2020 year-end review: top 11-15, women

Belinda Bencic

15. Garbine Muguruza
When she is on, she can be so darned dominant. She has two Grand Slams based on her ability to crush a bunch of winners. When she goes for it and finds her range, she can be one of the world’s best players. Her forehand and her backhand are very husky. When she loses, which is a decent amount, she gets frustrated and mournful. She can be very dreadful. The best thing in 2020 was the start of the year, when she advanced into the final at the Australian Open. She upset Simona Halep, but on Saturday she went down to Sofia Kenin in the final. That was more than respectable, but while she did win a lot matches, she could not win a title. In Rome, on clay, she was more than respectable, beating Jo Konta and Vika Azarenka. Against Halep, she was challenged and lost 6-4 in the third set. Where was her mental game? In 2021, Muguruza will be around, but will she be consistent for the entire year? That is a huge questio
14. Johanna Konta
The Australian/Brit is almost the same thing, when she is focused, and she digs in, then she would be very ground zero. She has a lot of coaches, say four, which is a lot, but she does like to listen. I am not sure why she really listens. In the last few months, she was muddy. She can back off, and she can shove the ball. She really is a cool player, but she has to change it up, at least a little more. Konta will be 30 years old, and, if she does go deep in tournaments, the fans will have to pay attention. On occasion, Konta wants to break out of her patterns. But, can she?

13. Victoria Azarenka
Ten years ago, she was No.1. She actually was the best player for a few months. She could beat anyone, winning so many matches. She won the Australian Open twice, on her march to the top. She lived on her massive stokes, with her influential forehand and backhand. She always tried to make shots on the lines. At the 2020US Open, she reached the final, beating Serena Williams in three sets in the semifinal. But, in the final’s third set, Naomi Osaka climbed up and the won 6-3. Azarenka was mentally tired. The Belarus can be very pissed off, and she was dejected . At 31 years, Azarenka can be irritable. She can best great players in 2021, or she can become distracted.

12. Belinda Bencic
It is possible that if she wasn’t hurt so much, she could have already won a Slam. But, she hasn’t reached that pinnacle. But, the Swiss was able to scrape back into the top 15. She can really grind it, and when she is feeling very well, then she can knock off most players. However, it was not a good year in 2020. When it was done, she was only 8-8. That is so mediocre. In 2015, she won Toronto during the summer. Then, she was so confident. She can drive herself, or she can nearly pop it back.

11. Serena Williams
The American has won 23 Grand Slams, so clearly, she is one of the best players on the planet. She has won so many titles, on hardcourts, clay and grass. She has almost every shot imaginable, with her massive serve, her heavy forehand, her slick backhand, and with a potent return. Williams is so rugged. However, now she is 39 years old, and she is aging. At the US Open, she lost Azarenka in the semis in three sets. That was a shocker, and then she had to wake up. Maybe in 2020, she will play here and there. But if she wants to win Slam No. 24 to tie Margaret Court, she has to break her four-match major final slide. Her footwork is no longer nimble and reaching for low balls is a major flaw. Even though she has been an all-in greatest event, it’s now time to get going again. It’s all about the commitment.

The big clash: Azarenka versus Osaka

Victoria "Vika" Azarenka

When exactly did it dawn on us that the former two-time Grand Slam champion Vika Azarenka was playing well enough to take the 2020 US Open and to win another major?

Before August, it was hard to know when will the Belarussian was going to return to her former dominating game, winning matches all the time and smashing very deep and true. There were a good three years when she was out of it, mentally, focusing on family and not processing tennis. But, in 2020, she began to practice a lot, and re-think what she needed to do. She found more patience, overcoming her earlier rut of being baffled.

But, not anymore. As she said, she matured a lot. When she finally woke up, went on the court, and she locked in, winning at the Western & Southern Open. She won it all, getting a walkover when Naomi Osaka withdrew due to injury. Now, she has reached the US Open final, and on Saturday, she will face another two-time Slam champ in Osaka.

