The Wrap: Lift Off

Monday, January 06, 2014 /by

Opening Day: For those of us who love baseball, it’s one of the sweetest phrases in the English language. It’s also a concept that many of us, in the days before the current Golden Age began, wanted to import to tennis. Instead of starting the season by scattering a bunch of little tournaments across Australia and Asia, the sport could kick the year off with a jolt of celebratory fanfare by gathering everyone together in one place and letting the world know, perhaps with a big dual-gender event, that tennis is back.

I still think it’s a good idea, except for the fact that most people have no idea tennis ever leaves in the first place, so they might be confused to find out that it’s “back” in January. But it’s hard to argue with how the 2014 season began this past week—the world’s best players are so reliable these days, the game virtually promotes itself. The big names were out in force around the globe, and most of them didn’t waste any time picking up where they left off in 2013. This weekend Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Li Na, and Stanislas Wawrinka all won tournaments, as expected, while former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Lleyton Hewitt did the unexpected by winning their first titles in years. 

If you somehow had the time, desire, and opportunity to see all of that, as I did, you got a version of Opening Day that lasted all weekend, and which boded well for what will come after it in 2014. Here are three ways of thinking about what happened on week one.

*****

1. As a little bit that was new, and a lot that was old, between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka

Serena had the best start of anyone. She won career title No. 58 in Brisbane, and she drove two more nails into the coffins of her closest competitors, Azarenka and Maria Sharapova—“competitors” seems to be more accurate than “rivals” as a way to describe Vika's and Maria's relationships with Serena at the moment. As usual, their matches with her in Brisbane were hard-fought, but never really in doubt.

I saw more of Serena’s final with Azarenka, so I'll stick with that one here.

Each woman tried out a few new wrinkles for the new year, before the match reverted to well-worn form. Vika began by trying to hit her second serve harder and deeper. Good idea, but the execution needs work. She committed costly double-faults, and Serena had little trouble with her stronger second deliveries anyway. Azarenka also tried to change up the rallies by going down the line with her forehand more often, but that’s also a work in progress—she was late on a lot of them.

As for Serena, she moved into the ball and took it farther up in the court whenever she could, even on Azarenka’s first serves. Serena was sharp at the start, and imperious from the ground; by the end of the first set, she had 14 winners to Azarenka’s three. But again, Serena, while she's famous for her front-running, had trouble closing out Azarenka. She went from 2-0 in the second to 2-4 before finding her patience and her range again, and winning 7-5. 

Overall, it was a positive week for Azarenka, who has left her late-season doldrums of 2013 behind. But in the final game, Serena reminded her what still, and what probably always will, be the difference between this No. 1 and this No. 2: Serving for the title, Williams hit four unreturnables.

*****

2. As a surprisingly surprising success for Rafael Nadal

On the one hand, when Andy Murray lost early, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal became the overwhelming favorite in Doha. On the other hand, a Nadal title was never a sure thing. Despite his 60 tournament wins, he had never started a season with one. He had never won in Doha. And, more specifically and strangely, he had never beaten his opponent in the final, Gael Monfils, on these courts, either. The Frenchman was 2-8 versus Nadal, but both of those wins had been at this tournament.

So call this weekend a résumé filler for Rafa. He finally won his first event, and he finally beat Monfils in Doha. But none of it was easy. Nadal lost sets to Tobias Kamke, world No. 162 Peter Gojowcyk, and Monfils, and he wasn’t as aggressive as he was on hard courts last year. But he was consistent—he committed zero unforced errors in the first set of the final—and focused when he needed to be. And smart. Nadal turned the tables on both Monfils and Ernests Gulbis by altering his return position.

Perhaps most important, Nadal played free of knee straps, and said that for the first time in a long time, he’s moving without pain. He filled a small hole in the résumé in Doha, and in my mind he remains the co-favorite, with Novak Djokovic, to add another line to it in Melbourne in a couple of weeks. As Toni Nadal keeps telling us, a win at the Australian Open would make Rafa only the second man, with Rod Laver, to win each of the four majors at least twice.

*****

3. As another fresh start for two familiar faces

They may be lions in winter the rest of the year, but Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer were the boys of Australian summer in Brisbane. The two over-30s and ex-No. 1s knocked off their (mostly) younger competition to face each other, for the 27th time, in the final. None of which was a surprise: Federer was the top seed, and Hewitt’s career has become an annual series of last hurrahs Down Under.

What was a surprise was the way Federer started their match. He’s had his share of awful patches of play in the last few years, but he has never lost his reputation as a fast starter—he must be the all-time leader in one-minute, first-game holds. Not this time, though; this time he was broken out of the gate. This time his self-acknowledged evil twin, Shankerer, made an uncharacteristically early appearance. He double faulted. He overhit forehands. He stood up too early on backhands and sent the ball long. He even whiffed on a second-serve return. In losing the first set 6-1, Federer committed 22 unforced errors and struggled to adjust to Hewitt’s flat, low-bouncing shots. It wasn’t until 2-2 in the second set that he played what Channel 7 commentator John Fitzgerald called “a Federer point.”

Blame Federer for the slow start, but credit Hewitt for the strong finish. After tightening up with the match on the line in the second set—Rusty's cocky on the outside, but he’s as fragile as the rest of us inside—Hewitt played with a confident, forward-moving aggression in the third set. He came up with a brilliant lob to save a break point at 4-2, and nailed two forehand winners when he served for the match two games later. It was Hewitt’s ninth win in 27 tries against Federer, and just his second since 2003. Another not-quite-last hurrah in Melbourne awaits for the backwards-hatted man-child.

As for Federer, for the week I thought he hit a heavier ball with his new, larger frame, and he said he was happy with his serve—his ace count was up from last season's norm. But at times he struggled to get the topspin and control he wanted. No racquet is immune from a cold streak, and Federer hasn't left them behind just yet. 

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