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November 5, 2013 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Woman Of The Year
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

By almost any definition the female Player of the Year in pro tennis for 2013 would seem the strong-minded and fiery, yet often witty and often considerate woman, now aged 32, who with her older sister long ago learned the game from her parents in California. She is the woman whose power in serving and stroking, whose superior movement and agility about the court, whose mental strength at critical times, taken together, may have never been surpassed in women's tennis history. Twice before in the fifteen years of our award has Serena Williams been our honoree.
No other player came close to equaling Serena's on-court achievements this year. She won the Slams at Garros and U.S. Open, won five of the nine high-level Premium tournaments, and captured the year-end finale in Istanbul. She held the #1 ranking in the official WTA rolling-twelve-month standings from February to year's end, and she was our unofficial La Prima of tennis for much of the year. She was unquestionably the champion of women's singles, 2013.
Several other stars made noteworthy achievements during the year. Victoria Azarenka won Australian Open amid a strong early-year run and twice during the year defeated Serena -- at Doha and Cincinnati (and also by walkover at Brisbane). But various injuries to Vika produced many withdrawals and retirements. Maria Sharapova saw her year even more seriously spoiled by injuries -- hip trouble at Wimbledon and then the pesky right shoulder again later in the year. Both Vika and Maria also had spells as our La Prima.
Then there was the unexpected victory of Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon. Fifteenth-seeded, bouncy Marion, 28, captured the classic grass-court Slam without loss of set, helped by a schedule where none of her seven opponents were ranked higher than herself. Now subdued were Marion's unvarnished mannerisms of younger years -- the endless swishing at the air with her racket between points, for example. But there was still the pleasantly determined Marion that battled through to her triumph, including an impressive final-round domination of Sabine Lisicki, the player who had knocked out Serena. Sadly for her fans, a few weeks later after early-round losses in Toronto and Cincinnati, Marion announced her retirement from pro tennis.
But there is one other player who merits serious consideration for our award -- a player whose diverse qualities and accomplishments were of a kind that in the past have counted heavily in these deliberations.
The Remarkable Year of Sara Errani
Sara Errani, born in Bologna 26 years ago, broke into the world's top hundred in 2007. Sara is limited height at 5-4 but has plenty of determination and match-savvy. Last year, in 2012, she moved abruptly upward in singles, finishing as world #6. Atop her resume for the year were her reaching the final round at Garros, the semis at U.S. Open, and the quarters at the Australian.
Year 2013 began moderately well for Sara. She triumphed at Acapulco and did well at the high-level Premium tournaments in the spring, briefly improving her world ranking to a career-high #5. (She reached the final eight at Indian Wells and Miami, the final four at Madrid and Rome, and the semis at Garros, showing losses at these events only to the sport's Big Three -- Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka.) But injury troubles, seen in late 2012, also began to intrude. There were withdrawals at Charleston and Eastbourne and a first-round loss at Wimbledon.
Still, there were enough successes thereafter to sustain Sara's #6 ranking until Sara was passed by Kvitova amid that star's strong late-year run. Thus Sara's singles results in 2013, while admirable, were no better than those in 2012. Plainly, our verdict requires additional credentials.
One came with Sara's superior record in doubles, though again slightly short of her 2012 achievement. Sara and partner Roberta Vinci finished 2013 as the world's #1 doubles pair for the second consecutive year. Errani-Vinci captured Australian Open, finished second at Garros, and succeeded at other prime events for an overall W-L record of 39-11 in late October, just prior to a disappointing loss at Istanbul. Still, added recognition is owed to both Errani and Vinci given that there are nowadays few other stars competing at highest level in both singles and doubles.
Sara scored another laurel by tying for coming closest to winning the Roland Garros "triple" -- singles, doubles, and mixed, all in a single year. She collected five match-wins in reaching the semis in singles and five in reaching the final in women's doubles. (Her ten match-wins were equaled by Lucie Hradecka, who won four in women's doubles and six in mixed.)
