Roland Garros

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

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Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

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

A few weeks ago, I looked at what happened in the 2016 WTA Tour season and now it’s time to do the same for the men’s game, a more character-driven setting that at times seemed to undergo a transition year.

Indeed, with two of the most decorated Grand Slam players of all-time (Federer, Nadal) spending most of the season on the shelf and their main counterparts (Djokovic, Murray) splitting periods of dominance as they approach the 30’s, a lot of ink was spilled on the immediate future of tennis on the male side, and there’s reason to believe it will be a bright one. As the focus was broadened from the tier of players maturing right below the Big-Four (Nishikori, Raonic, Čilić) to the new wave of talent that the ATP has been pumping incessantly over the last couple of years, the so-called “#NextGen”, the budding impact and scrutiny surrounding names like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Sasha Zverev can only anticipate a swift changeover when the time comes. Furthermore, an old friend and fan favourite made a thrilling return to the Tour, providing a cathedra of memorable moments and strengthening the depth of contenders for next editions of the major events on the calendar.

You can check the introduction of the women’s piece to better understand the aim of this article since the reasoning is the same and there’s no need to repeat it, however one key difference is worth mentioning. Instead of starting at the top of the rankings (locked on November 21st ) and gradually going down the ladder, this time we’ll reverse the order and start with a young phenomenon on the depths of the top 100, slowly making our way to the surface, the top-10, which this season features players hailing from 10 different countries.

Let’s jump right into action then.

  1. Taylor Fritz (USA)

Coming off his 19th birthday celebrated in late October, Taylor Fritz ended 2016 as the youngest player among the Top 100. One of the faces of the new generation of American tennis alongside 18-year-olds Francis Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh, 19-year-old Reilly Opelka and 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, Fritz enjoyed a breakout season highlighted by the Final in Memphis, becoming the youngest ATP Tour finalist since his opponent, Kei Nishikori, did it in 2008.

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19-year-old Taylor Fritz is a name to bookmark for the future

The 2015 US Open Junior Champion managed to reach two other QF in Acapulco and Atlanta, falling to two established compatriots, Sam Querrey and John Isner, respectively, and it was also another American, Jack Sock, who ended his adventures at the US Open and Australian Open, both after gruelling five-set encounters. Fritz’s 15 wins guided him to the 53th position on late August, but it’s expected he’ll blow past that career-high in no time. It’s been four years since Andy Roddick retired but, finally, the USA’s wait for a new high-end talent seems to be coming to an end.

  1. Kevin Anderson (RSA)

The South African is just another example of the fleeting nature of achievement in tennis. Anderson reached the top 10 in October 2015 a few weeks after dispatching Andy Murray at the US Open, yet 12 months later his situation has changed radically.

The 6’8’’ journeyman, who barrelled his way into relevancy on the strength of a pugnacious serve, was forced to withdraw or retire from more than a dozen events in 2016 due to several ailments (knee, shoulder, ankle, groin), losing almost three months after pulling out of the Australian Open. Upon returning to action, the 30-year-old suffered through some tough losses, chiefly in Wimbledon where he wasted a two-set advantage over Denis Istomin in the first round, and couldn’t get past the QF in six tries, including at Toronto’s Masters 1000, with his ranking plummeting to the 70’s, a place he last experienced in 2010. Will he rebound in 2017?

  1. Karen Khachanov (RUS)

A few months ago, this 20-year-old Russian was a complete unknown, however a late season charge grafted his name into this list. Khachanov failed to reach the main draw in the first three Grand Slams of the year but would take a set off Kei Nishikori in the second round at Flushing Meadows, a sign of things to come. After playing Challengers for most of the season, the Moscow-native stunned everyone by winning in Chengdu, leaving four top-35 players on his trail, and guaranteed a 46-spots jump on the rankings (from 101 to 55), entering “get to know” territory.

While Khachanov has only contested 32 matches at the ATP level, advancing to the QF’s in Kitzbühel and Vienna, he hails from another world power in search of a (men’s) tennis torch-bearer, thus expect his development to be closely monitored in 2017.

  1. Borna Ćorić (CRO)

Since his scalping of Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, the Croat has been regarded as a star in the making on the ATP Tour. He was the youngest top-100 finisher in 2014 and top-50 in 2015, but couldn’t make the next step this season despite a few landmarks.

