January 29, 2014

Into the Spotlight: Davis Cup 1st Round Preview

It's always nice to feel the team spirit that comes along with Davis Cup contests -- buoyed by their compatriots in a way you don't often see at a traditional tournament, some players find a way to pull out inconceivable wins against heavy favorites. And this year, perhaps more than others, the likelihood of some star-making performances is high as can be.

The two-time defending Czech champions are bringing their usual cadre of talent, with Australian Open semifinalist Tomas Berdych leading the pack. But also look out for Jiri Vesely, last year's ATP Star of Tomorrow -- the twenty-year old put together a two-set lead over big-serving Kevin Anderson in his Melbourne opener, his first appearance down under, and made the semis at last week's Heilbronn challenger. He'll likely only play doubles this weekend against the Dutchmen, but if his teammates put together a strong enough lead, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a bigger platform for success.

More likely to get top billing despite his low profile is Serbia's Dusan Lajovic, but he'll have a tough test. The 2010 champs were runners-up last year, but they're now missing captain Novak Djokovic and open against a team led by newly-minted Grand Slam titleist Stanislas Wawrinka. Lajovic hasn't had a lot of experience in Davis Cup -- he lost his two singles rubbers in last year's final -- but he did open 2014 by qualifying for his first Major main draw. He even won a match, taking out wildcard Lucas Pouille in his opener. Of course stakes will be high this weekend, but with Wawrinka the only man on the Swiss team ranked in the top hundred(-fifty!) there is more than a good chance this underdog comes out on top at some point.

Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios is hoping to do the same. Behind veteran Lleyton Hewitt he'll take on an intimidating French team comprised of two top-ten players and no one ranked lower than #40 in the world. At #162, he hasn't quite broken into that tier yet -- after all, he only played two Tour-level matches before this season started -- but he did put up a big fight in the Australian Open second round this month, winning the first two sets in tiebreaks over twenty-seventh seed Benoit Paire during the scorching early heatwave. He won't have home court advantage this time, though, so he'll have to raise his game even higher. But if his momentum continues, we might see his star start to shine just a little bit brighter.

But perhaps the man with the greatest opportunity to break through this weekend is Melbourne Cinderella Roberto Bautista Agut. The Spaniard stunned an admittedly injured Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round and went on to beat an exhausted Paire -- a man he'd also taken out on his way to the Auckland semis -- to make his first Major fourth round. From a country with a plethora of talent to choose from -- and a full hand of Davis Cup trophies this century -- this will be Bautista's first tie, and it'll be a rough one against a strong German team. But a hair outside the top fifty now, he'll likely face no one more intimidating than what he endured in Australia and could cement his status as the next big force in an already forceful country.

There are plenty other players who might make a name for themselves this weekend too. Vasek Pospisil, suddenly in the top thirty, can prove he's not the only Canadian worthy of attention when he takes on a Japanese team led by world #18 Kei Nishikori. And David Goffin will look to show us he's no one-hit wonder when he leads a sparse Belgian team against a not-much-better set of Kazakhs. And while each of these guys' performances will only be a part of the whole of their Davis Cup results, any one of them could launch themselves into a new realm with some big successes here.

And what they do at that level could mean big things for the future of tennis.

January 26, 2014

Nerves of Steel

The tenor of this post changed multiple times as I watched this year's men's final at the Australian Open -- a stunning start, a rough injury, some huge momentum shifts. It was never clear until the very end what the outcome would be.

But ultimately the results spoke for themselves, as Stanislas Wawrinka, putting together a breakthrough performance throughout the fortnight, was consistently the physically and mentally superior player on Sunday. And his reward, appropriately, was his first career Grand Slam title.

The Swiss wasn't intimidated on this big stage, his first trip to the championship match at a Major. Pitted against 2009 champion and world #1 Rafael Nadal, he was unstoppable in the first set. He secured a break in just the fourth game and won every one of his first serve points. It was the first set he'd ever taken off Rafa in twelve previous meetings. He broke again early in the second, before things started to change. Nadal tweaked his back on a return, called for a trainer, and seemed to be down for the count. Wawrinka rolled through the second set, but with Rafa's injury, I began to think there would be a huge asterisk beside Stan's name -- after all, no one wants to win a match, much less their maiden Slam, against someone who's not playing their best.

But Nadal is nothing if not a fighter -- down two sets to none and still in pain, the thirteen-time Major winner finally found his game. He broke Wawrinka to start the fourth and confounded his opponent with off-pace serves teamed with a couple blistering winners. In the quickest set of the match, the Spaniard who was all but out of contention just a few minutes earlier, forced a fourth set and looked about to turn things around. When he got behind mid-way through the next set, he immediately broke back at love keeping the trophy out just out of reach again.

Ultimately, though, Wawrinka was able to stay tough. He broke again and served out the match, winning just the sixth, but by far the biggest crown of his career. He becomes the first man in over twenty years to beat both the #1 and #2 seed at a Major -- and the first ever to take down both Nadal and three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in one fortnight. The victory caps a year which brought him some of his biggest successes and will vault him to #3 in the world on Monday, his highest ever ranking, for the first time ahead of countryman Roger Federer.

But more importantly, the way he's playing, it might just be the tip of the iceberg for Wawrinka. One of few people to crack the stranglehold Rafa, Roger and Nole have had on the Majors the last decade, at this one tournament he's squarely ended a long list of losses to the top guys. With confidence -- and now experience -- on his side, there's no telling what Stan can accomplish from here.

And the rest of the field will have to sit up and take notice.

January 25, 2014

Thirty Is the New Twenty

It's become clear over the last several years that age is only a number in the sport of tennis -- at thirty-two years of age Serena Williams is the oldest top-ranked women's player in history, and Roger Federer, born just a few weeks earlier, is consistently a threat at all the Majors, even reaching the semis this fortnight in Melbourne. Superior fitness, a more responsible schedule, and better training have allowed these players not only to keep up in a sport once ruled by youngsters, but to actually dominate it.

But Serena and Roger broke out on the scene long ago -- Williams winning the U.S. Open at just seventeen and Federer claiming a Wimbledon crown at twenty-two. Even their biggest rivals got their starts early -- Junior champion Victoria Azarenka was twenty-two when she won her first Australian Open and Rafael Nadal was only nineteen when he rocked the red clay of Roland Garros.

