After the close of a fortnight at once surprising and unsurprising, we review the notable figures in the WTA field at the Australian Open. Grading influenced by expectations, quality of competition, and other factors in addition to raw results.
Azarenka: The first woman in over three decades to win her second major by defending her first, she consolidated her position as world #1 in the rankings and public enemy #1 in the eyes of many. What the media and general public may refuse to acknowledge is that Azarenka showed fortitude in regrouping from the controversy swirling around her semifinal—and from a miserable start to the final—to halt an extremely talented opponent on a torrid streak with virtually everyone in the arena cheering lustily against her. Her competitive desire rivals anyone on the Tour, and that attribute forms a key component of her success at elite tournaments notwithstanding her tendency to carry it too far at times. Like her or not, Azarenka is here to stay with a game perfectly suited to the moderately paced hard court’s that have become the dominant surface and a determination to win at any price. She probably will spend most of her career as a polarizing figure, but she appears to thrive on the hostility around her and relish the challenge of overcoming it. When the dust settled, moreover, her tears at the end suggested that she may have matured during the emotionally fraught fortnight after all. A
Li: Endearing herself to audiences around the world, Li smiled even when she twisted her ankle for the second time in the final and slammed the back of her head into the court. She smiled even as an Australian Open final slipped away from her for the second time after she had come within two games of her second major title. The best player here for most of the tournament, Li trumpeted her return to relevance by defeating consecutive top-four opponents Radwanska and Sharapova in straight sets. Not until after her first ankle injury, in fact, did she even lose a set here. When all of the components of her game click together, any opponent other than Serena will struggle to overcome someone with no apparent weakness. Much of the credit probably goes to coach Carlos Rodriguez for providing the discipline that she had lacked, but her ability to battle through injury after injury illustrated her inner steel. And, unlike the equally fierce competitor across the net in the final, she mingled that steel with the grace and warmth that emerged from that smile. A+
Sharapova: Continuing a trend that has defined many of her performances at the Australian Open, she mowed down several overmatched opponents to march deep into the draw, only to get mowed down herself late in the second week. We learned nothing new about Sharapova this tournament, instead receiving reminders that she can demolish or be demolished on any given day without warning. That said, her lack of match preparation did not appear to cost her, and her loss to Li hinged much more upon the Chinese star’s excellence than her own fallibility. Some threw excessive-celebration flags on Sharapova for her victory over an aging Venus, which unjustly obscured that transcendent performance in a nearly flawless stretch that set multiple Australian Open records for dominance. Her post-tournament ranking of #3 feels exactly right. B+
Serena: As with Sharapova, we learned nothing new about Serena. She continues to carve up the WTA like a cantaloupe when she is healthy and hungry, but she cannot overcome injuries as impressively as she once could. One cannot doubt that she would have finished off Stephens if not for her second injury of the tournament, and it is difficult to imagine the struggling serve of Azarenka or even the streaking Li stopping her after then. Depending on how her ankle recovers, though, Serena should regain the #1 ranking soon. Incomplete
Stephens: Putting aside the fact that she benefited from Serena’s injury, this tournament marked a decisive breakthrough for Stephens. Many players have lost to an injured Serena before, and it appeared that she would when she choked away a second-set lead and later trailed by a break in the third. Despite her competitive rawness, she managed to regroup in both instances and settle herself to record a career-defining win. Also satisfying was her convincing victory over fellow phenom Robson, and she should take Azarenka’s dubious medical timeouts as a compliment, illustrating how worried her resilience in the second set had made the world #1. A
Radwanska: Now just 1-6 in major quarterfinals (0-4 here), with her only victory a three-setter over Kirilenko, she did little to refute her reputation as a player who struggles to translate her success to the places that matter most. Radwanska entered the tournament having won consecutive titles in Auckland and Sydney, so she had not even dropped a set this year until she ran into the Li Na buzzsaw. She had chances to win that first set and turn around the momentum in the second, but once again she could find no answer to an opponent capable of outhitting her consistently without imploding at key moments. It’s still difficult to see Radwanska winning a major unless the draw falls just right. B
Makarova: As a clever wit noted on Twitter, she excels in places that end in –bourne. Winning Eastbourne as a qualifier once, Makarova reached her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne by upsetting world #5 Kerber. Her defense and lefty angles created a scintillating combination to watch, perhaps honed by her doubles expertise. Once she fell behind early against Sharapova, she let too much negativity seep into her body language, but that match seemed unwinnable anyway. B+
Kuznetsova: One of three Russian women to reach the quarterfinals, this two-time major champion has revived her career in impressive fashion. Kuznetsova finally strung together a series of confidence-boosting victories at a prestigious tournament, displaying poise late in a tight third-setter against Wozniacki just when she might have crumbled in years past. Her sparkling athleticism set her apart from many of the more programmatic women at the top of the WTA. B+
Kerber: Similar to her performances at the preparatory tournaments, her Melbourne result was unremarkable in either a positive or negative sense. She fell before the quarterfinals for the third straight hard-court major since reaching the 2011 US Open semifinals, still looking tired from her busy season in 2012. That post-tournament ranking of #6 seems inflated—until you look at the women directly behind her. B-