Azarenka shocked Serena Williams when she beat her in three sets – the first time the Belarussian took down the American at a major. On Thursday, at night, Serena was 19 victories and 4 losses. In Thursday contest, there were some fine points, but Serena knew she could make Azarenka nervous. She did that at the Grand Slams, so many times, then Serena would grab it again. In the second and third set, Serena was so-so, while Azarenka let her strokes and aggressiveness fly and she went for it. This time, the powerful Azarenka grew up.

She won the Australian Open twice, and she also reached two US Open, another two times. Also, the vast basher reached the semis at the French Open and Wimbledon. Clearly, when 31-year old Azarenka was playing very with determination from both sides to side, she can beat anyone.
Osaka, who won the 2018 US Open and then the following Australian Open, is also on a roll. She had some dry patches in 2019. But when she returned from the COVID-19 pause,, she really wanted just to go out there and have fun. During the last 12 days, Osaka dug in, win or lose. Her strong commitment to support the Black Lives Matter movement on social media and by wearing masks with Black victims’ names, seems to help her focus on that mission, and her tennis game.

In the second week, you could know that Osaka would hit very hard from the backcourts, and she was fast. Just like Azarenka, they want to go for shots immediately and find a mammoth winner.

This will surely be a three-setter. In the final set, someone has to commit and take a big chance. Azarenka will do that, and win the 2020 US Open. She will be extremely satisfied.

Indian Wells coming: Svitolina, Serena, Vika, Caro

Notes on A Draw Sheet, March 4, 2018

It was good to see Elina Svitolina win the title at Dubai, and as she says, she never gives up. Which is more or less true. But, at the Slams, she can mentally back off. Still, she is only 23 years old, so in the next decade, she can figure out and to go the right places. And nail it. 
In Dubai, she jumped on the resurgent Angie Kerber, and in the final, she beat the good, young player Daria Kasatkina. At Indian Wells, Svitolina will be one of the favorites, but the field is very close, as almost the entire top 10 can beat each other. 
It looks like Serena Williams will walk on the court and play again. It’s very hard to gage how her difficult childbirth and the demands of motherhood are still affecting her. Let’s hop she is ready to compete and win match after match, tournament after tournament. My guess is it will take her a few months to get comfortable. One way or another, it should be a lot of fun …

Vika Azarenka will return at IW, after not playing this year because she is battling with her ex-husband in a custody battle over her young child. Before she stopped playing, Azarenka looked pretty darn good. I would assume that she is very healthy, and she would love to win another major, but the same thing goes here: She needs sometime to understand how she is striking the ball, day after day…

The No. 1 Simona Halep is hurt again, but she always tries to play, pain or nothing at all. She is a true grinder…

The No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki finally won a Grand Slam at the Aussie Open. It took her so long to finally grab it, but now she has and I would think that this year — as she loves to play — she will have a chance to win another major, specifically at the US Open, because she gets frustrated on clay and on grass…

The former two-time champion Petra Kvitova look pretty darn good, winning Doha. She is another one who wants to win so badly she can taste it. She likes fast hard court, but if it is very windy, she can get frustrated. Kvitova does like Indian Wells, the weather, almost everything, so if she is feeling it, she could go very deep, and win it. That would be huge, mentally.
Once again, Juan Martin del Potro is on fire, which is terrific, because when he is healthy, he can knock down anyone. How about this: in Acapulco, he beat the vet Mischa Zverev, the grinder David Ferrer, the flashy Dominic Thiem and the young brother, the No. 5 Alexander Zverev. In the final, he knocked out the 2017 Us Open finalist Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-4. Very good stuff.

It is all about Delpo’s health. When his arms start to break down, then he leaves and he cannot play. But when it isn’t so bad, he can hit his two-hander, rather than just his one-hander, which he can only slice. That is why, among other things, that he could not beat the best players at the Grand Slams and come up short in the past eight years. He can hang in there in two out of three, but in the Slams, it’s three out of five. Towards the end, in the second week, he gets tired and he cannot find the lines. He looked very good this past week, with his huge serve, his massive forehand, his decent return and improved net game. He is a darn good player.
Even though he lost, the same goes with Anderson. Yes, he isn’t that fast because he is very tall, but he really hustles and whenever he gets a chance, he can jump on it. Both of them will be extremely confident heading into IW next week.

