Thursday, November 10, 2011

2011--year of change, year of Czechs

Every year, things change in professional tennis. But this year, change in the WTA tour was palpable, as the "new guard" made its move, not only joining its prodigy, Caroline Wozniacki, but sometimes surpassing her. At the same time, some of the "old guard" rose to the highest occasions. Nowhere would that phenomenon be seen more clearly than at the Australian Open, which Kim Clijsters--in her "second" career--won, and Li Na graced as a finalist.

2011 was a sad season in many ways. Alisa Kleybanova was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma and had to leave the tour--at least for now. Venus Williams revealed that she has been suffering significantly for years with Sjogren's Syndrome, but was unable to get a diagnosis (despite having a number of classic symptoms) until recently. And Serena Williams missed most of the season because of a pulmonary embolism, which occurred after she had to undergo two foot surgeries.

Five-time French Open champion Justine Henin retired again, after returning to the tour and sustaining serious injuries. Tatiana Garbin and Sybille Bammer retired, as did Renee Stubbs--but she kept coming back. Both Magdalena Maleeva and Jeanette Husarova came out of retirement briefly and made surprise appearances, but they were hardly noticed. Former world number 1 Dinara Safina had more trouble with her back and had to leave the tour. And despite her brother Marat's repeated announcements that she was retiring from professional tennis, Safina says that she has made no such decision.

The WTA made headlines in a bad way when both the French Open and Wimbledon champions were sent packing in the first round of the U.S. Open--a first in women's tennis history. And various parties campaigned to get players to stop "grunting" (they actually mean "screaming") when they hit the ball. The campaign wasn't new, but it developed a loud voice, so to speak, in England, where female tennis players are routinely denigrated by the news media. It then spread all the way to the top of the WTA, and Stacey Allaster--who had gone on record as saying the issue had little merit--called for the creation of a device that would measure women's voices. Shortly after she made that statement, she had to stand (I thought, rather awkwardly) next to two rather noisy (in different ways) players who had just placed first and second in the WTA Championships. It was no surprise when, right after that, Allaster reversed her opinion yet again.

But I have already used too much space to talk about this, so on to the real issues.

Several players made breakthroughs in 2011. Marion Bartoli, historically fearful of playing at the French Open, made it all the way to the semifinals, and did it in great style, embracing the crowd's support all the way. Maria Sharapova, whose status remains shaky despite her ranking, also--improbably--made it to the French Open semifinals, and then reached the final of Wimbledon. And 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone surprised a lot of people (but not this person) by going all the way to the French Open final, though she did not defend her title.

Dominika Cibulkova waited until the last possible moment, but she finally won a WTA title; Cibulkova was victorious at the Kremlin Cup. Roberta Vinci had the best year of her career, Sabine Lisicki took a wild card all the way to the Wimbledon semifinals, Angelique Kerber came out of nowhere and played in the U.S. Open semifinals, and Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta finally won a major. Their comeback in the Australian Open final was so dramatic, it almost made my top 10 list. Down a set and 1-4, and a point away from being down 1-5, Gisela Dulko simply went on a mad frenzy at the net, and she and Pennetta wound up winning 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 over Victoria Azarenka and Maria Kirilenko.

The unseeded Czech team of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova won the French Open, and Czech players would go on to win every title at Wimbledon--singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Esther Vergeer won everything she entered, Christina McHale advanced to number 42 in the world, and pulled off gutsy upsets of both Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli. Liezel Huber and (the newly fit) Lisa Raymond became a team, and won both the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open. They're at the top of the rankings now, but earlier in the season, Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik were the number 1 team in the world.

Melanie Oudin, of all people, won the U.S. Open mixed doubles title, in what may have been the surprise (in a good way) performance of the year.

In what had to be the most bizarre moment of the season, Tsvetana Pironkova upset five-time champion Venus Williams at Wimbledon for the second year in a row, and with the same scoreline, 6-2, 6-3. 

Flavia Pennetta, one of an unforgettable pair of Fighting Italians, didn't have as good a year as she might have, but she showed up at the U.S. Open ready to go, and her run this year was memorable. First, she took out 2006 champion Maria Sharapova in a dramatic third round match. But the drama was only just starting because in her round of 16 match against Peng Shuai, Pennetta was ill, and spent a good deal of time attempting to vomit. Stumbling around with glazed eyes, the Italian star came back from a 0-5 deficit in the second set tiebreak, and won the match. Pennetta also played in one of the year's top matches--probably the second best one I saw--at Wimbledon, when she and Marion Bartoli engaged for over three hours in a thrilling, high-quality contest that Bartoli eventaully won.

It was a very big year for Victoria Azarenka. She finally made it to the semifinals of a major--Wimbledon-- but lost to eventual champion Petra Kvitova. Azarenka won three titles, including Miami, and she played consistently well throughout most of the season. She also finished as the runner-up in Madrid (lost to Kvitova) and the WTA Championships (lost to Kvitova). There is somewhat of a buzz about Azarenka and Kvitova becoming rivals. Currently, Azarenka has a 2-4 record against the Czech player, and the four losses have occurred in 2010 and 2011. Azarenka had to deal with a hand injury this year, but at least there was none of the illness, passing out or chronic thigh issues that had plagued her in the past.