WTA #7-9: This trio won two total matches at the Australian Open, finding a variety of ways to collapse. Last year’s quarterfinalist Errani could not hold serve against fellow clay specialist Suarez Navarro in an ominous sign for a year in which she must defend large quantities of points. Last year’s semifinalist Kvitova could not finish off Laura Robson amid a horrific cascade of double faults and groundstrokes dispatched to places unknown. Her confidence even more tattered than her game, the former Wimbledon champion nears a pivotal crossroads. At least one expected home hope Stosur to shatter Aussie dreams as painfully as possible, which she accomplished by twice failing to serve out a match against Zheng before dumping a second serve into the middle of the net down match point. F
Wozniacki: Many, including me, thought that she would fall to Lisicki in the first round. Let off the hook when the German self-destructed yet again, Wozniacki capitalized on her second life to win two more matches. Then the poise that she displayed at her best late in close matches deserted her as she fell two points short of closing out Kuznetsova. (As colleague David Kane has noted, that match posed a striking counterpoint to her earlier matches against the Russian.) Out of the top 10 after the tournament, Wozniacki continues to stagnate without much sign of recovery. C+
Pavlyuchenkova: Like fellow Brisbane runner-up Dimitrov, she crashed out of the tournament in the first round. What happens in Brisbane stays in Brisbane, or does it? Pavlyuchenkova has much to prove after a disastrous 2012 but plenty of talent with which to prove it. C
WTA young guns: From Stephens and Keys to Robson and Watson to Gavrilova and Putintseva, rising stars from around the world asserted themselves in Melbourne. The future looks bright with a variety of personalities and playing styles maturing in our midst. A
Kvitova vs. Robson: Hideous for the first two sets, it grew into the greatest WTA drama of the tournament not stoked by Azarenka. The question of whether the budding teenager could oust the major champion hovered through game after game that mixed the sublime with the absurd. It was hard to applaud, and equally hard to look away even as it careened deep into the Melbourne night. B
Errani/Vinci vs. Williams/Williams: Two of the greatest legends in the history of the sport faced the top doubles team, en route to their third title in the last four majors. After three sets and over two and a half hours, the Italians survived two American attempts to serve for the match and struck a blow for the value of doubles as more than a format for singles stars to hone their skills. This match also marked a rare occasion when David felled Goliath in a WTA dominated by the latter. A-
Women’s final: Seemingly everything imaginable happened in this profoundly gripping, profoundly weird climax to the tournament: fireworks, a concussion test, 16 service breaks, and a starker good vs. evil narrative than most Hollywood movies. As the service breaks suggested, the quality of tennis fluctuated dramatically from one point to the next with both women struggling to find their best form at the same time. Meanwhile, the dramatic tension soared to Shakespearean levels as the WTA produced its third straight three-set major final. A
Enjoy this tournament review? Come back tomorrow for the ATP edition.
At the start of the second week, all of the singles matches shift to the three show courts. We organize our daily preview a bit differently as a result, following the order of play for each stadium. From here to the end of the 2013 Australian Open, you can find a preview of every singles match in Wizards of Oz.
Rod Laver Arena:
Kerber vs. Makarova: When two left-handed women last met on Rod Laver, the match unwound deep into a final set. Viewers can expect less drama but higher quality from a meeting between the world #5 and a Russian seeking her second straight quarterfinal here. In this round last year, Makarova recorded probably the best win of her career in upsetting Serena, and she rekindled some of those memories with a three-set upset of Bartoli. Advancing through the draw more routinely, Kerber reached the second week here for the first time and will look to exploit the ebbs and flows in her opponent’s more volatile game. Makarova will aim to take time away from the German counterpuncher, in part by opening the court with wide serves behind which she can step inside the baseline. In a close match, Kerber’s outstanding three-set record and her opponent’s relative frailty under pressure could prove decisive. The German won all three of their 2012 meetings in straight sets.
Ferrer vs. Nishikori: Despite his clear superiority in ranking and overall accomplishments, the fourth seed might feel a bit anxious heading into this match. Nishikori has won two of their three previous matches, both at significant tournaments. More notable than his victory over Ferrer at the Olympics was a five-set thriller that he won from at the US Open, which introduced the Japanese star to an international audience four years ago. Chronically beset by injuries, Nishikori overcame a knee problem early in his first match and has won nine straight sets. As he pursues his second straight quarterfinal here, like Makarova, he cannot afford to encounter any physical issues in a grinding encounter filled with protracted rallies and few outright winners. Ferrer wore down Baghdatis, a former nemesis here, in a routine third-round clash as his level rose with the competition, but now it rises again.
Sharapova vs. Flipkens: Perhaps benefiting from the guidance of retired compatriot Clijsters, Flipkens has reached the second week at a major for the first time. Still, she defeated nobody of greater significance than Zakopalova to reach that stage, and it is difficult to see any area of her game that can trouble the rampaging Russian. Following her two double bagels, Sharapova conceded just four games to Venus in a highly anticipated encounter that turned into a demonstration of just how crisply she has started the season. The Belgian’s best chance may lie in the hope that the world #2 enters this match a little complacent or satiated with her statement triumph, not likely from someone of her professionalism. Their only previous hard-court meeting, in Luxembourg ten years ago, bears no relevance to what might unfold here.