Vandeweghe soars, US women win the Fed Cup

Photo: Mal Taam/MALTphoto

Federer beats Sock in first ATP Finals match  
American CoCo Vandeweghe is the Fed Cup MVP, winning three matches versus Belarus in the final tie to bring the USA its first Fed Cup since 2000. 

Vandeweghe has had a terrific year, especially in Fed Cup where she won eight points. Facing Belarus in its capitol, Minsk, she pulled out two singles victories and then capped it off with a straight-set, clinching doubles win with Shelby Rogers.

The tie, which many predicted as a sure American victory, was a nail-biter, coming down to the doubles on Sunday.

Five years ago, Vandeweghe was out of it, mentally. Her sole strategy was just cracking her serve. This year the No. 10 was so effective, so driven. Even two years ago, she would become super angry, throw her racket and shake her head. Even now, she can become frustrated, but that is OK, because after a moment or two, the veteran will breath deep and go on to the next point.

It is one thing to win at home, but it’s another to grab it away. Venus Williams didn’t play (of course the new mom, Serena, was out of action) and the injured Madison Keys couldn’t come either. For the home team, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka couldn’t play either, as she is embroiled in a custody battle with her ex, Billy McKeague.

The 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens came to play. However, her losing streak since the US Open continued as she dropped both matches. She is hurt and exhausted.

Belarusians Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich dug in deep and looked fantastic in their two singles victories over Stephens.

In doubles, the outcome was decidedly different. The Americans pushed forward, they returned very well at times, and when they had to, they put many shots at the net. In a sense, it does not matter who is playing, but when they get on court, you have to lock in, don’t become too nervous and hit the right way. At the end, the Americans did. 

By the way, bow-down to the captain, Kathy Rinaldi, who is calm and cool and smart. 

Federer v Sock at the ATP Finals in London 
There you go, Roger Federer won again. This time, he edged American Jack Sock 6-4 7-6(4) in the first round-robin match at the ATP Finals.

Fed has won this tournament many, many times indoors. On the hard courts, whether it be inside or out, he is superior. He mixes it up all the time. His serve is strong and it is difficult to find out which way he is going. His forehand is phenomenal, and for the past 10 months, his backhand has become more powerful. He can lose at times — they all can —  but there are only a few players who can legitimately beat Federer, like Rafa Nadal, who is on the other round-robin bracket. Hopefully, they can play each other towards the end of next week.
Sock was happy last week as he won Paris and qualified for the last ATP Finals singles slot. His rise to No. 9 is very surprising, given that from April through September, he did almost nothing. In France, he focused, moved inside the court and, believe it or not, was very effective at the net.

However, Sock needs to improve, obviously. His forehand is gigantic, and his backhand is OK, but he has to rip it crosscourt. Somehow, too, his legs need to be a little bit faster.

Federer should reach the semis, even with Alexander Zverev and Marin Cilic rounding out their bracket. It should be a lot of fun — we hope.

The Big Show: women’s round of 16

The Quarters, on Monday, at Wimbledone The women

Simona Halep vs. Victoria Azarenka
More than a year ago, Azarenka was on fire, winning Indian Wells and Miami, and she was ready to grab Roland Garros and Wimbledon. But she could not because she had to pull out to have a baby. Now, she is back as a mother. Is she playing perfect ball? No, not yet, but each day, she gets better and better. Clearly, the No. 2 Halep can play great, and then she backs off her game and the losing ensues. Someday, she will change and win a major title but not yet. Azarenka will win in three sets.

Angie Kerber vs. Garbine Muguruza
This is a classic match. The No. 1 German has done almost nothing this season, but during the past week, her confidence is back and now the two-time Slam champ is ready to be super-steady and aggressive. The same goes with Muguruza: at Roland Garros, she looked very decent, which was an improvement, because during the first four months iof 2017, her head wasn’t there. But now the Spaniard can feel that she can be in control and go for the lines. This is a tossup here, but pick Kerber to win in three fantastic sets.