What you see far less often is a player only start to reach her stride after years -- and years -- on Tour, and that's just what Na Li has been able to do.

Pro since 1999, she'd only won a pair of titles in her first ten years on the circuit, spending most of her early twenties ranked in the mid-double digits. It wasn't until 2008, after her break from the Chinese government, when she really began to find her game. She beat Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams in the Beijing Olympics, stunned Serena in Stuttgart that fall and ended the year just outside the top twenty. She still flew largely under the radar but at least she was hanging around late in tournaments, really putting up a fight against the top players. In 2010 she made her way to the Australian Open semis as a sixteenth seed and a year later went one better, taking the first set off Kim Clijsters in the championship match. That same season, at twenty-nine, she stopped Francesca Schiavone from defending her Roland Garros crown and claimed her maiden Major crown in Paris, becoming the first ever Asian Grand Slam champion.

It would have been easy for her to bow out of the game after that. Though Li's remained in the top ten since then, she struggled with injury over the years, skipping early spring tournaments last year and even considering retirement over the summer. But she found her form again over the summer, reaching the quarters at Wimbledon and the Final Four in New York. She won her first four matches at the WTA Championships, too, taking a set off Serena in the Istanbul final and ending the year at #3 in the world.

So far in 2014, Li has been unstoppable. After saving match point against Lucie Safarova in the third round, she's rolled over her opponents, dropping just two games to always-tricky Ekterina Makarova a match later and taking the first five games against Cinderella semifinalist Genie Bouchard on Thursday. In the title match against Melbourne breakthrough Dominika Cibulkova, she was pushed early -- she gave back an early lead with a couple double faults and failed to serve out the first set. But she eked out the tiebreak she went on to dominate the first-time finalist from all angles in the second -- she fired off twelve winners to the Slovak's four and didn't allow her one point on second serve. After just over ninety minutes, the world #4 had closed out he match, winning her second Grand Slam trophy.

The victory makes Li only the sixth active player with more than only Major under her belt, but more importantly seems to have vaulted her to a new level in her career. The late bloomer has won seven of her nine titles since the age of twenty-eight -- compare that to champions like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters who'd already retired at least once by that age. And she doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

Whether there's another Slam in her future remains to be seen, of course, but at nearly thirty-two Li has cemented herself as a real threat to every player in the field -- a distinction few would have given her just four years ago. She certainly has the potential to keep adding to her trophy count, too -- and the longer she lasts, the better it will ultimately be for the game.

January 23, 2014

Something Old, Something New

This is not your grandmother's Grand Slam.

From the start this Australian Open has been one of turn-arounds and shockers, upsets and breakthroughs, and players you'd never expect to last into Week Two of a Major were not only sneaking through the draws, but destroying their competition. And here we are on the verge of championship weekend with a real possibility of seeing a duo of first-time winners in Melbourne.

Dominika Cibulkova has long been one of the craftiest players on Tour, consistently giving top players a tough time, even when she didn't eventually beat them. But while her contemporaries were piling up trophies and climbing the rankings, she only won her first title a little over two years ago and struggled to stay in the top twenty. Last year she had twelve first round losses and only won four matches at the big events.

But she's certainly turned things around this fortnight. Armed with a longer racquet -- remember how that catapulted Sara Errani in 2012? -- and seemingly a new focus, she's decimated opponents so far, losing just a set to Maria Sharapova in their fourth round, but ceding three or fewer games in four other matches. In the semis on Thursday she rolled over Aga Radwanska, a woman she also beat in the Stanford final last year, by taking advantage of weak second serves and winning points on twelve of fourteen net approaches. The win gives her entry to the first Grand Slam championship match of her career, and the way the petite Slovak has been playing, it's hard to see her getting intimidated on the big stage.

But two-time runner-up Na Li will do her best to do just that. With three Major finals under her belt -- and, importantly, one trophy -- she'll certainly be the more experienced player on Saturday. And she's been on point Down Under as well -- undefeated so far this season, she's lost just a handful of games since saving match point in the third round and won five games in a row to start her semi against super-Cinderella Genie Bouchard on Thursday. She's also beaten Cibulkova in all four of their previous meetings. Still something tells me this match won't be cut and dried -- if Domi comes out swinging as she had all week, we could be in for an exciting contest.

On the men's side it will be Stanislas Wawrinka making his debut in a Major title match. The long-time Swiss #2, like Domi, only has a handful of crowns to his name, but he spent 2013 really defining his game. He took out Andy Murray in Monte Carlo, beat two top-ten players on his way to his first Masters final, and put up two of the best matches of the year against then-#1 Novak Djokovic in Melbourne and again in New York.

Most recently stopped in the U.S. Open semis, Wawrinka had only gotten as far as the quarters here once before, but after finally ending a long losing streak to the three-time defending champion on Tuesday, he followed up with a decisive win over one-time Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych in the final four. It was his second long match in a row -- the final three sets took three tiebreaks and nearly three hours -- but he got a retirement in his first round and a walkover in his third, so he might be relatively well-rested by the time he plays on Sunday.

He'll face off, though, against a much more experienced champion -- though this time the task for him is slightly more daunting than the one for Cibulkova. In the only semi left to be decided, world #1 Rafael Nadal will face off against four-time Aussie titleist Roger Federer for the last spot in the final. The two have combined for an astounding thirty Grand Slam trophies and have played in a total of forty-two Major championships -- nine against each other. Rafa has dominated their head-to-head too, winning more than two matches for each one he's lost, and has taking nine of twelve meetings over the last four years. He's also coming off a 36-4 hardcourt record in 2013 and a title in Doha to start this year. But Roger has been at the top of his game Down Under, barely dropping a set to Andy Murray in the quarters and firing off forty-five aces to Nadal's twenty-nine. He might be nearing the end of his career, but this could be the best fight we've seen between these champions in quite some time. And that might work to Wawrinka's advantage -- Stan has only notched one win against this pair -- against Fed almost four years ago -- and will be more than happy for the two to leave each other battered by the end of their match.

While odds certainly lie with the players who've been here before -- and those who've walked away with titles -- the couple Grand Slam virgins still alive are sure to put up a fight for these trophies. They've both shown they have what it takes to battle the big guys and could each deliver one more shocker at this already incredible event. Whether either is ultimately crowned champion this weekend remains to be seen, of course, but they may never have a better opportunity to strike.