Ivanovic vs. Radwanska: Early in their careers, the Serbian former #1 hit through the Pole’s defenses with her serve-forehand combinations. As Ivanovic has grown more erratic with time, the balance of power has shifted towards Radwanska with three straight victories in 2009-10 before a retirement from the former in their most recent meeting. All of those matches have stayed very close, though, which can give the Serb as she realizes that she will have chances against a player who will not overpower her. Stalling in the fourth round of majors for most of the last few years, Ivanovic has suffered a long string of losses to top-four opponents. Currently undefeated in 2013 with two titles already, Radwanska has shown greater discipline and steadiness here (no surprise, really) than the flustered former #1, who has oscillated wildly in form. Expect the fourth seed to outlast and outwit Ivanovic in an entertaining battle.
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Not exactly known as a steely competitor, the Swiss #2 has acquired a reputation for folding at majors against elite opponents—not just Federer, but Djokovic and Murray has well. He has lost his last ten meetings against the defending champion, last winning in 2006, although three times since then he has won the opening set. Demolishing his first trio of victims without dropping serve, Djokovic has not shown any vulnerability that might offer Wawrinka a reason to believe. Granted, the latter has not lost a set here either, but a matchup with the world #1 in a night session on Rod Laver Arena seems like the type of environment calculated to bring out the worst from the Swiss and something near the best from the Serb. Parallel to Sharapova and Flipkens, one struggles to imagine any part of the underdog’s game that can threaten the favorite consistently.
Almagro vs. Tipsarevic: Never before have they met on a hard court, discounting an Abu Dhabi exhibition. To no surprise, the Spaniard defeated the Serb comfortably when they met at Roland Garros last year, the most favorable surface for the former and the least favorable for the latter. Almagro remains almost as lethal a threat on hard courts as on clay, producing a handful of fine results in Melbourne and New York behind an impressive serve and plenty of groundstroke first-strike power. Both men can strike winners down the line from either groundstroke wing, nor will either hesitate in attempting a bold shot at any moment. That factor, combined with their proximity to each other in the rankings, bodes well for a tightly contested match, as does their mixture of impressive and unimpressive results in the first week.
Li vs. Goerges: If Almagro and Tipsarevic never have met on a hard court, this pair of women never has collided at all. Whereas Li rolled through the first week without dropping a set, Goerges needed to claw through a long three-setter in her opener against Dushevina and salvage a third-round epic against Zheng after the Chinese served for the match. Despite the accumulated fatigue, that resilience under pressure might aid her in a match likely to feature several twists and turns between two streaky women. Under Henin’s former mentor, stern taskmaster Carlos Rodriguez, Li has hinted at improving her consistency from one tournament to the next. Starting the year with a title and a Sydney semifinal, she enters this match with an 11-1 record in 2013. On the other hand, Goerges has wobbled through a long span of the unpredictability typical of WTA Germans, leaving her stagnant until this week.
Margaret Court Arena:
Anderson vs. Berdych: The first South African to reach the second week of a major since Wayne Ferreira ten years ago, Anderson did it the hard way by winning the last two sets of a five-setter against Verdasco. Few players have started the year more impressively than he has, marching from a strong week at the Hopman Cup to the Sydney final and now a week in which he twice has won matches after losing the first set. But Anderson may find himself eyeing adversity again when he meets a man who won all four of their matches last year. The last two of those reached final sets, offering him some hope in this contest of crackling serves, ferocious forehands, and meager backhands, which should produce repeated holds and perhaps some tiebreaks. Berdych has dominated the opposition through three rounds with the relentless focus that he does not always show, although he has not faced anyone of a quality approaching the South African.
A plethora of intriguing encounters awaits audiences as the third round begins at the Australian Open. Foremost among them are two in the women’s draw, which we include in our latest preview.
Kerber vs. Keys (Rod Laver Arena): Long hovering on the horizon, the 17-year-old Madison Keys has soared into the consciousness of the tennis world by winning four main-draw matches in the last two weeks. Moreover, she has won most of them decisively, including routs of top-20 opponent Safarova in Sydney and the 30th-seeded Paszek here. The teenager’s serve could prove a crucial weapon against Kerber, whose superior steadiness and experience should prevail in rallies unless Keys can find a way to unsettle her, which she could with a strong start. Featured on the show court of a major for the first time, she seems more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the weight of the moment.
Li vs. Cirstea (RLA): Familiar with both rising and crumbling in spectacular style, the 2011 Australian Open runner-up split her two meetings with Cirstea at majors last year. Li defeated the heavy-hitting Romanian at Roland Garros but lost to her at Wimbledon before battling past her in a Cincinnati three-setter, so she will know what to expect. While Cirstea defeated Stosur in the first round here last year and can hope to capture that magic again, the moderately paced hard court in Australia would seem to favor Li’s more balanced game.
