WTA Tour

What I’m thankful for in 2017

I closed the books in 2016 with a piece on the sports-related items that enhanced my life in some capacity throughout the preceding twelve months, and since the goal was always to circle back to it at every calendar turn, here I am again.

Obviously, there’s no fun in rehashing the same subjects over and over again, therefore, with full admission that living in the same age of Lionel Messi or being able to enjoy the tail end of Jaromír Jágr’s career (just to name two examples from last year’s list) is still an absolute pleasure, this time I had to tweak my approach to capture more of the year in hand and what has brought a smile to my face. This was much easier starting from a clean slate, but after a lot of indecision I eventually decided to go way overboard on a handful of paramount choices and then rattle off a few more, leaving the door open to explore the latter on another opportunity if justified.

All right, that’s more than enough talk, time to say graces before welcoming 2018:

Sports activism

Although the blend of politics and sports has been a perennial point of contention for decades, it’s fair to say that in few instances have we seen so many sports figures join the public discourse, advocate for what they believe and express strong personal views on complex, troublesome subjects.

In a time of societal unrest and with social media serving as a powerful amplifier, it was inspiring and, more notably, extremely important that NFL players stood (or knelt) together, in a peaceful manner, to bring attention to racial inequality and brutality against minorities. But also that basketball superstars with worldwide followings like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry took the lead to confront bigotry and social injustice, risking the ire of fans, their reputations, marketing opportunities and, ultimately, a lot of money. Or “rich, white male dudes”, such as prominent NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, eloquently expressed their opposition to the causes supported by their right-wing employers. That a behemoth like the NBA delivered a loud statement against discriminatory legislation by pulling its All-Star Game from the state of North Carolina. That hundreds of athletes, including those that have to battle every day to make ends meet in “niche” sports, weren’t shy about sticking their neck out and showing disgust for the buffoon inhabiting the White House and his ilk.

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans in September (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The USA and civil rights issues, for the reasons we all know, proved the rallying center for the most high-profile demonstrations of 2017, yet it would be foolish not to prolong this point to include another bubbling matter which surfaced under much dimmer lights as athletes came together to demand change. We’re talking about gender discrimination, with women’s sports’ increasing status and relevance fuelling significant breakthroughs, especially in team sports, which historically have lagged behind individual disciplines in such issues.

Building on the US Women’s football (soccer) team’s suit against wage prejudice that gave way to an improved collective bargaining agreement, their ice hockey counterparts threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship if demands for a fairer pay scale, and equitable support on wide-ranging matters such as youth development, equipment, travel accommodations, and marketing weren’t met. Standing together and supported by the unwillingness of professional, amateur and youth players to break rank, they succeeded in the boardrooms (and later on the ice) and inspired football teams throughout the world to fight for better conditions. The results were significantly improved working and financial pacts for players in countries such as Argentina, Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria, Denmark, Ghana, Ireland and New Zealand, and a ground-breaking deal in Norway, where the national federation devised a deal that’s (essentially) equal for the men’s and women’s national teams.

The USA ice hockey women’s national team triumphed on and off the ice in 2017.

More examples of sports figures making a difference could be cited, including the athletes, Olympic Champions et all, that jumped out of the shadows and to the forefront of the on-going movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment, nonetheless, as a sports aficionado and fan of many referenced above, the bottom line is my appreciation for all the men and women who decided to wield their (enormous) influence and lay so much on the line so that future generations could benefit from a fairer, inclusive, united and more generous sports world and society. May more join them in 2018, when a major event such as the FIFA World Cup will be contested in a country known for dubious human rights practices….

2017 UEFA Women’s European Championship

As a sports fan, few things give me more pleasure than following a major event from start to finish, taking note of the trends emerging over the weeks of competition, the ups-and-down in performance, who rises and falls along the way, which teams burn under the pressure or defy expectations. At the women’s Euro 2017, I could do it all and beyond. Prepare diligently and grow excited as the tournament kick-off drew closer, sit back and watch every minute of action in the Netherlands building up to a riveting Final, and revel in the aftermath as conclusions were drawn and the best of the best celebrated.


Thousands celebrated the Dutch Women’s National Team in Utrecht after victory at the Euro 2017.

