Simona Halep debuts in Adelaide

ADELAIDE, Australia – Simona Halep didn’t play the first week of the 2020 season.

But now that she’s in Adelaide – coach Darren Cahill’s hometown – she’s maximizing as she prepares for the Australian Open.

The world No. 3 took part in an exhibition doubles event along with Angelique Kerber and the world No. 1 doubles team, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah on Sunday.

The match, which was part of the official opening ceremonies of the revamped Adelaide venue, also raised money for bushfire relief.

Haleo is playing doubles this week with countrywomen Raluca Olaru. They will play their first match on Monday.

As the No. 2 seed, she and No. 1 Ashleigh Barty have first-round byes in the new Adelaide event, which essentially is the Sydney tournament, relocated and includes an ATP 250-level tournament as well.

She will have a tough opener; Halep will play the winner between Ajla Tomljanovic and Yulia Putintseva.

Logging time on the stadium court

Earlier in the day, Sunday Halep was practicing on the stadium court, which has a new $10 million cover.

The exhibition featured the usual exho hijinks, as Halep teamed up with Cabal and Kerber with Farah.

The big reveal was when Halep disclosed that her boyfriend, who was courtside, got a speeding ticket that day.

The crowd also saw (gasp) both Halep and Kerber serve-and-volley, at Rasheed’s urging.

Here are a few more photos of the exhibition.

The pink Nike dress, which has been around as the “off-season” kit before Nike’s bit Australian Open reveal, looked spectacular on Halep, who benefits from some tailoring of the out-of-the-box Nike outfit.

Azarenka in first WTA final since ’16

There’s a certain something about matches between players who have won multiple Grand Slam titles and been No. 1 in the world

A sense of mutual respect, maybe. A sense of belonging to an increasingly rare club on the women’s tour. A little extra burst of adrenaline.

So if the Charleston Premier event had the stronger field, the smaller tournament in Monterrey this week has more of … that certain something.

In a match that both women grabbed onto with all 10 of their fingernails until the last few games, Victoria Azarenka defeated Angelique Kerber for the eighth time in nine meetings Saturday night to reach her first Tour final in more than three years.

Azarenka
Azarenka applauds her opponent off the court, after a hard-fought and hard-working effort from both. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

And the fans there will be treated to the more Sunday.

Azarenka will face Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, whose two majors are getting increasingly small in her rear-view mirror, just as they are for the 29-year-old from Belarus.

But the champions’ resumés remain. As do, somewhere in their muscle memory, the knowledge and experience of how to win big matches against big players.

So much history since 2016

Azarenka and Kerber had played eight times prior to Saturday night.

But their last meeting came just over three years ago, in the Miami Open semifinals.

Azarenka won that one, and went on to win the title. It was the last time she reached a final, and the last time she won a tournament. It also was the last time she defeated a top-five player.

The Belarussian was already pregnant with son Leo by then. She played a few more tournaments, but her last one was the French Open two months later.

As for Kerber, who had just won her first Grand Slam when they last met, and was ranked No. 3, it’s been a rollercoaster. But Kerber has won two more majors since then, and been was No. 1 before a tough 2017 led to a resurgent 2018.

Azarenka returns to Oz (Photo gallery)

Azarenka in court, not on court

Since Azarenka’s return, there has been plenty of in-court drama. But on court, she has struggled. Part of it, at first, was that she was playing so little because of her custody issues.

Azarenka has setback in L.A. courts

Part of it also has been that because her ranking is still relatively low, she’s getting some pretty tough draws. A look at the players she has lost to since her return just emphasizes that point. The majority of the time, it’s been to a seeded player, too early on.

But Azarenka is playing a full schedule now. She even added a trip to Monterrey for the first time in her career.

Despite the absence of coach Wim Fissette (Kerber also was without coach Rainer Schuettler), it was a great call. And to finally run into Kerber, the No. 1 seed in Monterrey and the world No. 5, but against whom she has always known how to win, might be an omen for the busy spring and summer.

Azarenka
Azarenka during her on-court interview following the victory. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

“I’m very pleased with the way I played today. It was an important match, to see how I can do under pressure against a top players. I haven’t won many of those in the last couple of years, so it’s good that I’m able to turn it around, and pick up my level,” Azarenka said in her on-court interview.

“I think it’s just I’m getting back used to playing. I’m trying to make better decisions, better choices under pressure. It’s all about taking one step at a time. I always knew how to play tennis, but to put it all together, it’s always more tricky. So I’m glad I’m able to put little pieces together in the important moments now.”

Good draw allows momentum to build

Azarenka had a good early draw – qualifier Miyu Kato, then Zarina Diyas – to get settled in.  And then she put on an impressive performance against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. 

The No. 3 seed from Russia had lost just three games in her first two matches, including a double-bagel shellacking of Ivana Jorovic of Serbia.

Azarenka allowed her just four games.

The only “small” tournament Azarenka played in 2017 and 2018 was the grass event in Mallorca. And the first time she played it was her first tournament back after maternity leave.

She could get into the bigger events, either through tournament wild cards or top-20 wild cards. And so she did, hoping for that one big result that would allow her to leap up the rankings in short order.

But it hasn’t been rough going.

This year, she played Auckland to open the season, St. Petersburg and then Acapulco (in addition to the big ones) before arriving in Monterrey. And perhaps the more regular match play is finally paying dividends.

Nothing but grace from Kerber

Azarenka
Undoubtedly not in the mood, Kerber still stopped to take selfies and sign autographs with the enthusiastic fans in Monterrey after the loss. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

After her fairly dramatic exit from Miami following a second consecutive defeat to Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu, Kerber may have been motivated to up her post-match game this time.

She was impeccable, to her great credit. Kisses at the net for Azarenka, whom she obviously respects because of – or in spite of – the lopsided head-to-head. A smile, even. And then, selfies and autographs for the fans on the way out.

She’ll be happy with the way she fought for the first set in defeat, and for the second set in victory. She’ll be less happy with how the third set went. But a lot of that is credit to Azarenka, who found her service timing again and cut down on the errors.

“Probably the most consistent (match this year). I’ve been playing quite a few good matches, but not throughout the full match. But throughout the full match today, I thought my level was pretty good,” Azarenka said.

Bad matchup for Kerber

You could see why she’s had Kerber’s number over the years. Too few of the women are willing to step into the court to give the German’s serve what it deserves – a mighty wallop. 

But Azarenka knows just what to do with it. And she’s not wary of having to move in even a little more and hit a swing volley. 

