The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Here’s how we rate the week at the the Brisbane International, the Qatar Open, ASB Classic, Chennai Open and Hopman Cup exhibition.
Lleyton Hewitt: A-plus. Are you kidding me? A month shy of his 33rd birthday, Australia’s Lawnmower Man marched through the Brisbane International draw to win his first title on home soil since 2005, defeating top-seeded Roger Federer 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 in the final. Hewitt won his first title since the Gerry Weber Open in 2010, when he beat — wait for it — Federer in the final. His 29th career title pushed him to No. 43 in the rankings — the first time since 2010 that he’s been ranked inside the top 50 — and made him the No. 1 Aussie again. He’ll be one of the most dangerous unseeded players at the Australian Open — all during a time when, let’s face it, everyone was wondering if this might be his last year on tour. Leave it to Lleyton to quiet the whispers with a resounding, “COME ON!”
Serena Williams: A. New year, same result. Not only did Williams defend her Brisbane title without dropping a set, but she also defeated her two biggest rivals. Serena topped Maria Sharapova 6-2, 7-6 (7) in the semifinals and followed that up with a 6-4, 7-5 win over No. 2 Victoria Azarenka. This was an important victory for Williams before the Australian Open, which she hasn’t won since 2010.
Rafael Nadal: A. It’s weird to think that a year ago Nadal was holed up in Mallorca recovering from a virus that derailed his preseason training and ruled him out of the Australian Open. Now, he’s winning outdoor hard-court tournaments like it’s no big deal. Nadal didn’t beat a top-20 player en route to his title at the Qatar Open — he defeated No. 31 Gael Monfils 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2 in the final and dropped a set to No. 162 Peter Gojowczyk in the semifinals — but the week was still notable for his first title in Doha.
Ana Ivanovic: A-plus. The 2008 French Open champion and former No. 1 hadn’t won a regular-season WTA title since the Generali Ladies Linz in 2010 (the WTA Tournament of Champions, which she won in 2010 and 2011, is a postseason invitational event). The affable Serb finally ended her three-year drought at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, where she marched to the final without dropping a set and beat Venus Williams 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 to win the title. Is this a turning point for Ivanovic? We’ll have to wait and see. But for her to hold her nerve throughout the week and rebound from losing the second set to Venus is a very positive sign.
Stanislas Wawrinka: A. One of the biggest questions surrounding Wawrinka entering 2014 was whether he could back up his fantastic 2013 season. He did his best to answer that question positively with a title at the Chennai Open, where the top seed defeated Edouard Roger-Vasselin 7-5, 6-2 in the final.
Li Na: A. Li had an easy draw to defend her Shenzhen Open title, but we’ve seen her screw those up. Sure enough, she had to battle for a tough three-set win over No. 59 Monica Niculescu in the quarterfinals before dispatching Peng Shuai in straight sets in the final. Unlike last season, she opted to skip the tougher competition at the Sydney International and head straight to Melbourne to finish her Australian Open preparations. Given that Li is such a confidence player, I’m not so sure that decision is the right one.
Roger Federer: B. There were some encouraging signs in Federer’s first tournament of the year, but he faltered in the final. Happy and healthy after the offseason, Federer debuted his new Wilson racket and sliced through the his first two opponents, Jarkko Nieminen and Marinko Matosevic, while looking like the Federer of old. He narrowly escaped with a three-set win over Jeremy Chardy in the semifinals and then, against his old rival Hewitt, his backhand completely misfired and Hewitt ground him down relatively easily, considering how quick the courts were playing.
Andy Murray: C-minus. Before the Australian Open, Murray needed match play more than anything after nearly four months off following back surgery. But he certainly didn’t get it at the Qatar Open. He won his opening match 6-0, 6-0 in 38 minutes over a Qatari wild card ranked No. 2,129, and then blew a set and 3-0 lead to lose to Germany’s Florian Mayer 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I predict that Murray’s Australian Open breakthrough isn’t coming this year.
Maria Sharapova: B-plus. In her first tour event since shutting down her 2013 season in August because of a shoulder injury, Sharapova won three matches before losing to Williams 6-2, 7-6 (7) in the semifinals. She showed that vintage Sharapova fight to come back and beat Kaia Kanepi 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. On top of that, she’s back up to No. 3 after a solid week’s work.
Venus Williams: A-minus. Playing only her second final since May 2010, Venus lost a three-setter to Ivanovic in Auckland. This was an incredibly positive start of the season for the 33-year-old, who said she was feeling fit and healthy. With four matches under her belt, it was good to see her do the smart thing and withdraw from this week’s Hobart International.
Alize Cornet: B-plus. The 23-year-old Frenchwoman thrives on drama, whether self-created or not, and there was no better venue for that than the Hopman Cup. Cornet played valiantly, taking Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska to three sets in singles before losing, and her doubles prowess helped propel Team France to the win.
Agnieszka Radwanska: B. Radwanska, who went 3-0 in singles at the Hopman Cup, did everything she could to get Team Poland the win with last-minute substitute Grzegorz Panfil, ranked No. 285, who was called upon after Jerzy Janowicz withdrew. But the pair couldn’t pull it off, and Radwanska may have left the tournament worse for the wear by reaggravating a right-shoulder injury. Still, the spectators appreciated her effort; her match against Cornet, which she won 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-2, was the best of the tournament, producing many highlights.
Injuries: F. The number of injuries to start the season is another reminder about how cruelly short the tennis offseason is. From Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens to John Isner and Nicolas Almagro, more than 30 players will go into the Australian Open with genuine fitness questions.
Ana Konjuh: B-plus. The reigning junior champion at the Australian Open and U.S. Open pulled off a good upset in her first WTA match, beating No. 14 Roberta Vinci 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in Auckland. A tall, strong player with weapons, the 16-year-old from Croatia is one to watch this season.
Aussies: B-plus. A nice week for the home team, as long as we all agree to ignore what happened in Perth, where Sam Stosur and Bernard Tomic were the first team eliminated from the Hopman Cup. Hewitt stole the headlines with his win at the Brisbane International, but the lesser-known Aussies had their chance to shine, too. Ashleigh Barty, 17, got the best win of her young career by upsetting No. 33 Daniela Hantuchova as a qualifier in the first round of Brisbane (she then withdrew with an adductor injury), and Matosevic ousted Julien Benneteau and Sam Querrey to make the Brisbane quarterfinals.
American women: B-plus … with an asterisk. Once again, Serena and Venus Williams led the charge by both reaching finals, but it was a quality start to the season almost across the board for the American women. (At least it was a strong start until everyone started getting injured). Stephens looked good in her matches at the Hopman Cup, where she beat Anabel Medina Garrigues and Cornet before retiring against Petra Kvitova with a wrist injury. Jamie Hampton made the Auckland semifinals, but gave Venus a walkover after sustaining a hip injury. Similarly, Vania King made the semifinals in Shenzhen thanks to an upset of Sara Errani, but a thigh injury led to a withdrawal and sent Peng into the final.
Gael Monfils: A. He’s back in the top 30 after advancing to the Doha final with a run that included a victory over Richard Gasquet. Monfils will be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time since last year’s Australian Open, which is good news for both the Frenchman and the rest of the field.
Sam Stosur: C-plus. She went winless at the Hopman Cup, with losses to Flavia Pennetta and Radwanska, but she did hit this incredible squash shot:
The start of the 2014 season: A-minus. I could do without the growing list of injuries, but all in all that was a perfect start to the 2014 season. The highly ranked veterans expected to dominate delivered titles, and there were still a few feel-good surprises. Works for me.