With the first week of the season typically the busiest of the year, it can be hard for fans and media to zoom out on the five tournaments taking place across the globe – and that’s excluding Hopman Cup! There was plenty on which to focus in Brisbane, where Roger Federer earned his 1000th career win, and Maria Sharapova played emphatic tennis to up-end rival Ana Ivanovic. But big names abounded elsewhere, with favorites – old and new – making waves at the height of the Australian summer. David and Victoria have a sit down with René to discuss some of last week’s unsung heroes, surprises, and whether what happened beyond the Gold Coast may be worth remembering as we head into the first major fortnight of 2015.
David Kane: I’ll admit it was easy to get caught up in the theatrics of Brisbane; since it became a combined event in 2009, the field of men and women has only gotten stronger, quickly turning it into the Australian Open warm-up event. But the Grand Slam of Australia and Asia/Pacific allows for tournaments farther away from Rod Laver Arena, all of which boasted headline players. Neither World No. 1 Serena Williams nor No. 3 Simona Halep had to face Top 5 opponents, but what did you make of their respective early-season prep?
Victoria Chiesa: For as much as we can glean from an exhibition tournament, Williams’s game certainly didn’t show up in Perth. We joked about her request for an espresso after she dropped a first set bagel to Flavia Pennetta to open the tournament, but she never really got going. Although the United States made the final, and Williams won two of her three singles matches in round-robin play, she never sustained a consistent level. Her 6-3, 6-7(1), 7-6(6) win against Lucie Safarova had the makings of a classic on the surface, but the World No. 1 only staggered over the finish line after hitting 46 unforced errors. Couple that performance with a 6-2, 6-1 loss at the hands of Eugenie Bouchard, and Williams should’ve been due to make a stronger statement in the final.
Plot twist: she wasn’t sharp against Poland either, coming up short against Agnieszka Radwanska, and was ostensibly the weakest link in the deciding mixed doubles match.
In other areas, however, she was closer to mid-season form.
Sidebar: Is Marijana Veljovic a liar? The world may never know.
DK: “I am not the one” has quickly become the go-to line for a Williams scorned, and I say more power to her. Candy brands come and go, but catch phrases are forever. The umpiring mix-up itself was heartbreaking in its sheer calamity. It stirred memories of Julie “Victoria, can you help me out?” Kjendlie, who has only recently resurfaced after when felt like an indefinite sabbatical.
am not the one digress.
That the World No. 1 requires a competitive spark to get going is hardly a novel analysis, but following a season where that spark was lit in places that ultimately didn’t matter, it bears repeating to kick off 2015. By week’s end, Williams had spent significant time on court working out what not to do at a Grand Slam tournament which, however beneficial to the country of Poland, is likely bad news for the rest of the field come first ball in Melbourne.
Meanwhile Halep, along with Petra Kvitova, seemed to be in a world of their own. Far and away the biggest names in Shenzhen, a rematch of last year’s three-setter in Madrid looked all but probable – use “Petra” and “probable” in the same sentence at your peril. What do we make of the former Li Na Invitational?
René Denfeld: Compared to Williams, Halep was able to get back into tournament rhythm nicely. Her first round match against Annika Beck was hardly one to remember. The Romanian looked rusty and sprayed an unusual amount of errors. As the week progressed, she was able to shake it off and didn’t drop another set en route to the title. The top seed didn’t face the toughest opponents in her first event of the year, but she got matches under her belt and began 2015 with a title – you could do do a lot worse! Runner-up Timea Bacsinszky deserves a very honorable mention; she reached her first final since her comeback in 2012 and took out Kvitova in straight sets. Now at No. 38, the Swiss is nearly back to her career-best ranking and will be unseeded (and looming) in Melbourne.
DK: All eyes were on the Romanian’s first match; where many of the game’s elite participated in IPTL, Halep essentially went off the grid after her runner-up finish in Singapore. With coach Wim Fissette ousted in favor of a two-pronged arrangement, it was looking questionable just how sturdy the former No. 2 would look out of the gate. Though she struggled against Beck, she got the job done, rolling to take out US Open darling Aleksandra Krunic in the quarters and Bacsinszky in the final. To be clear, it wasn’t an emphatic week, but it sends a message to the field that Halep’s consistency – by far her biggest strength – remains intact to start the season.
As for Bacsinszky, the Swiss is no slouch, and earned her win over the Wimbledon champion in the semifinals, capturing a second Top 10 win in three months. I believe Vika has some hard numbers illustrating just how impressive her rise has been.