Kerber won just 1-of-10 points on her second serve in the third set (three of those came on double faults). In the first two sets, she averaged less than 1-of-3.

Final important for both players

The two-time Grand Slam champion has struggled the last 18 months. But she’s back on the court where she last won a title. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

In Sunday’s final, Azarenka will meet Garbiñe Muguruza, who also has two majors to her credit.

Azarenka’s two are the 2012 and 2013 Australian Opens. She also reached two US Open finals and has two mixed doubles majors.

Muguruza won the 2016 French Open and Wimbledon in 2017. She also reached the 2015 Wimbledon final. Of her six career titles, two are majors.

But her last title happened to come in the very place she will play Sunday, Monterrey.

It’s an important match for both, because the Spaniard’s career has sort of run off the rails a bit over the last year and a half. She is, as Azarenka is, looking for form and momentum.

Azarenka also has a winning record over Muguruza. But they’ve met only once. 

That came in 2016 in – you guessed it – Miami. So it’s a full circle kind of thing.

That was an upset, on paper, as Azarenka was seeded No. 13 and Muguruza, No. 4.

Oz Open 2019 – Women’s draw analysis

MELBOURNE, Australia – In theory, the top 11 players on the WTA Tour to start the 2019 season have a shot at leaving Melbourne with the No. 1 ranking.

A few of them are long shots, involving winning the title and having current No. 1 Simona Halep going out early (see the story on the website).

But still, it’s mathematically possible. And so the permutations of Thursday’s draw obviously took on a little more significance for some of those players.

And so, the draw gods determining that No. 1 Halep and No. 16 Serena Williams would be an on-paper fourth-round match makes things interesting – as does the fact that 2017 finalist Venus Williams – unseeded, could be a third-round opponent.

But it is a game of roulette to even try to predict who might get through.

Many of the players only took part in one tournament before the Australian Open. And many players exited early. Some didn’t didn’t even play one.

Some are carrying injuries over from 2018. There have been multiple coaching changes. There are some dangerous floaters.

And the 2018 champion, Caroline Wozniacki, is defending a major for the first time and is in a section where the most in-form player at the moment, Aussie Ashleigh Barty, could be her fourth-round opponent.

The names that floated to the top during the Tour Finals in Singapore are not necessarily those who are coming into the season riding that momentum.

We’re thinking notably of Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens – and even Sloane Stephens, who finished the season beautifully even as she was in the process of splitting up with the coach.

In form, or out?

Here’s how some of the contenders for this year’s women’s singles title are going (to coin the Aussie phrase) leading up to the first major of the season.

[1] Simona Halep: There are questions to be answered about the back issue that scuttled the end of her fantastic 2018 season. There’s the fact that she is without longtime coach Darren Cahill, although he’s never far away. And there’s the fact that she’s played only four matches since mid-August in Cincinnati – including a straight-sets loss to the in-form Ashleigh Barty in her only match leading up to next week.

[2] Angelique Kerber: Kerber made a coaching change in the off-season after a not-overly-friendly breakup with veteran coach Wim Fissette. She went with countryman Rainer Schuettler, who had been working with Vasek Pospisil on the ATP Tour. 

“He knows how it is to being under pressure, to having the emotions on court. He understands my thinking. You know, on court he is also, like, a hard worker,” Kerber said during her pre-tournament press conference Saturday.

The 2016 champion was beaten in her second match in Sydney by Petra Kvitova in a late night, rain-delayed affair. But she got plenty of tennis in at the Hopman Cup exhibition.

[3] Caroline Wozniacki: The 2019 Australian Open is going to be a new experience for Wozniacki, who will be defending a Grand Slam title for the first time in her long career. She’ll also – not insignificantly – be defending 2000 ranking points.  She also made public a new battle – with rheumatoid arthritis.

Wozniacki got two matches in, at Auckland the first week of the season. She was upset in the second one by Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu.

[4] Naomi Osaka: The offseason was a whirlwind for the new darling of women’s tennis – the US Open champion. She signed a number of sponsorship deals (including one announced just Saturday, with an airline). 

She is now, officially, a corporate brand. And her every utterance is lapped up by the women’s tennis media as if it comes wrapped in the wisdom of Socrates. She’s on the cover of TIME this week.  It’s all a lot to process for the rather shy 21-year-old with the anything-but-shy game.  

Osaka got to the semis in Brisbane but was not happy with herself after a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine. She had entered Sydney, but didn’t play.

[5] Sloane Stephens: The American finished the season beautifully in Singapore, despite the fact that her team situation was rather uncertain. Gone are longtime coach Kamau Murray as well as traveling coach/hitting partner Othmane Garma. Coach – at least this month – is Sylvester Black. … She comes to Melbourne in question-mark form. Stephens dropped her opener in Brisbane to Johanna Konta. She overcame a first-set bagel to defeat qualifier Ekaterina Alexandrova in a third-set tiebreak. Then, against the feisty Yulia Putintseva, Stephens had the match in hand before losing it 6-0 in the third set.

[6] Elina Svitolina: The win at the Tour Finals in Singapore seemed to be a big step up for Svitolina, who is always spoken of as a potential Grand Slam champion. So far, though, she has just three quarterfinals in 25 career Slams – two of them at the French Open. But the third came here in Melbourne a year ago.

analysis

But Svitolina is another player who has juggled coaching changes. As well, she has just one match in 2019 – an opening loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Brisbane. On the plus side, she looks healthier than she did last year.

[7] Karolina Pliskova: The former No. 1 seems to have put together an intriguing and potentially fruitful all-female coaching tag-team combo in former players Conchita Martinez (who’s here in Melbourne) and Rennae Stubbs (who is also here, with myriad media commitments).

Pliskova won Brisbane, winning three three-setters and defeating five very good – if not top-ranked – players to take the title. Her form can be considered pretty good coming in.

[8] Petra Kvitova: The two-time Wimbledon champion tends to struggle with the heat and (sometimes) humidity in Australia. Since reaching the semis in 2012, she has gone past the second round only once. (Of course, she didn’t play it in 2017 after the terrifying home invasion that left her with multiple severed tendons in the fingers of her playing hand.

On Saturday, Kvitova survived (barely) the extreme weather conditions in Sydney to beat Barty in a third-set tiebreak and win the title. That’s a tremendous confidence builder. But it appeared to take everything she had.

