December 17, 2014

The Most Anticipated Returns of 2015

Despite all the drama and excitement we saw on both the men's and women's Tours in 2014, it sure felt like something was missing on the tennis courts this past year. Plenty of high-profile players were MIA for large chunks of the season as injury kept them on the sidelines and, in some cases, caused precipitous drops in their rankings.

But hopefully all that can be reversed in the New Year -- while it may take some time to regain their footing, any one of these guys or gals has the potential to storm back onto the scene now that they're ready for action. And we'll all be better off for having witnessed their comebacks.

7. Janko Tipsarevic

Tipsy is the only player on this list who didn't take the court at all in 2014 -- after losing to world #808 Karen Khachanov in Moscow last fall, and retiring just three games in to Marcel Granollers in Valencia, he went on leave, ultimately needing two surgeries this year to remove a non-cancerous tumor in his left heel. It was unfortunate timing -- the now thirty-year old Serb had started 2013 in the top ten, having beaten higher-profile compatriot Novak Djokovic in Madrid and making his second straight U.S. Open quarterfinal. He even kicked off last season with some promise, claiming his fourth career title in Chennai and reaching a career best fourth round in Melbourne. But he slowed down noticeably in the back half, winning just seven matches between July and October, just one of which came against a player in the top seventy. He's planning a return to action next month, but it's going to be a tough ask for him to run all the way to another crown in India straight out of the gate -- after all, he's never won the same title twice, even when playing his best. But if he gets some much-needed match play early on in the season, there's no reason to believe it will be much longer before he's back in good form.

6. Maria Kirilenko

To be fair, the twenty-seven year old Russian officially launched her return this year, but she hasn't quite yet made the impact you hoped she would, especially unfortunate given how injury struck just as she was hitting her prime. Long relegated to the bottom half of Slam seedings, she's certainly had some success on the singles Tour, but until last year hadn't won a title since 2008. But after a near miss in the 2012 Wimbledon quarters and a trip to the Olympic Bronze medal round, she finally added a trophy in Pattaya City and withstood four three-setters and two top ten victories to make the Indian Wells semis. Just after Roland Garros last year she cracked the top ten for the first time in her career, but a knee injury hampered the rest of her season and took her off the court for the first quarter of 2014. She has played a handful of events this year, winning just two matches through the U.S. Open, but she showed some progress in Seoul, taking out two seeds on her way to the semis. Still she starts the new year at #189 in the world, so she's not going into many matches as the favorite -- but if she's able to reset during the off-season it's more than possible she could change that quickly. She doesn't have a lot to lose, after all, and that could give her the confidence to really shine.

5. Nicolas Almagro

The veteran Spaniard has been a fixture in the top twenty for years and has consistently delivered on clay courts, winning all twelve of his titles on the surface and even notching a win over Rafael Nadal this spring in Barcelona. But despite seeming to have rebounded from an early-2014 shoulder injury which forced him out of the Australian Open -- the first Major he skipped since 2004 -- he had more problems later in the year. He retired with a foot injury during his first round match at Roland Garros and underwent season-ending surgery late in July. Failing to defend points from last fall -- he'd reached the semis in Tokyo and Valencia in 2013 and the quarters at the Shanghai Masters -- he's tumbled to #71 in the world to end the year. That's just high enough to gain him entry to the kick-off tournament in Doha next month, but without the comfort of a seed at this event, pressure will be on to deliver from the start.

4. Alisa Kleybanova

The twenty-five year old Russian has had a rougher time of it than pretty much all her contemporaries. A top-twenty player at her peak, she was diagnose with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2011 and left the game when she was at her prime. She returned the next season, scoring one all-important win in Miami, spent a lot of time getting match play on the ITF circuit and came back to Tour late last year, reaching the quarters in Moscow and stunning Petra Kvitova this past April in Stuttgart. But disaster struck again early in the summer -- after losing in the first round at Wimbledon, Kleybanova missed the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. She's still eager to get back out there, though, as she told Ben Rothenberg last month, and with career wins over players like Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Jelena Jankovic and others early in her career, she's certainly got the talent to come back swinging again. Hopefully this time it's for good.

3. Rafael Nadal

Most of you would probably argue that Rafa should take the top spot in this countdown, but with a standing claim on a handful of titles, a his record ninth crown in Paris, and a year-end ranking of #3, his absence over the past season was more emotionally palpable than it was actual fact. Still, with a boatload of points to defend -- many of which go on the block early in the year -- he's arguably got the most to lose of anyone on this list. And true fans have a right to be worried -- while he did break his streak of first-week exits at Wimbledon, he also notched his first two losses players born in the 1990s and ended perfect records against the likes of Nicolas Almagro, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Stan Wawrinka. And after wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the U.S. Open and an appendectomy kept him out of the year-end championships he didn't have much chance to redeem himself. He'll be back to defend his title in Doha next month, though, and hopefully he'll put up a fight, if not come away with the title again -- after all, nothing scrubs out the bad taste of disappointing results better than a big win when no one expects it.

2. Victoria Azarenka

Like a couple players on this list, Vika has been on and off the court sporadically in 2014, but by marking her first year in six without a title to her name, she'll be more remembered this year for her absences. After failing to three-peat at the Australian Open and suffering a surprising opening round loss in Indian Wells, she skipped a couple months of play with a foot injury, pulled out of the French Open and fell early at both Eastbourne and Wimbledon. She did manage a decent run to the New York quarters, but still fell short of her runner's-up showing the last two years and finally called it quits for the year because of knee issues. She finishes the season ranked outside the top thirty for the first time since 2006, but will get back to work early next month in Brisbane -- and knowing how much fight is in this girl makes me feel like she's gonna make a strong case to cut that number to shreds.

1. Juan Martin Del Potro

Perhaps the most-missed presence on Tour this year, though, was that of the gentle giant Juan Martin Del Potro who suffered his second season-ending injury at the Australian Open. Though he had yet to recapture the glory of his breakthrough Grand Slam win in 2009, he'd spent much of last season gearing up for something big -- he beat Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on his way to the Indian Wells final, narrowly missed making the championship match at Wimbledon and ended the season with titles in Tokyo and Basel. Back in the top five to start this year, he seemed to pick up where he left off, adding title number eighteen to his mantel in Sydney. But after a shocking second round defeat in Melbourne, he sought treatment for a wrist injury -- the left one this time -- and ultimately, officially ended his season in late February, announcing the next month he'd undergo another surgery to fix it. The six-foot-six Argentine was originally scheduled to return to play after the U.S. Open, but he ended up skipping the fall's Asian swing to get back into competitive shape. Instead he'll retake the court in January, kicking off in Brisbane before heading back to Sydney to defend his crown. It's taken a while for him to rebound in the past, so it's quite possible he falls farther from his current #138 ranking first -- but if DelPo's proven anything over the last five years it's that he's more than capable of staging a huge comeback. And my bet's on him to prove himself quick off the bat.

Of course, as is common with any comeback, it could take a while for any of these guys to perform at their best. But many of them have already relaunched their careers with great success, and there's no reason they all can't do it again in the New Year. After all neither the men's nor the women's Tour has been the same without them.

And as the holidays approach it time for all of us to take a bit of a break -- myself included. But rest assured Tennis Spin will be back in full force in the New Year -- and hopefully all these players will follow quickly after that, swinging just as hard as they always have.

'Til then, have a wonderful holiday season, everyone, and Happy New Year!

December 9, 2014

The 2014 Tennis Spin Awards: The Gentlemen

Man, if you thought things got intense for the ladies in 2014, you ain't seen nothing yet!

After years with a select few dominating the Majors, we got not one, but two first time Slam champions this season. We had records set, breakthroughs made, comebacks staged and upsets of all kinds. And when all was said and done there were plenty of contenders in all of these categories.

So, without further ado...

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Greatest LetdownMost Overlooked
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Greatest UpsetBest Slam Match
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

During a season in which so many young stars emerged on the ATP Tour, it's hard to pick a winner in this category. All these guys made huge strides this year, caused some unlikely upsets and climbed up the rankings. While none of them has completely broken into the elite just yet, all their performances show they've got a lot still to give. And hopefully we'll see them continue their momentum into the New Year.

The Nominees

Jiri Vesely certainly started the year with a ton of promise -- having won six Challenger and Futures titles in 2013, the now twenty-one year old Czech was named the ATP Star of Tomorrow, and he was in a hurry to prove his worth. In his first Australian Open main draw he took the first two sets off twenty-first seed Kevin Anderson, before ultimately succumbing in the nearly four-hour long match. He wasn't discouraged by his loss though -- several weeks later he took Andy Murray to three sets in Indian Wells, then won his first Major match at Roland Garros and stunned Gael Monfils at Wimbledon. Vesely's slowed down a bit since then -- he lost in the first round of all but one of the ATP level events he played after London, but he has climbed to #66 in the world, just a hair off his career high ranking. And as he really starts to gain his footing at the Slams I expect that number to get even smaller.

