What a week it’s been! We’ve had 3 tournaments on both the ATP and WTA tours, as well as the always interesting Hopman Cup. As usual, the first week of the year throws up some strange matches and results, with players out of match practice so there’s a huge amount to talk about.
Where else is there to start but Doha, after THAT match? In what will surely go down as one of the ATP matches of the season Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray in three tight and intense sets to defend his title. While the result had no bearing on the world rankings (meaning that Murray goes into the Australian Open as the top seed), there was a lot on the line – the balance of power between the two, their head to head record and the momentum going into Melbourne.
I watched the match on Eurosport UK, where Murray’s current coach Jamie Delgado and former coach and Eurosport pundit Miles Maclagan were eager to play down the implications of the match on the Australian Open. However, as the match went on its importance seemed to grow and grow. The first set went Djokovic’s way with a lapse in Murray’s concentration costing him the only service break. Djokovic was serving excellently and despite a few emotional outbursts, he looked almost at his best. He broke Murray again in the second set and looked set for a relatively straightforward victory, but it was then that the match came to life.
Djokovic set up three championship points, but was thwarted by his own tentativeness and an inspired Murray, who broke him for the first time in the match. Murray’s resurgence continued as he broke Djokovic again to take the second set 7-5. He looked fully in the zone and was the definite favourite going into the final set. But it was Djokovic who prevailed, taking advantage of another Murray concentration lapse to break Murray’s serve and holding on when serving out. The players embraced at the net and shared a humourous exchange, which was great to see.
In review, I was impressed by both players. Djokovic because he managed to find his very best level and not disappear mentally, as he was doing in the latter stages of 2016. With Murray, I was impressed by his on court demeanour. Even when things weren’t going his way, he rarely reacted angrily, seemingly in the mindset that this was, after all, just the final of an ATP 250 event. Another positive for him to take away is that even though Djokovic won the match by two sets to one, if it had been a five-setter the final two sets could have gone to either player. All in all, the match served as a delicious appetiser for the Australian Open and I’m sure most objective fans would agree that a repeat of this match would be the dream final in the men’s singles tournament.
Earlier in the tournament, there were few shocks and surprises other than the resurgence of one of the tour’s veterans, Fernando Verdasco. Verdasco took out seeds in David Goffin (who was carrying some form after beating Murray and Tsonga in the Abu Dhabi exhibition last week) and Ivo Karlovic before becoming extremely close to knocking out Novak Djokovic in the semis, throwing away four match points in the process. Verdasco showed the field that he’s right to still be considered one of the most dangerous unseeded players at Grand Slam level, but will rue the chance for another big win over one of the sport’s GOATs.
The ATP and WTA descended upon Brisbane for what’s traditionally the biggest tournament of the first week of the calendar with some weird and wonderful results. Starting with the men’s tournament, we saw the most heartwarming story of the week as Grigor Dimitrov finally found his best form again, beating Thiem, Raonic and Nishikori to take his first title in two and a half years. His coaching relationship with Dani Vallverdu seems to be working wonders and if he continues to perform at this level for the rest of the season, he’ll find himself back inside the top 10 pretty quickly.
The tournament also saw the debuts of two huge names in Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal. Wawrinka was caught up in a bit of a storm in a teacup prior to the tournament given the odd decision from the tournament organisers to award one of the wildcards in the women’s event to his girlfriend, Donna Vekic. This led to questions about how such decisions are made, given that there were plenty of young Australians who could’ve been given the opportunity instead. On court, Wawrinka played decently, making the semi finals before bowing out to Kei Nishikori in a slightly disappointing match. Nadal, on the other hand, seemed back to his best in his second round thrashing of Mischa Zverev, but lost out in a high quality three setter to Raonic in the quarters.
