Yesterday I took a second look at the men and their future prospects for 2014; today I’ll reassess the women one month, and one Grand Slam, into their season. If nothing else, the Australian Open threw derailed most people’s expectations for the year. Everyone who had Dominika Cibulkova in the final Down Under, please raise your hand—and I’ll know you’re lying.
There’s something about Australia and Serena that no longer mixes. The last two years she’s been upset in the middle rounds after suffering an injury—in 2013 it was her ankle, this year it was her back. Maybe at 32 her body doesn’t respond well after two full months away, I don’t know. But she has certainly responded well the rest of the year. Despite her recent disappointments in Melbourne, Serena had two of the three best seasons of her career in 2012 and 2013. And she currently has twice as many ranking points—13,000—as her closest competitor, Victoria Azarenka.
But last year she didn’t bounce back all the way, right away. In February, Serena lost to Vika in the final in Doha, which is where both will be heading next week. On the plus side, whatever happens there, it’s obviously too soon to panic. Serena lost just two more matches after Doha in 2013, and while she may no longer seem unbeatable, neither does her primary competition, Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
On the minus side, now Serena’s opponents can think: If Ana Ivanovic did it, why not me?
Vika’s loss in Oz, to Agnieskza Radwanska, was even more surprising than Serena’s loss in Oz. Azarenka loves hard courts, was the two-time defending champion, and had made a point of annihilating Aga the last seven times they played. Throw in a third-set bagel for Radwanska and that was one bizarre result.
Where does that leave Vika now? She’s also the two-time defending champion in Doha, which begins next week. Over the last few years, we’ve seen Azarenka lose to Serena in big matches; we’ve seen her pull out with injuries; we’ve seen defeats on clay. But this is the first time in a while where she has come out of the gates without her best stuff. How she reacts to that over the next two months will be interesting.
From an historical perspective, winning a Grand Slam isn't the best thing for Li Na's game. The last time she did it, at the 2011 French Open, she struggled mightily over the second half of the season. But in those days of volatility, that was pretty much par for the course for Li anyway. Over the second half of 2013, with coach Carlos Rodriguez, she was a much steadier player, and her Aussie Open was no fluke.
The question now is whether Li can replicate those results against her higher-ranked rivals. She didn’t play anyone in the Top 20 in Melbourne, and finished with wins over Genie Bouchard and Dominika Cibulkova in the semis and final—a dream run if ever there was one. We’ll see if her confidence carries over when she returns next week in Doha. It should start on a positive note; as long as Li plays her first match, she’ll move up to No. 2 in the world, the highest ranking ever for an Asian player. Let’s hope we get to see a few more trophy speeches from her in 2014. At nearly 32, her star is still on the rise.
Sharapova’s loss to Cibulkova in Australia wasn’t as surprising as it may have looked at first glance—Maria had lost to Domi twice before. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Sharapova is down to No. 5 in the rankings, hasn’t reached a Slam quarter since last year’s French Open, is coming off an injury in the fall, has a new coach, and was out-hit, and even out-grunted at times, by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the semis in Paris this past week.
All of which makes it a good time for Sharapova to take her annual February break. She’ll pass on the millions on offer in the Middle East this month and pick up a few easy dollars in the commentary booth at the Sochi Olympics instead. In March she’ll make her return to the courts in Indian Wells. This system has worked for her in the past; Sharapova won Indian Wells last year and reached the final the previous year. The heart of her season—the U.S. hard-court and Euro clay-court events that follow—begins next month.
Nothing slows Aga down. She’ll play Fed Cup for Poland this weekend, and is scheduled to be in Doha and Dubai the following two weeks. She comes out of Australia with one big positive—her first win over Azarenka in three years. She also comes out of it with one big negative—her second straight crushing Grand Slam semifinal disappointment. Radwanska blamed this one on having to play two straight days, but she does that every week when she’s not at a Slam, and she’ll have to do it in Doha next week.
Radwanska has always played the scrappy, cunning, defender and natural underdog. Can her win over Azarenka make her see herself as the equal of her fellow Top Fivers? I doubt it; it certainly didn’t give her any more confidence in Oz. But it would be a nice thing to see in 2014.
Nothing ever seems to change for the Czech. Kvitova has been dogged by illness over the years, and it has knocked her out again. A Fed Cup stalwart for the Czech Republic, she’s skipping the event this weekend for health reasons, but she’s still on the entry list for Doha. Kvitova needs to be in shape for the rest of this month. She’s defending quarterfinal points in Doha and champion’s points in Dubai.
Last year Petra was good in February, but this time she’s coming off a first-round loss to Luksika Kumkhum in Melbourne. This doesn’t mean Kvitova is slumping; it just means you never what’s going to happen to her next. Let’s hope she can give us a match as good as her three-set loss to Serena Williams in Doha last year.
Domi’s post-Oz career starts with a tough Fed Cup tie this weekend against Germany, and then a trip to Doha. What else can you say but “Pome!”
Bouchard, the newest and youngest member of the Top 20, will also play Fed Cup this weekend, in her hometown of Montreal, against the Serbs. Then she'll head to Doha and Dubai. A short-term, Sloane-esque letdown after Australia seems plausible. Bouchard’s run to the semis Down Under was exciting, but she beat just one player in the Top 50, Ana Ivanovic, to make it there.
Is a sophomore slump in order for the 22-year-old, who won six titles in 2013? The signs point in both directions so far: Halep reached her first Slam quarterfinal in Melbourne and bageled Jelena Jankovic in a third set to do it. But she has also lost to Madison Keys and Kristina Mladenovic, and was run out of the building by Cibulkova in Oz. Halep will keep at it in Doha and Dubai the next two weeks.
Sloane has had the drop-off—her fourth-round loss in Melbourne moved her down to No. 18, one spot ahead of her new and future rival, Bouchard. Now Stephens has an opportunity for the gain-back: Last year she won just one match in Doha, Dubai, and Indian Wells combined. We’ll see how she and coach Paul Annacone do. On paper, the ex-mentor of an adult Sampras and Federer doesn’t seem like the perfect match for a young woman who has some maturing to do. A wrist problem will keep her out of Fed Cup this weekend.
Caro has already jettisoned one new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, in favor of a new, new coach, Michael Mortenson. The latter worked with her as a teenager, which is a positive, but you wonder how much they can get done starting in February, with Doha and Dubai coming up fast, and the season beginning in earnest soon after. Has anything changed in her game over the last three years, despite the precipitous ranking slide? She could slide further at Indian Wells, where she has finalist's points to defend.