Unfortunately, her half of the draw plays Monday at the Australian Open – on what’s expected to be another scorcher. A least, she has an evening match against veteran Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova. She’s 6-1 against Rybarikova, going back to their first pro meeting all the way back in 2007.

Third-round analysis

When the seeds finally meet for a spot that’s sweet in the second week, the tournament really gets going.

[1] Simona Halep vs. [25] Mihaela Buzarnescu – A potential all-Romanian clash although Halep has to get through Kanepi and new titleist Sofia Kenin to get there. You’d expect Venus Williams to oust Buzarnescu in the first round.
[23] Carla Suárez Navarro vs. [16] Serena Williams – A good outcome for Serena, who might have to face Genie Bouchard in the second round.
[10] Daria Kasatkina vs. [18] Garbiñe Muguruza  – Neither of these two are on form. At all. Kasatkina could lose to Bacsinszky in the first round. Muguruza could face Konta or Tomljanovic in the second round. Muguruza beat Suárez Navarro in the first round in Sydney and then withdrew before her match against Kiki Bertens with a GI illness.
[27] Camila Giorgi vs. [7] Karolina Pliskova – We expect this one to happen given the players in that quarter. And it’s a dangerous one for Pliskova.

analysis

[4] Naomi Osaka vs. [28] Hsieh Su-WeiVictoria Azarenka looms in that section, as a potential second-round opponent for Hsieh.
[21] Qiang Wang vs. [13] Anastasija Sevastova – Wang is one of a number of players who made a big splash on the Asian swing last fall. But this is a new year, a new reality. Will she be up to the task?
[12] Elise Mertens vs. [17] Madison Keys – Mertens reached the semifinals here a year ago, in her first main-draw appearance in Melbourne. She doesn’t have much tennis in her in 2019, as she came up against a tough draw in Kiki Bertens in the first round in Melbourne. As for Keys – she’s a question mark. She has a new coach in former Tennys Sandgren associate Jim Madrigal. But she has only two actual tennis matches since last September – none this year so far.
[26] Dominika Cibulkova vs. [4] Elina Svitolina – It feels as though Cibulkova, a former finalist in Melbourne five years ago, has faded from the landscape a bit even if she made a solid return from injury in 2018. She’ll play her 12th Aussie Open woefully short of match play. Her last tournament was Beijing in early October.

analysis

[8] Petra Kvitova vs. [32] Barbora Strycova – A meeting of Fed Cup teammates. But we’ll have to see how Kvitova pulls up physically from her Sydney effort Kvitova has won her last six encounters with Strycova in straight sets. Strycova has a tricky little section to navigate that includes Putintseva in the first round and either Siniakova or Bencic in the second round. Odds are she might not get through.
[24] Lesia Tsurenko vs. [11] Aryna Sabalenka A lot is expected of the hard-hitting Sabalenka, who was defeated by Barty in a tight first-round encounter a year ago (her Aussie Open debut). But she could face the always-dangerous Makarova in the second round. And Tsurenko may have to get through promising American teenager Amanda Anisimova.
[15] Ashleigh Barty vs. [22] Jelena Ostapenko – Barty had a very good Hopman Cup, and an impressive Sydney, where she lost in the final to Kvitova Saturday night. She beat Ostapenko, Halep, Mertens and Bertens in successful to reach the final. You’d expect her to be there. Ostapenko is a trickier proposition. Ostapenko got just two games against Monica Niculescu in her season opener in Shenzhen. In Sydney, she got six against Barty in her opening loss. And she has a dangerous first-round opponent in Maria Sakkari of Greece.
[3] Caroline Wozniacki vs. [30] Maria Sharapova – How often have these two former No. 1s played? Ten times. But not in nearly four years. Sharapova retired down 1-6, 2-4 to Aryna Sabalenka in the quarters in Shenzhen. But she has a draw that might allow her to get into the event if she’s healthy, starting with 22-year-old British qualifier Harriet Dart. If they’re both healthy, they both make it. If.

[5] Sloane Stephens vs. [31] Petra Martic – It looks like a very nice section for Stephens, even if there are some hard hitters in there. But her first match is an intriguing one. She plays against fellow American Taylor Townsend, another former pupil of coach Kamau Murray. They’ve never played.
[20] Anett Kontaveit vs. [9] Kiki Bertens – A tough section that includes solid players Flipkens, Riske, Pavlyuchenkova, Puig and Sasnovich will be a fight to the end. 
[14] Julia Goerges vs. [19] Caroline Garcia – Garcia fell right off the charts in 2018, while Goerges, as she was turning 30, had the best season of her career. But Garcia couldn’t ask for a better draw to ease into 2019 with countrywoman Ponchet in the first round, and either Mattek-Sands or Aussie wild card Hives in the second round. Garcia is 2-0 against Goerges.
[29] Donna Vekic vs. [2] Angelique Kerber – Watch out for Vekic in 2019, as she seems to be coming into her own a little bit. You’d expect these two to get out of this section even if Vekic drew Kristina Mladenovic in the first round. The two met in the second round in Melbourne last year, with Kerber winning routinely. But Vekic likely would give her a better fight this time.

Quarterfinal predictions

Pliskova vs. Serena

Osaka vs. Mertens

Kvitova vs. Barty

Kerber vs. Bertens

First-round matches to watch

Monday: Belinda Bencic vs. Katerina Siniakova. … Amanda Anisimova vs. Monica Niculescu … Jelena Ostapenko vs Maria Sakkari … [30] Maria Sharapova vs. [Q] Harriet Dart … [5] Sloane Stephens vs. Taylor Townsend.

Tuesday: [1] Simona Halep vs. Kaia Kanepi … [25] Mihaela Buzarnescu vs. Venus WIlliams … [10] Daria Kasatkina vs. [PR] Timea Bacsinszky … Laura Siegemund vs. Victoria Azarenka … [Q] Bianca Andreescu vs. [WC] Whitney Osuigwe.

WTA Rankings Report – Oct. 22, 2018

It was the last week of the WTA Tour’s regular season, with only the Tour Finals and the Zhuhai event to come.

So much of the focus was on who would make it to Singapore, and who would fall just short.

But if you were zoned in on that, you missed a motherlode of great tennis in Moscow and Luxembourg.

The effort put forth by the majority of the players in the final gasp of a long season was truly impressive – notably by Belinda Bencic, Dayana Yastremska, Genie Bouchard and Daria Kasatkina.

Meanwhile, this is that awkward rankings week when the WTA drops all the points earned in both Singapore and Zhuhai – before the events are even played.

