With the Australian Open in the rearview mirror and the spring season around the corner, it's time for a bit of reflection.
The 2018 tennis season is already a month old. With the Australian Open in the rearview mirror and the spring swing around the corner, it's time for a bit of reflection.
Just a few weeks of tennis leaves more questions than answers. But whose stock is rising entering February? And who's going the wrong way?
Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki, of course, won the men's and women's titles in Melbourne. But Federer's stock isn't "rising," so to speak, because there wasn't really anywhere for it to go but down. Federer entered the year's first major as the favorite, and he left the winner. He's performing in line with our absurdly high expectations.
Let's take a look at some of this month's climbers and fallers.
Caroline Wozniacki: Let's start with the obvious. With her Australian Open title, Wozniacki reclaimed the top spot in the WTA rankings. Her stellar performance in Melbourne followed a triumph at the WTA Finals last fall, which was her biggest title of her career until last weekend. Wozniacki's improved serve and increasingly aggressive style, coupled with her traditional defensive strength, were on display throughout the tournament and particularly during her final victory over Simona Halep. There's plenty of reason to think Wozniacki's first Grand Slam title won't be her last.
Simona Halep: Even though Simona Halep once again leaves a major empty-handed, her performance in Melbourne was extraordinary. If anything, my expectations for Halep this season are higher now than they were at the start of the tournament, despite her losing the No. 1 ranking. The Romanian is playing more aggressive tennis, but what impressed me most was the mental resilience she showed over the two weeks—winning despite an early ankle injury, saving match points in a marathon against Lauren Davis, facing down Angie Kerber and even fighting back against Wozniacki after a poor start. She should be proud of the way she handled adversity. With that sort of mental strength, Halep won't have to wait long to win her debut Grand Slam.
Angelique Kerber: Halep's tournament was so impressive in part because she managed to beat Kerber, who looked pretty much unstoppable until the semifinals. Kerber entered the Australian Open as the No. 21 seed, somewhat out of the spotlight after a difficult 2017 season. After winning a title in Sydney and nearly reaching the final in Melbourne, Kerber looks like she's rediscovered her 2016 form—bad news for the rest of the tour. Just watch her dismantle Maria Sharapova.
Hyeon Chung: This kid is no fluke. Reaching the semifinals of a major at 21 is an achievement in its own right, but you can't chalk up Chung's success to an easy draw. The South Korean beat three seeded players, including Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev, on his way to a semifinal defeat to Roger Federer. His five-set victory over Zverev in the third round was particularly impressive: Chung twice rallied from a set down to send the match to a decider, where he lost only five points as he bageled his fellow NextGen opponent. To follow that up by beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets with a combination of excellent counterpunching and court coverage was special. Who would have thought Chung would reach a Slam semifinal before Zverev?
Nick Kyrgios: Sure, the ATP's biggest Boston Celtics fan failed to make a Slam quarterfinals once again—he hasn't reached the quarters of a major since 2015. But this time, there was no implosion or explosion or any other type of self-initiated eruption to doom his chances. Kyrgios lost in the fourth round to Grigor Dimitrov, not because of self-destruction but because Dimitrov played an incredible match and happened to win three tiebreakers. Dimitrov was the better player, but Kyrgios easily could have won the match. Throughout the first month of the season, Kyrgios was incredibly focused, managing to eschew any catastrophic meltdowns. His renewed determination paid off: Kyrgios won a title in Brisbane and probably played his best major since 2015. Let's see if he can repeat his incredibly successful spring of 2017, where following the Australian Open he reached the semifinals in Acapulco, the quarters at Indian Wells and the semifinals in Miami.
Novak Djokovic: The big concern here is Djokovic's elbow and whether he'll need surgery. He was clearly struggling against Hyeon Chung in his fourth-round defeat and appeared hampered by the injury throughout the event. Andy Murray decided to put his comeback on hold to undergo hip surgery; hopefully Djokovic won't be forced to make a similar decision, but it would be a shame to see the elbow problem linger. I thought Djokovic would come back strong this season, but injuries might preclude any sort of glorious return.
Sloane Stephens: Stephens remains a bit of a mystery. Her struggles since the U.S. Open have been well-documented—since beating Madison Keys in the final in Flushing, Stephens hasn't won a single competitive match. So far in 2018, Stephens is 0–2 with defeats to Camlia Giorgi and most recently Shuai Zhang in Melbourne, a three-set affair that saw Stephens lose a second-set tiebreaker before dropping the decider 6–2. To be sure, it's not easy to deal with the pressure that comes with expectations after winning a major. Hopefully, like Kerber, some time out of the spotlight will help Stephens regain her confidence and get back to winning.
Garbine Muguruza: I don't want to get carried away with snap judgments, because I still think Muguruza is just as likely as anyone else to capture at least one major this season. But she has not had an auspicious start to the 2018 season. After retiring in her first match of the year in Brisbane because of leg cramps, Muguruza managed to beat Kiki Bertens in Sydney before pulling out of the tournament with a thigh injury. She won her first round match at the Australian Open before losing to Su-wei Hsieh in straight sets. It hasn't been the ideal start to the season for the Spaniard, but as soon as she regains full fitness I expect her game to pick up accordingly.
Jack Sock: After a strong fall season, highlighted by his first Masters title in Paris and an ATP Finals appearance, the highest–ranked American man has only managed to win one set so far in 2018. After a flat performance against Peter Gojowczyk in Auckland, Sock lost his first–round match against Japan’s Yuichi Sugita in Melbourne, 1-6, 6-7(4), 7-5, 3-6. Most disappointing was that Sock, the No. 8 seed, actually received a pretty favorable draw had he managed to overcome Sugita and a tough second-round match against Ivo Karlovic. (Kyle Edmund ended up coming out of Sock’s quarter without beating a seeded player until the quarterfinals, where he upset No. 3 Dimitrov.) Sock has yet to reach the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam and he’s bowed out in the opening round in three of his last four major events.