January 11, 2015

What a Way to Start

We didn't waste any time getting down to business, did we? With just a week of action in the books so far this 2015 tennis season, players were out to make some real statements -- and with the Australian Open around the corner there's no better time.

There were lots of surprises at the Hopman Cup, with Lucie Safarova emerging as a silent killer during her round robin matches and once-threatening Fabio Fognini struggling with form and losing all three of his round robin matches, one against world #239 Adam Pavlasek. Ultimately the U.S. and Poland emerged as the top teams of the pack, but even with top-ranked Serena Williams looking a little uneasy earlier in the week, you had to give her and partner John Isner the upper hand in yesterday's final. But Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska had other plans -- the 2012 Wimbledon runner-up hadn't won a set off her opponent since that day at the All England Club, and after coming out on the wrong end of a marathon rematch against of last year's final in Perth Alizé Cornet on Friday, she might have been a little fatigued. But the fifth-ranked woman on the WTA Tour came out swinging in the championship match-up -- she grabbed the first set and even had a shot at serving out the second. Though she was pushed to a decider, she rolled over the Williams in it, going 6-1 for her first ever win over the American. Isner evened the score with a win in his singles rubber, but Aga paired with Jerzy Janowicz for a thrilling doubles victory, sending the Poles to their first Hopman Cup championship, and perhaps the sweetest title of her career.

Things went a little more according to plan in Shenzhen, but it wasn't all smooth sailing for the favorites. Second seeded Petra Kvitova, coming off the best year she's seen in a while, did well early but was stunned in the semis by a resurgent Timea Bacsinszky, who reached her first final since 2010. But the top half of the draw was dominated by world #3 Simona Halep, who seemed eager to continue the breakthrough season she had in 2014. After dropping opening set of her campaign, she didn't look back and won eight straight sets on her way to the final. Against the young Swiss on Saturday she didn't allow a break opportunity and picked up her ninth career title in just over an hour. And her relentless play all week should bode well as she makes the trip down to Melbourne where the stakes are even higher.

Stanislas Wawrinka certainly knows it's possible to parlay momentum from one win into a bigger one -- last year the then-#8 ranked player in the world claimed his second title in Chennai and then then stunned both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on the way to his first Grand Slam in Australia. He went back to India this past week looking to repeat his luck, and though he was the top seed his fate was far from sealed -- he survived a test from upstart teenager Borna Coric in his opener and staved off a threat from comeback kid David Goffin in the semis. Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw qualifier Aljaz Bedene, ranked just #156 in the world, had taken out three favored Spaniards in quick succession, toppling 2014 standout Feliciano Lopez in the second round and then ousting Guillermo Garcia Lopez and Roberto Bautista Agut to make his own first Tour-level final. But Wawrinka was fair warned in Sunday's championship -- the twenty-nine year old Swiss took advantage of the far-less-experienced Slovenian, winning more than seventy percent of his service points and claiming the title in straight sets. If he keeps it up he could make a real play for defending his title Down Under too.

It had been a little longer since former world #1 Venus Williams tasted Major glory, but the thirty-four year old veteran has remained more than relevant, claiming a title in Dubai and a win over sister Serena last year to climb back into the top twenty. The 2014 runner-up in Auckland was not about to rest on those laurels though, and returned to New Zealand on a mission -- in her first four matches, in fact, she delivered two bagel and two breadstick sets to her opponents. Still the third seed was the underdog in Saturday's final -- Caroline Wozniacki had been on fire the last several months and, despite a slight hiccup in the semis, seemed primed to start the new year off the way she finished the last one. But Venus had other ideas -- after dropping the first set she rallied hard in the second and ultimate closed out the match in just under two hours, keeping her record against the Dane a perfect 6-0. It might be a tough ask to call for the champion to make a deep run in Melbourne later this month -- but we should all know better by now than to put it past her.

Perhaps we can say the same for David Ferrer, who really seemed to have the wind taken out of him after his "Cinderella" run in Paris in 2013 -- the thirty-two year old fell back into a double-digit ranking after failing to qualify outright for last year's World Tour Final in London. And he was tested from the start this week in Doha -- just minutes after Rafael Nadal was ousted in his opener, Ferrer found himself down a set to Dutch qualifier Thiemo De Bakker. And in Friday's semi versus big-serving Ivo Karlovic, the man who'd just trumped Novak Djokovic a day earlier, he fought off thirty aces and more than twice as many winners in the three tiebreak match, reaching his first final at the Qatar Open. In the championship he faced a relatively well-rested Tomas Berdych, who hadn't dropped a set all week and who, at #7 in the world, was the on-paper favorite. But Ferrer battled from the start, nabbing a two break lead in the opening set and barely looking back. It was his first title in five attempts in Doha and, with an uncharacteristic week off before the Australian Open -- he's played in Auckland the last nine years, winning four titles there -- he could be primed to cause some damage there as well.

So too could Maria Sharapova, who kicked off her 2015 with a more-than-solid showing in Brisbane. The champion in Melbourne seven years ago made good on her top seeding this week and lost just nine games in her first three matches. Meanwhile Ana Ivanovic, squarely back in the top ten for the first time since 2008, looked just as threatening herself -- the champion in Auckland this time last year was coming off her most prolific season yet and, though she didn't meet another seed on her way to the final, seemed in control all week long. And with the pair splitting wins in their four matches last year, this one promised to be a good one -- the ladies didn't disappoint. Ana fought back from an early break and ultimately took the opening, hour-long set in a tiebreak, but Sharapova battled back, denying any break opportunity in the second. Momentum went back and forth in the decider but ultimately the Russian prevailed, claiming her thirty-fourth career title and closing in slightly on the #1 ranking. And with the top spot within her sights, she might be even more motivated to continue her run Down Under.

Roger Federer might do the same -- after his stellar 2014 season, he's also a stone's throw from the #1 ranking and his own showing in Brisbane proved he's nowhere near done trying to reclaim the spot. Like many of this weekend's champions, he had to dust off the cobwebs early, dropping his first set to Aussie wildcard John Millman, but he rebounded in style, dropping just one game to James Duckworth and simply thrashing world #11 Grigor Dimitrov in the semis. On Sunday he met a slightly more tested Milos Raonic for the title -- the young Canadian had just squeaked through his last two matches, going the distance against monster server Sam Groth in the quarters and barely surviving a two-and-a-half hour, three tiebreak battle against rival Kei Nishikori a day earlier. He put up a fight in the final, too, forcing Roger to a third set, but ultimately the great Fed came out on top, earning his eighty-third career title and his historic thousandth singles match win, only the third player in history to achieve that milestone. And with the 2015 season just barely underway, there's no telling how many more landmarks he'll hit this year.

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