No more exhibitions. No more shots taken from various and sundry posh vacation spots around the globe. The coaching changes have been made and the players are in shape (some of them are but I digress). The first full week of the tennis season found tournaments in Doha, Chennai, Shenzen, Auckland and Brisbane. The first full week of tennis found WTA players dropping like flies retiring with injuries that seem real enough but seem to pop up at odd times during matches.
As I said most of the returning players are fit if not match tough but that will come. Some have made changes in their games. Some, like Gaël Monfils have started the year with a new, more mature look and a seemingly more mature approach to the sport he plays for a living. Others, like Dominika Cibulkova showed up with a bit of left over relaxation around the waist that a dark kit couldn't hide. I think we've seen the best of Domi but have yet to see Gaël play a full year healthy and able to control his talent.
Brisbane had the marquee match of the nascent season though as WTA World #1 Serena Williams faced WTA #3 Maria Sharapova. Sharapova was one of the players who added a new coach over the off season and Sven Groeneveld seemed to have more coaching advice for her than her previous coach did. Not once did he tell her that her opponent was about to cave to her specialness. Instead he gave reasoned advice that Sharapova seemed to listen to.
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During the first set Serena romped but the second set was a war and showed just what Sharapova has been up to while "rehabbing her shoulder" the last few weeks. She seems more comfortable coming in. She pulled off a decent backhand overhead and yes for a while it seemed she would win the second set against a Serena who had started off in her usual laconic style and now found herself in a steel cage match.
This was a Premier event for the women and as soon as the draw came out the only match anyone cared about was Williams vs Sharapova. Groeneveld is considered something of a genius by some although I haven't seen any player he has worked with scale the heights of world rankings. As Karen said in a comment the world of tennis is one of the most incestuous in the sports world and I would add especially in the United States so when you hear someone like Groeneveld hailed as a genius despite no visible results you get an idea of what she means. He's popular and of Scandinavian descent so of course he's the bestest ever.
But all of that did nothing to get his charge the win. Serena wasn't playing her best and was down at critical points in the second set but in the end she won the match in straight sets. Since Sharapova had already said publicly that her shoulder was fine the only narrative available was the one we all saw: even playing "meh" tennis Serena is better that Maria. And she has been for some time, shoulder or no shoulder.
I didn't see any of Shenzen but thought that it would be interesting to see who won the Final between Li Na and Peng Shuai. Li won and thus advances the career of the loathsome Carlos Rodriguez.
I didn't watch any of the Hopman Cup exhibition either. I was disappointed to see Sloane Stephens drop out after so many reports of her playing very well. She was scheduled to play this week but withdrew as well. That would've looked weird even for tennis. I'm glad Alizé Cornet did well in Perth.
Stepping in here to say that Madison Keys, only 18, is playing in Hobart and I thought that her match against last years phenom Simona Halep would be a showcase for where she is at present and where she would possibly go in 2014. It did, but not in the way I thought it would.
Halep started 2014 the winner of six titles in 2013 and predicted by many to make the top five if not top three in ranking. I thought that she would continue her surge against Madison but it was Madison who literally romped to a 6-1, 5-0 lead over the hapless Halep who seemed to have wandered onto the court by accident with only a rudimentary tennis ability. Don't believe anything you read about Halep having a surge in the second set. Keys succumbed to the pressure of the moment and handed her opponent four straight games. I'm not a fan of on court coaching but it was obvious she had no way to make it back without some help and the visit from her coach seemed to calm and steady her. She won the second set 6-4 and that was that. As Marion Bartoli said it's much easier being the hunter than the hunted. Her coach, Jay Gooding of the USTA, didn't come flying out of the stands and berate her and for once a player coached by the USTA didn't make his charge play worse after his visit. It's going to be interesting to see how Ms Keys does down under.
To be honest I had no great expectations for Rafael Nadal in Doha. Monfils was playing well on his way to the Final and since Monfils has owned Rafa in Doha I figured He had a very good chance at defeating the ATP #1. But Rafa did what he had to do and won against a player he'd had trouble with at this venue.
Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images AsiaPac
So what the hell is Lleyton Hewitt doing holding the victory trophy at Brisbane? To understand that you have to go back to the semifinal match he played against Kei Nishikori. Both men were fighting not only each other but the oppressive heat. At one point I thought Nishikori was going to pass out if Hewitt didn't before him. Hewitt is from Australia and to see him suffering drove home how bad the heat was. Watching I was glad Nishikori didn't win because he wouldn't have been able to play well the next day. When I rewatched I saw that Hewitt wasn't in any better shape and thought that the man across the net, Roger Federer, would have an easy time against a physically depleted Hewitt.
Federer reached the Final by defeating Jarkko Nieminen, Marinko Matosevic and Jeremy Chardy. Matosevic did push Federer to three sets but that was the most difficult match he had. Hewitt faced Thanasi Kokkinakis, Feliciano Lopez, and Marius Copil before Nishikori, the only one to push him to three sets.
I wasn't even going to watch but I was awake so I figured I'd use the match as white noise. The first set had just ended when I turned it on and I woke up. What? Hewitt took the first set 6-1? So I watched. I won't lie I did doze off but woke up to see Federer on his way to winning the second set 6-4.
I'm sorry I don't know the names of the TennisTV commentators. They have many new people working this year and since I came in late I don't know who the two men were.
I can say that one of them was outraged about Hewitt being called for several foot faults going so far as to show video that attempted to prove that he wasn't committing foot faults. He even questioned why, at a critical junction, one was called going as far to say that in that situation it shouldn't have been called at all. Y'all know where my mind went. So there are times when something like a foot fault shouldn't be called? Really? Those of us who said the exact same thing about a similar call a couple of years ago were vilified. Maybe it was because of who was called and the perception many had of that player charging at this tiny little line judge. Tellingly they didn't show the line judge who kept calling the foot fault. Sigh. Hewitt did argue with the chair that he was not foot faulting but of course that was no big deal.
Then there was the out right rooting for Federer from the comms. Again one was worse than the other but it amazes me how invested some of the comms are in this one player. Instead of calling the match as it was happening all I heard was coaching advice for Federer. It would've helped if they'd talked more about what Hewitt was doing instead of what Federer should've been doing.
But Hewitt, looking remarkably fit after the previous day's match held on and won the third set and the match. Hewitt has beaten Federer before. He won at Halle in 2010, Davis Cup in 2003, and the Shanghai and Paris Masters in 2002 but Federer dominates their head to head.
Most players who didn't play last week are playing this week in Sydney, Auckland and Hobart. Everyone will be in Melbourne where play begins January 13.
The month of living backwards has begun.