December 11, 2011

The 2011 Tennis Spin Awards: The Ladies

Welcome to the inaugural Tennis Spin awards!

This year I've decided to acknowledge some of the year's best -- and worst -- performances on both the men's and women's Tour and present them with the not-quite-yet esteemed honors.

There were both winners and losers in 2011. Clearly all the players endure hectic schedules, unparalleled physical demands and emotional strain I cannot begin to imagine, and not all can come out on top. Of course success and failure in this sport can be fleeting, so there's no telling how things will shake out in the future. And hopefully those on losing end of things this time around will be able to stage a comeback when the season starts again in just a few weeks. So let's not take this as some kind of indictment on the players who take home the less flattering awards -- let's just hope they come back stronger in 2012!

So, as always, I'll begin with the ladies.

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Least Follow-ThroughGreatest Letdown
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

"Newcomer" is a relative term. Some were accomplished Juniors players who're just making their first strides on the pro Tour, others have been journeywomen on the ITF circuit who only began getting any traction in WTA events. Some had bursts of greatness, others made runs deep into draws, and a few were able to pull off monstrous upsets. But not many were able to accomplish all those things.

Irina-Camelia Begu was one exception to the rule. Outside the top two-hundred at the start of the year, she kicked off 2011 with her seventh ITF title in Cali. She immediately followed it up by making the final in Marbella, notching wins over Klara Zakopalova and Svetlana Kuznetsova on the way. She cracked the double digits a few weeks later, and then scored her second runner-up trophy in Budapest. Now firmly in the top fifty, she should be a more consistent fixture on Tour in 2011, and might even be able to capture that maiden crown.

The Winner
Christina McHale ended the year a little lower in the rankings, but arguably made a bigger impact. Officially pro since 2007, the nineteen-year-old has been touted as the "Next Great Thing" in American women's tennis for most of that time. But, maybe to her advantage, she was overshadowed early by Melanie Oudin on her homecourt, and so got to work her game without much pressure.

That all changed in 2011. Though she continues to plug away on the ITF circuit -- she won her first title of any kind in Rome -- she achieved greater success when playing with the big girls. It began with a second round victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova at Indian Wells, a win she repeated in New Haven, and manifested throughout the season with defeats of Marion Bartoli in New York and world #1 Caroline Wozniacki in Cincinnati. Having started the year out of the top hundred, she's now #43 in the world -- #2 in the U.S., behind only Serena Williams. Of course that alone will increase the focus on her in the coming months, but something tells me the Jersey girl will be able to handle it.

Most Improved

Sure McHale's halving of her ranking is pretty impressive, but a couple other players made major strides in really establishing themselves among the elite -- seemingly from out of nowhere.

The Nominees
German Andrea Petkovic made herself as a fan favorite in 2010 thanks to her quirky alter-ego, her endearing post-victory dances, and her engaging tweets. But she spent this year proving she should be taken much more seriously on the tennis court. After a strong finish last season, she kicked off the new year with a run to the final in Brisbane, a quarterfinal showing in Melbourne and a title in Strasbourg, her first since 2009. Though she battled a knee injury toward the end of the year -- she was forced to withdraw from Luxembourg and Linz -- she made at least the quarters of every event since Wimbledon and put up a heck of a fight in the Beijing championship match. Now a top ten player -- she began the year #32 -- if she's healthy, she has the potential to make an even bigger statement in 2012.

Petkovic's move up the rankings, though, pales in comparison to that of current #17, China's Shuai Peng, who began the year at #72 in the world. She came out swinging in 2011, taking out Svetlana Kuznetsova in Auckland and Jelena Jankovic in Melbourne. And unlike many of her contemporaries, she never suffered any sustained stretches of weakness -- she rebounded from two first-round losses in the spring to make the final in Brussels and pulled off career-best runs at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Though she didn't win any titles, she received a wildcard to Bali where she sadly lost in the first round -- still, she got in some post-season match play that should help her in year to come.

The Winner
Despite these ladies' successes, you can't ignore the powerhouse that Roberta Vinci suddenly became. Her move as high as #18 is less impressive than her improved play -- after marking a stretch of five first-round losses in six tournaments during the early spring, she really turned things around in late April. She took titles in Barcelona, 's-Hertogenbosch and Budapest -- her most prolific year yet -- and notched wins over Yanina Wickmayer, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki along the way. She ended the year slightly lower down the rankings, but by qualifying for a shot in Bali, the twenty-eight year old proved it's never too late to make a stand in this sport.

