December 20, 2010

Year in Review: The Ladies in the Big Leagues

I promised you all that my earlier lists were only half complete -- since something special happens when we hit the courts of the four Grand Slams, I couldn't possibly leave out the performances we saw there.

Though, unlike the men, ladies still face best-of-three set matches at the big events, the heightened excitement causes them to bring a little something extra to the Majors -- just ask Serena Williams. And though she continued to dominate the championships this year, it was some other earlier round matches that caught my eye most. And with others following her lead of raising their games when the stakes were highest, I was forced to include some Honorable Mentions for each of the Slams.

So let's get right to it!

Australian Open, Melbourne, First Round
Maria Kirilenko d. Maria Sharapova: 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-4

Before this match there was only one Maria the tennis world cared about, but when the diminutive Kirilenko left the court a victor after more than three hours of play, fans were abuzz about someone new.

The two had met twice before, with the more decorated Sharapova winning both times, but Kirilenko, ranked fifty-eighth at the time, was not intimidated. Twenty-two, blonde and Russian, just like her opponent, MaKiri pounced on Sharapova early, traded breaks a few times in the first set, but ultimately held on to get the lead. When the three-time Grand Slam winner leveled the match in the second, you might have assumed that momentum and experience would shift to favor her, but Kirilenko stayed strong, ran off to a 4-1 lead and never looked back.

Her win not only dismissed one of the favorites and the 2008 champion, but it also cemented Kirilenko as a real contender the rest of the year. In Melbourne she continued to the quarters, but more impressively followed up with a fourth round showing in Paris, a run to the finals in Moscow, and her best ever year end ranking. Wins over Shahar Peer, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina along the way further proved that her performance in Australia wasn't a fluke, and that we might just see her make a bigger splash in 2011.

Honorable Mention: The final. It sure was great to see Justine Henin make the championship match at her first Major back from retirement, but unlike her compatriot last year, she couldn't quite pull out the win.

French Open, Paris, Second Round
Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Andrea Petkovic: 4-6, 7-5, 6-4

Defending champion Kuznetsova wasn't playing her best tennis in the months heading into Roland Garros. After winning a title and making a final in the lead-up season the prior year, she hadn't made it past the second round for three straight tournaments in 2010. I didn't give her much chance to repeat her title run in Paris.

And when she met a feisty Andrea Petkovic, ranked fortieth at the time, it looked like that prediction would hold. The German took less than forty minutes to secure the first set and got a break lead in the second. She held three match points on her serve at 5-4 and was threatening to hand Sveta her earliest Slam exit since 2005 when she lost her opening match at the U.S. Open. But nerves might have gotten to the youngster, and the veteran -- actually only two years older -- fought back to deuce. Petkovic had another match point, but was unable to close out, instead allowing the Russian to get on serve. Svetlana won the next two games too and, after another fifty minutes of play, had forced the third set.

At that point I was sure Andrea would fold and that Kuznetsova would roll through a bagel set. In fact, it started out looking that way as the Russian got up 3-1 in the third -- suddenly she found herself up match point while Petkovic served at 2-5. But not only did the underdog manage to hold serve, she broke the two-time Major champion again to get back even. Eventually, though, Petkovic was forced to wake up from her dream and, while serving at 4-5, Petkovic conceded on the fourth match point against her.

It was a heart-breaking loss for the German, I'm sure, but a solid win for Kuznetsova. Though she did lose the next round, she displayed a similar resolve several months later in San Diego where she survived a tough draw that pitted her against three seeded players. And Petkovic, ending the year at her highest career ranking and having endeared herself to fans across the world, will certainly be back to fight another day. I'd look for her to make a big imprint on 2011.

Honorable Mentions: The final, of course, and the semi quarter between Sam Stosur and Serena Williams. It's not often you see players -- especially women -- hit so hard and so smart.

Wimbledon, London, Quarterfinal
Tsvetana Pironkova d. Venus Williams: 6-3, 6-2

Five-time champion Williams was clearly the odds-on favorite to, if not win the whole thing, at least make the Wimbledon finals for the ninth time in her career. And if experience and talent weren't enough, commentators suggested she'd have added motivation to beat the twenty-two year old Bulgarian, who'd four years earlier dealt her an opening round loss at the Australian Open.