Austria's Dominic Thiem had an even more successful rise up the rankings this year, finishing the season at #39 in the world, a full hundred spots higher than where he started it. The twenty-one year old had to qualify for most events early on, but wins over Gilles Simon in Indian Wells and Lukas Rosol in Miami put him on the map. His biggest victory, though, came on the clay of Madrid where he came back from losing the first set to Monte Carlo champ Stan Wawrinka to notch the first top-ten win of his career. In the weeks to follow he would reach the final in Kitzbühel and defeat twelfth seed Ernests Gulbis on his way to the fourth round in his U.S. Open debut. He's only won a couple matches since then, but I expect him to come back strong at the start of 2015, ready to add a couple more scalps to his take.

The Winner: Nick Kyrgios

The young Australian may not have climbed as high up the rankings as his contemporaries, but he sure made a louder splash than either of them. In his debut at his homeland's Major, the nineteen-year-old wildcard not only won his first match, but also took the opening two sets twenty-seventh seed Benoit Paire in the second round. He spent the next couple months on the Challenger and Futures circuit, but roared back onto Tour at Wimbledon. Still ranked well out of the top hundred, he weathered three long, grueling matches before stunning top seed and two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round. If that wasn't enough he took out Mikhail Youzhny in New York, becoming the first teenager to beat seeds at back-to-back Slams since Novak Djokovic did it in 2006.

Most Improved

The Nominees

Sam Groth has been around for ages, going pro some eight years ago, but never came close to cracking the top hundred until this summer. The six-foot-four Australian had actually spent most of his career all the way down on the Futures circuit, only winning his first Challenger event this March in Canada. But he started finding his footing on the ATP Tour as well -- he got to the quarters at his season opener in Brisbane and played his first Grand Slam main draw since 2009 -- only his second ever -- in Melbourne. He did well outside his homeland too -- on the grass of Newport, he stunned defending champion Nicolas Mahut to make the semis, and later in the summer he finally won his first Major match in New York. He did well in doubles too, partnering with Andrey Golubev to make the semis at the French Open and with compatriot Chris Guccione to pick up his only Tour title in Bogotá. Now #81 in the world, he could get direct entry to the big events now, which could give him a great opportunity to climb even higher. And with so many players thriving so late in their careers these days, he might just be hitting his prime now.

At twenty-two Jack Sock is a little bit earlier on in his career, but the 2010 Junior champion at the U.S. Open has arguably been on the radar much longer. Back in 2011 he won the mixed doubles title in the Big Apple with Melanie Oudin and he made my list of players to watch in 2013. But he languished mostly outside the top hundred in singles, cracking double digits for a brief period last year, but still ending the season at #104 in the world. He seems to have made a big leap into the higher levels this year -- Sock beat then-#12 Tommy Haas in Auckland and countryman John Isner in Newport. He put up a nice fight against top-ten players too, forcing third sets against the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, even taking out Kei Nishikori at a Masters event in Shanghai. If that wasn't enough, he teamed with Canada's Vasek Pospisil to win the doubles title at Wimbledon, stunning legendary champions Mike and Bob Bryan in the final. Whether his biggest successes are reserved for the paired discipline or he can achieve anything on his own is yet to be seen, but with a climb into the top fifty now he has a better shot than ever to prove his worth on all courts.

The Winner: Roberto Bautista Agut

It's easy to have been unaware of the Spaniard before the start of the season -- the twenty-six year old only broke into the top hundred in late 2012, amassed a losing 29-34 record during his career and only picked up three Challenger titles over the years. He started to gain a little footing last year, beating Tomas Berdych on his way to the Chennai final and notching a win over Grigor Dimitrov in Beijing. But he still ended the year outside the top fifty, in danger of dropping quickly if he didn't defend points off the bat.

RBA rose to the task, of course, and then some -- after reaching the semis in Auckland he stunned Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round of the Australian Open. He kept going from there, too, taking out Berdych again in Indian Wells, reaching the semis in Madrid and picking up his first Tour-level titles in Den Bosch and Stuttgart. Now ranked at #15 in the world, he fell just short of taking an alternate slot for the year-end championship and is a legitimate threat to the top players. While he certainly now has more to lose when the new season starts in a few weeks, something tells me he's going to come out swinging right out of the gate.

One to Watch

The Nominees

Don't be surprised if you haven't heard much about twenty-one year old Guilherme Clezar. Ranked just out of the top two hundred at the start of the year, he only played three ATP-level matches all season, losing the two first rounds he played in Rio and Sao Paulo and putting the only loss on the board in Brazil's Davis Cup Group 1 win over Ecuador in April. He spent most of his time on the Challenger circuit, and while he couldn't win a title this year -- he'd claimed two in his homeland the prior two years -- he was rewarded a wildcard spot in the Challenger Tour Final for the second straight year. As the lowest, eighth seed in the field in 2013, he notched an opening round robin win over top seed Teymuraz Gabashvilli -- this year, the underdog again at #331 in the world, he got two top-hundred wins over Blaz Rola and Joao Souza to reach the semis and then saved three match points in the three tiebreak, three-plus hour match against veteran Victor Estrella Burgos. He ultimately fell to Diego Schwartzman in the final, the only man who'd beaten him in the early rounds, but with a steadily improving results and a couple more matches under his belt, it might not be long before he starts getting some wins on the Big Boys' Tour too.

France's Lucas Pouille also flew under the radar for most of this season, but the twenty year old had a couple more chances to show us what he's got. While he spent the balance of the year at lower profile events, and did miss what could have been a great chance in Australia -- the wildcard in Melbourne opened against qualifier Dusan Lajovic and fell in four tight sets -- he got in some solid results at the Challengers early on. Later in the year he started getting traction, too, reaching the semis at events in Romania, the Slovak Republic and Poland before finally breaking into a final in Morocco. And though he still had to qualify for Tour-level tournaments, he finally took advantage of an opportunity at his hometown Masters. In Paris he effected four big upsets, notching wins over big-serving Ivo Karlovic and former world #13 Fabio Fognini before losing to Roger Federer in the Round of Sixteen. He hasn't yet cracked the double digits himself, but if he takes his momentum into the new year, it might not be long before he does.

The Winner: Borna Coric

Having just turned pro, the eighteen year old Croat wasn't on anyone's radar at the start of the year -- 2013's Boys champion at the U.S. Open was ranked outside the top three hundred at the end last season and spent most of the early part of this one at Futures events. But he showed promise from the start -- he took a set off veteran Michael Berrer in his ATP debut in Zagreb, reached the quarters and semis in subsequent events in his hometown and then beat then-#21 Jerzy Janowicz in Davis Cup action. He fell in early qualifying rounds over the summer but finally got a couple Tour-level wins in at Umag, beating top-fifty player Edouard Roger-Vasselin and former Viña del Mar champ Horacio Zeballos in the process. But he really hit his stride in the early fall, upsetting Lukas Rosol in his New York opener as a qualifier and reaching the semis in Tashkent. A couple weeks later in Basel he stunned an admittedly injured Ernests Gulbis and an appendicitis-afflicted Rafael Nadal, notching the biggest wins of his still young career. Of course, it remains to be seen whether he can pull off such victories when his opponents are at the top of their games, but it might not be long before we get to see him try -- now at #91 in the world and surely climbing, I'd expect him to make a much bigger statement at the big events in the new year.

Best Comeback

The Runner-Up: Viktor Troicki

The long-time Serbian #2 was ranked as high as #12 in the world at his peak, and in the first half of last year he scored wins over the likes of Marin Cilic and then-#14 Janko Tipsarevic. But after failing to submit a sample during drug testing in Monte Carlo, he was forced to serve a suspension which pulled him out of the game for twelve months. As points started falling off this July he dropped precipitously, first out of the top fifty, then out of the top hundred, bottoming out over the summer at #847 in the world. When he returned to Tour after Wimbledon, though, he put in some big man-hours on court -- he got to the quarters in Gstaad, banged through qualifying rounds at Challengers, even winning a couple titles on that circuit. By the time autumn rolled around he had gotten much of his groove back, taking out David Ferrer in Shenzhen, Mikhail Youzhny in Beijing, and reaching the semis in Vienna. He's now ranked just outside the top hundred, but any success in the early months of the New Year will send him soaring, and it might not be long before he's back contending with the big guys on the big stages once again.

The Nominees

The Winner: David Goffin

We might pay more attention to what happens on the ATP circuit, but you can't ignore what a player does at the Challenger level -- results may not give them a ton of ranking points or prize money, but it sure gives athletes some much-needed match play. And the young Belgian certainly was able to parlay what he learned at smaller events into big things on the main stage. The erstwhile wunderkind got all the way to the Roland Garros fourth round in 2012 as a qualifier and even put up a fight at Wimbledon, taking out then-#28 Bernard Tomic in their opener. But he fell way off the radar after that -- the now twenty-four year old lost in the first round of seven straight Majors, dropped as low as #113 in the world and notched just one top-twenty win over the next two years.

But after losing to Andy Murray at the All England Club this year, something in him switched. He won three Challenger events back-to-back during the summer, and then stunned the world for his first Big Boys' title in Kitzbühel. His stretched his win streak to twenty-five straight games, qualifying for and reaching the quarters in Winston-Salem and even put up a nice fight against Grigor Dimitrov in the third round at the U.S. Open. And he didn't slow down from there -- loyal to the courts which spring-boarded him to the big leagues, Goffin picked up another Challengers' trophy in Mons, beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to his second career title in Metz, and scored his first top-ten win, beating Milos Raonic on the way to the final in Basel. His ranking now stands at #22 in the world, a far cry from the sub-hundred spot he occupied at the start of the year, and well higher than his previous peak in the mid-forties. And I don't think he'll let himself lose his grip so easily this time around.

