January 6, 2013

Picking Up Where We Left Off...

It's been more than a couple weeks since we last saw the sport's biggest stars take the court with a trophy on the line. But as the new season kicks off, so many of them were eager to keep the momentum they had late last year, while others were out to recapture the magic they had not so long ago. And with their performances so far, they've each put themselves on track to accomplish even bigger things in 2013.

Janko Tipsarevic had lost a bit of steam at the end of last year -- after claiming two titles
to end 2011, he made few real breakthroughs last season. He did manage one title in Stuttgart, and a couple finals here and there, but after retiring in Paris and losing all three of his London round robins, he looked a little beaten down. He got himself back on track in Chennai this week though, admittedly without ever facing too big a challenge -- top-seeded Tomas Berdych was ousted in his quarterfinal, and the only seed Tipsy faced on the way to his second straight final here was world #60 Go Soeda. But after losing the first set to little-known Roberto Bautista Agut he was able to regroup and win his first championship since July. And with some good results this time of year, he might be able to wash out the stale taste in his mouth from the fall.

Na Li has had some of her best results this time of year, and whatever her results were coming into it the last few seasons she finds a way to shine. She's a shade off her career high ranking these days and only played a handful of events after the U.S. Open, but she has a lot of points to defend the first few months of the year -- a final in Sydney, a fourth round in Melbourne -- so she new she had to perform. This past week in Shenzhen she was dominant in her early rounds, delivering bagels to both Mandy Minella and Shuai Peng to make the final. Meanwhile fellow veteran Klara Zakopalova was making her way through the other end of the draw -- the long-time middle-tier player thumped doubles phenom Andrea Hlavackova and shocked second-seeded Marion Bartoli to make her first championship match in nearly two years. But though she put up a fight, the Czech eventually succumbed to Li's experience, and the hometown favorite set herself up for another strong showing Down Under.

Over in Doha many of the favorites were stunned from the start, but at the end two long-time stars were the ones left standing. One-time world #3 Nikolay Davydenko has struggled for much of the last two years to come back from wrist injury, but this was a first time in a while he looked like the star we once knew. The Russian kicked off his campaign with a solid win over recently resurgent Mikhail Youzhny and then pulled off a huge upset over red-hot David Ferrer to make the last round. In the other half of the draw Richard Gasquet, back in the top ten since 2008, made his own dramatic run to the championship match. Tested early by one of last year's newcomers, he was also pushed to the limit against qualifier Daniel Brands in the semis. He was ultimately too much for Davydenko in the final, though, coming back after losing the first set and taking his eighth career title. The Russian's fight to make another trip into the elite may have been stalled in Saturday's match, but his performance last week sure gives him hope. And Gasquet's continuation of the play that brought him a title in Bangkok at the end of last season promises to serve him well in 2013, if he can keep it up.

Aggie Radwanska's best results came a little earlier last year, and though she seemed to sputter in the fall thanks to a couple injuries, she picked up her game at the season-ender in Istanbul to make her first semi at the WTA finals. She made sure that momentum stuck to start 2013, and made quick work of her draw in Auckland -- though she got some help when Elena Vesnina ousted last year's comeback kid Yaroslava Shvedova and second-seeded Julia Goerges lost in her second round, she didn't face much of a challenge until she was taken to two tiebreaks in the semis against young American Jamie Hampton. But even given her fine start, the result was far from certain when in the final she faced Yanina Wickmayer, playing her third final in New Zealand -- she won back in 2010. Still Aga was relentless Saturday, keeping herself perfect and not dropping a set throughout the week. With one more title to start the year, the eleventh of her career, she seems she might still have what it takes to make a move back to the top.

Maybe more impressive was the performance of a woman looking to make her own move to the top. Serena Williams has only lost one match since last year's French Open, and is now a stone's throw from reclaiming the sport's top spot. She came to Brisbane as only the third seed, but even before Maria Sharapova withdrew from the event and Victoria Azarenka pulled out of their semi with a (weird!) toe injury she was probably still the favorite. Despite a potentially tough first round against rising American star Varvara Lepchenko, she was nevertheless brutal on her way to the final, dropping just fourteen games in three matches. In the bottom half Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was pulling off her own comeback, taking out two top seeds in straight sets. But she didn't have it in her to put up a fight against the relentless Serena who, in another trouncing, claimed her eighth title in less than twelve months. With that kind of performance going into the Australian Open, there's no reason to think she won't keep her play up to take her sixteenth Slam trophy.

But maybe the most pressure was on Andy Murray this week -- after his breakthrough year, it would have been a shame to see him falter so early in 2013. But after being pushed in his opener against Australian qualifier John Millman, he largely sailed through his later rounds. Meanwhile rising star Grigor Dimitrov was having his own stretch of luck in the bottom half of the draw -- he started by stunning second-seed Milos Raonic and followed up with a win over Jurgen Melzer, and after eventually ending Marcos Baghdatis's win streak in the semis made his first career singles final in Brisbane. But the Bulgarian's Cinderella run would come to end in Sunday's championship -- after keeping it close for a set, Murray pulled ahead in the second ultimately closed out his first title of the year. If there was any concern he was about to endure a sophomore slump, he might have silenced them entirely after his performance this week.

It's still early in the season, of course, but it sure looks like this week's winners are well on their way to proving recent successes were no fluke -- or that any slumps they've had may be short-lived. With just a week to go before the first Major of 2013, there may not have been a better time to show us what they've still got.

And it could make for some real excitement when it really heats up in Melbourne.

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