Weekend Review: Murray Fires First

Monday, January 07, 2013 /by

If the old saw proclaiming that “the early bird catches the worm” applies to tennis, Andy Murray is very well positioned for the Australian Open. It’s not just that he won in Brisbane this past weekend, capping off the first official week of the year; he was also the only member of the Big Four who entered an official ATP tournament.

Novak Djokovic was having a good old time at the Hopman Cup, a mixed team, nation-based, ITF-sanctioned event. Nole went 3-1 in singles, and helped lead Serbia to the final. Facing Spain, Djokovic beat Fernando Verdasco, but Ana Ivanovic lost her singles match to Anabel Medina Garrigues, and the Spaniards teamed up to win the decisive mixed doubles contest for the title.

Roger Federer was cooling his jets, practicing up for his debut in Melbourne. Rafael Nadal was absent from the antipodes, but all is well because he had a note from his doctor. He’ll be missed in the coming weeks, but probably not by Murray.

One of the underlying themes of Murray’s breakthrough as a Grand Slam champion is that once last year’s French Open was over, the Scot never had to beat Nadal plus-one (Djokovic or Federer) to bag a major title. The three semifinal losses Nadal inflicted on him at majors in 2011 are emblematic of the obstacle Rafa has always represented for Murray, who’s just 5-13 against the former No. 1.

At the outset of Brisbane, though, it looked like Murray might have overslept; in his very first match of the new year, he split sets with the then-No. 199, John Millman. But Murray escaped with the win, and in the final he quelled the sudden but long predicted uprising by gifted 21-year-old Grigor Dimitrov.

Long tabbed as one of the (mostly disappointing) heirs to Federer, Dimitrov hit his career-high ranking after the match, climbing seven rungs to no. 41. If, as some expect, he’s on the verge of consolidating all that talent, and he comes to grips with the fact that he doesn’t really need much more tempering, he could complicate life for any seed he meets in Melbourne. Murray himself may be glad he’s got a win banked against the 6’2” Bulgarian.

Murray has lost to Djokovic at the Australian Open the last two years, once in a final and also in the semis last year, in what was—by far—the closest of those contests. Now that Murray has salted away a Grand Slam title with a win over Djokovic at the U.S. Open, he appears to be hunting payback. Did anyone else detect a subtle warning—or is it prediction?—in his words after winning Brisbane:

“I hope that the Australian Open goes a bit better for me than it did last year. I do feel more relaxed one week out from Slam than I have done previously, that’s for sure, so I hope that’s a good sign.”

In other news:

Brisbane, WTA: Victoria Azarenka clearly didn’t want to have the trademark gnarly feet of the WTA (or ATP) tennis pro, so the world No. 1 got a pedicure shortly before the start of Brisbane. (What, was she thinking of playing in peep-toe pumps or, more in keeping with the casual Aussie vibe, flip-flops?). The result was an infected big toe that led Azarenka to pull out of the first big women’s clash of the year, a semifinal against Serena Williams. “I tried everything. We tried medication with taping, and I was playing through the pain for quite a while,” said Azarenka. “It’s just something that I had to do to make sure that I can be fully recovered. It’s just very unfortunate timing, because I was really looking forward to playing and excited.”

Williams, who’s had toe problems of her own lately (there’s half a dozen bad puns buried somewhere in this story), went on the win the title over the extremely talented but struggling 21-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

Although she was ranked as high as No. 13 way back in 2011, Pavlyuchenkova had a dismal year in 2012, dropping all the way down to No. 36. Williams crushed her in the final, 6-2, 6-1, but she also may have been the one most responsible for the 5’10”, fluid Russian getting to that championship match. The two women practiced together during the annual break at the Mourataglou Academy’s off-season training base in Mauritius.

“I always feel like I don’t know how to play tennis when I play against you!” Pavlyuchenkova declared during the awards ceremony. “But I think it’s cool we had a final together here in the first week of the season, after our preparation in the off-season.”

