2014 BSA's: The Power of More than One
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Umm, and vice versa.
Hmmm, what to make of the 2014 WTA season? And, even more so, how to sift through the odd happenings to determine the true "Ms. Backspin" honoree for Player of the Year? It's been quite a game of musical chairs... or is it hot potato?
Rarely has a WTA campaign been so difficult to get a firm handle on. In January, Li Na won the Australian Open and '14 seemed as if it might finally become the grand coronation to her career that had always eluded her. Ultimately, the coronation came... but so did her retirement at the end of the summer. Maria Sharapova dominated the clay court season again, but failed to end her decade-long drought against Serena Williams and couldn't end her season on a high note by re-claiming the #1 ranking. Petra Kvitova won another Wimbledon title, but battled her inconsistencies throughout the year before rising to the occasion once more in the Fed Cup final. Meanwhile, Serena was still looking for her first '14 Round of 16 result in a major this season when she arrived in New York. She won there, "saving" her season, but not totally erasing the bad taste of "B"-level (or worse) Serena that had ruled the day in Melbourne, Paris and London.
In the end, it seems perfectly fitting that not only did four different women lift major title trophies this season, but eight reached the finals at the four grand slams, something which had only happened once in the Open era, in 1977. Throw in the fact that the most consistent grand slam performers -- Simona Halep and Genie Bouchard -- failed to actually win their first major crowns, while Ana Ivanovic led (or placed second to Serena) the tour in a handful of categories, but is still looking for her first slam semifinal result since 2008, and you have a season where what would normally be the "usual suspects" in the POY debate all have a few too many legitimate arguments against them to truly seem to have "earned" the designation.
It made for an exciting, unpredictable season. But who was truly worthy of Player of the Year? And, really, was anyone? Or was 2014 one of those sort of indefinable seasons that beg for a shared "Ms. Backspin" award that honored something more substantial, though less tangible, than simple, old fashioned individual accomplishment?
Here are the final "Ms. Backspin" rankings for 2014:
1. Czech Fed Cup Team
...in the end, the Czech Republic's third Fed Cup championship in the last four years was elementary. Petra Kvitova's three-hour triumph over Angelique Kerber in Match #3 clinched a singles sweep in Prague for the Maidens, and the celebration was on. Oh, but it all came so close to not happening at all.
It's easy to forget now, but the Czechs' run to the the '14 title nearly short-circuited barely after it'd kicked off. In February, with team leader Kvitova out with a respiratory illness, the Czechs faced off with the Spaniards in a 1st Round tie on the road in Seville. Not only was Kvitova out, but Czech #2 Lucie Safarova was also limited due to illness, being scheduled to only possibly be able to play doubles (if necessary) on the weekend. But Mother Nature intervened. Rain marred both days of action over the weekend, as it took six hours to complete a 52- minute match (won by Spain's Carla Suarez-Navarro over replacement -for- a- replacement Barbora Zahlavova -Strycova) on Saturday. With just one match in the books for Day 1, Day 2 didn't even achieve that less -than- lofty goal, and only a set and two games were completed in Match #2 before things were called off and the tie was extended to a third day.
On Monday, after Klara Koukalova finished off Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor (but not until after dropping six straight games from the jump to allow the Spaniard to erase her 6 -3/2- 0 lead and send things to a 3rd set) to level the score at 1-1, CSN again gave the Spaniards the lead with a victory over Koukalova, as the Czech was forced to play back-to-back matches. With the extra time to recuperate once again making her available to Captain Petr Pala on the singles bench, Safarova was called into action to save the day. As was the case in the '12 final when a recently-bedridden Kvitova couldn't gather the energy to pull off her customary two-victory performance, Safarova rose to the occasion, downing Silvia Soler-Espinosa in three sets to send things to the deciding doubles match. In Match #5, with Czechs' Andrea Hlavackova & BZS trailing CSN & SSE 6-5 in the 1st set tie-break, Hlavackova shanked an easy volley, seemingly putting the Czechs down once again in the tie, only to be surprised to see her shot catch a line on Spain's side of the net and knot the score at 6-6, saving a second set point.
The rest, as they say, is history. From that point forward, the Czechs dominated Fed Cup for the remainder of 2014.
Hlavackova & BZS won the tie-break 9-7, then took the 2nd set 6-3 to clinch a 3-2 road win over Spain and send the Maidens to a sixth straight FC semifinal. In the spring, with Kvitova and Safarova back in full force, the Czech Republic destroyed the defending champion Italian squad on a home indoor hard court in Ostrava, winning in a 4-0 sweep. It was the fourth meeting between the two nations in the last five years, and in each of the previous meetings the winner would ultimately be crowned Fed Cup champs for the season. The trend continued in '14.
By the time Kvitova defeated Kerber to secure the title with a 3-0 advantage in the final tie against Germany, since CSN had given Spain a 2-1 advantage in the 1st Round nine months earlier, the Czechs had won nine straight matches (7-0 in singles, 2-0 in doubles). The string only ended when Germany won a "dead rubber" doubles match to officially make the score 3-1 in the final. As the Maidens danced around the court, once again, in celebration of a Fed Cup final triumph, the memory of what almost happened back in February couldn't help but linger, along with the notion of the teamwork and never-give-up attitude it took for the Czechs to get there. In all, five different women had a hand in notching match wins in three 2014 FC ties, including all four team members in the multiple comebacks it took to prevail over Spain in the first outing of the season.
In a season when up sometimes seemed like down, and down was often shoulder-to-shoulder with up, the Czechs proved that the true strength of 2014 came in numbers. And their names were Petra, Lucie, Klara, Barbora and Andrea. All for one, and one for all... and that's good enough for me to bestow this year's "Ms. Backspin" upon each and every contributing member of the Czech Fed Cup team.
