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.
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.