December 10, 2010

Year in Review: The Best Ladies' Matches

When you look back at women's tennis in 2010, what do you remember most? Francesca Schiavone hoisting her first Grand Slam trophy at twenty-nine years old? Serena passing Billie Jean on the all-time Major winners' list? Elena retiring from the sport in a tearful ceremony in Doha? Caroline Wozniacki securing the year-end #1 on the back of six titles this season?

Yes, all those events rank highly in my book, but ultimately it's the matches that make tennis, and the ladies all certainly put on a show for us this year. It wasn't just the stars, either -- a couple fresh faces found the moxie to make their own statements too. Some have followed through, others have faded to the background. But all have made us stand up and cheer during their matches, and, perhaps more importantly, they've shown us just how hard girls can hit.

So this year I'm paying tribute to the matches I've found most exciting, memorable, or downright inspiring. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of material I had to draw from, and quickly realized I couldn't possibly limit myself to my originally intended five matches. So I've divided my reviews into two parts -- one for the Majors and another for everything else. And as always, I'll start with the ladies' Tour.

Medibank International, Sydney, Final
Elena Dementieva d. Serena Williams: 6-3, 6-2

The year had just begun and we still had no idea what 2010 would bring us. Still this rematch of what was, hands down, the most exciting three sets of 2009 promised to be a nail-biter. Each woman had lost just a set on the way to the championship match, Serena to then-soaring Aravane Rezai and the defending champ to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round. And, head-to-head, the two had compiled a surprisingly close 7-5 career record, slightly favoring the top seed, but Dementieva had won five of their last eight prior meetings.

It was a huge win for Dementieva who not only avenged that Wimbledon loss, but also put herself back on the map for Australia. Of course, she was famously handed a ridiculous draw in Melbourne, but a subsequent title in Paris somewhat made up for it. We wouldn't know until much later in the year just how important the win was.

Sony Ericsson Open, Miami, Fourth Round
Venus Williams d. Daniela Hantuchova: 1-6, 7-5, 6-4

Commentators didn't give twenty-fifth ranked Daniela Hantuchova a chance in this match. After all her opponent was riding a twelve-match win streak and had beaten her in their last nine meetings, ceding only one set at the 2002 Australian Open. But the pretty Slovakian came out swinging, smacking angles and holding Venus to thirty percent on her first serve in the opening set. She got off to a 4-0 lead before Williams got on the board, converting all three of her break opportunities, and even got a lead in the second set.

But then Venus found her serve -- she won eighty-six percent of her first attempts and four games in a row. It looked like, as so often happens, she was about to run away with the match. But Daniela didn't give up -- she got back on serve and almost forced a tiebreak. And when she failed to close it out, again I feared Venus would trounce her in the third. But I was surprised. Daniela rallied after getting down a break early and saved a couple match points when serving at 4-5 before Venus eventually sealed the win. The seven-time Grand Slam champion demonstrated exactly what has made her a staple among the elite for over a decade, finding her best shots when facing adversity.

While the result was as expected -- though it took a little longer to get there -- what made this match so great was the wherewithal of both players. Hantuchova walking on court like she knew she could win and Venus surviving a monstrous first set to pull out the ultimate victory. Neither woman gave up, neither showed signs of defeat as some of their counterparts so often do, and, when they needed to, they both pulled off some amazing shots. I was encouraged to see Daniela show she can at least keep up with the top players, and though she only posted middling results for the rest of the year, she did notch wins over Marion Bartoli, Yanina Wickmayer and Jelena Jankovic, before making the semis in Bali.

Venus, of course, reached the finals in Miami, losing quickly to Kim Clijsters in straight sets, though a nagging injury kept her out of any non-Major tournaments the rest of the year. But that was just enough time to make another mark on my list -- it's coming soon, I promise.

Bank of the West Classic, Stanford, California, Final
Victoria Azarenka d. Maria Sharapova: 6-4, 6-1

This year had been a tale of resurrection for both Vika and Maria. A handful of injuries had caused the Belarusian to pull out of matches all spring, and Sharapova was steadily working her way back to top-ten status. Both had staged a series of upsets -- and a series of comebacks -- to make the finals in Stanford, and both started the match going all out for the title.

Maria was the favorite, clearly -- the former #1 and three-time Grand Slam winner had won two of their three previous meetings and already claimed two titles this year. Azarenka, on the other hand, had gone more than fifteen months since her last big win, and her roller coaster year put her chances in question. But she'd pulled off a stunning comeback against defending champion Marion Bartoli in the quarters and absolutely demolished a tough Sam Stosur in the semis. And she'd had a bit more rest than Maria, who finished off her semifinal match against Aggie Radwanska late Saturday night.

The final began with some strong -- and loud -- hitting on both sides of the net, as should be expected. Azarenka broke Maria early but gave it back a few games later. They continued to trade off service games throughout that opener, with amazingly powerful shots expertly executed by both ladies. It took about an hour, but ultimately it was Azarenka, who'd turned twenty-one just the day before, who ran off with an early lead.