In the end, after so many questions, it just feels like the right thing to do.
2. Serena Williams, USA
...it'd only be speculation at this moment, but at some point down the road we'll know if 2014 revealed the first true signs of vulnerability in the dominance of Williams, now 33 and breaking her own record as the oldest WTA #1 ever with each passing day, or whether it was just a slight dip in results (by HER standards... and that is a very BIG distinction) that will soon be followed by a total reassertion of her end of the "Greatest of All Time" conversation during the upcoming season and, at least for a little while longer, beyond.
The fact is, though, while Serena's '14 campaign was less sturdy and awe-aspiring from pillar to post than her previous 18-month run of perfect "Serenativity," even part of its whole would qualify as an out-of-this-world, never-dreamed-it-possible career year for 99% of the players on tour over the last few decades, save for a few named Martina, Chris, Steffi and such. Serena went 52-8, winning seven titles to lead the tour for a third straight season (she's won 25 titles from 2012-14). Over the first half of the year, Williams won in Brisbane, taking her fourth straight event to run her match-winning streak dating back to last season to 22 matches (it would grow to 25 in a row), claimed her record seventh Miami crown and won in Rome. She was still #1 in the world, but the most prevalent aspect of Serena's season was what she had NOT done. Namely, put up a good result in a major. She'd been bounced in the Round of 16 in the Australian Open by Ana Ivanovic, then suffered her worst career slam loss against Garbine Muguruza (winning just four games) in the 2nd Round at Roland Garros. She'd also been surprisingly beaten in Dubai and Wimbledon by Alize Cornet, and by Jana Cepelova in Charleston. Then, her puzzling, dazed and confused retirement from her SW19 doubles match with sister Venus -- Serena had difficulty keeping her balance, and even bouncing and catching a tennis ball -- left the world wondering just what was wrong with Williams. She blamed the incident on a viral illness, squirreled herself away for a bit, then came out and "saved" her season.
After Wimbledon, Serena won nineteen of her next twenty matches, losing only to Venus, as she took titles in Stanford and Cincinnati (one of the few big events she'd yet to win in her career), claimed her second straight U.S. Open Series and put away her 18th career singles slam (tying Navratilova and Evert on the Open era list) in Flushing Meadows, becoming the first woman to three-peat as the U.S. Open champ since Evert won four in a row from 1975-78. Even with her fifth career Open title in hand, Williams still had to sweat out the year-end #1 ranking. After another loss (via retirement) to Cornet in Wuhan, making the Pastry the first player to best Serena three times in a season since Justine Henin in '07, and a walkover exit in Beijing, Serena arrived at the WTA Finals in Singapore engaged in a three-player battle with Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova for year-end #1. The Russian and Czech both went 1-2 and failed to get out of round robin play, while Serena went 2-1 but suffered the worst loss of her career, a 6-0/6-2 drubbing at the hands of Simona Halep. Ironically, it was the Romanian's unwillingness to "play the system" that allowed Williams to slip into the semifinals, as Halep grabbed one set in her final RR outing against Ana Ivanovic and handed Serena the tie-break advantage over the Serb to advance her through. After winning an 8-6 3rd set tie-break over Caroline Wozniacki in the SF, Williams found her conqueror/savior Halep waiting for her in the final. It wasn't a contest, as the Swarmette uncharacteristically bent to Serena's will as Williams won 6-3/6-0 to take her fifth career year-ending event title, and her third consecutive.
Serena's fourth season-ending #1 ranking is her first back-to-back claiming of the honor. She'll enter 2015 with 221 weeks in the top position, good for fourth on the all-time WTA list behind Graf (377), Navratilova (331) and Evert (260). And thus ended Serena's sometimes-fabulous, more often restless, 2014 season. A somewhat salty follow up to the sweet, affirming success she'd attained the previous two seasons. It could be that the pressure of maintaining her level of success frayed Williams' nerves a bit this past season, as even she can't be expected to be in top form always and forever.
Hmmm, then again, when it comes to Serena, well... who knows?
3. Maria Sharapova, RUS
...the Russian is the most dependable player on tour. You can be rest assured that she'll never "mail in" a performance, nor ever not give it her all. It's an on-court template and temperament that should be as readily aspired to by young players as is Sharapova's off-court plan for success.
In 2014, returning to action for the first time since August '13 after recovering from a recurrence of her shoulder issues last season, Sharapova seamlessly rebounded to add layers to her Hall of Fame career in the tenth anniversary season of her breakout, Wimbledon-winning campaign of 2004 at age 17. In all, she gathered four singles titles, her largest haul since 2006, including high-level Premier events in Madrid and Beijing (only Serena, with three Premier wins, had more), as well as a second title at Roland Garros two years after she'd completed a Career Slam in Paris in '12. Once more, she dominated the clay season, going 19-1, winning her third straight title in Stuttgart, defeating a pair of Top 5 players in Madrid, and coming back from a set down to win three matches at RG, then winning a fourth straight three-setter by taking the "instant classic," three-hour final against Simona Halep. The Russian has now won twenty consecutive three-set matches on clay.
While Sharapova failed to notch a second QF-or-better slam result this season, she was consistent, reaching the Round of 16 in Melbourne, London and New York. Actually, her consistency runs far deeper than that. She sports the longest active Top 10 streak, which will hit 196 weeks as the 2015 season begins, and trails only Serena (8) on tour with five straight seasons with multiple titles. Sharapova tops the active list for consecutive years with at least one title, with her wins this season extending her run to twelve years. Only WTA players named Navratilova, Evert and Graf have put together longer streaks in their careers.