A three week period I will cherish because it represented the first international appearance for my nation, and the chance to experience the pulsating orange throngs that lifted Lieke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Vivianne Miedema and alike to victory, however my investment was rewarded by so much more. The unflinching self-belief of Pernille Harder as she hauled the Danes to the Final. The dogged determination of underdogs Austria. The Dutch footballing lecture instructed on favourites England in Enschede. The Earth-shattering end of Germany’s titanic reign. The decline of Sweden, a reality-check for the ambitious Spain and yet another French fiasco. The reunion with Icelandic fans. Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland), Tessa Wullaert (Belgium) and Caroline Weir (Scotland) waving goodbye too early, and the acrid tears exuded by Caroline Graham Hansen, Ada Hederberg and Norway.

Truth be told, there was no team that failed to struck a chord (even you, Russia), no game I desired to shut down or moment I preferred to skip. Gosh, I’ll say it: the 2019 World Cup can’t come soon enough.

The 2017 WTA Tour season

On a year that, for many tennis fans, was all about the return of Rafa and Roger to the top of the game, the female Tour quietly produced a remarkable season that oozed unpredictability, upsets and compelling narratives.

Back in January, the fact that Serena Williams collected an Open era, record-breaking 23rd career Grand Slam in Melbourne hardly caught anyone by surprise, but that would soon change with news of her on-going pregnancy, and as the Queen left the stage to join the onlookers, the windfall of remarkable incidents started to transpire on a weekly basis.

The swift eclipse of Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitová’s incredible recovery after the gruesome attack that damaged the tendons in her left hand. The perplexing hiccups of Simona Halep with the World No.1 on the line and the brief stints on-the job for Karolína Plíšková and Garbiñe Muguruza. The teenage naivety of Jeļena Ostapenko en route to the title at Roland Garros, and Sloane Stephens’ lightning journey from foot rehab to the US Open throne. Johanna Konta’s journey in front of her compatriots in Wimbledon, Elina Svitolina’s breakthrough season capped with a WTA-best five titles, and Caroline Wozniacki’s successive slips at the final hurdle until she found redemption in Singapore. The late season explosion of Caroline Garcia at the same time compatriot (and recent foe) Kiki Mladenovic crumbled to pieces. The universal reverence of Venus Williams, a stunning two-time Grand Slam Finalist and WTA Finals’ runner-up at age 37.

Sloane Stephens surprising triumph at the US Open was just one of the many great stories of the WTA Tour in 2017 (Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Through four contrasting Grand Slam winners and seven major finalists, five different World leaders, and plenty of movement in and out of the top-ten, it was a banner campaign for the WTA Tour which few cared to enjoy. I sure did.

The IIHF World Junior Championships

It’s closing on a decade that my holiday season is engrossed by the brightest young prospects in hockey and the tournament that matches the U-20 elite of the world never stops to daze. Understandably, many disregard the event as just another youth tournament packed with kids that won’t ever reach the highest ranks of the sport, but I prefer to look at it as a great opportunity to fill some dark, winter hours with fast, electric hockey played by talented individuals whose inexperience leads to action-packed, captivating encounters spiced up by national pride.

Moreover, simply by taking the plunge, I improve my personal hockey database and, with every passing edition, get to engrave some instant classics in it, most courtesy of the NHL superstars of tomorrow.

American John Carlson beats Canadian goaltender Martin Jones for the overtime game winning goal at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships Final (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

Don’t believe me? Take a gander at this collection, just off the top of my head: the heroics of John Tavares and Jordan Eberle in Ottawa 2009; the overtime snipe of John Carlson in Saskatoon 2010; Evgeni Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko leading Russia’s stunning comeback from a three-goal disadvantage to Canada in Buffalo 2011; Mika Zibanejad breaking the deadlock in OT in Calgary 2012; the impervious John Gibson stealing the show in Ufa 2013; Rasmus Ristolainen shocking a loaded Swedish team in Malmo 2014; Connor McDavid erupting late in Montreal 2015 to power Canada to a first title in six years; Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho running circles around the opposition in Helsinki 2016; Thomas Chabot and Charlie McAvoy going head to head in Toronto 2017 as the Americans stole gold north of the border once again. Not bad, eh? I recommend you jump on the fun ahead of the 2018 knockout rounds scheduled for Buffalo in a few days.

Sports writing

I enjoy reading and it’s only natural that I also derive major satisfaction from dipping into thoughtful, insightful, well-written sports pieces. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of that around the World Wide Web, and since I intend to compile a list of the best sports reads of 2018 to pluck in here, might as well just mention a few personal favourites (English, only).

Due to its global reach, the football writing community is one of the most diverse and prolific, but I’m still to find a better place than These Football Times for long-form articles on the beautiful game from an historical and/or modern perspective. Additionally, In Bed with Maradona (IBWM), on the interception of football and culture, and Outside the Boot, with excellent youth prospects and tactical analysis, are great resources to tap on, while staying updated on Gabriele Marcotti’s musings on international football is something I try to do.

