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November 11, 2014
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Woman of the Year 2014
by Ray Bowers
It had been a weakly defined year in women's pro tennis. The four Slams had been won by four different women, and four other women had been the runner-ups. The task of choosing Tennis Server's female Player of the Year for 2014 promised to be difficult.
Always, a good starting point is the year's singles champion -- the player who finishes #1 in the official WTA points scheme. This year, the great Serena Williams -- already ahead in the year-to-date race -- in late October prepared for the year-end finale in Singapore. If she did well enough at that event, it would be Serena's fourth time as the year's official #1, the second year in succession.
The Round-Robin at Singapore
Year 2014 had not been easy for Serena. Though there had been no extended periods of absence, there had been problems of back, thigh, and knee injuries as well as illnesses. As of early October she had won U.S. Open, three other next-tier tournaments (Miami, Italy, and Cincinnati), in all a total of seven singles titles, while losing a total of nine matches. Thus her record, while impressive, had been less lustrous than in the year before, 2013, when she won two Slams and six next-level tournaments (including the year-end finale) while losing a total of only five matches. But October 2014 found Serena again atop the official rankings, with a margin that left only two rivals close enough perhaps to unseat her as #1 by greater success at the showdown in Singapore.
Those two were Maria Sharapova and, with only a miniscule chance, Petra Kvitova. Serena, Maria, and Petra were the three heaviest strikers in women's pro tennis. Each of the three had captured a Slam during 2014 -- Sharapova won Garros, Kvitova Wimbledon, Serena U.S. Open. (The year's fourth Slam, Australian Open, went to Li Na, who after January won no further tournaments and, troubled by injury, late in the year announced her retirement from pro tennis.) The three were the highest seeded players at Singapore.
Officially called the WTA World Tour Finals, the finale was held at Singapore, 20-26 October. It began with round-robin action in two four-player groups, where the two leaders in each group would become the tournament semi-finalists. Serena was placed in the Red Group, Kvitova and Sharapova in the White.
In early Red Group action, Serena defeated Ana Ivanovic in two close sets, while recent riser Simona Halep, 23, displayed a balanced game based on quickness and controlled attack to embarrass the year's yet newer riser, Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, 20. Halep's skill was dazzling, blending pace and topspin in attacking Bouchard, whose more powerful game was too erratic on this occasion to break Halep's tactics.
White Group action began the second day. Quickly proven mistaken were expectations that Kvitova and Sharapova would dominate. Sharapova became entangled in a long three-setter against Caroline Wozniacki. It was Caroline's excellent defenses and frequent counter-attacking against Maria's all-out attacking game. Midway in set three it seemed that the winner would be whichever player proved able to stay ahead after achieving a service break -- a rarity in the match so far. That player turned out to be Caroline who, helped by her excellent stamina, pulled away at the finish. Later, it was Agnieszka Radwanska who prevailed over an ineffective Kvitova, whose bigger artillery found its target only occasionally. Kvitova's chances of finishing as #1 in the year's rankings were thus ended.
The second and third rounds of round-robin action produced some fine tennis, but when play ended on Friday, the four who successfully attained the semi-finals were the identical four first-round winners. Caroline Wozniacki finished the White round-robin undefeated, showing her familiar shot control and growing forcefulness in serving and striking, especially with her backhand two-hander. Agnieszka Radwanska also earned a place in the semis despite two round-robin losses. The survival among the Whites of highly mobile Wozniacki and Radwanska over heavier-striking Kvitova and Sharapova was thought to have been helped by the slow bounce produced by the court surface in the Singapore Arena.
Another surprise came in Red Group action, where Simona Halep defeated Serena Williams in the second round. Serena on that day played incomprehensibly badly, enabling Simona to dominate with her superb footwork and accurate close-to-the-line shots. Both Halep and Serena finished the Red round-robin at W-L 2-1, and both advanced to the semis. Ana Ivanovic also finished at 2-1 by defeating Halep on the last day but not in straight sets, thus ending up in third place among the Reds. If Halep, who learned that her own place in the semis was assured, had allowed Ana to win their match in straight sets, it would have been Ana, not Serena, in the semis, seemingly to Halep's benefit. It was yet another example of the awkward situations often encountered in the round-robin scheme.
Serena's Weekend of Triumph
The first of the Saturday semis -- Serena against Wozniacki -- produced three sets of extreme drama before a packed and highly engaged gallery. From the outset Caroline did her best to play an attacking game, keeping the ball deep or to the sides, striking forcefully. It was a manner of play utterly different from Caroline's style in past years, but it was the one used by Simona Halep in her victory over Serena earlier in the week where Simona had thereby preempted the power strikes of Serena.