But eighty-second ranked Pironkova, who had never won more than one match at a Major, had other plans. She'd made the quarters in Warsaw a few weeks earlier and had already beaten 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli in the fourth round here. And she did not allow herself to be intimidated -- she only dropped two points on her first serve in the opening set and won four games in a row to get the early lead. She capitalized on a slew of errors from her opponent and stayed strong after Venus broke early in the second, eventually holding on for a straight-set, eighty-five minute win.

The win took Pironkova to #35 in the world, and though she peaked a few points higher in September, she hasn't quite made the same statement at other tournaments this year. I worry she may suffer a precipitous drop next year if she's unable to defend the points she racked up at the All England Club, but if she can soldier herself up, we might see her make a dent in the sport.

Honorable Mention: The quarterfinal between Vera Zvonareva and Kim Clijsters presaged how great a year the Russian would have -- at that point I don't think anyone pegged her as an eventual finalist. Too bad for her she couldn't beat Kim when it counted a few months later.

U.S. Open, New York, Fourth Round
Dominika Cibulkova d. Svetlana Kuznetsova: 7-5, 7-6(4)

The spunky, tiny Cibulkova had been having an up-and-down year until she arrived in New York. Since reaching a career-high ranking of #12 in the world after her semifinal run in Paris last year, she'd made the semis in Monterrey and Ponte Vedra Beach, but lost in three straight first rounds over the summer hardcourt season, even needing to qualify for New Haven. But during the year she had notched wins over rising stars Aravane Rezai and Lucie Safarova while giving Serena Williams a bit of a scare at Wimbledon. She came to the U.S. Open ranked forty-fifth in the world, but certainly knew she was capable of better. Though she was spared the worst of the draws, she survived a three-plus hour second round against Kateryna Bondarenko, saving more than a few match points, and by the time she made the second week, I admittedly didn't think she had any fight left in her.

Kuznetsova, on the other hand, was just beginning to regain her stride. Since winning the French Open last year, she struggled to repeat the performances that raised her to #3 in the world until the hardcourt season. She avoided two potential meltdowns on the way to a title in San Diego and survived a tough draw to make the semis in Montreal. Dealt some big opponents in New York, she showed that champion spirit in defeats of veteran Kimiko Date Krumm and her own two-time vanquisher Maria Kirilenko. It started to look like she was setting herself up to again be a contender for the crown she won back in 2004.

But in abnormally windy conditions, Cibulkova pulled off one of the biggest wins of her career. Having made the fourth round of a Major for only the third time, she didn't want to take the opportunity for granted. Down break points in both sets, the Slovak saved eight other break chances in the first and finally got herself even before eventually winning the set. She battled injuries and fatigue through the second, took advantage of twenty-one unforced errors by her opponent, and forced a tiebreak in which she never ceded the lead.

Dominika lost in the next round to Wozniacki and only won a handful of matches the rest of the year, but she ends 2010 at #31 in the world, in seeding territory for at least the Australian Open. And she's still young -- just twenty-one -- so has plenty of opportunity to really develop her game next year. She's spunky enough to put together a couple wins at the Majors and may just make a run for a big trophy in the coming months.

Honorable Mentions: Elena's fourth round loss to Sam Stosur in the wee hours of a Monday morning might actually rank higher on my list, but I just couldn't include another one of her heartbreaking defeats. And Clijsters' win over Venus in the semis proved she can make it through draws which include the toughest opponents.

Well it sure has been an exciting year for the ladies.

And though Serena's wins in Melbourne and Wimbledon were enough to keep her firmly ranked at the top of the sport, her withdrawal at least from Australia next year sure does open the door for other ladies who've begun to get their footing at the Slams -- if this year's performances are any indication, it looks like we might start seeing some new faces on the winner's stand.

Be sure to check back later this week when I'll bring you my picks for the best men's matches at the Majors -- trust me, we've only just begun!

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