It hurts last year’s champions – notably, Caroline Wozniacki drops. And Julia Goerges, who won in Luxembourg last week, drops from No. 9 to No. 14 because her points from winning Zhuhai a year ago were lopped off.

This was notably the week, in 2014, when Bouchard rose to her career-best No. 5 – for a week, before wrapping up the season at No. 7.

ON THE UPSWING

Angelique Kerber (GER): No. 3 ——–> No. 2 (The dropping of Wozniacki’s 2017 Singapore points allows the German to move up to No. 2)

Petra Kvitova (CZE): No. 7 ——–> No. 5

Sloane Stephens (USA): No. 8 ——–> No. 6

rankingsDaria Kasatkina (RUS): No. 14 ——–> No. 10 (A great effort to win her home-country tournament – and a quick flight to Singapore to be an alternate, and the Russian is back in the top 10).

Aryna Sabalenka (BLR): No. 15 ——–> No. 12 (She didn’t even play last week, but moves up three spots. Nice work if you can get it, but it mostly has to do with Singapore drops from Garcia, Ostapenko, Venus Williams and Muguruza).

Elise Mertens (BEL): No. 16 ——–> No. 13

Serena Williams (USA): No. 17 ——–> No. 15

Madison Keys (USA): No. 19 ——–> No. 16 (She’s planning a return for a finale in Zhuhai after injuring her knee in Asia).

Camila Giorgi (ITA): No. 28 ——–> No. 26 (Despite pulling out Luxembourg after winning Linz, the Italian reaches a career high).

Belinda Bencic (SUI): No. 47 ——–> No. 37 (From the qualifying to the final in Luxembourg, Bencic still has tournaments lined up this year).

Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS): No. 46 ——–> No. 43 (Consider the comeback from shoulder surgery complete, as the 25-year-old Croat turned Aussie reaches a career best).

Saisai Zheng (CHN): No. 57 ——–> No. 47 (She’s playing doubles at a $25K in China this week, with an obscure player from Hong Kong. Yup, we don’t know why, either).

rankingsDayana Yastremska (UKR): No. 66 ——–> No. 60 (It’s been a great final kick for the 18-year-old from Ukraine, one of those late-season revelations whose life, schedule and level of expectation will rise as 2019 dawns).

Ons Jabeur (TUN): No. 101 ——–> No. 62 (The talented Tunisian reached the Moscow final, and a career high. Her rise from No. 88 at beginning of the season doesn’t seem like a huge leap, but the leaps in her game have been impressive).

Eugenie Bouchard (CAN): No. 108 ——–> No. 88 (After a tough slog in Slam qualifying this season, Bouchard’s semifinal in effort puts her out of harm’s way, finally).

Margarita Gasparyan (RUS): No. 124 ——–> No. 109 (It’s been a long road back from injury, but the Russian with the one-handed backhand can see the top 100 from there).

Vera Zvonareva (RUS): No. 161 ——–> No. 124 (A great effort in Moscow out of the qualifying).

ON THE DOWNSWING

Caroline Wozniacki (DEN): No. 2 ——–> No. 3

Karolina Pliskova (CZE): No. 5 ——–> No. 8

rankingsJulia Goerges (GEO): No. 9 ——–> No. 14 (Her 2017 Zhuhai points drop off, and so does she despite a win in Luxembourg. But she can get them back next week).

Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP): No. 13 ——–> No. 17 (It’s been a forgettable season for the Spaniard).

Caroline Garcia (FRA): No. 12 ——–> No. 18

Jelena Ostapenko (LAT): No. 18 ——–> No. 21 (The Latvian drops out of the top 20 for the first time since she went from No. 47 to No. 12 by winning the French Open in 2017).

Venus Williams (USA): No. 22 ——–> No. 40 (Last year’s Singapore points are gone, closing out a 2018 for Williams that had a whole lot to live up to after last season, but sort of fizzled out. Williams’s ranking is the lowest it’s been since Feb. 2015; she began the season at No. 5).

Magdalena Rybarikova (SVK): No. 39 ——–> No. 51

Monica Puig (PUR): No. 41 ——–> No. 54

Irina-Camelia Begu (ROU): No. 53 ——–> No. 66

rankingsCoco Vandeweghe (USA): No. 55 ——–> No. 101 (Ouch, as the 440 points for reaching last year’s Zhuhai final drop off. The American drops out of the top 100 for the first time since March 2014. Just over a year ago, she reached her career best and jumped into the top 10. A lingering ankle injury has crushed the second half of her season). 

Sara Errani (ITA): No. 92 ——–> No. 103 (Out of the top 100, and still out for awhile with a doping suspension).

Elena Vesnina (RUS): No. 117 ——–> No. 135 (The Russian is decorating the nursery).

Natalia Vikhlyantseva (RUS): No. 109 ——–> No. 152 (The Russian qualified and lost in the first round of Moscow last year, which doesn’t seem like a huge result to defend. But it’s a tight section of the rankings.

Carina Witthoeft (GER): No. 100 ——–> No. 168 (The German has drawn comparisons to Maria Sharapova at times – from far, you might do a double-take. But after winning Luxembourg a year ago, and losing in the first round this year, she cost herself a chance at the Australian Open main draw). 

Serena vs. Roger highlights Hopman Cup

We’re still nearly three months away.

But the launch of the 2019 Hopman Cup already has targeted the big day: New Year’s Day 2019.

That’s when Team Switzerland takes on Team USA.

And that means that two of the best of all time, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, will square off on court in mixed doubles.

Those are two pretty big gets for the exhibition event, which could well be in its final edition if the new ATP team event starts up, as planned, in 2020.

So if this is the finale, that’s quite a way to go.

Federer will again team up with Belinda Bencic to defend their 2018 title. Williams will pair with young countryman Frances Tiafoe, making his first appearance.

Hopman

Young, attractive field

If the field appears, at first glance, to lack a little star power (having those two legends is already enough), tournament director Paul Kilderry did point out that it includes four Grand Slam singles champions (Angelique Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza are the others), three top-10 players (Federer, Zverev, Kerber) and eight top-20 players.

Already announced was the new “it” tennis couple from Greece, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari.

From Great Britain, no Andy Murray or Johanna Konta. Instead, they’ll have the duo of Cameron Norrie and Katie Boulte – an impossibly good-looking combo.

With Muguruza will be … David Ferrer. And you thought the 36-year-old, currently ranked No. 147 and playing a Challenger in Monterrey, was done? Apparently not.

