Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Winners and Losers to Begin the Asian Tennis Swing

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2014

Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Winners and Losers to Begin the Asian Tennis Swing

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    Leave it up to Rafael Nadal to be the biggest tennis story of the Asian tennis swing, even if he is only talking about playing. Make no mistake about it, his return is a huge win for his sport and for fans looking in on the final burst of the tennis year.

    There were other championship winners including Andy Muray, Kei Nishikori and Petra Kvitova. Who can continue the momentum to cap off 2014 with a roar?

    There are also more thoughts about Li Na and the impact of her retirement in her home continent.

    And there were setbacks and disappointments for Victoria Azarenka and seemingly the entire WTA field at the Wuhan Open.

    Are you ready for another installment of the "Winners and Losers"? We examine the present and future of the best players as we turn our attention to the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Li Na Retires

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    The first full week without Li Na on the WTA tour is still difficult to accept. Here is a player who won the 2014 Australian Open title and climbed to her career-high No. 2 ranking. It seemed that she could reasonably challenge for Serena Williams' No. 1 ranking.

    Like the abrupt retirement of 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, Li's retirement is quite sudden and surprising. While she had been battling injuries the past few months and her play had declined, Li still has so much game and competitive spirit to compete at the very top level.

    As tennis fans, it's a reminder to appreciate the stars we have while they play. We just don't know when the end will come, and as Li's 2014 season has shown, the end can come swiftly.

    Was it just injuries and advancing age, or had she truly achieved everything that was reasonably possible? Was the grind of the tour, the support and weight of Asian tennis perhaps a heavier burden than for most players? SI.com answered a few of these questions in weighing Li's departure.

    Regardless, she is to be commended for her late-career surge and her fine, aggressive groundstrokes. She has been a tribute to professionalism, hard work and feisty spirit without pretentious mannerisms or self-indulgent behavior. The WTA lost its most classy star.

Loser: Victoria Azarenka's Lost Season

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    Victoria Azarenka will forever look back at 2014 as a miserable time of injuries and setback. The two-time Australian Open champion and former World No. 1 packed it in this year after her troublesome right foot prompted her to announce that she will not play, according to her Facebook page, via SI.com:

    Unfortunately I will not be competing in any tournaments for the remainder of the season. It has been a very tough year for me. I have been trying my best to improve day in and day out by pushing and pushing…but that does not appear to be the best approach for me right now. I will use this time to work on making a full recovery and take care of my body to compete at my best next season.

    Azarenka has fallen from the No. 2 ranking in 2013 to the No. 24 ranking.

    World-class athletes are always on the edge of losing their greatness. Injuries are the greatest fear and they can attack like an unwelcome virus, without warning and with devastating consequences. A player losing her speed, mobility or fitness, even to a small degree is the difference between winning and losing on the tour. In Azarenka's case, it undermined her confidence and competitive fire.

    Like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, Azarenka's number was called and she had to bitterly fight through too many dark storms of frustration and waiting. She leaves 2014 with a 15-9 singles record and quarterfinals appearances at Melbourne and New York.

Winner: Rafael Nadal

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    It's almost at least a yearly tradition to point out that Rafael Nadal is coming back from injury, but each and every time is a celebration for tennis fans around the world.

    In this case, the fans of Asia will see Nadal make his return after a right wrist injury caused him to miss the entire U.S. Open series. He will open up against World No. 21 Richard Gasquet, a player he has dominated with a perfect 12-0 record in their professional careers.

    Nadal assessed his condition to the Beijing media, as reported by ATP.com:

    I am fine. I am much better. The thing is the injury, the evolution of the injury, was a bit slow and took a little bit of time. But that's it. I just feel the wrist a little bit when I am starting, when I start to play every day, but then it disappears. I'm in good conditions to compete again.