Venus Williams vs. Ana Konjuh
Ms. Williams has won Wimbledon five times, so we all know that she loves London and she knows exactly how to play. However, the 36-year-old hasn’t won at SW19 in the past eight years. Can she do it for the last time? I doubt it, but she will really push herself. However, Konjuh is getting better every second. She will raise her game in the third set and stun Williams.

Johanna Konta vs. Caroline Garcia
Brit Konta looked like her body was pretty tired, but on Friday, she rose up and she was extremely fast. Garcia is comfortable again, and the doubles player is pretty good at the net, but Konta will jump on her immediately and win in two sets.

Aga Radwanska vs. Sveta Kuznetsova
These two vets know each other very well. Russian Kuznetsova can grind it, but Radwanska is super quick on grass. Aga will win in straight sets.

CoCo Vandeweghe vs. Caroline Wozniacki
Vandeweghe appears to have gained more composure, and, of course, she is a huge hitter — all over the place. Wozniacki doesn’t love grass, but she is finally understanding what to do — especially with her forehand. The American wants it to win right now and she will, winning in two long sets.

Jelena Ostapenko vs. Elina Svitolina

Ostapenko may not look great every second, but the new RG champ never gives up. She hits so hard on both sides. She will destroy Svitolina.

Magdalena Rybarikova vs. Petra Martin
The Croatian Martic has returned, and she is very pleased that she doesn’t get angry anymore. She focuses on the ball and she is in more patient. She will wear down Rybarikova in straight sets.

Andy Murray: the pressure is on


Plus: Federer, Nadal, Ostapenko, Brengle and more

Andy Murray has not played up to par this year, but he is competing at Wimbledon now, and possibly, the Brit will rise and he could grab SW19 once again.
However, he has a lot of work ahead. He has to face Fabio Fognini in the third round, and while the Italian has improved a lot this year, but his prospects sre totally different on grass. You have to go for winners immediately. You cannot sit back and wait.
As Murray said: “I think against Fabio … it’s maybe easier to come up with a game plan because there will be a bit more structure and strategy in the match rather than reacting and kind of instinctive points.”

Rafa Nadal is totally locked in. Now he is super confident again. It has taken him three years to become comfortable, which he has. Nadal has won two times  at Wimbledon. Believe it or not, he is the favorite, except for Roger Federer, who is going for a record eighth crown. Plus, Federer has beaten Nadal three times this season: at the Aussie Open,  Indian Wells and Miami. However, that’s on hard courts, not in grass. Totally different. But that’s for later. .. Nadal has to play against Karen Khachanov, the 21 year old. It could be fun. Or not, it’s all about Khachanov, who has to play 100 percent or his is gone, quickly…

Here is fine matchup: the former US Open champ Marin Cilic versus the American Steve Johnson. Cilic has a gigantic serve, and Johnson is very steady. Maybe five sets.


Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko overcame the Canadian Francoise Abanda 4-6 7-6(4) 6-3. Funny comment from Ostapenko: “I wasn’t very happy with the way I played but I’m happy.” Oh, yes, happy.
The 20-year-old Ostapenko will face Camila Giorgi, who out hit Madison Keys. Those two will face off on Friday. Huge backhands coming up. I have absolutely no idea where the American Keys is going. She has had a tough year. Be patient, please…How about Madison Brengle, who upset Petra Kvitova? Now she will face Garcia. Believe it or not, Brengle is the favorite. 