Sharapova vs. Williams (RLA): Scanning the WTA elite, one might not find two champions more similar in playing style than these two legends of first-strike tennis. Both Sharapova and Venus can hammer lethal missiles from both groundstroke wings, and both compete with the ferocity of women whose lungs illustrate their loathing for losing. Both have the ability to win free points in bunches with their serves, but both also can lose control of that shot beyond repair amidst cascades of double faults. Both have survived significant bouts of adversity, Sharapova by battling back from a career-threatening shoulder surgery and Venus by battling back from a career-threatening illness. While the American has accumulated a richer title haul, the Russian owns the more balanced resume.
Their record reflects much of the above, neatly balanced at 4-3 in Sharapova’s favor but skewed 4-1 in her favor away from Wimbledon, where Venus has claimed her greatest achievements. Not dropping a single game through her first two matches, Maria can expect a steep elevation in her opponent’s quality and must come as prepared to elevate her own quality as she did five years ago here against Davenport. Like her sister, Venus has produced some of her most dazzling surges when least expected, and she has looked quietly impressive if less overtly overpowering so far.
Ivanovic vs. Jankovic (Hisense): Those who appreciate tennis largely from an aesthetic perspective may wish to cover their eyes in a pairing of two women who sprayed disheveled errors to every corner of the court in their previous matches. Meanwhile, those who fancy their tennis served (or double-faulted) with a dollop of drama should enjoy this battle between two countrywomen who have feuded chronically but bitterly. The superior player by most measures, Ivanovic has dominated their head-to-head as her versatile forehand has hit through Jankovic’s baseline defense. So high do the emotions run in these matches, though, that one never knows what to expect from one point to the next.
Djokovic vs. Stepanek (RLA): In addition to their five-set epic at the 2007 US Open, Stepanek has troubled the Serb on two other occasions. He won a set from him at Wimbledon last year by using his idiosyncratic style to disrupt Djokovic’s rhythm. Even as his career has faded, Stepanek continues to revel in the spotlight and ended 2012 on a high note by winning the decisive match in Davis Cup. That momentum probably cannot lift him high enough to disturb Djokovic in Australia, where he looks as dominant as ever in all facets of his game.
Ferrer vs. Baghdatis (RLA): The fourth seed in Nadal’s absence, Ferrer can falter at times with the distractions caused by partisan crowds. Supported vociferously by Melbourne legions of Greeks and Cypriots, Baghdatis hopes to revive the memories of his charge to the 2006 final. At this tournament two years ago, he became the first man ever to win after losing the first two sets to Ferrer at a major, surprising in view of their relative fitness. The fourth seed looked vulnerable in stretches against an overmatched opponent in the last round, while Baghdatis did likewise in another mismatch. His flat, net-skimming groundstrokes should offer an intriguing contrast to Ferrer’s safer topspin.
Anderson vs. Verdasco (Hisense): Reprising their meeting at the Hopman Cup this month, this match pits a rising against a fading star. Like Baghdatis, Verdasco has failed to duplicate his breakthrough performance in Melbourne (a 2009 semifinal), and he should count himself fortunate to escape a five-setter to start the tournament. On the other hand, Anderson followed his strong results in Perth with a final in Sydney, where he showed poise under pressure. Expect plenty of quick holds as each man struggles to crack the other’s serve.
Benneteau vs. Tipsarevic (MCA): Which Tipsarevic will show up here? The man who fired his way past Hewitt with a blizzard of electric shot-making, or the man who barely edged past Lacko in an unimaginative performance? Tipsarevic looked a bit drained after the heroics of his opener, and he may pay the price if he enters this match flat, for Benneteau rolled past trendy dark horse pick Dimitrov in the first round. Although streaky, the Frenchman represents a clear notch upward in quality from Lacko.
Querrey vs. Wawrinka (MCA): The lanky American with the casual power got a little too casual early in each of his first two matches, dropping the opening sets in both. Against Wawrinka, a natural grinder who thrives on long rallies, Querrey should discipline himself to eliminate such gifts. Having lost both of his previous meetings to the Swiss, including a US Open five-setter, he will need to maintain a higher first-serve percentage this time and aim to end points more efficiently.
Almagro vs. Janowicz (Court 3): In the wake of a bizarre five-set comeback against Devvarman, one wondered whether to praise Janowicz for his tenacity in roaring back after losing the first two sets, or to linger on his immaturity for letting his emotions run astray early in the match. Without that costly burst of petulance, the match likely would not have lasted as long as it did. Similarly, Almagro needed much longer than expected to dismiss American neophyte Steve Johnson in another five-setter. Between the Spaniard’s backhand and the Pole’s forehand, fans should see risky, flamboyant shot-making as each man hopes to exploit a weak section of the draw.
After the mega-preview of the Australian Open men’s draw appeared yesterday, we take the same type of look at the women’s draw.
First quarter: Like fellow defending champion Djokovic, Azarenka cruised through the first week of last year’s tournament. Also like Djokovic, she should do so again this year against an early slate of opponents that features nobody more remarkable than Radwanska’s younger sister. Urszula Radwanska recently lost to Wozniacki, which should tell you all that you need to know about her current form, and her sister can offer her little advice on how to solve Azarenka’s ruthless baseline attack. The world #1 has taken the sensible position that this year’s tournament is a new opportunity for triumph rather than a chunk of territory to defend, an attitude that should help her advance deep into the draw. While the quirky game of Roberta Vinci might bemuse her temporarily, Azarenka probably has less to fear from any opponent in her quarter than from the Australian summer heat, which has proved an Achilles heel for her before.
