The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Last week saw two first time titlists and a surge among the young Americans.
Bernard Tomic: A-plus. Was Tomic’s new year’s resolution to let his tennis do the talking? Tomic, 20, finished his Aussie Open lead-up undefeated, capturing his first career title in Sydney by beating South Africa’s Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-3 in the final. It’s easy to forget why Tomic has been a player to watch since he won the 2008 Australian Open junior title and turned pro. Much is his own fault. Off-court antics, whether run-ins with the cops for speeding or half-naked rooftop wrestling or admissions of tanking have given enough material for the doubters. But when he plays well, as the last two weeks, he’s so different from the standard baseline bashing that has become the ATP norm.
The last few years we’ve seen Tomic sit back and goad opponent to make errors in their attempts to hit through him. This year we’ve seen him use variety to set up balls that he can have a crack at. It’s not unlike Murray’s transformation last year from being a guy who put a sleeper hold on his opponent to one who’s willing to step in and end points. Now to see whether Tomic can keep it up at a Slam.
Of course, Tomic couldn’t completely avoid his words causing some eyebrows to perk up.
After winning the Sydney title: “I feel unstoppable. I feel like I’m playing great tennis. When you know no one can beat you, not even the No. 1 [he beat Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup exhibition], you got a great feeling.”
About his projected showdown with Roger Federer in the third round of the Australian Open: “Well, if he gets that far.”
Confident bordering on cocky? Sure. But show me a 20-year-old guy who isn’t cocky.
Agnieszka Radwanska: A-plus. Uh, she beat Dominika Cibulkova in the Sydney final 6-0, 6-0. Surely that’s worth some AP credits. Radwanska takes a nine-match win streak into Melbourne after winning her second title of 2013.
David Ferrer: A. The soon-to-be No. 1 Spaniard captured his third straight Auckland title, defeating No. 2 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-6, 6-1. Workmanlike as ever, I’d be surprised if Ferrer didn’t make the semis in Melbourne.
Elena Vesnina: A. The Russian was previously 0-6 in finals before Hobart, where she stopped Mona Barthel 6-3, 6-4 in the final. Always nice to see a hard-working journeywoman break through for a title.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: B. Kuznetsova couldn’t follow up her big win over Caroline Wozniacki, losing to Angelique Kerber in the Sydney quarterfinals. Still, she’ll be one of the most dangerous floaters in Melbourne. But the best thing about Kuznetsova’s week was hearing her say she she thinks she has more things to accomplish in tennis. That’s encouraging coming rom a two-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 2.
Young Americans: A. I couldn’t have been more impressed by what Sloane Stephens, Lauren Davis and Madison Keys did last week. Stephens backed up her Brisbane quarterfinal with a run to the Hobart semifinals, precisely what she needed after a history of letdowns in smaller tournaments. The tired loss she took to eventual champion Vesnina in the semifinals was a blessing in disguise, giving her a few extra days’ rest before the Aussie Open.
But it was Davis, 19, and Keys, 17, who really impressed. In her first WTA quarterfinal, the diminutive Davis — listed at 5-foot-2, though that might be generous — showed tremendous grit and fight in a 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 loss to Stephens.
And then there’s Keys, who continued to make American tennis fans lament the WTA’s age-restriction rules that limit the number of WTA tournaments she can play. But in only her eighth WTA main draw appearance, Keys made her first quarterfinal, defeating two quality opponents in Lucie Safarova and Zheng Jie, and then giving Li Na a good scare before losing 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. Li sounded more relieved than triumphant. “She has a huge, big serve and I was waiting a little bit in the back,” Li said. “In the second set I tried to play more aggressive and I was happy to come away with the match, it was a tough match.
“If she plays like this every match she will soon be in the top 20, top 15, top 10.”
Australian Open Draw Ceremony: C-minus. Love that the ceremony was streamed online and posted so quickly. But it was delayed over 35 minutes because they had defending champions Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic arriving on a boat down the Yarra River, which must have been captained by Gilligan. The delay meant a block of superfluous chatter that was about five minutes from turning into a “Who’s on First” routine.
Thanasi Kokkinakis: B-plus. Not too many 16-year-old juniors can say they’ve played alongside Venus Williams and against Novak Djokovic, but this young Aussie can. Kokkinakis was a late call-up at the Hopman Cup to take the place of injured John Isner and Tommy Haas.
There’s a lot to like about the young kid, who at such a young ago already has a serve that has caused the top players to take note. In the first round of Australian Open qualifying. Kokkinakis — nicknamed “Kok” in Australia — held his own against Steve Johnson, splitting the first two sets 6-4, 6-7 (5). Then came the marathon third set that lasted over two hours. Kokkinakis broke Johnson as he served for the match at 6-5, then held serve right along the two-time NCAA champion, before his body finally let him down and he lost 17-15. The weapons are there for Kokkinakis, and his poise in pressure situations make him a name to look out for.
Dominika Cibulkova: B-minus. You spend the week beating three top-10 players back-to-back-to-back, knocking out Petra Kvitova, Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber like it ain’t no thing, and then lose 6-0, 6-0 to Radwanska in the Sydney final. There’s no way Cibulkova walks out of that tournament feeling confident after that drubbing.
Lleyton Hewitt: B-plus. Hewitt won the Kooyong exhibition thanks to wins over Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro in the final. That’s three top-15 players for Old Rusty. With the obvious caveat that this was an exhibition, you still have to say “wow.”
Jack Sock and John Isner: D. I’m not sure why Isner decided to play Sydney after he withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a knee injury, but his 6-4, 6-4 loss to Ryan Harrison seemed to cement his decision to skip the Aussie Open. It’s hard not to wonder if Isner would have been able to heal up if he had taken the week off instead.
Sock was also cruelly hit by the injury bug. He skipped the USTA’s Australian Open wildcard playoff, choosing instead to play qualifying in order to stay home and continue with his training block to prepare for the season. In his first-round match against Paul Capdeville he retired down 6-7, 7-6, 3-1.
SpongeBob: C-minus. I really thought he’d get the better of Dora the Explorer this year.