Greatest Letdown

The Runner-Up: Fabio Fognini

The brash Italian didn't fall completely off his game this year, picking up his third career title in Viña Del Mar in February, reaching the final in Buenos Aires and finishing the season at #20 in the world. He even pulled off an impressive, straight-set victory over then-#8 Andy Murray in their Davis Cup quarterfinal. In March he hit a career high ranking of #13 in the world.

But his temper and on-court antics sure seemed to garner more headlines than his quality of play. At times it made sense -- his clash with an umpire in Indian Wells seems largely justified -- but also had some less appropriate outburts, melting down during a loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov in Madrid, incurring a fine almost as large as his winnings from his first round Wimbledon win, and actually flipping off the crowds after being defeated by world #533 Chuhan Wang in Shanghai. He only has one win since the U.S. Open and hasn't notched a single victory over anyone in the top-forty since July -- not the first time he's lost steam toward the end of the season -- so he certainly hasn't put up the numbers to excuse his behavior. And having shown so much promise over the years, it's high time Fognini proved he can be consistent in areas that have a little more to do with his talent and ability and less with his attitude.

The Winner: Benoit Paire

The twenty-five year old Frenchman had quite an impressive season in 2013 -- he scored wins over the likes of Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon, Milos Raonic and top ten players Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin Del Potro. He reached the final in Montpelier and the semis in Rome and by the French Open had risen high enough to merit a twenty-fourth seed.

This year, however, was a bit of a different story. After eking out a win over Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open, he notched three opening round exits during the spring, retiring from matches in Barcelona and Madrid. He didn't do much better during the summer, winning just three main draw matches between Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. He had to qualify for Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati, and though he did manage a win over Julien Benneteau in New York, he skipped the rest of the season with a knee injury. His #118 ranking is a far cry from where he peaked last season and he could have a hard time getting into the tournaments that once made him a star. But hopefully he'll be able to recover and rebound when the new season starts -- otherwise his time among the elite could be more short-lived than he could ever have expected.

Most Overlooked

While plenty of players grabbed headlines this year -- both good and bad -- a couple lesser known names were slogging away on both the ATP and Challengers' Tours and racking up a bunch of always-significant ranking points. Sam Querrey, who struggled against the big guys most of the year, sneakily managed to claw himself back to #35 in the world on the heels of a trio of smaller titles. And Argentina's Diego Schwartzman finished the season at a career high #61 after winning the Challenger Tour Finals in São Paulo. And they're not the only ones who've flown under the radar.

The Nominees

Santiago Giraldo may be the highest-profile name on the list -- he reached his second career final in Barcelona with wins over clay-court specialists like Fabio Fognini and Nicolas Almagro and then stunned Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray on his way to the Madrid quarters. He still hasn't done much at the Majors -- his third round appearance at Wimbledon is the only the second time he's won two matches at a Slam, but he did earn his first seed at the U.S. Open, ultimately falling in four sets to Teymuraz Gabashvili in his opener. Still he seems to have a lot of potential, especially on clay. And hopefully in the coming season he'll be able to harness that talent and finally make a big statement.

Portugal's Joao Sousa also put up some solid results this year, and across all surfaces. He scored an upset of Gilles Simon on the Miami hardcourts, reached the semis in Den Bosch as a qualifier and finished runner-up on the dirt of Bastad. After a couple early exits over the summer, he rebounded in the fall, taking out former champion Gael Monfils before finally losing in the Metz final to David Goffin. He's struggled a bit since then, winning just one match in a tight three sets in Beijing, but like Giraldo he's shown some promise and could be primed for big things in the new year.

The Winner: Pablo Cuevas

Unlike these other guys, the twenty-eight year old Uruguayan has a little bit of bling to show for his efforts this year. Ranked outside the top two hundred at the start of the year, he made a big push to return to double digits during the clay court season. He picked up a couple Challengers' trophies in Barranquilla and Mestre but then really hit his stride over the summer -- he went on a fourteen match winning streak after Wimbledon, quietly adding his first two ATP-level titles in Bastad and Umag, notching wins over Fernando Verdasco, Fabio Fognini and Tommy Robredo. He picked up two more smaller trophies to end the season, scoring enough points to finish the year at #30 -- a huge improvement from where he started. Like with these other guys who thrive most on clay, he's so easily overshadowed by one man who dominates the surface, but Cuevas certainly poses a threat to the favorites and it might not be long before he puts that ability to good use.

Biggest Surprise

I always find it difficult to award prizes in this category -- a "surprise" can take so many forms, after all. It can highlight a great achievement from an unexpected source, the precipitous fall of a long-time great, or really anything strange that happens on -- or off -- the court. And this year's candidates really run the gamut.

The Nominees

Feliciano Lopez has long been an also-ran in this sport -- though he'd previously peaked in the top twenties a few years ago, by and large he spent his time in the mid to low double digits and almost never reached the second week of a Major. And at thirty-three years of age, you had to think the handsome Spaniard's best playing days were behind him. But things seemed to fall into place somehow this year -- always a grass court specialist, Lopez stunned former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych on his way to the Queen's Club final and rebounded quickly to take the title in Eastbourne. He only made the third round at the All England Club, but took out marathon man John Isner and put up a nice fight against Stan Wawrinka in the process. Feli even extended his success to the hardcourts -- he reached the semis at the Rogers Cup and in Shanghai, adding a couple more top-ten wins to his resume by beating Milos Raonic and Rafael Nadal. He ends the year at a career high #14 in the world and accepted a second alternate's ticket to the Barclays World Tour Finals. We may be in an era of veteran success these days, but to see a man play his best so late in his career is really something to admire.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, has been at the top of his game for years, picking up a couple Major titles, scoring Olympic Gold in his homeland and rising as high as #2 in the world. Back surgery at the end of last year put him at a big of a disadvantage at the start of this season, and he briefly fell out of the top ten in the early fall. But he really got himself back on track after the U.S. Open -- he won his first title of the year in Shenzhen, beat New York champion Marin Cilic in Beijing and added a couple more trophies in Vienna and Valencia. His late season surge was enough to qualify for the year-end championships and seemed to suggest momentum was on his side. That's why his meltdown during the last round robin match was so unexpected -- with a chance to reach his fourth semi at the World Tour Finals he should have been able to put up a fight. Instead he won just one game against Roger Federer, not even notching a point on his opponent's first serve and after less than an hour was sent home. He did get to play an exhibition match against eventual champion Novak Djokovic after Roger pulled out of Sunday's final, but it was clearly not the ending he wanted after the comeback he'd launched over the last few months. Hopefully, though, he'll be back and kicking in 2015 -- it would certainly be a shame to have all the effort be for naught.

The Winner: U.S. Open Semifinals

As I've alluded to above, there used to be a time -- especially in the men's game -- where experience meant something. Before the start of this year, three players had won thirty-two of the previous thirty-six Majors. Just two men combined to with twenty-six of them. A championship hadn't been contested by two newbies since Rafael Nadal met Mariano Puerta at the 2005 French Open.

So when five-time Big Apple champion Roger Federer and 2011 winner Novak Djokovic -- who, just two months prior, had put on a classic display at the All England Club -- made it to the semis at this year's U.S. Open, it seemed inevitable we were in for another battle between the two greats.

But that, of course, was not meant to be. Then-world #11 Kei Nishikori, who'd spent his last eight-and-a-half hours on court upsetting both Milos Raonic and Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka, seemed to rebound effortlessly to take out Djokovic in four fairly straightforward sets. A few hours later Marin Cilic, who started the year ranked all the way down at #37, took the court against Roger, who'd won each one of the pair's five earlier meetings. But Fed had been pushed to the limit by Gael Monfils in the quarters and couldn't put up much of a fight for a spot in the final. With their wins we were guaranteed a second first-time Major winner this season, and the first time since 2002 neither Slam finalist was ranked in the top ten.

Of course, it was Cilic who eventually walked away with the title, but while both men went on to make their year-end championship debuts, Nishikori ended up with the better season, picking up titles in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur before reaching the semis in London. Still, no matter how well these guys did all year, no one would have expected both to pull off equally unlikely upsets on the same day. And their achievements might just have set a new tone for the start of the upcoming season.

Gutsiest Win

The Runner-Up: Gilles Simon d. Marin Cilic, Australian Open Second Round

Do you remember how hot it was at the Australian Open this year? With high temperatures in Melbourne climbing well into triple digits and on-court thermometers clocking in above 120°, multiple matches were halted and a couple players were forced to retire mid-play. So when some players stayed on court for three hours or more -- even as the sun began to set -- you have to give them props. And former world #6 Simon and then-unseeded Cilic fought out the longest match on the hottest day of the tournament.

Neither man was playing his best at the time -- The Frenchman had notched losses to players like world #111 Alejandro Falla and #147 Marius Copil in recent matches and had just endured a four-and-a-half hour marathon against Dustin Brown in his Aussie opener. The soon-to-be crowned Grand Slam champ, meanwhile, was still coming back from a four-month suspension and had gotten precipitously close to falling out of the top fifty. He'd squeaked through his own five setter in the first round, coming back from two sets down versus a higher-ranked Marcel Granollers to get the win. And both were unwilling to concede this match.

