January 7, 2020

The Kick-Off

Well here we are at the dawn of the new tennis season and the ladies have wasted no time turning up the volume for the New Year. From early upsets to stand-out stars to surprising comebacks, we seem to be setting the stage for what could be an exciting stretch.

Let's start in Shenzhen where defending champion Aryna Sabalenka was ousted overnight in straight sets by the lesser-known Pliskova twin. And she wasn't the only surprise exit -- top seeded Belinda Bencic, just a hair off her highest ever ranking, took the "L" against Russia's Anna Blinkova. There are still a couple seeds left in the draw, chief among them former world #1 and two-time Major winner Garbiñe Muguruza, who's trying to claw herself back up from a sub-thirty ranking, but even she was pushed to three sets in her opener against wildcard Xinyu Wang.

But perhaps the one to watch over the next week will be Elise Mertens, who's had some of her best results this time of year -- she made the semis in Melbourne back in 2018. Over the last several months, her losses have come largely, albeit not exclusively, to the top players in the sport, so she doesn't have much to be embarrassed by. As the top seed left in the draw, she's now the on-paper favorite. Her next opponent will be Elena Rybakina, a player who's had her own big successes over the past year -- She beat Simona Halep in Wuhan and reached the semis in Luxembourg. But wins for Mertens tomorrow and throughout the week could set her on a solid course as we count down to the Aussie Open.

Speaking of Australia, we're seeing some big upsets already in Brisbane that could also presage things to come there. While the top two seeds, Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova -- the defending champ, by the way -- have yet to take the court, we've already seen Naomi Osaka pushed to the limit in her first round and fourth seeded Elina Svitolina knocked out by American Danielle Collins. And she's not the only U.S. star causing waves this week -- Jennifer Brady ended Maria Sharapova's wildcard dreams with a close match overnight and takes on Barty next. Sofia Kenin nudged past former #11 Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets and hopes for a repeat of her Cincinnati win over Osaka in the next round. And my spoiler pick for the year, Alison Riske, might just be able to keep her run going Down Under -- she could face Pliskova a few rounds down the road.

The real shock, though, may come from the "old guard" of the sport -- Sam Stosur, who spent much of last year ranked in the triple digits before a final run in Guangzhou got her back in the top hundred, was just a wildcard in Brisbane, but took advantage of an on-the-mend Angelique Kerber in her first match of the year. It was a moment of brilliance from the former U.S. Open titleist, who's famously not fared too well in her homeland -- she's been ousted in the first round in Melbourne four years running. It gets harder from here, of course, as she'll face talented Madison Keys for a spot in the quarterfinals, but she has won all three of their previous meetings, the last one just this previous March. There's no reason she can't keep her record in tact now, right?

And then finally we head to Auckland, where there may be a lower-ranked slate of contenders than in Brisbane, but the star power certainly more than makes up for it. There's Serena Williams, ranked tenth in the world but taking the top seed, Caroline Wozniacki, kicking off her farewell tour with a one-and-oh win in her first round, and 2019 ingenue Coco Gauff who picked up this year right where she left off, beating Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova in just over an hour. I'm, for one, excited to see Coco face off against Serena in the quarters -- she's already beaten one Williams sister, why not another? -- but we've still got a round left before that happens.

But we could see another story line emerge from New Zealand. One-time Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard only won one match between last February and early November and is now at her lowest ranking since 2012. She got a wildcard into the ASB Classic, though, and somewhat surprisingly pulled off a straight set win over an always-tricky Kirsten Flipkens. Next up she'll face off against Caroline Garcia, who is no slouch, but is herself a bit off her best game and certainly beatable. It's a good part of the draw to be in for the Canadian, and if she can pull it off could get her back on the right track for the new year.

There's a lot more ball to be played, this season of course, but also this week, so whether these ladies can capitalize on early wins or take advantage of their opportunities still remains to be seen. Still, there's no reason they can't shake things up over the next few days. And if that gives them a little extra jolt heading in to the Australian Open, well... all the better!

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