You’d have to think, if he’s going all the way Down Under, that Ferrer plans to play one more Australian Open as well. Perhaps that’s why he’s still out there on the Challenger circuit this week, trying to squeeze into the Melbourne main draw.

Hopman
The 2017 finalists, Switzerland and Germany, return intact this year.

Barty and Ebden for Australia

Hopman
The teaming of brother-sister combo Marat Safin and Dinara Safina was long-awaited in 2009. But big brother celebrated the pairing a little early in a Moscow bar, before heading down to Perth. LEGEND.

Our thinking was that the most glam matchup for the home team would have been the off-field couple, Nick Kyrgios and Ajla Tomljanovic.

It’s always an extra bit of fun when real-life couples play mixed doubles together.

Absent that, they’ve come up with top Aussie woman Ashleigh Barty and 30-year-old Matthew Ebden, who’s ranked fourth in the country behind Kyrgios, young Alex de Minaur and John Millman.

The French team of Lucas Pouille and Alizé Cornet, who won the event in 2014 with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, are in the field.

Kerber and Zverev, last year’s finalists, also team up again and have by far the best combined ranking in the field.

Draws already done

To be able to start promoting Serena vs. the Fed, you had to have the round-robin draw done.

And so it is. Looks like Group B is the tougher group. But only one of those tandems can make the final.

Hopman

Dec. 29 kickoff with the Greeks

The schedule is here. The proceedings kick off with Great Britain vs. Greece on Saturday, Dec. 29 (coming up before you know it).

There is no session on New Year’s Eve evening or on New Year’s Day. The event always has a pretty fantastic New Year’s Eve party – and they definitely have the field to gussy it up.  (Remember when Marat Safin showed up after a rough night back home in Moscow, his face all bruised up?)

Hopman
The Maui Jim pair will team up in Perth, a farewell tour for the 36-year-old Ferrer. (Photo: Madrid Open)

The USA vs. Switzerland tussle will be New Year’s night.

New this year at the event, it’s free kids’ ticket day for all day sessions.

You hope this isn’t really, truly the last-ever Hopman Cup. The event has been around since 1989, when Czechoslovakia’s (!!!) Helena Sukova and Miloslav Mecir defeated Australia’s (!!) … Hana Mandlikova and Pat Cash in the final.

(Mandlikova’s Aussie citizenship didn’t last nearly as long as the event).

Here’s their history roll, with some classic pics.

It’s built up a lovely tradition. And the players seem to have a blast playing it. No doubt this year they’ll have a lovely tribute to Lucy Hopman, the wife of the legendary Aussie coach for whom the event is named. Hopman passed away during the US Open, at the age of 98.

A Florida resident, she made it to Perth every year until 2018, when she was 94.

Progress …

Haggerty-approved

If you wanted to hear from ITF president David Haggerty – the Hopman Cup is under the ITF umbrella – here is his requisite press release quote.

“We are delighted once again to see such a strong entry for the 2019 Mastercard Hopman Cup, the ITF’s mixed team competition, at the start of the new tennis season. The ITF team competitions, which also include Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, give players a special opportunity to represent their countries, one that they value long after their playing days are over,” Haggerty said.

“Hopman Cup also offers fans a unique chance to see some of the game’s biggest names team up to play mixed doubles, which remain some of the most popular matches of the week. I would like to recognize our title sponsor Mastercard, and all the other sponsors and partners who continue to support the Hopman Cup.”

Looks like he got ALL the sponsors covered there. As one does.

Frantic Friday at Wimbledon – Choices, Choices, Choices

It was Friday the 13th. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that a few wacky events took place at Wimbledon.

But what transpired, from 1 p.m. when John Isner and Kevin Anderson walked onto Centre Court until 11:05 p.m., when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked off with unfinished business, was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Chapter 5 is called Choices, Choices, Choices

WIMBLEDON – We’ll have to assume, for the sake of argument, that there was no way for the All England Club to get special dispensation from the Merton Borough Council to break curfew – just this once.

Because a 1 a.m. finish for Djokovic vs. Nadal Friday night into Saturday would have been a better solution for all concerned.

The winner of the match could have slept in Saturday, perhaps had a light hit, a lot of treatment. And then, on Sunday, play the final.

As it is, one of them had to play late Friday, relatively early Saturday – and again on Sunday, where he will face the equally exhausted Kevin Anderson.

Anderson spent over 11 hours on court from Wednesday through Friday, just in two extra-time matches against John Isner and Roger Federer.

11:03 p.m.: the end

choices

If the All England Club had the option somehow, and didn’t exercise it, it did two of its illustrious former champions a disservice.

As it was, they returned to the court just 14 hours later to finish where they left off Friday night, when Djokovic squeezed out the third-set tiebreak to lead two sets to one.

The decision to start their semifinal – which kicked off around 8 p.m. because of the length of the Anderson-Isner marathon – under the roof was up to the referee, Andrew Jarrett.

It made sense, because there wasn’t going to be much daylight left, and better to take the time to close the roof and get the air-conditioning systems adjusted during the break after the first match.

It was going to have to happen anyway at some point, and time was precious.

The decision to resume on a beautiful, sunny Saturday with the roof closed was also Jarrett’s. Except, if both players agreed to play “outdoors”, with the roof open, at what is an outdoor tournament, it could have been changed even if it wasn’t a hard and fast rule.

One wanted to, one did not, is the general consensus although there’s no official confirmation from any of the parties involved at this point. 

No. 1 Court option not an option

There certainly is precedent at Wimbledon for a men’s semifinal to be played on No. 1 Court.

We tend to forget all the years when rain played havoc with the schedule, often threatening to prevent the tournament from finishing on time. And a couple of times, it actually did.

But as former finalist Andy Roddick pointed out Friday night on Twitter, he’s been there.

Once he was moved over to finish. On the second occasion, he played the entire match there.

Roddick celebrates after beating Mario Ancic on No. 1 Court on the second Friday of Wimbledon 2004.

Both times, he won, and ended up losing to Roger Federer in the final.

But Djokovic vs. Nadal in 2018 is not Roddick vs. Ancic, or Roddick vs. Johansson a dozen years ago.

No offense to those two fine players.

There was virtually no chance in Hades the tournament would move Nadal and Djokovic to No. 1 Court to finish their match.

Beyond the television considerations, the players likely would have both raised a ruckus.

It would have eliminated the roof-or-no-roof choice, though.