Cilic was the first to draw blood, nabbing the only break in the first set, but his opponent was able to even the score, taking the second in a tiebreak. Both men struggled on serve in the next set, each winning three games on return before the Croat finally took the lead with another breaker. But Simon was revitalized from there -- with Cilic only getting six first serves in during the fourth set and winning just two of them, Gilles was the tougher through the final hour -- ultimately closing out the match 6-2 in the decider. His run wouldn't go much farther -- he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets in the next round -- but he did manage a couple top-ten wins on his way to the Shanghai final this fall, and while he's still a ways off his career high ranking, but if he can deliver a few more wins in similarly tough situations, it might not be long before he's back in the mix again.

The Nominees

The Winner: Andy Murray d. Tommy Robredo, Valencia Final

How frustrating must the veteran Spaniard be? Robredo, who hit his peak ranking of #5 in the world way back in 2006, had been climbing his way back into relevance the last few years, stunning Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last summer and taking out Novak Djokovic this past August in Cincinnati. Earlier in the fall he'd made his way to the final in Shenzhen, took the first set and, against all odds, earned five match points versus two-time Grand Slam champion and heavy favorite Andy Murray. But he ultimately couldn't convert, getting breadsticked (breadstuck?) in the final set and falling in the two and a half hour match.

So you can imagine when the pair met again a few weeks later in his homeland, Robredo was out for revenge -- and he got off to a good start. With the crowd's support he denied six break opportunities in the opening set and converted his own to get the early lead. He earned himself another couple match points in the second set breaker, but was again pushed to a third when the Scot powered through. Robredo wasn't through yet, though -- in the deciding set of what would become the longest non-Slam final of the year, he again got the first break. But Murray came out swinging when he was under the most pressure -- capping off an amazing late-season surge, he evened the score again and saved another three championship points in yet another tiebreak -- that's ten in all during those two matches -- finally closing out the match after three and a third hours of play. After a fight like that, you can understand Robredo's "salute" at the net:

The win, of course, should have been routine for the one-time world #2, but facing a motivated and inspired opponent and coming out ahead took more than a higher ranking and more hardware in his trophy case. The match featured some of the best play we've seen outside the Grand Slams this year and, though only one contender walked away with the title, you could argue that both were winners that day.

Greatest Upset

The Runner-Up: Lleyton Hewitt d. Roger Federer, Brisbane Final

Lleyton Hewitt is one of those players who just refuses to go away. Though he hasn't been a force at the Majors in years, he's nevertheless not someone any of the favorites wants to see in his section of the draws -- last year he got another win over Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open and this year he pushed both Andreas Seppi and Jerzy Janowicz through five long sets. And while he's still hovering in the mid double-digit rankings, he can still bring it against the top guys when he wants to.

Such was the case this year in Brisbane where the unseeded Australian took out Feliciano Lopez and Kei Nishikori on his way to the final in his homeland. There he met a slightly slowed-down but still heavily favored Roger Federer who, ranked #6 in the world at the time, had made at least the semis of the last three events he played. The pair had played twenty-six times before, with the great Swiss holding a commanding 18-8 lead, and Hewitt had only one win in the last ten-plus years. But the underdog took command early, running away with the first set easily and yielding his only break of serve in the second. After just over two hours, Hewitt was left the victor, earning his first trophy since 2010 and his biggest win since defeating then-#3 Nikolay Davydenko in Hamburg five years ago. He went on to win a title in Newport over the summer, making this his most prolific year in a decade. And while he may not have done a lot with the back half of his season, I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out and cause a little more damage once the new year starts.

The Winner: Alexandr Dolgopolov d. Rafael Nadal, Indian Wells Third Round

To be sure Rafa notched a lot of losses this year to players you'd never expect to put up a fight against the reigning year-end #1 -- Dustin Brown in Halle, Martin Klizan in Beijing, not to mention those two teenagers ranked outside the top hundred -- but this was his first big reality check of the year. Despite a shocking upset in Melbourne, the defending champion at the BNP Paribas Open had put together a more-than-solid year, reaching the final of every event he played, and even taking out Dolgo for the Rio title.

The man from Ukraine, on the other hand, was trying to claw himself back into relevance -- a stone's throw from the top ten about three years ago, he struggled to hold onto form in 2013, losing his opening match at thirteen events. He started this year at #57 in the world, wasn't seeded at the Australian Open and only scored one full win over a top hundred player early in the season. He seemed to get his footing on clay, though, beating David Ferrer in Rio and reaching the semis in Acapulco. Still, no one thought he'd give Nadal any trouble in the desert -- in their five previous meetings he'd never even won a set. But this time things were very different -- Dolgo got off to an early lead and though Rafa was able to force a decider, he stayed stronger in the third set tiebreak. He rode his momentum all the way to the semis, beating Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic along the way, and then made the quarters in Miami, briefly cracking the top twenty again in June.

It's been a struggle for both men since then, of course. Nadal was injured again (and again), missed the U.S. Open and had to pull out of the season-ending championships after appendix surgery. And Dolgopolov had his own knee operation late in the summer, winning just one match since his return to Tour in September. Hopefully we'll see both return to form in the New Year -- after all, knowing what they're capable of, everyone would benefit from seeing more of what they've got to show.

Best Slam Match

The Runner-Up: Ernests Gulbis d. Roger Federer, French Open Fourth Round

The young Latvian has had a roller coaster of a career, first breaking into the top thirty in 2010 with his maiden crown in Delray Beach, scoring wins over Mikhail Youzhny and Roger Federer that season, but then losing early at events a year later, citing fatigue or illness as causes for defeat. At the end of 2012 he'd fallen out of the top hundred, had to qualify for events in Cincinnati and Winston-Salem, and needed a lucky loser entry to get into a Challenger tournament in Eckental, Germany. He spent much of last season rebuilding, reclaimed the trophy in Florida and picked up another in St. Petersburg. By the time this season started he was ranked back in the top thirty, and he continued to climb -- he beat Juan Martin Del Potro in Rotterdam and Grigor Dimitrov in Indian Wells. By the time he made it to Roland Garros he'd claimed the eighteenth seed, his best yet at a Major.

Still I'm not sure anyone would have predicted the results he got -- after losing his first set in Paris, he rolled through the next nine without breaking much of a sweat to set up his first meeting with Roger since his breakout 2010 season. They split the first two sets in tiebreaks but Gulbis roared back in the third to take the lead. The far less-experienced Latvian also stayed strong after the great Fed evened the score, securing the only break of the deciding set, and after nearly four hours of play reached his first Slam quarterfinal since 2008. It might have been Roger's most surprising loss of the year, but more importantly it could have been Ernests' most inspiring -- he went on to score his fifth top ten win of 2014 by beating Tomas Berdych and even took a set off Novak Djokovic in the semis, by far his best showing at a Major to date. His performance brought him to within a stone's throw of a single-digit ranking, but unfortunately more injuries hampered his results the rest of the year -- he declined an alternate's ticket to the London final to nurse his shoulder. Still, he ends the year at #13 in the world, and if he's fully recovered when the new season starts, there's no reason to believe he won't climb even higher.

The Winner: Stanislas Wawrinka d. Novak Djokovic, Australian Open Quarterfinals

There were a lot of players who turned the tables on long-time rivals in Melbourne this year -- Ana Ivanovic, who'd lost all four of her previous meetings with Serena Williams, pulled off a stunning three-set victory in the fourth round; Wawrinka ultimately got his only win to-date over Rafael Nadal in the final. But this match might have trumped them all.

Stan had met Nole a round earlier the year before in a match that lasted over five hours, went 12-10 in the final set and was still going strong deep into the early-morning hours, New York time. It was the closest the Swiss had come to beating the world #1 in years -- his only two victories came way back in 2006 before either really had established a presence on Tour, and he hadn't managed to take even a set off him since 2009 -- but fans were on the edge of their seats until the end of this one. And a couple months later they were treated to yet another display between the two powerhouses -- at last year's U.S. Open they went another five sets, another four hours, before Djokovic was again awarded the win. So when the pair split the first four sets this year Down Under, there was a feeling we were in for a doozy.

They did not disappoint.

Djokovic came into this match more than the on-paper favorite -- he'd barreled through early rounds, spending less than two hours on court in his each of his first four matches while Wawrinka had been pushed to tiebreaks by both Alejandro Falla and Tommy Robredo. He was better rested, though, benefiting from a retirement in his opener and a walkover in the third round, so this time he might have had the advantage. After losing the first set, he came back to take the lead and overcame a break in the decider after Nole had evened the score -- at almost midnight in Australia, while the Serb was serving to stay in the match, Stan broke again, his fifth time during the meeting, and finally, after fourteen straight losses to his opponent, finally came out the winner.

Wawrinka went on, of course, to make his first career Grand Slam final and take home that all-important maiden Major. He rose to a career high #3 in the world after the Open, went on to score a win over compatriot Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and came ever so close to reaching the final at the year-end final in London. And I can't help but wonder if any of it would have been possible if he hadn't reversed the course against his long-time rival.

