MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - The first week of the Australian Open is in the books. We've seen stunning upsets, the match of the year so far, and two sizzling stars who seem ready for a final showdown.
Five Takeaways From Week 1
Are we headed for a Kerber-Wozniacki final?
Based on how they've picked up steam as we round the corner, yes. No one has been more impressive than 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, who has yet to lose a match in 2018. While the same can be said for Shenzhen champ Simona Halep, Brisbane champ Elina Svitolina, and Hobart champ Elise Mertens, the quality of competition Kerber has come up against to build her 13-match win streak (including 4-0 Hopman Cup singles run).
Kerber's 2018 wins:
d. Elise Mertens, 7-6(6), 7-6(1)
d. Eugenie Bouchard, 6-1, 6-3
d. Daria Gavrilova, 6-1, 6-2
d. Belinda Bencic, 6-4, 6-1
d. Lucie Safarova, 6-7(3), 7-6(8), 6-2
d. Venus Williams, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1
d. Dominika Cibulkova, 6-3, 6-1
d. Camila Giorgi, 6-2, 6-3
d. Ashleigh Barty, 6-4, 6-4
d. Anna-Lena Friedsam, 6-0, 6-4
d. Donna Vekic, 6-4, 6-1
d. Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-3
d. Hsieh Su-Wei, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2
Kerber's dominant win over Sharapova in their much-anticipated third-round clash was a cathartic proclamation of her tag as a title favorite. This has been a perfect opening week for the German. By spending the week before the tournament in Sydney, she avoided much of the pre-tournament hoopla. Given her sub-par 2017 season, she came into Melbourne under the radar.
But after a strong first week and her headline-grabbing win over the only other Slam champion remaining in the draw, Kerber seems like the one to beat. She followed up her big win over Sharapova with a gritty comeback to oust a resplendently tricky Hsieh Su-Wei in three sets to advance to her first Slam quarterfinal since 2016. Twelve months on from struggling as the top seed at Melbourne Park, the soft-spoken German finally looks like that's precisely who she wants to be.
Kerber looks in pole position in the top half of the draw, but there are more than a handful of contenders ready to spoil her re-coronation. The primary candidates are No.6 Karolina Pliskova and No.20 Madison Keys, neither of whom have dropped a set through their first three matches. Both women have been working outside the spotlight, which may have suited them both after their pressure-packed US Open campaigns last fall.
While the top half of the draw looks like it will be a dogfight through the semifinals, the bottom half of the draw looks primed to be a Top 4 battle between No.2 Caroline Wozniacki and No.4 Elina Svitolina. Both are through to the quarterfinals after Sunday, with each securing dominant straight-set wins. Wozniacki will face Carla Suárez Navarro in the quarterfinals, while Svitolina will try and end Elise Mertens' red-hot start to 2018.
Both Wozniacki and Svitolina have played well and had to battle through some close calls, with Wozniacki having to save match points to come back from 1-5 down to beat Jana Fett in the second round. Once the tournament moves to the second week, Wozniacki has the edge on experience. After making just her third Slam quarterfinal, Svitolina is looking to make her first Slam semifinal. Wozniacki on the other hand is into her 11th Slam quarterfinal.
Simona Halep in survival mode
Playing in her first Slam as the World No.1, Halep drew a hand of bad luck in her opening round when she rolled her left ankle badly early in the second set against Destanee Aiava. She has managed the injury well and somehow found a way to run over four kilometers on it to save three match points and defeat Lauren Davis 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 in the third round. The match tied the mark for the most games played in a women's match in Australian Open history.
Whatever happens next for Halep - there's no denying her title chances took a big hit the minute she rolled her ankle - we'll be talking about her win over Davis throughout the season. The Romanian's career has been defined by landmark matches, and her willingness to fight through the pain and pressure to win was a personal breakthrough. And she knew it.
Q. If you're looking back a year or two years ago, do you think you would have had that same kind of mental fortitude?
SIMONA HALEP: No, I think now I'm much stronger. Mentally, of course, I was talking a lot during the match. And yeah, I was a little bit frustrated because of the leg. I felt the pain all match, but I didn't give up.
For sure I'm stronger mentally, and I could resist like for every moment in the match. That makes me very happy, and I think the big win is that I could handle it.
