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November 11, 2011 Article

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Female Player Of The Year 2011
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Four different women captured the four Slams of 2011, even as a fifth player earned the #1 ranking for the year. It was a time where older superstars, beset by physical troubles, saw their prominence overtaken by younger players. Veterans Kim Clijsters and the sisters Williams spent most 2011 on the sidelines, though both Kim and Serena had significant, lustrous spells. All three relinquished their places in the preceding year's Top Five. Meanwhile another perennial leader, Justine Henin, retired from the sport early in 2011, in part because of a bad elbow. The door thus opened for the emergence of a new monarchy.
Australian Swing
Kim Clijsters won Australian Open in January, reaffirming her dominance atop the sport that reached back to her triumphs at U.S. Open 2010 and the Year-End finale in Doha. Widely admired was the relentless play in Australia of Chinese star, Li Na, whose drumfire of accurate and potent groundstrokes won the tune-up at Sydney and reached the final at the Open itself.
Two split-setters decided the championship at Melbourne Park. In semi-final action Caroline Wozniacki answered the heavy stroking of Li with defensive heroics, meanwhile blending in power of her own in efforts to shake off her opponent's pressure. It was an unaccustomed role for Caroline, and she succumbed at the finish, no longer fresh after her defensive exertions early-on. Then against Kim Clijsters in the Saturday-evening final, 29 January, Li won the first set, her hitting steadier than Kim's. But once Kim found the patience and consistency lacking early-on, her own heavy blows -- administered selectively and without Kim's sometime spells of impatience -- proved weightier than Na's, whose superb play seen throughout the month now began to fray.
The year-to-date standings after Australia largely represented the results at Melbourne Park:

2011 points as of January 31
1. Clijsters
2. Li
3. Wozniacki, Zvonareva (tied)
Miami Swing
Three of the year's nine Premier Mandatory/Premier Five tournaments followed Australia. All were outdoors on hard courts, and each carried about half the points awarded in Slams. Caroline Wozniacki won two of these events (Dubai and Indian Wells), while Victoria Azarenka won Miami. Wozniacki after winning Indian Wells took over the year-to-date #1 place. Shoulder and wrist injuries would limit Clijsters's success after Australia.
2011 points as of April 4
1. Wozniacki
2. Clijsters
3. Zvonareva
Garros Swing
Other players would soon emerge to challenge the Danish princess. Two of them would divide the two Premier Mandatory/Premier Five events that are played on clay. Rising star Petra Kvitova captured Madrid, defeating Azarenka in the final, and Maria Sharapova would win the Italian, defeating Sam Stosur. Meanwhile Li Na's fortunes, which had turned downward, now took another turnaround as Na reached the semis on clay at both Madrid and Rome.
The Chinese star's greatest moment then unfolded. The depth, power, and consistency of Na's groundstrokes were seen once again as Li drove through six straight wins at Roland Garros to reach her second Slam final of the year. Along the way Na defeated both Azarenka and Sharapova in straight sets.
Li's final-round opponent was Francesca Schiavone, the defending Garros champion from 2010. From the outset Francesca proved unable to withstand Na's ceaseless battering, while Francesca's own softer and often sliced deliveries provided Na with easy target practice. The Italian veteran surged briefly toward the finish but was swept away quickly in the concluding second-set tiebreaker. Li Na thus became champion of Garros and once again second in the year-to-date points race.
2011 points as of June 6
1. Wozniacki
2. Li
3. Azarenka
Wimbledon Swing
Wimbledon would be for the younger players, as Li would lose her second match -- a split-setter against the European riser Sabine Lisicki. Meanwhile Wozniacki, 21, would win three matches on the fabled grass, enough to sustain her place at #1.
Two powerful 21-year-olds -- Petra Kvitova and Belarus-born Victoria Azarenka -- staged a fine split-setter in the Wimbledon semis. Kvitova's more potent serve and easier power off the ground carried the day. Then in the final against Maria Sharapova, the young Czech star's left-handed sliced serving, helped by the grass surface, produced many weak serve-returns or errors by Maria, even as Maria double-faulted away her chances at critical moments in the first set. The second set was played at an exhilarating level, the score staying close most of the way, but it was Maria who faltered late against Petra's sustained forcefulness.
2011 points as of July 4
1. Wozniacki
2. Li
3. Kvitova
U.S. Open Swing
As summer unfolded in North America, Maria Sharapova was now serving and striking with her old authority. Maria won the Premier Five at Cincinnati, and climbed past Li into second place for the year to date.
Meanwhile Serena Williams returned to action after a year of absence forced by injury and illness. The powerful American was probably not yet fully ready for prime action, but she had registered several wins at Wimbledon. Then she won the Premier Mandatory in Canada and soon afterwards marched to the final at U.S. Open.