One to Watch

With so much going on in the women's Tour this year -- a very fickle top ten, several bursts and flame-outs, a new crop of young stars -- it's no surprise that so many ladies took the opportunity to make a name for themselves. They may not have broken through the most elite ranks, but their performances could set them up for some promising results next year.

The Nominees
Galina Voskoboeva has been around for nearly a decade, but only barely cracked the top hundred a few years ago. She seemed to hit her stride in 2011, though, cutting her ranking from outside the top five hundred to #58 at year-end. She spent a lot of time on the ITF circuit, but also scored some big Tour wins -- Maria Kirilenko in Pattaya City, Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova in Toronto -- and even made the final in Seoul. She wasn't able to do any damage at the Majors, losing the only match she played in a main draw, but reaching her prime during her twenty-seventh year, she might just be able to change that next season.

Petra Cetkovska seemingly came out of nowhere early in the summer. The Czech started the year ranked well out of the top hundred -- nearly out of the top 150 -- but started racking up points quickly on the ITF circuit. She made the finals in Johannesburg and Nottingham and claimed a trophy in Monzon. It took a while for her to gain traction on the main Tour, but a fourth-round run at Wimbledon -- which included upsets of Aggie Radwanska and Andrea Petkovic -- a semi in Palermo and a shocking ride to the final in New Haven -- she beat Radwanska, Marion Bartoli and French Open champ Na Li to get there -- tell me her rise may have even further to go.

Romanian Simona Halep has been on my radar for a while -- an accomplished Juniors champion, she started making strides on Tour last year, reaching the final in Fes with wins over Lucie Hradecka and Patty Shnyder. She repeated that Morocco run in 2011, but also began making an impact in the Majors -- she reached the third round in Australia, grabbed a set off Serena Williams at Wimbledon, and took out Na Li in New York. She might still be waiting for that first title, but the twenty-year-old can't be that far away.

The Winner
And while these ladies were able to steal the spotlight at times during the year, Georgia's (the country, not the state) Anna Tatishvili flew a bit more under the radar. Ranked #90 in the world now, she had to qualify for most main draws on Tour -- her best result was the quarterfinals in Baku -- but the twenty-one year old dig manage an ITF title in Cuneo. A winner over Cetkovska in the Acapulco qualies, she also took sets from Marion Bartoli and Vera Zvonareva in 2011. She's only just getting her feet wet, but could be primed to make her biggest move in the year to come

Best Comeback

I know you want me to say Serena. Of course you do.

After almost a year off Tour, the younger Williams sister stormed to the fourth round at Wimbledon, her second tournament back. She didn't repeat, of course, and her lack of points sent her way out of the top hundred. But no one expected her recovery would take long, and with titles in Stanford and Toronto, she was the odds-on favorite to win the U.S. Open. We haven't seen her since that drama-filled final, but she racked up enough points to climb back to #12 now -- certainly not bad for a girl who played just six events all year.

Still, did anyone think Serena wouldn't be a dominant force within moments of her return? So I'm saving my accolades for someone just a bit lower down the rankings, but certainly way more under the radar.

The Winner
Sabine Lisicki barely had a chance to establish herself before an ankle injury put an abrupt stop to the momentum she'd gained in 2009. Coming off a title in Charleston that year and a run to the quarters at Wimbledon, she climbed to then-career high of #22. But she missed five months of 2010 and fell to #175 in the world to start this year. Spending some time on the ITF circuit, it took a little while to gain traction, but once she did she was quick to make big strides.

The young German got clay-court wins over Marion Bartoli and eventual French Open champion Na Li, then beat four seeded players to take the title in Birmingham. She made the semis at Wimbledon, picked up another trophy in Dallas and drew the third seed in Bali. Though a back injury forced her to withdraw from the semis, Lisicki not only pulled herself out of a triple-digit ranking, but ended the year ranked a career-best #15 -- she didn't just come back, she came forward.

Least Follow-Through

Of course, while some players spent the year proving they were no flash in the pan, others couldn't quite keep up the momentum with which they began 2011. And sadly on the ladies' Tour, there was no shortage of contenders for this category.

The Nominees
Young Serb Bojana Jovanovski came out of the gate swinging in 2011. The nineteen year old played a handful of ITF finals at the end of last year and pounced on the main Tour in January with a run to the semis in Sydney -- she beat three top-thirty players to get there. But she couldn't win more than one match at any event from March through early June and only notched one Grand Slam match victory all year. She's young, of course, so it's premature to write off her prospects for the coming season. Still, I would've loved to see her make some bigger dents throughout the season.