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Young Croat Borna Coric scored a win against Rafael Nadal in 2016

Ćorić made his first ATP Tour Final appearance in Chennai on the dawn of the year, losing to Wawrinka, and later repeated the feat at Marrakech (l. to Federico Delbonis), yet his upmost attainment this season was becoming the youngest quarter-finalist in a decade on a Masters 1000 at Cincinnati, curiously defeating Nadal once again. However, the Croat fell in the 1st round on three Grand Slams (3rd round in RG) and was forced to shut down his season after a right knee surgery in September, missing selection to the Davis Cup Final and a chance to ride his season-record into positive territory (22W-24L). The promising 20-year-old ought to target a maiden ATP title and a top-30 breakthrough in 2017.

  1. Kyle Edmund (GBR)

While Andy Murray produced a banner-year for himself and the history of British Tennis, one of his teammates on the 2015 Davis Cup triumph took a few more steps on his upward trajectory. Kyle Edmund improved his final ranking for the fourth straight year, amassing 21 triumphs on a season where he reached his first ATP Tour SF, seeing off David Ferrer before losing to Richard Gasquet in Antwerp, and the 4th round of a Major, succumbing to Djokovic at the US Open.

The 21-year-old also advanced to the last eight three times, with Murray ending his run at Queens and Beijing, however he will be disappointed to leave 2016 without his first match victory on the holy grounds of Wimbledon, where he fell on the first hurdle for the fourth consecutive season. Definitely something to aim for in 2017, since a good first half of the season can deliver a seeded position.

  1. Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG)

Olé Olé Olé Olé DELPO, DELPO! Olé Olé Olé DELPO, DELPO! The tune bawled at every major court by the enthusiastic Argentinian fans at the sight of their hero left an indelible mark on the 2016 season.

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Juan Martin Del Potro’s played marvellously with his country’s colours this season

After competing in just five tournaments over the last two years due to persistent wrist problems, the Argentine returned to competition in February carrying a ranking outside the top 1000 and escalated all the way to the top-40 due to a bounty of beautiful moments.

Del Potro still missed the Australian Open and Roland Garros on the first half but would announce his presence at Wimbledon with a four-set triumph over Stan Wawrinka in the second round, a prelude to his heroics in Rio. Defending the bronze medal of London, he shocked Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to the final, forcing Andy Murray to play four hours before settling for silver. A few weeks later, Dominic Thiem was the latest prominent victim on his comeback trail but Wawrinka would get him back on the QF at Flushing Meadows, with the tables turning in relation to Murray on the Davis Cup SF, where Del Potro rescued a deciding rubber that took more than five hours.

“La Torre de Tandil” wasn’t yet satisfied and after capturing his first title since early 2014 in Stockholm – without conceding a set, no less – he exorcised the demons of a nation on an emotional Davis Cup Final, coming back from two sets down for the first time in his career to stun Marin Čilić and save the tie, contributing decisively to Argentina’s maiden trophy in the competition on the fifth Final appearance.

The 28-year-old was fairly named the 2016 ATP Comeback Player of the Year and tennis fans just can’t wait to see what’s in store next year for one of the most cherished players in the world.

  1. Alexander Zverev (GER)
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Alexander “Sasha” Zverev, one of the brightest young players on the ATP Tour

The youngest top-100 finisher of 2015 shot up the rankings this season, with his remarkable 44 wins landing the teenager a top-20 cameo in October, something not seen since Novak Djokovic did it in 2006.

The precocious Hamburg-born talent defeated top-20 opposition 10 times this season and he galloped those triumphs into a plethora of excellent results, including his maiden ATP Tour title, which arrived in St. Petersburg over “big-match player” Stan Wawrinka, two other final appearances (Nice and Halle) and three semi-finals (Montpellier, Munich, Washington). More impressively, his three deciders were played on three different surfaces, whereas he managed to hold his own on the Grand Slams, reaching the third round in Paris and Wimbledon after being trounced by Murray earlier in Melbourne. At age 19, “Sacha” Zverev is bound for another leap in 2017, when he should become a regular second-week feature at the Majors.

