Last Stops Before Melbourne: Previewing Sydney, Hobart, Auckland
Just one week remains before the first major of 2014. Many of the leading contenders will use this last window of time to practice at Melbourne Park, but some will rely on live matches to hone their weapons. Small tournaments in Sydney, Hobart, and Auckland reward workaholics like Agnieszka Radwanska and David Ferrer.
Top half: While the top four women have spurned this event in the week before a major, the rest of the top 10 all have entered. Heading the list is defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, fresh from a light-hearted week at the Hopman Cup. Radwanska won all of her matches on the medium-speed hard court there, including a victory over young Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. She could meet Bouchard again early in the Sydney draw, and a rematch of a three-set Wimbledon battle with American phenom Madison Keys might await afterward. A surprise quarterfinalist in Sydney, Keys faces the task of cooling off a woman who spent the second half of 2013 in scorching form. Simona Halep won no fewer than six titles last year, albeit none of great note, before ending the season on a nine-match winning streak.
The Brisbane draw featured a quarterfinal between Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber, who could meet again in the same round a week later. But thorny section could produce some unexpected twists and turns, courtesy of mercurial shot-makers set to sizzle. Last year’s runner-up, Dominika Cibulkova, has won all four of her meetings with first-round opponent Kerber, two of them in 2013. Meanwhile, Ekaterina Makarova extended first-round opponent Jankovic to a final set last summer, while Kaia Kanepi has recorded notable wins against both Kerber and Jankovic.
Bottom half: Forced to retire from her last match at the Hopman Cup, American No. 2 Sloane Stephens hopes to be fit for the Australian Open. She has no margin for error in Sydney, where an opener against two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova looms. While Kuznetsova battled injuries throughout the second half of last season, Sara Errani battled depleted motivation. The off-season appeared not to refresh her passion for the game, for she fell in the second round of Shenzhen. Equally disastrous was the 2014 debut of doubles partner Roberta Vinci, bounced by a woman outside the top 200 as the top seed in Auckland. The two faltering Italians will square off against each other in a first-round match that somehow somebody must win.
Incurring a shoulder injury during practice, Caroline Wozniacki withdrew from Brisbane but will not travel to Melbourne without match play. The future Mrs. Rory McIlroy eyes two streaky Czech lefties in her vicinity, Lucie Safarova and Petra Kvitova. Bursting back into relevance last fall, Kvitova wona Premier Five title in Tokyo, but Wozniacki defeated the former Wimbledon champion a few months before. Each woman owns something precious that the other lacks: a major title for the Czech and the No. 1 ranking for the Dane. Which woman is more likely to fill the hole in her resume?
Top half: The only top-10 man who had not struck a ball this year, Juan Martin Del Potro is also the only top-20 man in the Sydney draw. Surrounding him are percussive servers from home hope Samuel Groth to young shot-maker Vasek Pospisil and American No. 2 Sam Querrey. The first-round battle pitting Pospisil against Querrey for North American bragging rights ranks among the most intriguing of the draw. Facing a series of relatively raw sluggers, Kvitova’s boyfriend Radek Stepanek hopes that veteran cunning and experience will allow him to spring an upset or two.
A man who scored one of the greatest upsets of his generation, Lukas Rosol could not repeat that feat against Nadal in Doha. Rosol will set his sights on less formidable targets in Sydney, surrounded by a pair of seeds who struggled in Brisbane. Back from a controversial doping suspension, Marin Cilic reached double digits in double faults during his loss there, while Dmitry Tursunov fell in the first round. This section also contains one of the ATP’s smoothest two-handed backhands in Denis Istomin, who won sets from Djokovic and Murray in the second half of 2013.
Bottom half: Hampered by physical issues at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Andreas Seppi moves from that winless week to a potentially tricky draw. One of the many underdogs who flourished in Doha, Florian Mayer upset world No. 4 Andy Murray en route to the semifinals there. Joining Mayer in Seppi’s section is former Sydney finalist Julien Benneteau, a doubles specialist famous for troubling Roger Federer and infamous for failing to trouble anyone in a final. Australian fans will look forward to watching two wildcards, serve-volleyer Matthew Ebden and baseliner Marinko Matosevic. Although Roger Federer drubbed Matosevic in a Brisbane quarterfinal, reaching that stage marked a positive start to the year.
Downed by Ebden in the first round of Sydney two years ago, Marcel Granollers avenged that loss to the Aussie in the first round a year ago. Now he will face another, more notable home hope in the first round. The reigning champion in Sydney, Bernard Tomic always has played his best tennis on home soil but never has faced the pressure of defending a title. If he can survive Granollers, though, a tantalizing clash of young stars awaits against Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz. Forced to withdraw from the Hopman Cup with a foot injury, the fragile Janowicz will rely on Sydney to prepare for a major where he could accumulate plenty of points.