The second set wasn't nearly so close. Apparently the fatigue of two late-night, three-set matches finally caught up with Maria, and after putting up more than a valiant fight early, she couldn't handle any more. She held serve on her first game, but eventually Sharapova succumbed to a slew of winners by her opponent that never allowed her to get back in the match. Within thirty minutes Vika's hard-hitting eventually earned her a solid win and reminded us all how much of a force she is on the hard court.

Sharapova rebounded well to make the finals in Cincinnati a few weeks later, but injury kept her from making much of a dent later in the season. Azarenka, meanwhile, made the semis in Montreal and rebounded from that scare in New York to take the title in Moscow and qualify for the Tour Championships in Doha. Though her 2-1 record there wasn't enough to advance to the semis, she ended the year on a positive note I think she should be able to carry with her to the 2011 Slam season.

Pilot Pen Tennis, New Haven, Connecticut, Semifinal
Caroline Wozniacki d. Elena Dementieva: 1-6, 6-3, 7-6(5)

With the U.S. Open a weekend away, the action in New Haven was a little more exciting than it had been the last couple of years. Four players technically ranked in the top ten had entered the draw either outright or as wildcards as they tried to get in just a bit more match play before the year's last Major.

For two-time defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, there was a lot riding on her performance at the Pilot Pen. The runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2009, she had earned the top seed in New York this year when then-#1 Serena Williams pulled out with a nagging foot injury. There had been a lot of criticism around that choice, with plenty of pundits claiming the twenty-year-old should not have been granted the position. But already having won titles in Copenhagen and Montreal earlier in the month, the Dane had done all she could to prove her worth.

In the New Haven semis she was pitted against my personal favorite, Elena Dementieva, a consistent baseliner with an intimidating return game. The Russian had missed a few months of play over the summer after a leg injury forced her to retire from the French Open, and had recently dropped out of the top ten for the first time in years. But she survived two tough rounds at Yale before running into sweet Caroline, and when she rolled through the first set, I thought she had it in the bag.

Caro evened the score by taking the second, but it was the third which really made things interesting. Dementieva got ahead early and had a chance in the fifth game to take a two-break advantage. She came within two points of the win and even had the match on her racquet before Wozniacki rallied for her only break of the final set. Then when Caroline found herself with three match points at 6-5, it was the Russian who came up with the big serves. After two-plus hours of aggressive, thoughtful, no-holds-barred counterpunching -- this ain't your mama's tennis, kids -- neither showed signs of letting up. In the tiebreak Elena got off to a fast start, but Caro got it even and kept it close until the end, finally winning by a score of 109 total points to 108.

Wozniacki did go on to three-peat in New Haven, and though she didn't win the U.S. Open, two trophies in the fall did eventually seal in the year-end #1 for her. Dementieva, on the other hand, suffered a couple more close defeats before qualifying for the Tour championships for the tenth time in her career. But it sure was nice to see she went out swinging her hardest, just as she had done for the better part of the decade.

Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions, Bali, Final
Ana Ivanovic d. Alisa Kleybanova: 6-2, 7-6(5)

It's no big news that Ivanovic had been using this as a rebuilding year -- having dropped out of the top fifty, she'd staged a couple mini-rallies throughout the year, making the semis in Rome and Cincinnati before finally ending a two-year title drought in Linz. After working her way back up to #24 in the world, she didn't deliver quite enough to qualify for Doha, but managed entry into Bali, where she was just out of seeding territory. The girl who won only three matches in the second half of last year seemed decidedly determined to reverse that trend in 2010. She crushed teen queen Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round, ceding only a game, and survived a squeaker against fan favorite Kimiko Date Krumm in the semis.

Against Alisa Kleybanova in the finals, things were close to start, but Ana eventually ran away with the first set. Though she lost serve to begin the second, she was able to fight back to even and saved break points several games later. Solid serving and powerful groundstrokes got Ivanovic to a tiebreak, one in which she never gave up the lead. Under quite unlikely circumstances, she walked away with her second title of the year and climbed back into the top twenty.

Of course, the win is great for Ana's momentum as we approach 2011, but it also illustrates just how fickle this sport can be. Given the right training, a renewed dedication, and clearly some talent, you really never can count a player out. Kind of makes you wonder who else could launch a comeback next year, doesn't it?

And that's less than half of it! You guys tweeted me some great contenders which just missed the list, including Jelena Jankovic's defeat of Serena Williams in the Rome semis and Venus beating Vika in the Dubai finals way back in February. Trust me, it was hard to leave any of them off the list!

I have to hand it to the ladies -- they really brought it in 2010, whether or not the big trophies were on the line. And that sure gives me hope for the quality of play we'll see in the coming months.

Be sure to check back next week when I'll bring you my top non-Slam men's matches of the year. And the Majors are coming too -- believe me, there was a lot to get through!

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