For me it is Sam Stosur's final-round triumph over Serena at the Open that seems the year's most memorable moment. Many observers expected a one-sided match, but it was a rare prophet who correctly foresaw the identity of the winner, especially after Serena showed unmatched levels of both offensive and defensive prowess in crushing Wozniaki in the semis. Meanwhile Stosur had advanced quietly, beating unseeded Angelique Kerber in a split-set semi. Angelique's unexpected advance to the semis had been helped by Kvitova's and Sharapova's early-round losses.
A U.S. Open triumph for Serena would have been a climactic moment in a magnificent return to the sport. But it was not to be. Samantha would overwhelm Serena in straight sets, delivering severe spin serving and blistering forehand work that lifted Sam's game to its absolute highest level. Meanwhile Serena's erratic play undermined her usual big weaponry with only brief exceptions.
Afterwards Serena would again depart from tour competition, apparently again troubled with injuries. Samatha's triumph would lift her to #6 in the points race. But through it all it was Wozniacki who stayed on top. There had been shoulder trouble and a withdrawal in July followed by first-match defeats in Canada and Cincinnati. But Caroline won the New Haven tune-up and then won five matches at U.S. Open, losing in the semis to Serena.
2011 points as of September 13
1. Wozniacki
2. Sharapova
3. Li
4. Kvitova
5. Azarenka
Year-End Swing
Emerging from the Far East sequence in October was Polish star Agnieszka Radwanska, who won the Premier Mandatory at Tokyo and the Premier Five at Beijing, thereby moving into the first eight. Sharapova, still in second place, hurt an ankle in Tokyo and withdrew from Beijing.
The top eight assembled in Istanbul for the year-end championships late in October. All matches were well-attended. The enclosed court gave a slowish bounce and good traction without the stickiness that had plagued Rebound Ace surfaces when formerly used in Australia amid high temperatures and direct Sun.
Caroline Wozniacki won only one of her round-robin matches, but that was enough to assure her the #1 place in the final 2011 rankings. Sharapova lost twice and then withdrew from the event. Meanwhile two 22-or-unders, both closing on superstardom, advanced to the Sunday final in a showdown that would determine the year's #2.
Petra Kvitova had won her round-robin half without losing a set and had then survived a split-set semi with Sam Stosur. Across the net was Victoria Azarenka -- unbeaten at Istanbul except for a meaningless Friday loss to Marion Bartoli, who had replaced Sharapova. Now, Azarenka played solidly with good power and avoidance of error, offering deep and forceful stroking. Vika's was a relentless ground game that forced Kvitova to take risks in creating openings. Petra, it developed, was entirely willing to take this role. Thus the ups and downs on the scoreboard largely reflected Kvitova's play.
In winning the first five games, Petra delivered her top game -- the superb lefty serve, the sizzling and deceptive forehand to the corners, the fine variety in spin, tactics, and placement. But suddenly Petra's rockets began to misfire, and the Czech star's magic reappeared only narrowly, just in time to save the first set but too weakly to deny Victoria the second.
Azareka nearly broke serve in the first game of the third set, but it was she who then faltered, losing serve in the second game after leading 30-Love. Both players played well thereafter, but now Petra's severe serve to the wide backhand corner took command, and the Czech star rode that advantage to win her last four serving games and claim her victory.
2011 WTA Final Standings (Nov 7)
1. Wozniacki
2. Kvitova
3. Azarenka
4. Sharapova
5. Li
Thus Caroline Wozniacki captured the year's crown at #1 for the second straight year, again without winning a Slam and despite a W-L record of only 2-3 in 2011 head-to-head play against the other members of the just-mentioned top five. With the top three all aged 22 or under, it seemed clear that the sport's old order had passed.
The existence of an official point system for determining the annual pro champion came soon after the start of Open tennis. Before that, world rankings were based on subjective year-end evaluations of player results, especially at the Slams. Disagreements and resentments were frequent. Tilden sometimes wrote of his dream of a universally recognized point system for all players.
Thus for me, the WTA and ATP point systems are wonderfully close to perfection. They provide a well-defined structure comparing the running performances of all pros, from the topmost superstars through the newly beginning pros. Slams are given about twice the weight of the women's higher Premier tournaments and the men's Master's-1,000's.
Two changes seem desirable in the WTA scheme. (1) Fed Cup individual results should be included, at least to the moderate extent used for including Davis Cup in the men's rankings, and (2) the points awarded to champions of events should be increased relative to amounts for runners-up and others. (An event's runner-up now receives 70% as many points as the champion in the WTA scheme but, sensibly, only 60% in the ATP. Two second-place Slam finishes thus trump one Slam crown; indeed, three trump two in the WTA.) The change would make it less likely that a WTA player could attain #1 ranking without winning a Slam.