Vika Azarenka played very well on Wednesday, taking out last year’s semifinalist Elena Vesnina. Within a few weeks, she is back, ready to play tennis again. Azarenka has a new baby and she was off for one year. That takes a while, but when you have been hitting since you were very young, and you are playing everyday for hours, even if you stop playing on the WTA for a while, still, even if you are pregnant, you can go on court and hit the ball With conviction. Look it what Serena Williams is doing? She is very pregnant, but she still hits the ball with conviction. She is, how do you say, addicted?:} We all are, tennis people, that is. ..
Azarenka will go up against Heather Watson. She has not played well at all this season. However, Watson loves London so maybe she will lock in and push Vika into a third set. And then?
Jo Konta won a marathon to beat Donna Vekic in three increadable sets. Is Konta injured now? Can she knock out the 21-year-old Maria Sakkari? We would think so, but Konta has never gone deep at Wimbledon before, so on a big court, the pressure will on the UK’s top player. 

Close ones: Murray vs. Ferrer, Raonic vs Monfils, Vika vs. Angie

murray aussie open 2013




Can the Spaniard really bother the Brit if he manages to serve big and jump on his returns? Maybe, but even if he does, how is he going to wear him down? Years ago, Ferrer did, as he could run side to side, pushed him back for hours, and Murray became frustrated. Instead of being patient, he could be wild. But over the past few years, Murray improved overall. His forehand is stronger, especially when he goes down the line. His brilliant backhand is so sharp and he can smack it were ever he want to. Ferrer can’t find a way to crack him, and now he has become anxious.

Both the veterans know each other well, with Murray having beaten him 15 times, and Ferrer has won six times. According to Murray, he has found out that Ferrer has recently changed his racket and now he can hit even harder. Perhaps he is, but that doesn’t mean he can out–hit him, as Murray has looked fantastic since he arrived here last week. Murray will win in the four sets.


Monfils’ right arm must be busted up after he dove to the right to try to hit a forehand and fell hard into the court. He said that he could have broken it, but it didn’t. However, he is likely pretty sore and while he can leap around and crush his first serve and forehand, he can be erratic and he has never gone deep at the Aussie Open. However, the 29-year-old Frenchman has beaten Raonic twice and, while it was a while ago, at least he will think he can sting him. On Rod Laver, he can smile and grin and have the fans join him in a fun match.

However, Raonic has played extremely well since he started this year in Brisbane. He knocked out Roger Federer in the final, and here, when Stan Wawrinka was trying to trick him, he decided to be more aggressive in his serve, returns and net game. Monfils can sit way back and punch the ball around, but Raonic has no intention to engage in long rallies. He will swing early and often and the Canadian will win in straight sets.


Do we have to see this again? In two-and-a-half weeks ago in the final of Brisbane, Azarenka beat the heck out of Kerber 6-3 6-1. The first set wasn’t bad, but after that, Azarenka whacked her. She has never lost against Kerber, who she has beaten six times, and the reason is because her serve is substantially better. In big matches, she can get right into her face and the German backs off.

Look, Kerber is an excellent player when she is feeling fantastic mentally and outside her so-so serve (and it can be very, very bad), she can handle anyone. She is a super fast, she doesn’t get tired and she can paste her forehand and backhand. At the 2015 US Open, Kerber was very close of upsetting Azarenka, but lost 6-4 in the third. Azarenka was pretty vulnerable then but now, the former two-time Aussie champion is on fire and hasn’t lost a set. She will be ultra aggressive and come to the net whenever she can. Azarenka will win in two sets.


What a shocker that they both reached the quarters. Who would have think it? Konta has played extremely well over the past six months; while Shang has lost time and time again. She said that she was ready to retire, but then she qualified and began ripping the ball from everywhere. It’s a true pic-em. I will take Zhang, largely because she knocked a series of fine players (even if they were hurt) such as Simone Halep, Alize Cornet, Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys. Zhang Zhang will win in three very tough sets.

Calm & collected: Azarenka d. Kerber to win Brisbane

Azarenka USO 13 TR MALT8077

BRISBANE, Jan. 9, 2015 – Three years ago, Victoria Azarenka was nearly dominating. Yes, Serena Williams was going hard then and Maria Sharapova was healthy and strong, but the Belarussian was lethal on the hard courts. She had won two Australian Open finals, and until she was knocked out, she was the favorite.