At first Serena replied to Caroline's energetic play ineffectively, missing impatient shots, moving sluggishly, railing as the first few games slipped away and, soon afterwards, the first set as well. As often happens, Serena gradually found her big game though not without numerous unforced errors often in forcing bids. Caroline's uncharacteristic aggressive hitting and her fine defensive movement kept the points and games close, and the score reached third-set tiebreaker. Caroline led in the tiebreaker, four points to one. But after that it was Serena in her best attacking mode, forcing her way to the victory with strong striking including at the finish some backhand shot-making not often seen. In winning the concluding tiebreaker Serena ripped three backhand winners and missed two others by narrow margins -- backhands that made Caroline's superb backhand skills look ordinary. Caroline won more points overall than Serena, but Serena's 12-0 lead in aces revealed the decisive weapon of the whole affair. S. Williams d. Wozniacki, 26 63 76.
What came afterwards was anticlimactic. Simona Halep, playing aggressively with plenty of sting and almost no errors when it counted most, comfortably defeated Agnieszka Radwanska. But in the championship match against Serena on Sunday. Halep only occasionally showed the accuracy seen in her earlier matches. Instead, a highly energized Serena gradually overcame her own early error-making to sweep away Simona. It was Serena's most spectacular and aggressive play of the week. S. Williams d. Halep, 63 60.
Serena thus finished tennis year 2014 as #1 in the WTA standings, the year's official women's champion, and, ex officio, the first member of our short list for selecting our woman Player of the Year.
OTHER ACHIEVERS AND ACHIEVEMENTS
In the sixteen years of Tennis Server's Player of the Year deliberations, only five times has the official #1 in the WTA point standings also been chosen as our female Player of the Year. Other considerations often weighed in to turn our selection elsewhere -- contributions in Fed Cup, which is not recognized in the WTA point scheme, for example, or extraordinary achievement at a single tournament or the Olympics, or perhaps in doubles. At times, our selection has been influenced by a player's young age or abrupt rise from distant ranking. Martina Hingis, then 18, was our very first selection, in 1998, and Petra Kvitova, 22, who rose from rank #34 to #2, missing #1 by an eyelash, was chosen in 2010.
Riser of the Year
Our computer spit out candidates for top riser of 2014 by comparing each player's results in 2014 with her best-ever 12-month ranking at end-of-2013. Here were the leaders in the calculation:
1. Belinda Bencic, 17 (Switzerland)
2. Karolina Pliskova, 22 (Czech Republic)
3. Eugenie Bouchard, 20 (Canada)
4. Zarina Diyas, 21 (Kazakhstan)
5. Ana Konjuh, 17 (Croatia)
Especially the top three earned wide attention, probably most of all Bouchard, who finished the year as world #7, having reached the final round at Wimbledon and the semis at both Australia and Garros. Eugenie's rankings rise in 2014 roughly matched that in 2013 of Simona Halep, our Riser of the Year last year. Eugenie in 2014 at age 20, and Simona in 2013 at 22 both advanced from a previous-best world rank in the #30's into the first ten. Weakening Eugenie's candidacy here, however, was the reversal of her ascent after Wimbledon, when it appeared that the widespread public attention earned by Eugenie earlier, along with injury difficulties, contributed to late-year disappointing results by the Canadian star.
Quieter was the 2014 rise of Karolina Pliskova, 22, whose successes mainly came in tournaments other than Slams. These lifted her from a previous best-ever rank of #63 at the end of 2013 to her current official rank of #23. Karolina is tall at 6-1, with excellent serving ability, having led all other touring pros in total aces for the year prior to Singapore when she was passed by Serena Williams. For the full year she ranked in fourth place for first-serve points-won percentage and in sixth place for percentage of serving games won, at 74.6%.
But the foremost rise in 2014 women's tennis by our calculations was that of Belinda Bencic, 17, who began the year with rank of #212, her career best at the time, and finished at a remarkable #32.
Having been trained from early age in part by the mother of Martina Hingis, Belinda's success as a 15- and 16-year-old raised notice worldwide. In 2013, she won both the Garros and U.S. Juniors and was named ITF Junior World Champion, all in addition to testing herself in ITF pro and occasional main-tour tournaments.