And after everything that's gone down in Melbourne the last two weeks, you know whoever walks away the winners will have earned it.

Infographic: 2014 Australian Open Men's Semifinalists

Rafael Nadal

Roger Federer

Tomas Berdych

Stanislas Wawrinka

January 20, 2014

Keep on Truckin'

Things have gotten a little crazy on the ladies' side of the draw, with Serena's exit on Sunday quickly followed by Maria Sharapova's squander of a set lead over a dominating Dominika Cibulkova to bow out of her fourth round. But with one major exception, the men have lived up to expectations -- seven of the top eight seeds have advanced to the quarterfinals, setting up what should be some real exciting matches to kick off Week Two of the Australian Open.

World #1 Rafael Nadal is the only favorite blessed with an untested challenger in his next match. Twenty-two year old Grigor Dimitrov has advanced to his first Slam quarter, though with Cinderella Roberto Bautista Agut taking out the biggest giant in his path, he hasn't faced anyone in the top ten this week. The Bulgarian played well in his first week, but has been tested -- he's dropped sets in three of four previous matches and barely eked out more winners than errors against two of his opponents. Nadal, on the other hand, has had an easier on-paper road to the Elite Eight, but he was pushed by Kei Nishikori in Monday's fourth round -- battling a wily challenger, blistered hands and an unruly shoelace, he spent more than three hours on court and was broken four times. He's certainly got experience on his side, though, and if he pounces early there's no reason he shouldn't make it back to the semis in Melbourne.

The battles might be a little more heated in other sections of the draw. Tomas Berdych is looking to improve upon a streak of three straight quarterfinal appearances Down Under and the way he's played so far he might just do it. The tall Czech has been unstoppable on serve, winning a stunning eighty-seven percent of his first serves and more than six in ten of his second attempts. He handily dismissed the only seed he's faced so far, needing less than two hours to overcome an exhausted Kevin Anderson on Saturday. He'll likely face a tougher time against David Ferrer next though -- the third seed leads the pair's head-to-head by a relatively slim 7-4 margin. The Spaniard has proven strong, coming back after losing sets to Florian Mayer and world #71 Adrian Mannarino, and is looking to get to the semis here for a third time. But despite the history, something tells me Berdych might have the edge this time -- he's been so much more dominant in each of his matches, it's hard to see him take his game down at all, even against a veteran champion like Ferrer.

Speaking of veterans, four-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer is hoping to prove he's still a contender at the Majors -- it's been a year since he made the Final Four at a Slam, and at #6 in the world he's become quite a dark horse at this one. After a couple easy early rounds, though, he was relentless against tenth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man who's gotten the better of him at a couple big events recently -- he only allowed a single break opportunity and ceded just one in five points on serve. It's the closest he's looked like his old self in quite some time -- he only won one title in the last eighteen months, and has started losing even to players ranked well out of the top ten. For his rebuilding efforts, though, Roger will take on Andy Murray, a runner-up here three times. The Scot has been challenged along the way, dropping a set to Lucky Loser Stephane Robert on Monday, but he's maintained a winning 11-9 record against the seventeen-time Major winner. Still, it's never too late to turn things around and Roger might just have the motivation to make another stab at the trophy.

But a couple other guys still have a lot to say about that. Three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic in on a twenty-five match win streak in Melbourne and a twenty-nine match run since the U.S. Open final. He also hasn't dropped a set yet, but he hasn't really faced any challenge either. He's only been broken twice in his first four matches and has won nearly eighty percent of all his serves. But now he's slated for a rematch against Stanislas Wawrinka, who so nearly beat him in the fourth round here last year, and fell just short again in New York. It's been almost eight years since the Swiss has beaten the second seed, but he puts up a bigger fight every time, and after beating Tommy Robredo -- a man who'd won six of their seven career meetings -- he might have the belief he can turn things around again.

With the world's best athletes still fighting it out for the men's title at the Australian Open, it sure looks like we should expect a big week of play Down Under. I wouldn't expect any of these guys to let up even a little bit over the next few days, and while that doesn't necessarily rule out any more upsets, it might mean we're going to see some of the best the sport has to offer.

And with so much on the line, that's exactly the way it should be.

January 19, 2014

Wide Open...?

Well, there's really only one thing to talk about this morning at the Australian Open.

On a relatively cool Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, Australia, world #14 Ana Ivanovic, who'd never so much as lost a set to five-time champion Serena Williams, took advantage of some weak(-ish) serving and slow(-ish) movement from her opponent, cranked out some powerful winners and charged aggressively to the net -- and scored her first ever win over the heavy favorite Down Under.

It was the third year in a row that Serena was sent home packing and marked Ana's first trip to the quarters here since she made the final in 2008 -- in fact, only her second Elite Eight showing since winning Roland Garros that year.

But with the most dominant player the sport's seen in recent years now out of the mix -- Williams was riding a twenty-five match win streak since Cincinnati last year -- has that virtually locked in a third straight title for second seed Victoria Azarenka, or has it given the slew of other ladies still alive the opportunity to go home with the trophy?

Ivanovic certainly can't be counted out -- she's put together a solid run herself, having beaten the other Williams in the Auckland final earlier this month and is now 9-0 on the season. Her next challenge is ingénue Eugenie Bouchard, who's playing in her first Australian Open main draw and had never won more than two matches at a Major before this. She did beat Ana last year at Wimbledon, but the young Canadian has only faced one player ranked in double digits all week -- #68 Lauren Davis -- and may be a bit overwhelmed in the next round.

The bottom half of her section will clearly hold the bigger threat -- two-time finalist Na Li had a little hiccup in her third round against Lucie Safarova but rolled through Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday, dropping just two games to last year's quarterfinalist. And Flavia Pennetta, who upset ninth seeded Angelique Kerber in their fourth round, is looking to make her second consecutive Slam semi. She actually won her last meeting with Li, though that was over four years ago in Sydney, but if her comeback is real she might just be able to repeat that score.

The ladies in the bottom half of the draw will contest their fourth round matches on Monday, and there are plenty of contenders for the title here as well. Azarenka is clearly the favorite, but 2008 Maria Sharapova rebounded nicely after a tough second round to close out Alize Cornet and could play with more confidence now that her nemesis is out of the field. And dark horses like Simona Halep and super underdog Garbine Muguruza, the only non-seeded player left in this bracket, have scored wins that prove they have the talent to run to the final or better.

