WTA

The Notebook: 2017 Roland Garros (Women’s singles)

The pre-tournament buzz in Roland Garros focused entirely on the wholly unpredictable nature of the women’s event, and two weeks later, pundits couldn’t have been more on point. The clay Major surely could have used the star power of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, but the wide-open tournament ultimately didn’t disappoint in terms of drama, intensity, gamesmanship and self-combusting, captivating narratives until its epilogue with the coronation of a stunning, first time Grand Slam Champion.

Hence, time to dust off the notebook and run through the characters and storylines that dominated the fortnight in the terre batue of Paris.

  • Schedule makers have a way of sensing how to kick off their tournament with a bang and in Paris, once again, we were presented with a crash-and-burn special from a contender in the first hours of action. Not that anyone was expecting anything grandiose from World No.1 Angelique Kerber, who had yet to beat a top-20 opponent in 2017 and accumulated first round exits in the tune-up events, yet getting dispatched without as much as a speck of a fight isn’t the attitude expected from a player of her status. Handed out a tough first assignment in Ekaterina Makarova, a former top-10 player who relishes the big stages, the German failed the test emphatically as she struggled to find her footing, her spirit and her shots in the red clay to become the first women’s top seed to lose in the 1st round of Roland Garros in the Open Era. At the mercy of mathematics and the performance of her closest rivals, Kerber eventually retained her spot but for how long?

Angelique Kerber’s campaign in Roland Garros ended in Day 1 of the 2017 edition

  • Kerber was the main scalp of the early days, but the list of underachieving players that couldn’t validate the established hierarchies encompasses a few more relevant actors. For instance, another woman struggling to re-enact the stellar exhibitions of 2016, Dominika Cibulkova (6th seed), vanquished in round two by Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who went from lucky loser to trailblazer in a matter of days by becoming the first Arab woman to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam. Johanna Konta (7) cruised through the first set against Taiwanese Su-Wei Hsieh and seemed well on her way to a first career win in Paris only to collapse to the World No. 116. Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe (19) dissolved at the hands of another player ranked outside the top-100, Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, the fans she rubbed the wrong way rejoiced and her coach was dismissed. Fellow American Madison Keys (12) stamped an important victory as she gaits on the comeback trail, but then run out of batteries against a qualifier. Agnieszka Radwanska (9) did what she usually does at the Slams: bag a couple of wins, bow out meekly and unceremoniously when adversity, in the form of home favourite Alizé Cornet, stood on her way to greater things.

 

  • Emanating an entirely different vibe while saying goodbye to Paris was Czech Petra Kvitova (15), the heart-warming story of the first week. A surprise participant just six months after the home assault that could have terminated her tennis career, the two-time Wimbledon Champion welcomed back delighted tennis fans with a beaming smile and showed the worst is in the past as her stabbed hand and tendons withstood the challenge. Fighting rust and lacking match fitness, Kvitova defeated Julia Boserup in round one as her dominant left ripped 31 winners, and later succumbed to Bethanie Mattek-Sands after two hard-fought tie-breaks. Nevertheless, the most important had already been accomplished and the 27-year-old is almost ready to resume contender status in Major tournaments, maybe as soon as Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova aknowledges the crowd after her first round victory in Paris

  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (8) is a tough nut to crack as her level fluctuates wildly during the season, especially in the latter part of her career, yet a decent clay-court season and a game relying on smarts and an exquisite variety of spins and slices promised to serve her well as she navigated a draw that lacked a alfa dog. The Russian was my pick for the title, hopefully energized by a golden chance to add another Roland Garros title on the backend of her career, but the 31-year-old never looked comfortable, much less dominant as she saw off Christina McHale in two long sets and then narrowly squeaked by Oceane Dodin and Shuai Zhang in the following rounds. Her campaign would end with a dispiriting effort against Caroline Wozniacki, where she rattled off the unforced errors (41 to 26 winners) and botched successive attempts to nudge the Dane into uncomfortable situations with her serve or net play. All in all, it was certainly a huge opportunity that went to waste.

 

  • Defending Champion Garbiñe Muguruza (4) faced an uphill battle to retain her crown from day one as the pressure of having to hold on to a boatload of points conspired with a mined path ahead, yet the first signs were reassuring towards dispelling notions of fragility. The Spaniard bounced back from an early setback to knock off Anett Kontaveit and closed out straight set wins over former Champion Francesca Schiavone and 2016 QF Yulia Putintseva to reach round four unscathed, however the temperature was about to rise exponentially. Next up was preeminent French hope Kiki Mladenovic to materialize one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament and, unfortunately, Muguruza shrank under the weight of expectations and the antics of the hostile crowd, squandering an erratic serving performance by her opponent to fizzle out in three sets. Intermittent since transforming into a Grand Slam Champion, maybe the cordial 23-year-old can recapture her best tennis now that the memories of Roland Garros are in the rear-view.

Garbiñe Muguruza wasn’t able to glimpse the finish line this time at Roland Garros

  • Players who came out of nowhere to stretch their campaigns into the second week of the French Open: Veronica Cepede Royg and Petra Martic. The 24-year-old Royg made history for Paraguay by reaching the fourth round and her path was far from a cakewalk, ousting former finalist Lucie Safarova and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) – one of the most consistent WTA Tour performers in 2017 – before labouring to push Karolina Plískova to the brink, leading 4-3 in the third before the Czech took over. Meanwhile, the Croatian Martic chained six consecutives triumphs in Paris (including the qualifying), took down 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova, and was frightfully close to shocking Elina Svitolina in round four, leading 5-2, 0-30 in the third until the Ukrainian whipped into a frenzy to nab 20 of the next 24 pts.

 

  • France is still looking for someone to succeed Mary Pierce, the 2000 women’s winner, on the Roland Garros panel of singles Champions, but the 2017 edition left everyone convinced that the ladies are due to break the drought sooner than the men. Caroline Garcia (28) finally took a step forward, trudging into the latter stages of a Slam for the first time at the expenses of countrywoman Alizé Cornet, but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome the stout Plískova in the QFs despite fervent support from the home fans.

 

  • Meanwhile, Kiki Mladenovic (14) endured epic third-set escapades in rounds one (Jennifer Brady) and three (Shelby Rogers), and seemed destined to reach the stars buoyed by a singular ability to embrace and channel the energy from outside until her dream was crushed in the last eight. Her impressive blend of athleticism and shot-making was, at times, exhilarating but lacked baseline consistency to deal with the resourcefulness and variety present in Tímea Bacsinszcky’s display during their bumpy QF encounter. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old Mladenovic will be back next year and probably in an even better condition to challenge for the trophy.

The rapport established between Kiki Mladenovic and the French public wasn’t enough to get her over the hump

  • Elina Svitolina (5) arrived in Paris on the heels of a WTA Tour best 31 wins and four titles in 2017, boasting a wealth of confidence after triumphing in Rome and carrying previous history at Roland Garros she could tap on (2010 Junior title and breakthrough QF appearance in 2015). What she lacked, though, was the experience of being a Grand Slam favourite and the pressure that comes with it. In the first week, the top female players can manage to slip through it but as soon as the schedule dwindles and the limelight shifts and intensifies, mental cracks get amplified and even an unheralded opponent like Petra Martic can augment into a tricky obstacle. In the fourth round, Svitolina was able to patch the fissures just in time and she did it so delicately that for much of the QF blockbuster versus Simona Halep her forehand looked unstoppable, her serve unsolvable and her resolve unbreakable. However, up 5-1 in the second, she relieved the stiches just a bit while daydreaming of a maiden SF appearance and her opponent took the chance to see if there was something else to get out of the match. It wasn’t long before momentum switched for good, the lead evaporated, Svitolina panicked like a novice and balls started to weight tenfold on her racket. One bicycle wheel later, she was off on a devastating ride home.

 

  • Karolina Plískova (2) may be a fish out of water in clay, flopping around the court awkwardly and gasping for air after having to play one, two, three more shots than she’s used to, but the Czech is also a top player with weapons few others possess and she knows that. Consequently, even if her stupendous first serve bites much less, her second serve gets blunted and her flat strokes dulled bouncing on the crushed brick, Plískova realizes the smaller margins of error shouldn’t change her approach or gameplan. In Paris, the 25-year-old stuck to her guns to advance through five rounds with little fanfare and under different degrees of duress, and found herself unexpectedly just one win away from assuming the World No. 1. On the other side of the net lined up a player, Halep, of similar calibre and ambition but considerably more suited for the grind to come than a lanky, machine-like ball striker. And the Romanian won in three sets, naturally, to take the spot in the final and refer Plískova to the grass practice courts, where things will look significantly different and enticing prospects await the Czech.

Karolina Plískova’s serve got her out of trouble multiple times at Roland Garros

  • For a 13-year veteran with undeniable talent, Timea Bacsinszky’s résumé is sparse in honours, counting just four singles titles and few deep runs at landmark tournaments. However, there’s no rebuffing that she’s found a home on the terre batue of Roland Garros and the results speak for themselves as the Swiss reached the last eight in Paris for the third consecutive season with a crafty combination of versatility on the forehand, deceiving power, especially off the backhand, ability to slice and dice at will, and a distinctive propensity for well-disguised drop shots. Despite that, Bacsinszky (30) was overlooked at the start of the tournament only to dismantle her first three opponents, rout Venus Williams in the last two sets in round four and squash the French faithful with a composed, methodical takedown of Kiki Mladenovic in the QF. After that triumph, the 28-year-old surely fantasised with hoisting the trophy two years after losing to Serena Williams in the SF, but she too struggled to tame Ostapenko when the Latvian found another gear in the third set of their semi-final affair.

Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in action at the Court Philippe Chartier

  • Simona Halep (3) was the closest figure cutting unanimous favouritism entering Roland Garros but a rolled ankle in the days leading up to her debut tempered expectations and, oddly, the Romanian seemed to benefit from it. She usually begins the Slams in a tentative way and that would only ramp up with the extra attention, however the Constanta-native racked up routine victories throughout the first week and destroyed clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in round four with an immaculate exhibition of top-notch counterattacking tennis to confirm her title bid. Halep was ready to avenge her loss to Svitolina in the Final at Rome, but for close to an hour she was engulfed by her rival’s masterclass in controlled aggression. Until, of course, the moment Svitolina’s level slipped and Halep unexpectedly found a handle on the game, her tactical nous slowly chopping down the 1-5 disadvantage in the second and staving off a match point before prevailing in the tie break. The third set would prove nothing more than a formality with her opponent heart-broken, and the Romanian started gearing up for the next commitment, a clash with World No.2 Karolina Plískova, another player whose balls she would have to hunt down relentlessly.

 

  • The semi-final between the two most decorated competitors left in the field was a fascinating two-hour battle of attrition between players with contrasting styles. While Pliskova tried to blast the points open as early as possible by pouncing on the rising balls and targeting the lines, Halep looked to return everything, force her opponent back by going long and high and surprise by redirecting the ball while transitioning from defence to offense quickly. None got her way decisively as every set was decided by an extra break but, in the end, the Romanian just had more options to draw the line and prevailed to repeat her Final appearance of 2014. Yet, this time it wasn’t Maria Sharapova standing on the other side and Halep wasn’t the wide-eyed debutant. She would face an unseeded youngster with nothing to lose and unwavering belief in her own game.

Simona Halep celebrates after ousting Elina Svitolina in the Quarter-Finals

  • Five months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, a 19-year-old Latvian girl was on the verge of ousting the World No.5 and stride into uncharted territory, the second week of a Grand Slam. Up 5-2 in the final set, Jelena Ostapenko got “tight”, in her own words, and Karolina Plískova moved on instead. A few weeks later, in Charleston, the same teenager wasted a brilliant run to her first clay final with a mistake-laden performance against another promising youngster, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, whose measured, nifty style disrupted Ostapenko’s rhythm so much that defeat came in the brunt of a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in just over one hour. Watching the trophy presentation, I couldn’t help to think Kasatkina’s surgical efficiency would yield a breakthrough performance soon while the Latvian’s go-for broke rush would need time to deliver a standout result, much less in the slowest of surfaces. Fast forward less than two months and that impatient, streaky, volatile adolescent is a Grand Slam Champion, a National hero and the newest star of the WTA Tour.

 

  • Most tennis aficionados have known about Ostapenko since 2015, and the danger she could present in any given day to any opponent was well documented. A ferocious ball-striker that hits as fast, as clean and as hard as anyone in women’s tennis, her draw placement at Roland Garros, on the section of an hobbling Angelique Kerber, opened leeway for a breakthrough campaign should Ostapenko manage to adapt to the fluctuating weather conditions and how those could affect her timings. Incidentally, the Latvian would drop her first set at the tournament, but progressed to round two by rallying over the next two, and she would follow that framework to a tee several times during her magical campaign, toppling former finalist Sam Stosur and her heavy top spin in round four, and eventually putting the field on notice by draining a barrage of winners on the Tour’s foremost defender, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

Jelena Ostapenko prepares to zip another forehand during a match at the 2017 French Open

  • Her semi-final opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, in many ways bears a resemblance to Daria Kasatkina’s game, and it was fitting that Ostapenko used the semi-final to showcase the improvements that a short stint under the direction of clay-court specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues provided to complement her bread-and-butter all-out aggression. While at her best planted on the baseline smacking the ball, Ostapenko’s quicker movement and body adjustments sustained her disposition to step inside the court, deal with Bacsinszky’s changes of speed and finish at the net, as well as an effort to dictate at a lower cadence and deliver safer, brushed strokes not necessarily aimed for the lines at all times. It would work as she edged past the Swiss to secure a spot in the 2017 Women’s singles Final.

 

  • It would have been understandable if the 20-year-old took a few minutes to settle into the ambiance of the biggest match of her career, but Ostapenko came out blazing, broke at love in the first game and kept swinging freely throughout, unfazed by the pressure, the nerves, the weight of the occasion, the evolution of the score, the futile attempts of her rival to force her into a corner. Lashing onto every ball headed her way, she kept following her own brand of high-risk/high-reward tennis, gunning relentlessly for winners from everywhere and in any shape or form: ripping cross court or down the line, on the run or returning a serve, forehand or backhand, all while dismissing negative thoughts and self-doubt with a growl or a sardonic smile towards her box regardless of how many errors she would queue at times. It was a firebrand festival of power, obstinacy and competitive adrenaline that many times resorted into a one-person recital, with Halep shoved into the sidelines, “a spectator” on what was also her show, unable to say her own lines, to impact the game using her superb defensive skills as the ball blew past her, sometimes drifting wide or long, sometimes landing between the white lines.