The surprises of the week came from a pair of young Australians as wild card Jordan Thompson stunned eighth seed David Ferrer in the second round of the singles before teaming up with Thanasi Kokkinakis (on his way back after missing more than a year with shoulder and pectoral injuries), again on a wild card, to defeat seeded teams Mahut/Herbert and Nestor/Roger-Vasselin on the way to winning the title, drawing support and congratulations from many of Australia’s tennis greats. The two play each other in the first round of the singles in Sydney this week, which will be fantastic to watch.
In the WTA tournament, there were many surprises with the two top seeds, Angelique Kerber and Dominika Cibulkova, both losing in the quarter finals to Elina Svitolina and Alize Cornet respectively. Kerber played at a decent level in her two matches, showing the grit and determination that led her to so much success in 2016, but was let down by problems on her serve. Cibulkova almost lost out in her first match to Shuai Zhang before edging through and was then comprehensively beaten by Cornet. Both players line up in Sydney this week, hoping to sharpen up their game before the Australian Open.
The title went to the most consistent player of the week in Karolina Pliskova. The Czech eased her way through the draw, dropping only one set to Roberta Vinci – a player she’d never beaten previously – and was untouchable in her wins over Svitolina in the semis and Cornet in the final. She moves back to her career high ranking of fifth in the world and is now joint fourth favourite with the bookies for the Australian Open (behind Serena, Kerber and Muguruza, and tied with Halep – I’d personally rank her above Muguruza and Halep).
Cornet’s run to the final was very encouraging to see. She’s a player who really should be in or around the top 20 consistently but has instead spent far too much of her career ranked outside the top 40. She beat Vesnina, McHale and Cibulkova to reach the semis before benefitting from the quick retirement of Muguruza to make the final. She struggled to make any impact against Pliskova in the final, but her ranking now shoots up 10 places to 31, ensuring she’ll be seeded at the Australian Open. Another positive note was the upturn in form of Garbiñe Muguruza, who showed her mental toughness in edging out tense three set matches against Sam Stosur and Daria Kasatkina prior to easily beating Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter finals. She’s said that her retirement in the semis was mainly precautionary with Melbourne in mind and she’ll certainly be a force to be reckoned with if she can keep it up.
The women’s doubles tournament ended with a lovely but bizarre conclusion as Bethanie Mattek-Sands overtook Sania Mirza to become world number one, after teaming up with Mirza to win the tournament. The two played brilliantly together all week and eased past one of the toughest teams in Makarova/Vesnina to take the title, ending Mirza’s long streak at the top of the rankings. Their speeches in the trophy ceremony were witty and emotional, with Mirza being extremely gracious, referring to her partner as her best friend, and the usually chatty Mattek-Sands overcome with emotion. Mirza joked that they team up about once a season and tend to win the tournament, and as of next week they’ll go their separate ways again. Mirza will play in Sydney with her partner from the tail end of 2016, Barbora Strycova, while Mattek-Sands returns to Lucie Safarova, a player with whom she’s won three Grand Slam titles in the last two seasons. Understandably, however, many of their fans on Twitter questioned whether this is the right decision.
Shenzhen, Auckland and Chennai
In China, three of the world’s top 10 – Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep and Johanna Konta – took to the Shenzhen courts. Radwanska aimed to defend the title she won last year while Halep wanted to regain it following her success in 2015, Konta lost in the first round last year so was looking to do better this time. However, it was none of the three that managed to come through the field and take the title, as Katerina Siniakova stormed to her first WTA tournament victory.
While she had shown her talents in the past couple of seasons, reaching the verge of the world’s top 50, this was Siniakova’s breakthrough week. Following a first round victory over home favourite Shuai Peng, Siniakova stunned Halep over three sets in the second round. She fought back from losing the first set 6-1 to Konta in the semis to edge into the final before comfortably seeing off Alison Riske 6-3 6-4, a victory that also sees her climb to a career high of 37 in the world.
It was a very disappointing week for Radwanska. She had a great victory in the first round, fighting back to beat Ying-Ying Duan after the Chinese player served for the match before improving in her thrashing of Sorana Cirstea in round two. However, in her quarter final match against Riske, a replay of last year’s final, she lacked form, succumbing 6-2 3-6 6-0. As I discussed in last week’s article previewing hers and Halep’s 2017s, Radwanska had a lot of soul searching to do following her 2016 season and I’m not sure where her head will be after such a poor week.