Missing from the Russian singles line-up in Moscow, 5-6 November, were top-tenners Maria Sharapova (no surprise here) and Cup stalwart Vera Zvonareva, out with shoulder injury. The balance of strength thus favored the visiting team from Czech Republic, led by Petra Kvitova. Russian hopes depended heavily on Cup veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, who had contributed a singles win in each of Russia's victories earlier this year and shared in the deciding doubles win against the Slovaks.
The two primes both came through in first-day straight-setters. Kvitova defeated Russian Maria Kirilenko, and Kuznetsova defeated another Czech lefty, Lucie Safarova. Kvitova's win was the more impressive, Petra displaying her full all-court weaponry -- the power from deep, the quickness to the ball for the attack, the penetrating approaches, and the excellent net work. Kuznetsova's victory was more routine, as a subpar Lucie contributed many double-faults and other nervous mistakes. Russia 1, Czech Republic 1.
The drama and crowd engagement were extreme as Kvitova and Kuznetsova faced off to start the second-day action. Amid double-faults and many breaks of serve, Kuznetsova's defensive and countering ability made it difficult for Kvitova to produce her rocketry without making too many errors. To start the third set the Russian veteran won the first three games. But Kvitova won the last six games, winning all twelve of her serving points meanwhile squeezing out three consecutive breaks of Svetlana's serve. On display at the finish was Petra's devastating attacking game at its best.
Next, suspense stayed high as the heavier game of Russian substitute Anastasia Pavluchenkova, age 20, broke down Safarova's in straight sets. Russia 2, Czech Republic 2.
Fed Cup 2012 thus rested on the fifth match, the doubles. All four doubles nominees stood high in world doubles rankings. The Russian pair, Kirilenko-Vesnina, moved ahead early, but the combination of Lucie Hradecka's heavy hitting and Kveta Peshke's craft turned matters around and produced a convincing straight-set win for the Czechs.
It was the first Fed Cup triumph for the Czechs since Czechoslovakia won its fifth in 1988. It was also another laurel for Petra Kvitova, who won all six of her Cup matches during 2011, all in singles and all meaningful to the team outcomes.
Late last April we calculated a list identifying the seven most-pronounced risers and projecting their future rankings twelve months ahead. (The selections rested mainly on each player's recent pattern of improvement, as seen in the year's first trimester, just completed.) We now check to see how well our seven selectees have performed to date.
Vastly exceeding the bright future we predicted has been Petra Kvitova, who at the time of the prediction was officially ranked #19. Our calculations placed her to reach #10 one year hence. In actuality, Petra's successes, including winning Wimbledon and her triumph at Istanbul, have made her the world's #1 performer for the period since April.
Also on our April list was Bosnia-born German star Andrea Petkovic, who in April was officially ranked #15 and was here predicted to reach #8 one year ahead. A powerful all-court competitor, Andrea had steadily moved upward after returning from a knee injury in 2008. She now ranks #11 for the period since our April prediction, having reached the final eight at Toronto and U.S. Open and the final round at Beijing. Recent knee problems spoiled her bid to qualify for Istanbul.
One other member of our April list has also followed an upward path, though slower than we expected. We projected that Peng Shuai, then #30, would reach #11 one year hence. Since then, Shuai reached the final sixteen at both Wimbledon and U.S. Open and overall ranks at #19 for the period since our prediction.
Our other April listees have failed to move upward. Julia Goerges was officially ranked #27 in April. Following a back injury Julia attained the final 32 at all three of the ensuing Slams, placing her ranking at #27 for the period since the prediction. Meanwhile the other three members of our April list -- Rebecca Marino of Canada, Bojana Jovanovski of Serbia, and Ayumi Morita of Japan -- have slipped below their earlier trajectory. All three have shown some success in early rounds but have been generally unable to defeat seeded players.
We did a fresh prediction in early August following the year's second trimester, again identifying seven risers for the next twelve months. One player appeared on both April and August lists -- Petra Kvitova, whose Wimbledon crown during the second trimester mainly explained her new predicted rank of #1. Although she lost in an early round at U.S. Open, Petra's triumph at Istanbul keeps that projection within reasonable expectation.
Four other August listees also showed improved results in the year's final third. But neither Lisicki, Pervak, Hercog, nor Stephens have quite met the level of performance we projected. Closest to doing so was American Sloane Stephens, age 18, then #112 and predicted for #67, who has actually performed at #73.