One thing that Sharapova, nor any Russian woman, has never accomplished is to finish a season at #1. Heading into the WTA Finals in Singapore, though, Sharapova had a chance to do it this year after having had no points to defend in the second half of the season due to her late '13 absence. But she failed to grab the opportunity, with her lingering difficulty with ill-timed double-faults going a long way toward cementing her disappointing 1-2 mark in round robin play, though she did manage to split a pair of matches that were in contention for Match of the Tournament, losing to Caroline Wozniacki, but defeating Aga Radwanska in a pair of three-setters.
In the end, Sharapova finished the season at #2, her third such finish in her career. Perhaps a win over #1 Williams might have made all the difference, but the American's decade of head-to-head dominance continued as she won both of their meetings in straight sets. Since losing to Sharapova in the Wimbledon and WTA Championships finals in '04, Serena has defeated her fifteen straight times, with the Russian having not won a set in their last eleven match-ups since 2010.
But not-uncommon issues when it comes to defeating Serena aside, 2014 was quite a year for Sharapova. On the court, she was more than solid, while off it she even cracked the door ever so slightly on her personal life, engaging in a very public romance with ATP star Grigor Dimitrov, joining (and showing her sense of humor) on Instagram and growing her business brand by traveling the world to publicize her seemingly-instantly-successful line of Sugarpova candy, as she continues to do the necessary groundwork to secure her continued worldwide presence and success in her post-tennis career. As usual, Sharapova is laying down the footsteps that many young players will attempt to walk in.
In the words of one Vika Azarenka, "Good luck with that."
4. Petra Kvitova, CZE
..."Oh, Petra." It's the mantra of the Gods. The Tennis Gods, that is... as well as everyone else gripped by the exhilarating highs and frustrating lows of Kvitova's career.
Good Petra and Bad Petra are always invited to the court when the Czech is scheduled to play, we just don't generally know which one will show up. Or if they'll clandestinely change places during the course of a match, sometimes more than once. Make no mistake, though, that when Kvitova is good, she's really good. In fact, when she's "on," especially at Wimbledon, Petra is, quite simply, the "belle of the tennis ball." No player on tour gets the sort of dizzying plaudits and spurs talk of bludgeoning dominance like Kvitova when she reaches her full potential on the lawns of the AELTC, which she did for the second time in her career this summer, destroying Eugenie Bouchard in the final to grab her second career slam win. It was the unquestioned high point of the Czech's '14 campaign, but not her only one.
In all, Kvitova took home three singles titles, adding wins in New Haven and Wuhan (where, again, she def. Bouchard) to her SW19 spoils, then wrapped up her season by going 2-0 on final weekend and leading the Czech Fed Cup team to a third championship in four years, for the first time clinching the title herself in a three-hour win over Germany's Angelique Kerber in front of a home crowd in Prague. But, being Petra, she experienced her share of lowlights. She began her slam season by being upset in the 1st Round of the Australian Open by Luksika Kumkhum, and had early 3rd Round exits at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open (the latter of which where she was Aleksandra Krunic's final upset victim). A respiratory illness kept her out of the Czech's team 1st Round FC tie with Spain, an absence which very nearly dashed the squad's title hopes before they'd even begun. Similarly, she came with two points of defeat in the Wimbledon 3rd Round against Venus Williams, only to survive and then crush what was left of the field on her way to victory.
The notion of Good vs. Bad Petra is even more clear when viewed through the differences between the hard-serving lefty's start to the season (a mediocre 11-7) and her hard-charging back-half (32-9). After going 2-4 against Top 20 players before Wimbledon, with three losses to players outside the Top 80, once Kvitova arrived in London she kicked off a stretch over which she'd go 6-5 against the Top 20 and suffer just two losses outside the Top 10 (to #145 Krunic and #39 Elina Svitolina). Kvitova arrived in Singapore for the WTA Finals on a 14-2 run and with a shot at finishing at #1 for the season, but went 1-2 in round robin play. Still, even with Bad Petra seizing control, Good Petra made an appearance in a win over Maria Sharapova that ended the Czech's five-match losing streak against the Russian (with the last coming in the Beijing final a week after Kvitova had won in Wuhan).
Kvitova ended the season at #4, her fourth straight Top 8 finish and her best since being #2 in 2011. She'll arrive on 2015's doorstep looking to finally pick up where she left off in 2012, when Kvitova seemed ready to contend for #1, additional slams and prove correct all those compliments hurled her way in London the previous summer. Turned out, she wasn't quite emotionally ready for the challenge. This time, she just might be. If so, look out world, here she comes.
5. Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
6. Simona Halep, ROU
7. Li Na, CHN
8. Eugenie Bouchard, CAN
...the best, and most stable, doubles team in women's tennis now, without question, consists of Errani & Vinci. In 2014, they added an additional adjective: historic. The Italians opened the season by defending their Australian Open title, but that wasn't even their biggest grand slam result of the season. Picking up a fifth slam title since 2012, their win at Wimbledon made them the sixth women's duo to complete a Career Slam. While they failed to hold onto their co-#1 ranking for the full season (conceding the spot for twenty weeks from February to July), they still ultimately finished the season there for the second straight year (for Vinci, a third consecutive) after nabbing five total titles, including big Premier wins in Madrid and Montreal, and reached the Roland Garros final. Over the course of the '14 season, Errani & Vinci notched wins over nearly every other top doubles team, from Makarova/Vesnina and Black/Mirza, to Peschke/Srebotnik, Muguruza/Suarez-Navarro, Kops-Jones/Spears and Hingis/Pennetta (a combined 9-5). Only victories over Hsieh/Peng and Kudryavtseva/Rodionova (0-2) eluded them. While they failed to reach a semifinal in their final five events, the Italians more than balanced that out in '14 with a pair of eleven-match win streaks, four consecutive finals from May to June (2-2), as well as two other back-to-back final runs (3-1). As 2015 begins, Vinci will have held the doubles #1 ranking for ninety-six weeks, just fifteen behind Arantxa Sanchez Vicario for the sixth most all-time. Errani will begin next season with seventy-three total weeks in the top spot.
