By Maud Watson
The biggest tennis story this week didn’t come from one of the players in Mason, Ohio, but rather from one who isn’t, as Rafael Nadal announced he would not be competing at the 2012 US Open. Given the fact that Rafa hasn’t played since Wimbledon, the announcement itself wasn’t too big of a shock. But his withdrawal from the US Open does have many questioning what this means for the Spaniard’s future, particularly given the odd saga of his knee woes in 2012. The saga began in January with the bizarre injury from getting up out of a chair. He wisely took February off and appeared fine at Indian Wells before losing to Federer in the semis. It was after the fact that we learned that’s when the knees started acting up again and subsequently forced him to pull out before his semifinal match with Murray in Miami. At that time, however, Nadal had said the knees were not as bad as they were in 2009, giving his fans hope. Those hopes were fanned during the clay court swing where there was no mention of injury, Nadal was moving beautifully, and he went on his usual tear. By all accounts, Nadal looked poised for a successful grass court season before it was abruptly cut short by the stellar play of an “in-the-zone” Rosol. Shortly after the loss, word started leaking about MRIs, and Nadal refused to set a return date. All he would say about this time around is that the problem with the knees is “different.” To be clear, the latest rhetoric coming out of the Nadal camp has focused on the fact that he’s just not yet properly prepared to compete at the highest level, but his return will still be dictated by the shape of knees. Fans have seen him practicing, so there’s hope. After all, things looked bleak in 2009 before he had a career year in 2010, so it would be foolish to write him off. But times have also changed since then. Players besides Federer are in a position to challenge him on any stage. He’s looking more vulnerable on anything but clay, as evidenced by his lack of a non-clay court title since 2010. And he’s three years older. Given that he’s typically underperformed in the fall, it might be wise to cut his losses and focus on making a strong start to 2013. How he begins next season could potentially be very telling regarding how the remainder of his career will progress.
Righting the Ship
It wouldn’t be fair, or accurate, to say that Novak Djokovic has had a bad 2012. Coming into Toronto last week, he’d already won the Aussie Open and Miami Masters, had been in the finals of three of the four biggest clay court tournaments, including Roland Garros, had reached the semis of Wimbledon, the medal stage of the Olympics, and was still solidly ranked No. 2. But as both Federer and Nadal can attest to, when you set the bar high and fail to replicate that success the following season, people start asking questions. Doubts start to creep in. Losing the No. 1 ranking to Federer at Wimbledon – the very same venue where he’d claimed the top ranking just a year prior – along with leaving empty-handed at the Olympics appeared to really be taking a toll on Djokovic. He looked edgy, and his game was no longer as solidly sharp. For Djokovic, it looked as though the game wasn’t quite as fun anymore. But last week he got to return to his favorite hard court surface. Aided by the number of withdraws, Djokovic was able to put in a solid week of tennis and defend his Canadian Masters crown to grab his first, and a much-needed, tournament victory since Miami in March. It was a boost of confidence for the Serb, who is trying to recapture that 2011 form as he prepares to mount a defense of his US Open title of a year ago.
While Toronto was big for Djokovic, the WTA equivalent event in Montreal was nothing short of a life preserver for Petra Kvitova, whose career has been adrift in 2012. It seems almost impossible to believe that less than a year ago, she was ranked No. 2 just barely behind Caroline Wozniacki. After breakout performances at both Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, she looked poised to sit atop the rankings and capture more prestigious crowns. But in 2012, she’s experienced the dreaded “sophomore slump.” She’s been able to stay near the top of the game thanks in large part to deep runs at the majors and some of the premiere events, but she was without a title until her victory in Montreal. And as happy as she was with her win over Li last week, more than anything you saw relief etched on her face. Kvitova, perhaps more so than other top players, relies on confidence. When her game is firing on all cylinders, she can blitz anybody off the court. When the doubts creep in, she can lose to the lowliest ranked players on tour. That’s why Montreal was so huge for her. Yes, she still needs to continue to work on her fitness, as well as her consistency, but hopefully this win will also provide her with the belief that she can bring her best when it matters most. She’s too talented of a player to not only be competing for the sport’s biggest prizes with the likes of Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka, but taking home her fair share.
The term “lucky loser” is an oxymoron, yet there’s many a player who’s come up short in qualifying that would love to wear that tag. This week at the Western & Southern Open, Jeremy Chardy was the player fortunate enough to be given a second chance when he got into the main draw by virtue of a late withdrawal. After defeating Roddick and Istomin, he came up against Andy Murray – a man who has owned him throughout his professional career. But Chardy’s luck continued to hold, as he shocked the reigning London Olympic Gold Medalist with a straight sets victory. All credit to Chardy, who played a fantastic match, but Murray helped the Frenchman’s cause with the ugly tennis that was coming off of his own racquet. The loss serves as a dose of reality for Murray and should bring him back down off of Cloud 9. Hopefully this defeat will help him focus better on the task at hand as he heads into the US Open, because after the way he has played on the lawns of Wimbledon, there’s no doubt he looks like a player not only capable, but mentally ready to take home his first major.
In what some are speculating may potentially be his last season as an ATP pro, Andy Roddick finds himself in a race to beat the clock and be fit to put together a deep run at the US Open. Despite a disappointing showing at the Olympics and being forced to pull out of Toronto, Roddick arrived in Cincy feeling pretty good. He’d won Atlanta a few weeks prior, and the summer hard court season has traditionally been kind to him. But back spasms hampered his ability to bring his best to the court, and he suffered a frustrating loss to lucky loser Jeremy Chardy in his opening round. Now he’s in doubt for next week and faces going into the final major of the year with both a lack of matches and confidence. Fans will be hoping he’s 100% ready to go in a little over a week’s time, but especially if this turns out to be Roddick’s swan song, it would be nice to see him turn back the clock and produce vintage Roddick tennis. As the man who carried the torch for American tennis for the better part of a decade, it would seem only fitting.