The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis.
Serena Williams: A. Williams didn’t drop a set in winning the Brisbane International for her 47th career title (the most among active players), destroying Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-1 in the final. “I always feel like I don’t know how to play tennis when I play against you,” Pavlyuchenkova said in her runner-up speech. Something tells me she’s not the only player who feels that way. Given Williams’ performance these days, she takes the racket out of her opponents’ hands and renders them spectators. Williams is usually her toughest critic, but even she admits that she’s in a “career zone” right now.
“I was looking at a lot of old matches on YouTube, and I feel like right now I’m playing some of my best tennis,” she said.
The numbers back up that contention: Williams has won 16 consecutive matches and 35 of 36 since losing in the first round of the French Open. Though she didn’t have to face anyone in the top 20 all week (No. 1 Victoria Azarenka withdrew from a semifinal match against Serena with a toe injury), Williams looks to be firing on all cylinders as she heads to Melbourne. If she’s not your pick to win the Australian Open, you’re being contrarian for contrarian’s sake.
Andy Murray: B-plus. Murray started his Brisbane campaign by going three sets against an Australian qualifier ranked No. 199, John Millman. But the Scot did well to play himself into form through the week, culminating in a 7-6 (0), 6-4 win against Grigor Dimitrov in the final. It wasn’t the dominating display that you might see from Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer in a tune-up event with a weak field, but that’s never been Murray’s style. It wasn’t pretty, but he got the victories and defended his title. Winning with your “B” game can be a confidence booster, too.
Li Na: B-plus. Li didn’t have to face a top-20 player on her way to winning the inaugural Shenzhen Open, but she did have to overcome one of her toughest foes: herself. Maybe it was the pressure of playing before a home crowd or perhaps it was the standard nerves that come with serving for a title, but Li squandered a 5-2 lead in the third set against Klara Zakopalova in the final. Zakopalova only had to stand there as Li imploded, double-faulting (she served 10 for the match) and dumping forehands into the net to level the match at 5-5. Li looked to be unraveling, but she steadied herself just in time, winning the final two games for a 6-3, 1-6, 7-5 victory.
Richard Gasquet: B-plus. A strong start to the season for Gasquet, who’s looking to build on a good 2012 in which he finished in the top 10. But let’s not pretend that Gasquet didn’t get a little help from Nikolay Davydenko in the Qatar Open final. Davydenko, who steamrolled top-seeded David Ferrer in the semifinals, led 6-3, 4-2 and had two break points for a double-break lead in the second set when the wheels came off. The 31-year-old Davydenko — who hadn’t been broken entering the final — crumbled as he neared the finish line, letting Gasquet back in the match. The Frenchman, who spent most of the match well behind the baseline, didn’t let the opportunity slide against the fatigued Russian, rallying to win 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to capture his eighth career title.
Agnieszka Radwanska: A. Pretty standard stuff from the WTA No. 4, who opted to play the smaller tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, with a weaker field over Brisbane, where her on-court nemeses, Azarenka and Williams, were lurking. A-Rad didn’t drop a set in five matches, including a 6-4, 6-4 victory against Yanina Wickmayer in the final.
Janko Tipsarevic: B-plus. Tipsarevic finally won the Chennai Open after making the semifinals or better the previous three years, beating surprise finalist Roberto Bautista Agut 3-6, 6-1, 6-3. But it was surprising to see Tipsy, who didn’t face anyone ranked higher than No. 60, get pushed to three by both Bautista Agut (ranked No. 80 at the start of the tournament) in the final and Alijaz Bedene (No. 86) in the semifinals.
Grigor Dimitrov and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: A. The Brisbane runner-ups represented the future well last week. Pavlyuchenkova, who now trains at the Mouratoglou Academy, scored back-to-back victories over top-10 opponents in Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber before falling to Williams in her first Premier-level final. Ain’t no shame in losing to Serena these days, so that’s a solid week for Pavs, who’s looking to rebound from a subpar 2012. The 21-year-old’s run assured her a seeding at the Australian Open.