  1. Jack Sock (USA)

The 24-year-old is a slow-burner that may to be on the edge of a breakthrough year. For the sixth consecutive year, Sock improved his year-end ranking and win total to complete an entire season engraved inside the top-30, yet he’s looking for more.

The Nebraska-native was a runner-up at Auckland, Houston and Stockholm, but it was his play on higher-profile tournaments that sustains greater expectations, with Sock consistently picking up wins over top players in 2016, something he wasn’t able to achieve in years past (1-14 against top-10). He thrashed Marin Čilić in three sets before reaching the 4th round at the US Open for the first time, fell on the third round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and qualified for his first two Masters 1000 QFs late in the season, dumping Raonic in Shanghai and Dominic Thiem in Paris.

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Two-time medallist in Rio 2016, Jack Sock will be looking to climb the rankings in 2017

Additionally, he was the only tennis player (male or female) to leave the Rio Olympics with two medals, gold in mixed doubles and bronze in men’s doubles. It’s thus natural that Jack Sock’s confidence is on the rise and with the window to assert himself as USA’s No.1 player still wide open, he can quickly become dangerous to everyone.

  1. David Ferrer (ESP)

The extenuating style of play employed by the former World No.3 finally caught up with his body, and the Spaniard tumbled outside of the top-20 for the first time in seven years. Since 2005, Ferrer had always collected 40+ wins, including six consecutive 50+ wins seasons, yet he recorded just 36 in 2016 and failed to advance to a final for the first time in 12 years, falling short on title defences at Doha (1R), Rio de Janeiro (QF), Acapulco (2R) and Vienna (SF).

The 34-year-old still reached the QF at the Australian Open, losing to Murray, but after that couldn’t do better than the 4R on the clay of Roland Garros, accumulating an uncharacteristic six first round losses, no last eight appearances in Masters 1000 or victories over top-10 players. The industrious Valencian will probably slide further down the rankings before closing out a splendid career, which delivered so much more than his natural talent anticipated.

  1. Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)

The Bulgarian enjoyed a nice bounce back season following a 2015 where he struggled to build on his status as one of the game’s finest talents, a prominence crafted during a breakthrough 2014 season. Dimitrov escalated 11 positions from last year’s finish (from 28th to 17th) but most of the heavy lifting was left for the second half of the season.

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The exquisite tennis of Grigor Dimitrov was in full display in Beijing

The 25-year-old reached the Final in Sydney, was eliminated on the 3rd round in Melbourne Park by Roger Federer and produced solid showings until late April, yet after losing on the decider in Istanbul he hit a rough patch, being unable to earn a victory for almost two months.

Dimitrov broke the five-tournament winless streak at Wimbledon (3R) but still dropped to the 40th position before ramping up his efforts in the summer. He went to the QF in Toronto, then the SF in Cincinnati, rolling over Stan Wawrinka, and his campaign at New York was going well until Andy Murray showed up. The Scot would also halt his run at Beijing, taking the trophy after Dimitrov dumped out Rafael Nadal in the QF, yet he should be in joyful mood entering the new season. It’s entirely possible that, at age 25, the Bulgarian has finally found the maturity level necessary to consistently pile up good results and sustain a place amongst the elite.

  1. Roger Federer (SWI)

After logging so many miles over the last 18 years, maybe a season like this was simply in the cards for the Swiss legend.

The 17-time Grand Slam Champion still advanced to the Australian Open SF in January, but shortly after he damaged his knee on a freak accident while preparing a bath for his daughters, requiring surgery for the first time on his career. Federer recovered to play in Monte Carlo and Rome while clearly impaired and then, for the first time since 1999 (a total of 65 straight appearances), skipped a Grand Slam, missing Roland Garros to prepare a healthy return on the grass.

The new generation, symbolized by Dominic Thiem in Stuttgart and Alexander Zverev in Halle, kicked him out before Wimbledon but he still rebounded to display his majestic tennis in London, coming back from two sets down against Marin Čilić in the QF before being knocked off by Milos Raonic in a scintillating five set SF. However, the knee flared up again and thus that would be the last time the 35-year-old step on court in 2016, ending the season with just seven tournaments contested and no titles to his name for the first time since 2000!