But towards the end of the season, she had badly slipped and her confidence disappeared. It has taken her two years to be fully healthy and mentally sound once again.

In the final, Azarenka tore apart Angie Kerber 6-3 6-1 to win the crown at Brisbane. She played nearly perfect. She clubbed 23 winners and made just nine in forced errors. She rushed the net 13 times and won 10 points. Her serve can be up and down, but she moved it around the box. Her forehand and backhand were hard and deep. Last year, she wasn’t quite fast enough, but now she is faster and she sprints quickly side-to-side.

“Definitely a lot more comfortable, a lot more calm, a lot more aware. Happy. Very happy,” she said

In 2013, the then 23-year-old looked like she would be at the top for a long, long time. In January, she was No. 1. In Brisbane, she got hurt and pulled out before the semis against Serena. It didn’t matter because she recovered, winning the Aussie Open once again, beating Sloane Stephens and Li Na to win the title. The two-time defending champion could be controversial, but on court, she was fearless.

She won Doha by upsetting Serena, but a few weeks later at Indian Wells she lost her No. 1 ranking. She didn’t really seem to care, because she would get it back. She lost to Serena in Rome, to Sharapova at Roland Garros, and then she got hurt again and pulled out at Wimbledon.

On hard courts, she reached the final at San Diego, and at Cincinnati, she reached the final again. In a classic contest, she edged Serena 2-6 6-2 7-6 (6). Right there, it looked like Azarenka could finally win the US Open. Uh-uh. In the final, she got a little crazy in the third set, and Serena was much more composed, winning the title 7-5 6-7 (6) 6-1.

Bye-bye Vika, who began to slide – fast.

In 2014, she only played nine tournaments. In Australia, she said that she was raring ago. She reached the Brisbane final, losing against Serena, but it was a very decent contest. However, in the quarters against Aga Radwanska in Australia – whom she had beaten her so many times – she folded in the third set, going down 6-1 5-7 6-0.

After that, she was pretty much done. She lost early everywhere, except for the US Open, when she managed to grind and reached the quarterfinal, but she looked like she was out of shape and Ekaterina Makarova out-hit her.

At the start of 2015, Azarenka admitted that last year that she was depressed after she and her ex-boyfriend broke up. However, she wanted to play better again, so badly that she could feel it. But Azarenka couldn’t beat the best players that year. She was close at times – even against the phenomenal Serena—but she was a little bit short. Now she says that the reason why was because she was hurt continuously.

“I was hurt the whole year actually. There was not a moment where I felt good,” she said. “I have no pain. There was a lot of medication last year which made me feel crazy actually at some moments. I don’t respond well to medication. It was a constant battle with pain, with my own fear. Like is it going to hurt again? I don’t want to go through that. But it took me to a point where I decided, Okay, I got to stop and try to figure out and actually change my life around the tennis court.

“I had a lot of changes last year, so it took a little bit of time to regroup, reorganize, mature a little bit, understand how to organize yourself. I’m like a freak right now. Like I’m super organized. Like my bag has to be a certain way. I’ve never been like this. I was a little bit messy. I just didn’t care. I would throw things around. My mom was getting so pissed off with me. Now I found what works for me, what makes me feel comfortable, calm, at peace. So it’s good.”

This was only one week and there is a lot of matches to go, but at least now, she knows that if she can be calm and she can continue to mix up the pace, she can go very deep once against at the Aussie Open.

Can she win it again? If she is playing as well as she can, she can be right there against anyone. But as she said, there is no come back, she just needs to continue on.

“I don’t really call it comeback. I don’t think there is a name for it,” she said. “I think it’s more for you guys to put it as a headline. For me, it’s like you’re reading a book and you just turn the page. That part of it was over. You just flip the page. I think that’s exciting. I can’t wait the to read the next page.”