VC: Indeed I do!
This time last year, @TimiBacs was ranked No. 238. Run to final in Shenzhen puts her at No. 38, one off career-high. Incredible comeback.—
Victoria Chiesa (@vrcsports) January 09, 2015
RD: It should be interesting to see how much higher Bacsinszky can go – she’s not defending a lot at the majors. But Shenzhen aside, there was another International event on the women’s side this week: the ASB Classic in Auckland. The field in the land of the kiwis might not have had two Top 10 players but it felt like it had more depth overall. In the end, the two biggest draws, Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams, prevailed to make it to the finals, and Williams captured the 46th title of her career. Which conclusions are you guys drawing from the the “tinnis” we saw in Auckland? Is Venus Williams poised for a deep run in Melbourne? And where does this put Wozniacki?
DK: Where one might remark that one never knows what to expect from the elder Williams, more often than not, we do – particularly at the major tournaments. Though the on/off schedule should help the American recover between matches, it hasn’t been the case, and the five-time Wimbledon winner has failed to reach the second week of a Grand Slam since 2011. Though she’s getting closer – and showing longer bouts of consistency, I can’t see her getting past the fourth round barring a particularly inspiring run of form. Rather, the story here would is more about the Dane, and her own inability to close out her veteran opponent. The “new” book on Wozniacki had detailed how she’s no longer as easily hit through, that her increased footspeed and fitness helped rebuild the Danish Wall brick by brick, and this enabled more aggressive intent. But this loss had to be a difficult one for the Wozniacki camp to digest. A potent floater like Williams is always going to trouble the former No. 1, but in order to capture that elusive hardware, this is exactly the kind of match (or three) she will have to win.
RD: Yes, the way Wozniacki handled how Williams took charge of the second set wasn’t a great showing. As I’ve said, I do believe Wozniacki has a shot at winning a Slam this year, but losses like this one do not exactly strengthen that conviction. She’s back in action in Sydney, so we’ll see how she goes on from here.
Sidebar: Nice week for Taylor Townsend, taking out Yanina Wickmayer and pushing Wozniacki in the second set. The puzzle continues for Sloane Stephens, who got breadsticked by Lauren Davis in a third set. Any deep thoughts or feelings on Auckland, Vika?
VC: The dogs were cute.
DK: Poignant. Before we switch to Doha and Chennai, what did we make of Hopman Cup? A team of Radwanska and Jerzy Janowicz hardly seems like the kind of team to go the distance in a tournament predicated on all kinds of odd variables, but they took care of business to unseat the Americans in the decisive mixed doubles match. I, for one, was pleased to see Radwanska renew her rivalry with French horn-of-plenty, Alizé Cornet. It may have been a pure exhibition for some (Serena), but this match had all the intensity of a Grand Slam final.
VC: The greatest thing about Cornet is that she doesn’t treat this like an exhibition. At all. Her matches in Perth had everything and against Radwanska, she was at her best…in more ways that one.
The match-up between Radwanska and Cornet is compelling because each is the antithesis of the other. In head-to-head matches that “matter,” the two have only played three sets once, but they’ve saved their most compelling drama for consecutive years in Perth.
RD: And the best thing is – we’ll could get to see it all again; they’ve been drawn as first round opponents in Sydney. Cornet truly has picked up Bartoli’s torch of hyper competitiveness at Hopman Cup and is sprinting with it. Lucie Safarova also looked in pretty good form. Different players certainly do treat the event differently, so whatever the result, a grain of salt remains – unless you’re called Radwanska and Cornet, that is.
DK: One last thing on Cornet: as much as she’s sometimes seen as the sport’s resident cartoon character, she was impressively poised post-match, speaking about the terrorist attack occurring in Paris with obvious passion and maturity. If narratives had real bearing on athletics, it was a win to take Team France into the final, but it was not to be.
Elsewhere, many of the top men were testing out 2015 in Doha and Chennai. Here’s a lithmus test: which upset was more surprise, Rafael Nadal’s or Novak Djokovic’s?
RD: Djokovic, easily. He looked weirdly rattled throughout, clearly frustrated at being outserved. Nadal losing to Michael Berrer was a surprise, but not him losing before the finals.
VC: Rust from Nadal was to be expected, but even the biggest doomsayers wouldn’t have expected a loss to Michael Berrer – a man who was 2-18 in his career against the world’s Top 10 before he got to Doha. It gave us a great story, though; Berrer said afterwards that it’s his last year on tour, and and he can show his two kids the highlights years from now.
