loser: Ernests Gulbis Busts a Racket

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    Tennis fans usually appreciate a good racket smashing. Nobody's saying it has to be as climactic as Pete Townshend of The Who, but at least the tennis player can perform his destruction with a bit more unpredictability.

    But Ernests Gulbis gets failing marks for his stupid timing.

    Gulbis had won the first set versus another young talent, Grigor Dimitrov, whom he had defeated two weeks ago at Rotterdam. The second set went to a tiebreaker, but at 2-2 Gulbis picked up a poor volley and was left stranded. Dimitrov passed him easily, and Gulbis performed his racket-slam act, as seen in the video above.

    It's not the first (and likely not the last) time Gulbis has smashed his racket, but a tiebreaker to close out a dangerous rival is a serious loss of composure and concentration. There's no excuse, even though this is Gulbis, who wears his emotions on his chest.

    Dimitrov had to be thinking I've got this guy! And from there, Gulbis melted in four straight points, each of them sloppily played. The smashed racket was clearly a factor and perhaps instrumental in losing the match.

    It's further disappointing from the standpoint of the excellent tennis Gulbis had been playing the last three weeks. He was a semifinalist at Rotterdam, a titlist at Marseille and had moved his ranking to No. 18. He also reiterated his ambitions to be No. 1, but four days later imploded.

    Ernests, we find you entertaining. We called you a winner last week, but the worm has turned. You may have cost yourself a match and momentum for Indian Wells. There will be no trophy and cake this week, just a broken frame and a burnt bagel for your millisecond of rash behavior.

Winner: Grigor Dimitrov

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    Jam Media-Hugo Avila/Associated Press

    The talent is there, but Grigor's Dimitrov's efficiency and belief are taking big strides forward. The Bulgarian won Acapulco's Mexico Open for his second career and best title to date. He moves up six slots in the rankings to his personal high at No. 16.

    Dimitrov won his final three matches on the strength of five tiebreakers. He turned his quarterfinal match around versus Gulbis because he held his nerves better. He was sharper than Andy Murray in the semifinals tiebreakers, and trumped Kevin Anderson in the final with two more sudden-death scenarios.

    "Belief is the only thing that kept me going today," said Dimitrov to ATP World Tour.

    Belief and big points have been the key to his continued progress, but his conditioning has improved. He moved with greater energy than Andy Murray in their third set. The match ended at about 2:30 a.m., and Dimitrov had to come back on short rest to outlast the big-serving Anderson, a veteran who also moved up to his career-best ranking at No. 17.

    Credit should also go to Coach Roger Rasheed, who is renowned for helping his players become fitter and tougher. Dimitrov has won 20 of 25 matches since their partnership began in October.

    In watching his matches, viewers can note Dimitrov's excellent court coverage. At times he gets caught too far behind the baseline but is able to retrieve all over the court. When he does come into the baseline, his forehand is powerful, and his shot selection and intelligence is evolving rapidly.

    He's also not afraid to pump his fist and celebrate winning big points. His body language suggests that he expects to be at the top, and he looks like he enjoys competing. The winning, whether the cause or effect to this, is now happening.

    Dimitrov is ready to take his momentum to Indian Wells in search of his first Masters 1000 title. It could be an even larger step in pushing him toward the Top 10. How far will the young Bulgarian climb in the months ahead?

Stalemate: Novak Djokovic

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    These days, its hard to predict a lot about the most consistent player in tennis. While that may seem like a paradox, there is evidence that Novak Djokovic is momentarily stuck in traffic.

    There's nothing overly wrong to label him a "loser" for this column. He ended 2013 on a tear, and it could be argued that had he slipped past Stanislas Wawrinka, he might have held a fourth consecutive Australian Open title.

    On Friday's Dubai semifinals versus Roger Federer, he had a set in his pocket and a break point on the table. From there, he floated to the finish as Federer worked his magic. No shame in that, but was he just off, or was Federer too brilliant?

    Behind his focused eyes and never-die spirit, there is fatigue.

    He's grinding, scraping his elbows with effort and yet falling short of big-match wins these days.

    Going forward, he will be one of the usual top favorites for Indian Wells, Miami and the clay-court season. Nobody would be surprised if he won them or fell a bit short. There's a sense that he has "been there, done that."

    Nothing in the next few months will drastically alter his current ranking or playing form, unless he catches another hot streak and starts burning up his nearly 4,000-point deficit to Rafael Nadal. (Djokovic lost 320 points for not defending his Dubai title, but Nadal lost 500 points for not showing up to defend his Mexico Open title.)

    So when will he escape his career gridlock and floor it on the open highway?

    Win the French Open. That's it. That's all.

    In the next three months, nothing short of dethroning Nadal and nabbing the French Grand Slam hardware will matter much one way or the other.

Winner: Roger Federer

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    It's not so much that Roger Federer is "back," but he is revitalized with a sharp, resilient approach. His versatility was the difference in defeating runner-up Tomas Berdych, who has been playing excellent tennis this year.

    He won his sixth Dubai crown this week, his best title since Cincinnati, way back in August 2012. He also won the way he needed to win, less with domination and more with impressive control and variety. He won three matches in the third set and, most importantly, vanquished hard-court rival Novak Djokovic.

    Federer was excellent on defense. He was rarely forced to stab at balls out of his reach. His anticipation and footwork were tremendous, eager even to come in at the right times. He moved horizontally and vertically, never penned into a corner to try and withstand a barrage on his backhand. He rarely shanked balls or had to succumb to grueling baseline power. His energy was high each match.

    This was another step forward, not missing a beat since January's successful run at the Australian Open. He is right there as a favorite for Indian Wells and Miami. Above all, his optimism has to feel high, knowing that he can succeed with his attacking tennis.

    Furthermore, expect Federer to learn and progress with his more aggressive all-court approach. There will be some bumps along the way, but he can have full confidence that the blueprint works. He can win big titles against the best in the world with his mind and skills.

    Dubai handed him another nice trophy, and we are going to add our own Golden Breadstick award. It could merely be the appetizer for bigger things ahead.