The first week of tennis in 2018 has been action packed and the quality overall has been top notch. While the men’s field is plagued by never ending injuries, women got right on it. Simona Halep won her first title as WTA number 1, at the Shenzhen Open, after an emphatic, confident run. None of the recent number 1 players had managed to win a single title while occupying that top spot. Elina Svitolina continued her impressive performances, winning the Brisbane International. The Ukrainian beat Karolina Pliskova on her way to the title and positioned herself as a real contender for the Australian Open this year.
At one of the most fun exhibition tournaments to watch, the Hopman Cup, 4 female players appeared in top form early in the year. Belinda Bencic won the Cup for Switzerland, teaming up with Roger Federer and showed she is ready for a big return to top tennis. Angelique Kerber put on performances reminiscent of her incredible 2016 season. Elise Mertens of Belgium proved an equal to doubles partner David Goffin. And CoCo Vandeweghe continued her great run since last year, showing us glimpses of what she can do in 2018.
Aside from the great tennis and big wins, here are 5 things I’ll be taking away from this first week of tennis in 2018.
Angelique Kerber is ready to fight her way back to the top.
The most positive surprise of this first tennis week in 2018 has been Angelique Kerber’s apparent transformation. 2017 was a very difficult year for Kerber, but she’s already shown she has identified the areas she needs to work on, to make 2018 a better year. After making the brave decision to split with long-time coach Torben Beltz and start working with Wim Fissette, Angie hasn’t stopped there.
First of all, she has changed her serving motion to platform stance. This ought to give her some more control and variety, as well as help her take advantage of her athleticism. Her weak, inconsistent and predictable serve was punished harshly time and again last year, forcing her to play with her back against the wall, even during her own service games. Secondly, she is clearly much more positive and confident on court, not dwelling too much over missed opportunities or bad shots and focusing on her game. Finally, she’s identified that she needs to up her net game, if she wants to make that switch to a more aggressive game style. To achieve that, she started the year teaming up with Alexander Zverev for the Hopman Cup doubles. A very smart choice to both improve her volley skills and avoid the pressure of defending ranking points.
As a result, Kerber remained undefeated in 4 singles games throughout the tournament, winning against opponents who traditionally give her a hard time -like Belinda Bencic-, to practically take Germany to the final all by herself. Peaking in form this early in the year can be tricky, but it is great to see Kerber find her lost confidence and be on a good track already.
Simona Halep turns the pressure of being world number 1 to relief.
Last year, there was this joke going around, that if you wanted to beat Simona Halep you should up the stakes. Whenever the top spot (or a Grand Slam) was up for grabs, Halep would choke and miss the opportunity. Since she got to that WTA top spot at the end of last year, she doesn’t seem willing to let go of it. Simona’s performances since have been the most confident and mature we’ve ever seen from her. She’s efficiently blurred out the line between defense and offence and is not afraid to be aggressive on court.
Contrary to Angelique Kerber, who found the pressure of being number 1 overwhelming, Halep seems relieved and liberated. Her matches at the Shenzhen open were a joy to watch, mostly because she played as if her dominance wasn’t to be questioned. The truth is that none of those matches were particularly tough. However, it will be interesting to see how she fares at the big Melbourne stages where the heat will be turned on. Everyone will want to beat the top seed and the top seed wouldn’t like to be a Slamless world number 1 for much longer. Let’s see who wins.
The next “Swiss miss”, Belinda Bencic, rises again.
Switzerland has given us some great tennis players and I was already starting to miss Belinda Bencic a little too much after Martinga Hingis announced her retirement. Before her series of injuries and delayed comebacks, Bencic was one of the most promising female players. Great returner, with an effortless and “clean” backhand and great angles, Bencic is a very “Swiss” all court player. Belinda was patient and smart enough to play a few ITF tournaments before attempting a comeback to the top level of tennis. And so far it seems to pay dividends. Her 18 consecutive wins gave her the confidence she needed and playing alongside Roger Federer in doubles must have been an incredible experience.
Bencic only lost to Angelique Kerber in the women singles’ final of the Hopman Cup, but she did win the trophy and starts to pose as a threat again ahead of the Australian Open.
I hope you guys are prepared for a little bit of spam from me in the next days🙊 love this two pictures… 💎💫✨ pic.twitter.com/Lb885JiblI
— Belinda Bencic (@BelindaBencic) January 7, 2018
Alexandra Krunic is one to watch closely.
The Serbian Alexandra Krunic participated in the Brisbane International, where she outlasted Muguruza before losing to Sevastova in the QF. Krunic has been on the radar of tennis enthusiasts since last year and seems to be gaining in confidence and admirers with every match she plays at that level. It’s not just that her 45th position at the WTA rankings doesn’t do her justice, but the things this girl can do on the tennis court are breathtaking. The problem with every seriously talented player is that their instinctive aggression and free-style game often lacks in consistency and tactic. If Krunic manages to deal with that, we will be seeing some great things from her in the future.
By the way, there was one more thing I took away from Krunic’s match against Muguruza. I was shocked to see a top professional athlete, who’s just been through extensive preparation in the pre-season period, cramping badly and ailing after less than 2 hours of playing. Someone around Garbine has done a very bad job and it is unacceptable at that level. Hope to see her back at her best soon.
CoCo Vandeweghe can dominate matches, titles and rankings if she gets it together.
CoCo Vandeweghe has had a very good streak since before the 2017 US Open and, at times, has played “lights out” tennis. Karolina Pliskova might be the WTA ace queen, but CoCo is -in my opinion- the best server right now. Her second serve is the best kick serve of the women’s side and has given her easy points her more often than not. The problem with Vandeweghe is that she can collapse mentally all too easily when things don’t go her way. As much as she can be intimidating when she is in the zone, she can just as easily self-destruct and generously hand over wins.
Her great run in the past few months shows that coach Pat Cash has helped her tame that side of her personality. However, anyone watching women’s tennis closely would know that she is still quite unpredictable and her game is unstable. Often times she relies on her serve to scrape through matches and manages to compose herself just in time before she explodes and messes things up. As much as I believe she belongs to the top 5 and should win a Grand Slam soon, I wouldn’t bet on her in any match. Hence, I believe her loss to Belinda Bencic at the Hopman Cup is a blessing in disguise, ahead of the Australian. Bencic exposed all that is wrong with CoCo’s game simultaneously and showed her that her serve won’t always be there to save her. Hopefully Vandeweghe will use this match as a great opportunity to improve quickly.
Plus a bonus observation on the ATP tennis in 2018
Not to completely leave out the men’s side, with all the injuries and delayed comebacks of so many top players, it will be interesting to see how the sport deals with it at the beginning of the season. Tournament directors must be desperate, along with disappointed tennis fans who’ll only get to see a handful of the top 10 at the Australian tennis courts. The ATP is starting to look a lot more like WTA in terms of the unpredictability of events.