I'm a little less blasé about Anastasija Sevastova. A winner in Estoril last year, she also notched wins over Nadia Petrova, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova during the season. She came into 2011 ranked #45 and improved on even that with a run to the fourth round at the Australian Open. But then she hit a wall -- from April to August she lost seven straight first round matches, and though she scored a big win over a resurgent Flavia Pennetta in her last tournament of the year, she failed to win more than two matches at any event after Melbourne. She could still turn things around, but it's going to be a tough ship to steer.

The Winner
Sadly though, the biggest disappointment on the scene might have been Bethanie Mattek-Sands. After kicking off 2011 by winning the Hopman Cup with John Isner and running to the final in Hobart and the semis in Paris, she rose to a career-high #30 in the world. She pulled off a couple more upsets in the spring and sported her first ever Grand Slam seeding at Wimbledon. But she lost her first round there and struggled with a shoulder injury the rest of the year. She only played a few matches after that, losing to Polona Hercog at the U.S. Open, but got in a few more rounds of doubles action. Now #55 in singles, she's still the third-best ranked American in the sport, so hopefully she'll be able to recover and turn around in the new year.

Greatest Letdown

The Winner
I hate to say this, since I'm one in the minority who thinks Caroline Wozniacki deserves the #1 ranking. The twenty-one year old increased her trophy count to eighteen this year, adding six crowns from Charleston to Dubai. She notched her best ever performance at the Australian Open, defeated five seeds in a row at Indian Wells, and only lost before the third round in four events during the regular season -- impressive, considering she entered twenty-three.

But, of course, there is one trophy missing from her mantle -- one, actually, of any four we'd like to see.

Wozniacki has now held the #1 ranking for sixty-one weeks. That's more than '08 Roland Garros champ Ana Ivanovic, three-time Major winner Maria Sharapova, and even Kim Clijsters, with four Slams to her name -- combined. It's actually the ninth longest run of the twenty women who've claimed the top spot during the Open Era, and, of course, the longest without a Big One.

The young Dane was the top seed at all four Majors this year, and though she completely dominates her early round opponents, she always seems to struggle in the second week. She only scored one victory over top ten players -- against Francesca Schiavone in Australia -- and the number doesn't increase much when you count non-Majors. At some point you can't ignore the detractors who argue a top-ranked player has to consistently beat top-tier opponents at the top-level tournaments.

I don't think the situation is completely bleak -- Wozniacki is still perfecting her game and developing the weapons she needs. But it would've been nice if she'd gotten there this year. Instead we -- fans and critics alike -- will just have to wait it out.

Biggest Surprise

On a women's Tour where so few things are consistent or reliable, there's always room for some kind of surprise, and this year was no exception. Some are good -- Petra Kvitova storming through the draw at Wimbledon -- some are tragic -- rising star Alisa Kleybanova's departure from the sport after she announced her battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. And all threw us for a loop at some point during the year.

The Winner
But maybe the most unexpected achievement this year was Na Li's shocking run to a title at Roland Garros. The veteran had kicked off the year with a bang, taking a title in Sydney and nearly winning in Melbourne. But then she fell off a cliff, notching just one victory in her next six matches.

Things turned around on the clay when she made the semis in both Rome and Madrid, but still few expected her to make so big an impact in Paris. Seeded sixth, she was dealt a pretty tough draw and had to face four top-ten players in a row the second week. Kvitova was the only one who gave her any trouble, but by the time she met last year's champion Francesca Schiavone in the final -- a surprise, in and of itself -- she was running a six-set win streak. At twenty-nine, she was one of the oldest first-time winners of a Major, and maybe one of the least likely -- sure we've had five different champions here in as many years, but for someone who'd never made it past the fourth round at the French Open and had zero clay court titles to her name, you can't help but marvel at her accomplishment.

Gutsiest Win

It's clearly not easy to win a Grand Slam. With seven matches in a fortnight, sometimes on consecutive days, and the need to beat three or four top players in a row, those up to the task have to have more than just talent -- they need to show real moxie. And, again, with four different women taking home Major titles in 2011 -- three of them for the first time -- there was no shortage of that on the court this year.