Speaking of history. Halep, The Pride of Romania, has firmly planted herself in any conversation about the very best players to ever come from her nation. In 2014 alone, she reached an all-time Romanian-high of #2 in the rankings, advanced to her first grand slam final (ending Romania's 34-year major final drought), won her biggest career title in Doha (defeating three Top 10 players) and, naturally, became the inaugural singles champion at this season's new Bucharest Open event. Halep had opened '14 with a then career-best slam QF in Melbourne, then followed up her Paris runner-up result with another slam semi in London, all after having not reached her first Round of 16 at a major until last year's U.S. Open. Despite being limited by injury during Romania's Fed Cup World Group II Playoff against Serbia, Halep led by example as the Swarmettes won to advance into WGII play for '15, taking yet another step toward looking to match (at least) the nation's best ever FC result (a SF in 1973) sometime in 2016-17. Actually, it's the fact of Halep's continued difficulties with injuries -- including lingering back and lower body ailments this year -- that are the only thing preventing seeing her as a "sure thing" to maintain the upward progression she's shown over the last two seasons. They held her back over the last half of '14, and played a large part in her claiming just two singles titles one season after having won six. Still, it says much about her improved performances in big events that she still managed to rise from #11 at the end of '13, topping out at #2 and settling in as the year-end #3. After recuperating a bit in the 4Q, Halep arrived in Singapore and made her first appearance in the WTA Finals a memorable one, as she put up three Top 6 wins (including handing Serena Williams the worst loss of her career in a 6-0/6-2 shocker) and became just the eighth woman to reach the final in her debut at the 42-year old event. Come '15, Halep will be adjusting to a new coach, having parted ways with Wim Fissette after working with the Belgian since February. Admittedly a "picky" player who is difficult to coach, Halep says she wants to employ a Romanian coach once again, considering herself a product of the nation's tennis system and having been coached by Romanians her entire career before this year. Is it a risk to change mid-stream after her most successful season? Hmmm, maybe. But The Pride usually finds her own way rather well, both on and off court, so the move wouldn't seem to be something to worry about (at least until proven otherwise, I suppose). In fact, as far as her wishing to keep things "in the family," one might say we'd expect nothing less from her. It's why she's "The Pride," after all. Quite possibly now the best active WTA player without a slam title, Halep should be up to producing more results to make her fellow Romanians proud for seasons to come.
About few current WTA players (aside from Sharapova, and either Williams) could it be said that they will undoubtedly go down as "legends" in tennis. In a way, that's even the case with Li... but only because she's actually MORE than a simple "legend." She is, essentially, the "founding mother" of Chinese tennis, as well as the hero of and inspiration for billions of dreams that have been and will be built upon the foundation of her smile (a bigger weapon that a Serena serve), personality (humorous, and also sometimes fragile, though strong enough to carve out her own important path years ago through her Communist home nation's controlling and sometimes dehumanizing tennis system) and, last but not least, her thrilling success on the court. In the early months of 2014, Li had rarely looked in better form, so it's a shame that her career "moment" -- winning her second career slam at the Australian Open and reaching a Chinese-best ranking of #2 -- had to be limited by injuries, and then ultimately her career cut short by retirement in September, with her having not played a match since a 3rd Round exit at Wimbledon. In her first five events, she won titles in Shenzhen (her first successful title defense) and Melbourne, running off what would be a tour-best thirteen straight wins, and then carried over her success to the U.S. spring hard court circuit with a semifinal in Indian Wells and runner-up in Miami. QF results in Madrid and Rome highlighted her move to red clay, hinting at what could even possibly have been a shot at supplanting Serena in the #1 ranking by season's end. But it wasn't meant to be. Those tantalizing opening months of '14 will remain just that -- a taste of what might have been. After struggling to return to the court, Li's chronic knee issues preventing her from even being able to participate in the first WTA event in Wuhan -- her hometown -- that wouldn't even exist if not for her impact on the sport's growth in China, as well as throughout all of Asia, where the WTA is constantly looking to benefit from and influence the current tennis boom. But while the 2014 season didn't have the ending for Li that all envisioned, it WILL be remembered as the year when everyone fully embraced (with both arms) their admiration, respect of and for her career, life and the vital role her presence has and will continue to play in the future of tennis for countless generations.