One other realm remained that offered Sara opportunity for extraordinary achievement in 2013. And it was there that she performed what was probably her most satisfying contribution of the year.
Fed Cup 2013
Italy's recent Fed Cup history had been illustrious. The pair of Schiavone and Pennetta had borne the effort in winning the Cup in 2009 and 2010. The two veterans shared the load in 2011, now joined by Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, who took over the singles in the mid-season loss to the Russians in Moscow. All four contributed again in 2012, which ended when Schiavone lost twice and Errani once in singles against Czech Republic, the eventual champion.
Errani and Vinci carried the full on-court load in 2013. In February, the pair defeated U.S.A. on Italian clay. The singles matches were split 2-2, both Italian women beating American Hampton and both losing to American Lepchenko, whose performance far exceeded expectations based on rankings. Then Errani-Vinci comfortably defeated a strong but first-time American pairing, Huber-Lepchenko, to capture the team victory. Then in April, Errani and Vinci defeated last year's champion nation, Czech Republic, Italy hosting the Czechs on clay. Sara again split her two singles matches, defeating Safarova and losing to Kvitova after winning the first set. The bigger hero was Vinci, who beat both Czech opponents.
The Cup final round came 2-3 November 2013. It was Italy against Russia, outdoors on Sardinian clay. The affair was blemished by Russia's inability to bring its top players, so that the Italian victory seemed assured at the outset.
But the script was not that simple. The Italian players had been competing for several months almost entirely on hard courts, of late indoors. The opening match on Saturday nearly went to the Russian Alexandra Panova, 24, who was taller and a stronger hitter than her opponent, Vinci. Panova, who in September had won two ITF-Circuit events on clay, played well -- delivering many fine rockets to the sides and corners, generally holding her own while exploiting periodic spells of errors by her opponent. Serving at Love-40 late in the second set, Panova held three match points to close out matters. Probably unwisely, Alexandra was now playing very carefully, indeed defensively, as Vinci had just contributed a run of unforced errors. But at the brink of defeat, the Italian veteran stopped her error-making, fighting back to equalize and eventually win the match. Vinci appeared to have been lifted by the presence of Schiavone and Pennetta, who wildly encouraged their troubled team-mate and who changed ends with each changeover in order to be close-by.
First blood thus went to Italy. Next, Errani more comfortably defeated lefty Khromacheva, 18. Sara had not appeared on clay in nearly four months, but she showed greater power than the still-maturing Russkaya, so the day ended as expected, 2-0 for Italy. Sara completed the winning of the Cup in the first match on Sunday, defeating Klebanova in two short sets.
In another year, Sara's achievements might have been enough to earn our selection. But the Fed Cup triumph, while praiseworthy, was somewhat tarnished -- (1) all the meets were played on home-nation clay and (3) the top Russians were absent. Moreover, Sara's singles and doubles tournament results fell short of 2012's. However interesting and diverse, the dimensions of Sara's 2013 accomplishments were plainly overshadowed by those of Serena Williams, especially when punctuated by Serena's riveting performance in closing out her tennis year in Istanbul.
The annual round-robin of the year's eight top women began in Istanbul on Tuesday, 22 October. With Sharapova still sidelined, Serena and Azarenka seemed the clear favorites. Both moved through the first day of the round-robin phase, but on Wednesday an error-prone Azarenka lost to Jankovic, whose performance during the year had returned to elite level though without wide attention.
Petra Kvitova and Serena met on the third day, the winner to assure herself a berth in the final four. Petra's lefty serving, always effective indoors, along with her powerful stroking had swept aside defensive-minded Agnieszka Radwanska earlier in the week, but these weapons proved unproblematic for Serena. Meanwhile Sara Errani, outgunned, showed her variety of game but lost twice -- keeping the score close against Azarenka but not quite as close against the heavy blows of Li Na.