Had the second semifinal featured, say, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, you can speculate it might have been a different story. Had the women’s final not featured Williams, it might have been another story again.

Maybe.

The women pay the price – again

The way the schedule panned out, part of it no one’s fault, is a tough one for the men.

But it’s an even tougher one for the women.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams and two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber will reprise their 2016 final.

choices
Serena Williams beat Angelique Kerber in a final women’s final in 2016, the last time Williams played. They started on time.

Except they had no clue when they would play. They couldn’t be sure when to eat, when to warm up, when to do anything.

And that was especially key because of the lack of a fifth-set tiebreak for the men.

At precisely 1 p.m. Saturday, when they were due to walk on Centre Court with their flower bouquets, Nadal was just wrapping up the fourth set against Djokovic.

Didn’t it seem as though we were beyond this back in the 1990s, when they finally did away with the facetiously-named Super Saturday at the US Open?

For a couple of decades, the women were an afterthought. They were the white creme between the two Oreo cookies as CBS dictated they be scheduled between the two men’s semifinals on the second Saturday.

Mercifully, that finally ended.

Serena and her sister Venus had everything to do with this when, back in 2001, it was decided that they could headline a night session with their significant star power.

The end of CBS’s longstanding contract as the event’s main broadcaster also allowed for more flexibility.

And then, the fact that someone finally decided that having the men play best-of-five sets on the Saturday, and come right back on the Sunday afternoon and play another best-of-five sets for a major title didn’t make for optimal tennis.

Well, maybe they considered that. Maybe.

Super Saturday to the max

The epic moment in Super Saturday history came on Sept. 8, 1984. Every match went the distance and every player on court that day was a champion.

First off was a legends’ match that began at 11 a.m. when Stan Smith defeated John Newcombe. Ironically, CBS had requested that extra match because the previous year’s Super Saturday had featured three blowouts.

Then came the first men’s semi: Ivan Lendl defeated Pat Cash 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 7–6 (7–4). (Thank goodness for the fifth-set tiebreak).

Then, finally, the legendary Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova came on to play the women’s singles final.

Navratilova won that one, 4–6, 6–4, 6–4.

Then, closing in on 7:30 p.m., bitter rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors finally took the court for the second men’s semi.

McEnroe won that one, 6–4, 4–6, 7–5, 4–6, 6–3. It all ended at 11:16 p.m.

Women’s doubles also a casualty

With Nadal and Djokovic taking priority on Centre Court, one of the other finals was bumped off.

Of course, it was the women’s doubles final between Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova and Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke.

choices

They had been scheduled after the women’s singles final and the best-of-five sets men’s doubles final.

That’s long enough to wait (and with the men’s doubles also not having a deciding-set tiebreak, who knows how long).

But with the change, they have been relegated to “Court to be determined – not before 5 p.m.” status along with the far less consequential legends match featuring Thomas Enqvist, Thomas Johansson, Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis.

So they don’t know when they’re going to play. And they don’t know where.

It’s thin soup. Even given the extraordinary circumstances, you feel somehow that the tournament could have made better choices.

There is Serena – and then there are the rest

WIMBLEDON – There is no way of knowing if Serena Williams’s path to the Wimbledon women’s singles final might have been interrupted along the way, had so many of the top players in the women’s game not been shocked out of the tournament so early this year.

But the way she has been playing, who’s to say she might not be standing in the exact same spot?

Williams didn’t have to face Elina Svitolina, or Madison Keys, or Coco Vandeweghe, or Caroline Wozniacki. The high seeds and big servers that looked to be obstacles when the draw was revealed two weeks ago, fell by the wayside before they got to her.

But in defeating No. 13 seed Julia Goerges 6-2, 6-4 on a day when the much-improved German shows few signs of succumbing to first-time Slam semifinalist nerves, the 36-year-old mom made a statement.

She’s here to win it, in only her fourth tournament back after pregnancy, childbirth and a host of complications in the aftermath.

And it feels like every day, with every match, she’s getting fitter and better.

Favorite or underdog? Serena can’t decide

the restWilliams is the favorite to win the tournament. And some had her as the favorite even before it began. The lady herself is allowing herself to be impressed with what she’s accomplished so far.

“It’s like, ‘C’mon guys, this is pretty awesome’. To hear people say, ‘Oh, she’s a favorite. Like, the last 16 months, I’ve played four tournaments, and was carrying another human half that time. It’s interesting,” she said. “But when I wasn’t a favorite, I was kind of upset about that. It’s like, ‘C’mon, what can make me happy?’ Have to figure out which I prefer.”

There was a different look about Williams when she headed out to Court 9 to warmup for her match, around 11:30 a.m.

It all looked fairly typical. Williams had on a skirt, as she usually does during a pre-match warmup to better simulate what she wears during matches. She didn’t take any volleys, which is typical.

She was silent – as was everyone on her team – save for a few instructions to hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins. 

But Williams barely missed. She hit the ball much harder than she often does, and the sound coming off the racket would have intimidated any opponent, had she been nearby to hear it.

That’s what she took to the match court. And despite a hiccup when she served for the match – with new balls, no less – she was nearly flawless.

Pulled out her very best – again

“I don’t know what I expected from this tournament. I just expected to win a match, then win the next match. Whenever I go out there, I just try to win my match. That’s literally all I do,” Williams said. 

“I don’t know what my toughest match was. I mean, obviously against Camila (Giorgi), she played really, really well. She pushed me and won the first set against me. But today was tough, as well. Like, I think every match has its challenges. I don’t think any of them have been easy. Each one I have to kind of adjust to.”

the rest

Goerges said she was proud that Williams had to pull out her best to beat her. 

“Overall I think she knew how to win that match by her experience, and I didn’t have that stage in my career yet. I’m looking forward to getting there another time and getting more experience,” she said. “But overall I’m not frustrated about the way I hit. I think that she steps up her game. Yeah, it’s a big word, which is ‘respect’ towards me that she brings her “A” game in a lot of important moments.”

Kerber stands in the way of No. 8

the rest

Of all the possible opponents who managed to scratch their way into the second week, perhaps Angelique Kerber is the most prepared, on form and experience, to take Williams on.

the restKerber easily dismissed first-time Wimbledon semifinalist Jelena Ostapenko in the first semifinal.

The 6-3, 6-3 score probably makes it seem closer than it was; Kerber was a willing and able accomplice in Ostapenko’s mission to defeat herself with errors.

It was just the right tactic, although not that many players have the tools to execute it.

Still, it was a great tournament for Ostapenko, as it was for Goerges.

