The 2014 tennis season is under way Down Under with the usual collection of Australian Open tuneups. Although the season is barely a week old, this much we already know:
Serena is still Serena.
World No. 1 Serena Williams, who went 78-4 in 2013 and won 11 titles, proved last weekend in Brisbane that she has not let up. She won the tournament, didn’t drop a single set, and knocked off No.3 Maria Sharapova and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka back-to-back. Her win streak is up to 22 matches, and she will be the No. 1 seed at the Australian Open, which begins Monday.
Madison Keys, an 18-year-old who trains in Boca Raton, is a player to watch. Keys’ ranking is up to No. 36, and on Thursday she will play in the semifinals at Sydney against Angelique Kerber.
Keys beat fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the quarterfinal, when Mattek-Sands retired with a back injury, trailing 3-2 in the opening set.
Keys made her first big splash at age 14, winning her first WTA match over 81st ranked Alla Kudryatseva. She is a native of Rock Island, Ill., and at age 9 began training at the Evert Academy, where Chris Evert and her brother, John, were among her mentors. She has also spent time with coaches at the USTA Training Center in Boca Raton.
At 5-11, she has a powerful serve that hovers around 120 mph — right up there with Williams. She reached the third round of the Australian Open last year, and has also made the third round at Wimbledon.
Mattek-Sands is impressed.
“She's a great up-and-coming player,” Mattek-Sands told Tennis magazine this week. “[She] plays aggressive shots, big serve. She goes for her shots. She's not afraid. Even if she misses a few here and there, she keeps going for it.
“It seems like she doesn't get intimidated by the moment of rankings or things like that. She's had some great wins. Her serve is great. She places it well. I think she has a really bright future.”
Williams’ older sister, Venus, 33, pulled out of the Hobart tournament after losing the Auckland final 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 to Ana Ivanovic. It was her first final since Luxembourg in October 2012. Venus is ranked No. 38 and trying to regain her form after dealing with nagging injuries and Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue.
Sloane Stephens, ranked No. 13, also took time off before the Australian Open because of an injured left wrist.
On the men’s side, the big news last week was sixth-ranked Roger Federer losing to 60th-ranked Lleyton Hewitt in the Brisbane final. Hewitt beat Federer in three sets in a battle of 32-year-old former No. 1s. Hewitt was 8-18 against Federer going into that match, but has now won two of their past three meetings.
Meanwhile, top-ranked Rafael Nadal opened his season with a title in Doha, Qatar. He defeated Frenchman Gael Monfils 6-1, 6-7 (7-5), 6-2 last Saturday.
He didn’t have an easy time of it, however. Of the five matches he played, three went three sets.
“The important thing is that I had a chance to survive after very tough matches this week,” he said. “And it was a tougher match against a tougher opponent in the final. It's very exciting to start the year with a title.”
Nadal will be the top seed at the Australian Open.