Doubles Team of the Year

The Runner-Up: Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock

This might be a controversial choice since these two weren't an exclusive couple this year and, like with the ladies who won this category, together they fell just a bit short of qualifying for the year-end tournament of champions. Still, for a couple guys still looking for their first big break on the singles circuit, they sure got things done when they teamed up.

Sock, of course, had tasted success in the past -- in 2011 he teamed with one-time darling Melanie Oudin to win the U.S. Open Mixed Doubles title and picked up a couple smaller trophies last year with my dear James Blake. This year he also reached the final in Stockholm with the Philippines' Treat Huey. Pospisil had some nice results with other partners himself -- he and veteran Nenad Zimonjic claimed a crown in Basel while London semifinalist Julien Benneteau helped him to a runner-up finish in Beijing. But their biggest successes by far came together.

Unseeded at Wimbledon -- Pospisil was ranked #94 in doubles at the time -- the team took out some heavy hitters during their run. First the Indo-Pak powerhouse of Rohan Bopana and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, then second seeds Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares, multiple Major winners Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, and finally to cap off an amazing fortnight they went five sets and three-plus hours against the legendary Bryan Brothers, ultimately winning the match 7-5 in the decider. They repeated most of those wins in Cincinnati, adding a Benneteau/Edouard Roger-Vasselin scalp to their kitty, but fell this time to the Bryans in the final. Still the pair's meteoric rise over the year -- they end the season as the tenth best team -- and the high-profile victories they logged along the way show what they're capable of. And you can't help but feel that the more time they spend together, the higher and higher they will climb.

The Winner: The Bryan Brothers

Bob and Mike Bryan have a much longer history together, of course -- thirty-six years, to be exact. And with at least four doubles titles a year in each of the last fourteen, theirs has been one of the most prolific partnerships in sports history. Since 2005 they've ended eight seasons ranked at the top of the game, never dropping below #3 in the world in almost a decade. This year they added ten trophies to their mantel -- six of them at Masters 1000 events -- notched title number one hundred together appropriately at the U.S. Open, bringing their Grand Slam total to sixteen, and capped off their run by taking the doubles crown at the World Tour Finals -- their fourth year-end championship, but surprisingly their first since 2009. Sure, they had some surprising losses over the course of the year -- to Pospisil and Sock at Wimbledon, to otherwise unseeded teams in Tokyo and Toronto -- but when you consistently play your best tennis against the very top players in the discipline, you far and away establish yourselves as the pair to beat at any event you enter. And the way these guys are going, I wouldn't expect them to concede that reputation any time soon.

Player of the Year

The Runner-Up: Novak Djokovic

Like for the women in this category, the year-end #1, despite all his accomplishments and accolades, only came in second in my eyes. And also like for the women, that's not meant to take anything away from what Nole acheived this year.

While he may have failed to capture his fourth straight Australian Open title, he nevertheless laid claim to seven crowns this season -- one Grand Slam, four Masters 1000s, and yet another year-end championship. He was dominant against the brightest stars in the sport, winning a stunning nineteen of twenty-four matches against top-ten players, and his biggest "upset" was in Cincinnati at the hands of then-#20 Tommy Robredo, a man who's been pretty amazing all year long. Djokovic hasn't lost before the quarterfinals at any Major in over five years and has now gone four straight adding at least one big trophy to his mantle -- that's the second longest active streak going today.

And, not that this has anything ostensible to do with his on-court successes, but Nole also hit two major (small "m") life milestones this year, wedding long-time girlfriend Jelena Ristic just days after winning his second Wimbledon title and welcoming baby boy Stefan to the family days before heading off to Paris to finish the rest of the season unbeaten. Now a husband, a father and a year-end #1 for the first time in his career, he might have some sort of superpower that propels him even further in the new year -- as if he didn't already have one before!

The Winner: Roger Federer

Okay, okay, I know he only finished the year #2 in the world, but again, like with the ladies, the man who will likely go down in history as the Greatest of All Time, he pulled off so much more than what ranking points suggest. Roger started the year "all the way down" at #6, his lowest ranking in eleven years, and fell ever so briefly two spots below that. On top of that he was coming off a year in which he'd only won one title all season -- his least prolific result since 2001. At thirty-three years of age it was easy to think King Fed was inching closer to the exit and that it might not be long before he's fully out the door.

But Roger was quick to silence the critics this year -- after a surprising loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane and a loss in the Melbourne semifinals, he got a big win over Novak Djokovic on his way to the title in Dubai, reached finals at Masters events in Indian Wells and Monte Carlo and put on a stunning performance in the Wimbledon final -- his first Major championship match in two years. And it got better from there -- he pulled off an amazing come-from-behind victory over Gael Monfils in New York, picked up his twenty-second and twenty-third Masters titles in Cincy and Shanghai and went an impressive 3-0 during round robin matches at the year-end championships. Clearly he was saving his best for the very last moments of the year.

To be fair, when Roger pulled out of the London final with a back injury and got demolished in his first, albeit exceedingly uncertain, Davis Cup rubber I very nearly demoted him to runner-up in this category. But his stepping up to get the doubles win and clinching the trophy with a Day Three singles victory over an always-tough Richard Gasquet proved to me he was nowhere near losing steam. And with just a couple events worth of points separating him from the top spot, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a big play for it as soon as the new year starts.

After all, is there anyone on the planet you think would be more capable of pulling something like that off?

And so that does it for this year's action on the ATP Tour. With so much going on, of course it's impossible to capture everything, even in a post as long as this. So let me know who you think has claim to top billing in these categories, and be sure to check out which ladies took home this year's awards.

With just a few weeks left before the new season starts, it's time for all these guys and gals to gear up for another round of drama. And after the efforts and performances they put up this year, you can bet they'll all come out swinging in 2015 -- which gives next year's awards the potential to be even more exciting than we could ever expect.

December 1, 2014

The 2014 Tennis Spin Awards: The Ladies

After taking last year off, I'm back again with this season's crop of award winners. And with so many surprises, breakthroughs and struggles, there is certainly no shortage of contenders for my trophies. We've seen amazing things from everyone on Tour in 2014, whether they are long-time champions or brand new titleists, ranked at the top of the game or just emerging from the depths. And as the year wraps up, it's time to honor them all.

And so, the envelope, please...

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Greatest LetdownMost Overlooked
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Greatest UpsetBest Slam Match
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

The Runner-Up: Taylor Townsend

It's a little weird to think of Townsend as a "newcomer", since she grabbed most of her headlines two years ago while still on the Juniors circuit. She was the #1 ranked girl at the time, but the USTA said it wouldn't pay her entry into events until she lost weight and got into better shape, and the young American was denied a wildcard into the women's draw at the U.S. Open. But at just eighteen years of age, she's only just starting to spend meaningful time on the Big Girls' Tour and she's already off to a good start.

Starting the year ranked outside the top three hundred, she pushed eventual champion Flavia Pennetta to the limit in their Indian Wells second round and picked up a couple ITF titles early in the year. She took out Julia Goerges in Washington and Klara Koukalova in Cincinnati, but her biggest win came, surprisingly, at her Major main draw debut. On the clay of Roland Garros she was somehow the last American woman left standing, defeating Alizé Cornet to make the third round. She had a little bad luck at her next few Slams, losing this time to Koukalova at Wimbledon and then drawing mentor Serena Williams in New York. But now just outside the top hundred, she's sure to be more of a staple on the WTA in 2015. And if her early performances are any indication, it won't be long before she's a real force there too.

The Winner: Belinda Bencic

Another former Junior #1, the seventeen-year-old won both the French and Wimbledon Girls' titles last year, but was still flying way under the radar at the start of this season. In 2012 she picked up a couple ITF titles and played her first WTA-level match in Luxembourg, but she only reached the second round twice last year, ending the season at #212 in the world.

But Bencic put herself on the map early in 2014 -- after qualifying for the Australian Open, she stunned uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm, a woman more than a quarter century her senior, in the first round and actually got a couple breaks off eventual champion Na Li a match later. In Charleston she beat Sara Errani, in Rome she took out Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, in May she became the youngest player in the top hundred. But her real coming out party was in New York, where she stunned Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic on her way to the U.S. Open quarterfinals. The Swiss Miss ended the year with her first WTA final in Tianjin and climbed to #32 in the world, almost a tenth of where she started 2014.

Now a stone's throw from being seeded at the Major where she made her debut, pressure is going to be on for Bencic to live up to the high standards she set for herself in 2014. But by ending on such a high note, I doubt she's going to disappoint.

Most Improved

The Runner-Up: Garbiñe Muguruza

If you hadn't heard of Garbiñe Muguruza before the start of the year you wouldn't be alone -- the twenty-one year old Spaniard had spent most of her time on the ITF circuit and only played a handful of Major main draws before 2014. She did, however, reach the fourth round in Miami two years ago, beating Flavia Pennetta and then-world #9 Vera Zvonareva in the process, and last year made the semis in Den Bosch before undergoing season-ending ankle surgery.

Boy, did she rebound from that, though -- ranked just sixty-fourth in the world, she had to qualify for Hobart, but she took out Kirsten Flipkens and Klara Koukalova on the way to her first career title. She followed up with a win over Caroline Wozniacki, making the fourth round in Australia, reached the semis in Marrakech and the final in Florianopolis. But her biggest win by far came on the clay of Paris where she stunned defending champion Serena Williams in the second round, and rode her momentum all the way to the quarterfinals.