The last time Williams played Wimbledon, in 2016, she also faced Kerber. The American won it, but it was a tight, competitive final.

Williams was all the more motivated because the two had squared off in the Australian Open final less than six months before.

And in that one, it was Kerber who won in three sets to earn her first career Grand Slam title.

Attacking that second serve

What we remember most about that Australian Open final was how Williams was looking in the warmup to practice attacking what was, then, Kerber’s biggest weakness: her second serve.

Then-hitting partner Robbye Poole tried with all his might. But he couldn’t duplicate the feebleness of Kerber’s second delivery.

And, in the end, that was a big key to Kerber’s victory. Williams just wasn’t able to give that second serve the pummelling it deserved. And that allowed Kerber to hold serve a bit more easily than she should have.

Ironically, Kerber’s second serve is a lot better, 2 1/2 years later. So is the rest of her game. But even if she has become a much better attacker, she will still need to rely on her defense if she wants to defeat Williams on Saturday.

“She’s always going out there to win the matches. I think it doesn’t matter against who she is playing. She’s trying to (play) like she played the years before where she won the big matches. Now for sure she had a lot of big confidence, especially after the matches she won here already,” Kerber said of Williams.

“She knows the feeling to (go) out on this stage where you are in the finals, especially here. She won here I don’t know how many times. … Yeah, she’s a fighter. She’s a champion. That’s why she is there where she is now.”

Serena Williams and the Amen Corner in Wimbledon semis

WIMBLEDON  – It is most definitely not the semifinal lineup most expected.

But you bet against Serena Williams at your peril.

The top 10 women in the world dropped out of Wimbledon, one by one.

Most dropped out in the very early going.

Maybe they wanted it too much. If there’s anything that unifies tennis players, it’s how much they love this tournament and how badly they want to win it.

(We’ll put a caveat there for the French and other players from clay-court nations at Roland Garros. But even they, generally speaking, seem to consider Wimbledon the wonderland of tennis, this magical place where everything is different and so civilized and wow, being Wimbledon champion would just be something else).

As the last four women standing take the stage, Williams is the lowest seed at No. 25.

And it is only by the grace of the All-England Club that she is seeded at all.

But as the last 10 days have gone by, Williams’s tennis has gotten better and better. And you can see her getting fitter practically by the day.

And the hunger is evident.

So it is Serena and the “Amen Corner” of the women’s draw – the No. 11, No. 12 and No. 13 seeds – who will vie for a spot in the final Saturday.

[11] Angelique Kerber (GER)
vs. [12] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) 

Amen

They are nine years apart in age, and nine years apart in professional experience with Kerber having turned pro in 2003, Ostapenko in 2012.

But even though both have been around long enough, they have never met before. What a place for an introduction.

And so there are no priors with which to gauge how this match might go. But despite the baseline of both being relentless baseliners, it remains a match of intriguing contrasts.

Kerber, who is now rounding into form after a significant but understandable dip in form following her accomplished season in 2016, has added some oomph to her retrieving game.

Ostapenko is all oomph. The dynamic here is whether the German can retrieve enough balls to force Ostapenko into errors. As well, it’s about whether she can be more aggressive than she typically is on serve return – especially on second-serve return – to put pressure on Ostapenko’s superlative second shot.

Kerber’s second serve, if improved some, remains the most attackable part of her game. There are no questions about whether Ostapenko will give that shot what it deserves. 

[25] Serena Williams (USA)
vs. [13] Julia Goerges (GER)

At 29, and in her 15th year as a pro, Georges has known ups and downs.

After being in the top 20 all the way back in 2012, she finished outside the top 50 four straight seasons until last year. And this year, she put her toes in the waters of the top 10 for the first time in her career.

Williams and Goerges met for the first time just a month ago at the French Open, after not having played each other since 2011.

In only her third tournament back and her first in more than two months, Williams posted a surprisingly routine 6-3, 6-4 win. The only down side to that win was that it was the match in which Williams injured her pectoral muscle.

That forced her out of her next scheduled match, against Maria Sharapova.

The Unlikely Eight look for Wimbledon SF spots

WIMBLEDON – The women’s game is unpredictable these days.

That’s a reality, although the reasons for it depend on your point of view.

It could be parity, and a general rise in overall level that makes more upsets possible. It could also be a corollary to that – that there are numerous very good players, without many true champions in the game at the moment.

With the absence of an indisputable champion in Serena Williams for close to a year and a half, the contrast with the rest of the field is stark.

Perhaps so many of the women wanted to win Wimbledon so badly, their nerves got the better of them, in some cases.

Whatever the reason, and it’s probably a combination of a few factors, here we are.

Draw doesn’t shake out as planned

Here is what the women’s singles quarterfinals looked like on paper, when the draw came out.

We bear in mind that Williams, seeded No. 25, was always a dangerous wild card. Victoria Azarenka, another former No. 1 who has Grand Slam titles on her resumé, also looked to do some damage.

unlikely

But with the top 10 seeds all long gone – many in shocking fashion – here are the matchups Tuesday.

There were injury concerns with Williams after the French Open, where she pulled out before a scheduled match against Maria Sharapova with a pectoral injury. But as she has played her way into form during the fortnight, who would bet against her reaching the final now?

But first, a stern test against an inscrutable opponent in the Italian Giorgi.

Williams is 3-0 against Giorgi. Their last meeting came in the first round of the 2016 Australian Open. Since then, Giorgi has fallen down the rankings and picked herself right back up.

She plays the same game against everyone she plays. So Williams knows what she’s going to get.

Unseeded Cibulkova lets racket do the talking

unlikely

There was a fair bit of pushback from Cibulkova before the tournament.

Wimbledon’s decision to award Williams a seed meant Cibulkova, who would have been seeded No. 32, ended up unseeded and therefore vulnerable to a tough early draw.

The Slovak ended up with a friendly draw – in terms of the seeds she faced. Cibulkova defeated No. 22 Johanna Konta, who has been struggling. Then she upset No. 15 Elise Mertens, who was never really considered a serious contender and also has been struggling some in 2016.

No. 1 seed Simona Halep was eliminated by Hsieh Su-Wei. And then Cibulkova defeated Hsieh.

Now, she faces 2017 French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko.

The Latvian had the “worst” happen in Paris, where she lost in the first round in defense of her title. But with that rather heavy rock having fallen off her back, she is having a great Wimbledon.

