In a sport with such a short offseason, players often can translate their momentum from a strong end to one year into a solid start to the next year. We look at six of the players who distinguished themselves just before the curtain came down on 2012. How did they fare when the curtain rose on 2013?
Serena: Enjoying the best second half imaginable last year, she surged from the grass of Wimbledon and the Olympics to the hard courts of the US Open and the year-end championships. With all of those illustrious titles in her trophy cabinet, Serena could have been forgiven for a dip in motivation when 2013 began. On the contrary, she stormed to the Brisbane title without dropping a set and while losing her serve just once in the week. The heavy favorite for the Australian Open never faced a challenger worthy of her steel as she collected her 47th career title. Having won 32 of her last 33 sets, Serena moved ever closer to the #1 ranking that she should claim in Melbourne.
Djokovic: After a disappointing summer, he ended the season in scintillating style by winning the Shanghai Masters (where he avenged his Olympics and US Open losses to Murray) and charging undefeated through the field at the year-end championships. Djokovic also finished #1 for the second straight year, and he looked every inch the man to beat when he demolished Ferrer at an Abu Dhabi exhibition to start the season. Later exhibitions there and at the Hopman Cup in Perth did not showcase the Serb at his finest for extended stretches, but he won five of the six matches that he played in a clean if not crushing display. With a week off before attempting the first Melbourne three-peat in the Open era, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preparation and rest.
Azarenka: Barely denied by Serena in New York, she rebounded to win the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing and clinch the year-end #1 ranking. Azarenka now must defend huge quantities of points in the coming months during the same span when she won 26 straight matches last year. Comfortable victories en route to the Brisbane semifinals, including a straight-sets dismissal of the dangerous Lisicki, marked a fine start to that effort. The pedicure-caused toe injury that forced her withdrawal prior to yet another clash with Serena may prove a blessing in disguise, allowing her to reach Melbourne with her confidence fully intact. Nothing spectacular from the first two weeks, but no serious concerns either.
Ferrer: In the last Masters 1000 tournament of the season, he won his first career title at that level by capitalizing on a decimated field at the Paris Indoors. Ferrer also ended the best year of his career by leading the ATP in matches won and tying for the lead in titles won. Always vulnerable to a shot-maker on a torrid streak, he fell to Davydenko in Doha as the top seed and only entrant in the top eight. Considering the Russian’s previous success at that tournament, including a title and two victories over Nadal, the result perhaps should not come as a great surprise. Nevertheless, Ferrer looked much less sharp than he had at the 250 level last year, when he rarely lost to opponents ranked so much lower.
Stepanek: The hero of the Davis Cup final last year, this wily veteran pulled the Czech Republic past Spain by defeating top-15 foe Nicolas Almagro in a four-set fifth rubber. Outstanding performances in Davis Cup finals often have catapulted players to a strong set the next season, which begins just a month later. But Stepanek could not ride the same tide of momentum that Serbian men did after winning the 2010 Cup. Sidelined with an eye infection, he started 2013 by withdrawing from Brisbane, a tournament where he twice had reached the final (winning one title). At his age, the Davis Cup glory probably represents more of a swan song and signature moment than the foundation for something greater.
Safarova: Led by Kvitova for much of its consecutive title runs in 2011-12, the Czech Fed Cup team leaned heavily on Safarova when its singles #1 entered last year’s final struggling with a virus. The Czech #2 answered the bell with bravado in recording straight-sets victories over two former world #1s, Ivanovic and Jankovic. Always a player who has blown hot and cold, the volatile shot-maker then lost her first match in Brisbane to Lisicki in a pair of routine sets. Routine, that is, except for the flustered consultations between Safarova and her coach, which suggested that her recent turn in the spotlight as Fed Cup heroine had not bolstered her confidence in any lasting way.
Apparently, not everyone starts where they finished.