Jelena Ostapenko serves against the backdrop of a packed stadium in Paris

  • In the pivotal moments, a set and 3-0 down in the second, and later trailing 3-1 in the third, Ostapenko actually cranked up the intensity, tried to hit even earlier, even harder, to further take the destiny out of the Romanian’s hands and eradicate any chances she could conjure an alternative course of action. Maybe by instigating fewer cross-court exchanges that vacated the corridors, looking to force her rival to hit from a central location, or perhaps experiment with slices, drop shots and even moon balls to halt the Latvian’s furious pace.

 

  • On the back of 54 winners and equal number of unforced errors, the Riga-native eventually guaranteed an opportunity to wrap up the match, and she didn’t hesitate to launch another backhand missile on the return, directing the ball down the line one final time and raising her arms for the first time, in an incredibly restrained reaction from a 20-year-old who had just won her maiden professional title at a Grand Slam, something not seen in two decades. The same premature composure displayed on court would reverberate as she acknowledged the crowd and filled her media obligations, poised, collected and discoursing with no hesitations as if she hadn’t just become Latvia’s first Grand Slam winner, the youngest Major Champion in a decade and the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. Just another remarkable image to bookend a bizarre yet fascinating tournament.

Jelena Ostapenko holds the first rophy of her professional career, Roland Garros’ Coupe Suzanne Lenglen

Those Melbourne Days: 2017 Australian Open review

The 2017 Australian Open will go down in history as one of the most memorable Grand Slams of the last dozen of years after a fortnight stock full of stunning beat downs, dramatic upsets and storylines aplenty that culminated in a pair of singles’ finals that had the traditionalists licking their chops in anticipation.

Instead of the usual moniker as the “Happy Slam”, this year’s Aussie Open was broadly baptized the “Throwback Slam” for the spellbinding display of the old guard, which stole the show to add new chapters to rivalries that seemed irredeemably part of the past. However, before the sentimental affairs between Serena and Venus or Rafa and Roger were set up, a multitude of ball-striking action resonated around Melbourne Park under the scorching Australian summer, with the conversation focusing on the inordinate quickness of the hard courts, a major factor for an event that would be dominated by the more aggressive contenders.  No surprise then that, in the end, the trophies rested on the hands of two legends which collected uncountable laurels imposing their offensive mastery on the opposition and are, arguably, the greatest the sport has ever seen.

Yet, while the ripples of their record-setting feats will probably reverberate for a long time, much more transpired throughout the tournament as many favourites were forced to leave the scene way earlier than expected, leaving enormous gaps on the draws for the brave to fill. Therefore, beyond the victors and finalists, surprise contestants arose, prospects finally took a step forward, heavyweights were vanquished and contenders crashed out, a medley that warrants a closer look after the first major landmark of the 2017 season has passed. It’s thus time to recap the first major of the year.

Women’s singles 1st week: Heading back on the first flight home

Bestowed with the privilege of opening the proceedings on the Rod Laver Arena in the inaugural day, Simona Halep quickly jumped aboard a plane home after just 75 minutes on court in what amounted to an inexcusable second consecutive first round exodus for the Romanian. The fourth seed fell in straight sets to Shelby Rogers, a quarter-finalist in Roland Garros last season but nothing more than a borderline top-50 player, and a slew of questions followed her on the way out. She may have been hampered by a wobbled left knee due to resurgent bout of tendinitis, which obviously undercuts her main strengths, superior court coverage and speed, but her patented fighting spirit wasn’t there. Halep huffed and puffed unable to harness her rival’s superior power or shove Rogers into uncomfortable positions, barely making a dent on the return (0/1 in break points) or making adjustments by rushing to the net, where she was perfect on five attempts. It was dispiriting to watch from a player that should be making the second week in her sleep after reaching the last eight in 2014 and 2015.

Simona Halep spent his short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn't last long in Melbourne

Simona Halep spent her short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn’t last long in Melbourne

Meanwhile, third seed Agnieszka Radwańska, a semi-finalist in 2016, also exited the scene prematurely. Fresh off a final appearance in Sidney, “Aga” was still able to scrape past Tsvetana Pironkova on the first round but her progress came to a screeching halt courtesy of Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, whose firepower, to the tune of 33 winners to 8, incinerated the Pole’s delicate wings. The Croatian veteran would author one of the feel good stories of the tournament (we’ll get to it), in contrast with Shelby Rogers, who quietly bowed out in round 2, yet both women further proved the frailty of some of the names ensconced near the top of the WTA rankings.

Speaking of that…Angelique Kerber, the World No.1, was the epitome of shakiness throughout his first Major campaign as the top seed and defending champion. The German, who pulled through on so many instances last year due to a newfound self-belief, looked nervous on her debut against Lesia Tsurenko, and later took advantage of a few precocious jitters by compatriot Carina Witthöft to right a ship that was tumbling on round two, yet her grit couldn’t avoid a pasting from the impressive Coco Vandeweghe.

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

With her serve faltering badly and her strokes misfiring, Kerber was bullied off the court by the big-hitting (sensing a theme here?) American, who bagged 30 winners and four breaks to send the German packing in round four. An outcome that would eventually put an end to the 29-year-old’s brief reign while she was still adjusting to the new condition. Such is life when you share the tennis panorama with Serena Williams.

Men’s singles 1st week: Foreshocks

While favourites were plummeting like bowling pins in the women’s draw, the men’s side was equally susceptible to spectacular knockdowns, even from the more unexpected sources. And while it wasn’t exactly the case of the two top 15 seeds that said goodbye on the third day, both deserve a mention.

Former US Open Champion Marin Čilić confirmed the worst fears of his fans by crumbling to British Dan Evans in round two with the ghosts of his debacle at the Davis Cup final still lingering. In four sets, the Croat smashed 69 unforced errors and proved inept to deal with the talented Evans, a rising player on the ATP Tour that hits sliced backhands in abundance and made headlines in Melbourne for his non-descript clothing plucked off a retail shop after being dropped by his sponsor. Evans, who came a point away from seeing off Stan Wawrinka in New York last year, then defeated Bernard Tomic in round three to the dismay of the home crowd, which had already lost their biggest calling card on the men’s event.

In fact, Nick Kyrgios, the flamboyant Aussie of Greek roots, was tipped for a good showing in Melbourne as an explosive fourth-round matchup with Stan Wawrinka beckoned, yet he fell at the second hurdle. After cruising on his first match with a superb display of his tremendous offensive arsenal and athleticism, the 21-year-old wrapped up a two-set lead against Italian Andreas Seppi only to allow his rival to rally back and avenge the result of 2015, when Kyrgios overcame a two-set deficit to prevail 8-6 in the fifth-set on this same event.

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

On a late classic at the Hisense Arena, the Aussie grew increasingly frustrated as the tide turned, throwing his usual tantrums, berating the umpire and smashing rackets while the unassuming Seppi kept plowing, taking advantage of his chances (5 of 10 on break points over the last three sets) and tempting fortune, as he did when he saved a match point with a bold forehand winner.  Kyrgios’ reaction after the loss, acknowledging a less than ideal offseason – he banged his knee playing too “much” basketball – and the need to hire a coach was a welcomed sight, but he needs to start turning those good intentions into action quickly as to not to miss the train.

Giants gone missing

In any case, Kyrgios’ fallout was a short lived story in Melbourne since less than 24 hours later a cataclysmic toppling rocked the tennis world. Six-Time Australian Open winner and defending Champion Novak Djokovic was ousted by World No. 117 Denis Istomin and everyone stood agape trying to process what had happened in almost five hours of mesmerizing action.

When the Serbian uncharacteristically let the first set slip away in the tiebreak despite possessing set points, and later conceded a break in the second, a glimpse of the shock was in view, but Djokovic was able to turn the page and romp to take the lead after the third set as his opponent looked increasingly tired. By this time, few expected a reversal of fortunes but Istomin strikingly resurfaced to claim a break early in the fourth set, and then rode the performance of a lifetime to clinch the biggest victory of his career in five sets.

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

How did he do it? The Uzbek, who had to win a qualification tournament just to clinch the Asia Pacific wildcard and enter the event, blasted sensational shot after sensational shot past the vaunted defensive wall of the Serbian, served at his best under pressure and won the majority of the important points, especially in the tiebreaks on the first and fourth set. An incredible coup to pull off for a man who fought cramps and foot complaints for much of the last two sets, and was still able to slug it out from the baseline with Djokovic.

However, for all of Denis Istomin’s unquestionable excellence on the evening, the World No.2 couldn’t take the wheel when he had to. Djokovic fed Istomin’s rhythm for too long, let him dictate too much, couldn’t muster the controlled aggression on his own shots, and failed to find the angles he’s used to in order to stretch his foe, explore his deficit of mobility and force off-balance strokes. Still, despite all that, he usually finds a way to escape from the brink of defeat. This time, he didn’t and his goal of a record-breaking 7th Australian Open went in fumes.

It was Djokovic’s earliest defeat in Majors since Wimbledon 2008 and a third consecutive Major below expectations after looking untouchable just 8 months ago. It may not be panic time for the Serb, yet the term “crisis” is now unavoidable as he closes on his 30th anniversary and may not be able to rely on his physical prowess for much longer. Is this just a bad phase he will snap out off to restitute his domination? Has the hunger for more just left him for good? Is he already slowing down? The plot thickens. Stay tuned.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Djokovic’s farewell was still on everyone’s thoughts when another heavyweight was upended three days later, none other than World No.1 Andy Murray, who similarly to Angie Kerber was making his debut as the top seed at a Grand Slam draw. The 29-year-old, a runner up in Melbourne on five occasions, breezed past his first three opponents in straight sets, and was already envisioning a coronation following his main rival’s departure when he was tricked by the unorthodox style of 29-year-old Mischa Zverev.

A serve-and-volley specialist, the German understood he had to stick to his guns to have a chance and followed his strategy to a tee. He managed to rattle the favourite with a combination of clutch holds of serve, incessant net approaches (65/118 at the net) and copious amounts of sliced backhands, disrupted Murray’s rhythm and limited the rallies from the baseline, a staple of the Scot’s game, sealing a famous win that made his young brother jealous. Who would have wagered Alex wouldn’t be the first Zverev on the QF of a Major?

Sir Andy was the last of the leading knights to be overrun before the tournament evolved to the second week, where the clashes of the remaining titans were looming and a new batch was sent packing.

Women’s singles 2nd week: The contenders who missed out

In the women’s side, the quarter-finals proved to be the final stop for a couple of high-flying players that were picked by many as the two biggest threats to Serena Williams in Melbourne. For many pundits, World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was the player to watch and those predictions looked on point as she overwhelmed her first two opponents while dropping just four total games, yet the Czech barely survived in the third round against up-and-coming Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, who served to close the match twice in the third round before getting “so tight” with an eminent triumph in sight.

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching frequently on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

A convincing win over the last Aussie still alive in Melbourne, Daria Gavrilova, promised to put her back on the rails, but in the quarter-finals Plíšková was bested by the stirring Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, who beat her to the punch on her own game. The best server in the WTA Tour got broken seven times, amassed less aces than her rival and was out-powered, losing the winner count 42 to 23. Still, she was in position to edge through, up 3-2 in the third set, until the Croatian reeled off 12 of 13 points contested after a medical timeout to close out the match and end the 24-year-old’s dreams of a maiden Grand Slam title.

A feat that Johanna Konta also had circled as she skidded through a loaded part of the draw at Melbourne Park. Feisty Belgium veteran Kirsten Flipkens and Japan’s Naomi Osaka, one of the prominent youngsters in the WTA Tour, were her first victims, yet most fans only took notice of the Brit’s tremendous form when she crushed Caroline Wozniacki in round three, as the tenacious Dane, a deft defensive player, looked helpless trying to deter a boatload of winners blowing past her left and right. Konta’s next opponent, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova, was dumped out unceremoniously in just over an hour, setting up a meeting with Serena in the last eight.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

The 25-year-old was oozing confidence, having yet to concede a set in the tournament and been broken just twice as her serve and both groundstrokes got showered with plaudits, however she was about to experience the toughest task in women’s tennis for the first time and it showed. Konta’s serve faltered, producing more double faults than aces, Serena’s return netted four breaks, the errors doubled the winners (22 to 11) and, in the end, an anticipated meeting had turned into yet another routine victory for the American. Nevertheless, the Brit’s splendid improvements turned a lot of heads Down Under, on the land of her birth, and if she can maintain the level displayed, the top-five can be a reality in no time.

Unexpected Final Four contestants

With Konta and Plíšková falling short of expectations, the semi-finals pitted the Williams’s sisters against surprising opponents, and for seniority reasons we’ll start with the older challenger.

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni's campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Throughout this article, we’ve already underlined how Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s power game clicked against top-level adversaries, yet her success had the ancillary benefit of bringing back to the forefront her incredible life story. The 34-year-old was once a tennis prodigy, winning her last match in Melbourne back in 1998 and reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1999, but, while still underaged, she was forced to flee Croatia to escape an abusive father. It wasn’t long before her fledgling career went down the drain and financial troubles derailed successive attempts to come back to the Tour for a few years.

Her return to a major stage happened at Wimbledon 2010 and four years later she upset second-seed Simona Halep at the US Open 2014, yet few could have predicted a run like this from the World No.79, who failed to contain her emotions in the on-court interview after beating Plíšková to reach the second semi-final of her career, 18 years after the first. Serena Williams would then dispatch the Croat in just 50 minutes, but that’s just a footnote on her fairy-tale.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, a novel tradition of the women’s singles event was continued as a fresh face secured a place in the semi-finals for the 15th consecutive Grand Slam. The lucky girl was American Coco Vandeweghe, whose breakout tournament encompassed much more than the scalp of Angelique Kerber. The 25-year-old swept aside 15th seed Roberta Vinci in the first round and then outmuscled Eugenie Bouchard in the third round on a match that exemplified her best qualities. Down a break on the decider, she let the arm loose to exert pressure and crawled back into contention riding her booming serve, eventually prevailing due to superior mental resiliency. The same cocktail got her out of trouble against the fizzling World No.1, with Vandeweghe lambasting on Kerber’s short balls, and on her “first-strike” battle with Roland Garros Champion Garbiñe Muguruza, another player that succumbed to her aggressive groundstrokes on the way to a humiliating 0-6 partial on the second set.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

Still, amid this succession of victories, Vandeweghe looked always cool and unimpressed with herself, shrugging off the pressure of the big points and showcasing unusual self-confidence for someone of her status, as if the conscience of her tremendous athleticism and power was a guarantee that success was just a matter of time.