As for Dimitrov, he absolutely routined Milos Raonic in the second round, beating the Canadian 6-3, 6-4. The 21-year-old Bulgarian carried that form through to defeat Jurgen Melzer and Marcos Baghdatis to make his first career ATP final. Dimitrov pushed Murray in the final, holding a set point in the first set. Could this be the year that “Baby Fed” makes an impact? He’s now at a career-high ranking of No. 41.
Roberto Bautista Agut: A. Who? Yeah, no kidding. The unheralded 24-year-old Spaniard, ranked No. 80 and 3-12 on the ATP Tour entering Chennai, made his first ATP final by upsetting top-seeded Tomas Berdych, 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 and fifth-seeded Benoit Paire, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 before losing to Tipsarevic.
Sloane Stephens: B-plus. She really held her own against Williams in the third round of Brisbane, exchanging power for power and showing great movement in a match that displayed Stephens’ promise. The 19-year-old American is a speedster who can hit and serve for power. What’s not to be excited about here? She moved up to a career-high No. 29 this week, securing a seed for the Australian Open.
Nikolay Davydenko: B-plus. Focus on the positives — his win over Ferrer, his ability to hold serve through four matches, his incredible form through 90 percent of the tournament that recalled his top-four ranking — and I want to give him an “A-plus.” But focus on the negatives — his inability to hold his nerve to close it out in the final — and I just want to forget the other four matches happened. Keep an eye on him in Melbourne. Depending on his fitness — Davydenko was treated for hip injury in the third set of the final and admitted that he wasn’t moving well late in the match — he could be a dangerous floater.
Petra Kvitova: D. I’m officially at DEFCON 3 when it comes to Kvitova. With straight-set losses to Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of Sydney, Kvitova will go into Melbourne struggling for confidence.
Sam Stosur: D. Like Kvitova, Stosur heads into Melbourne without any momentum after opening-round losses to Sofia Arvidsson in Brisbane and Zheng Jie in Sydney.
Jamie Hampton: B-plus. Hampton quietly put together a career week. The 22-year-old Alabama native made her first career WTA semifinal, where she had every opportunity to score the biggest win of her career, against the top-seeded Radwanska in Auckland. Hampton served for the first set at 6-5, but she played nervously to get broken, and she eventually lost the set in a tiebreaker. She climbed out of an 0-4 hole in the second set by winning five consecutive games, but then dropped her second tiebreaker of the day. A disappointing result, but not a disappointing week.
John Isner: D. Isner lost to Kevin Anderson and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Hopman Cup before withdrawing because of a sore knee. He’s still struggling to break serve. Not good.
Monica Puig: A. In the best WTA match of the week, the 19-year-old Puerto Rican qualifier, ranked No. 124, came within a few points of stunning fifth-ranked Angelique Kerber in the second round of Brisbane, losing 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7). I was very impressed with her game. One to watch.
Ksenia Pervak: B-plus. Her quarterfinal appearance in Brisbane was hard-earned. After winning three matches to qualify, Pevak knocked out Caroline Wozniacki 2-6 6-3 7-6 (1) in two hours and 48 minutes and outlasted Urszula Radwanska 3-6 6-2 7-6 (6).
Anabel Medina Garrigues: A. People can dismiss Hopman Cup as a pure exhibition, but if you saw Medina Garrigues’ reaction to winning the title for Spain, you might second-guess that assessment. AMG carried partner Fernando Verdasco through the competition. Her win over Ana Ivanovic in the final set up a live mixed-doubles rubber for the title. Once Spain got the break it needed late in the second set, it was AMG who coolly served it out to seal the victory.
Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic: A. The Serbs once again fell short of the Hopman Cup title, but they carried the tournament when it came to entertainment value.
Fernando Verdasco: C-minus. Shave and a haircut, buddy. Everyone’s begging you.
Cara Black: A. In her first WTA tournament since becoming a mom in April, the doubles specialist won Auckland with Anastasia Rodionova. That’s quite the return.
Kei Nishikori: B-minus. Nishikori had a strong week on his way to the Brisbane semifinals, only to have to retire against Murray with a knee injury. Can the 23-year-old stay healthy?
Bernard Tomic: A. Tomic went 3-0 at Hopman Cup, with victories against Djokovic, Tommy Haas and Andreas Seppi. Congratulations, Bernie. People are talking about your tennis again. Keep it up.