Caroline Wozniacki finished the season as number 1 in the world for the second year in a row, but that statistic looks better on paper than it really is. Her margin over the number 2 player is only 115 points, and she still hasn't won a major. She lost to Li Na at the Australian Open for the second year in a row; this year, Wozniacki lost in the semifinals. At the French Open, the Dane was pretty  much run over by Daniela Hantuchova in the third round, and at Wimbledon, she lost to Dominika Cibulkova in the round of 16. At the U.S. Open, where her chances are considered the best, the world number 1 lost to Serena Williams in the semifinals. Wozniacki finished round robin play with a 1-2 record at the WTA Championships in Istanbul.

On the "up" side, Wozniacki won six titles this year. She also announced that she would no longer be coached by her father, Piotr, but that the name of the new coach would not be revealed until after the U.S. Open. We're still waiting for that revelation, and--in the meantime--Piotr Wozniacki has continued to coach his daughter.

Tennis culture is nothing if not highly entertaining. Last year, my favorite moment caught on video was the sight of the Radwanska sisters, happily rocking along in the stands to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." This year, I had two favorite video moments, and Agnieszka Radwanska appeared in both of them, too! One occurred in Beijing, when champion Radwanksa did the Petko Dance with Petko herself. The other probably became an instant classic, and I can't look at it without cracking up.

Here are my personal top 10 occurences of the year, in ascending order:

10. Asian cooking
When Agnieszka Radwanska got rid of her abusive coach, who happened to be her father, she began to shine. She won the Carlsbad championship, then pulled off the back-to-back Tokyo-Beijing double win. In Tokyo, she defeated Vera Zvonareva in the final, and in Beijing, she beat Andrea Petkovic. Radwanska started the year in style, too, returning from foot surgery two months earlier than expected, and reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. The clever and talented Radwanska, who is now executing a much better first serve, has returned to the top 10, and ends the season ranked number 8 in the world.

9. She's....back!
Serena Williams was out for almost a year because of health issues, but when she came back, she made sure her return was a major annoucement. Defending champion Williams made it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon, losing to Marion Bartoli. Then she defeated Bartoli in the Stanford final, and followed that up by winning the Rogers Cup. Williams also made a run all the way to the final of the U.S. Open. She lost that match, but her brief appearance in 2011 taught us--like we needed to be reminded--to never, ever count Serena out.

8. Farewell, widerluege
Patty Schnyder retired this year. The accomplished, one-of-a-kind Swiss player left the tour after playing professional tennis for 17 years. She was a superstar in Charleston, and she added excitement and humor to almost every event in which she appeared. There will never be another like her.

7. Pojd!
Czechoslovakia won Fed Cup five times, and this year, the Czech Republic re-claimed the trophy, beating Fed Cup powerfhouse Russia 3-2 in a thrilling final. Petra Kvitova won both her singles rubbers, and Lucie Safarova lost both of hers. It was the team of Lucie Hradecka and Kveta Peschke who sealed the Czech deal, defeating Maria Kirilenko and Elena Vesnina in the doubles rubber.

6. Aussie Kim for real
Back when Kim Clijsters was romantically involved with Lleyton Hewitt, she was affectionately known as "Aussie Kim." She took that name back this year when she won the Australian Open. Clijsters didn't drop a set until she reached the final, in which she beat Li Na 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. This win gave the Belgian her fourth major, and her first Australian Open title. Clijsters, who wore a green Evonne Goolagong tribute dress during the tournament, looked as though she were about to make a great 2011 run, but unfortunately, she was beset by multiple injuries for much of the season.

5. The Golden Flower of France
After Li Na became the first Chinese woman to reach the final of a major, in January, she did the only thing she could do to top that feat: She won the French Open. Li has historically disliked playing on clay, and has not had very good results on the surface. But tennis is nothing if not unpredictable, and the sharp-witted, hard-hitting, mischievous Chinese star known as Big Sister Na had a grand run in Paris, taking out Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, then besting defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 in the final. Li then became an even bigger star than she was after her Australian Open run, and--perhaps because of that--she has struggled since her big win.

4. The Czech Republic rules
This year, Czech players partied like it was....1985. The unseeded Czech team of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova won the French Open, taking out four seeded teams on their way to the championship. Czech Kveta Peschke and her partner, Katarina Srebotnik, went to the top of the doubles rankings, and stayed there until September. Czech players won everything at Wimbledon: Petra Kvitova won the singles championship, Peschke and Srebotnik won the doubles championship, and Czech player Iveta Benesova, with partner Jurgen Melzer, won the mixed doubles title. Kvitova won six titles, including the WTA Championships, and the Czech Republic beat Russia to win the 2011 Fed Cup final.