But perhaps a couple other ladies are breathing the biggest sigh of relief. Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic, both ranked in the top ten and both flying way under the radar in Melbourne, have each lost a Major final to Serena, and if either make it to a championship here, she could arguably be considered the favorite. Aga, who's made the quarterfinals here three years in a row, may have squandered her best shot at a Wimbledon title when she lost to Sabine Lisicki in the semis last year. She's going to want to take this opportunity seriously. And JJ, who herself stunned Serena here in 2008 to make the Final Four, hasn't lost a set yet through her first three matches. She had a little trouble closing out Kurumi Nara on Saturday, and with Halep standing between her and a spot in the quarters, she'll have her work cut out for her. Still, she's put up the biggest fight against the top five over the last year, even when she's lost. It could finally be her turn to come up on the winning end of things.

Serena's exit certainly opens the door for the rest of the field. And while there are of course a couple players that are more likely to take advantage of the opportunity than others, it doesn't mean the results in Week Two of the Australian Open will be entirely predictable. And for the ladies who're able to take advantage of these holes, the rewards could be better than they'd ever dreamed.

January 16, 2014

Surviving and Thriving

We've gotten to that point of the Australian Open where all the players remaining in the draws should be seeded, but it wouldn't be a Grand Slam if everything went according to plan. And while the extreme weather conditions certainly took a toll on the players over the last few days, a couple stalwarts not only battled through the heat, but may have done better in it -- and it wasn't always who you'd expect.

Yes, most of the favorites are still alive -- Serena Williams has dropped just six games so far while Victoria Azarenka rebounded from a tougher-than-expected first round and advanced with less drama over a tricky Barbora Zahlavova Strycova yesterday. On the men's side Rafael Nadal got a relative pass in the first round when Bernard Tomic retired a set in, but still didn't seem phased in the second round. And three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic has only been broken once in his first two matches. But some have been a little battered -- Maria Sharapova barely survived a scorcher on Day Four, holding and losing leads against a relentless Karin Knapp before finally eking out win, 10-8 in the third. And the biggest (literally) casualty on the men's side, Juan Martin Del Potro, battled until one in the morning, finally bowing out to rising Spanish star Roberto Bautista Agut after nearly four hours on court.

Other players may have flown a bit more under the radar during the last few days, but their passage into the third round creates a big opportunity for them.

It wasn't long ago that Sam Querrey was a top twenty player, so we know he's got the talent to play at this level. Still even at his best he hasn't made it out of the fourth round of a Major. The American won his last title over a year ago in Los Angeles and lost to two lower ranked players at warm-up events this year. He opened his eighth straight Melbourne campaign with a relatively quick win over Santiago Giraldo, though, and took just over ninety minutes to defeat twenty-third seed Ernests Gulbis on Wednesday. His next opponent, an on-the-rise Fabio Fognini, hasn't spent a lot of time on court either, benefiting from Alex Bogomolov's retirement in their opener, but he's also never made many strides at this event -- this is only the second year he's won a match Down Under. If Querrey's on his game, he might just be able to make a case to climb back into the elite.

The top half of the men's draw has seen a few more players sneak through. Former top-thirty player Martin Klizan and world #119 Stephane Robert set up the only all-Lucky Loser third round in either field -- maybe the only one ever. Both lost their final qualifying matches (incidentally, both to players who were ousted from the main draw in the last round), but they gained entry when Nicolas Almagro and Phillipp Kohlschreiber respectively pulled out of the event. This is the best showing France's Robert has put up at a Major, but he hasn't faced a seeded player yet. Klizan, on the other had, was up two sets on John Isner before the top-ranked American retired from their opener -- a win over his next opponent would match his 2012 U.S. Open performance. Of course, whoever wins would come under more pressure down the road -- three-time finalist Andy Murray will likely be waiting for them next -- but there's no reason to expect they won't put up a big fight when they get there.

The ladies also have put together a non-seeded third round, though perhaps these contenders are a little more accustomed to the big stage. Jie Zheng was a semifinalist in Melbourne four years ago and has wins over the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur and Maria Sharapova under her belt. She's been hampered by injury on and off, though, so has fallen a bit down the rankings, but she pounced back this week, duly taking out twelfth seed Roberta Vinci and following up with a three-setter against up-and-comer Madison Keys. And veteran Casey Dellacqua, who's well off her career high ranking of #38 in the world, has really made a name for herself in the doubles circuit. She and partner Ashleigh Barty played in three Grand Slam finals last year, including this one, and she's even claimed a mixed French Open crown. She opened strong against one-time #2 Vera Zvonareva, admittedly in a rebuilding phase, but then backed it up by serving Kirsten Flipkens a bagel set a round later. The Aussie will have the crowd behind her against Zheng, but with either little-known Lauren Davis or untested Eugenie Bouchard as a fourth round opponent, the winner could have a great shot at making the second week.

But perhaps it's a seeded player that's put up the most unexpected fight so far in Melbourne. Dominika Cibulkova has been known for her roller coaster-like play, more than once accumulating huge leads and then squandering them. But she is a solid player -- she stunned Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros a few years back and Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon the previous season, both times when her opponent was ranked #1 in the world -- still with six first round losses in the back half of 2013, her star had fallen a bit. But diminutive Domi came out swinging this week -- she never trailed one-time Slam champion Francesca Schiavone in her opener and in the blazing Thursday heat finished of Stefanie Voegele in the time it took Maria Sharapova and Karin Knapp to get halfway through their third set. Up next she has Carla Suarez Navarro, one of my dark horses of this tournament, but the Spaniard spent a lot more time on court in her second round and might not be up for the challenge. And while temperatures are expected to drop off considerably in time for their face-off, Cibulkova's relatively easier early matches might give her the edge.

The players left standing at the Australian Open have certainly already been put through the wringer, either by their opponents or by the heat. But all these guys have stayed strong, no matter how brutal the conditions were out there, and if they can continue to keep themselves together, any one of them could cause a big stir as we get closer and closer to that title.

January 14, 2014

It's Getting Hot in Here...

We've got a full round's worth of action in the books for this year's Australian Open, and it's not just the athletes claiming victims in Melbourne. We've already had nine retirements in the first two days, an Open Era record for one round -- and while triple-digit temps weren't responsible for all of them, it seems likely they will result in a few more over the days to come. And that could mean the favorites face some tougher-than-expected times on court -- and may just open open the door for some others in the field.