Bouchard gave every indication in '14 that she's "the real deal," rising to the occasion in the season's biggest events to become the most consistent grand slam performer on tour over the course of the season. Now comes the part about expanding that consistency to the "regular season" events that make up the majority of the long WTA schedule. That said, to look upon the Canadian's rise this season as a surprise would be a mistake. Like another blonde who first became the apple of the WTA and many a marketer's eye a decade ago, we could see Bouchard coming around the corner. After all, she was a junior slam winner at Wimbledon in '12, when she became the first Canadian to ever be able to make the claim. Bouchard just reached the main stage a season (or maybe two) earlier than anyone rightly anticipated. Her surprise Australian Open semifinal run was followed up by another at Roland Garros, and then unabashedly topped at Wimbledon when she became the first player representing Canada to ever reach a slam singles final. It was only one of the many "first Canadian ever" (or "first Canadian since Carling Bassett") moments in which Bouchard starred in 2014, as she became the first from her nation to reach the Top 10 in nearly thirty years, then the first ever to be ranked in the Top 5. And she's still only appeared in seven slam main draws. At 20, Bouchard is the youngest player ranked in the Top 20, surging ahead of the pack of other up-and-coming North Americans and, while fellow AO semifinal crasher Sloane Stephens ('13) has yet to reach a tour final, the Canadian grabbed her maiden tour title in Nurnberg (and did so on clay, her worst surface, no less). But while Bouchard's toughness and competitive nature shined the brightest in '14, her vulnerabilities revealed a few cracks, as well. Her game still lacks important variety, and lingering injuries -- or was it more the pressure of expectations? (I suspect it's too soon to truly determine the leading culprit) -- served to take a little of the brilliant shine off her rise in the closing months of the season. She lost in embarrassing fashion in her hometown tournament in Montreal, and was openly frustrated and questioned her decision to even play in the WTA Finals, where she was the only player to go 0-3, failing to produce even one competitive outing. Still, even as her results waned following her Wimbledon final run (she lost five of her last six matches, and retired from another), Bouchard managed to collect herself enough to reach the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open and the Wuhan final. She was the unquestioned leader of Canada's reinvigorated Fed Cup team, as well, going 4-0 in singles (vs. the Slovaks and Serbs) while ushering the squad into 2015's World Group. While the tennis package isn't yet a perfect one, much like Sharapova before her, Bouchard is driven to not only carve out success, but expect it. She has competitive fire to burn and a mindset that expects only the best from herself. That sort of personality, especially in this sport, has the potential to wear an early hole in the career of a player ill-prepared for the fight. But it's also the sort of inner crucible from which a true champion can be born. Needless to say, the next phase of Bouchard's career will be highly anticipated, and closely watched.
9. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
10. Peng Shuai, CHN
11. Andrea Petkovic, GER
...for all intents and purposes, AnaIvo had a great year. Her best since her slam-winning season of '08. Ivanovic won four titles (second to Serena) on three surfaces (tied for the tour lead), including her first on grass, and reached six finals (again, second to Williams) and eight semis (tied for third behind Serena and Wozniacki). Her 59 match wins led the WTA, as she returned to the Top 10 for the first time since '09 and finished a season there for the first time since '08. She also opened the year with a big slam win over Serena in Melbourne, reaching her first major QF in six years. She never advanced past the 3rd Round in another slam all season, though, and that alone seems to make her inclusion on the WTA's short list for "Player of the Year" seem a slight stretch from here. A "POY" would seem to need to have at least one slam semifinal on her resume to be seriously considered, lest she take away precious votes from more deserving contenders. But, that aside, AnaIvo likely just completed the most consistent full season of her career, and will arrive Down Under as a legit threat to finally notch career slam #2.
With the retirement of Li, Peng is now the leading (active) lady of Chinese tennis. She reached her first career slam singles semifinal at the U.S. Open, but left the court in a wheelchair after collapsing while cramping in the intense heat, and then making the poor decision to try to play on. It's that sort of snake-bit moment that has dogged Peng's entire career. At #21, she's the highest-ranked player without a tour singles crown (it's the second time in four seasons she's ended a year with the designation), and sports the worst mark (0-6) in WTA finals of any active player. This year, Peng reached the Shenzhen final, losing to Li, but DID manage to get closer to her maiden "official" tour title when she won a WTA $125K Challenger Series crown in Nanjing (though she didn't have to defeat anyone ranked above #132 to do it). Things went much better for Peng in doubles, though even there she ends '14 with important questions. Peng won five titles and became the first-ever Chinese player to reach #1, but she and regular partner Hsieh Su-Wei ended their partnership, and a would-be pairing with Andrea Hlavackova (they won Beijing) went awry when the Czech announced her re-teaming with former partner Lucie Hradecka in '15.
Finally, something went right for Petkovic in '14, as she avoided a long injury layoff for the first time in three years. And that was enough for her to put together the best season of her career. She won a career-high three singles titles, taking events on three different surfaces in Charleston (green clay), Bad Gastein (red clay) and at the Tournament of Champions (indoor hard court), and reaching her first career slam semifinal at Roland Garros after injuries and absences prevented her from putting up a Round of 16 result at a major since she produced three QF results in her last healthy season in 2011. Petko finished '14 in the Top 20 for the first time since her Top 10 finish three seasons ago, and was a tone-setting Day 1 beast for the German Fed Cup team in both the 1st Round and semifinals as the squad had its best year in over two decades, reaching the final for the first time since 1992. Amazingly, though, all this wasn't enough for Petkovic to get a nomination in the six-entry field for Comeback Player of the year from the WTA. Oh, well... so Petkorazzi's dancing, for once, will just have to take place in the relative "shadows" heading into '15. Maybe that'll continue to keep those old demons at bay. (Shhh... and cross all available fingers and toes.)
12. German Fed Cup Team
13. Hsieh Su-Wei & Peng Shuai, TPE/CHN
14. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
15. Washington Kastles
...the Germans began their resurgent 2014 Fed Cup season by having both Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber put together singles comebacks in match wins against a choking Slovak squad in February, then swept the Aussies in the semifinals to reach their first FC final since 1992. As for the final against the Czechs... well, what happened there is better left unspoken.
Hsieh & Peng, the best doubles team of 2013 (whether the Italians claimed the WTA's award last season or not), put together another great campaign this year, as they won titles in Doha and Indian Wells and rose to #1, with both becoming the the first players from their nation to top the rankings. But their late summer decision to put an end to their partnership put a damper on their entire season. They reunited to attempt to defend their WTA Finals championship, but saw their successful pairing end with an anticlimactic blowout loss in the final to Black/Mirza.
