Monday, November 17, 2014

2014--year of the unexpected

In some great ways, and in some not so good ways, expectations were often not met in the 2014 season. The player expected to have a superior season had (her version of) a mediocre season right to the last quarter. A beloved player we hoped to see at least one more year was forced to leave the tour because of chronic injury, and two players who had faded from the spotlight decided it was time to get back in it and shine.

Players surprised us throughout the year. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova suddenly started playing her best tennis ever and reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Her former doubles partner, the talented Iveta Melzer, retired from the sport. Victoria Azarenka remained in the shadows because of her health, Laura Robson couldn't play because of ongoing injury issues, and Ashleigh Barty mysteriously left the tour "indefinitely."

There was more. Caroline Wozniacki ran the New York City Marathon in an outstanding time of three hours, 26 minutes and 33 seconds. Former world number 1 Amelie Mauresmo became the second woman (Nicolay Davydenko's wife, Irina, coached him for a brief period while he was still in the top 10) to coach a top ATP player. Andy Murray's hiring of Mauresmo set off the expected explosion of sexism, misogyny and gay-hating, but Amelie and Andy just went about their business.

Making a major comeback was Andrea Petkovic, who finally recovered from multiple injuries and changed her playing style in order to protect herself from further injury. Petko won Charleston, Bad Gastein and the Tournament of Champions, and worked her way all the way up to a number 13 ranking. Also, seemingly out of the blue, Mijana Lucic-Baroni reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, upsetting 2nd seed Simona Halep on her way there. This was Lucic-Baroni's best showing at a major since 1999, when she reached the Wimbledon semifinals.

Vicky Duval was successfully treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Melanie Oudin experienced an unfortunate day in the gym and had to have heart surgery, which was followed by eye surgery.

Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai surprised us by announcing they were ending their partnership. Peng made it to the U.S. Open semifinals, but had to retire because of a scary episode of severe cramping, followed by an equally scary attempt to remain on the court.

The WTA's Pocket Rocket, Dominika Cibulkova, made it to final of the Australian Open. Sania Mirza and her Forehand of Fire, along with Cara Black, won the WTA Finals, and Mirza won her third mixed doubles title. Venus Williams won in Dubai and is currently number 18 in the world.

There were a couple of victories--both surprises--that really stood out this year. Flavia Pennetta won Indian Wells, beating Sam Stosur, Dominika Cibulkova and Li Na along the way. The 32-year-old Fighting Italian, enjoying one of the greatest moments of her career, showed us yet again that the veterans are in charge.

And then there was the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery. In a remarkable run, Tsvetana Pironkova finally won a WTA tournament, and she did it in high style. Pironkova won Sydney as a qualifier, playing eight matches in eight days, and defeating three top 10 players--Sara Errani, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber.

Two former number 1 players, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic, came back blazing this year, determined to show that they are still part of the important mix. Wozniacki won a title and Ivanovic won four titles. Wozniacki also reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Ekaterina Makarova had a great year, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open and winning the event in doubles with partner Elena Vesnina. Alize Cornet gave us some (as expected) entertaining tennis, and wound up at number 19 in the world. And the talented Carla Suarez Navarro, after many attempts, won her first WTA title. Angelique Kerber, though she had a somewhat disappointing year, provided us with major thrills when she defeated Maria Sharapova in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Four young players came out blazing, too. Garbine Muguruza, Belinda Bencic, Karolina Pliskova, and Elina Svitolina established themselves as the young players to keep an on next year. Muguruza (who also won a title as a qualifier--just a week after Pironkova did it) is already in the top 20.

Aleksandra Krunic, whom many of us have admired in Fed Cup play, put on an unforgettable show as a qualifier at this year's U.S. Open. She upset Petra Kvitova and took Victoria Azarenka to the edge in the round of 16.

Not all of the goings-on took place on court:

World number 2 Maria Sharapova added gummy Porsches to her Sugarpova candy line, and put her name on Avon's new fragrance, Luck.

Eugenie Bouchard showed up dressed in a kimono for a press conference.

The ubiquitous Marion Bartoli, the retired 2013 Wimbledon champion, created a line of jewelry, and a line of shoes and shoe accessories, raised money for charities, played in several exhibition matches, sang La Marseillaise at an All England Club dinner, played World Team Tennis, did tennis broadcasting in both French and English, and won the first-ever WTA Finals legends event.

Here are my personal top 10 2014 occurrences, in ascending order:

10. Army of me: Genie Bouchard--at least for the first half of the season--made an impression on the tour not soon to be forgotten. The Canadian star, with her singing, stuffed animal-tossing Genie Army, made headlines when she reached the semifinals of both the Australian Open and the French Open and the final of Wimbledon. She was, in fact, the first Canadian woman to ever reach the semifinals of two majors. Bouchard also won the Nurnberg tournament and was a finalist in both Wuhan and Osaka.