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Roger Federer isn’t the No.1 anymore, but he still showcased his magic at Wimbledon in 2016

Federer only dropped from 3rd to 4th on the hierarchy in August, but the slide eventually took him outside of the top-10 in early November, ending a run of 734 weeks – over 14 years – among the very top of men’s tennis. Healthy and fully rested, Federer’s return will be one of the major storylines of 2017, as that elusive 18th Major still looms large on his dreams. How nice would look a picture of him lifting a record-breaking eight Wimbledon trophy before riding into the sunset?

  1. Lucas Pouille (FRA)

The Frenchman entered 2016 as a relative newcomer to the top-100 and closed the year chosen by his peers as the most improved player on the ATP Tour, capping a year of tremendous progress.

Dispatched by Raonic on the first round in Melbourne, Pouille drifted outside the top-80 until the clay season arrived, with a string of great performances, including a final run in Bucharest and a surprising SF campaign in Rome as a lucky-loser, putting him on the map and inside the top-50. The 22-year-old would then take down Del Potro in route to his first Grand Slam QF at Wimbledon before confirming his credentials at the US Open, reaching the same stage after winning three consecutive five set matches, the last one over Rafael Nadal.

A win of such magnitude resonated around the Tour and Pouille would still find a way to collect his maiden title in Metz before the calendar flipped. With 15 victories in 21 matches decided on a final set, a 4-0 record in fifth sets and five triumphs over top-10 opponents, Pouille proved his worth in pressure situations, warranting close scrutiny next season.

  1. Nick Kyrgios (AUS)

Tennis’s ultimate “bad boy” couldn’t escape a few more boorish episodes this season, adding novel entries into his personal list of shenanigans, yet 2016 mainly represented his affirmation inside the sport’s elite. The 21-year-old rose from 30th to 13th in the hierarchy to end the season as the youngest top-20 player, and he splattered vivid brushes of his explosive potential around the Tour all year long.

Kyrgios collected the first three ATP Tour titles of his career (Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo), with the path in France proving especially magnificent, since he held his serve throughout the week despite the challenges of Richard Gasquet, Tomáš Berdych and Marin Čilić. Among the Aussie’s 39 wins in 2016, a career-high, also deserve mention triumphs over Milos Raonic in Miami, on his way to a first Masters 1000 SF, and Stanislas Wawrinka in Madrid, with Kyrgios more than holding his own against the best in the World. He took 6 of 13 matches against top-10 players, but succumbed to Berdych in Melbourne, Gasquet in Paris and Andy Murray at Wimbledon, reaching the second week of a Grand Slam only once since he later retired at the US Open 3R.

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Nick Kyrgios earned his first ATP Tour titles in 2016

Kyrgios’ last title, in Japan, merited a career-high ranking but he failed to push even further after being suspended for blatantly tanking a match in Shanghai, ending the season once again under a storm of criticism and deflecting questions about his drive to succeed at the level his talent calls for. Will some clarity on his career endeavours be provided in 2017?

  1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)

Almost nine years after his thumping run to the 2008 Australian Open Final, we can safely assume the Frenchman won’t reach the heights many predicted at the time.

At age 31, Tsonga finished once again inside the top-15, but he keeps losing relevancy as a major tournament outside bet since injuries started taking a toll on his imposing athleticism and ability to produce fireworks off his forehand. That much was evident in 2016 as he withdrew from a slew of important events (Rome, Queen’s, Beijing), retired at Roland Garros (3R) and the US Open (QF), and couldn’t push through when time came to show his muscles, falling to Murray in 5 sets at Wimbledon’s QF, to Raonic on the QF of Paris’ Masters 1000, to Nishikori at Melbourne’s 4R, to Roberto Bautista Agut in the QF of Shanghai, or to Gaël Monfils in the SF of Monte Carlo.

All in all, Tsonga reached a single final, in Vienna (l. to Murray in straight sets), downed (a beat-up) Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and outlasted Nishikori in Paris before failing to ride the momentum.  It’s not a lot for a former World No. 5 with aspirations of regaining notoriety at a time a new generation is finally emerging.

  1. Tomáš Berdych (CZE)

Not unlike Tsonga, the Czech is another player whose best seasons seem to be on the rearview, with Berdych finishing outside of the Top-7 for the first time since 2010 but managing to hold his place on the Top-10.