In the semi-finals, Venus Williams’ long limbs softened the blow of Vandeweghe’s kicked serve and the veteran edged forward with a delivery that posed different challenges to Coco’s return, with the Californian  failing to catch up to the score in the third after surrendering an early break. Nonetheless, the tournament accounted for Vandeweghe’s ability to become an impact player on the WTA Tour in the near future, especially on faster surfaces, such as the grass of Wimbledon.

Defying time, Part I

After a season that promised a change of the guard on the women’s tour, the final of the first Major of the season would be a return to the past, with the Williams’ sisters facing off once again at a Grand Slam final, almost 8 years after the last encounter (Wimbledon 2009).

It was the 28th meeting of the most celebrated sibling rivalry in the history of tennis and probably the perfect finale, as two woman inextricably bounded eyed each other on opposites sides a staggering 19 years after the first time, a period where they first helped change the perceptions of tennis fans, later reshaped the matrix of the female game with their ground-breaking style, and finally rewrote the record books.

Moreover, while it was strange Serena held the opportunity to leap past Steffi Graf on the singles’ Grand Slam titles count against her older sister, the match provided a singular chance to honour the remarkable career of Venus Williams, whose endearing joviality was in full display in Melbourne as she reached a Grand Slam final for the first time in 7 years. After every win, she flashed a beaming smile, danced like she had just been blessed for tasting victory one more time, and followed it up with the whimsical words of a person enjoying life. Battling a debilitating disease for the last while, the 36-year-old could have stuffed her racket anytime knowing her HoF-worthy accomplishments were established long ago, yet she kept persevering despite never knowing in what conditions she would show up on court.

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

In Australia, even with a full day of recovery between games, her limitations were supposed to ruin any ideas of getting back to the end stages of two-week tournaments if not for the fast surface playing to her advantage and a draw that broke her way, with Venus squaring off against only one seed (Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, QF) en route to encounter her sister.

Still, while Venus deserves full credit for sticking to her habits and strengths, standing on the baseline to swing hard at the rising ball, smashing it flat and deep on the other side, it was inevitable the lights would shine brightest on her sister as they have for so long. Serena has always been just a tad better on the serve and off the ground, hitting harder and with more accuracy, and especially displaying a meaner competitive drive, and that edge was once again the difference at the Rod Laver Arena after a tense start, as she roared louder in key instances, flushing aces when it mattered and exposing the less reliable second serve of her partner.

The conquest padded Serena Williams’ trophy case with a 23rd Grand Slam trophy, just one off Margaret Court’s all-time tally, but also re-established her indomitable aura, which pulsates much more due to her ability to roll through a Major at age 35 without dropping a set than for wrestling back the World No.1. Furthermore, the American has now collected Majors standing 18 years apart, a singular case of longevity, and hasn’t failed to reach the last four in three years. It’s fair to say that while the others are playing hide-and-seek, Serena just shows up, flattens the field, sets new rules and collects the spoils. When will it stop?

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Men’s singles 2nd week: Setting up the inevitable

With the voices of the past floating around Melbourne Park, the cracks in the men’s draw resulting from the removal of the top two favourites seemed primed to supply another nostalgia-inducing final, one that had been on the back of the mind of tennis fans around the world from the beginning but necessitated a tremendous amount of swivelling to coalesce.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were, by virtue of their absence late last year, just the 9th and 17th seeds, respectively, and naturally multiple top players stand in their way to a repeat of the five-set thriller of 2009. However, after the landscape cleared at the end of the first week, they presumptuously jumped to the front as only one other player left had a Slam in his curriculum (Stan Wawrinka) and none could boast a decent head-to-head record against either the Swiss or the Spaniard.

Thus, it wasn’t long before the takedown of the remaining seeds started. Roger Federer decimated 10th seed Tomáš Berdych in the third round before seeing off Kei Nishikori, 5th in the hierarchy, in five sets as the Japanese executed the usual physical breakdown late. Crucial would prove the next step, as the 35-year-old was able to escape a brutal QF with Murray and instead bustled past Mischa Zverev to set up an all-Swiss SF against Stan Wawrinka, a five-set battle that would tilt to the most experienced  contender.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men's singles final.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men’s singles final.

Meanwhile, Rafa Nadal prevailed in five against German wunderkind Sascha Zverev in a game where his body proved ready to withstand the rigours of Grand Slam action, and the boost of confidence was in full display as he dominated 6th seed Gaël Monfils in the fourth round. Most saw the QF showdown with Milos Raonic, the highest ranked player left, as the final exam to Nadal’s condition and the Spaniard passed with flying colours, defeating the lanky Canadian in three sets after his opponent withered by wasting six set points in the second. Finally, in probably the best match of this year’s Australian Open, Nadal faced the rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov, who had grasped with both hands the opportunity afforded by Djokovic’s early demise. During five gruelling hours, the Bulgarian exchanged pleasantries from the baseline with Nadal, whipping his backhand like never before, amassing more winners and points from long rallies, but eventually falling due to the Spaniard’s nerve and timely prowess at the net (25/29).

Defying time, Part II

It was clear both men faced a daunting task to reach the decisive match, but Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were able to persevere and the 35th chapter of one of the greatest (and most affable) sports rivalries of our days was arranged against the odds and conventional wisdom, providing an extra opportunity to appreciate the contrast of styles that for so long split the tennis world in two. The classical, elegant one-handed backhand against the thunderous, high-bouncing forehand. The nimble feet-movement versus the shuddering stride. Brute force opposing God-given flair. In so many previous occasions, Nadal relentlessly beat down Federer into submission, but under the brisk conditions in Australia things could prove different and the Swiss Master soon understood what he had to do to make it happen.

After so much time off, Federer believed he was playing with house money and that freedom from outcome was expressed on a much more attacking mindset, as he looked to aggressively take the ball as early as possible – especially on his backhand – and go big instead of holding back, slice it down and wait to be cornered.

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men's final

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men’s final

The success rate of the strategy fluctuated throughout the encounter and, likewise, the effectiveness of both contestants ebbed and flowed, with Federer coming out guns blazing to take the first set and later scorching through the third, while Nadal took advantage of a stuttering Swiss to bag the second before holding court on a fourth decided by a single break. When the fifth set rolled on, Nadal drew first blood to complement his momentum but, surprisingly, Federer didn’t fold – like it had happened regularly in other confronts – and upped the pressure at the net and from the baseline, jumping all over the short balls that Nadal was leaving consistently. For the audacity, he was eventually rewarded by hoarding five consecutive games to seal the Championship, the elusive 18th Grand Slam of the Swiss’ unparalleled career and certainly one of the sweetest and most unexpected.

For Nadal, who hadn’t been to a Grand Slam Final in 30 months, this is a loss that will sting for a while, at least until he lands in Paris to try to recapture his crown at Roland Garros. After bouncing back from yet another surgery, and having already disavowed those who claimed he was in steep decline, the 30-year-old couldn’t have asked for a better situation: he stared at a man he defeated in 9 of 11 Grand Slam confrontations and 6 of 8 Major finals, was up a break in the final set and held the mental edge. Still, he let it slip away as the fatigue of the semi-final sank in, his shot timings fell by the wayside, his balls started retreating back on the court and his rival sniffed weakness before wrestling control of the match for good. Nevertheless, Nadal is back healthy, performing at an elite level, his favourite season is on the horizon and the defending Roland Garros Champion is mired in a personal crossroads. The stars are aligning for the Spaniard’s goal of ending his Major drought, which is approaching 3 years.

Rafael Nadal's gutsy performance wasn't enough to break Federer on the night

Rafael Nadal’s gutsy performance wasn’t enough to break Federer that night

Meanwhile, Federer’s five year Slam-less spell was ripped apart in a rather unbelievable fashion, as the Swiss fended off four top 10 players on the same big tournament for the first time and became the oldest player to gather a Major trophy in 45 years. As it stands, the time off in the second part of 2016 proved a blessing in disguise as the Swiss arrived in Melbourne springy and fresh, needing just two rounds to attune his condition to the intensity of a Grand Slam. From then onwards, he quickly showcased his prototypical gliding hop, the venomous, multi-faceted serve of his best days, the sweeping strokes that backed his rise in the early 2000’s, and the killer instinct that consolidated his legacy and had vanished in recent years.

Furthermore, to cement his credentials as the best of all-time, Federer needed to score a meaningful victory over his arch nemesis before retiring, concealing the memories of so many instances where he capitulated for lack of answers, and it’s just perfect that it included a furious late rally that completely flip-flopped the screenplay we grew expected to wait. With, admittedly, few else to accomplish, Federer can now focus on being a pain-in-the-ass for his foes and #19 may just tumble to his lap.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would't live to see.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would’t live to see.

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A career-defining match bookended the 2017 Australian Open, and it’s fair to say it fell in line with what can only be described as an all-around majestic tournament, a promotion of the best attributes of sports competition: riveting levels of sports excellence, cliff-hanging drama, concurrent jubilation and despair, the rise, fall, revival and collapse of heroes.

Venus Williams described it best after her emotional semi-final triumph and I’ll leave you with her words:

“What I will say about sport, I think why people love sport so much, is because you see everything in a line. In that moment there is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. It’s either you do it or you don’t.

People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person also who didn’t win because we all have those moments in our life.”

Looking back on the 2016 WTA Tour season through the final rankings

The 2016 Tennis season is on the final stretch – with the ATP Masters’ currently being contested in London and the Davis Cup soon to follow – and thus this is the right time to look back on what happened this year in a sport that is inching ever closer to becoming a full calendar spectacle. Moreover, while the men are still rapping up the schedule, the ladies have been enjoying their well-deserved vacations at paradisiac destinations since the festivities were completed a few days ago.

Shortly after that, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) published its year-end rankings (November 7th), which reflect the success achieved over the months-long campaign by the best female tennis players in the World and encompass week after week of routine triumphs, stunning upsets, miraculous comebacks and heart-breaking defeats into an individual score. However, at the end of the day, these point totals don’t recount the tale of their intense journey, the ebbs and flows of a season punctuated by dozens of tournaments played above different surfaces, under changing climacteric conditions and in different parts of the globe, which is obviously the most fascinating part.

Therefore, in this article, I used these rankings to steer my way towards the characters that shaped the 2016 WTA Tour season, starting at the top with the World No.1, Angelique Kerber, striding down step by step for the extent of the Top-10, and speeding things up after that to highlight some distinguished names scattered throughout the rest of the Top-100. Along the way, I managed to tap the revelations of the Tour, the most improved players, the athletes that flamed out and the one’s that fell short of expectations, thus gradually weaving a tapestry of the past, present and (near) future of Women’s Tennis.

Unless I get dispatched to an hospital bed again, I hope to do a similar post about the ATP Tour in the coming weeks, but, for now, time to set the stage for the ladies.

  1. Angelique Kerber (GER)

The rise of Kerber was undoubtedly the story of the tennis world in 2016 and she ends the year with an advantage of more than 2000 points over Serena Williams.  Pretty much all has been said of the marvellous season put on by the 28-year-old, who hoarded her first two Grand Slam titles, was a finalist at Wimbledon, triumphed also in Stuttgart and won an outstanding total of 63 matches, highest on the circuit. However, with a target on her back, she tailed off a bit after the US Open and couldn’t close out the season on a high after faltering on the decisive match of the WTA Finals’, a game that will haunt her during the offseason alongside the stunning loss at the Olympic Final.

  1. Serena Williams (USA)

The American was knocked off the perch, failing to end the season as the World No.1 for a fourth consecutive year, yet it will take a bit more to relinquish the crown for good, as she’s still the dominant figure on the WTA Tour. At age 35, Serena spends most of the season embroiled on her off-court affairs and saving energy for the top tournaments, which meant she only signed up for eight tournaments in 2016. Furthermore, after the US Open, she called it a season for the second consecutive year to nurse a few ailments, and surely her body isn’t getting any fresher going forward.

Serena Williams is no longer untouchable. How much longer will she stay to defy the new generation?

Serena Williams is no longer untouchable. How much longer will she stay to defy the new generation?

Although it’s anyone’s guess whether 2017 will mark her farewell season, Serena won just Rome and Wimbledon in 2016, and the competitive fire still seems to burn inside her as she pursuits a few more Majors to add to a peerless résumé.

  1. Agnieszka Radwańska (POL)

A sixth consecutive top-ten finish for the gracious Pole and the highest to date with this third position, which represents a remarkable run for a player that is bound to be overpowered every single day. Radwańska added three more titles (Shenzhen, New Haven and Beijing) to her mantle, upping her career total to 20, yet 2016 wasn’t the season she finally got over the hump on the Majors. The farthest Radwańska advanced was in Melbourne, where she got ousted by Serena in the Semi-Finals, and, at age 27, it’s time to wonder if her time simply won’t come. Maybe winning seven matches in two weeks is asking too much of a player that doesn’t possess the physical tools to swiftly dispose of her opponents early nor outmanoeuvre several top players in succession late in the fortnight.

  1. Simona Halep (ROU)

Halep ended 2016 two spots below where she started, but the Romanian still performed reasonably well, collecting two Premier-level tournaments in Madrid and Montreal, to which she affixed the Bucharest title.

Simona Halep, here pictured with the Madrid Open trophy, has proved competitive year-round but is yet to crack the code at the Grand Slams

Simona Halep, here pictured with the Madrid Open trophy, has proved competitive year-round but is yet to crack the code at the Grand Slams

At the Grand Slams, after a shocking first round defeat in Melbourne, her results got progressively better as the year went on (4R at RG, QF at Wimbledon and the US Open) following the same pattern of her improved form, with the Romanian reaching, at least, the quarter-finals of all but one (Beijing) tournament entered after Roland Garros. Owning a counterpunching style that in some ways resembles Angelique Kerber, maybe a similar leap is in the cards for Halep.

  1. Dominika Cibulková (SVK)

After tumbling outside the top 30 at the end of 2015, Dominika Cibulková enjoyed a dramatic comeback season that would end in tears as she held the WTA Finals’ trophy rewarding a brilliant triumph over the World No.1 in Singapore. That match was the 74th of an extenuating year for the Slovak, which only after triumphing at Katowice, in April, started her ascension.

