The crystal ball in Times Square drops Tuesday night to mark the start of the New Year in New York, but tennis balls are already in full flight around the world, signalling the start of the new season.
We preview this week's tournament action to kick off 2014:
Brisbane International (Women's)
$1,000,000; WTA Premier
Draw is here
Three of the world’s top four women—world No. 1 Serena Williams, reigning Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, and four-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova—bring star power to a glowing field in Brisbane.
Sharapova indulged her sweet tooth launching her Sugarpova candy line and showed her familiar appetite for the fight in fist-pumping throughout a 6-3, 6-0 annihilation of Caroline Garcia in her first match since last August. Sharapova, who says she’s fully fit after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, hit six aces against one double fault in her first match under new coach Sven Groeneveld.
It was a sweet start for Sharapova, but don’t expect the player behind the brand and reigning champion Williams to trade chocolate kisses should they rekindle their rivalry in the semifinals. Though Sharapova says the pair are not feuding following sniping comments at Wimbledon, the fact that Williams has brought the intensity—and slamming shot-making—in winning 13 straight matches against her rival tells you she will be ready should they meet in a rematch of the 2013 French Open final. Williams opens Tuesday against Andrea Petkovic.
“This tournament is super useful because it's such a big event, everyone comes to play, it's the same surface as [the Australian Open] and it's super hot, so it definitely gets you ready,” said five-time Australian Open champion Serena.
World No. 2 Azarenka, who concedes that she felt fatigued following her U.S. Open final loss in September, has installed a new training team and meets Australian wild card Casey Dellacqua in the first round. Azarenka could face Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki in the quarterfinals in a rematch of the 2013 Brisbane round of 16, which Vika won, 6-3, 6-3.
Fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic, who swept Azarenka at the WTA Championships last fall, could face No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber in the bottom-half quarterfinals—if Kerber can defuse hard-hitting Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the round of 16.
ASB Classic (Women's)
Auckland, New Zealand
$250,000; WTA International
Draw is here
Venus Williams hit with New Zealand No. 1 Marina Erakovic in front of the steps to the Auckland Museum to promote the tournament over the weekend, then exhibited explosiveness in beating Andrea Hlavackova in the opening round.
The climb through the draw for top-seeded Roberta Vinci begins against 16-year-old Croatian wild card Ana Konjuh, who won the 2013 Australian Open and U.S. Open junior titles, in a match of experience vs. exuberance. Yanina Wickmayer was born in Belgium, but looks right at home in Auckland—she’s reached the final in three of the last four years. The 2010 champion could face fifth-seeded Jamie Hampton in the top-half quarterfinals. Hampton reached the final four last year, falling to eventual champion Agnieszka Radwanska. No. 4 seed Sorana Cirstea, the 2013 Toronto runner-up to Serena Williams, is seeking her first win in Auckland and could play the Venus Williams-Yvonne Meusburger winner for a semifinal spot in the top half of the draw.
Second-seeded Ana Ivanovic makes her Auckland debut against American Alison Riske, who reached the U.S. Open round of 16 in September. No. 6 seed Lucie Safarova stands as a potential quarterfinal opponent for the former No. 1. Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens, the No. 3 seed, opens against Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig two years after the pair faced off in Australian Open qualifying. Both women are coming off 30-plus win seasons.
Shenzhen Open (Women's)
$500,000; WTA International
Draw is here
On the day the world bids farewell to 2013, fans can say hello to a familiar face. Former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva launches her comeback, but won’t exactly ease her way back into action as she faces world No. 3 and home favorite Li Na in Tuesday’s first round, days after Zvonareva and partner Olga Govortsova bowed in the opening round of doubles. It will be Zvonareva’s first singles match since she lost to Serena Williams at the 2012 Olympics.
Defending champion Li defeated Klara Zakopalova in the inaugural 2013 final and the pair could square off again in the semifinals. The third-seeded Zakopalova, a flat hitter who can take the ball early, beat talented 17-year-old Donna Vekic, 6-3, 7-5, in her opener.
World No. 7 Sara Errani had a much tougher test, rallying from a 2-4 deficit in the final set to squeeze out a 6-0, 3-6, 7-6 (3), over Chinese wild card Zheng Sasai. Errani will play Vania King in a second-round match of former Grand Slam doubles champions. The pair split two prior meetings, with King prevailing in their most recent match last year at Indian Wells.
Chinese seventh seed Zheng Jie is another one to watch in the bottom half of the draw. The former Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles champion permitted just three games in thrashing Shahar Peer in the first round. Zheng, a 2010 Australian Open singles semifinalist, has managed just six games in two prior losses to Errani, her potential quarterfinal opponent, and is 1-1 lifetime vs. King.
Peng Shuai was a 2013 Shenzhen semifinalist has a solid shot to return to the final four this week as the 42nd-ranked Chinese starts the season aiming for a Top 20 return in 2014.