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Tomáš Berdych renewed his title in Shenzhen

The 31-year-old successfully defended his title in Shenzhen to pick up his only trophy of 2016 yet was unable to reach another final on the year despite four other SF appearances, including at Wimbledon, where Andy Murray advanced in three quick sets. As has been the norm for much of his career, Berdych supplied what was expected of a player of his stature, reaching the QF at Melbourne and Roland Garros, as well as in four Masters 1000 (Miami, Madrid, Toronto and Paris), but couldn’t break through when facing the alpha males, losing three times with both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray plus once with Roger Federer.

His career tally against Top-10 players ballooned to 49 wins and 117 losses, which perfectly depicts a player that has been really good for a long time – Berdych is the only active player outside of the Big-Four to reach the SF in all four Grand Slams – but never truly great.

  1. Rafael Nadal (ESP)

The Spaniard returned to action in 2016 after missing the final months of the previous year but injuries never stopped being an ever-present concern on court, forcing Nadal to navigate cautiously through the first few months. Nonetheless, when the clay season arrived, he looked prepared to take flight, securing his ninth triumphs at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the two places where his aura matches Roland Garros. The 30-year-old was on his way to challenge for a first Grand Slam title since 2014, but his problematic wrist ceded once again, derailing his hopes in Paris and shoving him out for the next two months.

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Rafa Nadal played some of his best tennis of 2016 in Rio at the Olympics

Still, Nadal didn’t accept the prospect of missing a second consecutive Olympic tournament, and recovered in time to be the flagbearer of his country in Rio de Janeiro, trudging through an exhaustive run of 11 matches in 8 days to secure gold in men’s doubles and nearly add another medal in singles, with Del Potro and Nishikori prevailing in three-set battles on the SF and bronze-medal playoff.

The massive effort jeopardised the rest of the season as Nadal fell precociously in New York to end a year without a Grand Slam QF for the first time since 2004, yet he managed to qualify for the ATP Tour Finals for the 12th consecutive season, a tribute to his perseverance and astonishing level of performance in face of regular adversity.

  1. Dominic Thiem (AUT)

The young Austrian put the finishing touches on his breakthrough season by debuting on the ATP Tour Finals, closing the book on a lengthy season where he virtually competed week in week out.

In fact, among the Top 25, no player matched the 28 tournaments he entered, totalling 72 matches contested and 58 victories, a tally which tied Kei Nishikori’s and only trailed Djokovic and Murray. Despite such unwise scheduling, which resulted in more than a handful of retirements and withdrawals, Thiem enjoyed a highly successful campaign, taking four titles from three different surfaces (clay: Buenos Aires and Nice; hard courts: Acapulco, grass: Stuttgart), reaching two other finals (Munich, Metz), advancing to a Grand Slam SF for the first time at Roland Garros and displaying nerves of steel in decisive sets, where he mustered a sparkling return of 22 wins and just 3 losses.

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The 23-year-old broke into the Top-10 in June right after Paris, and stuck there for the rest of the season even if fatigue kicked in on the second half of the year, leading to a few lacklustre performances and the need to rely on the assists of others to qualify for London. Now positioned amongst the elite, Thiem should scale back his participation on ATP 250 tournaments in 2017, an important step towards targeting longer runs on the flagship events of the calendar.

  1.  Gaël Monfils (FRA)

“Lamonf” returned to the Top-10 for the first time since late 2011 on a season adorned by some of his most spectacular tennis, with the 30-year-old hopefully turning a corner on his career towards an injury-free period of consistent results against the best in the business.

The Frenchman conquered in Washington the biggest title of his career and also advanced to another final in Rotterdam, yet his most striking performances were saved for bigger stages. He didn’t drop a set on his way to the US Open SF, where he was ousted by Djokovic, reached the final of Monte Carlo, falling to Rafael Nadal, qualified for the SF of Toronto, and was one of the last eight men standing at Miami, Indian Wells, the Australian Open and the Olympics, a panoply unlike any other in years past of his career.

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Gaël Monfils flies at the 2016 Australian Open

Nevertheless, Monfils still struggled at times, with an untimely virus costing him Roland Garros and a rib injury limiting his play during the ATP Tour Finals, to which he qualified for the first time after ascending to a new career-high No. 6 in November. We already know Monfils’ unparalleled athleticism can defeat any opponent in a given day, but are we about to find out it can also be the foundation of a preeminent Top-5 player?