Year 2014 began gloriously. At Australian Open Belinda won three qualifying and one main-tour match, all against higher-ranked opponents, losing to eventual champion Li Na. She next won two matches for Switzerland in Fed Cup play including a straight-setter over world #25 Cornet. She reached the semis on clay in Charleston, defeating four players ranked in the first hundred, then won through in the qualifiers at both Madrid and Rome, but lost in the first round of the main draw at Garros to Venus Williams. She reached the final 32 at Wimbledon, losing to Halep, then picked up two more top-hundred victories in qualifying at New Haven. Then at U.S. Open, she defeated four more top-hundred players including Kerber and Jankovic, reaching the final eight. Her year ended in the final round at Tianjin, where she lost to Riske after defeating Peng Shuai, the player who had stopped her at U.S. Open. It was a remarkable year for a player not yet 18, in an era where teenaged sensations at the highest levels had become rare.
Will Bencic continue to rise? As in all sports, nothing is certain. Her achievements are well behind those at same age of Martina Hingis. For this is, indeed, an era of heavier hitting among the women pros, where experience along with physical strength and endurance count greatly. More and more, tallness is prerequisite for greatness. Encouragingly, in comparison with Hingis at height 5-7, Belinda at age 17 lists at 5-9.
Many difficult opponents lie ahead, perhaps including some of her own contemporaries who may be growing and maturing later than Belinda. But in recognition of her rise to date, unmatched in recent tennis history, we choose Belinda Bencic our Riser of the Year for 2014. We also add her name to Serena's as finalists for Player of the Year.
The Year in Doubles
Three wonderful pairs captured the year's four Slams in women's doubles.
-- Errani-Vinci (Italy), won Australian Open and Wimbledon
-- Hsieh-Peng (Chinese Taipei and China), won Garros
-- Makarova-Vesnina (Russia), won U.S. Open
Meanwhile top honors at the ten next-level events were scattered among a wider group. That group again included Errani-Vinci and Hsieh-Peng, cited above, as both pairs won two next-level crowns over and above their Slams. Martina Hingis, back again in the pro wars at age 33, also won twice in next-level events, once with Lisicki as partner, once with Pennetta.
The most successful pair in the summary just sketched was Errani-Vinci. Although the energetic Italians departed early from the finale in Singapore when Errani became victim of abdominal strain, they nevertheless finished first in the official year-end points tally, well ahead of second-place Hsieh-Peng.
Nowadays few players compete regularly at top levels in both singles and doubles. Both Sara Errani and Ekaterina Makarova finished 2014 ranked among the top ten players in doubles and also the top twenty in singles. Primarily for her outstanding doubles achievements but also in recognition of her success in both realms, we add Sara Errani to our short list.
Fed Cup 2014
The teams from Germany and Czech Republic met in Prague, 8-9 November, to decide the championship of Fed Cup 2014. The road to the final round had been unproblematic for the German team. But the Czechs had narrowly survived the early going.
For the Czechs, Cup champions in 2011 and 2012, it began in Seville in February on red clay, a surface likely to neutralize the magnificent serving of team mainstay Petra Kvitova. Petra had withdrawn from a tournament the previous week because of respiratory illness. Also withdrawing from the same event had been the other Czech stalwart, Lucie Safarova, with right-shoulder injury. Meanwhile the Spanish line-up in Seville was headed by plucky Carla Suarez Navarro who, at age 25 and world rank #16, seemed likely to defeat any Czech replacements.
Suarez Navarro indeed won both her singles matches, defeating replacements Barbora Zahlavova Strykova and Klara Koukalova. The latter, however, kept matters alive for the visitors, winning a split-setter over Spain's riser Torro-Flor, 21, to start the second day. Now behind two matches to one, Czech Republic called on Lucie Safarova, the slender lefty 26-year-old, who had so often lifted the Czech cause in past Cup play. Lucie indeed came through once again, defeating substitute Soler-Espinosa, age 26 at world rank #77, in yet another split-setter.
Thus the fifth match, the doubles, would decide. For Spain, Suarez Navarro and Soler-Espinosa were a familiar doubles combination. They had played together at all four Slams of 2013, and at U.S. Open they had won a set from the Williams sisters before losing. But it was the unfamiliar Czech pairing of Andrea Hlavackova, 27, whose greatest successes had come in doubles albeit with other partners, and Zahlavova Strykova that seized the victory for the Czechs despite playing on hostile grounds. Czech Republic 3, Spain 2.
Things were less dramatic in April, when Czech stars Kvitova and Safarova, now playing on indoor hard courts in home country, quickly defeated the visiting Italians. Safarova defeated Errani, and Kvitova defeated Giorgi and Vinci, all in straight sets.
Meanwhile the German lineup had been stable throughout the year. With a singles card consisting of Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic, Germany had won the first three matches played, all in singles, first against Slovakia indoors in Bratislava and then against Australia outdoors on hard court in Brisbane. The matches had been close in Australia, but the verdict was settled when Kerber defeated Stosur in the third match, a split-setter.
