There have been mixed fortunes for both the Williams sisters as they kick-started their 2014 campaigns across two different countries.
In Brisbane, Serena Williams successfully retained her title by defeating rival Victoria Azarenka in the final in straight sets, in the process becoming the first woman to successfully retain the title at the first Premier event of the year.
Her success comes after Andy Murray, who opted to play in Doha rather than chase a hat-trick of titles in the Queensland capital this year, also successfully retained his title in 2013.
The younger of the Williams sisters last year compiled a season which will remain unrivalled in the history of women’s tennis (apart from Steffi Graf’s 1988 season which saw her achieve the only Calendar Golden Slam to date) for many years to come.
She won 78 of 82 matches, won eleven singles titles including the French and US Open titles, and banked over $11 million in prize money. Additionally, she stayed ahead of the pack the entire year and showed, in particular, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, clearly who was the elephant in the room.
And if her performance at this year’s Brisbane International is anything to go by (she did not lose a single set during the week), it’s going to be difficult to see anyone else try to sneak in a victory at any of the major tournaments this year.
Both Williams and Azarenka entered the championship match having never lost a match at the Queensland Tennis Centre, but inevitably, one of them had to lose.
Williams has participated in the past three editions of the Brisbane International, winning the last two, but was forced to withdraw from her debut appearance in 2012 due to an ankle injury.
Azarenka, on the other hand, won her maiden WTA Tour title at the inaugural edition in 2009 and her appearance in 2013, which was ruined by a toe infection which ruled her out of her semi-final against Williams, was only her second return to the Queensland capital.
Until the quarter-finals, Azarenka had yet to lose a set at the precinct, until she did so in wasting eight match points against Stefanie Voegele in the second set in the final eight stage.
And she almost did not reach the final after being outplayed by Jelena Jankovic in the semi-finals – Azarenka had to come back from a first set breadstick (6-1) to win in three sets.
And when the time came for a loser, it was the Belarussian who succumbed to the power game and the relentless pressure of Serena Williams, whose unbeaten record in Brisbane remains intact.
The big question now will be: can Serena Williams replicate her 2013 season in 2014, or will she slow down, thus allowing her rivals to make up some ground not just in the rankings, but also at the major tournaments?
The worst result she will have to defend is at Wimbledon, where she lost to Sabine Lisicki in three sets at the gates to the quarter-finals.
However, she will also have to defend both the French and US Opens, as well as three of the four Premier Mandatory events (Indian Wells, which was won by Maria Sharapova in 2013, is annually boycotted by both Williams sisters) and two of the five Premier 5 events.
Two other Premier 5 events were won by Azarenka in 2013 (Doha and Cincinnati), while Petra Kvitova was triumphant in Tokyo, where Azarenka was a second round casualty and Williams an absentee.
The 32-year-old will now have her eyes set on a sixth Australian Open title, which, if she wins this year, will come exactly eleven years to the day since she achieved the “Serena Slam”, which remains a possibility of achievement this year.
Last year, she fell in the quarter-finals to Sloane Stephens, after at one stage having one foot in the semi-finals, and in 2012, she crashed out in the round of 16, just one round short of what would have been a winnable quarter-final tie against Maria Sharapova.
Meanwhile, the men’s final will be decided by Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt; the two same-age rivals had to endure three-set semi-finals in the unrelenting Brisbane heat, in which the mercury nudged 40 degrees.
It will be their first meeting at ATP World Tour level (excluding Davis Cup) since June 2010, when Hewitt defeated Federer to win his most recent title at Halle. It counts as one of eight victories the Australian has enjoyed over Federer in 26 career showdowns.
In Auckland, Venus Williams fell short of what would have been her first title since October 2012 when she fell to Serbian Ana Ivanovic in the final of the ASB Classic.
The older of the Williams sisters endured a poor 2013, failing to get past the third round at any of the Grand Slams and also failing to reach a single championship match, her best results being a pair of semi-finals at Charleston and Tokyo.
And despite being able to save a championship point late in the second set, a double-fault to lose serve at the start of the final set proved fatal as 26-year-old Ivanovic captured her first title since winning Bali on her 24th birthday in 2011.
The Serbian’s 12th career title makes her the first titlist on either the ATP or WTA Tour this calendar year, as she wasted little time in gaining some much needed confidence ahead of the Australian Open, where she was a losing finalist to Maria Sharapova in 2008.
Since winning the French Open that same year, Ivanovic has struggled to maintain the same standards which also saw her top the world rankings in the aftermath of that breakthrough in Paris.
Her tournament victory in Auckland marked only her fifth title since then, but most significantly, it was her first outdoor tournament victory during the same period. It also ended a tournament drought of 26 months.
But there is no doubt that, despite this tournament being an International-level tournament, this victory will give Ivanovic the boost of confidence that she has lacked over the last five years entering major tournaments.
Entering the tournament in Auckland really paid off for the Serbian, who is now coached by Nemanja Kontic after Nigel Sears was sacked after Wimbledon last June.
For Venus Williams, despite being defeated in her first tournament since last year’s China Open, confidence will still remain high entering the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, but as she will be unseeded, she could draw anyone in the first round – ranging from a qualifier to even world number one Serena Williams.
Both players will have clear goals for 2014 – Ivanovic will be keen to return to the world’s top ten for the first time since 2009, and finally take that extra step forward against the world’s elite, while Venus will want to prove that she is not yet a spent force, even though she will turn 34 shortly a week out from Wimbledon.
And finally, in Shenzhen, Li Na successfully retained her solitary title from 2013 by defeating compatriot Peng Shuai in the final in straight sets.
The 31-year-old, who will turn 32 next month, will risk her place in the world’s top four when she attempts to emulate on another successful run at the Australian Open, where she is a two-time runner-up.
I will have a full preview of all the men’s and women’s contenders for the year’s first Grand Slam sometime in the next week, as my coverage on the Australian summer of tennis continues.
At the time of publication there has yet to be a men’s titlist this year. Rafael Nadal will face off against Gael Monfils in the final in Doha, which is currently being played out.