    In some ways, Nadal's return is a bit surprising, given that he is returning to fast hard courts in Asia, far from the confines and comfort of red-clay Europe. With no majors to be played until 2015, the Spanish superstar could have rested to make his return at Melbourne's Australian Open, compete with fresh legs and possibly without injury limitations.

    Perhaps Nadal would like to make a push to win his first WTF final, played in early November. He will need time to ensure that his right wrist does not trouble him and will need to regain his best form, not seen in nearly four months after his ninth French Open title.

    Win or lose, Nadal will draw the eyes and attention of the sporting world. Tennis can only hope that he will be at his best moving forward to compete for more big titles.

Loser: Nick Kyrgios

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    While Rafael Nadal makes his return to tennis, we are reminded of 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios—the last player to play and defeat Nadal, at Wimbledon's fourth round nearly three months ago.

    Since then, the bullet-serving Kyrgios has had his shares of ups and downs. He has flashed immense talent with a huge forehand and aggressive sense for attacking and delivering the perfect shots. It's like the gambler who says "Hit me" with a 19 at the blackjack table. Kyrgios is playing for the top, but his efficiency will need a lot of intelligent adjustments.

    Take for example his 7-6(4), 7-6(3) loss to veteran Marinko Matosevic in the first round. He only served 58 percent with first serves, and faced seven breakpoint opportunities.

    The softer-serving Matosevic faced only one breakpoint chance and was steadier in the tiebreakers. Perhaps his knowledge of his fellow Aussie and the lack of expectations made it easier for Matosevic to play within his more-limited ceiling.

    This is the way it will be for Kyrgios, and as long as his fire strikes with as much self-immolation as it does to burn his opponents, the ATP tour will be a long process for him to forge his weapons to one day challenge as the best player in the world.

    Kyrgios has also battled with a painful left forearm and admitted to needing a break from recent weeks. Welcome to the ATP tour, Nick.

    He's going to need more time, even if tennis fans are fascinated and impatient with his potential.

Winner: Kei Nishikori

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    Last week the media noted the importance of Kei Nishikori's presence and impact on the Asian swing of the ATP tour. He was seeded No. 1 at Malaysia and he did not disappoint, streaking to the championship by winning eight of nine sets including his 7-6(4), 6-4 final win over Julien Benneteau.

    This week, Nishikori will be in his home country Japan as the No. 4 seed, facing a stiffer draw with the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer, Milos Raonic, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. As always, there will be pressure to perform well for his fans and the camera-toting Japanese media, especially with his increased status as a top contender.

    No pressure, Kei, but you really do need to win another trophy this week, right? Then on to China, Paris and a probable bid for the WTF trophy. Just another quest for a rising star.

Loser: David Ferrer

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    David Ferrer is a regular patron with our Winners and Losers column, largely because he puts in about as much work as a tennis player can reasonably accomplish, and he is usually one of the top seeds at mid-level tournaments where other top stars are largely absent.

    So unless he goes deep or wins these tournaments, it would be easy to tag him with a "loser" label.

    First, Ferrer needs to be applauded for his unrelenting dedication to his personal world tour. He puts in countless airline miles, plays through nagging injuries and competes with everything he can give. In the past, this was enough to overcome all but the very upper-echelon stars.

    However, Ferrer's inexhaustible commitment has seen a gradual decline of performances, and in 2014 he has dropped matches earlier and to weaker opponents. The latest was his first-match defeat to Viktor Troicki at China's Shenzhen Open. Ferrer was the No. 1 seed and Troicki had just survived a grueling first-round match, but Ferrer was given his exit ticket after a quick 6-3, 6-4 loss.

    Enjoy Ferrer while you can. Like Li Na, he is a credit to professionalism and hard work, voyaging on with his best accomplishments in his early 30s. The end could be here sooner than we think, but maybe he has a few more surprises left.