Top half: After losing all three singles matches at the Hopman Cup, top seed Samantha Stosur has won just one of her last 10 outings on Australian soil. The former US Open champion has admitted to struggling under the burden of expectations at home. Perhaps the more tranquil setting of Tasmania will calm her nerves, although she lost two pivotal Fed Cup rubbers there to Italy in 2011. Stosur’s struggles may open the door for a young talent to make a statement, such as Annika Beck. The German teenager has reached the semifinals or better at each of her last two tournaments, on either side of the offseason. A first-round meeting with Bojana Jovanovski intrigues in view of the Serb’s strong form at this stage last year, but little suggests that Jovanovski is ready to catch fire again.
Among the other notable first-round matches is a clash that features rising American Alison Riske, who posed a stern test to Auckland finalist Ana Ivanovic last week. The pre-Australian Open draws have done Riske few favors. This week, she sets her sights on fourth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, among the many players who retired or withdrew from Brisbane. If Pavlyuchenkova’s thigh injury continues to trouble her, however, the draw could open for Riske to make a deep run past players who will struggle to match her firepower.
Bottom half: What to make of this most recent generation of German women? So much talent, so many injuries, so little consistency even when healthy. One of their members, Mona Barthel, won the Hobart title two years ago and has developed a pattern of playing her best tennis early in the season. On the other hand, Barthel has lost six straight matches dating back to the US Open. She lands in the same quarter with defending champion Elena Vesnina, who won her first career title on this court after years of frustration in singles. Holding the third seed in Hobart, Vesnina may find her nerves tested by the funky shot production of Monica Niculescu. Last week, Li Na found Niculescu all that she could handle in a three-set Shenzhen quarterfinal.
The most compelling quarter of the Hobart draw lies at its base. Even on hard courts, Flavia Pennetta has spelled trouble for Auckland finalist Venus Williams throughout their careers. This first-round battle pitting a 31-year-old against a 33-year-old will test the fitness of each woman. While Venus must recover from a full week of matches in Auckland, Pennetta struggled physically in the heat of Perth during the Hopman Cup. Youth could meet age a round later when the winner faces Laura Robson, still two weeks before her 20th birthday despite the attention that she has received already. This tournament marks Robson’s 2014 debut and a chance to atone for last year’s first-round exit here. Unfortunately for her, not only Venus but two other women bring momentum from recent results. Second seed Kirsten Flipkens reached the semifinals in Auckland, and Peng Shuai finished runner-up in Shenzhen. Thus, this section should produce plenty of high-quality matches among women in crisp form at the season’s outset.
Top half: While Del Potro towers above the Sydney draw, world No. 3 David Ferrer looms (figuratively) above Auckland. Concern from a second-half skid in 2013 has trickled into 2014 when Ferrer surrendered meekly to Daniel Brands in Doha. A cozy draw welcomes him back to a comfort zone at a tournament where he has won three straight titles. Adding to Ferrer’s comfort are the Spaniards in his section, clay specialists unlikely to outslug him.
On a collision course with Ferrer in a semifinal is Doha finalist Gael Monfils, who upset top-10 compatriot Richard Gasquet there. The aforementioned Daniel Brands could engage in a duel of explosive serves against Kevin Anderson, although neither man may produce his best tennis on Auckland’s slow hard court. A finalist in Sydney last year, Anderson started the season with solid efforts before fading after the midpoint.
Bottom half: Not the tallest man in Auckland, the lanky Anderson would look up at the 6’10” John Isner, the third seed there. The top American man fell prey to injury ahead of the last Australian Open, so he eyes a golden opportunity to boost his ranking this year by building on a strong week in Hopman Cup. Much more powerful than anyone in his section, Isner should beware of recent nemesis Philipp Kohlschreiber. Despite the gulf in height between them, Kohlschreiber’s shot-making has neutralized the American’s first strikes at each of the last two US Opens.
One of Isner’s compatriots, Jack Sock, received a wildcard into the main draw that could allow him to find traction early in the season. Still near the top 10 as he nears the age of 36, Tommy Haas will hope that the lessons of experience matters more than the energy of youth when he faces the 21-year-old Sock. Like those two men, the flamboyant Benoit Paire might prefer a faster court to showcase his impulsive shot-making. If the quality of tennis ebbs, though, the tempestuous personalities on display will keep spectators entertained.