  1. Marin Čilić (CRO)

The most consistent season of the Croat’s career was, paradoxically, also a roller coaster of emotions, with a few milestones intercalated by devastating losses in high-stakes matches.

The surprising 2014 US Open Champion collected his first Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati, becoming the second-to-last man to defeat Andy Murray, captured his maiden ATP 500 tournament at Basel, finally beat Novak Djokovic  – in the Paris’ Masters –  on the 15th try and qualified for the ATP Tour Finals for a second time, yet he will mostly be remembered for what slipped away. With Roger Federer on the ropes, Čilić wasted 3 match points and a two-set advantage at Wimbledon’s QF, suffered the same fate in a Davis Cup QF rubber against Jack Sock, let Gaël Monfils turn the tide on the last 16 in Rio, and ultimately choked in Zagreb with the Davis Cup trophy in sight, allowing Juan Martin Del Potro to comeback from two sets down.

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Marin Čilić’s emotions run wild in several occasions this season

That’s a lot to chew up on the offseason, even if the 28-year-old amassed 49 wins while missing much of the clay season, finished the year on a career-high sixth position and won 7 of 12 bouts against top-10 players, breaking an 11-match losing streak on that front. What kind of mindset can we expect from Marin Čilić in 2017?

  1. Kei Nishikori (JPN)

On the second full season enmeshed inside the top-10, the slight Japanese continued to showcase top-five talent, colleting 58 wins, third-highest total in the ATP Tour, despite the usual setbacks related with fitness shortcomings and untimely injuries. Nishikori captured a single title, a three-peat in Memphis, but reached four other finals, surrendering his Barcelona crown to Rafael Nadal, failing to take revenge on Marin Čilić (from the 2014 US Open Final) at Basel and losing to Novak Djokovic on the Masters 1000 of Miami and Toronto.

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Kei Nishikori exhibits his flexibility during a match

Moreover, the 26-year-old conquered Japan’s first tennis medal in 96 years by leaving Rio with bronze, and also took positive steps on the Majors, advancing to the second week in every occasion. His signature victory on the year came in five sets over Andy Murray at the US Open QF and further sanctioned an incredible stat: Nishikori owns the best deciding-set win pct (+16 matches) in the Open Era (99-29, .773), attesting that his tremendous cadence is a fearsome weapon when he’s fit.

Therefore, if he’s able to hone his physical preparation (maybe Andy Murray can offer some tips), the sky’s the limit.

  1. Stan Wawrinka (SWI)

The Swiss’ late career resurgence acquired a new brilliant chapter in 2016 with a 3rd Grand Slam triumph, this time in New York, improving his record against the World No.1 in Major finals to 3-0 whilst elsewhere he’s yet to win once (0 in 20). Those numbers illuminate Wawrinka’s reputation as a force to be reckoned in the biggest stages and his ability to get in rampaging form, but also the struggles to figure out ways to execute week after week.

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Stan Wawrinka, the King of New York in 2016

The 31-year-old obtained multiple tournament victories on the year (Chennai, Dubai, Geneva) but also accumulated unexpected upsets by the likes of Jan-Lennard Struff, Mischa Zverev, Juan Mónaco or Andrey Kuznetsov, which means he finished a third consecutive season as World No. 4 despite boasting a single Masters 1000 on his résumé (Monte Carlo, 2014). Nonetheless, Stanimal’s defeats in the rest of the Majors were nothing to freak about (Raonic, 4R AO; Murray, SF RG; Del Potro 2R Wimbledon) and his 11-final win streak, snapped at St. Petersburg by Alexander Zverev, demonstrates his ability to turn it on when necessary.

After all, you don’t need to collect 60+ wins and pack up 7, 8, 9 titles per season to be a leading contender for a Major, and Wawrinka knows that, as he’s quietly one Major away from a career Grand Slam. You might as well just pencil him as the 2017 Wimbledon winner.

