Sightings from the Mountain

Observations from the first three days of the season:

Arvidsson d. Stosur, 7-6(4) 7-5 in Brisbane

Too often when an upset occurs, tennis fans and writers focus on what the higher-ranked player did wrong, and on the shock that she could lose to such a lesser-known opponent. There are always two players on the court, and usually the lower-ranked player who scores an upset deserves credit at least as much as the loser deserves blame. Sofia Arvidsson had the best year of her career in 2012, improving her fitness, movement, and consistency, achieving a year-end ranking of #41, and winning her second title in Memphis. Yesterday she made sure she returned Sam Stosur’s serves deep into the court, whether she had a chance to hit them flat or had to resort to defensive lobs. Once rallies were underway, Arvidsson showed her forehand could compete in power and depth with Stosur’s more famous forehand. Arvidsson didn’t hit many winners, but neutralized Stosur’s serve and made Stosur struggle to control points.

Stosur recently revealed she had off-season ankle surgery that kept her off the training courts for three weeks, but her movement and stroke mechanics didn’t look problematic. The pressure Stosur feels to play well on home soil probably played a role, but a lack of match practice likely contributed to her wavering faith in her tactics, as she tried varying levels of aggression and defensive play during the match, without sustained success. Ultimately Stosur tried too hard to serve her way out of trouble, twice double-faulting on break points that proved to be keys to Arvidsson’s victory.

Pervak d. Wozniacki, 2-6 6-3 7-6(1) in Brisbane

Ksenia Pervak, who grew up Russian but switched to Kazakh nationality last year, hasn’t attracted too much attention yet. Perhaps her best known achievement was beating Andrea Petkovic (then ranked #13) to reach the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2011. Later that year she won her first title in Tashkent, pressuring her opponents into errors by hitting with power, depth, and consistency off both wings. Pervak couldn’t sustain that consistency in 2012, and her ranking slipped out of the top 100 from a career high of #37.

If she can keep playing the way she did against Caroline Wozniacki yesterday, Pervak will establish herself as a real threat in the WTA. Against Wozniacki, who has a similar natural counterpunching style, Pervak raised her level of aggression, moving forward in the court and hitting angled winners with her powerful left-handed forehand. As I feared, Wozniacki played too passively, letting Pervak take control of the points, seldom doing enough to take advantage of her larger, fundamentally more powerful physique or greater experience.

I’m a fan of Wozniacki, but not an uncritical one. I’m convinced she has the talent, intelligence and athletic ability to return to the top 5, stay there, and win a Slam or three. As many commentators have said, to achieve that level she needs to technically improve the weak parts of her game—her forehand and her volleys. But she also needs to be more tactically adventurous on the court, to take control of more points or use more variation to sabotage her opponents’ efforts to do so. Her father and coach, Piotr, says many of the right things, though often not in the most inspirational manner. For two years, her game and results have stagnated, and the advice she’s received from her father and other advisers has translated into too few changes in her play on court. It’s time for her to try a new coach.

Hampton d. Zheng, 7-5 6-1 in Auckland

Like Pervak, American Jamie Hampton isn’t a particularly tall or imposing figure, but has the power and timing to move forward and hit winners or achieve sharp angles. Defending champion Zheng Jie allowed Hampton to take early control of too many points. Hampton’s shots frequently bounced too high or too low for Zheng to hit them comfortably, drawing errors from the Chinese counterpuncher.

Gajdosova d. Vinci, 4-6 6-1 6-3 in Brisbane

Jarmila Gajdosova has an aggressive, powerful all-court game that’s beautiful to watch when she’s playing well. She’s also known for losing focus and tactically drifting in the middle of close matches, and she can be an error-machine when her timing is off. She had a hard couple of years, going through an abrupt and painful divorce from Sam Groth early in 2011 and suffering the loss of her mother in the midst of a tournament in 2012. To overpower Roberta Vinci, who achieved her career-high ranking of #15 in October, is an excellent accomplishment for Gajdosova. If she can develop the mental side of her game to match her physical talent, women’s tennis will be richer for it.

Tomic d. Haas, 7-6(6) 3-6 7-5 in Hopman Cup

After months of ridicule over his sometimes questionable effort on court and off-court misbehavior, Tomic did well to remind us why his fans expect big things of him. Hitting flat, aggressive shots in contrast to the slicing-and-dicing style for which he’s become known, Tomic demonstrated again that he has the talent to beat top players. To my surprise, it was the veteran Haas who descended into passive play and made errors at the match’s most critical moments. Time will tell whether Tomic can maintain such a level match-after-match, week-after-week, on bigger stages and where ranking points are at stake.

Kirilenko is Engaged; Wozniacki Isn’t

Maria Kirilenko is engaged to NHL hockey player Alex Ovechkin, as he tweeted today.

This announcement comes just after Caroline Wozniacki and her boyfriend Rory McIlroy were forced to deny they were engaged after days of media speculation brought on by a photograph of Wozniacki wearing a ring. Different cultures have different traditions about engagement rings and which hand or finger they go on, and Western “journalists” would do well to avoid uninformed speculation hoping for a scoop about people’s private lives.

Injuries

Sadly, Andrea Petkovic’s bad luck continues. After winning the first set of her first match of the year against Ashleigh Barty in Hopman Cup, Petkovic retired from the match with what turned out to be a tear of the meniscus in her knee. She will have arthroscopic surgery and be off the tour for at least a few weeks.

Rafael Nadal withdrew from Doha and the Australian Open, citing a stomach virus that set back his training. He has been off the tour since Wimbledon with a knee injury, and his team had said before that he had not yet returned to 100% fitness. He now says he will return to the tour in Acapulco, in late February.

Flavia Pennetta is still recovering from wrist surgery she underwent in August. She now says she intends to return to the tour in Bogotá, also in February.

As I was writing this, Sorana Cirstea retired from her first-round match in Auckland due to a yet-unspecified illness after losing the first set to Heather Watson.

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