In hockey media, few write better features than Alex Prewitt at Sports Illustrated, but Kristina Rutherford and her Sportsnet colleagues come close. Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column is an essential weekly read for any NHL fan, Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown) cracks me up time and time again, and Dimitri Filipovic is my favourite among the analytics-inclined gang (also, his work is not behind The Athletic’s paywall, like so many of his counterparts, which is nice).

For all-things tennis, Jon Wertheim (SI) is my go-to-guy, especially his weekly mailbag write-up, and I’ll invariably make the time when Louisa Thomas dabbles into the sport. Finally, Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur always strikes the nail whatever is the subject of his daily column, and you can’t go wrong with anything published at The Players Tribune.

Rapid Fire

The (Winter) Olympics to come; Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and his midfield maestro, Kevin de Bruyne; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić, the new kings of European Basketball; Tom Dumoulin, shaking cycling’s World Tour one step at a time; Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, the present and future of swimming; PK Subban and Nashville’s flourishing hockey scene; Two-time Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel (sorry, not sorry); Juan Martin Del Potro and his flair for the dramatic; Karsten Warholm, Europe’s new track star; Jackie Groenen, the Dutch “Ant”; the half-pirouettes and no-look passes of Isabelle Gulldén (recency bias, wee).

Tom Dumoulin, of the Netherlands, holds up the trophy after winning the Giro d’Italia. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

My teams

What’s better than hitting the jackpot once? Doing it twice. In consecutive years. Even if, as privileged as I feel for what happened over the last two seasons, the taste of the latest months is one I want to eschew. Quickly.


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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Angelique Kerber (GER)

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

  1. Serena Williams (USA)

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

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

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

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

  1. Agnieszka Radwańska (POL)

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

  1. Simona Halep (ROU)

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

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

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

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

  1. Dominika Cibulková (SVK)

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

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

The last smile of the season belonged to Dominika Cibulková

The final smile of the season belonged to Dominika Cibulková

  1. Karolína Plíšková (CZE)

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

  1. Garbiñe Muguruza (SPA)

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

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

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

  1. Madison Keys (USA)

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

  1. Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS)

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

  1. Johanna Konta (GRB)

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

  1. Petra Kvitová (CZE)

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

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

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

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

  1. Victoria Azarenka (BLR)

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

  1. Venus Williams (USA)

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

  1. Roberta Vinci (ITA)

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

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

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

  1. Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)

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

  1. Caroline Garcia (FRA)

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

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

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

  1. Monica Puig (PUR)

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

  1. Sloane Stephens (USA)

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

  1. Naomi Osaka (JAP)

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Eugenie Bouchard (CAN)

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

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

Lucie Šafářová struggled throughout 2016

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

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

  1. Ana Ivanović (SRB)

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

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

Is Ana Ivanovic’s head drifting apart from tennis?

  1. Catherine Bellis (USA)

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

  1. Sabine Lisicki (GER)

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

The WTA Tour in 2015 – Ups and downs

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

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

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

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

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

Garbiñe Muguruza (up)

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

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

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

Petra Kvitova (down)

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

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

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

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

Timea Bacsinszky (up)

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

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

Timea Bacsinszky’s season has been one to remember

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

Maria Sharapova (down)

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

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

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

Madison Keys (up)

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

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

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

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

Lucie Safarova (up)

Lucie Safarova was the runner-up at Roland Garros

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

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

Eugenie Bouchard (down)

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

A fair depiction of Eugenie Bouchard’s 2015 season

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

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

Victoria Azarenka (up)

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

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

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

Simona Halep (down)

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

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

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

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

Carla Suárez Navarro (up)

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

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

Serena Williams (up)

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

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

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

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

Quick(er) strikes:

Agnieska Radwanska (down)

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

Karolina Plískova (up)

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

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

Angelique Kerber (up)

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

Elina Svitolina, Belinda Bencic (up)

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

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

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

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

WTA Finals Preview

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

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

Red Group

Serena Williams (1)

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

Simona Halep (4)

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

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

Eugenie Bouchard (5)

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

The Canadian dazzled at the Australian Open in January

Ana Ivanovic (7)

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

White Group

Maria Sharapova (2)

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

Petra Kvitova (3)

Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon for the second time

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

Agnieszka Radwanska (6)

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

Agnieszka Radwanska, eternal underachiever?

Caroline Wozniacki (8)

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

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