  1. Milos Raonic (CAN)

The Canadian started the year by slaying Roger Federer in the Brisbane Final and never looked back, improving by leaps and bounds to end the season as a worthy No.3 player in the World despite a single tournament win to his name and a difficult couple of months (September – October)

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Milos Raonic’s improvements were in full display throughout 2016

The 25-year-old amassed his first 50+ win season by reaching the last eight at seven of nine Masters 1000 (except Shanghai and Rome) and advancing to four finals, but lacked silverware mainly because he kept running into the pesky Andy Murray. The Brit came out on top at the Australian Open SF, on Raonic’s maiden Grand Slam Final at Wimbledon, on the Final at Queen’s, and, lastly, at the ATP Tour Finals SF, where the Canadian wasted a match point, yet Raonic seldom looked overmatched.

Now much more than a tremendous server, the remarkable evolution of Raonic’s all-around game is a testament to the hard-working nature of a player who incessantly strives to maximize his potential, and the best may still yet to come. Perhaps, already in 2017.

  1. Novak Djokovic (SRB)

The 2016 season was a tale of two halves for the Serbian superstar, who romped through the season in a form reminiscent to 2011 and 2015, but along the way lost his balance and eventually relinquished the lead on the ATP rankings.

Djokovic demolished Rafael Nadal in Doha at the onset of the year, conquered the Australian Open for the sixth time, swept Indian Wells and Miami for the third year in a row, and finally reigned at Roland Garros to complete the career Grand Slam and hold all four majors at once, but things strangely fell apart after that.

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Novak Djokovic finally secured Roland Garros’ iconic Coupe des Mousquetaires

The 29-year-old’s steely resolve just wasn’t there at Wimbledon and the shocking loss to Sam Querrey in the third round triggered a final few months permeated with atypical presentations. There was the heartbreak on the first round in Rio against Juan Martin Del Potro, a subpar showing on the US Open final, allowing Stan Wawrinka to take over after the first set, and the sudden tumbles in Shanghai and Paris against Roberto Bautista Agut and Marin Čilić. The last hiccup, coupled with a rival on an absolute tear, determined the change at the top, something no one would dare to predict just a few months earlier.

In London, with year-end supremacy on the line, Djokovic was beaten squarely by Murray and the following offseason period has already brought a coaching shakeup. With Nadal and Federer back on the Tour and Murray on top of his game, what Djokovic can we expect to watch next year? The ruthless, nearly-unbeatable version that went on a preposterous sequence of 17 straight finals between 2015 and 2016, or the disengaged self that had no answers to Murray at the Finals?

  1. Andy Murray (SCO GBR)

Seven years after first becoming the World No.2, Andy Murray finally arrived to the peak of the mountain, culminating an incredible season with the cherry on top: a commanding victory over Novak Djokovic on the ATP Tour Finals decider, just his second triumph on the pairs’ last 15 encounters.

That was an unforeseen outcome for a year which started with the Serbian holding the trophy at Melbourne as Murray lost his fifth Australian Open final, and saw the Scot take some time to gain traction, dropping out of Indian Wells and Miami early, before facing Djokovic in consecutive finals in Madrid and Rome. Murray earned a split by winning in the Italian capital and then pushed the envelope at Roland Garros, eventually fading but setting the scene for a stunning turnaround of fortunes.

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Andy Murray celebrates one of his triumphs en route to a second consecutive Olympic gold medal

The Glasgow-native then racked up 22 straight victories to conquer Queens, his third Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, and an unprecedented back-to-back singles gold medal at the Olympics, yet Marin Čilić crashed the party at Cincinnati and later Kei Nishikori would prevail at the US Open QF, surely ending Murray’s dream of challenging Novak Djokovic lead this year.

Not really. It would take a monumental unbeaten run of 24-matches and five-tournaments (Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris Masters, ATP Tour Finals) but Murray pulled off the improbable, finishing off by defeating the World No.5, 3, 4 and 2 in succession. Once derided by his fellow Islanders as a grumpy Scot that couldn’t close it out in the big moments, Murray is now in the conversation as the greatest ever British sportsman. After so many stretches when he was overshadowed by three of the game’s greatest of all-time, he thoroughly deserves to relish this moment and enjoy the experience of being the man to beat.

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Andy Murray, the best tennis player in the world in 2016, holds the ATP Tour Finals trophy

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.

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)