The proof that the training was not just “cool,” but effective: Pavlyuchenkova took out No. 6 seed and former Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, as well as fourth-seeded Angelique Kerber before she bowed to her practice partner. Like Dimitrov, a more mature and determined Pavlyuchenkova could spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for anyone she meets Down Under. Except, perhaps, Serena.

The younger Williams sister has lost just one match since she was upset by Virginie Razzano in the first round of Roland Garros (she’s 36-1 since). She said after the Brisbane final: “Today was really good. I kind of zoned, where I’m in a really calm place and not panicking, I’m not overthinking it and not just blasting every ball. I get really calm and kind of serene.”

Uh-oh.

Doha, ATP: Richard Gasquet, yet another champion manqué who had a great week, seems intent on holding onto the Top 10 berth he secured at the end of last year. That’s good news for Gasquet fans, who may have grown weary of seeing him make a move, only to slip back into comfortable if still remunerative and fan-frustrating anonymity.

Gasquet dug himself out of a big hole against surprising Nikolay Davydenko to win Doha. The Frenchman was down a set and a break to a guy who hadn’t lost his serve all week to that point, but his mercurial talent and not always obvious determination kicked down 3-4 in the second set. He broke Davydenko and then turned the tables, ultimately winning in three sets.

You wouldn’t think a 31-year-old, pasty-white, bald Russian could pass himself off as a regular Lawrence of Arabia, But Davydenko’s record in the desert kingdom of Qatar has been exceptional. In the last four years alone, he’s been to three finals, the highlight of which was a win over Nadal in 2010.

Auckland, WTA: This tournament is to Yanina Wickmayer what Doha is to Davydenko. Although Wickmayer is down to No. 20 (from a career-high of No. 12), and has won just three WTA titles, she’s been in the Auckland final three times, with a win in 2010.

Agneiszka Radwanska, No. 4 at the moment, was no more impressed by that than was Gasquet by Davydenko’s record in the desert. The Pole cruised to a comfortable 6-4, 6-4 win in the final, and faced just one test all week that proved tougher: Jamie Hampton. The talented but injury prone American, who knocked off fourth seed Jie Zheng in the first round, was stopped in the semis, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3). Hampton is delightful to watch; I hope she builds on her success in Auckland in the coming weeks.

Chennai, ATP: Milos Raonic didn’t make it back to the championship match this year, but his opponent in that terrific and tense final of 2012 did. Janko Tipsarvic, last year’s runner-up, defeated first-time ATP finalist Roberto Bautista Agut for the title, 3-6, 6-1, 6-3.

Sounding as philosophical and confident as his countryman and pal Djokovic, Tipsarevic said: “I was mentally stable and was not worried when I was one set down. I didn’t play my best tennis in every match this week, but I am happy to win the title. I really wanted to win this tournament as it is my sixth time here.”

Agut, No. 80 at the start of the tournament, is 24 years old, but he had yet to play a Top 10 player before Chennai. No problem. When he finally got his chance, he earned his spurs with an entertaining three-set upset of No. 6 Tomas Berdych.

Raonic, by the way, chose to play Brisbane rather than defend his title in Chennai (do I detect a tiff over appearance fees?). He was upset in Australia by Brisbane finalist Dimitrov.

Shenzhen, WTA: You can ask any number of players, from Sam Stosur to Amelie Mauresmo—to almost any French player—about how tough it is to win at home. That’s what made top-seeded Li Na’s tense, 7-5 in-the-third triumph over Klara Zakapalova so impressive—and, probably, satisfying for Li.

In addition to the insane degree-of-pressure factor (the Chinese audience seemingly expects Li to hit a winner every time she swings the racquet), the veteran Zakopalova led the head-to-head in this battle of 30-year-olds—they were born just five days apart—by 2-1.

But Li, who’s moody as well as somewhat rebellious, held it together admirably. And the former Australian Open finalist could once again be a force in Melbourne. Bear in mind that she’s continuing her relatively new relationship with Carlos Rodriguez, who coached Belgian superstar Justine Henin through her golden years. And that can only help Li, especially when it comes to the biggest task of all—managing her emotions.

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