October 28, 2012

Full Circle

I'm not sure if anyone was predicting a different result at this year's WTA championships. In a season full of comebacks, breakouts and breakthroughs, at the end of the day it was the most experienced who survived. And after the results we've seen the last four and a half months, it was exactly what we should have expected.

Serena Williams began the year with some interesting results. After being stunned in the Australian Open fourth round by Ekaterina Makarova, ranked out of the top fifty at the time, she lost in the Miami quarters to Caroline Wozniacki -- arguably the only notable win she's had all year -- retired from the Rome semis and then, shockingly, inexplicably, earth-shatteringly, fell in the first round at Roland Garros. After that, though, things turned around, and quickly. She won the three biggest titles left for the year, and only dropped one match in the meantime, climbing technically to #3 in the world, but easily holding the spot of favorite in Istanbul.

Serena took some time off after the U.S. Open, and she looked a little shaky to start at the year-end finals. She got less than half of her first serves in against Angelique Kerber, incidentally the only woman to beat her since the French Open, was broken five times by Na Li, and was even tested by New York rival Victoria Azarenka all in the round robins. But she nevertheless make it through without dropping a set. She was relentless against Aggie Radwanska in the semis, though, taking advantage of the three-and-a-half hour marathon her Wimbledon challenger went through on Friday and making her first Tour final since 2009.

Meanwhile fellow veteran Maria Sharapova was working through her section of the Istanbul draw. The young Russian had put together what might be the best season of her career, making her way to final in four of the first five events she played this year, finally winning a title in Stuttgart. Her year culminated when she completed the career Grand Slam in Paris and reclaimed the #1 ranking for a few weeks in the spring. She did well after that, too, winning Silver in London, making the semis in New York, and getting to the final in Beijing.

At the year-end's she dominated the round robins, dropping just a set to Aggie Radwanska and winning a solid 63% of the games she played -- better even than Serena. And in Saturday's semi against year-long rival Victoria Azarenka -- she'd previously lost four of five matches to the world #1 this year -- she raised her game even higher. She kept her opponent to just about fifty percent on serve and converted four break opportunities. It took her just over ninety minutes, but finally the Russian earned herself a rematch of the 2004 final, the only one she'd won in her decorated career.

But Serena was just too much for Sharapova to handle on Sunday. The two-time year-end champion came out swinging and, while both were able to hold serve early, eventually broke her opponent in the fifth game of the match. Maria stayed close for a time, keeping herself from falling too far behind in the set, but after finally losing the first she was immediately broken to start the second. Serena controlled her serve from the start, never allowing even a break opportunity to the returner, and firing off four winners in a row during the last game to seal the deal. It wasn't enough to boost her ranking any before the next season starts, but with the way she's played since June no one -- even those ranked higher -- will want to see Serena Williams in her path.

After her victory, Serena was asked if this had been the best year of her career and, acknowledging the rocky start, she had to concede that she might have had better. But as she's improved her play throughout the season, it sure seems like the thirty-one year old has come back to the point at which she can handily dominate anyone in her path. And now that she's back where she started her run over a decade ago, there's no telling how much longer it will last.

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