When a new tennis season begins, it doesn’t ease its way back in. It turns the hose on full blast and leaves you to try to make sense of the flood of results.
So what should we think of an opening week in which Simona Halep, Nick Kyrgios, Elina Svitolina, Julia Goerges, Gael Monfils and, yes, Gilles Simon all won titles, and the Swiss team of Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic ended up on top in the Hopman Cup exhibition? Taken together, I’d say these victories mean that there are lot of players on both tours—but especially on the women’s tour—who are a threat to win, or at least go very deep, at the season’s first Slam in Melbourne.
For our inaugural weekly wrap of 2018, here are three thoughts to consider as the Australian Open inches closer.
1. Nick Kyrgios won his first tournament Down Under
It has been said many times that Kyrgios “loves the big stage,” but so far the results tell a different story. He does love sharing the stage with—and beating— other star players, as his wins over Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic attest. But at the noisy, stress-filled majors, he has tended to let himself become distracted and agitated. He has yet to reach a Grand Slam semifinal, and he has lost early in Melbourne each of the last two years.
So it means something that Kyrgios won his first tournament at home last week, in Brisbane. He had his customary aches and pains and ups and downs, of course. He lost a set in three different matches, he had his knee taped and re-taped, and he spent a good portion of the final jawing with chair umpire Fergus Murphy. But Kyrgios also beat world No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov, won three deciding sets over his first three matches, and kept his cool when he was threatened early in the final by Ryan Harrison, before running away with the second set.
On other nights, Kyrgios might have pulled the ripcord in that situation. Playing in a final (he was 0-2 in them last year), in front of a home audience, struggling against a player he’s supposed to beat, dealing with that player’s long, mid-match bathroom break, dealing with physical problems: Those are all things that have led Kyrgios to hit the off switch in the past. This time he kept the switch on. Now the stage gets bigger.
2. Julia Goerges seems to be serious
Since Serena Williams announced that she was pregnant and taking a break from the tour, the women’s majors have been won be a parade of relative neophytes. At the French Open, Jelena Ostapenko won her first professional tournament of any sort. At Wimbledon, Garbiñe Muguruza won her second major and just her fifth tournament. At the US Open, Sloane Stephens won her first Slam. Now that we know Serena won’t be in Melbourne, should we look for another woman to enter the winner’s circle for the first time?
Judging by the opening week results, there are no shortage of contenders. Simona Halep is No. 1 in the world, and she began the way a No. 1 should, with a title in Shenzhen. Elina Svitolina was among the most improved players of 2017, and she showed that her move into the Top 10 was no fluke by starting her year with a title in Brisbane; along the way, she also knocked off Karolina Pliskova in a semifinal that could be a preview of bigger matches in the near future. And, most surprisingly, Julia Goerges beat Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets for her third straight title and 14th straight match win.
While Halep, Svitolina, and Wozniacki have been more reliable performers for longer, Goerges may be the most intriguing first-week winner. At age 29, she has had a breakout 10 months. Last summer, the German reached finals in Mallorca, Bucharest and Washington, D.C. But what looked like a short burst of good late-career form has only continued. By the end of 2017, she wasn’t just reaching finals, she was winning them—in Moscow and Zhuhai, and now in Auckland.
Goerges has always been a hit-and-miss player. Now the hits are outweighing the misses; against Wozniacki, she made 41 winners against just 23 errors. And unlike Halep, Svitolina and Wozniacki, the 5’11” Goerges fits the physical and stylistic makeup of a successful Grand Slam champion. She’s tall, rangy and a shot-maker.
There’s just one catch: In the 39 majors that Goerges has played in her 10-year career, she’s never been past the fourth round. Is there room in this sport for two Stan Wawrinkas?
3. Belinda Bencic is back, again. Let’s hope she sticks around
The scenes were the same at the Hopman Cup in Perth as they were one year ago: Swiss teammates Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic laughing together, watching each other play their singles matches, joining up to win their doubles matches. And just like last year, Bencic, the WTA’s breakthrough player of 2015, looks ready to pick up where she left off back when she was a healthy, can’t-miss teen. She finished 2017 with 15 straight wins and three straight titles at Futures events.
Let’s hope she sticks around this time. In 2017, Bencic endured her second straight injury-shortened season; this time it was wrist surgery that sidelined her for five months. At 20, though, her old court sense was still in evidence at Hopman Cup, where she beat Naomi Osaka and Coco Vandeweghe in straight sets, before losing to Angelique Kerber. Bencic hasn’t faced top-flight competition in nearly a year, but she still takes the ball early, still moves it smoothly and smartly from corner to corner, and still seems to believe there’s a place for her at the top of the WTA tour. There are plenty of openings at the moment.
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