Serena had moved through the round-robin phase scarcely threatened by any of her three foes. But serious troubles arose in her Saturday semi-final. Serena won the first set but not comfortably, as her opponent, Jelena Jankovic, maintained pressure with moderately forcing, largely error-free play. Serena needed her best, but her best was hard to find. Through much of the second set, Serena was still playing half-heartedly, not serving at her full velocity, very sluggish in footwork and reaction. As Jankovic ran off with that set, it was Serena openly despairing at her own performance. A breakdown into tears seemed close.
Even during her round-robin victories, Serena had complained of physical and, especially, mental tiredness. But whatever the reason for her long torpor on Saturday, Serena eventually rediscovered the energy and will earlier lacking. Her recovery came gradually but in time to move ahead in the third set and eventually prevail. Afterwards Serena again referred to her mental fatigue, even as she questioned whether she could summon her strengths for her greater test the next day against Li Na, who like Serena was undefeated for the week.
At the start Serena again seemed below her best in footwork, quickness, and court movement, though her serving power was close to her familiar level. Still, it was not unusual for Serena to start matches softly, stepping up the power as she adjusted to her opponent and the conditions. Na, however, was at her best on this occasion, dominating from the start with firm and accurate stroking, moving ahead on the scoreboard, winning the first set by margin of two service breaks. Serena seemed to resist a little better only late in the set.
Early in set two, both players seemed at their best amid the finest tennis of the match. Serena moved ahead early and Na equalized at three-games-each. Fully composed, indeed serene, Serena was now applying her easier, superior power, extending points amid good avoidance of error but keeping up the pressure with depth, her own mobility, and full power in serving. Na could not maintain her level amid the pounding, and her own errors began to increase, her own thrusts few. Serena would capture the final nine games of the match, including all six games of set three.
It was a splendid finish for what was probably Serena's greatest year -- two Slams, the Year-End, and a W-L record for the year better than any other woman's in more than twenty years. Making her our Player of the Year 2013 is comfortable, reached without reservation or doubt.
How does one compare the greatness of tennis champions over the generations?
The most common yardstick of career greatness is in the number of Slams won. Serena's triumphs at Garros and U.S. Open 2013 brought her career Slam singles total to 17 -- sixth in the historical count, as follows:
Career Slams won (as of end, 2013)
-- Margaret Smith Court, 24
-- Steffi Graf, 22
-- Helen Wills Moody, 19
-- Chris Evert, 18
-- Martina Navratilova, 18
-- Serena Williams, 17
-- Billie Jean King, 12
In a review 4.5 years ago, we noted that Serena was then aged 27.5 and had won ten Slams, seventh in the simple Slam count. Wondering about her chances for rising in the tally, we counted the Slams won by the historic leaders after reaching that age. The most successful in winning late-age Slams (after age 27.5) were:
Slams won after age 27.5
-- Navratilova won ten, the last at age 33
-- Smith Court won eight, the last at 31
-- King won seven, the last at 32
-- Evert won five, the last at 31
We now know that Serena at age 32 has won seven Slams after age 27.5. In doing so, she has roughly equaled the patterns established by the past giants, despite her several extended absences.
Probably 2014 -- Serena's 33rd year -- will be an important one for Serena's ultimate Slam count. Her closeness to third place in the simple count of Slams is tantalizing, though her stated wish to surpass Margaret Court's total of 24 seems out of reach. Graf's 22 also seem distant.
Is the fatigue Serena experienced in late 2013 not only the product of that long and arduous tennis year but also evidence of a deeper burning-out from fifteen years of competition and sacrifice?
Our growing computerized data bank and equations, developed here primarily for predictive purposes, can help in making our Riser of the Year 2013 selection. Five players emerge as leading risers of 2013, from whom we will choose our honoree. Here are the five, as ranked in one of the computer's iterations. (Shown are current age, official rank for 2013, career-best official rank prior to 2013. The last two values are used in the calculation.)
-- Simona Halep, age 22 (Romania), #11 for 2013, previous best #37.
-- Eugenie Bouchard, 19, (Canada), #32 for 2013, previous best #144.
-- Katerina Siniakova, 17 (Czech Republic), #211 for 2013, previous best #1068.
