Tennis

Winners and Losers from the 1st Week of Miami Sony Open 2014

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

Winners and Losers from the 1st Week of Miami Sony Open 2014

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    Sarah Ivey/Associated Press

    Tennis at Miami's Sony Open is sure to heat up after the biggest stars look to push into the money rounds. So far, Andy Murray is charging ahead without Ivan Lendl, and Roger Federer's serve has looked nearly flawless.

    Find out how Rafael Nadal was overshadowed by Lleyton Hewitt.

    And is this finally the Masters 1000 breakthrough for youngsters like Ernests Gulbis, Jerzy Janowicz, Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic? We may already have the answer on that one.

    The WTA was fairly routine, except Flavia Pennetta's hot streak. And what did Serena Williams say after winning a third-round slugfest?

    The opening acts at Miami are over, but the weekly "Winners and Losers" column doles out another week of the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl Tandem

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    Greg Baker/Associated Press

    The week's big story was the amicable separation between Andy Murray and coach Ivan Lendl. Enough has been written in trying to discover more of the reasons behind the departure and what it means for Murray moving forward, but it's also a partnership that should be celebrated.

    It's fascinating to think about how well their chemistry worked, even with their more reserved and, at times, pricklier personalities.

    In his playing prime, Lendl was a great champion but often an outlier to most tennis fans, someone misunderstood and underappreciated. He was also a full-blooded tennis killer on the court, tough, relentless and proud. Nobody could ever say he gave less than his all.

    Murray's early career demanded that he fight against some of the greatest champions the sport has ever produced. His inclination to be more defensive-minded was often at odds with the aggressive mindset he needed to win Grand Slam titles. The talent was always there, but it needed nurturing and added belief.

    Enter Lendl. From the outset, Murray respected the elder Czech, and he was willing to take more chances with his forehand, venture inside the baseline and channel his hard adversity into a Grand Slam champion. He reached his career apex in winning the 2013 Wimbledon title, and proved as much about his own inner resolve as he did with his tennis fulfillment.

    The Murray-Lendl tandem was a wonderful success, an A grade when we consider the rarities of coaches and players delivering top-level success. Years from now, Murray fans will look back fondly at their partnership, regardless of how Murray does from this point on.

    Their contributions to tennis are worthy of this week's Golden Breadstick award.

Loser: Bernard Tomic Out in 28 Minutes

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Bernard Tomic can be a lightning rod for negative press. Many have questioned his work ethic and commitment to tennis. But this is not one of those times.

    Tomic was booed off of the court following his first-round retirement at the Australian Open. There were writers who questioned if his injury was legitimate.

    In his first match since coming back from surgery on both hips, Tomic was overwhelmed by Jarkko Nieminen, 6-0, 6-1. The match lasted only 28 minutes, the shortest ATP match on record, according to ESPN. Tomic won only 13 points.

    Clearly, Tomic is still not in shape to play competitive tennis. His trainer, Allistair McCaw, said in Tennis.com that Tomic only played to avoid ATP penalties. The most disconcerting part of this story is the possibility that this injury could be chronic.

    It's also a lesson in just how talented the ATP professionals are. A player who is compromised too much can be no match for a healthy opponent. Tomic's movement and mechanics gave him no chance.

    And for the club champion who thinks he can compete with the top 100 players in the ATP, forget about it.

Winner: Roger Federer's Service Game

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Throughout his career, Roger Federer has made a habit of outserving big servers. Just ask Andy Roddick.

    Case in point was his 6-4, 7-6 second-round win over serveborg Ivo Karlovic. Federer, of course, is known for his all-court talents and creative shotmaking. Naturally, his great service game can be overlooked, especially when preparing to duel an opponent who is only known for his serving.

    Karlovic just became the sixth player to ever join the 8,000 ace club, but how many knew that Federer was already there? Or that Federer's serve is so much more than hitting aces. He has the mind and artillery to set up and finish the shots that do come back.

    The most impressive statistic of this match was not the ace count, of which Federer lost 13-6 to Karlovic. The difference is that Karlovic won 47 of 68 service points, but that Federer won 49 of 52 service points. Federer's percentage is astonishing. He won 37 of 39 first serves and 12 of 13 second serves.

    Those numbers defy reason and take a shot at perfection.

    They call him the Swiss Maestro for many reasons and this was just the latest update.

Loser: Lleyton Hewitt's Shirt

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt was drubbed 6-1, 6-3 by current No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the second round, but he was the one making a statement with his tennis attire. Unfortunately, it was not a winner.

    A generation ago, Hewitt played with a rebellious edge as if he were the 21st-century tennis version of punk rock music.

    The backwards ball cap is still there, but his neon chartreuse and black trimmings look as if he is outfitted for an '80s Metallica concert. It's as if he's been caught in an old episode of Miami Vice. Hold the browns and reds, please, but if we can't go crazy on pastels we might as well fail with an art deco T-shirt.

    However, his tennis couldn't live up to the garish look, and he lacked the necessary emotion, energy and talent to out-compete Nadal. Yes, Hewitt's body has taken a lot of abuse over the past decade and is no longer a player expected to compete with the best in the world.

    But, "Come on!" The shirt didn't do his performance any favors.

Winner: Ana Ivanovic

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    Flavia Pennetta had been blazing along through some of the top players in the WTA, culminating in the Indian Wells championship. It would be easy to forget that Ana Ivanovic is also a player on the fringes of the Top 10.

    It therefore felt like a surprise when Ivanovic cooled Pennetta with a convincing 6-4, 6-3 second-round victory in the best early-rounds matchup of the first weekend.