The back half of the year was a little slower for Muguruza -- she lost both first round matches she played at Majors since -- but she did manage narrow wins over both Jelena Jankovic in Tokyo and Simona Halep in Wuhan. And at the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, she went 3-0 in the round robins before falling to eventual champion Andrea Petkovic in the semis. Finishing the year at #20 in the world, pressure will be on in the new season of course -- she'll have a lot of points to defend early -- but if she plays the way she's shown she can, there's no reason to believe this season was any kind of fluke.

The Winner: Genie Bouchard

In most cases when we're talking about the players who made the biggest jumps in the sport, we're lucky if they break the top twenty -- so often athletes who'd been middling in the triple digits or scoring wins on the ITF circuit finally notch a win or two on the Big Girls' Tour and maybe halve or even quarter their rankings. You don't expect them to break so soundly into the top ten and even qualify for the year-end championships.

But that's just what Genie Bouchard did. I admit I doubted her staying power at first -- she made the Australian Open semis mostly because all the seeds were eliminated for her. In fact her first four opponents carried an average rank of nearly two hundred. But she, unlike so many others, proved her worth, making two more Grand Slam final fours and one Major championship. For good measure she captured her first career title in Nürnberg and notched wins over six top-ten players, soaring from #144 at the start of 2013 to #7 now.

Of course, climbing the rankings is one thing -- staying there is the real battle, and we have yet to see if the twenty-year-old Canadian can continue to thrive year after year. She may not have had the best debut at the year-end championships in Singapore, but Bouchard's overall consistency this season makes me feel my initial apprehension was unwarranted. And I expect it won't be long before she's holding up a couple more and a few even bigger trophies of her own.

One to Watch

While the contenders in the previous categories all grabbed some headlines during the year -- whether for some big upsets or some career-making breakthroughs, the ladies in this group all flew a bit under the radar in 2014. But that doesn't mean they aren't ultimately destined for big things -- and while not all of them were able to put their names on the record books this year, a few inspired performances may indicate we haven't yet seen the best of what they have to offer.

The Nominees

Twenty-two year old Shelby Rogers has been around a couple years, but never really became a staple on the WTA Tour early in her career. She started this year well out of the top hundred, too, needing wildcards to enter Indian Wells and Charleston, and only qualifying for her first main draw in Bad Gastein. But, boy, did she milk that entry for all it was worth -- ranked just #147 at the time she stunned three seeded players, including former French Open runner-up Sara Errani, to reach the final. She then went on to beat Aliz&eactue; Cornet in DC and Genie Bouchard in Montreal before making the semis in Quebec City. Just off her career high at #72 in the world now, the young American finished off her year at the Singapore Rising Stars event, and though she fell to eventual champion Monica Puig in the round robins, something tells me we're going to see a lot more from Rogers in the season to come.

Aleksandra Krunic is still ranked in the triple digits -- just barely -- but she arguably had a higher-profile year than her contemporary. Like Rogers she was mostly quiet in the first half of the year, failing to qualify for the French Open and Wimbledon, and she didn't get her first Tour-level win until July in Bucharest. But the young Serb stormed into the public eye after qualifying for the U.S. Open -- she started with an upset of Madison Keys in the second round, shocked All England champ Petra Kvitova a match laters, and then pushed former world #1 Victoria Azarenka to three sets before finally falling in the two-plus hour slugfest. She only scored one win after that, though, beating Caroline Garcia in their Moscow opener, but if she uses the off season to get her game in a little better shape, she could just make a splash as soon as 2015 kicks off.

The Winner: Ana Konjuh

Slightly more under the radar than these two is sixteen year old Ana Konjuh, who went from a ranking in the low two hundreds to a double digit player in the span of the year. The Junior champ at both the Australian and U.S. Opens in 2013, the young Croat opened this season with a win over Roberta Vinci in Auckland and qualified for the main draw in Melbourne with wins over three higher-ranked players. Though she spent most of the year on the ITF circuit, she did beat Yanina Wickmayer at Wimbledon and Elina Svitolina on her way to the semis in Istanbul. At an 125K event in Limoges, Konjuh finished the year with a win over Luxembourg champ Annika Beck and a run to the quarters. At #92 in the world now, she's still going to need to qualify or get wildcards for the big tourneys, but in a year's time I wouldn't be surprised to see her getting deep into the draws on the biggest of stages.

Best Comeback

The Runner-Up: Caroline Wozniacki

The former #1 hadn't really let herself fall that far off the radar, but after dropping out of the top fifteen earlier this year, it sure looked like the young Dane had put her best days behind her. Caro had won six titles in both 2010 and 2011, but, whatever the reason, quickly lost her momentum. After the 2012 Australian Open she didn't make the second week of a Major in her next nine tries, losing in the opening round three times.

But she turned things around a big way after Wimbledon this year. She picked up a title in Istanbul, reached the quarters in Montreal and the semis in Cincinnati, taking a set off Serena Williams both times, then stunned the world by reaching her second U.S. Open final with a drubbing of former French Open runner-up Sara Errani and an upset over Maria Sharapova during her run. Qualifying for her first year-end championships in three years, she was the only one in the elite field to win all of her round robin matches, and she came within two points of finally beating Serena again in the semis. And if that wasn't enough, she flew halfway around the world and a week later ran the New York City Marathon in under 3:30. Her year-end ranking of #8 may not be much higher than where she started the year, but what she accomplished during the season means so much more.

The Winner: Barbora Zahlavova Strycova

Sure, Caro had an amazing year, and came very close to taking the award in this category. But the teeny Czech's ascent this year came so out of nowhere I had to give her the win. After all, with just one singles title in her first decade as a pro, a ranking that never got past the top forty, a middling Grand Slam record and far more success on the doubles circuit, I wasn't expecting too much from her after a six-month doping ban ended in April 2013.

And at first she did nothing much to contradict me. BZS picked up a couple ITF titles last year, but won just a handful of matches at WTA-level events, failing even to qualify for the 2013 U.S. Open. She started off this season a bit stronger though, reaching the quarters in Shenzhen, beating Francesca Schiavone in Florianopolis and taking out Roberta Vinci in Miami. But her real turnaround came when she hit the grass courts -- on the lawns of Birmingham she took out three seeds on her way to the final and at Wimbledon she stunned Elena Vesnina, Caroline Wozniacki and Na Li to reach her first ever Major quarter.

She easily could have slunk off into the shadows after that, but instead she took Genie Bouchard to three sets in their New York third round, upset Madison Keys in Wuhan and made her way to the final in Luxembourg. She finished the season at #25 in the world, not just as good as she was before her precipitous drop, but well, well ahead of her prior best. And something tells me she might be an even bigger force when the new season starts.

Greatest Letdown

The Runner-Up: Sloane Stephens

It wasn't that long ago that the young American was one of the brightest stars on the U.S. tennis scene -- she kicked off her career-making 2013 season by stunning Serena Williams in the Melbourne quarters and followed up with a run to the fourth round in Paris and the final eight at Wimbledon. While she couldn't repeat against the top seed in New York that year, she did manage a win over Maria Sharapova in Cincinnati and finished the year at a career-high #12 in the world.

She seemed to suffer a bit of a sophomore slump this season -- while she did at least get to the fourth round in Melbourne and put up quite a fight against eventual champion Flavia Pennetta in Indian Wells, she also lost to players like world #134 Petra Cetkovska in Doha, #129 Mariana Duque-Mariño in Bogota and a back-from-injury #109 Maria Kirilenko at Wimbledon. Her best showings recently were a near-defeat of Jelena Jankovic in Montreal and a third round appearance in Cincinnati where she beat a higher-ranked Andrea Petkovic and an on-the-rise Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. Sloane ends the year at #36 and without a top-ten win all season. And after all the hype that's surrounded her early career, she's going to want to start next year off on a much different foot.

The Winner: Dominika Cibulkova

The diminutive Slovak has long been an also-ran in the world of tennis, pulling off wins over players like Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka at Majors and even giving Serena Williams the scare of her life last year in Miami. But even after she won her first title in 2011, she often struggled with her form and would let important victories slip out of her reach.

But by the looks of things at the start of this year, it looked like things were about to change. Dominika Cibulkova was seeded just twentieth at the Australian Open, but breezed through her first three matches losing just nine games. She came back from a huge deficit against Maria Sharapova in the fourth round and then resumed her easy stride, picking off Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska in just over two hours total. She ultimately lost her first Grand Slam final to Na Li and had a rough couple weeks after that. But a break into the top ten, a runner-up spot in Kuala Lumpur, a title in Acapulco and solid showings in Indian Wells and Miami suggested she would be able to shake it off.

But then disaster struck -- since March, Cibulkova has lost ten opening round matches, including one notable defeat at the hands of a teenager named Cici Bellis, ranked in quadruple digits at the time, and her biggest win came over world #38 Coco Vandeweghe. All she had to do was win one match at her regular season-ending campaign in Moscow to snag an alternate spot in the year-end championships in Singapore, but she fell there too, this time to world #140 Vitalia Diatchenko. She did qualify for the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, but while she started off strong, some tight wins kept her from getting out of the round robins.

