Wednesday, November 13, 2013

2013--a French twist

2013 was a year of surprises for a lot of tennis fans. As a whole, the season was packed with unexpected events for all of us. The season's news was both good and bad, as a few players made comebacks or banished demons, but some continued to deal with chronic health issues.

Maria Sharapova's shoulder gave her problems again, and caused her to withdraw from the U.S. Open and finish her season early. That meant she also had to withdraw from the WTA Championships. Petra Kvitova continued to struggle with asthma, but--perhaps more significant--she suffered from a series of infections that leads one to come to the logical conclusion that something is amiss in her immune system. There is reason to be concerned about both players.

Vera Zvonareva stayed out with injury, but recently announced her 2014 return. Venus Williams, however, actually demonstrated some improvement in her stamina, which had decreased dramatically because of her autoimmune illness.

One of the comeback stories of 2013 belonged to Flavia Pennetta, who had to have wrist surgery last year. She's been through a long rehab before, and she's figured out how to come back, so it was no surprise that in 2013, the Italian put on quite a show at the U.S. Open. Pennetta, who was ranked number 83 in the world when the year's fourth major began, went on an upset tear reminiscent of Flavia from long ago. She beat Sara Errani, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Simona Halep, and Roberta Vinci. One defeated opponent was a former U.S. Open champion, one was the hottest player of the second half of the season, and the other two are her close friends. Pennetta lost to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals, but it was quite a run.

Andrea Petkovic also experienced a positive return to the tour, and we should keep an eye on her (and hope she doesn't get injured) in 2014. Alisa Kleybanova, having undergone treatment and rehab for Hodgkin's lymphoma, made a real comeback this year, and should also be someone we watch in 2014.

In 2013, we learned that Kristina Mladenovic and Anyone equals a great doubles team. The Frenchwoman won six doubles titles this year--with six different partners. One of those titles was the mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon, which she won with Daniel Nestor (they were the runners-up at the French Open). In Charleston, Mladenovic stepped onto the court with defending champion Lucie Safarova for the very first time in their careers, and--despite their unfamiliarity with one another--Safarova defended her title.

While I'm on the subject of doubles, it was a bit of an odd year in that no one team really dominated. Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci won the Australian Open and retained their number 1 ranking, but 2013 was not the banner year for them that 2012 was. Meanwhile, young Austalian Ashleigh Barty continued to demonstrate that she is already a force in doubles, and can only become more of a force in the future. She and Casey Dellacqua were the runners-up at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

Martina Hingis returned to the tour to play doubles with Daniela Hantuchova. On paper, that's a dream team, but the reality was that the pair struggled, and Hingis sounded discouraged at the end of the season.

The other big doubles news this year was that the formidable Czech team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, after winning the U.S. Open, split. Hlavackova will play with Lucie Safarova next year, and Hradecka will pair with Michaella Krajicek.

One of the players who made a big splash in doubles this year was Elena Vesnina. With partner Ekaterina Makarova, Vesnina won both Indian Wells and the French Open. The Russian's other breakthrough was in singles. After being a runner-up six times, Vesnina won her first title in Hobart, and then she won her second one in Eastbourne. It was a long time coming.

Sam Stosur parted ways with coach David Taylor, after six years. She has since named a new coach, but during the interim, she looked to Australian Open Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik to help her out, and made a huge end-of-season sweep upward. There's reason to believe that the Australian star is headed for a big 2014 season.

Some of the tour's younger players made quite an impression in 2013. Eugenie Bouchard showed us that she has pretty serious game and is perhaps "the" player to watch next season. And then there was Sloane Stephens.

Stephens had an interesting year, to say the least. She put herself into a "feud" (it was one-sided) with Serena Williams, of all people, and she told us she was looking forward to the European clay court season because there's nothing much to do in boring old Europe. The most striking thing about Stephens' season, however, was that she continued her pattern of making big runs on big stages, and then giving us performances she could have phoned in at other events.

I have to give a shout-out to Alexandra Panova, who played the match of her career in the Fed Cup final, and--even though she held four match points against an injured opponent, but still lost--she reminded us all what Fed Cup competition is all about. It was a great match, and Panova is to be commended for giving it her all. Her performance represents why I love Fed Cup.

Kristina Mladenovic and Flavia Pennetta came close to making my personal top 10 for 2013, but wound up as "honorable mentions." Here's my top 10:

10: Oh no, she didn't:

9. You can't win 'em all: But if you're Esther Vergeer, you can come pretty close. The world's "winningest" athlete retired in 2013. Vergeer won 700 matches and lost 25. She was ranked number 1 for 14 years. She won 42 majors (singles and doubles combined), 22 year-end-championships and 7 Paralympic titles. She had a 95-game win streak in which she was taken to match point only once. Vergeer was undefeated for 10 straight years--from 2003 to 2013--and retired while on a 470-match win streak.

8. Praise the tennis gods: She's back--rubber body, concrete hair, red Porsche with matching shoes, and all. Jelena Jankovic, who--all by herself--is a reason to watch pro tennis--returned to the top 10 this year. Queen Chaos, as she's known on one of my very favorite tennis sites, won the tournament in Bogota, and put in a solid performance in many other tournaments. She's still not as fast or as accurate as Jelena of 2008, but there's reason to hope. (As one of WWS's readers commented this past spring, "She's so fabulous it hurts.")