Later, finals on the Premier events of Madrid and Wuhan delivered important pockets of points, as did the triumph at Eastbourne and the quarter-Finals at Wimbledon, with Cibulková securing a debut appearance on the year-end festivities after conquering Linz. She wasn’t done surprising though, and both Halep and Kerber would still fall to the tenacious 27-year-old in route to a fourth title on the season, a number that doubled her lifetime total to eight and assured a career-best No. 5 ranking.

The last smile of the season belonged to Dominika Cibulková

The final smile of the season belonged to Dominika Cibulková

  1. Karolína Plíšková (CZE)

The gangly Czech collected two more WTA titles in 2016 (Nottingham and Cincinnati) but the spotlight truly only shone on the big-serving Plíšková after a dazzling triumph over Serena Williams at the US Open semi-finals’. She couldn’t break Kerber in her maiden Major final, yet the much-awaited breakthrough Grand Slam performance propelled her into 6th place on the WTA rankings and Plíšková stuck there despite an uneven end of the season. The 24-year-old will enter the new season under greater expectations and the next step involves becoming a regular big-stage contender.

  1. Garbiñe Muguruza (SPA)

The hype around the Spaniard was huge after a breakout 2015 season highlighted by the Wimbledon final, but Muguruza – except for a notable exception – never seemed to get into rhythm, amassing striking early exits on a series of important events (Australian Open, US Open, Wimbledon, Olympics, Madrid, Indian Wells, Wuhan…).  A 35W-20L season-record is definitely paltry for a Top-10 player and only three semi-final appearances during the season duly showcase that, although winning Roland Garros, particularly by defeating Serena Williams, is obviously a tremendous achievement. Despite being far from an uncommon trait for talented big-hitters like her, Muguruza’s maddening inconsistency raises some enquiries whose answers weren’t broached in 2016.

The French Open title was the only one of Garbiñe Muguruza's season

The French Open title was the only one of Garbiñe Muguruza’s season

  1. Madison Keys (USA)

The Florida-native kept her steady progression in 2016, reaching a career-high 7th position in October to cap a season that saw her take off as the heir apparent to Serena Williams. The 21-year-old collected her second career-title on the grass of Birmingham, was a finalist in Rome and Montreal, and reached the last four in Beijing and the Olympics, yet was stopped on the fourth round of every Major, dropping battles she ought to have seized. Nonetheless, Keys’ abilities and potential were evident throughout and probably won’t take long for her to put it all together.

  1. Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS)

The Russian veteran came out of the blue to reclaim a Top-10 position on the year-end rankings for the first time since 2009, the year she won her second – and last – Major at Roland Garros. Kuznetsova started the season strong, triumphing in Sydney and reaching the Final in Miami, then passed incognito through all Grand Slams, and unexpectedly returned to prominence in the fall, delivering a vintage late-season push in Wuhan (SF), Tianjin (SF) and Moscow (W) to clinch a place in Singapore at the last minute. She rode the wave to wins over Radwańska and Plíšková before falling in the semi-final, leaving everyone uncertain about what the near future holds for the 31-year-old.

  1. Johanna Konta (GRB)

The 25-year-old takes the cake for most improved player of 2016 in a year that saw her surge from a greenhorn top-fifty player all the way to the top-ten. Her jumping off point was the upset of Venus Williams on the first round in Melbourne – where her campaign would be halted by Kerber in the semi-finals – and the older Williams’ sister would also take the fall on Konta’s first tournament victory at Stanford last July. Elsewhere, she saw some promising runs end at the hands of better opponents, including the Olympics (QF, Kerber), Eastbourne (SF, Plíšková), Wuhan (QF, Kvitová) and Beijing (F, Radwańska), but ultimately looked the part at this level, something no British woman can boast over the last three decades.

  1. Petra Kvitová (CZE)

After five straight top-ten finishes, the Czech starlet slipped out in 2016 due to a downright awful stretch of results that went on until Wimbledon. She tried to shake things up by parting ways with long-time coach David Kotyza after the Australian Open but the bleeding didn’t stop, since Kvitová left Roland Garros shaken by an embarrassing third round loss to Shelby Rogers, and cobbled up a mediocre grass court period.

Petra Kvitova finished 2016 playing superb tennis and will look to keep the momentum going after the break

Petra Kvitova finished 2016 playing superb tennis and will look to keep the momentum going after the break

However, the robust lefty displayed some signs of life at the Olympics, claiming bronze, and would rediscover her best after the US Open and the canning of Kotyza’s successor, František Čermák. Her booming forehand was on point in Wuhan as she blew past four seeds on her way to the title, and the 26-year-old would collect more silverware in Zhuhai at the season’s epilogue, sending a subliminal message to her main competitors ahead of the new season.

  1. Victoria Azarenka (BLR)

After convincing tournament victories in Brisbane, Indian Wells and Miami on the first three months of the season, Azarenka seemed well on her way to challenge Serena Williams at the top before unexpected circumstances arose to curtail her season. A back injury derailed the preparation on the clay, she retired in the first round in Paris, missed Wimbledon injured, and then, out of nowhere, announced her pregnancy and the decision to step out of the game for the foreseeable future. After a couple of seasons bugged by recurring injuries, it’s a shame tennis will once again be deprived of one of its most charismatic personalities.

  1. Venus Williams (USA)

We knew following up a resurgent end of 2015 would always be a tall task for a 36-year-old coping with Sjögren’s syndrome, hence it was barely a surprise to watch Venus struggle for much of the campaign, punctuating a chunk of exits in the first couple of hurdles with the occasional deep run. Ultimately, she added the 49th title of her illustrious career at Kaohsiung, was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon, and reached the fourth-round in Roland Garros and the US Open. Many all-time greats would have cherished a similar season at the twilight of their occupations.

  1. Roberta Vinci (ITA)

The 2016 season may well mark the end of the road for the Italian veteran and she can be proud of her achievements. Vinci lifted St. Petersburg’s trophy, her tenth in singles and first in three years, and on her (eventual) farewell Grand Slam appearance reached the quarter-finals before falling to Angelique Kerber in the stadium that last year huffed and puffed during the most beautiful moment of her career. The 33-year-old will go down in tennis history as the author of one of the biggest upsets of all-time, but there’s way more to her legacy, including a distinct playing style grounded on a patented backhand slice, four Fed Cup titles and five Grand Slam triumphs in doubles.

Italy's Roberta Vinci prepares to return a ball on her backhand

Italy’s Roberta Vinci prepares to return a ball on her backhand

  1. Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)

Entering the US Open in late August, the former World No.1 was toiling in the 74th place of the WTA hierarchy as a consequence of a disastrous campaign to date. However, something clicked in New York, and she not only stringed a surprising semi-final run at the last Grand Slam of the season, but also went on to win two tournaments (Tokyo, Hong Kong) before the curtain closed. It was enough to stamp a ninth consecutive Top-20 finish for the Danish girl, and open the door for a possible return to the upper echelon of the sport.

  1. Caroline Garcia (FRA)

The 23-year-old won two singles tournaments (Strasbourg and Mallorca), four doubles titles and became the second-best doubles player in the World, leading her country within a whisker of the Fed Cup title. On the process, Garcia became the new face of France’s women’s tennis, positioned herself on the verge of the Top-20 and raised expectations entering 2017. The Lyon-native is a strong candidate to enjoy a breakout season next year, and that would likely entail a debut on the second week of a Grand Slam.

Expect to hear much more of France's Caroline Garcia in 2017

Expect to hear much more of France’s Caroline Garcia in 2017

  1. Monica Puig (PUR)

Monica Puig, the 2016 Olympic Champion. Based on the weight of those words, she should be higher on the ranking but, alas, the Olympics don’t award points. The 23-year-old still has a lot to prove in 2017, front and centre that she’s not a one-time wonder, yet her season can’t be reduced to the exploits in Rio. Puerto Rico’s hero reached the final in Sidney, the semi-finals at Eastbourne despite having to navigate the qualifying, and appeared twice more in the last four of a WTA tournament.

  1. Sloane Stephens (USA)

In 2013, Stephens ended the season on the cusp of the Top-10 (12th) after advancing to the last four of the Australian Open and the QF at Wimbledon. In the three years since, she’s seldom been able to crack the Top-30 and her stock is dropping due to an inability to show up on the big stages. Not even three titles (Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston) on a season cut short by a foot injury ease the feeling that she must perform better.

  1. Naomi Osaka (JAP)

A slew of newcomers started making a name in the WTA Tour in 2016 (Daria Kasatkina, Yulia Putintseva, Jeļena Ostapenko, Ana Konjuh), but none was more impressive than the exotic Naomi Osaka. Groomed in Florida despite being born in Japan, Osaka shot up from outside the Top-200 due in large part to noteworthy appearances in the Grand Slams, reaching the third round in Melbourne, Paris and New York until Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep and Madison Keys, respectively, were called to action. Additionally, in Tokyo, she outlasted Dominika Cibulková and Elina Svitolina before succumbing to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Promising signs for a player that spent months playing qualifying matches to climb the ladder.

  1. Belinda Bencic (SWI)
Belinda Bencic's fledging career faced a few roadblocks in 2016

Belinda Bencic’s fledging career faced a few roadblocks in 2016

After experiencing the glitz of the WTA Tour in 2015, when the Swiss teenager won the Premier-event of Toronto on her way to the Top-15, Bencic endured the other side of the coin this season, struggling to string a decent run of victories amidst an injury-marred season. Following the Australian Open, where she was defeated by Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, the 20-year-old still achieved a new career-high No.7, yet, from there, she moved steadily downward.

In the 21 tournaments contested in 2016, Bencic was defeated in the first match on 12 occasions and could only advance to the last four three times – at ‘S-Hertogenbosch (SF), Sidney (SF) and St. Petersburg (Final) – which is far from what was expected from one of the smartest players on Tour. Can she rebound in 2017?

  1. Eugenie Bouchard (CAN)

The memory of Eugenie Bouchard’s coming out party in 2014 fades by the day as the Canadian writhes to rediscover the level that drove a bubbling novice to the Top-5 and the Wimbledon final. In contrast with 2015, when an injury and concussion disrupted her season, the 22-year-old had no impending situation slowing her down this season, yet still failed to gain any traction again. The beginning was auspicious, with final appearances in Hobart and Kuala Lumpur, but from March onwards, Bouchard couldn’t win more than two matches in a single tournament in spite of collecting a pair of triumphs over Top-10 players: Angelique Kerber in Rome and Dominika Cibulková in Montreal. The potential is definitely there, but is the hunger?

  1. Lucie Šafářová (CZE)
Lucie Šafářová struggled throughout 2016

Lucie Šafářová struggled throughout 2016

Šafářová’s breakthrough last season, at the springy age of 28, was one of the most refreshing stories on the WTA Tour, and therefore it was a shame the former Roland Garros’ finalist couldn’t build on the success in 2016.

The same bacterial infection which tormented her on the final months of 2015 made her miss the Australian Open, and Šafářová was unable to win any encounter on the first five tournaments back on Tour. She broke the streak in Prague and went on to gather the trophy, but that was the single bright spot on a season where the Czech never took off. Losses on the first and second rounds were the norm throughout, with a combination of tough draws and rustiness determining the fall on the standings. Good for Šafářová that she could make up for it with a highly-successful year in doubles, which included an Olympic bronze medal alongside Barbora Strýcová.

  1. Ana Ivanović (SRB)

In June of 2017, the calendar will mark the 9th anniversary of Ana Ivanović’s triumph at Roland Garros, and it’s fair to assume that, at the time, few predicted she wouldn’t attend another Grand Slam Final for the rest of her career. The curious revival of 2015 ended up being short-lived and the Serb was absolutely non-descript this season, failing to secure three consecutive wins and accumulating five straight defeats before deciding to shut down her campaign after the US Open. Ivanović will turn 30 in twelve months and her focus on tennis seems to be dwindling as the off-court distractions continue to pile up, with the 65th position on the year-end rankings being her worst since…2004!

Is Ana Ivanovic's head drifting apart from her tennis career?

Is Ana Ivanovic’s head drifting apart from tennis?

  1. Catherine Bellis (USA)

The youngest player in the Top-100 finally decided to forego her college-eligibility and turn professional after reaching the fourth round of the US Open last September, so 2017 is poised to be her first season travelling the World. The adaptation of Bellis’ 17-year-old body to the demands of the WTA Tour will dictate her success in the near future, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her ranking skyrock pretty quickly, especially after she turns 18 next April and consequently gets freed from the restrictions on the amount of tournaments she can enter.

  1. Sabine Lisicki (GER)

Lisicki, a former Wimbledon finalist, ends the year ranked lower than in any other (healthy) season since 2007,and it’s difficult to explain her sudden plunge at age 27. The German was the 32nd seed in Melbourne last January, lost in the second round, and crashed hard from there, celebrating a triumph just 16 times during the entire season. In fact, only at Kuala Lumpur, Wimbledon and Guangzhou, Lisicki savoured victory twice in the same week, which is unacceptable for a player possessing weaponry (huge serve and heavy strokes) many of her opponents can only dream off. She’s a name to keep an eye on in 2017.

The Notebook: US Open 2016 (II)

The last of tennis’ Grand Slams ended last Sunday in Queens, NY after two first-time Champions were crowned during the weekend, and it was fitting that a season oversaturated of competition during the summer months was capped with the triumphs of two dogged, late-maturing sensations.

Both Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka devoted huge chunks of their career to ironing out playing styles that lacked some fundamentals to reach the summit, but since their breakthroughs they’ve wholly justified their place amongst the game’s rarefied heaven of big-time Champions, with the performances on the courts of Flushing Meadows solidifying a legacy few would have predicted not too long ago.

However, much more transpired in New York over the second part of the fortnight and it was worth compiling a few considerations on some of the other players that found themselves under the spotlight, whether by defying the odds or falling short of expectations.

I obviously encourage you to check out the first instalment that focused on the earliest action before diving into this final chapter, in which I started by highlighting a few ladies before moving to the men. Miss Kerber is the first on the spot while Mr. Wawrinka closes the book.

 

Angelique Kerber

Absolutely astonishing is how one would describe the year Angelique Kerber is having, fuelling one of the major storylines of the sports world in 2016.

The German, which had her breakout performance at the 2011 US Open by reaching the semi-finals as an unassuming 23-year-old, established her niche on the top 10 since then but always seemed to lack substance or power to take the next step into “Grand Slam contender” territory. Thus, for a player that hadn’t made it past the third round of a Major in 2015, outmanoeuvring Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January during a punishing third set battle was stunning and, in hindsight, the moment that unlocked the door to greatness.

