At first, 2011 appeared to mark the breakthrough of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova when she reached two major quarterfinals and stood toe to toe with many of the WTA’s leading ladies. The former junior #1 looked likely to become the latest Russian woman to rise in a sport riddled with them over the past decade, blending ferocious groundstrokes from both wings with a keen competitive instinct. Soon afterwards arrived the apparent emergence of Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic. The lanky, enigmatic teenager delivered his “hello, world” moment by soaring from Wimbledon qualifying all the way to the quarterfinals of the main draw, where he won a set from eventual champion Djokovic. Two majors later, Tomic thrilled his home fans by reaching the second week of the Australian Open with electrifying five-set victories over Verdasco and Dolgopolov.
Not entirely concealed by those achievements, however, were the shortcomings in the games of both nascent stars. While Pavlyuchenkova grappled with a serve that leaked too many double faults and untimely service breaks, Tomic struggled less with his body than with an undisciplined mind that too often drifted away from the task at hand. For most of 2012, they not only stagnated but regressed dramatically. The Russian struggled to string together consecutive victories and did not advance past the first week at any major, while she defeated top-30 opponents at only one tournament (Cincinnati). Meanwhile, Tomic combined on-court with off-court embarrassments that ranged from a visibly disinterested loss at the US Open to surly altercations with media and Davis Cup team members. A nation that values hard work and humility, Australia recoiled from the man whom they had prized so recently when he admitted his failures to commit full effort and sounded detached while doing so.
During those demoralizing seasons, then, Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic absorbed a series of bruising blows that might well have left their confidence in tatters. But this week they began 2013 with promising performances that hinted at a revival.
On opposite sides of the Australian continent, the two faltering phenoms delivered victories over players who would have dismissed them with ease last year. At the Premier tournament in Brisbane, Pavlyuchenkova recorded consecutive victories over top-eight opponents for the first time in her career, thus improving even upon her success in 2011. Neither Kvitova nor Kerber played convincing tennis for long stretches in those matches, to be sure, but journeywomen of the WTA had not needed to play even average tennis to unravel her during her slump. In those two straight-sets victories, a fitter and generally calmer Pavlyuchenkova found the courage to win crucial points late in sets. The serve that had betrayed her so relentlessly over the past year became an occasional weapon and only a rare liability. Rallying from a dismal first set in a semifinal against lucky loser Lesia Tsurenko, the Russian also showed the maturity to reverse the momentum of a match while shouldering the pressure of a heavy favorite. In view of the field’s overall quality, Brisbane marked arguably her most significant final to date.
Thousands of miles to the west in Perth, Tomic toppled three consecutive top-25 opponents at the Hopman Cup. The experience of playing before the fans whom he had alienated over the preceding months seemed to energize rather than weigh upon him. Crucial to his week was his first match against Tommy Haas, the author of a remarkable resurgence in 2012. Having let a one-set lead slip away, the Aussie quickly dropped the second set and fell behind by an early break in the third, at which point familiar chatter about “Tomic the Tank Engine” reverberated around Twitter. Many onlookers, including me, expected him to fade meekly and lose the set, perhaps by a double break. To the contrary, Tomic stayed within range until Haas served for the match, when edgy play from the German veteran allowed the youngster to sweep the last four games. Galvanized by this comeback, he then notched straight-sets victories over Italian grinder Andreas Seppi, who had compiled the best season of his career last year, and world #1 Djokovic. Granted, the Serb seemed a bit out of tune in that match, and exhibition tournaments rarely elicit A-list tennis from A-list names. As in the case of Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane, however, Tomic deserved credit for capitalizing on an opportunity that would have eluded him last season. And the speed with which his compatriots embraced him again illustrated how easily he can reverse the tide of public opinion that had flowed against him.
A tennis season is a marathon, not a sprint, and one should beware of placing too much emphasis on a single strong week. All the same, plenty of draws would become more intriguing if Pavlyuchenkova and Tomic rediscovered the talents that deserted them in 2012, and they took important steps in that direction during the first week of 2013.
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.
No one in tennis draws as much attention as Serena Williams.
The often-controversial superstar has brought a unique flair to the game ever since she won her first Grand Slam title in 1999. Williams, along with her older sister, Venus, have been the dominant force on the WTA Tour for the majority of the 21st century and are recognized by just their first names.
The younger Williams is currently the most followed tennis player on Twitter, with more than two million followers. Here she allows fans a glimpse into her busy life outside of tennis and often posts cryptic tweets that only her inner-circle would understand.
Williams is charming and charismatic, but also unapologetic and tempestuous. She is one of the fittest athletes in the world, but claims she loathes working out. She has won 13 Grand Slams singles titles, but recently said that she does not love tennis.
“I mean, I don’t love tennis today, but I’m here, and I can’t live without it,” Williams said after her first-round win at the Brisbane International. “So I’m still here and I don’t want to go anywhere anytime soon.”
In the just one match at the U.S. Open last year, Williams showed why she is such a polarizing figure. Less than an hour after berating the chair umpire for what she perceived as an unfair call, Williams sat next to and congratulated the champion, Sam Stosur.
Asked about the gesture during the post-match press conference, Stosur replied, “I thought [it] was pretty classy.”
In these situations and paradoxes, we find what makes Serena Williams so compelling. Her presence demands attention. The 2011 U.S. Open may not of even registered on the casual sports fan’s mind had it not been for another “Serena meltdown.”
Williams has been criticized for focusing too much on outside interests, such as fashion and acting, but continues to be a favorite in any tournament she enters.
She may not love tennis, but the sport can’t seem to get enough of her.