Showdown in Prague
Both nations in November brought to Prague their strongest singles artists -- Kerber and Petkovic for Germany, Kvitova and Safarova for Czech Republic. In the first match Kvitova defeated Petkovic, out-powering the German star in serving and stroking amid what was during the first set almost total avoidance of errors. Petkovic fought back well in set two, sometimes herself dictating play even as Kvitova's play lapsed into more-than-occasional errors. But ultimately the severity of Petra's striking decided matters.
Next came an interesting struggle between two lefties. The two played almost evenly -- Lucie Safarova seemed the quicker, the more lithe, and slightly the more powerful. Bu Angelique Kerber countered well, yielding few errors. But it was Lucie the stronger emotionally, especially after Kerber forfeited the first set by prematurely shouting in celebration when she wrongly thought her forcing shot was unreturnable. It was ruled a "hindrance" and the point went to Lucie. Three times during the afternoon Angelique led by margin of a service break. But Lucie won the match in straight sets, showing stronger and more aggressive serving and stroking through most of the going. The influence of the loud and partisan gallery was undeniable.
Ahead two matches to none, the host Czech team seemed safe. But the weekend's highest drama was yet ahead. In the opening match on Sunday, Kvitova saved six match points before winning the first set against Angelique Kerber. Kvitova then won the first three games of set two. But then, helped by untimely double-faults by Petra, Angelique rallied to win set two and lead 4-1 in the third. It wasn't easy, but Petra managed to capture each of the next five games, most of them closely contested. The final game went to Petra on her fourth match point, serving. Petra's second victory of the weekend brought Fed Cup 2014 once again to Czech Republic. Kvitova d. Kerber, 76 46 64.
The case for choosing Kvitova over teammate Safarova as Cup most valuable player is not convincing, as Lucie's first-round win in Spain had been indispensable. But Petra's Wimbledon triumph and her #4 finish in the year's points race, combined with her Cup contribution, require her addition to our short list.
One superstar merits special nomination. In addition to her remarkable success in main-tour women's doubles, noted above, Martina Hingis was again a prime asset in World Team Tennis, competing effectively in singles, doubles, and mixed while helping her team, Washington Kastles, to yet another crown. The public interest and pleasure raised by Martina's return to competitive play added immeasurably to the success of the WTA and WTT seasons.
WOMAN OF THE YEAR
We now decide among the five candidates, largely subjectively. Each offers high achievement in quite different domains, described earlier and summarized as follows:
- Serena Williams, the year's unquestioned singles champion, though scarcely by the margin achieved by Serena in earlier years,
- Belinda Bencic, the 17-year-old whose rise to the doorstep of stardom has been the most impressive in many years,
- Sara Errani, whose top honors in 2014 doubles are complemented by Sara's rare example as high achiever in both singles and doubles,
- Petra Kvitova, who joined with teammate Safarova in making critical contributions in the winning of Fed Cup 2014 by Czech Republic, and who won the year's most prestigious individual tournament -- the singles at Wimbledon, and
- Martina Hingis, who by her presence and skills, added to the world's joy in pro tennis, both main-tour and team.
The five sets of credentials have been weighed over several weeks. Amid the gradual unfolding of the process, slowly a final choice became clear.
Choosing Bencic would be risky, as there can be no guarantee that the new Swiss Miss will in actuality achieve the superstardom that seems to beckon. Probably choosing her would stretch slightly the parameters previously established for our award. But Belinda's remarkable climb since early age has been so persistent, her wonderful run at U.S. Open 2014 so convincing a milestone, that her presence on our honor role of annual winners seems only to enhance the quality of the award.
We therefore select Belinda Bencic as the Woman of the Year in pro tennis for 2014.
Next month we will choose the top male nominee. Either he or Belinda will then be named our Tennis Server Player of the Year.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX: A NEW WATCH LIST
Here is our Watch List XII, selected by our computer from results in Third Trimester 2014 along with major adjustments. Most of the seven members are age 20 or below, and they include three who appeared on past lists. Shown are each player's official WTA rank (as of 9 November 2014, here deemed the end of the women's trimester) and our computer's predicted target rank 12 months ahead. The selectees are listed in order of age.
Catherine Bellis, age 15, ht 5-6 (USA). Right-handed CiCi Bellis exploded onto the world tennis scene at age 15 with two stunning performances at U.S. Open 2014. There, she defeated Dominica Cibulkova (the runner-up at Australian Open 2014) and then battled world #48 Zarina Diyas in a furious three-setter. In both affairs, CiCi's power and aggressive style backed by her confident manner and good avoidance of error showed her a crowd-pleasing and remarkably mature competitor.