Among the most plausible first-round upsets in the women’s draw is Lisicki over the reeling, tenth-ranked Wozniacki. The world #1 at this tournament last year, Wozniacki continued her 2012 slide by losing two of her first three matches in 2013, while she has failed to solve the German’s mighty serve in two of their three meetings. Lisicki usually lacks the steadiness to string together several victories in a marquee draw away from grass, but Brisbane finalist Pavlyuchenkova might build upon her upward trend if she escapes Lisicki in the third round. Although the seventh-seeded Errani reached the quarterfinals here last year, she fell to Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and might exit even before she meets the young Russian to the veteran Kuznetsova. The most intriguing unseeded player in this section, the two-time major champion showed flashes of vintage form in Sydney and eyes an accommodating pre-quarterfinal draw. She could battle Pavlyuchenkova for the honor of facing Azarenka, who would feel intimidated by neither Russian.
Player to watch: Pick your ova between Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova
Second quarter: In a sense, all that you need to know about this section is that it contains Serena. Case closed, or is it? Conventional wisdom would say that a player of Serena’s age cannot possibly sustain the brilliance that she displayed in the second half of 2012 much longer, but she has built a reputation upon defying conventional wisdom. An intriguing third-round rematch with Shvedova beckons just two majors after the Kazakh nearly upset her at Wimbledon, the tournament that turned around Serena’s comeback. Mounting an inspired comeback herself last year, Shvedova has stalled a bit lately while suffering some dispiriting three-set losses. Serena can outserve, outhit, and generally out-compete players like Kirilenko and Wickmayer with their limited range of talents. Last year, though, Makarova delivered the shock of the Australian Open by ambushing her in the fourth round, reminding us that underdogs sometimes can jolt Serena before she settles into a tournament.
By the quarterfinals, the American usually has accumulated a formidable tide of momentum that compensates for the spiking quality of competition. Considering the eighth-seeded Kvitova’s recent struggles, the quality may not spike so dramatically. But Kvitova, who has lost seven of her last ten matches, may not reach that stage and may have her work cut out against Schiavone in the first round or ambitious American teen Sloane Stephens in the third round. Stephens broke through at majors last year by reaching the second week of Roland Garros, just as British teen Laura Robson did by reaching the second week at the US Open. An early upset of Kvitova, perhaps even by Robson in the second round, would result in an intriguing battle between these two rising stars with a berth in the second week at stake. There, they could meet the evergreen veteran Petrova, who becomes dangerous just when one discounts her. Kvitova’s compatriot Safarova also lurks in this area but blows too hot and cold to produce a deep run.
Player to watch: Stephens
Third quarter: The ultra-steady Radwanska finds herself surrounded by an array of stunning talents with a penchant for getting in their own way. Leading the pack is the sixth-seeded Li Na, who has reached the semifinals or better twice at the Australian Open. Although she won a home title in Shenzhen, Li played generally shaky tennis during her week in Sydney before an error-strewn loss to Radwanska that ended her 2012 momentum against the Pole. Close behind Li in ranking and self-destructive potential is Stosur, who already has imploded twice on Australian soil this year. The ninth seed probably deserves some forgiveness for those losses in view of her recent ankle surgery, but the fact remains that she has lost six of her last seven matches at home in an illustration of her frailty under pressure. Stosur narrowly avoided an early date with Cirstea, her nemesis in the first round last year, and may meet Zheng Jie in the second round a week after she lost to her in Sydney. For her part, Li must hope to reverse her loss to Cirstea at Wimbledon last year if that third-round meeting materializes.
Nearer to Radwanska lies another opponent of the same model as fellow one-time major champions Li and Stosur: the charming and charmingly fragile Ivanovic. Five years after her trip to the Melbourne final, she has not reached the quarterfinals there since. The former #1 might face the other former #1 from her own country in the third round, resuming her sometimes bitter rivalry with Jankovic. Although both Serbs accumulated success against Radwanska earlier in their careers, neither has conquered her as they have declined. The fourth seed thus will feel confident of extending her nine-match winning streak from titles in Auckland and Sydney deep into Melbourne. Perhaps she can follow in the footsteps of Sydney champion Azarenka last year, or in those of Sydney champion Li the year before.
Player to watch: Li
Fourth quarter: When Sharapova entered the Melbourne field without any match practice last year, she showed no signs of rust in sweeping to the final. In the same situation, she will aim to produce the same result on a surface where the high bounce suits her playing style. Sharapova could face Venus Williams near the end of the first week, assuming that the American survives the heat and her spells of uneven play to that point. Away from grass, she has accumulated a far better record against the elder than the younger Williams, and one would favor her in that matchup considering the relative conditions of each career. Either of these tall women would hold a significant advantage in power and serve over Dominika Cibulkova, the Sydney finalist who devoured three top-eight opponents before eating a double bagel in the final. Rarely at her best in Melbourne, she faces an intriguing opener against local prodigy Ashleigh Barty but otherwise looks likely to enter the second week.