Day One saw two top ten women fall by the wayside. Sara Errani, who began her climb to the top here two years ago, was sent home in her opener for a second straight year, while 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was stunned by unknown Thai Luksika Kumkhum. The men suffered their own losses too -- twelfth seeded Tommy Haas retired with a shoulder injury late in his second set, while Auckland champion John Isner, already pushing his luck with an ankle injury there, got two sets down to qualifier Martin Klizan in Tuesday's heat before pulling the plug. Even those that survived were tested. Two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, historically not great in the heat, already withstood a challenge from world #91 Johanna Larsson -- the little-known Swede served for the first set twice before relenting in the second. And eighteenth-seeded Gilles Simon, who arrived in Melbourne on crutches after rolling his ankle at an exhibition last week, marked more time on court than he wanted in his opener -- he needed four and a half hours and a thirty-game final set to dispatch German Daniel Brands.

So clearly where there are not holes in the draw, the fabric may be worn pretty thin.

Julia Goerges, ranked in the top twenty a year ago, got the better of Errani in dominating form on Monday and won her first match at a Major since reaching the fourth round here in 2013. The next seed she'd face is wholly untested Eugenie Bouchard, who's playing her first Australian Open main draw -- if Goerges keeps playing aggressive, there's no reason she can't match or beat her previous showing here. And American Alison Riske, who upset Elena Vesnina on Monday, would have been in Kvitova's section of the draw. While there are plenty of threats still around -- Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki and U.S. Open Cinderella Flavia Pennetta to name a few -- she might be able to pull off a few more surprises.

But also keep an eye on super-underdog Garbine Muguruza. The young Spaniard sailed through the qualifiers in Hobart and stunned Klara Zakopalova for her maiden title. Now in the top forty, she continued her run with a win over twenty-fourth seed Kaia Kanepi in her first round. Though she's never won more than a match at a Major and while most of the favorites in her quarter are still alive, there's reason to keep believing -- Caroline Wozniacki, her probable third round opponent, went down in straight sets to Muguruza just last year in Miami, so there may be no better time make a breakthrough.

On the men's side, fewer seeds have been sent packing, but plenty have been pushed to the limit. Former top ten player Marin Cilic, Simon's challenger in the next round, was pushed in Tuesday's heat as well, taking more than three hours to get past Spain's Marcel Granollers. It's been several years since he's faced the Frenchman, but as the relatively fresher player, he might be able to end a three-match losing steak. And Donald Young, looking to turn around his career -- and his reputation -- could take advantage of an exhausted Andreas Seppi on Thursday. The veteran Italian squandered a two-set lead to hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt, and might not have it in him to rebound so quickly.

But let's also not count out Guillermo Garcia Lopez, the man who was up a set and a break when Haas retired. The three men he could face over the next two rounds have combined to spend nearly ten hours on court already, with nineteenth seeded Kevin Anderson, arguably the biggest threat among that group, putting in the most time. GGL, pro since 2002, has never made it past the third round of any Major, but he did notch wins over Mikhail Youzhny and Janko Tipsarevic last year -- and he has nine career wins over top ten players -- so he shouldn't be overlooked. If he stays rested and focused, he could be the Cinderella of this Slam.

Of course the favorites in the field -- all of whom are still alive -- will have a lot to say about any of these guys' chances. Though as the temperature and the pressure heats up, it could be out of their control. Still, it's important for everyone in the field to keep their cool -- to stay healthy and play their best. After all, no one wants to have this title decided by the weather.

January 12, 2014

Blogcast: 2014 Australian Open Preview

The top players are pumped for the first Major of the year, but could we be in for a big shake-up at the Australian Open?

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

January 9, 2014

Australian Open: 10 Things I Want to See

Every player comes to a Grand Slam with a couple goals -- whether it's to upset a top seed or to improve on their performance from last year, to make the second week or to win the whole darn thing. Of course not everyone can take home the trophy, especially with the Majors so heavily dominated by a select handful over the last couple years.

But that doesn't mean something short of victory is a failure, and there are plenty of things that could happen over the next two weeks that would make this a very successful and exciting time in Melbourne...even for the players who aren't ultimately crowned champions.

So I've decided to put together a list of things that I'm looking forward to this fortnight. Some are broad, some super specific, many are related, but importantly most of them are well inside the realm of possibility. And with the New Year bringing with it a whole slew of fresh possibilities for the season, there might be no better time to set expectations high.

And so without further adieu, and in no particular order, here's my Wish List for the 2014 Australian Open.

10. Half the seeds lose in the first round

"What a horrible thing to wish for! Seriously, what kind of person are you?"

Okay, calm down. It's not that I wish many any of the favorites harm, but let's face it -- it's kind of fun to watch an underdog come through. Whether you watched seventeen-year-old Victoria Duval stay tough against Sam Stosur at the U.S. Open last year or sat open-jawed as triple-digit-ranked Steve Darcis sent Rafael Nadal packing at Wimbledon, part of you was a little exhilarated by these upsets. No one cares when #98 beats #73 -- but when he beats someone in the top ten, heck someone in the top thirty, you sit up and take notice.

Of course if so many favorites lose early, it isn't all good for the unknowns -- having someone else clear the path for them can make others' ultimate victories less sweet -- but a breakout on such a big stage could really launch the seasons and careers of some next generation stars. The challenge would be for these players to keep up their momentum after the first few days unlike Duval, losing to Daniela Hantuchova in her second round, and Darcis who pulled out right after his historic win. After all if the second week in Melbourne ends up looking like a Challenger event, we should at least see Major-quality play in the back half of the tournament.

9. The Bad Boys make good

It's not unusual for players on the men's Tour -- or the women's for that matter -- to lose their tempers now and then, but usually the ones getting mad have already more than proven themselves on court. Meanwhile the most recent crop of upstarts carry some spotty records at best...some long runs of losses at worst...yet they seem entitled to all sorts of consideration nonetheless. It would be nice for some of them to prove they deserve it this time around.

