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By Bob Greene

STARS

Victoria Azarenka beat Maria Sharapova 6-3 6-1 to win the women’s singles at the China Open in Beijing, China

Novak Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (4) 6-2 to win the China Open men’s singles in Beijing, China

Kei Nishikori beat Milos Raonic 7-6 (5) 36 6-0 to win the Rakuten Japan Open in Tokyo, Japan

Kenny De Schepper beat Michael Llodra 7-6 (7) 4-6 7-6 (4) to win the Ethias Trophy in Mons, Belgium

James Blake beat Mischa Zverev 6-1 1-6 6-4 to win the RelyAid Natomas Challenger in Sacramento, California, USA

SAYING

Kei Nishikori

“I have not been able to play well in Japan until now, so I always thought perhaps I was not mentally strong enough to do so. But (after) the match against (Tomas) Berdych, something changed. I was able to play much better yesterday and today as well. On one side of my mind, I cannot believe I won the tournament, but at the same time, I feel that I’m happy I was able to do this.” – Kei Nishikori, after becoming the first Japanese man to win the Rakuten Open in Tokyo, Japan.

“He was reading my serve really well from the beginning, and that usually doesn’t happen. I didn’t create the opportunities and go for it like the previous two days.” – Milos Raonic, following his loss to Kei Nishikori.

“That’s the target. This will definitely help me in that race, but it’s still quite open. There are still tournaments to come, big ones.” – Novak Djokovic, on his chance of once again reaching number one in the ATP World Tour rankings this year.

“I missed maybe something in the middle of the first set. I was a break up and I was playing well, but then he played solid. It was really difficult to control him.” – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, on playing and losing to Novak Djokovic.

“I was doing the right things, making sure I didn’t let Maria play the game she likes, always being in control and dominating.” Victoria Azarenka, after beating Maria Sharapova to win the China Open women’s singles.

“Victoria played a really good match – she just did many things much better than I did. I felt like when I had the chance, in situations where I had opportunities to get back in the set or in the match, I was just making errors. They were little windows, but as small as they were, I just didn’t take them. Against somebody who is number one in the world, you can’t do that.” – Maria Sharapova.

“It’s obviously an honor to hold this prestigious record. There are some incredible names towards the top of this list and it’s humbling to be in such elite company. Huge props must go out to Todd Woodbridge, who epitomized class and excellence on and off the court.” – Mike Bryan, who broke the record of doubles titles he shared with Todd Woodbridge.

“This has been the best year of my career. To have the opportunity to play at the TEB BNPParibas WTA Championships in Istanbul will be an amazing way to end 2012.” – Angelique Kerber, after qualifying for the season-ending WTA Championships.

“I’m so proud to be able to represent my country at the Championships in both singles and doubles. This has been a wonderful year for me, and to be able to play not only singles, but also doubles in Istanbul with my good friend Roberta Vinci, is a great way to finish the season.” – Sara Errani, who qualified for both singles and doubles at the season-ending WTA Championships.

“For me I’ve already reached my goal by getting back to world number one in the summer. That was for me the goal, getting back there and winning a Grand Slam, particularly Wimbledon.” – Roger Federer, on his keeping the number one ranking for the remainder of the year.

STREAKING SERB

Novak Djokovic has the Midas touch when it comes to Beijing, China. The top-seeded Serb won his third China Open title by besting Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (4) 6-2. He also won in Beijing in 2009 and 2010. Djokovic won a close tie-breaker 7-4, then raced to the title, breaking the third-seeded Tsonga twice in the second set. Following the match, Djokovic delighted the crown by joining the ball girls and boys in doing the “horse dance” made popular by South Korean Psy in his “Gangnam Style” hit video. After suffering his sixth straight loss to the Serbian, Tsonga said he needed to raise his game to beat the top players after his sixth straight loss to the Serbian. “I just tried to play my game, to be aggressive, but against a player like this, for the moment, my level is not high enough and it’s not enough to beat him,” Tsonga said. Djokovic promised to make a bid for a fourth Beijing title next year. “I am planning to come back to the China Open next year,” he said. “It’s been one of my most successful tournaments. This is where I love to play. I love the conditions and I have lots of support form the fans, who are very loyal and very nice.”

SIBLING STREAK

Brothers Bob and Mike Bryan continue their assault on the record book. The twins did not drop a set en route to winning their third China Open doubles crown in four years. And the 6-2 6-2 victory over Carlos Berlocq and Denis Istomin was Mike Bryan’s 84th career doubles title, breaking the old mark he held with Australia’s Todd Woodbridge. Mike’s career doubles record in title matches is 84-45, while Bob Bryan is now 82-44 in tour-level finals. The Americans improved to 59-9 this season, capturing their seventh title of the year in 10 finals. “It feels great to win again in Beijing,” Bob Bryan said. “We love playing here and have created some really fond memories in this city. The facility is impressive, the hospitality is first class, and we always receive tremendous support from the fans.”