3. Unheralded, undefeated
Samantha Stosur's performance throughout the U.S. Open was remarkable, yet it went almost unnoticed by commentators and sports writers, at least in the USA. In the third round, Stosur played the longest women's match in U.S. Open history. It went on for three hours and 16 minutes, and the Australian needed five match points to finally dispense of Nadia Petrova. In the next round, Stosur played Maria Kirilenko, and that match included the longest women's tiebreak in U.S. Open women's history. Kirilenko won that very thrilling (and very badly called) tiebreak 17-15, but it was Stosur who won the match. To top it all off, Stosur defeated Serena Williams in straight sets in the final, in a performance that was practically perfect.

2. The Rock rolls on
2011 was the Year of Petra Kvitova. The Czech star, who is now number 2 in the world, won six titles, including Wimbledon and the WTA Championships. Her Wimbledon victory was all the more impressive because she beat 2004 champion Maria Sharapova in the final. Kvitova went through Fed Cup with a 6-0 record, and led her team to the championship, and she ended the season with a 21-0 indoor record. She continued to struggle with asthma during the U.S. hard court season, and she also continued to struggle with nerves throughout the year. But these issues notwithstanding, Kvitova showed this year that she has just about everything a champion needs to have--a huge serve, powerful groundstrokes on both sides, aggression (with a newfound fondness for volleying), and the ability to mentally dust herself off and get on with things. As the months go by, Kvitova continues to improve, and the fact that she has yet to meet her potential surely strikes fear into the minds of opponents. The asthma problem and the problem with the nerves (sometimes Kvitova just "goes away" for a while or regresses into her younger self) are issues that need to be addressed, but based on her progress so far, there is reason to believe that the year's hottest player will find a way to at least partially resolve them.

The rise of Petra Kvitova would, in fact, be at the top of my list if it weren't for:

1. Schiavone def. Kuznetsova, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14
"Thank goodness the second set was 6-1," Pam Shriver remarked at some point during the longest women's match of the Open Era. Francesca Schiavone (who was also in my number 1 pick in 2010) and Svetlana Kuznetsova played for four hours and 44 minutes in the third round of the Australian Open, and both sustained an unusually high level of play throughout the ordeal. Kuznetsova's feet were covered with blisters, and she said that she sometimes lost track of the score and of whose turn it was to serve. Roger Federer dropped by to serve as a guest commentator, and predicted the match would end soon--only it didn't. In fact, the third set lasted exactly three hours.

Toward the end, Schiavone--who had, in fact, recently sustained a groin injury--called for the trainer because she was cramping. Both players looked, from time to time, as though they might be giving out, but neither did. Both fought and fought--through heat, cramping, blisters, fatigue, and sweat. The thrills were almost non-stop, and the match included 17 breaks of serve. It all came down to who would finally blink, and--not surprisingly--that was Kuznetsova. But really, there was so little to differentiate the players in this wonderful match. Schiavone, in fact, would go on to take a set off of top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the next round, but then her body gave her the message that her Australian Open run was over.


Anonymous said...

Very Well written account.

Good for you.

Thank You

Sunny nine said...

Thanks, Diane. This was very thorough and enjoyable. I enjoyed the year but there were some sad goodbyes and injuries. At least Allaster did change her tune and will hopefully keep it there. You think like I do. It seemed like the heavy-handed campaign against the female grunting started at Wimbledon. I remember some W officials stating negative things about the subject. I always thought that they thought their precious Centre Court would be ruined by a Sharapova-Azarenka final. If only people see that these two are popular and good for the game. I wrote an e-mail to the WTA describing my feelings because I feel the "squeaky wheels" are getting the attention. Promoters want Sharapova for exos because people show up-such as the exo at MSG next March. Renae Stubbs said that Azarenka is a crowd pleaser everywhere she goes. My point is just that there is no evidence that the majority dislike watching these two or others.
But there was a lot that was fun. I was so pleased with Kvitova. Maybe because her arc was so perfect. She won an international in 2009, another in 2011, after that a small premier, after that a mandatory premier, after that a major (then another international)and then crowned it off w the WTCs. I mean pretty cool, huh? I hope the rise and consistency continues and that the other top women start really wanting "it", hungry.
I guess I wrote a lot.
Thanks again.

Todd Spiker said...

Stats can be strange. A few oddball factoids:

1) even with a seemingly "worse" year behind her than in '10, Pennetta's year-end ranking actually went up (from #24 to #20)

2) Kuznetsova, too, from #27 to #19

3) meanwhile, Petrova won her first singles title since '08, but fell from #15 to #29

4) Wozniacki was 62-17 in 2010, and 63-17 in 2011... but she seems "worse off" now than twelve months ago

Diane said...

Anon and Sunny--thanks so much for you comments.

Wow, Todd. "Reading" the rankings seems to require something like a tennis Rosetta Stone.

Anonymous said...

Stosur was the finalist in Toronto not Azarenka. Great write up though. I think Sharapova deserves a bit more notice though !!

Diane said...

I have no idea where that came from--thanks for the catch!

I did go back and forth a bit about Sharapova. If thee were a top 11 or 12, she would have made it :)

And thank you.

Unknown said...

Hey! Nice write up Diane and a very thorough analysis of the year that was....
Some interesting analysis regarding the performance of the year end top players. I hope you will enjoy :)

Diane said...

Thanks, Omair.

Yes, I did enjoy those.