Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and the Winners and Losers at Brazil and France

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2015

Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and the Winners and Losers at Brazil and France

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer did not meet at the Rio Open in Brazil. What did the final outcome mean for both players?

    There was also action at Marseille's Open 13, which featured two Frenchman duking it out in the final. Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils are a contrast of tennis and personality in so many ways. The better player won the match and continued his recent surge into the top 20.

    This week showed that 30-something players are the ones flexing their muscles to win titles. It's a topic we discussed a few days ago, and we will project how many years and victories it could indicate for a dedicated, consistent winner like Ferrer.

    This is your Winners and Losers column. Read on for the week's results including outlooks, appraisals and further discussions about those in tennis' spotlight.

Winner: Fabio Fognini

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Fabio Fognini is one of the world's best clay-court tennis players when his head is on straight.

    There is Fabulous Fabio who keeps his composure, fights and hits a fair variety of groundstrokes while sliding easily into his shots. He crushed Andy Murray a year ago when his country's Davis Cup win was on the line. He just defeated Rafael Nadal at Rio de Janeiro after getting blitzed 6-1 in the first set. Good Fabio is Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, a smart protagonist you can root for with a flair for the dramatic.

    Bad Fognini is Stevenson's Mr. Hyde, a combustible personality who throws his racket, verbalizes his anger at judges and makes insensitive remarks. There are times he loses his composure and throws away his opportunities to compete on the court.

    This week, Fabulous Fabio survived two tight matches, defeated Rafael Nadal and competed in Brazil's top final. Will it foreshadow clay-court success at European tournaments this spring?

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Maybe Nadal should give up his pink shirt and yellow headband. There are too many reminders of 2009, the year Nadal did not win the French Open.

    Anytime Nadal loses on clay, it's a story. As usual, there are both positive and negative effects for his semifinal loss to Fognini at Rio de Janeiro's semifinals.

    Negative: Nadal was unable to bounce back and win back-to-back three-set matches in about 18 hours. He streaked to a 6-1 first set against Fognini but blew up in the second set. His service game was broken five times, and he was outplayed by Fognini late in the third set. He also appeared to have stretched his groin muscle. Medical news may be pending.

    Nadal's clay-court losses in the past year are to Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Novak Djokovic and Fognini. The first two and the last are clay-court talents but are competing better against the King of Clay rather than rolling over.

    Positive: He turned back Pablo Cuevas with a well-cooked bagel in the third set of the late quarterfinals. In addition, there were times Nadal's backhand looked good this week, featuring enough sizzle and angle to complement and set up his aggressive control on offense.

    Nadal has bounced back many times from worse losses, and it's only February. It's a blip in the greater scheme of his European objectives. He will hopefully be fit and motivated to compete at Buenos Aires next week, a draw that includes Fognini and Cuevas.

Winner: David Ferrer

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    While Nadal's health and form continue to be up and down, compatriot Ferrer is left to pick up the pieces. Nadal's loss at Brazil was ultimately Ferrer's gain. He won his 23rd career title and ninth title since turning 30 years old in April 2012.

    Ferrer also notched his 615th win and is second to Brian Gottfried in career wins by a player who has not won a major. He has more career wins than Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Goran Ivanisevic, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. He is in the discussion as the best player to never win a major.

    How many more matches can Ferrer win? The past five years have seen Ferrer average nearly 62 wins a year. This year, Ferrer is off to a 13-1 start, making it seem as if 50 will be a cinch.

    Could Ferrer's mighty energy continue to average 50 wins a year for another five years, approaching his 38th birthday? That would put him at about 865 wins, which is a bold extrapolation considering that injuries or losing a step is all it takes to stop the torrid winning. That kind of number would put him at seventh all-time, a shade from Andre Agassi and John McEnroe.

    The odds are against it, but Ferrer has taken care of himself and played his best tennis the past few years. Life begins at 30.

Loser: John Isner

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    Andy Brownbill/Associated Press

    John Isner's big serve could not hold up at an American midlevel tournament. The No. 2 seed floundered with his strokes and fell in the first round at the Delray Beach Open to Marinko Matosevic 6-4, 6-4.

    Isner was disgusted with his play, as reported by Cindy Shmerler of The Associated Press: "I'm disappointed, but I'm just not good enough to not play well against this group of guys. It's all between the ears right now. It's not for lack of effort."

    The bigger point is that Isner has been fading since he peaked at No. 9 in April 2012. He is ranked No. 19 and rarely considered a threat to piece together a string of victories. He always has a puncher's chance behind his serve, but his groundstrokes rarely hold up for more than a few streaky patches.