SINO SUCCESS – AT LAST

For 40 consecutive years, no Japanese man had ever won Tokyo’s Japan Open. Kei Nishikori changed all that. A native of Shimane Prefecture in southern Japan, the 22-year-old Nishikori became the first Japanese man to capture the title when he beat big-serving Milos Raonic 7-6 (5) 3-6 6-0. “I’m partying tonight,” Nishikori said in a courtside interview as the sellout crowd went wild. “I’d thought the gods were against me at this event in the past. To win the title is amazing. I’m overwhelmed.” Nishikori handled Raonic’s big serve handily, continuing to put pressure on his Canadian opponent. “Kei is so quick and he was reading my serves well, which doesn’t usually happen,” said Raonic, who noted: “Kei is a superstar in Japan.” The winner is not a beer drinker, however. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with a year’s worth of Corona beer,” he said, referring to a bonus gift from the tournament sponsors. “I don’t even like beer.” It was the second career title for Nishikori, who won in Delray Beach, Florida, USA in 2008.

SPECIAL WIN

Victoria Azarenka showed there is a huge gulf between number one and number two in women’s tennis. The top-ranked Belarusian completely outclassed the second-ranked Sharapova 6-3 6-1 to easily win the China Open. Azarenka has now beaten Sharapova in their last five meetings on hard court and four of the last five times they had met in finals. The Russian committed 39 unforced errors to just 14 by the winner. It was Azarenka’s 13th WTA trophy and her first since she captured Indian Wells, California, USA, six and a half months ago. Azarenka still has Linz, Austria, and the WTA Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, left on her 2012 schedule. “I have two more tournaments to play, about 10 more matches,” she said. “I’m looking forward to maximizing the potential in all of them. I’m really happy that in the end of the year I still have that determination I had in the beginning of the year, that desire to go out there and show my best tennis and win.”

SEEKING TOP SPOT

There’s a new team to challenge for the top in men’s doubles. Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares won their second title in as many weeks when they captured the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, beating the top-seeded team of Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek in the final. The week before, Peya and Soares won the Malaysian Open. “The (ATP World Tour) 500s are really tough,” Soares said. “We had a great win yesterday against (Tomas) Berdych and (Nenad) Zimonjic, an amazing team. And today, to beat a team that’s played in two Grand Slam finals this year, it’s good to know we’re on the right track. Once you start beating these teams, you know you have a shot at the bigger tournaments. We’re very happy for that but also looking forward to next week.” Peya improved to 4-8 lifetime in ATP World Tour finals, while Soares is now 8-9 in titles matches. Soares said he and Peya teamed up just prior to the US Open. “We had a good tournament there,” he said. “We didn’t play our best tennis, but we felt we were improving as a team. I think last week and this week, we felt we getting better and better.”

Despite missing out on the title, Paes and Stepanek clinched a berth in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which will be played in London in November. Paes and Stepanek dropped to a 26-9 match record on the season, including two titles. Paes dropped to 50-36 lifetime in doubles finals, while Stepanek is 15-12.

STAGE SET

The O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, is going to be busy next month. The arena will be the site for the 100th Davis Cup final November 16-18, which will pit the Czech Republic against defending champion Spain. That will come just two weeks after the Fed Cup final is held at the O2 Arena between the Czech Republic and Serbia, which is set for November 3-4. It is the first stadium to host both finals in the same year. Spain will be seeking its fourth Davis Cup title in five years, including a 5-0 sweep of the Czechs at home in 2009. The Czechs won their only Davis Cup title as Czechoslovakia in 1980.

SUMS UP

The Australian Open prize money has been increased, but that may not be enough. Novak Djokovic welcomed news that the year’s first Grand Slam tournament will increase its prize money by USD $4.1 million. “It’s a step forward, definitely,” Djokovic said. “They have clearly shown understanding for players’ demands and what the players had to say, so that’s really nice to see.” But he added, “It’s not over yet.” The men players were considering boycotting the Australian Open in order to gain a higher percentage of Grand Slam tournament revenues. At issue is the pay of lower-ranked players, who often lose in the first round after making the long journey Down Under. While first-round losers earned USD $21,600 this year, some players struggle to make ends meet after paying for travel and other expenses. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said the prize money breakdown would be determined after he meets with the ATP Players’ Council representatives, including Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

SEEING ACTION?

Rafael Nadal may be returning to a tennis court later this year. Organizers say Nadal is scheduled to play an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi in December. The Spaniard has not played since losing to Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon in June. Nadal has been suffering from a partial tear of the patella tendon and inflammation of his left knee. He was unable to defending his Olympic title in London and had to withdraw from the US Open. Others competing in the three-day Mubadala World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi beginning December 27 will include Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

SHANGHAI SECURITY

Security at the Shanghai Masters this week was tightened after Roger Federer received an online death threat. According to reports, the threat was posted last month on a Federer fan site by “Blue Cat Polytheism Founder 07. It threatened to assassinate Federer and was accompanied by a gruesome image of a decapitated player. In a statement, the tournament said it was aware of the threat. “The Shanghai Rolex Masters has security in place for our players and every precaution is taken to make sure players are kept safe and comfortable and allowed to do the job they are here for: to play tennis and provide their fans with the thrill of watching them in action,” the statement said.