Somewhat more uncertain is the identity of this section’s other quarterfinalist, for Kerber looked only moderately convincing in Brisbane and Sydney. A heavy hitter can outslug the German or frustrate her, a role that second-round opponent Lucia Hradecka could fill with her thunderous serve. Principally a threat on grass, Tamira Paszek remains unpredictable from one week to the next and could meet Sydney sensation Madison Keys in a second round. A 17-year-old with precocious poise, Keys may vie with Stephens for the brightest star in the future of American women’s tennis. The eleventh-seeded Bartoli opens against Medina Garrigues, who played inspired tennis at the Hopman Cup, and will hope to break away from a series of unremarkable efforts in Melbourne. While Kerber defeated Sharapova early last year, the world #2 squashed her in their other three meetings, nor has any of the other players in this section often threatened her.
Player to watch: Venus
Final: Serena vs. Radwanska
Champion: Serena Williams
Excited for the start of the 2013 Australian Open? I will run a live chat during many of the matches at newyorkobservertennis.com. Check it out if you want to chat with me, some of my colleagues, and fellow fans while you watch the action in Melbourne.
Wow, Christmas has only just passed and already the Australian Open is on our doorstep. The players may wish they had a little more time to shake off the ring rust before the first slam of the year but I love the unpredictability it brings. Everyone’s struggling a little for form and trying to adjust to the conditions and so often we see the rankings list turned upside down as a result.
So after week 1, who’s looking sharp and who badly needs a good week of match practise before things kick off on the 14th?
Serena’s ride to the Brisbane title was made a little easier by Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal ahead of their semi-final (Azarenka complained she had a toe infection following a dodgy pedicure) but the American still showed why she’s the player to beat in Melbourne. A notoriously slow starter to the year, when Serena’s winning titles in the first two weeks then everyone else should be worried. She’s won the Australian Open five times in the past and after her 6-2, 6-1 final demolition of Russia’s Anastasia Pavyluchenkova earlier today, she’ll take some stopping.
Davydenko was one of the favourites for the Australian Open title three years ago before sinking without trace following a wrist fracture. However having watched his run to the final in Doha this week, I can honestly say I haven’t seen the Russian strike the ball this well since he was top three in the world. He made David Ferrer look extremely ordinary in their semi-final and he knows what it takes to reach the latter stages of the slams.
Tomic still has plenty of fans down under despite his petulant displays on tour over the past year. The former child prodigy always rises to the occasion during the Australian swing and he won all three of his matches at the Hopman Cup, stunning Novak Djokovic in straight sets. Tomic got Melbourne rocking with his fourth round run last year and he’ll be one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw once again.
Kerber enjoyed another fabulous season in 2012, making the Wimbledon semis and securing her place in the world’s top ten. A superb mover and very physically strong, conditions in Australia should be to her liking but she has work to do after a straight sets loss to Pavyluchenkova in Brisbane followed by an ousting in Sydney to Dominika Cibulkova.
The Australian Open is unequivocally Berdych’s weakest slam and he’s never been past the quarters down under. Doesn’t seem to be much likelihood of him bettering that after a shock quarter-final loss to the little known Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai and a straight set loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Kooyong.
Isner is determined to make an impact at the slams this year but he has now been ruled out of the Australian Open due to a nagging knee injury that forced him to pull out of the Hopman Cup. It wasn’t looking particularly great for the American after straight sets losses to Kevin Anderson and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Perth and now he’s lost the time to recover for the year’s first Slam.
David Cox writes for Live-Tennis.com, an award-winning tennis, news and live stream website.
By David Kane
During the off-season, players get to make use of time usually spent on the road or on the court during year on fitness and conditioning. Far from a time when one can sit around and indulge in a heaping slice of chocolate cake, players from Monica Seles to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova have tended to take advantage of these working vacations to emerge fitter, faster, and ready for the grueling Australian summer.
Yet despite these physical transformations and the higher expectations that should go with them, we as spectators hardly predict that these athletes’ almost-superhuman bodies will hold up for more than a couple of hours. And when they are put through extreme physical tests, a letdown is not only forgiven, but also a foregone conclusion. Not that this is a call for the “letdown loss” to be judged more harshly, but why do we underestimate our athletes?
Perhaps because when a player convincingly knocks out a top 10 player less than 24 hours after a five hour war of attrition, we find the effort all the more impressive. Such was the case for Dominika Cibulkova; the top 20 stalwart and pint-sized dynamo stayed on the court for a staggering four hours and forty-six minutes in the hopes of toppling last year’s Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova.
In sweltering heat that read 106 degrees on the thermometer but felt like a balmy 120 on the court, Cibulkova broke the Russian as she served for the match and barreled through a final set tiebreaker (the second of the match) to earn a spot in the Sydney quarters, where she would face Sara Errani, one of the impact players of 2012.
If one lacks a cursory knowledge of tennis, pure common sense should dictate that if one had to run for five hours, the idea of running for at least another 90 minutes sounds like torture. Against a grinder like Errani, that 90-minute dash could easily be extended into yet another marathon. Before the two diminutive big guns even took the court, it appeared easy to predict how the match should go: the heavy-hitting Slovak would punch herself out until she hit a wall, and the steady Italian would slice and dice until she had made pepperoni pizza out of a tired opponent.