-- Ana Konjuh, 16 (Croatia), #274 for 2013, previous best #865.
-- Madison Keys, 18 (U.S.A.), #37 for 2013, previous best #137.
All five appeared on one or more of our watch lists during the year. All except Halep are teenagers. Only Halep reached the final sixteen in a Slam. Keys and Bouchard scored well in main-tour action, while the two youngest -- Konjuh and Siniakova -- performed almost entirely at lower level events.
Both Bouchard and Keys were impressive when I watched them here at Citi Open this summer. Both seem certain of greater success, and along with Sloane Stephens, who missed inclusion here narrowly, may represent the tops of the next tennis generation.
Simona Halep is somewhat older, but the sustained, indeed accelerating nature of her climb strongly argues for her selection. Simona rose on European clay this spring with a semi-final finish in Rome, then won the grass tournament at 's-Hertogenbosch, than scored triumphs at Budapest and New Haven, a final-16 finish at U.S. Open, and yet another triumph at Moscow. She ended the tennis year by winning the year-end Tournament of Champions in Sofia. She finished in the top ten of our unofficial rankings for both the second and third trimesters of the year. Thus the computer's recommendation is entirely convincing, and our female Riser of the Year is Simona Halep.
Women's pro tennis in calendar 2013 will end with a handful of ITF-Circuit events in November and December. We will count these coming results as part of First Trimester 2014. Finalized here is our newest watch list, based heavily on player results in Third Trimester 2013 (i.e., after 22 July), adjusted for player age, height, and best previous 12-month level of performance. Six of our seven nominees are teenagers. Three have appeared on an earlier watch list. (Current official rank and predicted target twelve months ahead are given.)
-- Shuai Zhang, 24, height 5-10 (China). In the weeks since U.S. Open, Zhang scored a remarkable run of success in Asia, collecting eight wins over top hundred players against a total of only four losses, including tournament triumphs at Guangzhou and Nanjing. It meant a return to the first hundred after absence of several years. Official rank now #51. Predicted target #24.
-- Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 19 (Belarus). Aliaksandra's strong run in ITF events late in Third Trimester included her triumph in the $100,000 ITF event in Poitiers, France, where she defeated four members of the second hundred including #66 Cadantu. A second triumph followed one week later in Nantes. Official rank now #135. Predicted target #88.
-- Eugenie Bouchard, 19, height 5-10 (Canada). Twelve months ago as a member of our newest watch list, Eugenie was officially ranked well outside the first hundred. She is now the world's top teenager and was a leading candidate for our 2013 Riser of the Year (above). Her strong Third Trimester followed a fourth-round finish at Wimbledon, and included a runner-up finish to Stosur at Osaka. Citing fatigue after playing 17 matches in the weeks after U.S. Open, winning 13, Eugenie ended her tennis year with a first-round loss in Luxembourg. Her tennis development and physical growth are clearly happening fast. Official rank now #32. Predicted target #15.
-- Elina Svitolina, 19, height 5-9 (Ukraine). A strong recent record against top players translated into Elina's first-time selection here. During Third Trimester 2013, she scored seven wins over top-hundred and six wins against second-hundred players, against a total of seven losses to all opponents. Early in the trimester she achieved a main-tour triumph at Baku, Azerbaijan, and she later scored wins over Cibulkova and Barthel, both ranked in the top forty. Elina is ranked #23 for the trimester, and her official rolling-12-month ranking is the third-highest among teenagers. She substituted after Kirilenko's withdawal at Tournament of Champions in Sofia but lost to both opponents. Official rank now #40. Predicted target #23.
