January 2, 2015


The ball may have already dropped to ring in the New Year, but we're still a couple days away from the official start of the 2015 tennis season. And with last year's champions looking to continue their momentum, former greats hoping for a successful return and a couple newbies seeking their big breaks, you know we're going to see some top-notch action from the start.

Of course it won't be full steam ahead for everyone -- Juan Martin Del Potro delayed his comeback and pulled out of Brisbane, while a couple players who entered exhibitions at International Premier League events ultimately withdrew from early tournaments too. And even those who did hit the court again struggled -- Rafael Nadal, playing his first match since an appendectomy in November, won just two games off Andy Murray at the Mubadala World Tennis Championships this week. Results like these could open the door to plenty others.

The only woman who's ever won the title in Shenzhen won't be back to defend, of course, and top tier champs like Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova will be eager to fill her spot. But they're not the only ones -- last year's runner-up Shaui Peng had a strong end to her 2014 season and could get a nice boost from homecourt advantage. And Zarina Diyas, who quietly climbed to #33 in the world, got to the final in Osaka in October and could take a couple in the field here by surprise. But I'm going to keep an eye on Vera Zvonareva, whose comeback last year was half-hearted at best. If she's fully recovered now, she might be ready to cause some of the damage we all know she's capable of.

The women's bracket in Brisbane is a little more intimidating with eight top twenty players hitting the courts in Australia. Singapore qualifiers Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic lead the pack but the biggest surprises could come from some unseeded spoilers. Hometown favorite Sam Stosur launched a late-season comeback last year, reaching the semis in Beijing and taking her third title in Osaka, and 2014 runner-up Victoria Azarenka, who's coming off her first trophy-less season since 2008, will look to make up points right off the bat. But perhaps the player with the greatest chance of shaking things up is Karolina Pliskova who won the Girls' title in Melbourne back in 2010 -- in September she made the final in Hong Kong and followed up that run with titles in Seoul and Linz. She was an alternate at the Tournament of Champions in Sofia and lost the only match she played, but with wins over players like Andrea Petkovic, Angelique Kerber and Ana Ivanovic over the last twelve months, she certainly has the talent to take out the big guns.

There's plenty star power in the men's draw too -- Roger Federer, my player of the year, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic all are coming off breakthrough seasons, but potential threats lurk even deeper in the draw. Alexandr Dolgopolov, whose own stellar 2014 was cut short by knee surgery in July, will be back in action -- he only won one match since his return in Tokyo last September, but it was over an always-tricky Gilles Simon, and he might finally be up for even bigger challenges now. And native son Lleyton Hewitt snatched this title from Fed last year -- he may be well off his career high ranking at #50 in the world, but he's one of those guys that never gives up. Perhaps the same can be said for compatriot Bernard Tomic, who briefly fell out of the top hundred last year after a second round loss at Wimbledon. He may not be at the top of his game these days, but he did manage a runner's-up finish in Sydney in 2014 -- admittedly one win short of his previous result -- and he shocked everyone with a title run in Bogota over the summer. Somehow, it seems, every time we write him off, he manages to pull off a big win.

Over in Chennai, Stan Wawrinka will look to reclaim the crown that launched him into the sport's elite, but players like 2014 standoutRoberto Bautista Agut and comeback kid David Goffin will be out to derail his plans. So will some of last year's most promising young guns -- Jiri Vesely had quite a strong start to last season, and Borna Coric who stunned Rafael Nadal last year in Basel, is just a hair out of the top hundred now and seems primed to climb much higher. But I'd like nothing more than to see Feliciano Lopez to make a big run here. The likely-second seed is coming off a banner 2014 season, reaching a career-high #14 ranking and notching wins over Nadal, Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic -- he hasn't won a hardcourt title since 2010, but the thirty-three year old veteran has shown he has what it takes to put an end to that stretch.

More than a couple stars made their way out to Doha too -- defending champion Rafael Nadal and world #1 Novak Djokovic may headline, but a couple former top ten players could also make a stand. Fernando Verdasco finished 2014 at his lowest year-end ranking since 2006 and will look to turn things back around, and fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, playing his first event since pulling out of his French Open first round, could rack up a couple of much needed points to improve his #71 ranking before heading down to Melbourne. But also look out for Ernests Gulbis, whose shoulder injury kept him off the alternate list in London -- he really slowed down after his surprise semifinal appearance at Roland Garros, but he's got the kind of game that can really catch the favorites off guard, and it might just be the perfect time to show us exactly what he can do.

It's hard to say who'll ultimately come out on top this tennis season, but the good thing about each new year is that everyone starts off with a clean slate. Whether the old favorites continue their reigns or some upstarts make a push into the elite, we're certainly in for some great action over the coming months. And it all kicks off in just a few more days...

1 comment:

Tennis Spin said...

Ack! I totally left off the action in Aukland, where plenty of big names like Wozniacki & Venus will be in action. Don't worry, I'll get to them too!