By Chris Skelton
When the first WTA Premier tournament of the 2013 season began, fans looked forward to seeing a series of marquee matchups in a Brisbane draw that featured eight of the top ten women. Only Radwanska (in Auckland) and Li (in Shenzhen) did not join this star-studded field, which threatened to produce classics from the quarterfinals onwards. But, by the time that the dust settled from the first two rounds, only three of the elite eight remained in the tournament—and one of those three barely. We discuss each of the unexpected plot twists that started the new year.
Pervak d. Wozniacki: During her prime, the former #1 excelled both in finishing matches when she took a lead and in winning the crucial points late in matches through a mixture of consistency and composure. Since her decline began about eighteen months ago, however, she has dwindled in both of those characteristics. Wozniacki dropped a third-set tiebreak in her 2013 opener to the lefty Russian qualifier after winning the first set comfortably and then struggling to hold serve thereafter. Often praised for her maturity when she held the #1 ranking, she grew flustered by train whistles outside the stadium in another symptom of her crumbling confidence. The loss especially surprised because Wozniacki had finished 2012 in encouraging fashion, winning small titles in Seoul and Moscow.
Arvidsson d. Stosur: Much less surprising was the setback that the Australian #1 suffered on home soil, where she regularly has underwhelmed in front of her home fans. The tournament trumpeted the opportunity for Brisbane locals to celebrate New Year’s Eve with their leading lady, which did not turn out as anticipated when she lost her first match to Sofia Arvidsson. Like Wozniacki, Stosur also had ended 2012 on a promising note with a quarterfinal at the US Open, a semifinal in Tokyo, and a final Moscow, but she could not extend her momentum through the offseason. Arvidsson’s flat, uncompromising, but erratic ball-striking recalled the manner in which Cirstea bounced the Aussie in the first round of her home major last year, and her fans must look ahead to Melbourne with apprehension.
Pavlyuchenkova d. Kvitova: In a sense, this match raised eyebrows more because Pavlyuchenkova won it than because Kvitova lost it. The 2011 Wimbledon champion had tumbled down the rankings throughout a 2012 campaign filled with disappointment, culminating with her withdrawal from the year-end championships that she had won the previous year. Dogged by illness and injury throughout her dismal season, Kvitova has achieved her greatest successes in Europe and predictably struggled to shine in the torrid heat of Brisbane. But Pavlyuchenkova endured a year equally frustrating at a lower level of the WTA, failing to capitalize on her two major quarterfinals in 2011 while struggling simply to string together victories. The double faults that have hampered her progress did not surface when she served key games late in the two tight sets of this match, when her groundstrokes matched Kvitova’s in power and surpassed them in consistency. Just as importantly, she looked fitter than she ever has before.
Hantuchova d. Errani: A year or two ago, this result would not have seemed like an upset at all. Hantuchova had led their head-to-head 4-2, and most would have rated the Slovak a far superior talent with her time spent in the top five and two titles at Indian Wells. But Errani drove further into a major at Roland Garros last year than Hantuchova ever had, while the elder woman seemed to drift further into the twilight of her career. In a wild third set filled with break after break, the mentally unreliable Hantuchova managed to outlast the usually sterner-minded Errani as the pressure mounted. Perhaps memories of reaching last year’s final brought confidence to the Slovak, who feasted on arguably the weakest serve in the top 20. As 2013 progresses, Errani faces the same task that Schiavone did in 2011: proving that a single season represented a breakthrough rather than an anomaly.
Sharapova (withdrew, injury): A true coquette, the world #2 has flirted with Brisbane in each of the last two seasons only to withdraw with injuries, this time a curious collarbone issue. Sharapova’s participation in the Australian Open does not lie in question, however, for she simply deemed herself insufficiently prepared to participate in a tournament this week at the current stage of her recovery. Considering her finals appearance in Melbourne last year, similarly without preparation, her fans should not concern themselves too much with this news. Rarely has Sharapova played more than a few exhibitions before the Australian Open in any year, and still she has recorded more semifinal appearances at this major than at any other.
Kerber d. Puig: If you haven’t heard of the Puerto Rican Monica Puig, who reached only a handful of main draws before this week, you’re probably far from alone even among diehard tennis fans. Kerber likely hadn’t heard of her second-round opponent either before this week but somehow suddenly found herself mired in a grueling three-setter against her. Only after a third-set tiebreak that lasted sixteen points did she escape the persistent underdog, after having needed three sets to win her first match as well. Kerber played a huge quantity of third sets in 2012, however, and probably could have won most of them more easily if not for focus lapses. To bolster her longevity on the Tour, she will need to find ways to win more efficiently. In conditions as draining as the Australian heat, few players can afford to play one marathon after another.
All the same, Kerber at least survived to fight another day, which is more than many of the notable women in Brisbane could say. Much more impressive were the performance of Azarenka and Serena Williams, who now stand just one victory apiece from meeting in the semifinals there in a rematch of 2012 encounters at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships, all won by Serena. We’ll take a close look at that match, if it happens, next.