January 7, 2015

Picking Up Where They Left Off

It may feel like a while since the final balls of the 2014 tennis season were hit, but it sure looks like a couple players kept busy during their time off. In just the first few days of action in the New Year, we've already been treated to thrilling matches and major upsets. But if we were really paying attention the last few months, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised to see who's shining as bright as they are -- and who may still need to dust off the cobwebs a little.

It might not be too shocking to see Victoria Azarenka struggling a bit on her return to tournament play. The former world #1 has played just a handful of events over the past year and was defending runner-up points in Brisbane -- she was under a lot of pressure this week. And though she held match points against Karolina Pliskova in their opener Monday, she wasn't able to convert and ultimately lost the three-plus hour marathon. Slightly more troublesome was the performance of last year's finalist in Melbourne -- Dominika Cibulkova lost to Madison Keys in her first round in Brisbane, notching her thirteenth event in twelve months without a win. One-time Roland Garros #2 Sara Errani didn't fare any better -- she's only won one match since the U.S. Open and this week in Auckland lost in straight sets to veteran Daniela Hantuchova. Fifth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova put up a bit more of a fight, but after taking the first set off qualifier Lucie Hradecka she ultimately couldn't hold off the underdog.

It wasn't all bad news for the ladies, though. Young Ana Konjuh who reached the quarters in Limoges and the semis in Istanbul last year pulled off an upset of eighth seeded Mona Barthel in Auckland before ultimately losing to Elena Vesnina. Over in Shenzhen Aleksandra Krunic, who very nearly defeated Victoria Azarenka in New York last year, is making the most of her qualifying ticket to the main draw, reaching the quarters with a win over Anna Schmiedlova today. And at the mixed-team, round-robin Hopman Cup, under-appreciated Lucie Safarova continued her success from last year -- the Czech was the only player to hold match point against Aussie champ Na Li in Melbourne, reached her first Slam semi at Wimbledon and scored wins over Sam Stosur, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki during the season. This week in Perth she's already stunned Genie Bouchard and notched an impressive win over Flavia Pennetta to help her team to a perfect 2-0 so far.

A couple guys have been able to carry over their strength into the new year too. Andy Murray, who fell briefly out of the top ten in 2014, cut his ranking in half with three titles to end the season. He hasn't had as tough a draw in Perth, but he did score his third straight win over Jerzy Janowicz, a man who stunned him two years back in Paris. And David Goffin, who won four Challenger and three ATP-level titles all in the back half of last year, hasn't slowed down either. The fourth seed in Chennai survived a challenge in his opener, but with the help of twelve aces ultimately dispatched Ricardas Berankis to make the quarters. Young Borna Coric on the other hand, a man who ended 2014 with one of the biggest wins of his nascent career, may not have been able to get the win over defending champ Stan Wawrinka today, but he did manage an upset over veteran Robin Haase in his first round. And wins like that could be just what he needs to make a real dent in his ranking.

It hasn't all been good news for the men though. American #1 John Isner hasn't done much of note for quite some time -- he'd only scored one win over a top twenty player since Roland Garros before making the trip to Perth. There he battled through three tight sets in his defeat of Fabio Fognini but then fell in straights to a still-uncertain Vasek Pospisil. And former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny has struggled a bit over the years and started this season out of the top forty for the first time since 2009. He showed some promise of a comeback the last few months, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati and Ernest Gulbis in Shanghai, but he also lost to Nick Kyrgios in New York and to #74 Mikhail Kukushkin in his hometown Moscow. This week in Doha he was stunned by little known Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili in straight sets, his sixth loss to a sub-#100 player in the past year. But of course the big shocker came when Rafael Nadal took the court for his first ATP match since undergoing surgery this past fall. But even pre-appendectomy the Spanish star seemed out of form, losing to two teenagers in the past six months, and his troubles continued in the New Year. Against world #127, veteran qualifier Michael Berrer on Tuesday, Rafa squandered a 6-1 first set and couldn't convert any of five break points in the decider. After two hours on court the defending champ in Doha was sent packing, marking his earliest loss in a season since 2004.

Of course, not everyone started the season the way they ended the last. Peter Gojowczyk had become a virtual nonentity on Tour in the back half of 2014 -- after a stunning Cinderella run to the Doha semis last year and a defeat of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup play, the twenty-five year old German couldn't qualify for the last three ATP events of the season and only managed an 8-9 record on the year. He seems to have found his stride again though -- he only lost one game to Alejandro Falla this week in Chennai and could be about to turn his luck back around. And even more surprising was the groggy performance of world #1 Serena Williams in Perth. With a 31-3 record since Wimbledon and four titles to boot, you can understand why she'd be a little tired. But this week she actually called for a coffee during her three-setter against Pennetta and then was wholly drubbed by Eugenie Bouchard yesterday. Whether she can rally to get the U.S. into the Hopman Cup semis remains to be seen, but something tells me she'll figure things out once she hits the big leagues again.

Hopefully the players who've put themselves on the right track to start this year will keep things going deep into the season -- and the rest will take this as an opportunity to right themselves. With just over a week left before things get really serious on Tour there's not a lot of time of everyone to show us exactly what they're made of.

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