Wimbledon was Bouchard's undoing, however, as she was run over by Petra Kvitova in under an hour. The Canadian star's season wasn't the same after that, as she dealt with injury and what appeared to be some degree of fatigue. The media attention alone couldn't have been that easy for her to handle; the woman nicknamed "Princess" was treated like one 24-7 by the star-making systems of the world. Certainly, all eyes will be on the world number 7 as the 2015 season opens, and Bouchard gets a chance to show just how good she really is.

9. Romanian royalty: If Genie Bouchard is a warrior princess, then Simona Halep is a clever queen, mostly keeping her own counsel and winning people over with a nuanced combination of confidence and humility. After having a huge 2013 season, in which she won six titles, it was almost inevitable that the Romanian star would experience some type of letdown in 2014. Looking back at the season, it seems possible that, if Halep had stayed healthy, there might not have been any letdown at all. But she suffered chronic injuries to her feet and back, and how she handles those injuries will most likely determine her fate in the future.

Her season was hardly a washout. Halep won Doha and Bucharest, and she made it the final of the French Open, in which she took Maria Sharapova to three thrilling sets. Halep's confidence deflated, however, when she played Serena Williams in the Singapore final. Now number 3 in the world (she was number 2 earlier in the season), Halep has established herself as the elite player some of us have always expected her to become. Her 2015 should be great--if she can stay healthy.

8. Czech Republic of Champions: Some players totally thrive during Fed Cup competition. Two of those players are Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, and since both of them play for the Czech Republic, their nation was able to grab a third Fed Cup title in just four years. The Czech Republic beat Spain, then defending champion Italy, and--in the final--Germany. Kvitova won the first and third rubbers and Safarova won the second. The third rubber, in which Kvitova played Angelique Kerber, was a three-hour thriller which gave Kvitova won of her finest winning moments.

7. We're not going anywhere: For a while, it looked as though Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci might lose their hold on the number 1 ranking. The Italian pair got off to a roaring start this season, however, by winning the Australian Open. They were the runners-up at the French Open, and then they won Wimbledon, giving them a Career Slam, something accomplished by only four other teams in the Open Era. Errani and Vinci also won Stuttgart, Madrid and Montreal, retained their number 1 ranking and were named Doubles Team of the Year.

6. I love Paris in the springtime: Maria Sharapova, the 2012 French Open champion, did it again in 2014. Sharapova had to get past 2010 finalist Sam Stosur, clay upstart Garbine Muguruza and the dangerous Genie Bouchard, to get to the final. And then came her greatest test--a fight for the title against Simona Halep, who threw everything she had--which is a lot--at Sharapova in what was one of the best matches of the year. Sharapova, who is now the world number 2, defeated Halep 6-4, 6-7, 6-4.

5. And this was a "bad" year: World number 1 Serena Williams was going after her 18th singles major this year, and for most of the season, things just didn't click for her. She lost to Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open round of 16, and as defending champion at the French Open, she was taken out by Garbine Muguruza in the second round. At Wimbledon, Williams was defeated in the third round by Alize Cornet. That left the U.S. Open, and--in true Serena fashion--the top seed came though for the title, defeating close friend Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Williams would go on to win the WTA Finals in Singapore and to be named Player of the Year.

4. One bagel, with everything: Some people called it the greatest set of tennis ever played by a woman. To be accurate, the entire Australian Open quarterfinal that Agnieszka Radwanska played against Victoria Azarenka was a dazzling display of tennis by the Polish star. The third set, however, was beyond dazzling, as Radwanska got into a zone not of this world, topping even herself in terms of artistry, speed, creativity, and athleticism.

I checked my post that followed the match, and in it, I said "I caught myself gasping and exclaiming throughout the final set." That about says it all. Radwanska defeated Azarenka 6-1, 5-7, 6-0. Sadly, she had next to nothing left in her semifinal round, in which she was easily defeated by Dominika Cibulkova.

3. Third time's the charm: She finally did it. Li Na won the Australian Open. She couldn't hold her nerve against Kim Clijsters in 2011, and in 2013, she couldn't stay upright on the court against Victoria Azarenka. These were tough losses because Li played so well in both finals. This year, though, she said that her "special" preparation was "not falling down," and she was able to control her anxiety on the court. Li defeated Dominika Cibulkova 7-6, 6-0 and collected her second major trophy. Her acceptance speech, which became an instant hit, began with a thank you to her agent for making her rich, and only got better from there.