Except for the underwhelming appearance at RG, where the weight of being a Grand Slam Champion was still sinking in, Kerber’s season has been close to impeccable, delivering at Wimbledon (Final) and the Olympics (silver) before putting the cherry on top at the US Open. She has amassed the most wins on Tour by a large margin (54 to Halep’s 40), attended seven finals, including her first three in Majors, and her tennis improved by leaps and bounds in every surface. When the World No 1 was secured late last week, she had already backed up the achievement with her performance and regularity, regardless of Serena Williams’ self-imposed (extra-) light schedule.

Angelique Kerber’s forehand has been fundamental for her improvement in 2016

In New York, the progresses in her game flourished in the latter rounds to perfectly summarize her improbable ascendance in front of a horde of casual tennis fans. First, she was able to patiently overcome a tricky player that denies any kind of rhythm during ball exchanges in last year’s finalist Roberta Vinci, stepping in the court aggressively to control the points while keeping the unforced errors in check. Then, she wrestled against a motivated Caroline Wozniacki that ventured much farther than usual, and dealt with continual moonballs with aplomb, displaying improved agility to whip accurate forehands inside out and down the line.

Lastly, facing in the final a player that had recently delayed her dream of becoming the world leader with a humbling loss, the German showed everything pundits had been raving about. Her improved fitness, essential to sustain the haymakers coming from the other end, the killer instinct to pounce when Plíšková’s serve flinched, and the mental strength to dial back in after losing her first set on the entire tournament. Her lefty swats on the run turned some points upside down delivering winners from unsuspected positions, and she picked her spots thoughtfully, with her forehand opening angles that explored the Czech’s debilities moving around the court and forced untimely net approaches.

At age 28, Angie Kerber is the oldest player to debut at the top of the WTA rankings by more than three years, but she has enough time to add more silverware to her résumé at a time when Serena Williams seems to be finally sliding downhill, established names are out (Viktoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova), and other challengers struggle to find the right balance (Garbiñe Muguruza, Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova). The future will bring new tests, none more significant than entering every match with a target on her back, but the German’s maturity resonates well with an ultimately fruitful period at the top of the game.

Karolína Plíšková

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The first thing that stands out when looking at Karolína Plíšková are those infinitely long legs. The second is her serve, and both are inherently correlated, as the Czech boasts one of the best deliveries in the WTA Tour, capable of banking aces with unmatched consistency. Couple that with a powerful forehand that can cause havoc from the baseline, and you’ve got a player with the tools to supplant any opponent on a good day.

Unfortunately for Plíšková, those days never seemed to arrive at a Slam, as the 24-year-old struggled to deliver in the biggest tournaments despite competing in more than a dozen finals since 2014. Until the 2016 US Open, the Czech had never reached the second week of a Grand Slam in 17 appearances, but at least she made it count when the opportunity finally arose, taking down both Williams’ sisters in the process, something only three other players had done before at a Major.

Escaping a thunderous fourth-round encounter against Venus, when she had to save match points, was probably the click she needed and Serena was left to palate the finest version of Plíšková’s game. For instance, on the semi-final match, the long-limbed Plíšková was absolutely impenetrable on her service games, winning more than 80% of the points on the first serve and surrendering just one break point to one of the most accomplished returners in the game. Additionally, the 24-year-old also rocketed several laser shots past Serena, especially in important points, and exhibited an ice cool presence with the sets on the line, with no discernible signs of distress on her play when it counted the most.

Perhaps tapping on her experiences on a couple of Fed Cup finals, Plíšková seemed to thrive with all eyes on her and produced the shock of the women’s draw to extend a run of 11 consecutive triumphs dating back to Cincinnati.

On those, she had defeated five top ten players, including Angelique Kerber, but the rematch against the German wouldn’t be as successful under different circumstances. Kerber neutralized Plíšková’s serve and lethal groundstrokes with solid defensive skills and superior stamina, and was able to puncture back using her own delivery, regularly angling the ball towards Plíšková’s backhand and taking advantage of feeble returns to assume control with her forehand. Nonetheless, the Czech was still able to snatch the second set before falling at the end of the decider, a brave performance at her maiden Grand Slam Final

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Even if the most successful fortnight of Plíšková’s career didn’t end with the trophy aloft on her hands, the lanky Czech left New York under an entirely different aura, having discarded the underachiever label, and with newfound objectives after sealing a new career-high ranking of No.6. She should be excited for what lies ahead, especially if she keeps improving her movement and finds a way to ensure bigger margins of error when dictating the play.

Serena Williams

Coming off a dispiriting loss early at the Olympic competition, Serena Williams arrived in NY under intense scrutiny over her mental and physical condition, but for the first four matches she was her usual self, looking unattainable, dispatching opponents with ease and cruising without conceding a single service game. However, at the quarter-finals, Simona Halep would force the American to long rallies and a taxing three-set battle,  which exposed a few cracks that Karolína Plíšková would accentuate 24h later.

Reportedly hobbled by a knee injury and supporting a shoulder in less than ideal conditions, the mighty Serena was beaten at her own game, unable for much of the match to deal with the Czech’s vertiginous serve and struggling to impose her ball-striking powers. The defeat in just two sets was finalized by a double fault on match point and Serena was left to re-enact the scene of last year, striding to the net to congratulate a foe that had just achieved her most memorable victory whereas the Arthur Ashe Stadium processed what had just happened.

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Soon to be 35 years old, the American lost her World No.1 after 186 consecutive weeks, a record-tying period that she’ll probably share for a long time with Steffi Graf, but it’s reasonable to expect she’ll regain the honour until the end of a season that hasn’t been up to her lofty standards.

Serena reached three Grand Slam finals and one SF in 2016, but only conquered one big trophy (Wimbledon) while looking more vulnerable than ever. Until Wimbledon 2015 her W-L record in Grand Slam semifinals and finals was 46-7 but is just 4-4 since, a sign that her rivals are finally catching up. It’s almost certain she’ll get that elusive 23rd Major sooner or later, but maybe somewhere next year (not yet at Australia, if healthy) she’ll start a big tournament without being the odds-on favourite. It’s about time for a change of the guard.

Ana Konjuh

On the tournament that crowned the oldest No.1 in women’s tennis history, another statistic caught my eye: only 8 teenagers were entered in the main draw in comparison with 20 players aged 30 or older. Slowly but steadily, the female tour is going through the same path experienced by the men, one where youngsters increasingly need more time to mature their game and emerge at the top.

Thus, in this era is naturally newsworthy that an 18-year-old woman breaks into the last eight of Slam, even if Ana Konjuh has been tipped as a future star for some time. A two-time Junior Grand Slam Champion, the Croatian’s progress was slowed down by injuries after she turned professional in 2014, shortly after celebrating her 16th birthday, but she always seemed primed for the type of breakout performance we got to witness in New York. World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwańska may have survived match points in the second round of Wimbledon last July, when an untimely step on a misplaced ball incapacitated Konjuh, but this time she was unquestionably bested by the teenager from Dubrovnik.

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

Throughout the match, spectators watched as winners rained on the Pole off both sides with Konjuh mingling eye-popping power with efficient shot selection and ample doses of spin, conjuring a heavy ball that her opponent just couldn’t handle and is bound to claim more victims in the future. Moreover, the Croat also showcased a booming serve that yields a fair amount of aces and is part of Konjuh’s arsenal despite her unremarkable frame.

A lopsided quarter-final defeat at the hands of Karolína Plíšková proved the Croatian prodigy still has a ways to go to fully deliver on the promise, but the potential is evident. Konjuh is now on the verge of the top 50, yet regularly competing in the latter stages of top events should be her hallmark in the near future.

Anastasija Sevastova

For me it’s one of the appeals of women’s tennis: the amount of unseeded players that Major after Major are able to break through the draws, reach the latter stages of the tournament and then proceed to keep toiling away after that. It’s a product of a WTA Tour that is, recognizably, more susceptible to upsets and Cinderella campaigns seldom seen in the men’s tour.

Just in 2016, we had already seen Shuai Zhang, who had never won a match in a Grand Slam, take down Halep and Madison Keys to grab a last eight spot in Melbourne, no less than three unheralded players (Kiki Bertens, Shelby Rogers and Tsvetana Pironkova) sweep away seed after seed at Roland Garros, and Elena Vesnina plod around Wimbledon to set up an encounter with Serena in the SF.

Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

At Flushing Meadows, the feel-good story had the face of a 26-year-old Latvian still fresh of a two year retirement due to several nagging injuries, who just one year ago passed incognito through the US Open qualifying while on a season-long comeback to the top 200.

While true that on her first tour of duty Sevastova had been a solid performer, ranking as high as 36 at age 21, winning a WTA title and reaching the second week of the Australian Open, there wasn’t a lot pointing to a possible breakthrough before the US Open, as her top performance of 2016 was in Bucharest, where she was battered (6-0, 6-0) by Simona Halep in the final.

However, with a lot of help from a discombobulated Garbiñe Muguruza, she notched her maiden top-five win in the second round, and later avoided the dreaded hangover by further shocking 13th-seed Johanna Konta. She deserved better luck than rolling her ankle early against Caroline Wozniacki, but by then her clean, smooth shots off both sides and resourcefulness to mix slices, drops and invasive strokes had gained admirers. Poised and talented, Sevastova is a name to keep under attention over the next months, joining rising star Jelena Ostapenko as a top-50 player hailing from the small Baltic nation.

 

Kei Nishikori

For the first season in his career, Kei Nishikori reached the second week of every Grand Slam in the calendar but he’ll end the year with a sour taste on his mouth. With Nadal and Federer yo-yoing on and off the Tour, and Djokovic suffering after slaying the Roland Garros’ dragon, the Japanese had a great opportunity to find his way into a second Major final but couldn’t capitalize. In Flushing Meadows, he once again proved worthy of those stages but his chances were nixed by the usual Achilles heel: a fragile body that rarely levers the rigors of consecutive battles against top players.

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn't able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn’t able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Case in point: in his quarter-final appointment he played well (especially after the weather conditions determined an indoor affair) and was able to penetrate into Andy Murray’s astonishing defence to wrangle a famous victory, yet couldn’t do the necessary follow up against Wawrinka. He still managed to go a set and a break up on the Swiss with authority, but couldn’t keep the foot on the pedal and would let the rival off the mat on the second set. A sudden fitness breakup followed before long, and it opened the door for Stan to turn the table completely and take the driver’s seat, edging through in four outings.

It’s been validated Nishikori’s game, an attractive variety of flat, wheezing strokes from both wings and off-pace shots depicting every trick in the book of tennis, is well-rounded and adequate for a potential multi-Slam winner, but he can’t continue to let opportunities like this slip through his fingers. And they’ll just keep skirting Nishikori if he can’t find a way to trade blows with his prevailing opponents for as long it takes.

Juan Martin Del Potro

Meanwhile, Juan Martin Del Potro may have also been betrayed by physical shortcomings but his defeat at the hands of Wawrinka stemmed mainly from other sources. The Argentinian looked mentally drained after an emotional summer on what it is still an incomplete comeback trail, and faced an opponent that held the keys to slow him down.

With the upset at Wimbledon still fresh in his memory, the Swiss defused Del Potro’s bread-and-butter weapon, the massive forehand, with his own exceptional shot, a strong backhand that pressed the rival towards the corner during crosscourt exchanges, limiting his opportunities to seize control and dictate from the baseline. Thus, Del Potro’s sub-par backhand had to absorb responsibilities and, in his current form, proved no match for Wawrinka’s fiery forehand, a much more consistent backup plan. If the Argentine hopes to add to his 2009 US Open title, he better improve the backhand so that it might carry some water over two weeks and seven best-of five encounters.

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Gaël Monfils

Just three months after missing his beloved Roland Garros with a virus, the greatest opportunity for Gaël Monfils to leave his mark at a Major presented itself in NY, and the Frenchman’s reaction was to throw it down the court, out of bounds, aimlessly, just like he would if he was down match points during a rout.

For just the second time, tennis’ ultimate showman was in the last four of a Grand Slam and judging by what stood on the other side, he simply had to do better. Yes, it was the World No. 1, the reigning Champion, one of the best hard-court players of all-time, and someone he hadn’t beat in 12 confronts on the professional ranks, but also an ailing, slightly out-of-sorts Novak Djokovic that was there to be conquered.

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

Yet, a few minutes into the volatile contest, Djokovic was 5-0 up and not even the guy that had yet to concede a set in the tournament had the mental fortitude to believe he could go head-to-head for hours and come out on top. His efficient, measured, business-like attitude went out of the stadium (through the roof?), and instead fans were treated with a deliberate attempt to rattle the opponent with insistent slices, heartless chips and lackadaisical play, the total opposite of what had endeared him to the audience in his previous matches.

The trick shots, the leaping blows, the unparalleled athleticism that fascinates viewers, would make a short return later on, but Monfils’ decision making and focus faltered down the stretch in spite of Djokovic’s evident struggles. The grimacing Serbian could barely serve on the fourth set with the shoulder pulsating, yet his foe sealed by himself a disappoint finish to a story that pledged so much. At age 30, Monfils’ time was there, and he squandered it.

Lucas Pouille

The final few days of the men’s Grand Slams are usually populated by the same faces, as the group that challenges for the top-honours is eminently hermetic. The same 10-12 names (and that may be stretching it) arrive at the latter rounds regularly, and true shocks are far and few between until the quarter-finals, when the competition gets stiffer. When they do happen we can normally pinpoint the reason the favourite got upset, ranging from health /conditioning reasons to an uncharacteristically bad day at the office where everything goes awry. What happened to Rafael Nadal at the US Open was different, as the 14-times Grand Slam Champion, who breezed through the first week, was simply outlasted by an opponent that was just slightly better… at a five-set marathon, no less.

Lucas Pouille had already impressed at Wimbledon by defeating Juan Martin Del Potro to reach the quarter-finals, but grinding a triumph over the Spanish legend was even more special as the two exchanged pleasantries over five scintillating sets.

Lucas Pouille's reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal provided some of the wackiest photos of the tournament

Lucas Pouille’s reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal was ….intense

Despite having already endured two long battles in the initial rounds, the 22-year-old blitzed Nadal in the first juncture with tremendous flat strokes from every possible angle, and kept his nerve through the ups and downs of the slugfest, negotiating the long rallies until he could go for massive winners or attack at the net. Even trailing a break in the decider, with everyone expecting a quick finish, Pouille hang on physically, didn’t waver and overcome a legendary competitor like the Spaniard to snatch victory in the tiebreak.