Hopefully it's not too late for the talented star -- it would be such a shame if she let her recent troubles get to her. But Domi's had trouble recouping from losses in the past, and if she doesn't come out of the gate swinging in 2015, she sure has a lot to lose.

Most Overlooked

The Nominees

Poor Zarina Diyas finally got one of her matches at a Major broadcast in prime time and it was because everyone wanted to watch, not her, but a fifteen-year-old girl ranked #1208 in the world. But the young Kazakh had been quietly plodding away all year long -- she qualified for her first Major in Melbourne and made it to the third round, she took eventual finalist Dominika Cibulkova to three sets in the Kuala Lumpur quarters, beat former Wimbledon runner-up Vera Zvonareva to make the fourth round at the All England Club and had cut her ranking from #163 at the start of the year to top fifty by the time she played in New York. She even improved after that, pushing Angelique Kerber to a decider in Wuhan and reaching her first WTA-level final in Osaka. Now #33 in the world, she was even voted into the Rising Stars class at the year-end championships in Singapore. Those are all pretty solid accomplishments for a woman whose name most casual fans don't even know -- hopefully next year she can change that.

Karolina Pliskova may have done a little more to put her name on the map this year -- the 2010 Australian Open Girls' champ, long ranked in the low double-digits, finally broke into the top fifty when she scored three upsets, including a win over #1-seed Angelique Kerber, on her way to the Nürnberg final. She really kicked into high gear in the late summer though -- after shocking Ana Ivanovic in the U.S. Open second round, she reached the final in Hong Kong, picked up titles in Seoul and Linz and notched wins over Sam Stosur and Andrea Petkovic in Wuhan. She ends the season at a career high #24 in the world, ahead of big hitters like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sabine Lisicki and Victoria Azarenka. She's still mostly an also-ran had the Majors though, but if she carries the momentum she piled up at the end of the year into the new season, you can bet we'll see her hanging around the second weeks of Slams pretty darn soon.

The Winner: Alison Riske

It's fairly easy to have missed most of the young-ish American's career -- born in the same year as Alizé Cornet, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova, her resumé is quite a bit more sparse. She's had a little success on grass the last couple years, reaching the semis in Birmingham twice, notching wins over Tamira Paszek, Yanina Wickmayer and Sabine Lisicki all at the Aegon Classic. But despite a handful of ITF titles to her name, she never really amounted to much on the main Tour, topping out in the low double-digit rankings at the end of last year.

She finally seems to have gotten her footing this year though -- after beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Hobart and Elena Vesnina in Melbourne, she finally cracked the top fifty. She beat Pavs again at Wimbledon, took out Flavia Pennetta in New Haven and upset Sara Errani in Wuhan. To finish off the season she rolled to her first career title at the inaugural Tianjin Open without dropping a set, defeating rising stars Saisai Zhang and Belinda Bencic in the process. She's still ranked a little under the radar, #43 in the world now, but that could be the perfect time for her to pounce -- just out of seeding range for the first big Major of the year, she could easily take a couple favorites by surprise and maybe just make a real name for herself on her own.

Biggest Surprise

The Runner-Up: Na Li Retires

Maybe we should have expected this for some time -- the thirty-two year old had certainly toyed with the idea in the past -- but Na Li had quite a successful year to start 2014. She opened the season with a perfect 13-0 record, claiming a second straight title in Shenzhen and then picking up Grand Slam #2 in Melbourne. But then she skipped April with a knee injury, suffered an ignominious defeat in her Roland Garros first round and, after more knee problems in the wake of Wimbledon and a withdrawal from the U.S. Open, Li announced in September it was time to bow out of competition.

It was a shame, of course, for many reasons. Li was not only at the top of her game when she called it quits, but on top of almost everyone's -- she carried the second seed at Wimbledon, the last tournament she played, and was one of the few players who could perform consistently against the most intimidating contenders in the sport -- in the past year she'd beaten Victoria Azarenka, Aga Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and plenty others. She'd reached the semis in Indian Wells, the final in Miami, and while she hadn't notched a win over Serena Williams since 2008, she had given her trouble in their last few meetings and seemed primed to eventually upend the world #1 and maybe climb a spot up the rankings herself.

But what she did as a woman from China was arguably more important than anything she did on court. Playing for many years with her homeland's National Team, she had no control over her coaches and had to submit nearly two-thirds of her winnings to the country's tennis association. After much success on the ITF circuit, she quit the sport in 2003 But in 2008 she, and three other top women, fully broke ties with the formalized organization and elected to control their own careers, from picking and paying for their own coaches to planning their own schedules to retaining more than ninety percent of their prize money. Free from restrictions Li was really able to thrive, becoming the first Chinese Grand Slam finalist in 2011, a champion a couple months later, and a double-winner this past January.

And as her star rose, her personality shone too. She charmed fans, announcers and other players alike the more we got to know her. And when she announced she was leaving the sport, there was a social outpouring of sentiment from the likes of Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki and many others. Her presence and power will certainly be missed on court, and with all she has accomplished in her fifteen years on Tour, you can't help but feel a little sad that we won't see more.

The Winner: Cornet Goes Unbeaten

If I'd asked you at the start of the year who you thought would have the best record against Serena Williams in 2014, what would you have said? A pre-injury Victoria Azarenka, probably? If you waited for a couple weeks of evidence before making a call, maybe you'd have guessed a returned-to-form Ana Ivanovic. Or maybe recent Grand Slam champions like Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova? And if you wanted to go out on a limb, why not pick a destined-for-greatness Simona Halep or even Genie Bouchard?

Would you ever in a million years have come up with Alizé Cornet?

I don't think many would have.

But in their three meetings this year, the diminutive Frenchwoman came away with an unprecedented 3-0 record. Sure, one of them came when Serena withdrew from their Wuhan opener, but one other did come at a Major -- Cornet's only win yet over a top ten player on the big stage. She had a little trouble following up on those wins though -- she only went any further at one of those tournaments, beating Kirsten Flipkens before falling in the China quaters -- but she did have success elsewhere, reaching finals in Dubai and Guangzhou and taking a title in Katowice. She didn't make it out of the round robins in Sofia and pulled out of a WTA 125K event in Limoges, but she ends the year at #19 in the world, her best showing since her breakthrough 2008 season. The real test, of course, will be if she can keep the momentum going in 2015 -- and if she can finally put a couple big wins together when and where the whole world is watching.

Gutsiest Win

The Runner-Up: Caroline Garcia d. Jelena Jankovic, Bogotá Final

We should have known that Caroline Garcia could play on clay -- back in 2011, the then-eighteen year old had a set and a couple breaks on Maria Sharapova in their French Open second round, before ultimately losing in the third -- but this was the year when she really began to shine. She reached the semis in Acapulco and took a set off Serena Williams in Miami. Still she was a big underdog in the Bogotá final against defending champion and top seed Jelena Jankovic -- it was Garcia's first WTA-level championship match, while the Serb was playing for her fourteenth title. But Garcia wasn't intimidated -- in under eighty minutes she finished off her opponent, scoring the first top-ten win of her career. The confidence she got from that match propelled her to the quarters in Madrid, where she nearly took out Aga Radwanska for a spot in the semis, and helped her to a #37 ranking to end the year. She struggled a bit off the clay after that, but if she can develop her all-court game in 2015 expect her to climb even farther up the rankings in the months to come.

The Winner: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni d. Venus Williams, Québec City Final

In a sport where it's so easy to herald the accomplishments of youth, it's encouraging to see one of the best matches of the year contested by two players who went pro in the 1990s. But these two veterans have had markedly different career paths.

In 1997 Croatia's Lucic, fifteen years old at the time, played her first WTA-level event in her homeland's Bol -- and won it, taking out Amanda Coetzer and Corina Morariu in the process. A few weeks later at her second tournament in Strasbourg, she reached the final, ultimately losing to "little-known" Steffi Graf in the championship match. Her ranking peaked in 1998, though, at just #32 in the world, and by the next year she'd fallen back into triple digits. But she stormed back on the scene just before the turn of the century -- at Wimbledon that year she stunned nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles in the third round, the previous year's runner-up Nathalie Tauziat in the quarters, and took Graf to three sets before finally succumbing in the semis. That was the last we'd hear from Lucic for a while, though -- amid allegations of abuse by her father, she had limited success the next couple years and largely took a break from the sport after 2003. Even when she did return, she spent most of her time on the ITF circuit and in qualifying rounds, only coming close to breaking back into double digits in 2010.

Venus, on the other hand, despite dealing with her own spate of injury and illness, has remained a stalwart force on Tour throughout her career. She's spent eleven weeks ranked at the top of the women's game early this century and picked up seven Grand Slam titles along the way. Even after hip problems marred her 2011 season and a diagnosis with Sjögren's Syndrome pushed her out of the top hundred later that year, she rebounded strong and hungry. This year alone she won title #45 in Dubai and stunned sister Serena in the Montreal semis, her first win over her sibling since 2009. At #19 in the world when they met in the Québec City final, as the top seed and with a 2-0 record against her opponent, she was the clear favorite. But Lucic would not cooperate.

