Aces and Faults: Federer, Sharapova, Halep and Venus shine in first week
Aces and Faults recaps the week in tennis. As the 2015 season kicked off last week, Roger Federer earned his 1,000th win and Maria Sharapova started her season with a title in Brisbane, while Simona Halep continued her top form with a title at the Shenzhen Open.
Roger Federer: Talk about Swiss efficiency: Federer killed two birds with one stone last week, earning his 1,000th career victory in a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-4 win over Milos Raonic to win the Brisbane International. The milestone was a credit to his longevity and dominance over the course of his 18-year career, but the title itself was signal to the rest of the field that Federer had not lost any momentum over the off-season.
After coming back from a set and a break down in his first match against an Australian wildcard, Federer lost just five games heading into the final. Raonic played him incredibly tough and had five chances to break in the final set before Federer finally closed it out. Everything was clicking for Federer in Brisbane. Now the question is whether he can do it in a best-of-five format over two weeks.
Maria Sharapova: Sharapova lost just 22 games to earn her fifth title in the last nine months in Brisbane. After scorching the field to advance to the final, Sharapova was put to the test against No. 2 seed Ana Ivanovic and gutted out a tough 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3 win. Though her serve remains questionable at times, all the other aspects of her game were firing in Brisbane. This was Grand Slam champion stuff.
Venus Williams: For about an hour in the final of the ASB Classic it looked like the same old story: Venus has a fantastic week, only to misfire and fall short in the final. But maybe 2015 is going to be different. After getting completely outplayed by Caroline Wozniacki in the first set, Venus found her range and turned the match on its head to win 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.
The title was Venus' first in 11 months and the win over Wozniacki was her first top ten win since her run to the Montreal final last summer. What was the key in Auckland? Venus didn't lose a set heading into the final. She took care of business quickly and efficiently in the early rounds and fatigue never was an issue in the final.
Extra points for the incredibly heartfelt and classy victory speech:
Stan Wawrinka: The defending Australian Open champion couldn't have asked for a better start to the season. He didn't lose a set en route to a successful defense of the Chennai Open title. The No. 4 didn't have to play anyone ranked inside the Top 20 -- his best win came over No. 22 David Goffin -- and he played No. 156 Aljaz Bedene in the final, but Wawrinka is a confident player. A clean start to the season is exactly what he needed.
Simona Halep: Despite a slight hiccup in her first match at the Shenzhen Open, No. 3 Halep cruised to the title. After a three-set win in her opener against Annika Beck, Halep didn't lose more than six games a match for the rest of the tournament and beat Timea Bacsinszky 6-2, 6-2 in the final. She'll get much stiffer opposition this week at the Sydney International.
David Ferrer: Leave it to the Spaniard to emerge from the wreckage after early exits from Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the Qatar Open. Ferrer beat Tomas Berdych 6-4, 7-5 in the final but his big win came one round earlier when he came through a tough match against Ivo Karlovic, winning 6-7 (2), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4).
Agnieszka Radwanksa and Jerzy Janowicz: Poland took home the Hopman Cup in a true team effort. The team went 3-0 in round-robin play and then beat the Americans 2-1 in the final. It was a particularly good week for Radwanska, who earned a confidence-boosting 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-1 win over Serena Williams in the final and shined in the mixed doubles with Jerzy Janowicz. Janowicz had to tip his cap after the match. (Video contains explicit language.)
Milos Raonic: His loss to Federer was a tough one to take given how well he played in the final but it could also be the match that propels him forward. The level he showed over the course of his two and a half hour duel with Federer was the highest he's ever hit. He was mixing up his serve well and executing on both his forehand and backhand. He was incredibly aggressive and it paid off, just as it did the day before when he beat Kei Nishikori 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-5 (4) in the semifinals.
Caroline Wozniacki: For all the talk of Wozniacki's resurgence she still has not won a title since the International-level Istanbul Cup last July. In Auckland she nearly got pushed to three sets by Taylor Townsend and had to battle past Julia Goerges in three sets in the semifinals. Wozniacki had her blips last week but she's still shown she's committed to playing the right way. She retired from the Sydney International citing a wrist injury on Monday, but if she stays healthy and continues to hit aggressively and pick her spots as she did in Auckland, she will put herself in a good position to win a major this year.
Ana Ivanovic: Given her slump after winning the French Open in 2008, I can't help but approach Ivanovic's 2014 resurgence cautiously. Ivanovic fell short in the final but backed up her No. 2 seed to return to the top five. She was forced to gut out some tough wins but may have picked up a back injury in the process, which may be something to keep an eye on in Melbourne.
Kei Nishikori: Nishikori was lights out all week in Brisbane and played just three poor points to lose to Raonic in the semifinals. If he brings that form to Melbourne, he's a semifinalist. Watch these highlights:
Ivo Karlovic: The 35-year-old had a banner week. He recorded his 9,000th ace during his first round win at the Qatar Open and went on to stun No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4. He very easily could have made the final too, but lost to Ferrer in an impossibly-tight three setter that included three tiebreak sets. Karlovic is now No. 2 on the all-time ace leaderboard behind Goran Ivanisevic.
Aljaz Bedene: The Slovenian ranked No. 156 made his first ATP final as a qualifier, where he lost to Wawrinka. He saved four match points in the semifinal to beat No. 15 Roberto Bautista Agut 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(8). See Britain? You'd be lucky to have him.
