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.

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