It was a stunning epilogue for one of the top matches of the 2016 US Open, and the signature triumph for a player that broke into the top 100 for the first time last year and boasts the firepower to settle in the top 10 very soon. Exhausted, Pouille was no match for Gaël Monfils two days later, having to resort to consecutive, ill-timed net approaches in order to speed up the points, but it didn’t matter that much. The hype won’t wane anytime soon.

Stanislas Wawrinka

Who would have predicted, back in January 2013, that the man that had just been defeated by Djokovic on a sparkling five-set thriller would be three quarters of the way towards a career Slam less than four years later?

A brawny player with a backhand to behold was the scouting report on the Swiss for the first few seasons on the Tour, but maddening inconsistency impeded his progress inside the second week of the best tournaments worldwide. However, that battle with Djokovic showed Wawrinka he had the means to swing with the best and he rose from Roger Federer’s Davis Cup partner to Grand Slam Final world-beater in three stunning acts.

At age 31, he’s growing more dangerous by the day and his big-match panache is reaching legendary levels, with 11 consecutive triumphs in finals and a perfect record in the decisive game of Majors.

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

Yet, at the US Open, the Swiss had to survive a scare on the first week, nearly falling at the hands of unheralded Dan Evans in the third round before he righted the ship. Later, Stanimal summoned his beast mode to conquer the challenges posed by Del Potro and Nishikori as his superior physical condition made the difference and helped set up a much waited rematch with the World No.1, Novak Djokovic.

In another duel from what has grown to become a highly entertaining rivalry, the Swiss stunningly dictated the terms of the contest for the near four hours of back and forth action. His heavy strokes controlled the rallies and took time away from Djokovic on both wings, forcing the hand of the Serbian several times. Having to toe the line between keeping the ball deep and opening angles, Djokovic was consistently burned with explosive winners down the line in return.

Moreover, the fluid one-handed backhand of the Swiss, one of the most lethal weapons on the Tour, opened seams in Djokovic’s usually impermeable defence and flustered the Serbian in so many occasions that the defending Champion couldn’t muster the alertness to take full advantage of the opportunities he still managed to produce.

Djokovic went an uncharacteristic 3-of-17 on break points in the final, and looked clunky on his serve after the first set, whilst his rival synched body and mind with each passing point, displaying a courageous form that could only stir from the deep belief on his own chances of making history. And so he did, pointing to his temple after another error by his opponent on match point.

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Wawrinka is now only the fifth man to gather two Slams after turning 30 and his burly figure shows no sign of decay as his late-career blooming continues to intensify on the events where players are asked to push the limits of their bodies. Indeed, Wawrinka boasts a single Masters 1000 title (Monte Carlo, 2014), but has reached the QF’s in 10 of the last 13 Majors, where the larger margins of error allowed on best-of-five matches suit him perfectly. Step by step during the fortnight, he calibrates his power shots, builds his physique and exercises the mental resilience necessary to zone in and thrive in the biggest stages at the right moment.

By equalling Andy Murray’s Grand Slam total, “Stan the Man” has now tinted an inescapable new reality. He’s not only a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but one of the top players of the XXI century and full member of the elite of men’s tennis, joining the Big Four. May we toast to tennis’ “Fab Five”.

The “Notebook”: US Open 2016 (I)

It’s been a while since I wrote about tennis and the last Major of the season represented a perfect opportunity to end that drought. The first 8 days of both singles’ main draws are already in the books – with the quarter finals looming – and it seemed appropriate to compile a few remarks on the major storylines of the competition so far.

This post is a miscellany on a few topics, from players that have impressed or gone home early, pre-tournament expectations that have delivered or went off the rails, overarching trends that are breaking out or have fizzled, or just simple rants on specific individuals. It isn’t exactly rich in tactical/technical considerations as the time to watch the multitude of games is limited, but maybe we can tackle that a bit soon enough

On a second part I expect to dissert on what transpires in New York on the closing days of the fortnight, delving into the top players that have cruised through the competition without too much trouble until now and some of the lesser known names still alive entering the final stretch (Ana Konjuh, Karolina Pliskova or Lucas Pouille, for example).

(I expect to sharpen the concept behind this “Notebook” on future occasions – and not necessarily just tennis tournaments -and present a more concerted effort that doesn’t resemble a patchwork)

The American Men: Present and Future

For a country that’s been looking for a torch-bearer in the men’s side since Andy Roddick retired, the US Open has proved enlightening about the United States’ ATP prospects in the near future. And it began shortly after the first balls were popped for the main draw, with a doubleheader between up-and-coming aces and the more established names. Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, both 18 years old, duelled John Isner and Jack Sock, respectively,  to tight five-set encounters that fired up the crowd and were a few bounces away from knocking out their compatriots, further amplifying the expectations of future stardom for the two prodigies.

Isner, the main American of the last couple of seasons, has seen his status threatened by Sock and Steve Johnson, and didn’t help his case with a four-set defeat to British youngster Kyle Edmund. Meanwhile, Jack Sock went on to impressively make quick work of former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets before falling to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The 23-year-old with a remarkable ability to spin his forehand was the last American man playing and he left without breaking a curse that has plagued the home boys recently: Since Andy Roddick in 2011, no American has been able to reach the quarter-finals.

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three short sets

As for Johnson, he was unceremoniously dumped out by Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round, just a few days after publicly calling out the decision to award the Argentinian a wild card that was destined for a young native.

The player that had to navigate the qualifying because of that decision? 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, one of the major surprises of the first week by stringing five consecutive wins in Flushing Meadows, including a first round upset of Belgium’s David Goffin in the first round and a straight sets triumph over Serbia’s Viktor Troicki later on. When he succumbed to the invigorated Ivo Karlovic on Saturday night, Donaldson had already gone further than any other American wild card receiver, with his serve and return game deserving accolades. It’s expected he shouldn’t need an invitation the next time around.

Reaching the same stage as Donaldson was fellow qualifier Ryan Harrison, the former phenomenon who dispatched fifth-seed Milos Raonic on the second round in a match marked by the Canadian’s vicious cramps.

Germany: The female powerhouse that sputtered

Lost amongst the emergence of Angelique Kerber as the most consistent challenger to Serena’s dominance is the gradual erosion of the rest of Germany’s star quartet: the group that waltzed together into the top 20 in 2011/12 and created expectations of a Fed Cup dynasty that never materialized.

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last seasons

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last few years

In those years, Julia Goerges (15th, 3/2012), Sabine Lisicki (12th, 10/2012) and Andrea Petkovic (9th, 10/2011) posted career-highs in the WTA rankings, but if Kerber has finished in the top 10 in every season since, the rest has stumbled as their careers advance. Injuries partly justify the decline but it’s still disappointing that those three have combined for a single Grand Slam final appearance (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2013) and two semi-finals (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2011; Petkovic, Roland Garros, 2014).

At the US Open, Petkovic was brushed aside by Belinda Bencic in the second round, tying her season-best at Slams, while Goerges got dumped out by Venus Williams on the same stage. Meanwhile, Lisicki, currently ranked 84th, was pummelled by Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva in the inaugural round and is in danger of dropping out of the top 100 soon. All are still in their 20’s, but time is running out as other names emerge, from 22-year-old’s  Annika Beck and Anna-Lena Friedsam to the slightly-more experienced Laura Siegmund, already ranked 27th in World after reaching the top 100 for the first time in 2015.

As for those Fed Cup results, the Germans only once went to the final, in 2014, where they were beaten by their tiny neighbours Czech Republic, who have collected four of the last five titles…

The Great Dane is giving signs of life

Since being upstaged from the top of the World Rankings after the 2012 Australian Open, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki has endured a steady decline that was only briefly halted in 2014, when she reached the final of the US Open. As her off-court commitments have become more prominent, she’s become an afterthought in the biggest tournaments, with that 2014 campaign in NY as her single appearance in the last eight of a GS since early 2012. Despite hovering around the top 10 for a long time, sometimes one gets the sense that Wozniacki stays relevant because she’s Serena’s BFF and a pretty face to put in front of a camera.

However, just 26 years old and under the glittering Big Apple lights, maybe things are changing just as her career seemed to be approaching a fork in the road. Ranked an aberrant No.74 entering the last Major of the year, Wozniacki’s classic counterpunching style just wasn’t proving as effective as in the dawn of her career, since opponents have adapted and can either blow the ball past her and match the stamina and consistency that function as the staple of her game.

Pundits said she needed to step forward, use her athleticism to drive the ball and put her rivals under pressure, and in this tournament she has followed suit. More aggression functioned against the 9th-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in round two and helped dispatch Monica Niculescu (a player that forces opponents to set the pace), contributing to an important boost of confidence.

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki's face

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki’s face

With her coolness restored, came a vintage Wozniacki performance to outlast the favourite Madison Keys. Tactically savvy to force the opponent out of the comfort zone by deftly varying her shots and serve placement, unfazed through the swift barrages of winners, and composed as her rival entered a tailspin due to the Dane’s vaunted defensive skills and ability to prolong the rallies. In one week, the former World No.1 beat more top-10 players (2) at a Major than during her entire stint at the top of the game (1). Maybe a renaissance has started on a place that Wozniacki clearly loves.

The intricate succession of Serena Williams 

The grasp of Serena Williams on American tennis has been so absolute for so long that seeing another female player (outside of Venus) step out of her shadow has taken more time than it should on a country like the USA. The US Open is the tournament where candidates showcase their credentials and every year new names are added to the ballot. However, few go on to break into the top echelon of the game, displaying year round consistency and a firm growing curve. Until last year, Sloane Stephens (who pulled out injured in NY) looked well on his way to that level, but it was eventually Madison Key’s door to knock wide open.

Keys’ 2015 highlights – SF in Australia and QF at Wimbledon – may flash brighter on her résumé but the regularity achieved during this season points to an evolution that is hitting all the right notes, with good performances spread across different tiers of tournaments and surfaces. At the US Open, Keys was pushed to the brink twice in the tournament and came out roaring like a Champion – not unlike the Queen of the WTA Tour – leading many to believe the story would go on unblemished. Aged 21, bursting with lethal groundstrokes and a powerful serve adorned with a striking mechanic that resembles many of the finest male players, Madison Keys was a superstar in the making that would lead the American aspirations as soon as she fine-tunes his amazing qualities.

Madison Keys' inate firepower is one of the reasons she's been tabbed as the future of USA's tennis

Madison Keys’ inate firepower is one of the reasons she’s been tabbed as the future of USA’s tennis

Not so fast…as Caroline Wozniacki so eloquently illustrated on their fourth-round encounter, with Keys’ game neutralized by a rival willing to deny her intents of pocketing points in a hurry with her overpowering acceleration. She learned a valuable lesson and we quickly remembered  it too: the American’s game, as most heavy-hitters (Petra Kvitova is a good comparison), is beautiful to watch in the peaks, but excruciating in the valleys, with blasts sailing meters wide (or long) and harried executions dyeing at the bottom of the net. The learning curve is still steep to threaten the Queen.

For the rest of the American roster on the women’s side, the US Open wasn’t a banner event either. 29th seed Coco Vandeweghe, a big-serving player quietly on the verge of her 25th anniversary, followed up a really strong grass season with a first round defeat to 18-year-old Japanese sensation Naomi Osaka. The once-promising Christina McHale couldn’t resist the 2015 finalist Roberta Vinci in the second round, while the top 50-ranked Madison Brengle and Shelby Rogers, a surprising quarter-finalist in Roland Garros, were upset by younger compatriots. Brengle retired before 16-year-old Kayla Day, the US Under-18 National Champion, could complete the job, but Rogers was outplayed by 17-year-old Catherine Bellis, who burst onto the scene in similar conditions in 2014.

The Brits are finally coming

Andy Murray arrived in New York as the odds-on favourite to take a Grand Slam title for the first time in his career, but Great Britain’s media has had more to rejoice than just the spoils very much left in play by Novak Djokovic’s sudden drop from the pedestal. A few years ago, the Scot’s footsteps in major events were supposed to be followed by two promising young girls in Heather Watson and Laura Robson, but those two have failed to deliver, leaving the 2016 US Open on the first round without much fanfare. On their place have step up three names that created a buzz for British Tennis in the first week.

The 25-year-old Johanna Konta – who came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round one year ago – justified the hype that has surrounded her rise following the semi-final run in Melbourne by dismantling Belinda Bencic in the third round, even if she then lost a winnable match against Anastasija Sevastova.

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain's best male prospect since Andy Murray

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain’s best male prospect since Andy Murray

On the men’s side, Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans are still riding the impulse of the Davis Cup victory last fall, joining Murray to become the first British trio to reach the third round of the US Open in 48 years. The 26-year-old Evans, an offensive talent with a knack for net play, shocked the highly-touted Alex Zverev in the second round before producing a thriller against Stan Wawrinka in the third, even wasting a couple of match points in the fourth set before succumbing in the decider. As for Edmund, a former junior star, his lightning-quick forehand and heavy style were too much for the crafty Richard Gasquet in the first round and for John Isner later on, with Novak Djokovic putting a stop to his progress on the last 16.

Setbacks, declines and darkhorses

To end, a few lines on some renowned players dropping out early on the women’s event plus a brush stroke on everyone’s preferred dark horses on the men’s side.

Ana Ivanovic, who’s yet to string three consecutive triumphs in 2016, kept her mediocre season going with a straight sets defeat to Denisa Allertova in the first round. The slow eclipse continues for the former World No.1, whose Semi-Final run in Roland Garros last year, the first on a Major in seven years, is looking more like a thing of the past by the day.

Eugenie Bouchard’s bumpy ride over the last two years caught another rut in New York with a disappointing first round loss to Katerina Siniakova, World No. 72. The Canadian hasn’t been able to amass any type of momentum that favours an approach to the level displayed in 2014, her breakout season, and the net point loss from this result will make her ranking spill outside of the top 50 again.

The World No. 3, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, suffered a startling exit at the hands of Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in the second round, prolonging her listless form since a maiden Grand Slam triumph in the clay of Paris. After quick exits at Wimbledon and the Olympics, the 23-year-old looked apathetic against Sevastova, losing her serve seven times in two sets and lacking the spirit to take full advantage of her opponent’s shakiness on the verge of a famous triumph.

