On the way to Oz

I’ve been off the tennis grid since Rafael Nadal defeated Gael Monfils in the Doha final. This week, I’m back in Missouri as the on-court emcee for the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions at JQH Arena in Springfield. I look forward having fun with fans, and three solid days of hoops featuring the best high-school talent in the nation; but at the same time, with the first-round down in Melbourne, I find myself glued to the story-lines developing with the start of the 2014 tennis season.

Rafael Nadal in Doha

Rafael Nadal – Let’s start with the amazing Mallorcan. Since Rafa first burst on the scene…in person, I’ve only seen him play from 12-stories up, high atop Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open. Finally, two weeks ago in Qatar, I had several opportunities to see the 13-time Grand Slam champ play from 10-feet away. He’s brilliant; severely obsessive compulsive…but brilliant. I think it’s that need for control…over absolutely everything in his vicinity…that propels him to heights of success. Over the years, he’s polished every move – from the heavy top-spin southpaw forehand to the “don’t step on any lines and only move in 90-degree angles” way he trots off the court for a change over. He has a predestined plan, and simply needs to push all of the right buttons and yank the right levers to make that plan a reality…and it works, repeatedly. Last year, the guy went 75-7 with 10-titles in 14 finals – and didn’t start playing until February! That is clutch. He’s now 6-0 for 2014, after winning the Doha title in week-one then scoring an easy win in Melbourne with Bernard Tomic’s retirement from their first round match. On top of all that, despite the success, he’s a gracious, humble and grounded human being. Simple competition means so much more to him than the excess that success provides. If we see an injury free Rafa in 2014, there’s no reason he can’t overshadow the remarkable success displayed last year.

11 - Serena Over Li in Three
Serena Williams

Serena Williams – Undefeated since winning her 5th US Open title back in September, the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion is simply a cut above the rest. In her 2014 debut, she crushed the field in Brisbane defeating Petkovic, Cibulkova, Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka to win her second consecutive Brisbane title. Last year, she won ten more titles after the season-opener, and only lost FOUR matches all year. If she can avoid injury, it seems the only goal left would be for the World #1 to complete the perfect season, and finish 2014 without a single loss. Last year, she lost in the Australian Quarterfinals to Sloane Stephens, then was defeated by Victoria Azarenka in the Doha final (she wouldn’t lose again until Wimbledon’s Round of 16). I’ll be back in Doha for the Qatar Total Open 2014. Will Serena arrive in Qatar as a SIX-time Australian Open champion?

Lleyton Hewitt. Bernard Tomic. – What a heartbreak to see Rusty fall in 5-sets to Andreas Seppi during the first round of the Australian Open. Hopes were high for Hewitt after a huge week-one win over Roger Federer to win the Brisbane title. It was the first time he’d hoisted a trophy since Halle in 2010, where he also defeated Federer. So much for momentum after winning a week-one tournament! Speaking of Aussie heartbreak, Bernard Tomic played brilliantly in Sydney during week-two of the season, where he reached the final against a dominate Juan Martin del Potro. Despite that finals appearance, Bernie suffered a groin injury during practice on Monday and had to retire from his first round Australian Open match with Rafael Nadal.

Daniel Nestor

Daniel Nestor – Damn. Much to the dismay of the entire doubles field, the Canadian just won’t quit. Week one, he won the Brisbane doubles title with Mariusz Fyrstenberg. Week two, he teamed with Nenad Zimonjic to win the doubles title in Sydney. The guy now owns 83 career ATP World Tour doubles titles, and he’ll team with Zimonjic in Melbourne with hopes of capturing his second Australian Open crown.

Alexander Peya. Bruno Soares. – These competitive animals have only played together for two years, and have now reached 17 ATP World Tour Doubles Finals, earning 8 titles. Doubles semifinalists at the Barclays ATP World Tour finals back in November, they’ve reached the finals in Doha and Auckland to start 2014. They’re the #2-seeds in Melbourne. Don’t be suprised when they face the Bryans in the Final. (Though some are worried about Bob and Mike…they chose Sydney as their Aussie warm-up in week-two of the season, and were defeated in the second round by Lukas Rosol and Joao Sousa: 14-12 in a match tiebreak).