Ryan Harrison's has long been hailed as the future of American men's tennis, but despite a couple semi showings at lesser tournaments over the years, he's made more headlines for his on court tantrums, receiving fines for racquet abuse and earning the nickname "Mr. Cranky Pants" from Mary Carillo. Bernard Tomic, once a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, has lost in or before the second round in six Majors since and last year lost his driver's license after a series of traffic infractions. And Donald Young's profanity-laced tirade against the USTA in 2011 is only surpassed in arrogance by the seventeen-match losing streak that followed. All of these guys, understandably, have seen their rankings fall -- sometimes precipitously -- from their highs when prospects were greatest.

Whether they are able to turn their luck around in Melbourne remains to be seen. Tomic managed wins over Marcel Granollers and Alexandr Dolgopolov on his way to the Sydney semis -- and may still go further. Harrison gained entry to that event with a win over eighth qualifying seed Alex Bogomolov, a fallen angel himself, but lost immediately after to Nicolas Mahut. And Donald Young, having reached the second round in Auckland, put up a fight but eventually lost there to three-time defending champion David Ferrer. But if any of them can muster the strength for a good showing and keep a positive attitude during it, they might just see their images get a boost along with their careers.

8. Vera Zvonareva wins a match (or more!)

I know I'm not the only one who's missed Bepa.

The former world #2 has only played one match since the 2012 Olympics, when a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery took her out of the game for seventeen months. She's been productive in the meantime, earning a second college degree and all, but her return to the court was less than spectacular -- cursed with an unfortunate opener against top seed and eventual winner Na Li in Shenzhen, she put up a fight in the first set but eventually lost in straights.

The former world #2 -- a semifinalist in 2011 and a doubles titleist a year later -- makes her return to Grand Slam play with a protected ranking, but with so little match action leading up to the even, is far from a favorite. Still the often-volatile Russian has the kind of talent even those in the top twenty crave -- she stunned three higher-ranked players on her way to the Wimbledon final three-plus years ago, and despite a colossal meltdown in her Major championship debut, pulled herself together and repeated the feat in New York a few months later. She also successfully exacted revenge on her vanquishers, beating that year's U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters at the year-ending event and Serena Williams a few months later in Eastbourne.

Without a seeding it's very possible that Vera gets dealt a difficult, if not impossible, hand in Melbourne, so I'm not holding out a lot of hope. But if anyone's going to be a spoiler in the women's draw, my money's on her. And if she gets her confidence up early, there's no telling where she'd go from there.

7. A qualifier or wildcard reaches the semis

Hey, it's happened before. Then-#86 Alexandra Stevenson won eight matches in a row before losing to Lindsay Davenport in the 1999 Wimbledon semis, and once-unknown John McEnroe did the same twenty-two years earlier, eventually dropping to career rival Jimmy Connors.

More recently we've only had some close calls. David Goffin was ranked #109 in the world when he made the French Open fourth round a few years back, and on-the-rebound Kaia Kanepi was match points shy of the semis at Wimbledon 2010. It would be nice if we saw someone finally make a breakthrough in 2013.

So who are the contenders for this honor? Goffin has another opportunity to make a mark -- he's the third seed in the qualifying bracket -- but perhaps a better chance lies with Martin Klizan. The twenty-four year old Slovak was ranked in the top thirty less than a year ago, and though he failed to defend his title in St. Petersburg, he might be able to mount a comeback now. And British breakthrough Heather Watson has stumbled a bit since making the third round her last year, but the recent top-forty player has scored some big wins in the past and could be a spoiler this time too.

There's also plenty of talent among the wildcards. Jarmila Gajdosova was once ranked in the top twenty-five, but surprisingly has never won a singles match at her home Slam. And teenager Ashleigh Barty (and her partner veteran Casey Dellacqua) played in three Major doubles finals last year -- the rising star might just be ready to launch a career on her own this year. Meanwhile James Duckworth has yet to make a big statement since leaving the junior circuit, but now the twenty-one year old is the right age to do something big. It's not all about the Aussies, though -- American Steve Johnson secured his spot in Melbourne with a U.S. Playoff win. He's already made a third round in New York, and just this week scored a huge win over world #20 Kevin Anderson in Auckland. If he keeps up his game, it could just be his turn to make a statement on a global stage.

6. A Cinderella follows through

It's not enough for a player to have one great performance, of course -- they need to prove it was not a fluke and continue performing in the months and years to come. In the extreme, Rafael Nadal exploded at the 2005 French Open as a relatively unknown #5 seed and went on to become arguably the best clay courter of all time. But even Angelique Kerber, ranked #92 in the world when she made the U.S. Open semis in 2011, has also reached the quarters in Paris and the final four at Wimbledon and has spent the last eighteen months or so in the top ten.

This year more than a few have a chance to show they're no one-hit wonders. Flavia Pennetta, not long ago ranked in single digits, didn't exactly come out of nowhere last year, but the thirty-one year old veteran did reach her first career Slam semi in New York with wins over countrywomen Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. She only won one match the rest of the season, though, and despite having climbed back up into seeding territory for the Australian Open, she still has something to prove. It's a tall order, but I'd like to see her make at least the fourth round, maybe even a quarterfinal, and if she gets a good draw, she might just do it.

Then there's Jerzy Janowicz, the surprise finalist at the Paris Masters in 2012 who made his way to the semis at Wimbledon a few months later. Problem is, his magical run at the All England Club only claimed one top-twenty player as a victim. His biggest win since then was over world #34 Julien Benneteau in Montreal, and he lost his season opener in Sydney to Alexandr Dolgopolov. He's made his way to seeding at the Open this year, so expectations will be high for his second main draw appearance Down Under, but he's got the talent that can easily get him to the quarters or better.

Both these athletes have a little time however, to deliver -- it'll be months before their Cinderella points come off their rankings. Meanwhile Elena Vesnina, then fresh off her first career title in Hobart, matched her deepest Major run with a fourth round showing last year. She scored a couple other big wins during the season -- Na Li in Eastbourne, Kerber in New Haven -- but could lose a bunch of ground if she doesn't repeat. And Jeremy Chardy, the only unseeded man to make the quarters, has more to defend here than he picked up at all of last year's Masters events combined. He did make the semi in Brisbane though, even taking a set off Roger Federer, but the pressure's only going to build from here. And of course there's Sloane Stephens, the stunner in Australia last year. She's a stone's throw away from the top ten, but a wrist injury forced her out of Sydney this week, so her prospects are questionable. Still, she might just be the U.S.'s best hope for a NextGen star.

Which brings me to my next wish...