    It's hard to see him as a relevant contender at the most important tournaments as he moves closer to turning 30 in April.

Winner: Ivo Karlovic

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    While the youthful Ferrer was winning Brazil, geriatric Ivo Karlovic (who celebrates 36 years Saturday) cruised for the Delray Beach title. It was quite a reversal for Karlovic after getting bounced as the No. 1 seed in home country Croatia and getting tagged as one of our losers.

    The fourth-seeded Karlovic is one of three serveborgs to be appraised this week, and we did not include No. 1 seed Kevin Anderson, who lost his second match at Delray Beach. Karlovic is the one walking away with a title.

Loser: Milos Raonic

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    It's tempting just to reprint the Isner slide in explaining how No. 1-seeded Milos Raonic lost to Simone Bolelli in a third-set tiebreaker at the Open 13. In reality, it was more about Raonic's lost opportunities, as he only converted one of eight break points.

    Raonic has much more upside than Isner ever had, but the 24-year-old Canadian has his work cut out if he is to become a true major contender. He's no longer a prospect or young player, and it's time to step up to the next level if he is capable.

    It's more than shoring up his baseline game or learning to polish off more opportunities at the net. Raonic must develop more powerful consistency along the lines of a Tomas Berdych.

    Berdych is a good model in the sense that he hits clean groundstrokes and understands that he must control his offense. If left to turn the tide with defensive tennis, both players do not have enough retrieving skills to beat the very best.

    Time will tell if Raonic can develop the mental strength and consistency to compete at the top. It's not enough to contend one week and then get wiped out early the next. Even Berdych, hardly renowned for his mental toughness in big matches, has certainly been a consistent professional in putting himself in position to compete with the best.

    Next step up for Raonic is to develop consistency at all of his tournaments. After that, good things will happen.

Winner: Gilles Simon

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    The all-French final at Marseille was a contrast with just about everything. There was slender Simon with his soft groundstrokes, conservative white shirt and low profile. He was opposed by athletic Monfils and his flashy arsenal of highlights, garish orange shirt and crowd-pleasing reputation.

    Simon eked out the third-set tiebreaker to win the title. He has continued an upward arc of tennis since the U.S. Open, improving his world ranking from 37 to 16. It bodes well for spring's clay-court season, which suits his game well.

    Monfils fell to 5-17 in career finals and finished with 54 unforced errors. 

    Oh, and Simon is 30 years old, the youngster for this week's winners. Maybe Nadal, Djokovic and Murray can look forward to even better tennis in the years to come as we continue to marvel at players peaking later than ever.

Loser: Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Peter Dejong/Associated Press

    The favorite for Marseille was the No. 2 seed from Switzerland, Stanislas Wawrinka. It was really his tournament to lose, and he did so promptly, falling in the quarterfinals to Sergiy Stakhovsky.

    Stakhovsky could be a one-man wrecking crew for Ukraine if it was to take on Switzerland in Davis Cup competition. He scored his most famous win at 2013 Wimbledon against Swiss superstar Roger Federer.

    Wawrinka has a recent history of hot-and-cold tennis. This week he was frigid, explaining to the official website of the ATP World Tour, "I was very slow. I was not very active, especially in the first set, and he played really well. I tried my best to make it change, but it didn’t happen."

    The real problem was that Wawrinka does not turn 30 until late March. He's too young to win a title this week.

Preview: Dubai, Mexico, Argentina

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    The king of Dubai is ready to play for the first time since Australia.

    Roger Federer is looking for his seventh title on Dubai's fast surface. ATP World Tour charted this as one of his six most successful tournaments. He looks to make this his third venue with seven or more titles (Halle and Wimbledon).

    It won't be easy. World No. 1 Djokovic lights up when the draw is strong, and Andy Murray has scores to settle against both players from recent months, though he would need another career and a complete reversal of results to truly settle the scores. Berdych has also been playing good tennis lately and could take a step closer to proving he will be better in 2015.

    In Mexico, it always seems like Ferrer can come away with the title, although a healthy Kei Nishikori is the favorite and a player who has knocked around Ferrer a few times in the past year. But the defending champion is Dimitrov, who has slipped since Wimbledon. Other strong competitors include Karlovic and Alexandr Dolgopolov.

    Buenos Aires will revolve around Rafael Nadal assuming he is healthy and ready to pick up more matches and momentum. It's a comparably weak field, but clay-court specialists Tommy Robredo, Fognini and Cuevas are all capable of defeating a flat Nadal.

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