Fans of the NBA like to talk about “statement” games. Generally speaking, these are regular-season contests between top teams that, while they may not have an effect on the standings, will be remembered come playoff-time.
To import the concept to tennis, we might say that the weeks leading up to any of the four majors are “statement weeks.” That’s what we had over the last seven days, when virtually every player of note was given a chance to make a declaration, not just about the upcoming Australian Open, but about the new season in general.
Off the court, these statements ranged from the bombastic to the tentative. While Borna Coric was declaring himself the “best of my generation” in Chennai, Rafael Nadal was shaking his head in Doha and telling us, “Can happen that I gonna arrive [in Melbourne] and I gonna lose early.”
But which of this weekend’s winners and runners-up made the biggest statements on the court? Which of them is most likely to follow it up with another proclamation in Melbourne? Here’s my countdown of the 10 (plus one) who impressed the most.
Honorable Mention: Aga Radwanska
The Hopman Cup is only an exo, but Radwanska and her Polish teammate Jerzy Janowicz won it, and Aga beat Serena Williams along the way. This isn't so much impressive as it is...interesting. We’ll find out soon if Radwanska is already feeling the influence of new coach Martina Navratilova, and how far that influence might take her.
No. 10: Caroline Wozniacki
Her late-2014 surge continued in Auckland, where she reached the final and won the first set of her career over Venus Williams. But her eventual loss to the 34-year-old American also showed that, while Wozniacki’s consistency and commitment may have returned, her game still has the same limits. She can, in short, be overpowered. Now, unfortunately, she’s also hurt; Caro retired from her first match in Sydney on Monday with a wrist injury.
No. 9: Tomas Berdych
The Birdman reached the final in Doha before losing to David Ferrer. Just as important, he seemed energized by having a new coach, Dani Vallverdu, in his corner. At 29, with his ranking stagnating, Berdych needed that kind of jump start.
No. 8: Ana Ivanovic
With a No. 5 ranking, Ana has a lot to back up each week in 2015. Consider week one a success: She reached the final in Brisbane, won two three-setters, and took a set from Maria Sharapova. The top rung, and the brass ring, are no closer, but no farther, as she heads for Melbourne.
No. 7: David Ferrer
In case you tuned Doha out once Nadal and Novak Djokovic were gone, Ferrer went on to win it, beating Ivo Karlovic in a third-set tiebreaker in the semis, and Berdych in the final. After dropping to No. 10 and passing his 32nd birthday in 2014, that’s a hopeful sign for the Spaniard. This week, though, Ferrer pulled out of Auckland with a back strain. Is his back really hurting? Or after all of these years, has Ferru finally learned about scheduling? If it’s the latter, it would be an even more hopeful sign for the new season.
No. 6: Simona Halep
The world No. 3 canned her coach in the off-season, but she picked up where she left off in Shenzhen, where she rolled through an easy draw. None of her wins came against anyone in the Top 40, but wins over anyone help breed confidence early in the season. She’ll have stiffer competition this week in Sydney.
No. 5: Venus Williams
Considering her age—she’ll be 35 in June—and her health, Venus’s comeback win over Caroline Wozniacki in the Auckland final may have been the most impressive performance of the weekend. Venus, in case you were wondering, is still here to stay. As for her chances of going deep over two weeks in Melbourne, that’s a bigger ask.
No. 4: Maria Sharapova
While she has just one Australian Open title to her name, few players work themselves into better form to start the year than Sharapova. She’s always at least a threat Down Under. In Brisbane, she routed two quality players, Carla Suarez Navarro and Elina Svitolina, and shrugged off a first-set loss to beat Ivanovic in the final. Is Maria the favorite for Melbourne? Not while Serena is still swinging a racquet. But with her old nemesis Victoria Azarenka in rebuilding mode, this may be the best chance Sharapova is going to get at a second win in Oz.
No. 3: Stan Wawrinka
Like Halep, Wawrinka didn’t have the toughest of draws in Chennai, where he won the title without facing anyone in the Top 20. The bigger point, though, is that Stan, with Switzerland’s first Davis Cup title in his back pocket, is playing with consistency and purpose at the moment, and he’s giving us a sense of déjà vu about his game. Last January, he won Chennai and went on to win the Aussie Open.
No. 2: Roger Federer
It was yet another banner week for the Maestro. With his title in Brisbane, Federer joined Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl as the only men in the Open era to win 1,000 matches. Perhaps more important, though, he dismissed two young challengers, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, along the way. In the first, a 6-2, 6-2 blowout, Federer showed he can still cruise at a high altitude if his opponent lets him; in the second, a three-set dogfight, he showed he can still find ways to win even when he’s outplayed for stretches. I’d say Djokovic remains the favorite coming into the Australian Open, but Federer has put himself right up there with him.
No. 1: Milos Raonic
He lost to Federer in the Brisbane final, and he did it by double-faulting and netting a forehand on the last two points. But Raonic was still the revelation of the week. We already know what Federer, Sharapova, Wawrinka, Venus, and even Halep can do when they’re at their best. Raonic, in his last two matches in Brisbane, showed us more than he ever has in the past. Perhaps for the first time, I could see a major in his future, and I could see how he would go about winning it.
In the semis, he beat his closest rival in the ATP's Next Slam Champ sweepstakes, Kei Nishikori. Yes, Milos got some help from a couple of nervy Nishikori moments in tiebreakers, but what was impressive was the way Raonic gritted the match out despite being the lesser player for much of it. There was an extra level of determination and focus to Raonic in this one, and it carried over to his match against Federer.
What Raonic added in the final was a new dynamism and aggression on his forehand side. He pushed Federer around with that shot, so much so that Federer screamed in disbelieving rage when one of Milos's forehand returns landed smack on the baseline for a winner. Raonic even drilled one forehand from behind the baseline while leaping in the air. I’m not sure I’ve seen him do anything that athletic before.
Call it a statement shot.