-- Ons Jabeur, 19 (Tunisia). A triumph in the ITF pro tournament at Saguenay, Canada, in October, when Ons defeated #98 Timea Babos in the semis and #113 Coco Vandeweghe in the final, largely accounts for Ons's repeat appearance on our newest watch list. There was also a win over Jovanavski in reaching the quarters of the main-tour event in Baku in late July. She ranked unofficially #60 in her third-trimester results. Ons had regularly appeared in international juniors competition, attaining the crown at Garros 2011 and showing victories over contemporaries Bouchard, Puig, and Mestach. She attended the Justine Henin tennis academy in Belgium in 2011 planning a year's work on her education and also tennis, intending then to become a full-time tour player while making net-attack a foremost element in her playing style. She represented her country in the 2012 Olympics. Official rank now #139. Predicted target #65.
-- Victoria Duval, 17, height 5-9 (U.S.A.). Miami-born, grown in Haiti and in Florida, trained in USTA and Bollettieri programs, Victoria finished the tennis year by triumphing over a strong field in the ITF event in Toronto in a run that included a second-consecutive win over #142 Hlavackova. In her previous outing, at U.S. Open, she defeated Sam Stosur in three close sets, having won through in the qualifiers. Before that, she appeared here in Washington, losing in qualifiers but swinging away with little restraint in her stroking. Official rank now #168. Predicted target #104.
-- Belinda Bencic, 16, height 5-8 (Switzerland). Taught by Melanie Molitor, mother of Martina Hingis, Belinda learned early to be both ball-striker and tactician. She appeared on our July 2013 Watch List, having won the Juniors at Garros, Wimbledon, and Italy. During Third Trimester in WTA-tour action, she won one of three matches against opponents ranked in the first hundred and won four of five against opponents in the second hundred. Age-restriction rules will limit her pro appearances until she reaches 18. Official rank now #212. Predicted target #95.
Closing Watch-List VI
The term of Watch List VI, begun at year's-end 2012, has now ended. Summarized here are the 12-month achievements of the list's seven members. During the period, six of the seven performed at a level exceeding their previous 12-month best. Two of them surpassed their predicted targets and two others were close. Thus the group roughly equaled the most successful of previous female watch-list cohorts.
By far the class star was Eugenie Bouchard, whose current official ranking of #32 far surpasses her predicted target of #95. Also gloriously successful was Madison Keys, whose new ranking is #37 against a target of #69. Meanwhile Kristina Mladenovic, now #56, narrowly missed her target of #51 and Annika Beck, now #58, missed hers of #50. Also improving were Donna Vekic and Laura Robson, where Vekic rose more than half-way to her target.
As to Watch List VII, selected in April 2012, after two trimesters of action the results of members seem only slightly less favorable. Two members -- Madison Keys and Katerina Siniakova -- appear to be surpassing their 12-month targets, and four others have improved though not at the rate needed to attain their targets. As to Watch List VIII, after one trimester of residence three members appear on track to reach their targets -- Belinda Bencic, Ons Jabeur, and Simona Halep.
Next month we will announce our male Player of the Year. We will also name either that individual or Serena Williams as our overall Player of the Year. Similarly, either our new male Riser of the Year or Simona Halep will become our overall Riser of the Year. We will also choose our Tennis Nation of the Year and will announce our computer's selection of a new men's Watch List of predicted risers for the coming twelve months.
We here salute Simona Halep, our Riser of the Year for 2013, along with our new Watch-List selectees and those having completed their 12-month periods of test. Above all, our esteem for the historic achievements of Serena Williams continues to grow.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
Often cited here are the WTA official rankings, which are based on a rolling-12-month tally. Our unofficial calculations, however, as in choosing the watch lists, employ a different scheme -- one designed for predictive purposes. Among the differences, in our unofficial scheme (1) a player receives no credit without winning at least one match in an event, (2) Fed Cup and Hopman Cup achievements are included, (3) late-round results in the top Junior events are included though lightly weighted, (4) results beyond each player's official "best 16" are included, (5) Slam results are weighted less heavily than in the official rankings, while the increases in reward with each successive round in most events are scaled less severely, (6) results in ITF Pro Circuit events are included only for class $25,000 and up, (7) the weighting for wins in qualifier rounds of Slams and WTA events is the same for all tournaments, reflecting that large size of main draw tends to reduce strength of talent in qualifiers.

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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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