When it comes to tangible accomplishments, Wozniacki only picked up a small singles title in Istanbul this year (extending her active streak of seasons with a title to seven, behind only Sharapova and Serena), but her '14 campaign was about so much more. After shedding a slew of coaches (Sanchez, Johansson, Hogstedt & Mortensen) over the last two seasons, then seeing her upcoming wedding called off by her fiance, the Dane focused on the good and emerged on the other end of her public trials as a seemingly refreshed version of herself. Father Piotr was back as coach and her off-court friendship with Serena Williams deepened, while her on-court confidence blossomed as her always-great fitness was made a lethal accessory to a game that employed more aggression and an improved serve. Heck, as part of her successful on-the-fly makeover of her life, Caro even ran the New York City marathon! Wozniacki's path was unconventional, but her career rebirth was impossible to ignore. She had her best year-end ranking (#8) in three years, and reached her first slam final (US) in five. After losing her first four matches against Top 10 players in '14, including seven in a row and dropping eight of ten extending back to 2013, she won six of eleven in the closing months of '14 (going 6-2 against non-Serena foes), and pushed Williams in an 8-6 3rd set tie-break in the semifinals of the WTA Finals. Gusto-grabbing Caro 2.0, after talking a few years ago about "having time" to improve, may just have found a way to bend the ticking clock in her favor and give herself a (finally) legit chance to win her first slam crown in the near future.
Meanwhile, the Washington Kastles, led by Hall of Famer Martina Hingis (and, sometimes, Venus Williams, too), won a fourth straight World Team Tennis championship, and fifth in six seasons.
*BEST OF THE REST*
16. Ekaterina Makarova & Elena Vesnina, RUS/RUS - the all-Hordette pair won the U.S. Open, their second slam in two years. With the other top duos in flux, and with Errani/Vinci having many big titles to defend, might Makarova/Vesnina be potential contenders for #1 in '15? The only other Russian doubles #1? Anna Kournikova.
17. Cara Black & Sania Mirza, ZIM/IND - picked up three titles, including big 4Q wins in Tokyo and at the WTA Finals, in what could very well be Black's career swan song. Mirza also claimed her third Mixed slam crown, as well as an Asian Games Gold Medal in Mixed.
18. Karolina Pliskova, CZE - she reached five finals, winning two, and was on the bench (a secondary role that is surely only temporary) for the Czechs' Fed Cup final victory. Only Serena had more aces this season than Pliskova.
19. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS - matched the feat of Mary Pierce (1998) to become just the second woman to win indoor titles in both Paris and Moscow in the same season
20. Alize Cornet, FRA & Caroline Garcia, FRA - in the wake of Marion Bartoli's retirement, Cornet & Garcia (both w/ titles, Fed Cup heroics, and Top 20 and 40 rankings, too, in '14) showed that Pastry tennis has some remaining joie de vivre running through its collective veins, after all.
HM- Dominika Cibulkova, SVK & Ekaterina Makarova, RUS - after both put up career-first appearances in, respectively, a slam final (AO) and semifinal (US), Cibulkova and Makarova -- ranked #10 and #11 -- are set to fight it out for the "made it by THIS much" spot in the Top 10 during the opening weeks of 2015
Special Mention- Yui Kamiji & Jordanne Whiley, JPN/GBR - the wheelchair duo accomplished a true Doubles Grand Slam in '14, while world #1 Kamiji won two of the three WC singles slams (in Paris and NYC) and was a finalist in the other (Melbourne).
**"Ms. BACKSPIN" WINNERS**
2001 Jennifer Capriati / USA
2002 Serena Williams / USA
2003 Justine Henin-Hardenne / BEL
2004 Maria Sharapova / RUS
2005 Kim Clijsters / BEL
2006 Amelie Mauresmo / FRA
2007 Justine Henin / BEL
2008 Cara Black & Liezel Huber / ZIM-USA
2009 Italian Fed Cup Team
2010 Francesca Schiavone / ITA
2011 Petra Kvitova / CZE
2012 Serena Williams / USA
2013 Serena Williams / USA
2014 Czech Fed Cup Team
=YEARLY "Ms. Backspin" Top 10 Lists=
1. Jennifer Capriati, USA
2. Lindsay Davenport, USA
3. Venus Williams, USA
4t. Kim Clijsters, BEL
4t. Justine Henin, BEL
6. Martina Hingis, SUI
7. Jelena Dokic, AUS
8. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
9. Serena Williams, USA
10. Monica Seles, USA
1. Serena Williams, USA
2. Venus Williams, USA
3. Jennifer Capriati, USA
4. Kim Clijsters, BEL
5. Anna Smashnova, ISR
6. Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
7. Monica Seles, USA
8. Justine Henin, BEL
9. Jelena Dokic, AUS
10. Paola Suarez, ARG
1. Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
2. Serena Williams, USA
3. Kim Clijsters, BEL
4t. Anastasia Myskina, RUS
4t. Elena Dementieva, RUS
6. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
7. Maria Sharapova, RUS
8. Ai Sugiyama, JPN
9t. Virginia Ruano Pascual, ESP
9t. Paola Suarez, ARG
1. Maria Sharapova, RUS
2. Lindsay Davenport, USA
3. Anastasia Myskina, RUS
4. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
5. Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
6. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
7. Virginia Ruano Pascual/Paola Suarez, ESP/ARG
8. Elena Dementieva, RUS
9. Serena Williams, USA
10. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
1. Kim Clijsters, BEL
2. Lindsay Davenport, USA
3. Mary Pierce, FRA
4. Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
5. Serena Williams & Venus Williams, USA/USA
6. Maria Sharapova, RUS
7. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
8. Cara Black, ZIM
9. Patty Schnyder, SUI
10. Nadia Petrova, RUS
1. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
2. Justine Henin-Hardenne, BEL
3. Maria Sharapova, RUS
4. Nadia Petrova, RUS
5. Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
6. Italian Fed Cup Team
7. Martina Hingis, SUI
8. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
9. Kim Clijsters, BEL
10. Nicole Vaidisova, CZE
1. Justine Henin, BEL
2. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
3. Venus Williams, USA
4. Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
5. Serena Williams, USA
6. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
7. Anna Chakvetadze, RUS
8. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
9. Maria Sharapova, RUS
10. Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
1. Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
2. Serena Williams, USA
3. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
4. Maria Sharapova, RUS
5. Venus Williams, USA
6. Dinara Safina, RUS
7. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
8. Russian Fed Cup Team
9. Elena Dementieva, RUS
10. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
1. Italian Fed Cup Team
2. Serena Williams, USA
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
4. Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA
5. Nuria Llagostera-Vives/Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, ESP/ESP
6. Dinara Safina, RUS
7. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
8. Kim Clijsters, BEL
9. United States Fed Cup Team
10. Elena Dementieva, RUS
1. Francesca Schiavone, ITA
2. Kim Clijsters, BEL
3. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
4. Serena Williams, USA
5. Gisela Dulko/Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA
6. Italian Fed Cup Team
7. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
8. Samantha Stosur, AUS
9. Vania King/Yaroslava Shvedova, USA/KAZ
10. United States Fed Cup Team
1. Petra Kvitova, CZE
2. Li Na, CHN
3. Liezel Huber, USA
4. Kveta Peschke/Katarina Srebotnik, CZE/SLO
5. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
6. Liezel Huber/Lisa Raymond, USA/USA
7. Samantha Stosur, AUS
8. Czech Republic Fed Cup Team
9. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
10. Kim Clijsters, BEL
1. Serena Williams, USA
2. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
3. Maria Sharapova, RUS
4. Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
5. Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
6. Sara Errani, ITA
7. Czech Fed Cup Team
8. Angelique Kerber, GER
9. Petra Kvitova, CZE
10. Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA
1. Serena Williams, USA
2. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
3. Simona Halep, ROU
4. Hsieh Su-Wei/Peng Shuai, TPE/CHN
5. Italian Fed Cup Team
6. Roberta Vinci, ITA
7. Maria Sharapova, RUS
8. Marion Bartoli, FRA
9. Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci, ITA/ITA
10. Ekaterina Makarova/Elena Vesnina, RUS/RUS
Now, once more, here's a second opinion from Galileo West, the weekly ATP station chief over at Backspin's sister (brother??) site, ATP Backspin.
*2014 WTA PLAYERS OF THE YEAR*
1. Serena Williams
...Williams had not had the top ranking since 2009 but in February of last year she took it off Vika Azarenka. Vika ,incidentally, is now ranked #32. She has already had a whole career with ups and downs and she's only 25. Mind you by the time Williams got to 25 she had already had about five careers. By the way, Williams is 64-18 in finals. That blows my mind. No, this was not quite like 2013 which was her best year ever. She didn't win eleven titles this time, she only won seven. Williams just beat Halep 6-3/6-0 in the WTA Finals after the Romanian beat HER 6-2/6-0 four days earlier, only to get handed the beat down of her life in return. Williams had an awful year at the slams. She lost to Ivanovic, Muguruza and Cornet at the first three slams. Those are all players she should be outclassing. She won the U.S. Open, but here is the list of players she beat: Townsend, King, Lepchenko, Kanepi, Pennetta, Makarova and Wozniacki. So a poor year at the slams. But she has unquestionably been the world's best player throughout the year. She has won a title just about every month on the tour and that is very impressive. She has been the best in the world in almost every area. She may be starting to fade slightly, but she is still utterly dominant. She is still the favourite to win everything she enters. I think she will finish at number one next year, though she'll lose it several times over the course of the season.
2. Maria Sharapova
...Halep has not won a slam yet, and so it would be rather difficult to put her above any actual slam winners. Sharapova did not end the year well, as she played poorly during the WTA Finals. She had a chance at number one but could not take it. With only fourth round points to defend in Australia and not much else until the clay swing she has put herself in a great position to take the top spot. Sharapova was solid ,if not spectacular, at slam level and made the fourth round all four times but only won the French. Losses to Cibulkova, Kerber and Wozniacki were all surprising, but she did feel like the world number two for the second half of the year. She really stepped it up. She went 4-0 in finals and also made a lot of semi-finals. She was unable to crack the Williams enigma but she did well in other regards. She took time off to focus on Sochi but returned and continued to win. By now Maria must just be praying for Williams to retire. Sharapova is the best player in the world on clay and one of the best on any surface. This is especially the case if Williams isn't around.
3. Li Na
...she started the season 21-3, but injuries prevented her from taking the world number one ranking which she surely would have taken at some point. She achieved her highest ranking [#2] in the year of her retirement. She inspired a nation of two billion. She brought tennis to China. She became the highest-ranking Asian singles player ever. Titles are irrelevant. She was the best player in the world in all but name for four months. She dominated the tour early on and became a deserved world number two. She pulled a Novotna and finally won her favorite slam [the grand slam of Asia Pacific] on the third attempt. Li Na was often perplexing and always mystifying. She was an enigma but in the end she had a Hall of Fame career. She has done more for China than perhaps they realize. And she did it by disobeying one of the strictest regimes in the world. How can you not love that?
4. Petra Kvitova
...I said last year she would win another Wimbledon. I have been proved correct, but much sooner than I expected. Todd has devoted a lot of writing about Petra. I don't know if you've noticed, but she tends to be inconsistent. At the slams she went out in the first round once, the third round twice and she won Wimbledon. To illustrate her perfectly I'll list the round she reached in her tournaments:
SF, 1st, QF,2nd, QF, 4th, 2nd, SF, 2nd, 3rd, QF, W, 3rd, 2nd, W, 3rd, W, RU. Look at that. How am I meant to dissect her season? Let's say overall it was good and leave it there.