To watch the match, one would have thought that Errani herself had not only hit a wall, but also had decidedly banged her head against it a few too many times. Looking flat and lacking the usual snap on her high, topspin groundstrokes, she had no answers against an on-fire Cibulkova, who appeared fresh from a light jog as opposed to lead-footed from a slugfest. Bellowing her signature “Pome!” (Slovakian for “Come on!”), Cibulkova was firing from all cylinders, knocking anything that landed short into the corners and seemed unbothered by the fact that Errani consistently forced her to generate her own pace.
A slight wobble towards the end of the match from Cibulkova treated the Grandstand crowd to a tense ending to what was otherwise one-way traffic for the Slovak, who will again get little rest as she prepares to play No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber for a spot in the final.
It is at this point in the article where one would openly question Cibulkova’s ability to replicate success for a third straight day, whether she has enough left in the proverbial tank to take out another elite counterpuncher. But asking whether she can keep going is a foolhardy question for the ultimate Energizer Bunny.
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.
By Romi Cvitkovic
Venus Williams looked be the player of old many Americans had grown to love in her defeat of fellow countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 6-3, 6-1 on Tuesday.
It was one year ago this tournament that Venus Williams revealed to the world her battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune diseases she has learned to tame. After taking six months off the WTA Tour to adjust her lifestyle, she returned in March to the Sony Ericsson Open. Since then, she has played a lighter schedule that paid off in her wining the women’s doubles gold again at the London Olympics.
“That feeling was amazing,” Williams beamed during her on-court interview. “That was my whole dream, of coming back from being ill, to play in the olympics and to … bring home gold.”
The victories have continued for the unseeded Williams, as she hit 22 winners and won 83% of first serves. After the initial hiccup of dropping her first service game, Williams took rein of the match, moving well, crushing forehands and forcing her opponent to the corners.
With all the health struggles she has had, she admits to physically and mentally “feeling great” and happy about being in the second round.
But what would it mean to get through to the second week and put herself in contention for third US Open?
“That’s what I’m here for!” she joked. “All the hours on the court, all these years. To bring home the Slam and have an American in the winning circle again would be great, so I’m going to try.”
As good as she looked today and try as she might to win it all, there are still doubts about how her body will hold up when the matches start going three sets. Her time playing for the Kastles in the Washington, D.C. humidity this summer revealed how quickly her energy level can diminish and tighten her legs up.
Up next for Williams will be No. 6 Angelique Kerber, the German who was a surprise semifinalist here last year. Kerber is 19-for-21 in three-set matches for the year, so Williams will have to summon everything in her to win it in straight sets.
Friday featured the last of the men’s quarterfinals and the women’s semifinals on stadium 1. Although the practice courts were fairly quiet this morning, I did find John Isner and Sam Querrey warming up for their doubles semifinal. They seemed to be in a good mood ahead of their match.
Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro started off the men’s quarters for the day. It didn’t take long for Delpo to lose his focus, though. Del Potro challenged a ruling on Federer’s serve, which both players believed to be out. However, hawkeye wasn’t available, so the original call of an ace was unchanged. It clearly frustrated Delpo for the rest of the match. He seemed to lose his focus from that point on, which severely impacted the Argentine’s game. Federer played very well and was off the court in a quick two-set match and should be well rested ahead of his semifinal tomorrow.
Meanwhile, on court 2, John Isner and Sam Querrey took on Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor. Quisner seemed a bit surprised by the fact that their match was so empty. The Federer match was the more popular choice when the doubles semifinal began, but Isner still tried to liven up the small crowd with some calls for cheers as the players got ready to start the match. The match didn’t last long after Quisner broke in the first set to win 6-4 and rolled through the second at 6-2. They will face Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez in the final tomorrow.
On stadium 1, Nadal had to fight off some strong play from David Nalbandian as well as his own errors. Nadal made several uncharacteristic mistakes in the first set, allowing Nalbandian to break Nadal at 5-4, giving the Argentine the first set at 6-4. Nadal fought back in the second set and was able to stave off Nalbandian to take control of the match. The first few games of the third set went to Nadal, and it seemed that, after a double break, his victory was assured. Nevertheless, Nalbandian held strong and gave Nadal enough trouble to break back once. The number two seed, however, made sure it didn’t happen again and won the third set at 6-4.
In the evening, the women’s matches took center stage. Victoria Azarenka had a successful match against Angelique Kerber. She did not seem to struggle much as her winning streak continued. Maria Sharapova fought back from a break down against Ana Ivanovic to win the first set. Both players worked hard in the first set, forcing each other to save break points. Unfortunately, Ivanovic injured herself in the middle of the first set and was forced to retire shortly into the beginning of the second set. It was disappointing that Ivanovic had to retire as it was shaping up to be a great match, but the rematch of the Australian Open final with Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova should be great to watch.
It will be tough to leave Indian Wells tomorrow, but there will be some great matches on Saturday and Sunday to conclude the BNP Paribas Open 2012 with the men’s doubles final on Saturday and the men’s and women’s singles finals on Sunday.