Our newest list, freshly calculated, is primarily based on performance in 2011's third trimester. It introduces improved adjustments for age, height, and statistical regression, all based on empirical data from earlier in the year. Here then are the seven candidates newly selected by our computer -- the players likely to rise the most in the year ahead. (Players previously in the world's top eight are excluded.)
Laura Robson, 17, 5-11
previous best ranking, #176
ranking for 3rd trimester, #58
Young, tall, and left-handed, this Britisher, born in Australia, seems plainly headed upward. Her third-trimester results included three qualifying-round wins and a first-round main-draw win at U.S. Open, prior to losing to a seeded player, Medina Garrigues. Similarly in Tokyo, after a first-round win she lost to seeded Ivanovic in two close sets, and in Beijing she won in the qualifiers but then lost to Hercog. Officially ranked #133 for 2011, her predicted ranking for all of 2012 is #46.
Angelique Kerber, 23, 5-8
previous best ranking, #45
ranking for 3rd Trimester, #11
From a best-ever ranking of #45, Angelique's ranking deteriorated in early 2011 after a succession of first-round losses. Many of these defeats were split-setters, including several against much-higher-ranked players. A left-hander from Germany, Angelique posted improved results in the third trimester including semi-final appearances at the Dallas tune-up for U.S. Open and also at the Open itself. The good performances continued in the fall Asian sequence, including a split-set loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in Tokyo and a semi-final appearance in Osaka. Officially ranked #33 for 2011, her predicted ranking one year hence is #13.
Monica Niculescu, 24, 5-6
previous best ranking, #44
ranking for 3rd trimester, #13
Monica, from Romania, at W-L 17-6 scored well this trimester, winning three times at U.S. Open before losing to Kerber and winning six times (two in qualifying matches) at Beijing, before finally losing to Petkovic. She tnen reached the final in Luxembourg, losing to Azarenka. Officially now at #29, her predicted ranking one year hence is #19.
Mona Barthel, 21, 6-1
previous best ranking, #101
ranking for 3rd trimester, #44
Strong results in ITF-circuit play and moderate success in limited main-tour action raised this German player this year. Her strong third trimester included two triumphs in ITF events and a runner-up finish at the Bronx ITF to go with a strong run to the semis at the main-tour event in Copenhagen. Her youth and height improve her probability of further rise. Officially at #67 for 2011, our computer predicts her at #41 for 2012.
Christina McHale, 19, 5-7
previous best ranking, #64
ranking for 3rd trimester, #34
This teen-ager from New Jersey scored a 10-6 W-L record in the third trimester, nearly all against top-hundred opponents. She defeated Wozniacki in Cincinnati and then Bartoli at U.S. Open, though she lost to both top-tenners in later engagements. There is ample power and variety in her play, and her mental readiness for higher roles seems obvious. Finishing 2011 officially at #42, her predicted rank for 2012 is #28.
Chanelle Scheepers, 27, 5-9
previous best ranking, #65
ranking for 3rd trimester, #17
Chanelle's good results in the third semester (W-L record of 17-6) came as a surprise. The South African player won the tournament in Guangzhou, defeating Kirilenko, and consistently reached middle or late rounds elsewhere. She reached the third round at U.S. Open and then lost in split sets to Schiavone. Currently #38, her predicted ranking one year hence is #35.
Petra Martic, 20, 5-11
previous best ranking #63
ranking forthird trimester, #40
A strong third trimester by this Croatian baseliner, including emerging from the qualifiers to advance to the final 16 at Cincinnati and final 32 in Canada, lifted Martic into our select group. Officially at #49 for 2011, a finish at #34 for 2012 is envisioned here.
Also worthy of note are several other improving players, all under 22, whose names have closely missed appearing on any of our watch lists to date:
--Heather Watson (Britain), 19, 5-7, current official rank #92, projected #64.
--Urszula Radwanska (Poland), 20, 5-10, official rank #109, projected #45.
--Coco Vandeweghe (U.S.A.), 19, 6-1, official rank #127, projected #57.
--Irina-Camelia Begu (Romania), 21, 5-11, official rank #40.
We now announce our female nominee for Player of the Year 2011. Admittedly, the year's honors in women's tennis were widely spread, but the achievements of one player lifted her candidacy clearly above all others. Close readers here will already have guessed her name.
Petra Kvitova's winning of Wimbledon and Istanbul, her wonderful contribution in her nation's winning of Fed Cup 2011, along with her role as the year's top riser, together leave little room for argument.
Next month upon completion of the 2011 men's tour, we will choose our male nominee. In then deciding which of our nominees, Kvitova or our male choice, will become our overall Player of the Year, Petra will offer a powerful resume.
--Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


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