UPDATE: Halep showed no signs of stopping on Monday afternoon, defeating Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-2 in 79 minutes to advance to her third Australian Open quarterfinal.
The American exit was overblown
Nine of 10 Americans bowed out on Day 1 of the Australian Open, including the Top 3 Americans in Venus Williams, CoCo Vandeweghe, and Sloane Stephens, but was it really that big of a shocker? Venus drew one of the toughest unseeded players in Belinda Bencic, Stephens is still searching for her US Open form when she drew the always dangerous Zhang Shuai, and CoCo Vandeweghe had been down and out with the flu before stepping on court against Timea Babos. Four more Americans lost to seeded players.
And when all was said and done, Lauren Davis played her part in the match of the tournament against Halep, and US Open finalist Madison Keys has blistered the field.
Closing ain't easy
Closing out a match against a top player is hard. It's even harder at the start of the season when you don't have the repetition and confidence in place, and when the luck just doesn't break your way. The two hard-luck losers from Week 1 - Jana Fett and Lauren Davis - had the World Nos. 1 and 2 on the ropes. Fett led Wozniacki 5-1 in the third and held two match points on the Dane only to lose six straight games. It was the type of collapse that Wozniacki has earned by reputation, by being a player who can dig in, not miss, and ratchet up the pressure. But it was a tough one to watch, as the weight of the moment seemed to knock Fett's racquet from her hand.
Then there was 24-year-old Davis, who put in a career-performance to go toe-to-toe with Halep over 3 hours and 45 minutes, in a match that captivated fans, the press, and the locker room. Davis held triple-match point on Halep's serve at 10-11, and as bad luck would have it, that's precisely when Davis' toenail decided to fall off. She struggled to move through those three points, Halep steadied herself, and the two kept trading blows until the World No.1 finally won out.
Fett and Davis weren't the only ones to let big leads go. Kontaveit led by a set and 4-1 over Carla Suarez Navarro and had chances to serve out the match in the Round of 16, but fell 8-6 in the third. Australian teenager Destanee Aiava had set point on Halep in the first round. Daria Gavrilova had a 5-0 lead and eight set points on Elise Mertens and lost in the second round. Monica Puig saved match point against Sam Stosur in the first round. Sloane Stephens served for the match against Zhang Shuai. The list goes on and on.
Biggest Upset: Lucky Loser Bernarda Pera d. No.9 Johanna Konta, 6-4, 7-5 in the second round
Hsieh Su-Wei's win over No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza was a stunner on paper, but the Spaniard's physical issues heading into the tournament were well documented. But no one saw Pera's win coming. Setting aside minor injury concerns that she quickly dismissed, Konta looked sharp to start the season. Against Pera she looked completely discombobulated, and the No.123 took advantage.
Best Match: No.1 Simona Halep d. Lauren Davis, 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 in the third round
Plenty of ink has been spilled on this match, and deservedly so. But here are three more thoughts:
1. While much of the discussion concerned Halep's mental transformation to win that match, don't overlook her improved serve and aggression. Halep's serve, which she worked to improve after it was decimated by Maria Sharapova at the US Open, was a key reason Halep was able to stay with Davis down the stretch.
2. Davis didn't come out of nowhere. The American had a fantastic first quarter of the season last year, winning Auckland and making back-to-back quarterfinals in Doha and Dubai. Here's hoping this is yet another springboard for her to get back towards the Top 30. She earned a lot fans with her spirit and sportsmanship in Melbourne.
3. We'll close this out with this great quote from Davis:
Q. A lot of people might look at this as a tipping point in your career. Do you think this will help you turn a corner?
LAUREN DAVIS: Yeah, because I showed myself what I'm capable of. Throughout my career I have always struggled with being so critical and being hard on myself. I think it's normal, honestly, for a lot of athletes. We look at failure as a negative, and, like, say, you miss a shot by an inch and you do everything right. A lot of people consider that as a failure. But looking at it, like you did everything right for the most part, it's all about changing the way you see things and changing your perspective.
So I made a commitment to myself before this tournament that I'm going to be my own best friend and just my greatest supporter, and accept all that God has to give me. I mean, I showed myself what I'm capable of.
I think there is a ton of positives, looking at it, and I'm excited for what the future holds for sure.