7. You've got a friend: The doubles team of the year has to be Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. They've been friends for many years, and at times, they were doubles partners. This year, they got serious about beingh a doubles team, and it paid off. Hsieh and Peng won Wimbledon and the WTA Championships, as well as three other tournaments.

6. Dai!: In 2013, Italy won Fed Cup--again. The Italian team defeated the USA, the Czech Republic and Russia to take the title for the fourth time. Roberta Vinci didn't get a chance to play doubles in the final, but Fed Cup Queen Flavia Pennetta did. It was a dead rubber, but it was still good to see Pennetta on the court.

5. More like habanero: Simona Halep received the nickname "Halepeno" this year, and with good reason. The talented Romanian went crazy on everyone in the second half of the season and won six titles. She did this on all three surfaces, and one of her titles was achieved at the Tournament of Champions. She may be considered "too small" to compete at a serious level, but she should nevertheless be taken seriously, and especially on clay courts. Halep is a joy to watch. With some improvement in her service game, she becomes even more of a threat.

4. Unloved, undefeated: Victoria Azarenka had an amazing start to her 2013 season, and that start included defending her title at the Australian Open. But this was no ordinary title defense. Azarenka played against crowd favorite Li Na (who was significantly injured twice during the bizarre match), while she herself was the crowd "unfavorite"--in a big way. Australian fans and sports media combined to conduct an anti-Vika campaign, and the crowd actively cheered against her. And while it helped that her opponent twisted her ankle and bashed her head during the final, it was nevertheless a special victory for the former world number 1 to defend her title. She didn't celebrate the win on court--that would have been too strange, I guess--instead, she sat down and wept. Azarenka would go on to win Doha and Cincinnati, defeating Serena Williams in both finals.

3. Parlez vous Francais?: Serena Williams does, and so does her racket. Williams was already living part-time in Paris when she was upset in the first round of the 2012 French Open, so it was no surprise that she went to the Mouratoglu Academy for help. Williams hadn't won at Roland Garros since 2002, so it was one of those very personal "Serena" victories when she lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen in 2013. Williams delivered her victory speech in French, just as she had delivered her Rome victory speech in Italian.

2. She's still number 1: Williams didn't win just the French Open; she also won the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. She won 11 titles in 2013 and ended the year with the number 1 ranking. At age 32, the world number 1 looks and feels as confident as ever. Oh, and her game is better than ever; expect the best in 2014.

1. "I'll have a cup of tea and tell you of my dreaming": Right before the 2011 French Open began, Petra Kvitova went to sleep one night, and--the next morning--told her coach, "I dreamed I won the Wimbledon." A few weeks later, she won The Wimbledon. We don't know how many times Marion Bartoli went to sleep and dreamed that she won that title, but we do know that her waking dream for 22 years was that she would win it.

From age 6 on, the Frenchwoman's goal was to lift the Venus Rosewater dish at the All England Club. To the surprise of a lot of people, she reached the final in 2007. Possessed of a mighty return game, Bartoli always had the grass court skills. But her serve could go off at a moment's notice, as could her physical stamina.

Bartoli, who plays two-handed on both sides, has marched to her own drumbeat her entire career. Put through rigorous and often very unusual training by her father and coach, Walter Bartoli, she was easy to dismiss. Bartoli's on-court intensity, which included a never-to-be-emulated Death Glare, made her a one-woman theatre project. There has just never been anyone like her in professional tennis.

She had a disappointing 2013 season, but perked up in time for Wimbledon. Knowing that she needed to lighten up, she brought 2006 champion and fellow Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo along with her to the All England Club. If the easy-going and witty Mauresmo can't lighten you up, no one can. Not that Bartoli is without humor--off the court, she's very funny. Guided by Mauresmo and pal Kristina Mladenovic, Bartoli brought that humor to the tournament, and--instead of training every moment she was off the court--the Frenchwoman was dancing in the locker room. She also worked on her serve, then worked on it some more.

Bartoli's opponent in the final was crowd favorite Sabine Lisicki, known for her service game. But Lisicki is not the mentally toughest player around, and Bartoli was able to get the job done in straight sets.

And there's more! Six weeks after winning Wimbledon, Bartoli announced her retirement from professional tennis. There's some speculation that she'll return, but I wonder about that. Marion is having such a great time. Since winning the biggest title of her career, she has sung "La Marseillaise" for a gathering of important people at the All England Club, become the first Wimbledon champion to play mixed doubles at the All England Club's end-of-season tournament, taken a final trip to the gym, and worn a chocolate dress on the runway in Paris.

Bartoli now has time to paint her landscapes and buy her Christian Louboutins. But whatever she decides to do, we can be sure of one thing: She'll do it her own way, in her own style, and without regard to what anyone else thinks.


Anonymous said...

A doctor whom I know says that the drugs in asthma inhalers wreak havoc on the immune system and also yield brain function anomalies.

Todd.Spiker said...

Great job, Diane! Somehow, I sort of knew what #1 was going to be long before I got down to it. ;)

Diane said...

In "real life'" everything about Serena is number 1, but for me, MB's Wimbledon win, etc. was the event of the year! That Marion.........

There are some rare strange side effects with some asthma medication, as with all medication, but in general, the one I would worry about--that isn't so rare--is sleep disturbance. That can mess you up.