Brisbane International (Men's)
$452,670; ATP 250
Draw is here
Roger Federer celebrated Christmas by sharing the news that wife Mirka is pregnant. Now the father of two will try to craft career rebirth by joining forces with childhood hero and coaching consultant Stefan Edberg.
While the homogenization of surfaces makes the serve-and-volleyer an endangered species on the ATP tour, the fact that Federer is also playing doubles in Brisbane (with Nicolas Mahut) suggests he’s eager for both match play and the opportunity to apply his net skills. Federer carries a commanding 13-0 career record against opening opponent Jarkko Nieminen and could face a couple of imposing servers in Sam Querrey, who hit 18 aces in a 7-5, 6-4 win over Dmitry Tursunov and plays Marinko Matosevic next, and fourth-seeded Kevin Anderson, the 2013 Sydney finalist, who is a potential semifinal opponent for Federer.
Second-seeded Kei Nishikori hit with Federer in a practice session on Monday and may meet the winner of the Grigor Dimitrov-Marin Cilic match for a semifinal spot. Dimitrov, who beat David Ferrer to win his first career title in Stockholm last fall, faces Cilic for the first time. In their lone prior meeting, Nishikori beat Dimitrov in Shanghai last fall, 6-3, 6-4.
Home fans will be interested in the opener between former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis, who qualified for the Brisbane main draw at 17 and was runner-up at two junior Grand Slams in 2013. No. 3 seed Gilles Simon, a Brisbane semifinalist two years ago, is a threat to go deep in the draw: Simon is 4-0 lifetime against Hewitt, including a five-set win at the 2013 Roland Garros.
Qatar Open (Men's)
$1,096, 910; ATP 250
Draw is here
In his Wimbledon main-draw debut, the 100th-ranked Rosol scored one of the biggest upsets in Open Era history, shocking Nadal on the strength of 22 aces in the 2012 second round. Don’t expect a repeat in the rematch, with Nadal and his 45-year-old sometimes traveling coach Francisco Roig defeating Rosol and Pablo Andujar in doubles already, giving Rafa looks at the Czech’s serve in the process.
The tournament began with a bang as 78th-ranked Ivo Karlovic cracked 24 aces and did not drop serve defeating fourth-seeded Tomas Berdych, 7-6, 7-6. The enigmatic Ernests Gulbis, who said last summer he found the Big Four’s interviews “boring" and advocates a more brash, boxing-style talk from tennis players, may get his seventh shot at Nadal in the quarterfinals (if he doesn’t implode first) While Gulbis is winless against the world No. 1, he has pushed Nadal to the distance in four of their five three-set encounters. Sixth-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber is a threat to go deep in the top half.
Andy Murray, who partnered Nenad Zimonjic for a doubles victory today, will play his first singles match since undergoing back surgery against 19-year-old Qatari wild card Mousa Shanan Zayed, with a potential quarterfinal against No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco looming. Verdasco held a two-set lead over Murray in the Wimbledon quarterfinals before the Scot fought back to prevail en route to the Wimbledon championship.
Frenchmen with an impressionistic imagination for shot-making could create a memorable round of 16 clash, as No. 5 seed Richard Gasquet is one win away from playing Gael Monfils. The two have split eight prior meetings, with Gasquet winning four of their seven hard-court matches.
Second-seeded David Ferrer starts the year with a new coach, but look for the Spaniard's familiar fire, as Ferrer has won six of seven meetings with opening-round opponent Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Chennai Open (Men's)
$399,985; ATP 250
Draw is here
Backhand aficionados may well be intrigued by the Chennai field as top seeded Stanislas Wawrinka and second-seeded Mikhail Youzhny both possesses versatile and effective one-handers, while fourth-seeded Benoit Paire’s two-hander is his best shot.
Wawrinka, the 2011 Chennai champion, has failed to survive the quarterfinals in the last two years, but he’s a solid bet to reach at least the semifinals this time around, where he could play theatrical Italian Fabio Fognini or fifth-seeded Canadian Vasek Pospisil, if seedings hold true to form. In recent years, Fognini has not received his season wake-up call until February: He has suffered first-round losses in five of his six career Australian Open appearances. The world No. 16 is certainly talented, but will he be motivated?
Youzhny returns to Chennai for the first time since crushing a weary Nadal, 6-0, 6-1, to win the 2007 tournament title. The 31-year-old Russian capped the 2013 season sweeping David Ferrer to win the Valencia title and should be eager opening the new season against 73rd-ranked Dudi Sela.
Paire may well have to subdue a pair of Spaniards—No. 53 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and 38th-ranked Marcel Granollers, who won his only hard-court clash against the Frenchman—if he is to reach the semifinals. Former NCAA Champion Somdev Devvarman, the 2009 Chennai finalist, is India’s best hope in singles. Devvarman, a former practice partner for Andy Roddick, could play Granollers in the round of 16.