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

The newly crowned Olympic Champion, Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig, crashed out at the first hurdle in NY but I’m certain few were wholly stunned by it. The 23-year-old has never reached the quarter-finals of a Major, and all the partying following her improbable achievement was far from an ideal preparation for a debut under an entirely different limelight. Undoubtedly a letdown for failing to capitalize on the newfound recognition, but Puig gets a pass for a few more weeks. After all, becoming a national hero overnight certainly takes some time to assimilate.

On the flip side, most of the men’s narratives have hovered around the positive vibes emanating from the top-notch level of play exhibited by some beloved crowd-pleasers. Above all else is, obviously, Juan Martin Del Potro, who has carved through the draw with his hammer of a forehand. Building on the upset of Stan Wawrinka in Wimbledon and the fairytale campaign at Rio de Janeiro, the gangly Argentine is yet to relinquish a set in four matches, dispatching on the way the American highest seeded player, Steve Johnson, and the ever-unrelenting David Ferrer.

Also yet to cede a set is French Showman Gael Monfils, whose spectacular style has been toned down slightly to provision for an uptick in effectiveness. With his rare athleticism visibly intact, the 29-year-old may now be approaching that sweet spot we’ve all been waiting for years, a scary proposition for everyone standing on the other half of the court.

With Nadal eliminated, Federer watching on television from the other side of the Atlantic and Stan Wawrinka prone to some dangerous bouts of inconsistency, Del Potro and Monfils headline the list of candidates to hinder the Djokovic-Murray rematch.

Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

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And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!

The WTA Tour in 2015 – Ups and downs

The season of a professional tennis player is long, gruelling and, generally, a true carousel of emotions that change daily, from the joys and relief of victory to the soul-crushing reality of defeat. It’s, above all, a sequence of up’s and down’s, that gets reflected on the rankings, the confidence they display on court and the rewards they gather for all the hours of work put on away from the limelight.

This is true for the hundreds of players battling to survive on obscure tournaments played on every corner of the planet but also for the best in the world, which, as the stakes get higher, see the pressure to succeed intensify and the shortcomings pierced up unapologetically.

The 2015 season is approaching the stretch run with three Grand Slams already on the books and much has happened since the first week of January. This article aims to chronicle that journey for the most prominent figures in tennis, establishing a division between those who have met or surpassed the off-season’s expectations (the ups) and those who have hit rough patches, underperformed…or completely disintegrated (the downs).

I tried to keep a relative balance between the numbers on each side of the fence, but be advised that, like most people, I prefer to focus on who is excelling rather than in the struggling players.

As usual, I’ll start with the ladies, with the Men’s edition coming up, hopefully, later this month.

Garbiñe Muguruza (up)

Garbiñe Muguruza gazes at the sky after another triumph on the 2015 Wimbledon tournament

The Venezuelan-born player jumped into the spotlight in 2014, eliminating Serena at Roland Garros and ending the year just outside the top 20, and, this season, she seems to be realizing her enormous potential. The Spaniard has every tool necessary to aspire a future domination on the Tour and, at age 22, is just putting it all together. Her massive forehand is a great weapon and she’s aggressive and daring but also balanced enough to implement the necessary variances on her shots and decisions. These characteristics serve her well in every surface, which isn’t something usually encountered on other Spaniards, and Muguruza has produced steady performances throughout this season. For instance, she lost to the World Number one on the 4th round at Melbourne, saw a nice campaign in Roland Garros end on the quarters at the hands of a Lucie Safarova in a state of grace, and also went deep at Dubai before being dismissed by Pliskova on the semis.

Still, the result that vaulted her into the top 10 was achieved at Wimbledon, where she run through four higher-seeded players on the way to the final and a well-fought battle against Serena. Muguruza’s ascension on the rankings, where she’s currently 9th, is destined to continue over the next few months, with very few points to defend until the end of the season, and she looks poised to reward those who tipped her as a future leader of the WTA Tour due to a blend of strength, power, composure and all-around ability (expressed, for example, on four career WTA doubles titles). Right now, her singles résumé boasts only one WTA tournament victory, at Hobart last year, but it’s fair to say that’s just of matter of time until the accolades start to pile on.

Petra Kvitova (down)

Petra Kvitova’s campaign at the Australian Open ended earlier than expected.

It’s been a puzzling season for the 25-year-old. The Czech holds the distinction of being the only player on tour to beat Serena Williams this year, in route to an important triumph on the clay of Madrid, but that was definitely her only signature moment of the season. Kvitova has failed to go past the fourth round in every Grand Slam already contested this season, falling to Madison Keys at Melbourne Park and Timea Bacsinszky at Roland Garros, before spiralling down at Wimbledon when no one expected. In fact, the powerful lefty cruised past the first two rounds on her ideal grass-court tournament but, as soon as she faced some resistance, Kvitova couldn’t handle the mild challenge of Jelena Jankovic and saw her title defence end.

The two-time Grand Slam Champion started the season with a victory in Sydney but two consecutive losses to Carla Suarez Navarro at Doha and Dubai triggered a strange absence in Indian Wells and Miami, attributed to “exhaustion” until the recent diagnosis of mononucleosis. Kvitova’s illness has taken a toll on the Czech’s game effectiveness and her confidence has fluctuated more than ever, which influences the sharpness of her massive forehand and powerful lefty serve.

At his best, the only 1990’s-born player to win a Grand Slam is probably the only women equipped to overpower Serena, but her maddening inconsistency alternates moments of brilliance, like last year’s run at Wimbledon, with matches where she just can’t keep her haymakers inside the limits of the court. Until she solves that, the chances of climbing the rankings are limited and she’s susceptible to occasional drops out of the top 5. With the US Open coming up, where she has never reached the quarter-finals, it’s a complete coin flip which side of Kvitova will step on court in every game.

Timea Bacsinszky (up)

Two years ago, the 26-year-old Swiss was working on a hotel at a ski resort, determined to put a once promising tennis career on her back and mulling the decision to go back to school in order to get a management degree. Tired of several years struggling to fulfil the hopes of an overbearing father and fighting injuries, Bacsinszky lost motivation and passion for the game. Then, came an unexpected Wild Card to compete at the Roland Garros qualifying and she found the spark again. What followed was a long climb on the rankings that culminated on a top-50 finish in 2014.

The new season started with a highly-impressive run at Shenzhen stopped by Simona Halep on the final, after an early distinguished upset of Petra Kvitova, and Bacsinszky’s confidence soared. She was defeated by Garbine Muguruza on the third round of the Australian Open, an outcome that was, nonetheless, the farthest she had come in her career on a Grand Slam, and then made some headlines with two consecutive titles in Acapulco and Monterrey, stringing an undefeated run of 13 matches until Serena Williams triumphed on the quarter-finals of Indian Wells.

Timea Bacsinszky’s season has been one to remember

The clay season ahead of Roland Garros didn’t go as well, but, in Paris, the Swiss found some magic again, beating Kvitova for the second time on the season on her way to a final four finish. She forced Serena Williams to a third set before eventually falling, but her elegant, yet unusually tightly-gripped, backhand and propensity to play drop shot after drop shot left a mark, as did the unassuming and cool personality on court. Another deep run on a Grand Slam, ended by eventual finalist Muguruza in Wimbledon’s quarter-finals, ensued and the top-10 is already within reach for Bacsinszky, currently 13th on the WTA hierarchy but 10th on the race to the WTA Finals.

Maria Sharapova (down)

The indisputable number two player in the World has two titles to her name in 2014, in Brisbane and Rome, but that hasn’t removed a sour taste from her mouth. She underperformed, hampered by a leg injury, on the hard court tournaments of the spring, leaving Indian Wells at the hands of Flavia Pennetta on the round of 16, and Miami even earlier, beaten surprisingly by compatriot Daria Gavrilova. Later, a feisty Lucie Safarova ended her title defence at Roland Garros and Wimbledon saw another chapter of one of the most one-sided rivalries of this time.

Sharapova was dispatched in the semi-finals by Serena Williams and the Russian just seemed, once again, without answers to solve a riddle that has tarnished her legacy and career. It was the 17th consecutive defeat against the American, with the head-to-head record now standing at a lopsided 18-2 score line, and came just a few months after another painful loss at the Australian Open final. Until she finds answers and the right adjustments, Sharapova’s success and solid play overall will always be overshadowed by Serena.

She may have another opportunity in New York, and how sweet it would be to break the curse and shatter Serena’s calendar Slam ambitions at the same time?

Madison Keys (up)

The USA’s next generation of female players has graced the WTA Tour for a few seasons but the emergence of a clear leader of the pack has taken more time. Sloane Stephens ended 2014 on the cusp of the top 10 but she has fought wrist injuries over the last months and the consistency just hasn’t been there, whereas Coco Vandeweghe recently enjoyed a great run at Wimbledon and may be on the verge of putting it all together. Meanwhile, Christina McHale has taken more than expected to approach the top 20, which leaves 20-year-old Madison Keys, who has had one of the breakout performances of the year.

Madison Keys’ Australian Open performance kick-started her rise on the rankings

Lindsay Davenport’s pupil made the jump from a player fighting for a lower seed on a Slam towards a force to reckon on the second week, and that improvement is shown on the results amassed in 2015. She reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open, succumbing to Serena after overcoming the older Williams sibling, and wasn’t far from repeating that run at Wimbledon, coming up short on a winnable match against Agnieszka Radwanska. In Paris, the in-form Timea Bacsinszky took her out during a third round encounter but, seen as a whole, Keys’ Grand Slam performances can only be described as encouraging.

The Florida-native is currently the second youngest top-20 player on the Tour and her game is still maturing, with Keys figuring out the rights moments to push all the way forward with her powerful strokes or pull back a bit. To keep climbing the rankings, though, she will have to perform better outside of the big stages, as she only reached the last four in one other tournament this season (a lost final at Charleston), but her all-around game projects to be a mainstay at the top in the near future.

Lucie Safarova (up)

Lucie Safarova was the runner-up at Roland Garros

For years, the Czech has been one of the most consistent players in the circuit, finishing the last four seasons ranked in the top 30. However, it took until her 28th anniversary for Safarova to take a step forward and settle on the top 10, entering elite territory. Just notice that she reached the Quarter-Finals at the Australian Open in 2007 and had to wait until 2014 to equal that on a major, going one match further before getting outlasted at Wimbledon by eventual Champion Petra Kvitova. The Brno-native has always been a solid competitor, disturbing the opposition with an exquisite top-spinned forehand that isn’t usual on the Women’s tour, but the lack of confidence and self-belief has set her back multiple times. On this sense, becoming a major contender on the doubles tour since 2013, and having the chance to compete regularly on the last rounds of Grand Slams, may have contributed to a better mind-set.

Thus, the 2015 season has been the definitive breakthrough for Safarova, who tasted Grand Slam success alongside American Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the Australian Open and Roland Garros, and played her first major singles final in Paris, yielding to Serena Williams. The Czech took out four top 20 players (Lisicki, Sharapova, Muguruza and Ivanovic) during her scintillating run and fought off the nerves on several high-pressure situations, winning three tie-breaks along the way. Even if, outside of a title in Doha, Safarova’s season hasn’t been that impressive, with early exits at Indian Wells, Miami, Rome and the Australia Open, along with a 4th round defeat to Coco Vandeweghe at Wimbledon, she achieved a career-high ranking in June and his currently 7th on the WTA hierarchy. Athletic, aggressive and talented, the Czech has her first presence on the WTA Finals well within reach, although the fatigue accumulated by dispensing energies on doubles tournaments may take a toll as the season dwindles.

Eugenie Bouchard (down)

The Canadian’s tailspin during the 2015 season has been nothing short of remarkable. After reaching the 2014 Wimbledon final, Bouchard hit a rough patch during the latter part of the year, culminating on the dismissal of Nick Saviano, her long-time coach, but no one could predict the absolutely terrorizing display of the last few months. The 21-year-old reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open just to be dismantled by Maria Sharapova, and since then has a dismal 4W-14L record, including nine first round exits, which plummeted her ranking. Not even the return to the grass courts, where her attacking, aggressive style thrived, made any difference, with Bouchard bowing out against a qualifier at Wimbledon.

A fair depiction of Eugenie Bouchard’s 2015 season

The breakout star of 2014 seems lost and in complete free fall, which is even stranger for a player that built her surge on a charming, bubbly personality and tremendous confidence on her abilities despite the inexperience. If she can’t find a way out of what looks like an existential crisis and regain the belief in her game, the former world number 5 can quickly fall out of the top 30 and the talk about Bouchard being a flash in the pan will increase. This would be a shame, since she just has too much talent to let that happen.

With the hard-court season starting, Bouchard, provided she gets over the abdominal injury that hailed her performance at Wimbledon, can make up some lost ground, since, outside of the US Open and Wuhan, she doesn’t have a lot of points to defend.

Victoria Azarenka (up)

Victoria Azarenka’s eagerness wasn’t enough to overcome Serena Williams at Wimbledon

The nagging left foot injury that derailed Azarenka’s 2014 season is finally on the rear view and the former World Number 1 can get back to challenge for the top tournaments. Actually, her journey back to the top 20, that she’s just re-entering, took more time than expected due to a series of unlucky draws that put the Belarusian on a collision course with Serena Williams both at Roland Garros (3rd round) and Wimbledon (quarter-finals). Both matches were intense battles settled on the decider, with Azarenka running out of gas to close out the rival after taking the first set, but proved that “Vika” fierceness is intact and she will quickly regain her place among the best. Azarenka also lost to Serena earlier in the year, at Madrid, and faced Maria Sharapova in Rome and Indian Wells, a maddening series of tough encounters to navigate.

However, Azarenka’s 22-9 record in 2015 is solid and, as she inches closer to the top, the ship will sail more smoothly, with the 26-year-old even vying for a chance to add some silverware, since she hasn’t secured a title in almost two years (Cincinatti, August 2013). The Minsk-native came close last February, at Doha, but was beaten by Lucie Safarova on the final. Soon, at the upcoming US Open, the two–time Australian Open Champion will be an underdog, hoping to reach the final of the tournament for the third time in her career (2012, 2013).

Simona Halep (down)

Coming off a breakthrough 2014 season, the Romanian star appeared to pick up where she left off after winning the Shenzhen tournament on the inaugural week of 2015. Although her game was broken apart by Ekaterina Makarova on the Australian Open’s quarter-finals, Halep’s season kept going strong through February and March, with the 24-year-old collecting the trophy at Dubai and, later, Indian Wells, the biggest triumph of her career. She pushed Serena to the edge on a delightful encounter in the semi-finals of Miami, ultimately failing to repeat the illustrious triumph on the WTA Finals last November, but solidified her claim for the number two spot on the rankings.