5. A young American steps up

This has been a dream of (U.S.-based) pundits for a long time. Yes, we have Serena and Venus Williams, but since Andy Roddick retired a few years back, we have no active American man holding a Grand Slam title. Maybe this is the year that happens.

The best hopes lie with John Isner and Sam Querrey, of course, as they have for several years. But while both have done a fair amount of legwork in the top twenty, with two-time Masters finalist Isner even peaking in the single-digits, they only have one Major quarterfinal between them. And neither is all that young anymore -- at twenty-six, Querrey is older than any man who's won his first Slam since Albert Costa in 2002. I hate to say it, but even with so many top-hundred players in their thirties, these men's best shot may be behind them.

That's not to say all is lost for the Americans. Eyes will be on the likes of Donald Young, Ryan Harrison and Steve Johnson, of course, but let's not forget some others. Tim Smyczek is just off his career high ranking and a third round run at the U.S. Open; he's also scored wins over Jurgen Melzer, Fernando Verdasco and Kei Nishikori in his short career. And Jack Sock, a Junior champion in New York, has already captured a mixed doubles championship as an adult. This would be his first main draw in Melbourne and it would be great to see him take advantage of that.

Perhaps the better shot for the U.S., though, lies with the ladies. Sloane Stephens made a case for herself as the new face of American women's tennis, but others have just a good a shot at carrying the flag. Twenty-four year old Jamie Hampton worked her way to the fourth round at Roland Garros, easily the worst venue for her compatriots in recent years, beat Aga Radwanska on the way to the Eastbourne final and opened 2014 with a quarterfinal win in Auckland. And Madison Keys hasn't reached the same heights quite yet, but she did reach third rounds in two Majors last season and notched wins over top players like Dominika Cibulkova and Na Li. Even more off the radar, Alison Riske put up quite a fight against eventual Auckland champion Ana Ivanovic in the first round last week and beat former world #13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on her way to the Hobart quarters. Any of them could cement their careers this fortnight.

4. A Junior becomes an adult

Many of the youngsters discussed in the last section could be re-classified here, but there is a more global lack of success among teenagers these days. Remember when Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis were setting one "youngest ever" record after another? Well, we don't see much of that these days. In fact, fourteen women and thirty men ranked in the top hundred of their respective circuits are in their thirties, and none of the ATP's athletes are in their teens. But there are a couple "kids" out there who could make an impact.

Grigor Dimitrov, dubbed "Baby Fed" years ago, won the Boys' Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2008, but didn't break into double digits until three years later. He did start to gain traction last season, though, stunning Novak Djokovic in Madrid and claiming his first Tour title in Stockholm by taking down world #3 David Ferrer in the final. The Bulgarian hasn't ever put up a big fight at a Major -- his best result yet was a third round at last year's French Open -- but this could be his chance to really break through. With three wins over top ten players in the last twelve months, he's proven he can hit with the best in the sport -- now he just needs to do it on a big stage.

Simona Halep, the 2008 Girls' champion at Roland Garros, has had a little more luck at the Majors, beating then-French Open champ Na Li in New York in 2011 and reaching the fourth round there last year. The young Romanian made the semis in Rome in May and then won three straight non-Slam titles over the summer -- she tacked on number four in New Haven. She's now #11 in the world and poised to go even higher -- a run deep into the second week would vault her straight into that realm.

3. Someone outside the top ten wins the title

It happens from time to time -- Marion Bartoli did it not that long ago -- but not very often. And with a handful of players combining to win the majority of Majors over the last decade, chances for someone else -- even someone in the high single digits -- to break through the ceiling are slim. Still, it's certainly possible for the draws to open up or for an underdog to find his or her stride. Isner could do it, so may Halep, but so might a few others.

Milos Raonic had his first taste of the big leagues in Melbourne a few years back and has since picked up five titles and climbed to eleventh in the world. The young Canadian still hasn't passed the fourth round of a Major despite a big serve and some serious court smarts, but with twelve wins over top ten players in his short career, he's one of those seeds that not even the favorites want to see in their section of the draw. And 2009 semifinalist Fernando Verdasco was on the verge of playing for the championship that year. He's fallen a bit out of favor since then, but a run to the Wimbledon quarters -- where he took eventual champion Andy Murray to five sets -- proves he's not yet ready to slink away. He's ranked just outside the top thirty, so it certainly won't be easy, but he's the kind of player that might just sneak under the radar.

Ana Ivanovic knows what it likes to play in the final here. The former world #1 reached the championship match in 2008, one Slam before winning the French Open. It's been a long road back for the Serb -- after a handful of titles at the turn of the decade, she struggled to close the deal for two straight years. But she's coming straight off a trophy in Auckland, beating seven-time Major winner for it, and could be ready to play for an even bigger crown. Meanwhile largely unknown Carla Suarrez Navarro is still looking for her first career title -- she's lost all five finals she's played, all on clay -- but she made her first big statement here five years ago with a win over then-#6 Venus. Last year she beat Angelique Kerber in New York and finally cracked the top twenty. Objectively she stands a better shot of winning the French Open as a low seed, but she's surprised us all here before and might just do it again.

2. Juan Martin Del Potro makes the final (or better!)

DelPo was ranked #6 when he stunned Roger Federer -- and, frankly, the whole tennis world -- at the 2009 U.S. he's back in the top five. He won four titles in 2013, reached his first Slam semi since then, and scored wins over every player in the top six. He's already reached the semifinal in Sydney, and as long as he stays healthy he looks primed to take that title too.

That is, of course, always the concern for the big guy. The six-foot-six Argentine has suffered multiple injuries through the years -- his thigh, his wrist, his shoulder -- and with no rest between a likely four match win streak and the first Major of the year, he does risk exhaustion in the coming weeks, especially now that he'll be playing best-of-five. But despite his ground breaking run four years ago, many pundits only consider the big four real contenders at the Slams, and Del Potro, with fourteen career wins against Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer -- eight since making his big comeback in 2011, should be out to prove them wrong. He's made the quarterfinals in Melbourne twice, but this could be the year he surpasses that, and maybe -- hopefully -- goes all the way.

1. Victoria Azarenka beats Serena

Like pretty much every player in the field -- in history, in fact -- Vika has an abysmal on-paper record against the world #1. But there was a time, way back when, that Azarenka nearly beat her here in Melbourne. And her three victories have come on pretty big stages. She's even taken a set off Williams in the last two Slam finals they've played and comes Down Under as a two-time defending champion. Still, the young Belorussian has never managed victory over her rival at a Major, where Serena so often plays at a whole other level.