Bernie Tomic edges great volleyer Stepanek, to face Kei Nishikori


Tomic IW 15 TR MALT0710

It’s time for Tomic to step up. Mal Taam/MALTphoto

BRISBANE, Jan. 6, 2016  – The so-called younger males should rise up this year. It’s not like this group are teenagers, and they all have been around on tour for five years or more. But, these days, the veterans continue to improve — the Big 4-plus 1: Novak Djokovic (28 years old), Andy Murray (28 years old), Roger Federer (34 years old), Rafa Nadal (29 years old) and Stan Wawrinka (30 years old).

Clearly, the kids have to improve greatly if they want can actually win a major this season.

On Wednesday night, the 23-year-old Aussie Bernard Tomic went on court to face the old-but-not-tired veteran Radek Stepanek. The Czech is now 37 years old and he missed most of 2015 due to injury. He was 3-0 against the Aussie, but they are never played on hard courts before.

This time, Tomic hung in there. Stepanek sliced and diced, coming to the net constantly, volleying 55 times with 37 winners. Not bad at all.

Here is what Tomic had to say: “I think he has for sure the best volleys going around now. The feel, the way he covers the net, shows why he’s an amazing athlete the last 10 years on the tour. I cannot think of another person that volleys that great like him.”

However, the former No. 8 Stepanek hiccuped late, spaying the ball at the very end. Tomic won 7-6(6) 4-6 7-6(4).

At times, Tomic can disappear, but he can be extremely steady and he doesn’t mind mixing up his pace. Even though he is tall and muscular, he rarely goes for the lines right off the bat. Sometimes it works, sometime it doesn’t, but against Stepanek, he stepped in when he needed to. He moved around his forehand and backhand and ,when he lulled Stepanek to sleep, he whacked winners down the line.

Now he has to face Kei Nishikori, who beat him 6-0 6-4 in the quarters of 2015 Brisbane. The Japanese started very well today when the 25-year-old beat Mikhail Kukushkin 6-3 6-4.

Nishikori reached the 2014 US Open final, and he looked like he was ready to race past Marin Cilic in the final. But he could not and he went down quietly. Last year, Nishikori was fairly solid, but he was not spectacular. This year, he has to take more risks.

“Mentally I have to be a little more stronger. But I been doing really good things from last year, and very happy to finish top eight again last year,” Nishikori said. “Try to have good confidence and try beat all the top 10 players. That’s going to be a big challenge for me.”

Here’s a big challenge for Tomic: Can he take down one of the better competitors out there? ‘Bernie’ always comes to play in Australia. To take down Nishikori, he must to dominate early, because Nishikori is certainly faster than he is.

“He’s the top in the world. Not easy,” Tomic said. “I have to earn my position to be there. Obviously beating me last year on these courts it’s showing me he can play amazing on this surface. It’s not just to me. He’s beaten everyone on the tour and everyone fears to play him. Even Rafa, Novak, Roger. He’s had so many wins over these guys, and I have to play well from the start to have any chance of beating him.”

The 25-year-old Milos Raonic has yet to play yet, but on Wednesday he talked with the press and said yes, he can snare at the major, if the tall and strong man can move forward.

Cilic won his match, besting Chung Hyeon of South Korea 7-5 7-6(3). The 27-year-old Croatian said that last year his serve was spotty so he changed it up a bit. He will face the 22-yeard-old Dominic Thiem, who won three titles last year on clay. The Austrian says that he likes the hard courts too, so we will see if he is ready to dance.


Petkovic is more playful after the match is over. Mal Taam/MALTphoto


On Tuesday, with Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova pulling out due to injuries, it looked like that No. 3 Garbine Muguruza was the favorite. Nope. On Wednesday night, the Spaniard pulled out after losing the first set 11-9 in the tiebreak against Varvara Lepchenko. Muguruza’s left foot was too painful and she didn’t want to risk it. What a strange week indeed.

Victoria Azarenka was hurt too much last year, but now, she looks a little thinner and she is quicker on her feet. She took down the Belgium Ysaline Bonaventure 6-3 6-2. She has to face Roberta Vinci, who is red-hot, but Azarenka has won two Slams at the Aussie Open, so if she is feeling right, she could certainly win the tournament. It’s been a long time.