Klara Zakopalova. Monica Niculescu. – Who? Klara’s from Prague. Monica’s from Bucharest. They’ve both been around for awhile. They’ve now played two tournaments as a doubles team, and won them both. First, they defeated the identical Ukrainian Kichenok twins to win the Shenzhen Open doubles title; then flew down to Hobart and won the title over doubles legend Lisa Raymond and Shuai Zhang (10-8 in a match tiebreak). Oh, and by the way, Klara also reached the SINGLES final in Hobart. Monica is into Melbourne’s third-round with wins over Shahar Peer and Sabine Lisicki, while Klara lost in the first-round to Samantha Stosur. Truthfully, they’re a much tougher threat together in the doubles draw. Don’t be surprised to see them go deep.

Garbine Muguruza – This Spanish spitfire won her first WTA singles title last week in Hobart, easily taking-down Klara Zakopalova in the final 6-4, 6-0. Impressive? Sure. Even more impressive: She had to win EIGHT matches to raise the trophy. As a qualifier, she won eight in-a-row, without dropping a set, to win her first title. She’s into round-two Down Under after a first-round upset of the 24-seed Kaia Kanepi. Vamos!

Tomas Berdych

Tomas Berdych – Ugh…and I’m not talking about the Argentine prison stripes H&M decided was a good look for him at the Australian Open. Ivo Karlovic owns the guy…and Ivo beat him again in Doha’s first round. All attention focused on doubles, Tomas managed to win his second ATP World Tour doubles title with partner Jan Hajek. I could tell while hosting the trophy presentation, he was completely uninterested – still pissed at himself for the first round singles loss. The loss left him scrambling to find additional tune-up time for the Australian Open, and as a late entry into the Kooyong Classic exhibition, he reached the final…where he lost to Kei Nishikori. The #7 player in the world has had a shaky start to the season. The direction of his 2014 depends on how he responds in Melbourne, where he’ll enjoy a relatively easy draw until the Round of 16. He could face Ferrer in the Quarterfinals.

John Isner – He won the Heineken Open in again, this time on an ankle injury suffered at the Hopman Cup (last year he injured his knee in Perth). It may not have been a good idea to play in Auckland…he retired from his first round match at the Australian Open after losing two sets to Slovakia’s Martin Klizan 6-2, 7-6(6). He says he’s still committed to play Davis Cup in San Diego two weeks from now, as the U.S. takes on Andy Murray and Great Britain at Petco Park. As the announcer for home-based Davis Cup Ties, I’ve seen John battle through injury before (last year versus Brazil in Jacksonville), so I feel confident he’ll play; but Team USA needs the best he has to offer with Andy Murray on the other side of the net…even on clay.

Jack Sock – Hello second-round of the Australian Open! It’s his first appearance in the main draw Down Under, and he posted a win over Germany’s Tobias Kamke – who took Rafael Nadal the distance in Doha’s second round. With a win over Tommy Haas to reach the Auckland Quarterfinals last week, Jack’s carrying some confidence into his next match with Gael Monfils. Gael has some momentum of his own, coming off his third Doha Final, where he fell to Rafael Nadal less than two weeks ago.

Venus Williams – A week-one finals appearance in Auckland! It’s always great to see Venus make it deep into tournaments, but it’s become clear that her stamina suffers the longer she’s on the court. Winning in two is mandatory, or anything goes…Even with a day of rest, thanks to a Jamie Hampton walk-over in the Auckland semifinals, she couldn’t put a win together over Ana Ivanovic in the final, losing the third-set 4-6. In Melbourne, she came out firing in the first round versus Ekaterina Makarova, winning the first set 6-2; but went on to drop both the second and third sets 4-6. A modern pioneer for women in sport, revered beyond tennis, it’s always a pleasure to see her play regardless of outcome.