After an exciting day of tennis on Thursday, the women’s semifinal matches have been set and will be played during the evening session on Friday. Only two of the top four seeds remain in action, leaving two unexpected semifinalists, one on either side of the draw. In the quarterfinals, top seed Victoria Azarenka demolished Agnieszka Radwanksa, while No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova took was seriously tested by her Russian compatriot, Maria Kirilenko, winning a very long three set encounter. US Open surprise semifinalist, Angelique Kerber, caused another upset, taking out Li Na on Wednesday night. To round out the last four, Ana Ivanovic continued her stellar run here by defeating last year’s runner up, Marion Bartoli.
Victoria Azarenka vs. Angelique Kerber
Not before 6pm, the world No. 1 and Australian Open champion, Victoria Azarenka will take on the German, Angelique Kerber. It’s absurd to think that just a few months ago, no one had ever heard of Kerber. She somehow quietly made her way into the US Open semifinals, testing eventual champion Samantha Stosur. However, she wasn’t just a one hit wonder. Since September, she had posted fairly consistent results, winning her first tournament last month in Paris by defeating Marion Bartoli. By reaching this stage of the tournament, she will enter the WTA Top 15. Asked to talk about her impending match against Azarenka, she said, “Yeah, I have nothing to lose in the next match, so I will go out there, try to play really my tennis and focus on me like today, enjoy it, and, yeah, try to beat her, of course.” It’s true that Kerber will have nothing to lose, not having often made it to this stage of tournaments in the past. This has already been a stunning week for her, but a victory would only add to that feeling.
Kerber will have her work cut out for her as she faces the undefeated world No. 1 tonight. Azarenka has started the season very similarly to Novak Djokovic last year, quickly running to a 21-0 record. As impressive as that record is, Azarenka is not allowing her self to get complacent. With regards to working on continuing to improve her game, she said, “if I relax my butt a little bit, somebody’s gonna come and kick it.” Early on this week, she struggled in her opening match, but since then has cruised through to the semifinals in fine form. She did not have much to say when asked about potentially playing Kerber, who at the time had not yet won her quarterfinal. According to Azarenka, they have not played since juniors, but, “there are no easy matches in semifinals.”
While Azarenka thinks there are no easy matches in the semifinals, and Kerber has proven capable of causing all kinds of upsets, it is unlikely that Azarenka’s record will be challenged. She absolutely rolled against Agnieszka Radwanksa, a player who often gives her trouble, and has gotten progressively better with each match she has played this week. It will be a tall task for Angelique Kerber to topple the world No. 1 this time around.
Ana Ivanovic vs. Maria Sharapova
Following the Azarenka/Kerber semifinal, two Grand Slam champions will take the stage to battle for a spot in the finals. Early Thursday, Ivanovic scored her second major victory of the week, defeating Marion Bartoli in two sets, backing up her victory over defending champion Caroline Wozniacki. Ivanovic has yet to reach the level she was at in 2008, when she won the French Open at 21 years old. Since her post Slam slump, she has been gradually working her way back into contention for major titles, only recently finding stronger form. This has debatably been her best week in the last couple of years. Undoubtedly gleeful after yesterday’s win, Ivanovic could barely contain her smile during her post match press conference. Reminded of the last time she played Sharapova, in the 2008 Australian Open final, she laughed, admitting that the ill fated drop shot from that match still haunts her, “it still hurts me so much. Silly dropshot forehand. I know. I was like, Why? Seriously, why?” Any Ana Ivanovic fan will tell you that they too still remember that drop shot. Luckily, she claims to have learned from her mistakes and is looking forward to the challenge of taking on Maria Sharapova again four years later, a much different situation for both players. Ivanovic’s new coach, Nigel Sears, has seemed to be a steadying force for the volatile Serbian, helping to dramatically improve her forehand, and more importantly, her mental game.
Coming in as the No. 2 seed, Maria Sharapova was generally expected to make it through to this stage of the tournament. Knocked out in the semifinals last year, Sharapova’s game has become considerably more consistent than it used to be and she is certainly deserving of the No. 2 spot. However, Sharapova was in real trouble yesterday against fellow Russian, Maria Kirilenko, when she went down a set and a break. Things looked just about over, before Sharapova magically pulled out the second set 7-5, possibly with a little help from a hindrance call against Kirilenko. After securing the second set, Sharapova had very little trouble overpowering her opponent, quickly rushing to a 4-0 lead. Even after being broken, she was able to close out the set at 6-2. Sharapova won her last encounter against Ana Ivanovic four years ago, but those results are almost negligible, as both women are completely different players today. Asked about what she thought of the impending match, she said, “I think we’re in both very different stages in our careers. She’s been playing really well this week. It’s good to see. I mean, we have had tough matches in the past; I’m sure that this one tomorrow will be tough, as well.” It will be tough, as Sharapova played a significantly more grueling match than Ivanovic. Since they’re on last, recovery shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but it still has the potential to play a role. Based on their form this week, either player has the capacity to win this match and it will likely be much more of a mental battle than a physical one. If Ivanovic can keep her nerves in check, there’s a real possibility she could cause the upset.