Winner: Andy Murray

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    Meanwhile, Andy Murray's past year has somewhat resembled our discussion of David Ferrer. The two-time major winner has struggled through an assortment of setbacks in trying to hang inside the Top 10. He is at a kind of career crossroads where there is a path that can return to glory and another that may take him towards declining results.

    We do know that regardless of the results, it will never be easy for Murray. This week was a triumphant return to holding a trophy—even if it was the Shenzhen Open—and he needed three sets apiece to fend off clay-courters Juan Monaco and Tommy Robredo. He overcame five match points against Robredo after trailing 2-6 in the second-set tiebreaker.

    Will Murray make it back to the WTF tournament in London, where only the top eight players are invited? Now that Rafael Nadal appears likely to play, there will not be a "ninth" slot. Murray will need to move past a couple more players, like Milos Raonic or David Ferrer, and possibly hold off Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Grigor Dimitrov.

    This week was a successful step forward, but Murray's form will need to improve for the next month and the hard courts season that suits his game. Tough to bet against him, but still the questions persist.

Loser: WTA's Wuhan Tournament

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    Bleacher Report writer Merlisa Lawrence Corbett had an excellent review of the disasters that inundated China's inaugural Wuhan Open. Tennis fans can learn a lot from this article, particularly in how players, injuries and early upsets can make or break the week (or future) for a tournament.

    Some of the big names to quickly fall by the wayside included No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 2 Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic. There were other challenges as well, notably from the high humidity, illness and the unfamiliarity of the venue.

    All of this prompts a few familiar questions. Should the ATP and WTA look to wrap up the tennis season by early October with their year-end crowning events at London and Singapore respectively? The grind and toll of the tennis year is not easy and the majority of tennis stars have been afflicted one way or another.

    Yes, this means having to alter the entire tour because the Asian swing is seen as the future of tennis. Decisions like this can have ramifications for February.

    But players should come before tournaments. Their health and optimum play will provide a better product for the sport and for fans.

    Does this mean the ATP and WTA should take greater steps to trim back the guaranteed money and expansion of their tours?

    It's an ongoing discussion highlighted this week at Wuhan, and a reminder of how difficult it is to physically endure this sport. More offseason rest for players may be necessary. Less emphasis on mandatory tournaments may be another step in the right direction.

Winner: Petra Kvitova

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    Maybe that Wimbledon trophy was the impetus that Petra Kvitiva needed to continue her mini-resurgence. She is the winner of China's Wuhan tournament, outlasting a deep field of casualties and riding her power game at the right time of the year.

    And like the Wimbledon final, she dominated Eugenie Bouchard, this time 6-3, 6-4 to capture this mid-level tournament.

    Kvitova is now ranked No. 3 and within an eyelash of Simona Halep's No. 2 ranking. She has momentum to charge into the next month of fast hard courts and has already qualified for the year-end tournament at Singapore. Best of all, she is playing with the composure and belief that had been lacking early in 2014, when it seemed she was more likely to drop out of the Top 10.

    With Li Na retired, Serena Williams aging and players like Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka having to navigate injuries, Kvitova could be looking at more major titles in the future.

Winner: Novak Djokovic Heads Heads China Open Draw

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    Are you ready Novak Djokovic? You've got Grigor Dimitrov in your quarter, and Andy Murray or Marin Cilic is a potential semifinalist. Other worthy stars line up in the draw including a certain Spanish rival who will be looking to return to tennis for the first time since Wimbledon. (See slide No. 2 for a review.)

    The best part of current speculation is watching the next day unfold. The tour is always in motion as stars and aspiring champions persevere through different conditions to win titles and create their unique marks in history.

    But with the recent attention on upstarts like Kei Nishikori and Cilic, and with the return of Rafael Nadal, just don't forget to appreciate the consistency and greatness of the world No. 1.

    It will be a treat to watch Novak Djokovic once again. He's still the epicenter of title-winning on the ATP tour, and we should enjoy his unique game and personality. Someday, even he will need to hang up his professional career for good.