In Auckland, the press were very excited about the first New Zealand appearance of the newly-engaged Serena Williams. She made a number of public appearances alongside her sister Venus and close friend Caroline Wozniacki, including a charity event before kicking off her tournament with a straightforward victory over Pauline Parmentier. However, her tournament came to an abrupt end in the next round with an ugly loss to fellow American Madison Brengle, struggling in the wind and hitting 88 unforced errors in the process. Venus also only made it through to the second round, struggling to see of unknown New Zealander Jade Lewis in the first round before withdrawing due to an arm injury before her enticing match with Naomi Osaka.
So it seemed to be Wozniacki who would take the title, following convincing victories in the first two rounds but she had to face Julia Goerges, one of her bogey players, in the quarter finals. Things were going swimmingly as she led 6-1 3-0, with a double break but Goerges suddenly came to life and fought back to stun the Dane 1-6 6-3 6-4. The semi finals saw surprise package Lauren Davis follow up her win over top 20 player Barbora Strycova with a journey to the final as her opponent Jelena Ostapenko retired ill in the third set of their match. She was joined by youngster Ana Konjuh, who saw off Goerges in three sets.
Given the fact that she already had a WTA title to her name and had been in a good spell of form, including a US Open quarter final appearance, Konjuh went into the final as the big favourite but was completely dismantled by the underdog Davis, who stormed to her first WTA title 6-3 6-1. Davis was ranked outside the top 100 after Wimbledon last year but is now back inside the top 50 at 46, only three places below her career high of 43.
In the Chennai tournament, missing its usual marquee name Wawrinka, Roberto Bautista Agut, the second seed, took his fifth ATP title with a victory over up and coming Russian Daniil Medvedev. The week started with a shock as world number 6, top seed and pre-tournament favourite Marin Cilic was beaten in the second round by world number 117 Josef Kovalik in a tight three-setter. Britain’s Aljaz Bedene, who consistently performs well in this tournament did so again, beating Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Martin Klizan on his way to the quarter finals, while veteran Mikhail Youzhny put in some good performances on his way to a narrow defeat to Bautista Agut at the same stage.
Last but not least, we had the return of Roger Federer at everybody’s favourite exhibition the Hopman Cup. Federer played three matches in the week, recording straightforward victories over Dan Evans and Richard Gasquet, but losing over three tie breaks to the much heralded youngster Alexander Zverev. However, he seemed to be in good form and well fancy his chances in the Australian Open, despite looking like he’ll only be seeded 17th.
The tournament victors were Gasquet and Kristina Mladenovic of France, who played fantastically all week in the mixed doubles, taking to the controversial Fast Four format likes duck to water, edging out the USA’s Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe. The event was as popular as ever with fans, despite some criticism from pundits and it was announced towards the end of the tournament that the event has signed sponsors for another five years.
Upset of the week: This one is a toss up between Brengle beating Serena and Kovalik’s win over Cilic. In terms of rankings difference, Kovalik wins, however given Serena’s place in history, I’m picking Brengle’s win.
Story of the week: There are so many to choose from, but for me it has to be the resurgence of Grigor Dimitrov. The way he’s played his way back from public disgrace following his meltdown in the Istanbul final last May is a true redemption story and it looks like he’s back for good.
Player of the week: This is the toughest category to decide. Honourable mentions go to Novak Djokovic, Katerina Siniakova and Lauren Davis, but for me it comes down to the two champions in Brisbane, Dimitrov and Karolina Pliskova. While both deserve it, I’m going for Pliskova. While all the other top 10 players who entered tournaments this week lost early to players ranked below them, Pliskova ruthlessly went about her business and set out a marker for all of her rivals to think about. She’ll be seeded 5 in Melbourne and both Kerber and Serena will have everything crossed that she isn’t in their quarter of the draw.