However, her form faded during the clay season, underlined by a one-and-out presence at Madrid, and a shocking defeat to veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni on the second round of Roland Garros, which brought uncertainty to Halep’s game. Another early exit on the first-round of Wimbledon, at the hands of 106th-ranked Jana Cepelova, confirmed that the Romanian is on a funk and a revolving door of coaches certainly doesn’t help.

The tiny counterpuncher is another top player experiencing a deficit of confidence but, unlike Kvitova, she just doesn’t have the weapons to overpower opponents and solve trickier problems quickly, relying, instead, on her baseline prowess and movement. Her strengths aren’t perfectly suited for the hard courts coming up but a decent performance at the US Open can put her back on track and stop the negative spiral. If, otherwise, the bad results linger, the pressure, especially coming from native Romania, will intensify and Halep can be in trouble, with a Bouchard-esque plunge not completely out of question.

Simona Halep leaves the court crestfallen after a defeat. An image seen many times over the last few months.

Carla Suárez Navarro (up)

The other Spanish player on the top 10 doesn’t carry the same level of expectations as Muguruza but has quietly put on the best season of her career. Suárez Navarro is currently 4th on the 2015 singles leaderboard, which determines the players qualified for the WTA Finals, because of a tremendously regular performance since the beginning of the season, expressed on reaching 11 quarter-finals (or best) in 16 tournaments entered. The tiny Las Palmas-native, though, hasn’t yet been able to conquer the second title of her career, having lost the finals at Antwerp, Miami and Rome, and her performance on the Grand Slams has to considered an unmitigated disaster, losing on the first round at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and on the third at Roland Garros.

Suarez-Navarro is known for a striking one-handed backhand, that is all almost extinct on the women’s tour and creates uncanny difficulties for her opponents, but her lack of punch and suspicious serve usually holds her back against more powerful foes. Like most of her compatriots, she likes to fight for every ball along the baseline but lacks the weapons to be considered a true contender for a major triumph in the future. Close to being 27 years old, her stay on the top 10 promises to be brief, because there’s just too much talent coming up and eyeing for those positions. The top-20 placement she held over the last two seasons is more in order with her potential.

Serena Williams (up)

How nice is Serena Williams’ professional life right now? She hand-picks the tournaments she wants to appear on, racks up wins at will, collects trophies and walks away when she decides an event isn’t worth the effort. In 2015, she has a 37-1 record in the WTA Tour over just 8 tournaments, adding four titles to her illustrious résumé and pulling out in Bastad, Rome and Indian Wells, a tournament she returned to several years later. An in-the-zone Petra Kvitova defeated her on the clay of Madrid but not even multiple health issues prevented the successful completion of the “Serena Slam” Part II, twelve years after the first.

Serena Williams and the 2015 Wimbledon trophy. Her 21st singles Grand Slam title.

She triumphed at the Australian Open despite a persistent cough, and managed to find a way towards the title on the clay of Paris, although flu-like symptoms hindered her performance during five third-set encounters. At Wimbledon, she was fit but the road wasn’t easier, since she saw off a perilous situation on the third round against home favourite Heather Watson, and then strode through three former world Number one’s (Venus, Azarenka and Sharapova) before harnessing Muguruza to clinch her fourth consecutive Grand Slam. Now, it’s time for the definitive challenge, the chance to become the first person in 27 years, and only fifth ever, to claim the calendar Slam.

The US Open will be a pressure-cooker for the 33-year-old but it’s already pretty much unanimous that the only person that can beat Serena Williams is herself, which is incredible after overcoming injuries, the fatigue of a 17-years professional career (and counting), and a field full of hungry, young candidates to her throne. Besides sweeping the Majors in 2015, Serena is also looking to tie Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slams and inch even closer to Margaret Court’s record of 24. Thus, the revamped Arthur Ashe stadium will be roaring anticipating history and Serena can further cement her case as the best women’s player of all-time and a female American athlete almost without parallel.

Quick(er) strikes:

Agnieska Radwanska (down)

The crafty Radwanska struggled badly early on, failing to get some juice from the appointment of Martina Navratilova as her new coach. The dismal start, where she reached the quarter-finals only twice until July (Doha and Katowice), was surpassed after hitting rock bottom with a first round loss at Roland Garros, but not soon enough to avoid the split with the Czech-born tennis legend. The improvement came in the form of a semi-final at Nottingham and a final at Eastbourne, which precluded a last four berth at Wimbledon, where Muguruza was stronger. Nonetheless, Radwanska was still clinging to her 7th place on the rankings recently and a fifth consecutive presence on the WTA Finals is not out of reach, even if she’ll need to somehow replace the 900 points of last year’s win at the Rogers Cup.

Karolina Plískova (up)

The 23-year old has recently joined compatriots Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova on the top 10 after impressing at several points during the season. She has already played five finals in 2015 (Sydney, Dubai, Prague, Birmingham and Stanford) and, in spite of coming out on top only on home soil, certainly became someone to be counted on. A lanky, big-hitter on the mould of Kvitova, the Czech was bounced early on every Grand Slam this season, but her break out on a major stage is expected to arrive shortly.

Karolina Plískova (L) and Angelique Kerber (R) after the final of Stanford

Angelique Kerber (up)

Following a breakthrough season in 2012, which Kerber ended as a top 5 player, the German slowly removed herself from frontline contention for the biggest tournaments, even though she concluded 2013 and 2014 still ranked on the top 10.
Despite being another player that has failed to leave a mark on the Grand Slams in 2015, with a first round loss at Australia followed by two third-round setbacks in Paris and London, the 26-year-old has made for it on other events, already collecting more trophies this year than in all the previous combined. She triumphed on the clay of Charleston and Stuttgart, the grass of Birmingham, and the hard courts of Stanford to put herself in position to get back into the top 10 on the WTA rankings while securing a sixth place on the race to the Finals.

Elina Svitolina, Belinda Bencic (up)

Outside of Madison Keys, Svitolina and Bencic are the youngest players ranked on the top-20. The 21-year-old Ukrainian won the junior title at Roland Garros at the age of 15 but took some time to find her footing on the professional circuit, cracking the top 50 in 2013 before asserting her talent during this season. For instance, at the beginning of the year, she went to the semis in Brisbane before succumbing to Maria Sharapova, and made Serena Williams play a third set on the third round meeting at the Australian Open. Later, on the end of April, she conquered her third WTA title, at Marrakech, and went on to reach the first quarter-finals on a Grand Slam in the clay of Roland Garros, although the grass season was less impressive, with a single win in two tournaments. She started the hard court summer season with a nice run at Stanford, stopped by Kerber on the semis, and may be in line for even better things until the end of 2015.

18-year-old Belinda Bencic with the trophy at Eastbourne, her maiden WTA Tour title

Meanwhile, Swiss Belinda Bencic became, with 18 years and 5 months, the most precocious top-20 player since Caroline Wozniacki in 2008. After reaching the Quarter-finals of the US Open in 2014 and being named the Newcomer of the Year, the up-and-coming Bencic won her first title at Eastbourne last June, leaving Keys, Bouchard, Wozniacki and Radwanska behind on the way to the trophy, and also played the final at ‘S-Hertogenbosch, missing out in favour of Camila Giorgi. She was beaten by Madison Keys on the second round of Roland Garros and Victoria Azarenka on the fourth at Wimbledon, but the best Swiss female prospect since Martina Hingis has already shown flashes of brilliance. With a similar playing style to her compatriot, including the versatility and a fondness for the tactical side of the game, Bencic can dream of becoming, one day, the best player in the World and, maybe, match Hingis’s five career singles Grand Slams.

(Come back for the ATP edition by the end of the month, before the start of the US Open)

WTA Finals Preview

In 2012, Serena Williams came out on top. Time for a revenge?

The cosmopolitan city of Singapore receives for the first time the best women’s tennis players of the world in the much-anticipated WTA Finals tournament. Rebranded from the previous designation as WTA Championships, the event will feature the eight best singles players of the year in a round robin type format, with the players divided in two groups of four. Let’s take a look at each competitor and recap their season.

Red Group

Serena Williams (1)

Winner of this competition in 2013, her fourth title in the season ending tournament, the 2014 season of the American veteran did not match the shine of the previous year, when 11 titles, including at Roland Garros and the US Open, comprised the best year of her illustrious career. Early exits on the clay and grass majors were huge disappointments, with winning performances in New York, Brisbane, Miami, Rome, Stanford and Cincinnati as the high points. Thus, the world’s best player is under pressure in Singapore. Her lead on the ranking shrank to less than 500 points after the last update and, with 1500 points to defend, anything short of a win could not be enough to secure the fourth number one season of his career. Moreover, her physical condition might not be ideal, since after winning the US Open, her 18th Grand Slam, Serena retired in Wuhan, and walked out before the quarters in Beijing with a left knee injury that put her presence on the Finals in danger. However, with a combined 11-1 record against her group opponents, Serena looks to be at ease in the preliminary stage, getting ready for a possible showdown later with rival Maria Sharapova.

Simona Halep (4)

Simona Halep won two trophys in 2014, including this one in Doha, Qatar

Third woman to secure a place in Singapore, the Romanian proved in 2014 that her breakthrough performance at the end of 2013 was no fluke. Despite conquering only 2 tournaments, Doha and Bucharest, after the six wins of 2013, Halep reached her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, losing to Sharapova, and was close to a second one in Wimbledon, before being defeated in the semis by Genie Bouchard. A surprising loss in the round of 32 of the US Open signalized a weak end of the season, but the aggressive baseliner has all the conditions to aspire to a good result in Singapore, fighting for a place in the semis with Bouchard and Ivanovic. Just the third Romanian to appear in the WTA top 10 list, the 23-year old debuts at the end of the year tournament after reaching a career-best second place in the world rankings back in August.

Eugenie Bouchard (5)

The biggest surprise of the tour in 2014, Bouchard exploded quickly into the top 10 after an impressive junior career and a promising 2013 season. Her semi-final at the Australian Open stunned everyone and the young Canadian never looked back, winning in Nurnberg, repeating the semis performance at Roland Garros and going one step further in Wimbledom, ultimately falling to Petra Kvitova. After that, the North-American hard court season didn’t go as planned, with sub-par showings at home on the Rogers Cup and at the US Open, but the 20-year old rebounded to reach her third WTA final of the season in Wuhan and secure a place in Singapore. Probably the first of many presences at the WTA Finals, the Canadian will take part in what looks to be the three-player battle for the second place on the red group.

The Canadian dazzled at the Australian Open in January

Ana Ivanovic (7)

The former Roland Garros champion had a surprising surge up the rankings in 2014. The Serbian’s year started with a win in Auckland, her first title in more than two years, and continued with a strong showing at the Australian Slam, defeating the favourite Serena Williams in route to the quarters. Despite not impressing in the rest of the majors, Ivanovic collected points in smaller tournaments, reached five more finals, winning in Monterrey, Birmingham and Tokyo, and quietly rose up the rankings, booking her spot in the year-end tournament for the first time since 2008. A former world number one, this event seems like a good chance to evaluate her chances of battling again for the top tournaments.

White Group

Maria Sharapova (2)

The precocious ending to the 2013 season, missing out on the US Open and the WTA Championships, was probably responsible for a less than ideal beginning of 2014, with the Russian never looking comfortable. However, when the clay court season rolled around, Sharapova regained her best form and powered through Stuttgart, Madrid and Roland Garros, failing only to leave her mark in Rome, eliminated by Ana Ivanovic. Beaten in the round of 16 both at Wimbledon and New York, the Siberian regained her confidence with a win in Beijing and arrives in Singapore hoping to take her second Finals title and overthrow Serena as the best player of the year, a distinction she never got before. Although, in order to do that, she will probably need to beat her rival, something she hasn’t done in 10 years, holding a 2-16 record against the American.

Petra Kvitova (3)

Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon for the second time

Since 2011, when she surprised by taking her first major title at Wimbledon, the Czech has been an irregular player. Capable of overpowering most of her opponents, Kvitova failed to reach another Grand Slam final until July, when, back at the iconic grass of London, she reclaimed her title after beating with ease Eugenie Bouchard. Bounced very early in the other three slams, the 24-year old appeared in good shape in September, taking the spoils in Wuhan and losing in the final at Beijing. Now, on her fourth consecutive presence in the final tournament of the season, Kvitova hopes to repeat the achievement of 2011, when she coupled the Masters to the British Slam.

Agnieszka Radwanska (6)

At the age of 25, Radwanska has already been a top 10 player in the WTA Tour for six seasons, but despite all the talent, she still has to breakthrough in the big competitions. A single Grand Slam final, at the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, is a weak reward for all those years of beautiful, smart tennis. The soft-touch Polish won an important event in 2014, the Rogers Cup, after winning three WTA titles in each of the last three seasons, but disappointed yet again with defeats to unheralded opponents at the French, British and American Majors, and a tough loss to Dominika Cibulkova on the semis at Melbourne Park. A lost final in Indian Wells, against Flavia Pennetta, and a semi-final defeat to Maria Sharapova in Madrid, are the only other note-worthy results of an inconsistent season. Despite the five previous presences, the WTA Championships have also never been kind to Radwanska, with a single appearance past the group phase, in 2012, as another example of the inadequate resume sported by one of the most popular players on the Tour.

Agnieszka Radwanska, eternal underachiever?

Caroline Wozniacki (8)

A former world number one and the “best” player of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the steady Dane finished the last two years just inside the top 10, but never looked like a real contender to win a major tournament. That did not change in 2014, with Wozniacki sneaking into the WTA finals after the retirement of Li Na, but she did manage to keep her streak of six consecutive years with a WTA tournament win, after claiming the title in Istanbul. A surprising run all the way to the final at the US Open, where she lost with her close friend Serena Williams, remembered most tennis fans that the 24-year is still a player to reckon, with her spot in Singapore arriving after the lost final at Tokyo. A finalist in 2010, Wozniacki is the last seed of the tournament and her chances of repeating that result seem, at the very least, questionable.

Angelique Kerber and Ekaterina Makarova are also in Singapore as alternate players. The German, number 10 in the World, lost the four finals she played this season (Eastbourne, Stanford, Sidney and Qatar), with a quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon counting as her best result of the year in the Grand Slams. The 26-year Russian enjoyed her best season to date, reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open and being a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon. She also won her second career WTA title, triumphing in Pattaya City back in January.