Opening Bells

Monday, December 31, 2012 /by
OK, so it wasn’t that long ago that the women were wrapping things up in Istanbul. It could have been yesterday that the Czechs were celebrating their Fed Cup-Davis Cup double. And while we're already into the third day of the 2013 season, there are still, as I type this, 15 hours or so left in 2012. But despite all of that, this was a decent break by tennis standards. I'm ready for the new year to begin myself, especially when it kicks off in bright and warm locales Down Under. We can at least watch and pretend to be warm here in New York.
 
I’ll start my own 2013 season with slightly belated previews of the week’s events. I'll cover five of them, and that won't count the exhibition Hopman Cup team event—obviously there’s no easing into the year. With the Australian Open starting in 13 days, there’s no time. Let the Plexicushion swing begin.
 
*****
 
Brisbane International (WTA)
Brisbane, Australia
$1,000,000; Premier
Plexicushion
Draw is here
 
Forget the Aussie Open for a minute. Brisbane's 32-draw, which is a quarter of the size of the one we’ll get in Melbourne, includes eight of the world's Top 10 players, including the women’s Big 3, Vika, Maria, and Serena. Yesterday another bold-faced name, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, suffered her first loss of 2013 before the year even began. Coached again by her father, Piotr, she fell to qualifier Ksenia Pervak in a third-set tiebreaker.
 
Other happenings: Serena easily won her first round, over Varvara Lepchenko. Azarenka should have more of a contest against Sabine Lisicki in her own opener. Sharapova and Sara Errani are scheduled for the quarters, as are Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova, who has been heard complaining about the heat in practice. Sam Stosur, who had ankle surgery earlier in the month, continued her woeful ways at home in Australia with a straight-set first-round loss to Sofia Arvidsson. On the upside, from an American perspective, Sloane Stephens recorded one of her best career wins, 6-2, 6-3 over Dominika Cilbulkova. If Stephens follows it up with another, it should earn her a match-up with Serena. Something to look forward to—for us, if not for Sloane.
 
It’s early in the season, obviously, but it’s not early in relation to the year’s first Grand Slam. Brisbane is of consequence. Last year, Azarenka began with a win at another Aussie Open warm-up, in Sydney, and didn’t lose for three months.
 
*****
 
Brisbane International (ATP)
Brisbane, Australia
$436,630; 250 ranking points
Plexicushion
Draw is here
 
For fans of equal pay, 2013 isn’t getting off to a great start—the women’s total prize-money purse in Brisbane is more than twice that of the men’s. Of course, the men’s event doesn’t have eight of the Top 10, but it does have Andy Murray. Last season, the world No. 3 began his solid run Down Under, which ended in the semifinals in Melbourne, with a title here.
 
Also in town: 
 
The second seed is Milos Raonic, who is looking to break into the Top 10 for the first time (he’s currently No. 13) and who owns two wins over Murray. Raonic will play the winner of an intriguing first-rounder between Grigor Dimitrov and Brian Baker.
 
Kei Nishikori also had a nice run at the Australian Open last year, and like Raonic appears ready to improve on his No. 19 ranking in 2013. Nishikori opens with the winner of Tommy Robredo vs. qualifier, and fellow Bollettieri-ite, Ryan Harrison. 
 
Alexandr Dolgopolov tends to thrive in Australia, before the weekly grind of the season wears him down. He lost to Murray in the final in Brisbane last year. This time he opens with Jarkko Nieminen and would likely play Nishikori after that.
 
First-round match to watch: A battle of the aging, and sometimes agitating, warriors, Lleyton Hewitt and Radek Stepanek. We’ll see if Rusty has yet another final hurrah in him at home.
 
*****
 
Qatar Exxonmobil Open (ATP)
Doha, Qatar
$1,054,720; 250 ranking points
Plexicushion
Draw is here
 
This tournament isn't quite what it once was. No Federer, no Nadal—not even Ernests Gulbis, who has played some surprisingly fine tennis here in the past. 
 
But we do have good soldier and top seed David Ferrer. This is an interesting moment for the Spanish veteran and world No. 5. He had another excellent year in 2012; by the time the Davis Cup final rolled around, and he earned Spain their only two points, he looked downright elite. Now with Rafael Nadal out, he’ll travel to the Australian Open as the fourth seed. Where does Ferru’s career go from here? Winning an event like Doha, while it’s just a 250, would throw an early marker in the desert sand.
 
Also here: No. 2 seed Richard Gasquet; his allegedly “lost” countryman Gael Monfils; and Nikolay Davydenko, champion in 2010 and finalist in 2011.
 
*****
 
ASB Classic (WTA)
Auckland, New Zealand
$235,000; WTA International
Plexicushion
Draw is here
 
This is where the lone top woman not in Brisbane, Agnieszka Radwanska, is hiding out. Aga is in a position not unlike Ferrer’s. She’s coming off a career year that has put her, at No. 4, just outside the WTA’s power center. Where, if anywhere, does this retriever and craftswoman go from here? She’s always played a lot of events; does she rethink her scheduling and focus on the bigger ones? This is the type of tournament, where she’s the only representative of the Top 10, that Radwanska should win.
 
Also here: No. 2 seed Julia Goerges; wild card Eleni Daniilidou, who beat wild card CoCo Vandeweghe to start; Christina McHale, who lost her opener; and fellow American Jamie Hampton, who upset defending champion Zheng Jie in hers.
 
*****
 
Aircel Chennai Open (ATP)
Chennai, India
$385,150; 250 ranking points
Play Pave
Draw is here
 
I know what you were thinking as you read this article: Yeah, yeah, but where’s Tomas Berdych? This is where. The world No. 6, who looked distinctly rusty in losing to Ferrer in Abu Dhabi last week, is the top seed in Chennai.
 
The favorite, though, may be Marin Cilic, who won this tournament in 2009 and 2010. Those titles sparked talk of breakout seasons for Cilic, which didn’t materialize. At 24, with a ranking of No. 15, we’re probably ready for the talk to begin again.
 
Also here: No. 2 seed Janko Tipsarevic; Stan Wawrinka; and Benoit Paire. 
 
Speaking of which, where does Paire fit in the continuum of PWAFBFTWs (Players Who are Fun but Frustrating to Watch)? The Frenchman had his best season in 2012 and is ranked close to his career high, at No. 47, right now. Will he go in the Dolgopolov direction, toward the Top 20? The Gulbis direction, toward oblivion? Or in a direction all of his own creative and unpredictable making?
 
It’s just one more crucial question that will begin to be answered this week.
 
 

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