SET FOR ISTANBUL

Angelique Kerber of Germany, Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and Sara Errani of Italy have clinched berths in the season-ending TEB BNPParibas WTA Championships, which will be held October 23-28 in Istanbul, Turkey. The tournament will feature the world’s top eight singles players and top four doubles teams competing for a share of USD $4.9 million in prize money. The newest trio joins Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams in the elite field. Four players – Li Na of China, Samantha Stosur of Australia, Marion Bartoli of France and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark – remain in contention for the final singles berth and two alternate positions. Kvitova is the defending champion, while Errani also qualified for Istanbul in doubles with countrywoman Roberta Vinci. Errani is the first player to complete in both singles and doubles at a Championships since 2009 when sisters Serena and Venus Williams accomplished the feat.

SENIOR STARS

John McEnroe will lead six senior stars when the newly-formatted ATP Champions Tour returns to Delray Beach, Florida, USA in February. Others in the three-day round-robin event will be Mats Wilander, Pat Cash, Carlos Moya, Mark Philippoussis and Aaron Krickstein. The “legends” event will be held during the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships, which will be held February 22-March 3. “Our fans never tire of seeing Johnny Mac,” said tournament director Mark Baron. “He is a magician with a tennis racket in his hands. The amazing skills that you see in him and players like Mats and Pat are the reason people of all ages keep coming back.”

SURPRISE

Zhang Ze might be ranked only 165th in the world among men tennis players, but he became the first Chinese player to advance into the third round of an ATP tournament when he upset Richard Gasquet of France in the second round at the China Open in Beijing. Zhang beat another Chinese player, Wu Di, in the opening round. Then came Gasquet, who is ranked 14th in the world was seeded fifth in the Beijing tournament. “This year actually I play a lot of, you know, high-profile tournaments,” Zhang said. “This gives me a lot of opportunities to play against the high-profile opponents. Today I have no fear. I’m very relaxed. I’m not that nervous, so I’m going to try my best to play with utmost performance.” He did, beating Gasquet 6-4 3-6 6-4. In the next round Zhang lost to Florian Mayer of Germany.

STEPS UP

The new chief executive officer of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and the BNPParibas Open is former player Raymond Moore, who has been involved with the event for 25 years as a former owner and managing partner. Moore will be directly involved overseeing the operations of the tournament and the venue while reporting to Oracle Corp. co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison, who owns both the tournament and the venue. The BNPParibas Open, played every March in the southern California desert, is a joint ATP-WTA  event. Steve Simon will continue in his role as BNPParibas Open tournament director and chief operating officer of the Tennis Garden. In March, former pro player Charlie Pasarell left his management post with the tournament after 31 years.

SHARED PERFORMANCES

Beijing (men): Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan beat Carlos Berlocq and Denis Istomin 6-3 6-2

Beijing (women): Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina beat Nuria Llagostera Vives and Sania Mirza 7-5 7-5

Mons: Tomasz Bednarek and Jerzy Janowicz beat Michael Llodra and Edouard Roger-Vasselin 7-5 4-6 10-2 (match tiebreak)

Sacramento: Tennys Sandgren and Rhyne Williams beat Devin Britton and Austin Krajicek 4-6 6-4 12-10 (match tiebreak)

Tokyo: Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares beat Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek 6-3 7-6 (5)

SURFING

Tiburon: http://tiburonchallenger.com/

Tashkent: www.tennis.uz/

Shanghai: www.shanghairolexmasters.com/

Linz: www.generali-ladies.at/

Osaka: http://hp-open.jp/

Moscow: www.kremlincup.ru/

Stockholm: www.ifstockholmopen.se/

Vienna: www.erstebank-open.com/de/

Luxembourg: www.bglbnpparibas-open.lu/

TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK

(All money in USD)

MEN

$3,531,650 Shanghai Rolex Masters, Shanghai, China, hard

$125,000 Tashkent Open, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, hard

$100,000 First Republic Bank Tiburon Challenger, Tiburon, California, USA, hard

WOMEN

$220,000 Generali Ladies Linz, Liinz, Austria, hard

$220,000 HP Open, Osaka, Japan, hard

$100,000 ITF Women’s Tournament, Suzhou, China, hard

TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK

MEN

$673,150 Kremlin Cup, Moscow, Russia, hard

$633,325 If Stockholm Open, Stockholm, Sweden, hard

$633,325 Erste Bank Open, Vienna, Austria, hard

WOMEN

$750,000 Kremlin Cup, Moscow, Russia, hard

$220,000 BGLBNPParibas Luxembourg Open, Luxembourg, hard

 



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About Bob Greene
Bob Greene, the esteemed former Associated Press tennis writer, wraps up the week that was in international tennis with his “Monday’s With Bob Greene” column – a revival of his popular weekly feature at the AP.

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