We could be wise and resist reading too much into the first week of ATP and WTA tour play for 2014, but what fun would that be?
Besides, since the offseason in tennis is short, we can expect the players to be in pretty good fighting trim for the start of the New Year. The postseason holiday break and the whole "Auld Lang Syne" thing encourages everyone to hit the reset button, psychologically. But does anyone really expect that things have changed that much?
For all the hype that surrounds Sharapova, it was Williams’ win over Azarenka in the final that was truly noteworthy, for as ESPN’s Howard Bryant was the first to emphatically argue, Azarenka is 32-year-old Williams’ true rival -- at least in terms of the quality of the matches. It may all be splitting hairs to Serena though. The real takeaway is: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
That brings us to Auckland, and a much more newsworthy event if you believe the old definition of “news” (“dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is news). Venus Williams, now 33 and ranked just inside the top 50 when the week began, lost a tight three-setter to French Open champion and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. Will she make one more push in 2014? Could it be that Williams’ will can help her raise Cain this year?
Another pair of 32-year-olds played the final in the ATP Brisbane event (how many 32-year-old tennis icons can the ATP and WTA support, anyway?). Like the other two men’s events last week, Brisbane is an ATP 250, but the promoters obviously didn’t open up their wallets the way the oil-rich sheiks of Doha did. Federer, ranked No. 6, was top-seeded. The No. 2 seed was No. 17 Kei Nishikori.
Despite being the odds-on favorite, Federer found a way to lose a three-setter to multiple Grand Slam champ and former No. 1, ATP No. 60 Lleyton Hewitt (who’s also 32).
Hewitt was 8-18 against Federer going in, but had been unable to beat the Swiss between the Australian Open of 2004 and Halle in 2010; in fact, Federer probably was the main reason Hewitt never won his native Grand Slam (although a number of players might challenge Hewitt for that honor). But Hewitt has won two of their past three meetings, which suddenly makes this something unbelievable: a real, hot rivalry.
So here’s my first prediction for 2014: Federer will draw Hewitt (who’s jumped to No. 43) as his first-round opponent in Australia.
Li Na won the tournament in Shenzhen, China. Her final–round victim was fellow countrywoman Peng Shuai, who’s ranked just No. 42. But Li is under a lot of pressure when she plays at home, and has been known to turn her back and walk away from pressure rather than embracing it. So it’s a good sign for her that she handled the field so competently.
Doha had the most competitive field -- by far -- of all the first-week ATP events, and the way top-seeded Rafael Nadal was forced to fight to earn the title, surviving a three-set match in three of his five outings was ominous -- not for Nadal, but for his rivals.
Apparently, it never crossed Nadal’s mind to write off the desert sojourn as a nice chance to hit a few balls and collect a huge appearance check. While the likes of No. 2 seed David Ferrer, No. 3 Andy Murray, No. 4 Tomas Berdych and No. 5 Richard Gasquet all fell by the wayside without much fuss, Nadal once again gave his peers a lesson in competitive zeal -- and all-around brilliance.
In Chennai, Stanislas Wawrinka, the newest member of the ATP Top 10 club (he ended 2013 at No. 8) rolled like thunder through the field to bag his first title -- and perhaps show that he’s not done climbing the rankings ladder. One persuasive undercurrent last week is that while Nadal and Novak Djokovic (who doesn’t play before the Australian Open) may be untouchable, we could see a shake-up in slots three through 10.
Murray may round back into form after back surgery forced him into the long layoff in the fall, and No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro looks stable -- as does Wawrinka. But Ferrer, Federer, Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gasquet all appear vulnerable -- albeit for different reasons. Are you ready for a game called top-10 musical chairs?