Kei Nishikori and Michael Chang

Kei Nishikori – Okay…so we all know Federer’s working with Stefan Edberg, and we know Boris Becker’s in the Djokovic Camp. No doubt, Andy Murray is the trend-setter considering all the success he’s seen working with Ivan Lendl. If you haven’t heard yet, even Michael Chang has entered the coaching arena with Kei Nishikori. Though only a points-free exhibition, Kei won the Kooyong title last week under Chang’s tutelage…and managed a semifinal berth in Brisbane the week prior. Don’t underestimate the scrapiness of one Michael Chang, even from the coaches box. This could be Nichikori’s year to break the top-10.

Maria Sanchez. Timea Babos. – Both are former players for the Springfield Lasers with World Team Tennis, and both won doubles titles to kick off the new year. Timea teamed with Lucie Safarova to win the Sydney title over the #1 doubles team in the world Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. Maria won her first-ever WTA title with partner Sharon Fichman, defeating Lucie Hradecka and Michaella Krajicek in the Auckland Final. Maria and Sharon actually defeated the reigning US Open Champions Lucie Safarova and Andrea Hlavackova on the way the final. Well…Maria then fell in the first round of qualifying in Melbourne, while Timea lost her first-round match to Anna Schmiedlova…BUT it was nice to see them earn titles before the first Slam of 2014. (Shameless plug – check out the Springfield Lasers each July on Mediacom Connections throughout the Midwest. Just pay no attention to the color commentator. He’s an idiot).

RESULTS – Week-One of the 2014 Season

Brisbane International

  • Men’s Champion: Lleyton Hewitt def. Roger Federer 6-1, 4-6, 6-3
  • Men’s Doubles Champions: Daniel Nestor and Mariusz Fyrstenberg def. Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah 6-7(4), 6-4, [10-7]
  • Women’s Champion: Serena Williams def. Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 7-5
  • Women’s Doubles Champions: Alla Kudryavtseva and Anastasia Rodionnova def. Kristina Mladenovic and Galina Voskoboeva 6-3, 6-1

Qatar ExxonMobil Open (Doha)

  • Champion: Rafael Nadal def. Gael Monfils 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-2
  • Doubles Champions: Tomas Berdych and Jan Hajek def. Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares 6-2, 6-4

Chennai Open

  • Champion: Stanislas Wawrinka def. Edouard Roger-Vasselin 7-5, 6-2
  • Doubles Champions: Johan Brunstrom and Frederik Nielsen def. Marin Draganja and Mate Pavic 6-2, 4-6, [10-7]

ASB Classic (Auckland)

  • Champion: Ana Ivanovic def. Venus Williams 6-2, 5-7, 6-4
  • Sharon Fichman and Maria Sanchez def. Lucie Hradecka and Michaella Krajicek 2-6, 6-0, [10-4]

Shenzhen Open

  • Champion: Na Li def. Shuai Peng 6-4, 7-5
  • Doubles Champions: Monica Niculescu and Klara Zakopalova def. Nadiya and Lyudmyla Kichenok 6-3, 6-4

Hopman Cup (Perth)

  • Champion: FRANCE (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Alize Cornet) def. POLAND (Grzegorz Panfil and Agnieszka Radwanska) 6-0, 6-2

RESULTS – Week-Two of the 2014 Season

Apia International (Sydney)

  • Men’s Champion: Juan Martin del Potro def. Bernard Tomic 6-3, 6-1
  • Men’s Doubles Champions: Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic def. (3) Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi
  • Women’s Champion: Tsvetana Pironkova def. Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-4
  • Women’s Doubles Champions: Timea Babos and Lucie Safarova def. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci 7-5, 3-6, [10-7]

Heineken Open (Auckland)

  • Champion: John Isner def. Lu Yen-Hsun 7-6(4), 7-6(7)
  • Doubles Champions: Julian Knowle and Marcelo Melo def. Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares 4-6, 6-3, [10-5]

Hobart International

  • Champion: Garbine Muguruza def. Klara Zakopalova 6-4, 6-0 (G-qualilfier that never dropped a set)
  • Doubles Champion: Monica Niculescu and Klara ZakoPalova def. (2) Lisa Raymond and Shuai Zhang 6-2, 6-7(5), [10-8]

Kooyong Classic (Exhibition)

  • Champion: Kei Nishikori def. Tomas Berdych 6-4, 7-5