2. Pojd!: When Petra Kvitova is switched on, she becomes like a force of nature and cannot be stopped. The 2011 Wimbledon champion got switched on again at the All England Club this year, hitting 207 winners (15 fewer than she hit in 2011) and getting a boost along the way by having to fight off an impressively in-form Venus Williams in the third round. She faced off with Eugenie Bouchard in the final, and by this time, the tennis press had its collective head stuck so far up Montreal, an easy win was predicted for the Canadian star.

Maybe Kvitova heard she was supposed to lose to an upstart. Maybe she ate just the right number of pineapples. Maybe she just felt it. The fact remains: From the moment Petra stepped onto Centre Court to play in the final, she was explosively efficient. It wasn't that Bouchard played badly--she didn't. Bouchard was just never really allowed to enter the match, so aggressive and in control was Kvitova. The Barking Czech defeated her opponent 6-3, 6-0 in under an hour, and that was that.

Some called it the most masterful performance in the history of Wimbledon finals. Quite a statement, considering that--just 24 hours earlier--they had predicted Kvitova's defeat.

1. Fly away home: Petra Kvitova had three wonderful tennis moments this year. Two I have already covered. The third was the speech she gave on behalf of the tour's players at the retirement ceremony of Li Na. It was practically a given that Kvitova, Li's very close friend, would be selected to give the speech at a ceremony that was given a touch of the Beijing Olmypics treatment in terms of visuals. It ended with a weeping Li making a walk around the stadium as "We love you, Li Na!" was shouted in several languages. She deserved no less.

"The bird that sticks out," known in her country as Big Sister Na, is an iconic figure. Part star athlete, part role model for courage, part standup comic--Li is respected worldwide not only for what her presence has done for Asian tennis and for the WTA, but also for her refusal to accept any terms that are are unjust or unreasonable. Often treated harshly by the news media in her country, Li nevertheless persevered in seeking for herself--and ultimately, for many others--a life in sports that she could embrace with integrity and self-respect.

After enduring years of knee pain and weakness, Li had to call it quits. Her retirement from the sport is a loss to tennis, a loss to the tour and a loss to fans worldwide. The winner of the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, Li Na was so much more than even her impressive titles. Kvitova, at the end of her speech, said it best: "Thank you for being our opponent. Thank you for being our inspiration. Thank you for being our friend."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Czech Republic wins third Fed Cup title in four years

No team has ever lost the first two rubbers of a Fed Cup final and come back to win the title. That was the job facing Germany today in Prague, and Angelique Kerber gave her all, but in the end, a tired, hurting Petra Kvitova found a way to defeat Kerber 7-6, 4-6, 6-4.
"It's for your country," said Kvitova after the match, "but always when you are not feeling great and you don't have enough energy, you always find something and I'm not sure where I found it. I am just glad that I found it."

The three-hour match was a course in "Kvitology," so to speak. The Czech star relentlessly bombarded the court with an equal number of winners and unforced errors--dozens of them. Kerber led 5-2 in the first set, but Kvitova brought the set to a tiebreak. The German went down 0-3 in the second set, but then quickly won a succession of games. She was also down 1-4 in the third, but then made that set as competitive as the other two had been.

It was a match full of twists and turns, and most of them appeared to be related to the very high stress of the occasion. Kvitova was playing for the championship; Kerber was playing to keep Germany in the contest. Both players are known for being somewhat mercurial. Kvitova, however, has become the Flavia Penneetta of the Czech team; actually, Lucie Safarova has become the other Flavia Pennetta--these two bring their very best effort to Fed Cup competition.

Later in the day, the dead doubles rubber was played, and the German team won it in straight sets.

The Czech Republic won Fed Cup in 2011 and 2012; Italy won in 2013.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Petko wins Tournament of Champions, Woz speeds through NYC

Andrea Petkovic won her third title of 2014 today--the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria. Petkovic defeated Flavia Pennetta 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, as the Italian faded in the final set from what appeared to be fatigue. Petkovic, whose season has turned into a successful comeback journey, is now number 14 in the world, and Pennetta (who knows more about "comeback" than anyone) is number 13.

Meanwhile, Magda Linette won the 125K Series tournament in Ningbo. Linette defeated Wang Qiang 3-6 7-5, 6-1 in the final. Top seeds Arina Rodionova and Olga Savchuk won the doubles title.

All eyes were on the New York City Marathon, however, as world number 8 Caroline Wozniacki ran the race in a very impressive 3:26:33. When she reached the finish line, her friend Serena Williams was there to put the medal on her. Wozniacki had never run a course longer than 13 miles, and she spent her weekend going to a Halloween party and attending a Rangers game.

That doesn't sound like the expected before-race training, perhaps, but the thing to remember about Wozniacki is that she has almost super-human endurance. She has said before that she can stay on the court "for hours"--she never seems to tire.

Both Petkovic and Wozniacki have had very good seasons, rebounding from misfortune and returning to excellent form.