Born in San Francisco in 1999, by early 2014 CiCi was more than holding her own against top-level international junior players. Among her 2014 tournament triumphs were the Italian juniors (Grade A level), Easter Bowl, Coffee Bowl, and USTA International Spring championships. In October, now competing in adult ITF pro-circuit events, CiCi won two successive such triumphs in the southern U.S., greatly improving her world ranking. Current rank #257. Predicted target #181.
Belinda Bencic, 17, 5-9 (Switzerland). Belinda's meteoric rise can be tracked in her several previous watch-list appearances, which began in July 2013 when her world rank was #332. Her success continued to accelerate during Third Trimester 2014, wherein her performance ranked at #19 for the trimester, including a stunning run at U.S. Open. Belinda's manner of play has been compared to Hingis's in its tactical variety. But Belinda also has the size and skill for good striking power, an even more critical prerequisite now than in yesteryear. Current rank #32. Predicted target #20.
Oceane Dodin, 18 (France). Oceane tallied a W-L mark of 15-3 in main-draw matches in ITF pro tournaments during Third Trimester in Europe, achieving world rank of #137 for the period. That included a tournament triumph at Shrewsbury, where she scored three wins over second-hundred opponents, and a final-round appearance at Poitiers, which brought four more such wins including two against top-hundred opponents. In November she reached the final four at the WTA tournament in Limoges, France. Said to be ambidextrous, she is seen in photos to serve right-handed, stroke with one hand on the right side, two hands on the left -- i.e., like a conventional right-handed player. Back in 2011 she defeated Bencic, who is five months younger, in a match on grass. Slender, she strikes with extreme energy. Her height is stated as 5-5 by one source but she appears taller. Current rank #207. Predicted target #136.
Elina Svitolina, 20, 5-9 (Ukraine). Elina's consistent results in her teenaged years kept her close to the top among her contemporaries. These were followed by further success in Third Trimester 2014, including late-round finishes at several tournaments in Asia, a quarter-final finish at Cincinnati (with two wins over top-twenty opponents), and a triumph in the main-tour tournament at Baku. One year ago, Elina was selected as member of Watch List IX, now expiring, and she now starts a fresh 12-month list tenure. Official rank #28. Predicted target #10.
Wang Yafan, 20 (China). Having competed for several years mainly in lower-level ITF-circuit events in Asia and attaining world ranking in the third hundred, in early July 2014 Yafan scored triumphs in ITF tournaments in Bangkok and Phuket, Thailand. Then, during Third Trimester, now competing mainly in main-tour events, she lost closely to risers Schmiedlova and Kumkhum. In September she reached the semis at Guangzhou, defeating Petra Martic and Sam Stosur. Current rank #181, Predicted target #98.
Zheng Saisai, 20, 5-7 (China). During Third Trimester Saisai reached the semis in the $125K series tournament in Nanching, advanced through the qualifiers to reach second round of main draw at U.S. Open, and compiled a 9-4 W-L record in main-draw matches at four main-tour events in China. It added up to a world rank of #33 for the trimester, improved from official rank of #132 for the preceding 12 months. Current rank #99, Predicted target #38.
Karolina Pliskova, 22, 6-1 (Czech Republic). Initially watch-listed here in July 2014, Karolina thereafter reached the final 32 at U.S. Open, defeating top-tenner Ivanovic. The tall Czech then further stepped up her results, scoring a W-L record of 16-4 after the Open with tournament triumphs at Seoul and Linz. She and twin sister Kristyna make a tall, righty-lefty doubles pair. Official rank #23. Predicted target #11.
Final Report Card, Watch List IX
Watch List IX, chosen in November 2013, has now completed its 12-month term. Two members -- Bencic and Bouchard -- did spectacularly well, far surpassing their predicted targets. One member, Elina Svitolina, improved nicely but missed her predicted target by narrow margin. Three members slipped backward by narrow margins, and one member, Vickie Duval, was stricken by illness early in the period and was sidelined thereafter.
A look at the scoreboard showing the success of past selectees in the twelve months after selection (starting with Watch List I, April 2011, and ending with Watch List IX) suggests the likely validity of later lists.
Surpassed target, 14
Improved, but did not attain target, 31
Failed to improve, 18
As to Watch Lists X and XI, both still active, results to date roughly follow the above pattern. Members that appear on track to exceed their predicted targets are Muguruza from List X and, Konjuh, Smitkova, Allertova, and Pliskova from List XI.
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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.