Timea Bacszinszky: There's just something about China that suits Bacszinsky. A few months after beating Sharapova in Wuhan she took down another reigning Slam champion in Shenzhen. The victim this time was No. 4 Petra Kvitova. The Swiss won 6-4, 6-4 to make the final, where she lost to Halep. She's now up to No. 38 and will be a dangerous floater in Melbourne.
Varvara Lepchenko: She's now the No. 3 American after making the semifinals in Brisbane, where she lost to Ivanovic. She saved match point to beat Sam Stosur and handled Madison Keys easily. Now ranked No. 30, she's guaranteed a seeding at the Australian Open.
Young Australian men: There's a very good argument to be made that no country has a more dynamic future than Australia. 18-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis earned his first Top 25 win, beating Julien Benneteau in straight sets in Brisbane. Bernard Tomic played with focus and intensity to make the Brisbane quarterfinals. John Millman, a wildcard, nearly upended Federer. And all this while Nick Kyrgios was sitting at home nursing a back injury. That's a lot of talent to look forward to.
Karolina Pliskova: The young Czech has one of the purest backhand strokes in the game and she let it loose to beat Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-4 in the best WTA match of the week. She reminds me of Daniela Hantuchova in how upright she stays through her shots.
Highlights from the tense final set:
Grigor Dimtirov: Dimitrov did well to hold his seed and make the Brisbane semifinals, especially after he had to save match points to beat Jeremy Chardy early in the tournament. But he was embarrassed by Federer in the semifinals, losing 6-2, 6-2 in less than an hour. He has yet to get a set off Federer in three matches.
Rafael Nadal: He didn't walk away from Doha title-less. Nadal teamed up with his good pal Juan Monaco to win the doubles title. That run actually softens the blow of his first round loss to No. 127 Michael Berrer insofar as it gave him more time on the match court, even if he only had to cover half of it. A finalist in Melbourne last year, the expectations are tempered this time around. But we've seen this happen to Nadal before. His ability to bounce-back is second to none.
Serena Williams: It was a puzzling week for Serena at the Hopman Cup and it had little to do with her caffeine intake. Serena struggled mightily in Perth. She got bageled by Flavia Penetta only to come back and win, lost in straight sets to Eugenie Bouchard, was forced to battle to beat Lucie Safarova in three sets, and then lost to Radwanska in the final. She looked out of rhythm, her footwork was sluggish and her serve wasn't the weapon it should be. Can we chalk it up to the fatigue after a late arrival or something more? Hopman Cup may have been an exhibition -- and Serena has never played well when nothing is on the line -- but the loss to Radwanska in particular was one she would have been motivated to avoid.
Photo of the week
Video of the week
It takes a lot for non-Slam tennis to make Sportscenter. Serena's mid-match pick-me-up actually led the show this week.
Vine of the week
There was hotly disputed umpiring decision during the Hopman Cup final that left both teams yelling at the umpire, though the players stayed cordial with each other. Watch Radwanska's face fall when she hears the umpire's final verdict:
Shot of the week
It doesn't get more clutch: With Raonic serving at 30-15, 4-5 in the third set, Federer hits a perfect lob to win the point. Two points later, he won the match.
In the last three years, almost all of the the singles champions in the first week of the season eventually qualified for the WTA Finals. Will Sharapova, Halep and Williams make it to Singapore in 2015?
In case you missed it
- U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew from the Australian Open this past week. Both men cited long-standing injuries they've been dealing with for months. Which begs the question: What were they doing playing the IPTL in December? Ok, yes. We know the rea$on.
- Of note: Serena's long-time hitting partner Sascha Bajin was not with her in Perth.
- Welcome to the Top 100, Taylor Townsend. Stay awhile. There are now six teenagers in the WTA Top 100.
- Ryan Harrison looked on the verge of falling out of the top 200 when the season began but started his season with a win, capturing the Happy Valley Challenger. Harrison beat Marcos Baghdatis in the final. It was the first time Harrison had made the semifinals or better at a tournament in almost 18 months.
- Gael Monfils announced late last week that he had to withdraw from the Heineken Open due to "personal reasons." On Sunday he was practicing at Melbourne Park.
- Speaking of tournament withdrawals, the Hong Kong tournament director blasted the WTA for fining him for his pointed comments after Bouchard withdrew from the tournament last fall.
- Dear Hobart International: Please refrain from every again throwing knives at tennis players, particularly young American ones:
- The ITF has implemented new rule for 2015 which permits players to represent only one country during their professional careers. This obviously has an impact on the Olympics, Davis Cup and Fed Cup. Will this have a crippling effect on tennis? If a player from a poor country wants to swap passports in order to gain access to better resources, facilities, and opportunity, why stop it?
- After all the empty crowds all week, it was good to see a full house for the final in Shenzhen.
- Couldn't help but chuckle when, after beating Raonic in a nail-biter to earn his 1,000th win, Federer said he much preferred a three-setter over a straight set win for his milestone victory. That's such a Federer thing to say.
- Handicapping the Australian Open: The most impressive players through the first week? Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, with an honorable mention to Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. But you know Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams can play far better and the best-of-five format still leaves me doubting Federer.
- The most dangerous floaters: ATP -- Juan Martin del Potro, Steve Johnson, Jerzy Janowicz, Nick Kyrgios and Vasek Pospisil. WTA -- Madison Keys, Victoria Azarenka, CoCo Vandeweghe, Sloane Stephens and Timea Bacsinszky.