Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev Lead Mid-February's Winners and Losers
Bulgaria's pride and joy Grigor Dimitrov continued his hot streak to superstardom, and rising talent Alexander Zverev showed why he is likely to be a big champion in the near future. It was a fine week for some of the younger players.
Meanwhile, the WTA's Federation Cup had a blockbuster match between Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza. How did that one turn out?
All this and more in our weekly "Winners and Losers," where we check in with the biggest stars and the best of professional tennis.
Loser: Marin Cilic
There are two versions of world No. 7 Marin Cilic. At his best, "Champion Cilic" is a powerful ball striker and one of the best players on fast surfaces like Wimbledon. He was the 2014 U.S. Open champion and 2016 winner of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
Then there's "Mysterious Marin," who doesn't have the defensive movement to grind and control most of the points on high-bouncing surfaces. Clay has chewed him up, and Melbourne's Plexicushion (although speedier now) conjured up another Croatian tragedy when he evaporated in the second round. Since the 2014 U.S. Open, all five of his titles have come in the second half of the ATP calendar.
But there's no excuse to lose his first match as the No. 1 seed at Open Sud de France against the streaky Dustin Brown. He wasn't there long enough to pay the weekend hotel rate. The bottom line is that Cilic has been flat in 2017, since his five-set collapse in the Davis Cup final against Argentina in November.
It's nearly springtime, and Cilic looks like he would rather disappear until the grass is greener on courts mid-June.
Winner: Alexander Zverev
The whispers are becoming louder to herald young Alexander "The Great" Zverev as an elite ATP star. He conquered southern France with two big wins over natives, former top-10 veterans Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. And for good measure, Zverev and elder brother Mischa took the doubles title.
One year, the lanky German could conquer northern France to pose in front of the Eiffel Tower with the ultimate victory cup.
One thing stood out for Alexander's impressive title. He was physically strong and mentally tough in playing three consecutive three-set matches. That says a lot about his ability to bounce back and compete from one day to the next.
Grinding on the ATP has chewed up other young players in recent years, but the younger Zverev is proving that he is the real deal.
The next leap forward will require that he defeats the Big Four legends in huge matches at Indian Wells and Miami. He's had two heartbreaking losses to Nadal and two narrow victories over Roger Federer (including the exhibition match last month).
It could only be a matter of "when" he will mature into a top champion who employs his talents to launch a new era of ATP tennis.
Loser: Dominic Thiem
If you bet Cilic, I'll raise you Dominic Thiem.
The Austrian star was the 2016 February player of the month with two titles and a runner-up appearance in South America and Mexico. He was strong throughout the spring and peaked with an opportunistic semifinals run at the French Open.
Since, Thiem's been fatigued, defeated often and really just a shell of the player who crashed into the top 10. He was the No. 1 seed in Bulgaria, but he was bumped aside in his first match, long gone before a potential semifinal match against the blitzing Dimitrov.
This should be the time when Thiem blossoms into a monster contender at Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros. He has the strength to hit hard from the baseline and he's shown the grit to be a top-10 star.
But now he's reached an important time. Will he soon be contender for tennis' top prizes, or will he need a few more years to follow the ups and downs as seen in "The Dimitrov Pattern"?
Winner: Karolina Pliskova
In the WTA, Federation Cup action had the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Belarus and the U.S. all advancing to the semifinals. One marquee matchup stood out, although it did not live up to its billing.
It should be the rivalry of the future, if not the present, with each star brandishing Babolat's Pure Drive racket.
Spain's Muguruza is the French Open champion and recent No. 2-ranked player in the world. She's got size, athleticism and big groundstrokes, but she's still learning about what it takes to have a champion's target on her back.
Then there's Czech Pliskova, who won the Western & Southern Open and was up one break in the third set of the U.S. Open final. She's got a cannon serve and improving confidence in big matches.
Pliskova trounced Muguruza with five breaks of serve and a 6-2, 6-2 final line. “I think she [Muguruza] doesn't like a fast game because she likes to dictate,” Pliskova said, per WTA Tennis.
At this point, it's a big advantage to Pliskova, whose stock is soaring. Can she put a dent in the women's tour when the courts are slower? Muguruza can only hope she gets clicking with spring tennis and another great run on red clay.
Loser: Rotterdam Losing Superstars
Rotterdam has traditionally been February's most star-studded tournament, boasting the best players who don't prefer clay. Past winners included Lleyton Hewitt, Federer, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and Stan Wawrinka.
But the tournament has lost before it has even started. Like all mid-majors, it has been finding it more difficult to showcase the very top superstars. Rotterdam thought Nadal would play, but the Spaniard withdrew on advice from his doctors to rest his aging body after a grueling effort of three five-set matches in the Australian Open.
Rotterdam also lost Wawrinka last week, as he was plagued by a knee injury in his semifinal at the Australian Open.
There will be a handful of second-tier stars to play, including Cilic, Thiem, Tomas Berdych, David Goffin, Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev, but the Big Four superstars will not be there, which is increasingly the case late in their careers. Their top scheduling priorities means cutting out any event that can wear them down.
It's not so great for Richard Krajicek and the fine folks that organize Dutch tennis, and for fans dying to watch the Big Four.
Get used to it, because it's also the right way for them to extend their careers and be fresh for the biggest tournaments. Federer vs. Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final does not happen if they were playing multiple mid-majors in the previous months.
Winner: Grigor Dimitrov
The chronicles of Dimitrov recounts his second title in five weeks. If this continues, his rise to the top of the ATP could become an epic story ringing from home country Bulgaria to the Eiffel Tower in early June.
A year ago, Dimitrov disappointed his fans when he did not participate in Sofia's return as an ATP tournament for the first time in 35 years. This week, he was all in, and he delighted the country by playing as a stronger, more confident star.
After an initial comeback win against mercurial talent Jerzy Janowicz, Dimitrov ripped through his remaining matches and stamped his title with a gritty win over fighting No. 11 Goffin.
"This is my most prestigious title for sure, winning it at home is a tremendous success for me," he said, per ATP World Tour. "I will treasure this title for the rest of my life, it's something amazing for me."
It's not too late to get Dimitrov stock as a bargain considering that Oddschecker has him anywhere from 50-1 to 80-1 to win the French Open. Is there anyone else outside of the Big Four and Wawrinka that could be a better candidate to win the next major?
The Bodacious Bulgarian has the footwork, defensive grinding and offensive clout to besiege Paris and haul off with the Musketeers' Cup. There will be more white-green-and-red flag waving from vociferous supporters proud to join the global scene of worldwide tennis.