It's time for her to change that.

Of course, as the top two seeds at the Open, for them to meet, it will have to be in the final and it would mean Vika scores the elusive three-peat -- something no woman has done in Australia for fourteen years -- which kind of goes against my general "new storyline" theme. But it seems she's the one young star out there that has the most potential to really fill up her trophy case. She might as well get a jump on it now.

Wow, is it strange to have gotten through a whole Grand Slam preview piece without spilling digital ink on three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic, world #1 Rafael Nadal or 2008 winner Maria Sharapova?

Fear not -- I'll get to the favorites and the rest of the field in my blogcast over the weekend.

In the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see at this year's Australian Open. At the start of the year, when anything can still happen, there may be no better time to reach for the stars.

January 5, 2014

Back With a Vengeance

Wow, it sure has been a while, huh?

But it's a New Year, a new tennis season, and I've made a new resolution to rededicate myself to the sport we all love. And I'm not the only one, it seems.

This weekend's champions saw varying degrees of success during 2013, but with their wins over the last few days, some showed they're ready to pick up right where they left off, while the others proved they're far from receding into the shadows...and might just see their stars rise even farther this year.

Stanislas Wawrinka rose to a career high ranking last season, reaching his first career Slam semi at the U.S. Open after defeating defending champion Andy Murray and taking then-#1 Novak Djokovic to another epic five sets a round later. He didn't face the same caliber of player this week in Chennai, but the 2011 titleist in India nevertheless made good on his top seeding and advanced to the final without dropping a set. Against Edouard Roger-Vasselin in Sunday's championship, he only allowed one break opportunity and picked up his first hard court title in three years -- not a bad way to start his campaign for the year's first Major.

Na Li had a similar end to last season, ending at #3 in the world. She may not have grabbed the big tournaments -- it's been two and a half years since her only Grand Slam -- but she put up quite a fight trying to win a second and beat the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova on her way to the final at the WTA Championships. This week the defending Shenzhen champion opened with a decisive win over Vera Zvonareva in her first match since 2012 and didn't stop there. Sure she didn't face any player in the top forty, but only dropped one set to Monica Niculescu and quickly dispatched countrywoman Shuai Peng in the final. She'll face bigger challenges in the weeks to come, of course, but an easy run this week sure shows just how far ahead of most of the pack she is.

Rafael Nadal ended last year with even more flare. After sitting out most of 2012 and the '13 Australian Open, he returned to the clay in February and captured five titles on the surface before claiming Roland Garros #8. Perhaps more impressively, though, he even thrived on his "worst" surface, also winning in Montreal, Cincinnati and New York. He slowed down a bit during the fall, ceding matches to top-tier contemporaries, but he did regain the #1 ranking, becoming the only man to lose and reclaim the year-end distinction twice. He began his season this week in Doha, one of the few tournaments he had never before won, and hit the court running. Though he battled through some tough matches, even dropping an opening set to German Cinderella Peter Gojowcyzk in the semis, he ultimately kept a cool head in the final against showman Gael Monfils, a man to whom he'd only lost in this city. And after losing his lead by dropping the middle set, Nadal rebounded handily in the decider and finally changed luck at the Qatar Open.

Serena Williams hasn't had a lot of bad luck over the last eighteen months or so. Since the 2012 French Open, she's won sixteen titles, including Olympic Gold, four Grand Slam trophies, including a long-elusive French Open crown, and two year-end Championships. Securely at the top of the women's rankings, she hasn't lost before a final since Wimbledon last year, and has won each of those matches but one. This week defending her title in Brisbane, she was pitted against the best out there, and from the start had to face off against top challengers. Yet she rolled over still-rebounding Andrea Petkovic, decimated recent Miami pretender Dominika Cibulkova and fended off set points against former-#1 Maria Sharapova. In the final against Victoria Azarenka, the only woman who's been able to (semi-)consistently get the upper hand on Serena in recent years, she quickly avenged a loss suffered less than a week ago at a Thailand exhibition, and reminded us all that when a championship is on the line, she's out to win it all.

The men in Brisbane didn't have such a cut-and-dry story. Yes, top seed Roger Federer, coming off his least-prolific year since 2001, made his way to the final, dropping only a set to feisty Jeremy Chardy in the semis. But the really surprising headlines were made by tireless Lleyton Hewitt, nearly thirty-three years old and titleless since 2010. Unseeded in his homeland, the Aussie hero stunned resurgent Feliciano Lopez in the second round and then ousted world #17 Kei Nishikori in the semis. A middling 8-18 against Federer during their fourteen year history, Hewitt's last win came in that Halle final almost four years ago. But this time he came out firing, taking the opening set 6-1, and though the fellow veteran forced him to a third, Hewitt eventually prevailed, belying his #60 ranking and putting him well on the upswing as he makes his way to Melbourne. He's lost in the first round three of the last five years, but hasn't had this kind of momentum in quite some time. Still ranked too low to get a seeding at the Australian Open, he's the kind of player who's going to have all the favorites shaking in their sneaks.

Speaking of former #1's, two more met in the Auckland final Saturday. Venus Williams slipped a little in 2013, but even though she didn't win a title, she did beat Kirsten Flipkens at the U.S. Open and Victoria Azarenka in Tokyo. She ended the year just inside the top fifty, but looked to turn things around in New Zealand and with a win over Jamie Hampton in the semis, she looked ready to do just that. Meanwhile, Ana Ivanovic titleless since Bali in 2011, used last season as a rebuilding year. She beat Angelique Kerber in Madrid and Sam Stosur in Sofia and made the fourth round of three of the four Grand Slams. She took the second seed in Auckland, but with a less-than-remarkable 1-8 career record against Venus she was probably not expected to do much in Saturday's championship. The Serb proved her detractors wrong, though -- she was pushed to three sets after winning the first, but stayed tough enough to secure the win and push herself to a top-fifteen ranking. If she's going to repeat -- or improve upon -- her 2008 run to the Melbourne final, this could be exactly the way to do it.

Sure the year has only just begun, but this weekend's winners sure kicked it off with a bang. And if they can keep the momentum going throughout 2014, any one of them could do some big things this season.