Friday 10 to 1: biggest shocks of 2013 so far
Now that the new tennis season has established itself and settled into a routine, we reflect on the biggest surprises that have come in 2013.
When January arrived, the promise of a new tennis season awaited. Fresh storylines. New faces. A different storyboard of wins, losses, injuries, rivalries, classics and dramas.
We’ve seen a Grand Slam come and go, the return of Rafael Nadal, and two months of the tennis calendar quickly fly by. Now that the 2013 season has firmly established itself and the tour has settled into its usual routine, this Friday we look back at the biggest shocks that have occurred so far.
Apia International Sydney finals, particularly on the women’s side, have a history of being extraordinary matches. The 2012 final between Azarenka and Li was a classic, as were the finals in 2005 through to 2009, which were all three-set epics. Which is what made Agnieszka Radwanska’s utter destruction of Dominika Cibulkova all the more surprising, particularly given Cibulkova had shown excellent form in beating three seeds en route to the decider. Yet Radwanska was simply a class above on this occasion, winning in just one hour and taking her winning streak in 2013 to nine matches, all without the loss of a set. It was just the third double-bagel final result in the tournament’s history – the last came back in 1893.
Bernard Tomic had finished 2012 in a rut. He was losing matches all over the place – often comprehensively – and was receiving advice, criticism and comments from all corners about how to arrest his alarming dip in form and slide in the rankings. When 2013 began, Tomic emerged transformed. How one could go from losing everything to winning everything after just a short break between seasons is astounding, yet that’s exactly what he did. The young Aussie beat a string of credentialled opponents at the Hopman Cup – including world No.1 Novak Djokovic in straight sets – before winning five matches on his way to the Sydney title, his first ATP title. Having fallen to No.64 in early January, Tomic is now knocking on the door of the top 40.
Men’s matches in the early rounds of Grand Slams aren’t usually known for being classics, particularly when one of the Big Four is involved. And given Djokovic had cruised through to the fourth round at Australian Open 2013, many expected Stan Wawrinka to simply act as a minor bump on the Serb’s road to more Grand Slam glory. Yet the Swiss – then ranked world No.17 – came ever so close to creating an enormous upset. Playing at a level almost never before seen, Wawrinka raced to a 6-1 5-2 lead, before Djokovic began to assert himself in the match. Which makes Wawrinka’s response to Djokovic’s comeback all the more impressive. Instead of hanging his head after letting slip a huge lead, the Swiss bounced back, taking the fourth set against the tide and contributing to the outstanding level of play that saw the match finish at 12-10 in the fifth (in Djokovic’s favour) and become widely regarded as the match of the tournament.
Most people knew that Sloane Stephens was a talent. But the semifinals of a Grand Slam? Stephens really showed she could play in Melbourne. The No.29 seed took advantage of an open draw to take her place in the quarterfinals, and found herself staring across the net at Serena Williams, the most intimidating force in women’s tennis. Yet instead of wilting as so many before her have, Stephens played an extremely solid match, troubling Williams and remaining focused despite the injury cloud surrounding her opponent. After upsetting her compatriot, Stephens almost went one better against Azarenka in the semis, forcing the rattled Belarusian all the way before Vika finally ended her run. Stephens is now entrenched in the top 20.
Maria Sharapova had been the talk of the women’s event in Melbourne when she opened her campaign with two 6-0 6-0 wins and reached the last four after dropping just nine games, an Open Era record. But somehow none of that bothered Li Na, who stepped onto Rod Laver Arena and promptly dissected the second seed in their blockbuster semifinal. Sharapova simply had no answer to Li’s game – the Chinese star served better, hit with more authority, was superior on the return, and moved better. Li claimed a one-sided 6-2 6-2 win and moved into her second Australian Open final in three years.
They were wildcards into the event. They’d only recently started playing together. Yet something clicked when Ash Barty and Casey Dellacqua teamed up at Melbourne Park, and they became the first Australian pairing in over 35 years to reach the final of the Australian Open. A delightful blend of youth and experience, Barty and Dellacqua claimed some mighty scalps during their run, including that of third seeds Lisa Raymond and Maria Kirilenko. And they very nearly caused a boilover in the final, taking top seeds Sara Errani and Lisa Raymond to three. The duo plans to play together more regularly as the season progresses.
Another pleasant surprise for the Australian fans was the run of Matt Ebden and Jarmila Gajdosova, who, like Barty and Dellacqua, were a wildcard pairing into their event. And the Aussie mixed team went one better, storming to the title and each winning their first Grand Slam trophy. After Ebden texted Gajdosova at Christmas to gauge her interest in teaming up, the pair combined well from the outset, upending the second and fifth seeded teams en route to the championship and becoming the first local winners since Scott Draper and Sam Stosur in 2005.
These days, it’s hard to expect Roger Federer to get up for every tournament, given he’s been a pro for 15 years and has achieved every accolade in the book. Yet the 31-year-old remains a proud competitor and has an excellent record in Rotterdam, making his quarterfinal defeat to Julien Benneteau all the more shocking. The defending champ was brushed aside 6-3 7-5, helping the French veteran to improve his record against the Swiss great to 2-4.
It’s ironic that the first time Azarenka scored a win over Serena in four years came the week she’d relinquished her No.1 ranking to the American legend. Will the WTA rankings ever follow the form guide? But technicalities aside, this match pitted the world’s best two players against each other – and the underdog was victorious. Serena entered the match after quality wins over Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova, had won her last nine matches against the Belarusian, and owned an impressive 47-15 win-loss record in finals. But it counted for little as Azarenka played one of her finest matches to upend the new world No.1 and restore a little more credibility to the pair’s head-to-head.
It may seem harsh to deem a player’s loss in a final as the biggest shock of 2013 so far. Especially when you consider they were returning from an eight-month injury lay-off. But when Rafael Nadal loses a claycourt final, everybody sits up and takes notice. Even more so when it comes to Horacio Zeballos, who had never before scored a top 10 win and who was then ranked No.73. Nadal had shown some signs of a return to form given he’d won three matches in straight sets to reach the final, and led by a set before Zeballos roared back to win 6-7(2) 7-6(6) 6-4. The Argentine became just the third person to beat Nadal in a claycourt final (along with Federer and Djokovic) and dealt Rafa just his fifth loss in 41 career claycourt finals.