FRANTIC FEBRUARY – A Tale of Two Tours

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Bill Simons

On the same February weekend, the top two players in men’s tennis – Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal – ­were on the same page while they were worlds apart. In Dubai and Acapulco, they added yet another impressive chapter to a narrative that has long defined men’s tennis. The old, dominant alpha men who have reigned for years again rebuffed young hopefuls. There was little mercy.

In the Dubai semis, steel-tough Djokovic displayed a grit that brought to mind his 2019 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, where he saved two match points. This time, the Serb brushed aside three match points against Gael Monfils and extended his notable record over the Frenchman to 17-0. He then downed the gifted Greek 21-year-old, Stefanos Tsitsipas, to claim the crown for the fifth time.

Nole has had a dandy start to the year. He led his Serbian team to an emotional ATP Cup triumph and then downed Dominic Thiem to win his eighth Aussie Open. The Djoker, who is 18-0 this year, joked that his goal was to go the entire year undefeated. It was just a joke, right?

In Acapulco, youngsters hoped the game’s great men’s stars might become preoccupied with leaping off the city’s famous cliffs so as to enable them to emerge. Instead, Rafa, 33, avenged the feisty, in-your-grill loss he suffered last year to the streaky Nick Kyrgios. This year, in hot pink, he took a deep dive into the heart of many a Mexican fan. Rafa claimed the Acapulco title, deposing of yet another young ATP seeker, Taylor Fritz. The handsome Southern Californian with wavy hair and a bright future had another good Mexican run. In the semis, he came from behind to beat John Isner. But in the final, the 22-year-old papa was schooled by Master Nadal.

As for the WTA – school’s out. While three 30-something kings continue to draw so much of the ATP oxygen, in the women’s game young kids and aging stars who’d been off the radar screen are emerging or re-emerging everywhere and livening up the mix. All eleven of this year’s WTA events have been won by different players, and four have been won by players under 23 years old. Fifteen-year-old phenom Coco Gauff makes youngsters like Osaka, Ostapenko and Barty seem almost ancient. Once-bright WTA stars like Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys almost seem to be from another era. And Serena and Venus, well, they are truly elders. Tennis was shocked when 21-year-old banger Sofia Kenin came from behind against Gauff, Barty and Garbine Muguruza to win the Aussie crown. The 35-1 longshot pulled down that tight Fila visor of hers, spiked a ball or two and marched to victory.

Yes, in Dubai Simona Halep, the 28-year-old Wimbledon champ, prevailed and won her second title there. And, not surprisingly, in Qatar the 21-year-old Aryna Sabalenka won her sixth career title. But to the romantics among us, the story of the week was the gutsy, feel-good return of Kim Clijsters in Dubai. The much-beloved Belgian, who has four majors and three kids, had been enshrined into the Hall of Fame back in 2017. Other than that, she’d been out of the spotlight – raising kids and establishing an academy. She mused to the New York Times that she had “talked to a few people. Once in awhile that feeling [of being on the tour] would go away when I was home with the kids. A couple of times it would come back. It got stronger and stronger. I talked to my husband. He was like, ‘Why not? Stop worrying about why and ask yourself why not.’ He made a very good point. I was like, ‘All right. Yeah, why not?’” Tennis was thrilled to have her back.

In Acapulco, locals were thrilled by the unlikely run of Renata Zarazua. No. 190 and a wildcard, she became the first Mexican WTA semifinalist since 1973. There she fell to the little-known Leylah Fernandez, the 17-year-old with long hair and a short resume who is yet another appealing young Canadian of mixed heritage like Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime – go figure.

After reaching the final Leylah, offered a teary appreciation.

Fernandez, the first and youngest Canadian to ever make it to the Acapulco final, was born in Montreal and has a Filipino mom and an Ecuadorian dad. She now lives in Florida and is fluent in English, Spanish, French and tennis. The appealing lefty left the Aussie Open without a win. She came into Acapulco ranked No. 290 and left town after giving a warm, teary runner-up speech.

She fell to Heather Watson, the Guernsey girl, who seemed to have been drifting off onto her own island of premature obscurity. Britain’s complex, likable vet hadn’t won a crown since 2016. Her ranking had dropped to No. 69. She lost in the first round in Melbourne. Many had dismissed the affable island lady. It took the 27-year-old ten championship points before she secured the title 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 and the right to sport the tourney’s signature sombrero. It was a big surprise. But these days big surprises, like Kazakhstan’s 20-year-old Elena Rybakina reaching four finals this year already, are the invigorating staple of the WTA’s wide-ranging diet. All this is quite in contrast to the ATP that’s been serving up fantastic but somewhat familiar meals to chew on.

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