Here was a real shocker when the 20-year-old Samantha Crawford of the U.S. beat the Swiss Belinda Bencic 7-5, 7-5. The 6-foot-2 Crawford can the crack ball but she is still has miles to go. She will place a smart veteran Andrea Petkovic who beat Ekaterina Makarova 7-5 6-4. The always laughing and smiling Petkovic (off court, mind you) has never played Crawford before.

Everyone is happy: Halep stronger, Cilic steadier, Azarenka changed



BRISBANE, Jan. 4, 2016 – Every year, the grass is always greener, especially for the players in the first week of 2016 New Year. Just about everyone is happy, because they were able to take a break at the end of the year. They were able to get healthy, and then they started practicing with their coaches to try to freshen up their game.

Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova are always trying new wrinkles. The 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer wants to continue to rush the net more, while the 5-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova wants to mix it up more. Both Federer and Sharapova are the defending champions at Brisbane. The Swiss says that on occasion, he is “totally Zen.”

There are plenty of fine players in Brisbane, with the tournament growing and growing each year.

Look at Marin Cilic, the one-time champion who won the 2014 US Open and it looked like that it was possible that someday, he could win another major. But he grew hurt during the fall and he didn’t return until last March at Indian Wells. He wasn’t ready yet. He continued to improve and while he was unable to take down the other excellent players, he was more or less OK, ending the season ranked No. 13. Now he says he is healthy again and he would love to win another title. But he isn’t sure yet.

“I want to be there. If I’m going to be a winner of Grand Slams in the future, I think hopefully with that kind of tennis I played at the US Open, I think I have pretty good shot,” Cilic said. “That’s what drives me. It’s not that I’m going to be thinking too much about stuff around. Of course, the motivation is really there. That is good road for me to follow. I know what things I need to work on with my game, what things really worked. So I think that’s positive. I don’t have as many questions as before.”

The world No. 2 Simon Halep is also playing at Brisbane. She has yet to win a major, but outside of that, especially on the hard courts, she is super fast and lethal. In early October, Halep had announced that she will stick with her coach, Darren Cahill. The Australian coach and broadcaster Cahill stopped with adidas on December 31. According to Halep, now they can work with each other full-time.

Last month, he came to Romania to work with the very intense Halep.

We practice very hard,” Halep said. “I was working on what we had in our mind to improve in my game, so everything went well. I was feeling great that I had new things to work on. He came very relaxed and showed me what I have to do, what I have to improve. I accepted and I worked really hard on them. On everything. I want to be stronger. I want to improve, of course, my serve because it’s not very strong, but now I feel that it’s better.”

Interestingly, Halep said that at the 2014 US Open, she struggled a bit because Cahill could not sit in the Friends Box if she was playing against another adidas competitor. Halep lost in the semifinal against Flavia Pennetta. She was pretty upset.

“I can say that was a little bit difficult also in US Open because he couldn’t show up for Pennetta’s match,” Halep said. “I knew that and accepted before, so it was okay. Now it’s different, so it’s good. I learned many things from that collaboration, and now because he’s only with me, it’s much better and I’m more relaxed.”

Before that lost, Halep did take down the former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. Azarenka was essentially done after that, becoming hurt once again during the fall.

A year ago in Brisbane, Azarenka said that she wanted to become No. 1 again. She was OK throughout the year, but she couldn’t take down most of the top players, like Serena Williams, Sharapova and now Halep.

Currently ranked No. 22, Azarenka has miles to go. But, if she beats Halep on Wednesday, then perhaps she will rise again. She admits that she didn’t have a great season in 2015, but she is very happy now because she is no longer depressed, as she has said.

She won the Australian Open twice, so maybe she can be back on track.

“Definitely feeling in control of my movement, not thinking about pain, that’s a huge element,” Azarenka said. “Also, I worked a lot on getting my movement a lot more efficient, being much more mobile and flexible. So for me, that work that has not ended. It’s still just a big process. But I like the improvement that I’ve been able to do in those months. I think it’s the right way.”