The Winner
But of the three maiden titleists over the last twelve months, none had to don quite so brave a face as U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur. Having failed to follow up on most of her successes from the previous year, the Australian had fallen a bit off the radar coming to New York. Though she'd made finals in both Rome and Toronto, she hadn't defended points from the French Open or captured a title since Charleston in 2010. So she was a few notches off a career high ranking and was just barely seeded in the top ten.

She had to put up some big fights in Flushing Meadows, too, starting with a three-plus hour slugfest against Nadia Petrova in the third round. Two days later she was back on court in a much-delayed match with Maria Kirilenko, one she should have dominated, but which instead produced the longest tiebreak in Grand Slam history and nearly took another three hours to complete. Stosur ironically had a bit of a breather against '10 runner-up Vera Zvonareva in the quarters, but endured yet another three-setter against surprise semifinalist Angelique Kerber in the the semis.

And while it took plenty of courage to get through all of that, none of it tops what it took Stosur to ultimately take the title. Facing thirteen-time Major winner Serena Williams, widely considered the favorite for the crown despite her #28 seeding, she was the much less experienced underdog that Sunday afternoon -- and playing on her opponent's home turf. Add to that the fact she had to witness and overcome another epic meltdown by Williams and still came out on top, you have to give her credit for one of the most heroic victories of the year.

Doubles Team of the Year

It's tough to be a doubles players -- the prize money is relatively minimal, you're often relegated to the back courts at major tournaments, and you rarely get any television time. And there's the ever-present task of finding a partner with whom you play well -- some teams stay together forever, others are just a flash in the pan. But when two complement each other perfectly, they can do a lot of damage on Tour.

It really is a close call that gives Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond the second place trophy. Having only teamed up this year after Huber split with long-time partner Cara Black, they struggled at the start, losing their first couple matches together. But the team finally started gaining traction mid-year, making the semis at Roland Garros. They came in second at both Eastbourne and Stanford, and finally earned their first Major together as the third seed at the U.S. Open. In total they won four titles together in 2011, including the year-end championship, but something tells me the veteran team players have a lot more left in them.

The Winners
Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik had a little more time to get used to each other, but made good quickly on their still-budding partnership. The pair came together in 2010 and lost early in their first event, but they stormed back in Dubai to make the final, beating the first and third seeds along the way. A month later they won the title in Indian Wells and made another trip to the top of the podium in New Haven.

But 2011 was when they really found their groove. The first year as exclusive teammates -- other than Peschke's Fed Cup rubbers -- they captured six titles including Wimbledon, and fell just short of taking the year-end championships. They finish the year tied for second in points, mostly because Huber racked up a couple independent of Raymond, but they scored some of the biggest wins of the season. It's too soon to tell just how fruitful the partnership will be, but so far it looks pretty promising.

Player of the Year

A few months ago when considering the possibilities for this category, there was no shortage of contenders. With four different ladies each getting their chance to shine at the Majors -- only one made two different finals -- and none of whom ended the year at #1, the leader in this race changed month-to month. Ultimately, though, this was a contest of consistency and wherewithal versus power and headlines -- and the winner eventually became clear.

The Winner
Petra Kvitova was barely on the radar at the start of the year, but boy did she change that quickly. Unseeded at Brisbane, she powered through four higher-ranked players to claim just the second trophy of her career. She caused a couple more upsets on her way to the Australian Open quarters and then stunned Kim Clijsters to capture a title in Paris.

Her luck didn't stop there, of course. After a couple early round losses in the spring, she resumed her winning ways with a title in Madrid, a runner's-up trophy in Eastbourne, and -- of course -- a career-making trip to her first Grand Slam trophy at Wimbledon. She's currently riding a twelve-match win streak, one which included a year-end championship and Fed Cup gold.

Now ranked #2 in the world, she racked up a field-leading six WTA titles on the year -- the same number as Caroline Wozniacki, but more than a million dollars more in prize money. She has thirteen wins against top ten players, seven versus top five, a perfect indoor record and a near-84% win rate on all surfaces. Her play can be spotty at times, sure, but at just twenty-one she's still honing her game. And with all eyes sure to be on her from the get-go next season, she's set the bar high for what a successful year can be.

So there you have it, the best and worst of women's tennis in 2011. Hopefully the biggest success stories will be able to keep their momentum going strong in the new year, and the rest are able to turn their luck around.

Be sure to check back next week when I bring you the winners of the men's Tennis Spin Awards. You might think you know what's coming, but trust me, there should be more than a few surprises in store for you!

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