5. Simona Halep
...I know I put all four slam champs in the top four. Can you blame me? I can see her simply dominating in Bucharest through the years and then they will call a stadium Halep and the other Simona. I watch Halep play and at the end of the match I always, no matter how comprehensive the victory, look back and wonder how she won. She just wins and that is part of her beauty -- you can watch one of her matches and not understand how she wins. But she does. Oh, boy, does she. Halep went 43-14 this year. She ascended to the second spot. She managed to make Williams blink occasionally, too. Halep dominated the rest of the top ten in this past WTA Finals. Halep is looking better and better as her career goes on. That U.S. Open upset aside, she was flawless this year at the slams. She became the slam player everyone knew she could be. At barely 23, she has the world at her feet. One of my favorite Billie Jean King quotes: “Ladies, here's a hint; if you're playing against a friend who has big boobs, bring her to the net and make her hit backhand volleys. That's the hardest shot for the well-endowed.” Halep heeded her advice reduced her breast size. That could be the key to all this winning she is doing. I've never really talked about boobs before on here. It never seems to come up on the ATP Tour.
6. Eugenie Bouchard
...she isn't here because of the amount of titles she won. She won her maiden title this year in Nurnberg, whilst Kvitova stopped her in Wuhan and at Wimbledon. She went 19-4 in slams. She made three semi-finals. Nobody else got close to that apart from Halep. She made quality opponents look like they were the inexperienced ones. She made fans all over the world. She was the best slam player this year because she won when playing well and badly. At the U.S. Open, she ground her way into the fourth round. She knows how to win in the major leagues. Next year I see her making eight finals. She looks set, after doing so well this year and rising to number five, to rise further and perhaps hit the top four. She has a lot of points too defend but I think she is fully capable.
7. Ana Ivanovic
...I thought Ivanovic was done. I thought that slump was permanent. I thought Ana was finished and I wasn't the only one. She fell to outside the top fifty and it looked to be over for her. She has proven me and others wrong. Finals in Cincy and Stuttgart compliment that quartet of titles. It was a strong year for the world number eight. That forehand was back to where it had been before. She and Sharapova had a great rivalry throughout the year. Her year was kick-started by her beating Williams and making just her second slam quarterfinal since, what, 2009? She really took it to Williams and the American struggled to handle it, though Serena helped by having a bad day. Ivanovic will not win another slam, but another final is a possibility. She has shown us what she can do throughout this year.
8. Caroline Wozniacki
...I can't really leave out a slam finalist. Well, I'm leaving out Cibulkova, but she would have been number eleven or so on this list. It feels as if the Woz had a better year than the stats suggest. Wozniacki has always had two major problems: she struggles to be aggressive and she lets her father be a little too controlling. She has solved those problems to an extent. It remains to be seen if she has the level needed to win a slam but she made another final this year. Not only that but she also managed to come back from being close to falling out of the top 20 or so to making the WTA Finals field and beating Sharapova. She has taken control of her destiny and has upped the tempo of her game. She is now primed for a strong 2015. Another slam semi or two surely beckon for the girl who came back from the wilderness.
9. Flavia Pennetta
...last year I had a surprising Italian in these as well -- Vinci. Will it be Giorgi next year? Flavia made a semi-final last year at the U.S. Open, her first. The first Italian lady to make the top ten was in form but nobody expected the consistent high level of play she delivered. She won her first Premier Mandatory in Indian Wells, the "fifth slam," if you will. She also featured in a pair of slam quarterfinals. It was an up and down year but she is the Italian number one in form and, surely, soon in ranking, too. A fairly strong year from her with a few big highlights. It's impressive. Oh and there was this too:
10. Venus Williams
...let's talk about Williams again. A different Williams this time. She won her 45th title. She also made the final of Toronto and two other smaller tournaments. She has put together a solid year. She has beaten the world number one and she has also looked good. Losses to Makarova [in three tight sets] Kvitova [she should have won and was the better player] and Errani are understandable. The bottom line is that it felt like Venus was back and healthy. Also, in 46 matches she hit 222 aces. That puts her tenth on the list. Not bad at all.
HM- Casey Dellacqua
...Casey has made two fourth rounds at slams [the same as Aga] this year and has gone from finishing at #130 last year to finishing inside the top thirty this year. No, she hasn't won anything but she has been consistently playing above her usual level. She has stepped it up this year and, hey, she's now a better player than Vika is. The rankings don't lie right. Right?
Fallen from Grace: Aga Radwanska
...no, Aga will not be in the top ten list. What has she done? For her ability and talent she should be making slam finals. She has been touted as the next Hingis and one can see that. She has a lot of craft and uses angles very well, but Henin and Hingis had that, too. She needs power nad she needs more than just soft hands. She was playing Barrois at Stuttgart a few years back and the commentator said, "she lacks a big shot to break down Barois' backhand" and she was right. Radwanska has still not added that. After that Wimbledon final I thought she would move on and up. Since then she has won a couple of small titles and the Rogers Cup. She has made just two slam semi-finals. I think we have seen her limitations now. She looks set to simply be a solid top ten player for the next few years, but no more. She can easily be out-hit and is always ripe for an upset. She hasn't even made a U.S. Open quarterfinal yet. And that is why she is not on the list, regardless of how well she did at the WTA Finals
Yep, that's it, go ahead and talk about Aga's season, Galileo. Maybe it means that I won't have to be the one watching my back over the next year. Whew! Heehee.
MORE BSA's ARE STILL TO COME: the Performance & Match Lists and, of course, the WTA Yearbook
All for now.