“In this tournament, she seems to be in the right mood. Yeah, she’s playing aggressive. She’s playing with no fear. She just going for it,” Cibulkova said of Ostapenko.

Williams – Ostapenko final?

Despite all the bigger names in the women’s game (other than Williams) being out long ago, there is one rather appealing potential final matchup that could still happen.

unlikely
Serena v Ostapenko in the final? Could happen.

And that is with no disrespect meant to the others, all fine players but with much lower profiles with the more casual tennis and sports fans.

Ostapenko has had a good draw: wild card Katy Dunne, Kirsten Flipkens, qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko (who upset Maria Sharapova), and Aliaksandra Sasnovich (who upset Petra Kvitova in the first round)

The way has, in part, been cleared for her. And she has taken full advantage of it.

Can you picture a Serena vs. Ostapenko women’s singles final?

They have never met; Ostapenko’s rise came while Williams was off on maternity leave.

It would be a heck of an introduction on Saturday.

Of course, that likely means the final will be Cibulkova vs. Julia Goerges.

Because that’s the kind of Wimbledon it’s been.

No. 1 and No. 2 in women’s Oz final

MELBOURNE, Australia – Battling their nerves and casting aside the untimely memories of other opportunities not taken, No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki reached the Australian Open women’s singles final Friday.

For Wozniacki, the heavy favorite against unseeded Belgian Elise Mertens, the nerves came when she served for the match in the second set. She flinched.

“I got really tight at 5-4. Couple of double faults. I thought after the two good first serves I said, ‘Calm down, it’s all good.’ And all of a sudden it wasn’t good any more,” said Wozniacki, who nevertheless got the second set into a tiebreak and won the match 6-3, 7-6 (2).

“I think that’s the one that’s been most disappointing to me throughout my career. I’ve had many bad losses, many great wins. That’s one of the ones that hurt extra because it was going into the finals of a Grand Slam. I felt like I was playing better on the day. I felt like it was my time to get there,” Wozniacki said of the 2011 semifinal against Li Na of China.

Wozniacki served for the match in that one, but ended up losing.

” I think that’s why it hurt extra that I lost that day, especially with being one point away. I think if you ask any player, they always have one or two matches that they’ll think back on that hurt extra.”

Mertens will jump into the top 20 for the first time on the strength of her effort in Melbourne. Wozniacki will look to get back to No. 1.

As expected, a close battle

Halep was facing a player much like herself in Angelique Kerber of Germany. But there was one big difference: Kerber has the experience of winning a Grand Slam in her muscle memory. Halep’s memories are of having those opportunities, to win a major or get to No. 1, and letting them slip away.

For her, the nerves moment came when she served for the match in the third set.

Halep’s second serve wobbled in at 66 mph, and after a momentous rally – at 26 shots, the longest of the match – Kerber broke her to stay alive.

Halep was up a set and 3-0 against 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open last spring, and flinched then. She’d be forgiven if those thoughts went through her head anew. Which they did.

But she hung tough. She didn’t wait for Kerber to wobble when the German had two match points of her own at 6-5 in that set. Halep went after it, and she was rewarded.

“I try to hit the ball. Not to be scared that I am two match balls down. And I think I played pretty well those balls. I was not afraid of losing, so maybe that’s why I was– I won those balls, and then I got the confidence back that I’m still alive and I can do it,” Halep said.

The start of the match did not presage a barnburner. Halep was up 5-0 after just 13 minutes, winning 20 of the first 25 points. Kerber then won 12 of the next 13 to get herself into it.

But Halep took the first set. After that, it was a two-woman sprint to the finish line, with a few side trips along the way.

Both players were more fearsome when they were trailing than when they were leading. And in the end, Halep’s higher level of willingness to pull the trigger on bigger shots, while Kerber contented herself with defending when she was ahead, won it for her.

Winners, winners everywhere for the winner

Halep had 50 winners and 50 unforced errors in the match – big numbers for anyone. And especially big numbers for her.

“I cannot believe, actually,” Halep said. “But I was aggressive. I had this in my mind, and I wanted to finish the points quicker, but was not that easy with her. She’s moving very well.”

The Romanian didn’t remember ever hitting that many winners in a match. “And I hope is not the last,” she said, smiling.

Despite the ankle issue Halep has been managing since she rolled it in the first round, And despite having a three-hour, 45 minute marathon against American Lauren Davis, won 15-13 in the final set after saving two match points, she had the fresher legs in the end.

That was a little surprising, considering Halep had spent 3 1/2 hours more on court during the tournament than Kerber did.

But Kerber’s 2018 season has started with so much winning – at Hopman Cup, in winning the tuneup event in Sydney the week before the main event. So she was a little short in that area.

It especially showed on her serve. The German doesn’t use her legs nearly as much as she should on the serve. But by the third set of this match, she wasn’t using them at all even if she was running every ball down with her very big heart.

“I think when I was warming up this morning I was feeling okay. … Of course I was not physically, like, on my 100 per cent because I played so many matches before,” Kerber said. ” Now you can say maybe it would be better to not (play) Sydney or whatever, but, I mean, I get so (much) confidence from Sydney from the last few weeks, so you never know what’s happen if I’m not winning Sydney, if I’m in the semis here.”

All those possibilities down to two

The list of contenders in the field to start the tournament, players who had a legitimate shot at a deep run in the women’s draw, was a lengthy one.

It included US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza, Ostapenko, and 2017 finalist Venus Williams. And yet, in the end, it is the two top-ranked players in the world who will fight for the title Saturday night.

The final four were the best players, on form, going into the semifinals. Kerber and Mertens, who both played Hopman Cup, were 14-0 and 11-1 coming in to Thursday. Halep was 10-0, winning the title in Shenzhen, China to open the season. Wozniacki was 9-1, losing in the final in Auckland. 

Week off pays dividends

Billie Jean King has been around all fortnight, as the tournament celebrates the 50th anniversary of her Australian Open title. She will hand out the previous trophy to a first-time Slammer Saturday night. Will it be Wozniacki?

In the end, the two players who didn’t play a tournament the week right before the Australian Open were left standing. Both also saved match points early on in the tournament, making the rest of the fortnight a bonus.

And now, those two will play for major stakes on Saturday.

The winner will be the No. 1 player in the world on Monday. And the winner also will pack her first Grand Slam singles trophy in her carry-on luggage when she leaves town.

The last time that happened at the Australian Open was in 1980, when Hana Mandlikova (later an Australian citizen) defeated Aussie Wendy Turnbull.