    Neither player served well, but Ivanovic succeeded by attacking Pennetta's weak second serve and capitalizing on 4 of 7 breakpoints.

    There are several capable players in the WTA who can win big matches, but unless Serena Williams can play dominating tennis, nobody else is really running away with anything save a few good streaks that rotate from one player to the next. At least there is plenty of unpredictable and compelling tennis matches at the top.

Losers: Gulbis or Janowicz with Poorer Performance?

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    OK tennis fans, which player was more disappointing?

    In this corner, Ernests Gulbis flopped after a solid quarterfinals run at Indian Wells. He fell 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 to Julien Benneteau in the second round with a Jekyll and Hyde serving performance that included 14 aces and 10 double faults—Eight in the first set!

    Gulbis has shown a lot of fire since February, winning big matches and competing for multiple titles. He also lost his cool at Mexico vs. Grigor Dimitrov, throwing his racket in a tiebreaker and self-destructing the rest of the way. His latest loss leaves him as just another talented outsider who cannot crack the code to contending for big titles.

    On the other side, Jerzy Janowicz was drilled 6-4, 6-1 by Roberto Bautista Agut, who is playing very good tennis in recent weeks. It's a disappointment for Janowicz, the No. 20-ranked player in the world, because he has not progressed since his semifinal run at 2013 Wimbledon. He has had injuries and unimpressive results and seems likely to fall in the rankings, barring a real transformation.

    What does Janowicz need next? More composure and patience? Better shot selection? Somebody to give him better direction and light a fire under his big-game potential?

    Big talent and mercurial temperaments are not enough to win in tennis. Total devotion, concentration and patience through points and matches is just not that easy.

    Can we call this one a head-scratching draw?

Winner: David Ferrer Returns

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Only Lleyton Hewitt could save scathing commentary about David Ferrer's shirt. Enough already.

    The important thing is that Ferrer is back competing in Miami, after he had missed the past few weeks with a thigh strain in his left leg. He was unable to compete at Indian Wells.

    Ferrer has looked his usual self, which is good news for someone who needs every ounce of speed that he can muster. He crushed Teymuraz Gabashvili 6-4, 6-0, and knocked out Andreas Seppi 6-3, 6-2.

    Ferrer and Roger Federer could be battling for the No. 4 ranking during the clay-court season. Ferrer might have the more difficult route with several points to defend in Europe. The key for him to hold his ranking may indeed depend on him defending his runner-up points here in Miami.

    Even so, Federer is already picking up his own points after missing Miami last year. And he could be waiting for Ferrer in the semifinals.

Loser: Serena Williams' Post-Match Comments

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Everybody knows Serena Williams is a great player, and she will be the first to bring up this reminder, even after a lackluster win.

    Serena played a sloppy match in defeating Caroline Garcia 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, but made the following post-match comments via SI.com:

    I can play a hundred times better. I really gave myself a tremendous amount of trouble out there. Granted she played great, but I made so many errors ... 40-something errors. It's not the way to play professional tennis. Maybe amateur.

    Tennis fans know that Serena is trying to regain her best form after injuries and layoff, and her comments are meant to be a self-indictment of her own poor play. That's fine. Serena is allowed to be her own worst critic.

    However, Serena discredited young Garcia even as she won the match, saying her opponent played "great," but then saying her own performance was "amateur." Translation: I played awful and you played great, but you shouldn't even be a match for me.

    Serena defenders will point out that it's this drive to dominate others that is a big part of success. True, but sportsmanship was clearly lacking with her comments. She all but said her performance was worthy of the Burnt Bagel, but her comments are the reasons we will give her this award.

    Tune in next week to see how Serena's journey will end. Win or lose, tennis fans like their champions to be gracious.

Winner: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's Great Escape

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was down one set and trailing 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. The long walk to the other side of the court seemed nothing more than a funeral march. His team had probably already checked their iPads for the next available flight out of Miami.

    And then Tsonga rose from the dead. He reeled off five points in a row and eventually held on for the 8-6 tiebreaker win. In the third set, he deflected all five breakpoints for the 4-6, 7-6, 7-5 win.

    It was a draining match, but perhaps a confidence booster. Those are the kinds of matches that players can look within, find a beating heart and rise above the demons of self doubt.

    But he will need to lift his game in a hurry. Andy Murray might not have Ivan Lendl in his corner, but he is starting to look like his better self again. Tsonga might need more than a great escape if he is to pull out one more match.

Loser: Grigor Dimitrov

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Australia and Mexico foreshadowed the coming of Grigor the Great, but reality seems to be the same as always for Dimitrov's climb towards the Top 10. It's progress, but slow and steady. This week was a step back as Dimitrov lost a close match to Kei Nishikori, 7-6, 7-5.

    Dimitrov's old friend Inconsistency reared its unflattering side. He coughed up 28 unforced errors and missed on his only break-point opportunity against the relatively soft-serving Nishikori.

    This cannot do for a player who many believe will eventually win majors. Right now, Dimitrov is struggling to be a serious contender at Masters 1000 tournaments.

    In the immortal words Ernests Gulbis (Indian Wells postmatch comments on the Tennis Channel): "Everyone talks about him as the next number one. I think he still has a long way to go." The irony of course is that Gulbis has been talking himself up as a potential No. 1 player, but he was bounced out a round earlier than Dimitrov.

    But there's no denying that Dimitrov is not ready to ascend the ladder of the elite. Coach Roger Rasheed might be ready to assign more calisthenics and a diet of water and bagels.

    Better luck in Europe.

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