DK: I can see the shock value in Djokovic’s loss – once you make it out of the first round as a Big 4 guy, the odds of an upset decrease exponentially – but Ivo Karlovic did as Ivo Karlovic does. Even against the world’s best returner, it’s not beyond belief that the giant-killing Croat would have a spectacular serving day to up-end a big name. Nobody saw Berrer pulling that match out. In a match that could have gotten the ball rolling for the Spaniard, he slid back, and while it hardly foreshadows long term disappointment, it does make me wonder just how his Australian Open will pan out. With the best of five format, he will have an extra set to turn things around, so I don’t predict too early an upset, but his first week will be one to watch.
RD: Djokovic getting broken like that in the third set was just an absolute shocker. The reason why I’m not as surprised with Nadal is that the amount of matches “nobody saw him losing” have started accumulating in the past year (Coric, plus a few of his clay losses earlier last year). Maybe I shouldn’t take the Abu Dhabi exhibition into account, but when Murray flattened him 2 and 0, it was obvious that the Spaniard was as rusty as a bike from the 60s. In previous years I’d have had no doubt that he would play himself into form, even if he arrives in Melbourne on a very low gear. After the past year, I’m more hesitant to assume the same. As for Djokovic – I don’t believe this loss is going matter one iota when it comes to his Australian Open.
DK: Well, one player who wasn’t worried about losing was Stan Wawrinka; the reigning Australian Open champion began 2015 on a bright note, capturing the crown in Chennai. Similar to Halep, Wawrinka didn’t have to face any major players – though dispatching a minor one in David Goffin – what do we make of his chances heading into the site of his major triumph and – last question – who is your one to watch in the week before the major fortnight begins?
RD: Wawrinka looked solid in Chennai, but after his up and down results last year, it’s difficult to predict just what he has up his sleeve. Goffin was certainly his toughest test, and he handled that task fairly well. I don’t see the Swiss defending his title in Melbourne, but I will put him at least into the quarters. Beyond that, I’m struggling to make a call until the draw comes out.
I’ll definitely be watching on Sydney’s WTA tournament – by far the strongest of the four events next week, with tons of quality first round matches. Keep an eye out for Garbiñe Muguruza and Ekaterina Makarova – both did well in Melbourne last year and haven’t played a tournament yet.
VC: It’s become quite difficult for me to predict anything that Wawrinka is going to do. After winning the Australian Open and Monte Carlo last year, I really felt as though he was going to ride that momentum and make a deep run in Paris. Then, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez happened. My feelings reversed at the end of the year, but he surprised me and was certainly one of the few bright spots to come out of the lackluster World Tour Finals. There are worse ways to begin a Grand Slam title defense, but pressure does weird things to people. How is Wawrinka going to react when he walks out on Rod Laver Arena for the first time?
As far as my player to watch? Daria Gavrilova has been a revelation to begin 2015, and the Russian-born Aussie had a seriously impressive win over Belinda Bencic to open action in Sydney. Her Aussie accent is developing, and her game has followed suit.
DK: I have to say it was a week similar to Halep’s for Wawrinka. It wasn’t the kind of run that says, “I’m here to win!” It was more like, “I’m here!” For someone like Wawrinka, who struggled mightily and wildly at seemingly any given point in the season, opening with a string of consistent results truly should put him in a good frame of mind leading up to Melbourne.
Meanwhile, a late addition to the Syndey men’s draw might turn out to be one to watch; Serbia’s Viktor Troicki won three matches this weekend where he just might play wildcard Bernard Tomic in the first round. The qualifiers haven’t been placed yet, but that sounds heavenly.
RD: I almost forgot about Del Potro. And I feel BAD about it. Maybe his wrists have turned bionic. Hopefully.
VC: My expectations for Del Potro’s return are…well, I’m just hoping he can finish his first round match against Sergiy Stakhovsky in one piece. Should he prove fit and find a way through that, a second round match against Fabio Fognini could be all kinds of awesome.
DK: Shrek was an awesome movie. Shrek II was pretty good, but not as cohesive a picture as the original. I never saw Shrek the Third; I already saw the first two and I had a pretty good idea of how it would end. This is how I feel about Del Potro’s comeback.
RD: Glad we’re ending this roundtable on an optimistic note!
DK: We’re not; we’re ending this roundtable with a GIF from Shrek.