The now-thirty two year old had already scored wins over Bojana Jovanovski and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova this year, and she was fresh off a huge upset of second-seeded Simona Halep at the U.S. Open -- she nearly got past world #14 Sara Errani to make the quarters, too. After beating Timea Babos and Julia Goerges in Canada, she really had nothing to lose in the final, and without dropping a set, she finished off the match in under an hour and a half. It was Lucic's first title since 1998 and, possibly, incredibly, her most significant win. She finishes the year at #60 in the world, by far her best ranking in fifteen years, but more importantly she's proven she can put a troubled past behind her and come out squarely on top.

Greatest Upset

The Runner-Up: Timea Bacsinszky d. Maria Sharapova, Wuhan Third Round

Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky was a top forty player at the beginning of the decade, beating Na Li in Miami back in 2010 and reaching the final in Bad Gastein a few months later. But a series of injuries -- foot and ankle problems that ultimately needed surgery -- really put her career on hold. She spent most of last year recovering on the ITF circuit, playing just one WTA-level main draw match in Luxembourg, and ended the season at #285 in the world.

She got back on Tour in a real way this year, beating Sam Stosur on her way to the Oeiras quarterfinals and scoring wins over Karolina Pliskova and Francesca Schiavone during the summer hardcourt season. Still, you probably never saw her performance in Wuhan coming. After scoring a win over U.S. Open semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, she stunned then-world #4 Maria Sharapova in straight sets. It was her first top ten win in four years, but given where she was coming from, it might have been her most significant -- and the most inspiring. Bacsinszky finishes the season at #48 in the world, her best and most unlikely year-end ranking. And now that she's shown us what she's capable of, I wouldn't be surprised to see her climb even higher in 2015.

The Winner: Alisa Kleybanova d. Petra Kvitova, Stuttgart Second Round

It's been a rough, rough couple years for Alisa Kleybanova -- the one-time top twenty player was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2011 and, despite a courageous return to play the following year, hasn't really spent much time on the court since. She started this year with a bit of momentum though, reaching the third round in Doha and beating Garbiñe Muguruza on her way to the Sweet Sixteen in Indian Wells. Her most impressive win, though, came on the clay of Stuttgart where, still ranked out of the top hundred, she notched her first ever win over then-world #6 Petra Kvitova -- their previous two matches both went three sets in favor of the Czech -- and her first top ten victory in over three years. It would be the Russian's last win of the season, unfortunately -- she would undergo shoulder surgery after Wimbledon -- but it certainly shows that the twenty-five year old still has what it takes to really perform against the sport's elite. Hopefully she'll be able to recover even better the next time around.

Best Slam Match

In years past I've limited these awards to best finals of the year, but so many great things happened throughout the Major draws this year, that it seemed wrong to focus only on the players who ultimately got through all the wreckage. After all, in many cases they couldn't have done it without the help of these guys.

The Runner-Up: Na Li d. Lucie Safarova, Australian Open Third Round

Na Li had reached the final in Melbourne twice before, but there was something about this year that made us all think it was finally her time. She was the #4 seed, coming off a repeat title in Shenzhen, and had nearly notched victory over Serena Williams in the WTA Finals championship match. Lucie Safarova had other plans, though -- the unheralded Czech was ranked just twenty-seventh in the world and had already gone three sets in her first two matches, but that didn't stop her from rolling through the first set in a quick half hour. She even had an opportunity to change history, earning a match point late in the second set, the only one Li would face during her eventual title run. Safarova actually won the exact same number of points as her opponent, ninety-nine total, and played a cleaner game with more winners and fewer errors. But Li pulled it out in the end and barely broke a sweat as she sailed to her second, and last, Grand Slam title. All was not lost for Safarova either -- though she wasn't able to pick up another title this season, she made her first Major semifinal at Wimbledon and also scored wins over Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber this year. Just off her career high ranking at #16 in the world, it's very possible we have yet to see the best she has to offer.

The Winner: Angelique Kerber d. Maria Sharapova, Wimbledon Fourth Round

Maria Sharapova was having a pretty good year -- after winning titles in Stuttgart and Madrid, the former world #1 did something I never thought she'd do -- she doubled up at a Major, and even more unlikely, at the one it'd taken her the longest to win. The fifth seed at Wimbledon, she'd become a favorite for the title once Serena lost during the first week, and she seemed happy to oblige, dropping just a handful of games during her early matches. Angelique Kerber, on the other hand, had already faced a couple tests at the All England Club, needing three sets to get through both Kirsten Flipkens and Heather Watson, and earlier in the year she'd lost championship matches to the likes of Tsvetana Pironkova and Madison Keys. She also had a 1-4 record against MaSha going into this match, her only win coming more than two years prior at the Paris Indoors. She was clearly the underdog.

But she didn't play like one during their nearly three-hour battle. The ninth seeded German traded breaks with the favorite in the opening set, narrowly winning the tiebreak to get the early lead. But Sharapova came back swinging, firing off eighteen winners to Kerber's ten in the second set and forcing a decider, bringing the momentum with her all the way. Kerber ultimately proved the more resilient, though -- though she squandered six match points, she was finally able to convert the seventh on the Russian's serve and closed out her biggest win at a Major. She did, unfortunately, lose a round later to eventual runner-up Genie Bouchard, but perhaps without her win the young Canadian would never have gotten out of the quarters. And if Kerber can repeat her performance a couple more times in the months that come, she might just put herself back on the rise again.

Doubles Team of the Year

The Runner-Up: Cara Black and Sania Mirza

They might not have ended the year at #1 in the world and perhaps they only got as far as the semis at one Major this year, but the long-time doubles specialists certainly ended their season with a flourish -- and just in time. The two only paired up late last year, but they won titles together in Tokyo and Beijing, beating the top seeds at both events handily. It took a while to find their footing this season, but finally reached finals in Indian Wells and Stuttgart before picking up a trophy in Oeiras. Qualifying for their first year-end championships together -- Black had played ten before, Mirza was making her debut -- the pair saved match points in their first two matches, but really found their groove in the final. Against defending champions Su-Wei Hsieh and Shuai Peng they only lost the opening game, rattling off the next twelve to capture the crown in under an hour and claiming the third spot in the year-end rankings. Unfortunately it was the last match the team would play together -- thirty-five year old Black seems pretty close to retiring and told Mirza, with many more years left it seems, at the U.S. Open she should look for another partner. Interestingly, Hsieh and Peng also will uncouple next year, which could make for some interesting pairings in the new year. And might open the door for someone else...

The Winner: Flavia Pennetta and Martina Hingis

I get that this could be a little controversial since the pair only played in eight tournaments together this year and fell just short of qualifying for the year-end championships. But, man, did their success come from out of nowhere. Okay, that's not entirely true -- Pennetta was the winner of fifteen doubles crowns before this year, teaming with Gisela Dulko to take the 2010 WTA Championships and the 2011 Australian Open, and recent Hall-of-Famer Hingis, had a long and storied career before her first retirement and came out of her second one on a mission. She and Sabine Lisicki won a trophy in Miami, but once she teamed with the Italian mid-year, they both hit their stride. Unseeded they made the final in Eastbourne and at the U.S. Open, where they took out Black and Mirza in the semis. They rounded out the year with titles in Wuhan and Moscow, finishing the season as the ninth best team in the world. And if that's what they can do with ten fewer events than the #1 team in the world, imagine what they can do when they spend an entire year together.

Player of the Year

The Runner-Up: Serena Williams

I know what you're thinking -- with the year-end #1 ranking, a field-leading seven titles during the season and a historic tied-for-fourth eighteenth Grand Slam trophy, there should be no dispute that the five-time season-ending champion is the player of the year. But while her accomplishments are certainly great, it should come as no surprise that she dominated the courts this year -- in fact, the bigger shock is that it took so long for her to hit her stride. Sure, this category isn't about the unexpected, but Serena's been so dominant for so long, I feel it's time for her to cede the award to someone else this time -- even if she doesn't cede anything on the court.

Serena, of course, had a stellar year -- though she stumbled a bit at the Majors early this season, once she made the final rounds of any event she was indomitable. She won all seven finals she played this year, and didn't drop a set in any one of them. And though she had some surprising losses along the way, she only raised her game against the best, going 12-1 versus top ten players. Players might know they have a shot against Williams these days, but they still have to hope for the best of circumstances to pull off the win, and once she gets going, there's really no stopping her. I wouldn't expect that to change in the new year.

The Winner: Simona Halep

The young Romanian may only have ended the year at #3 in the world, but her ascent over the past two seasons is nothing short of spectacular. The 2008 French Open Junior champ captured eight WTA titles in the last eighteen months, stunned three higher seeds to claim her biggest trophy in Doha last February, made her Grand Slam final debut at Roland Garros, even taking a set off Maria Sharapova in the championship. She's had a couple stumbles of course, losing to Mirjana Lucic in New York and Kristina Mladenovic in Paris, withdrawing from events in Dubai, Rome and Beijing and retiring during her second round in Den Bosch. But she surprised everyone during her WTA Finals debut, becoming the only player in the top ten to defeat Serena Williams this year. Of course, that win came in the round robins, and she ultimately fell in the rematch, finishing second in Singapore, but with eight elite wins of her own to brag about this season and a climb from just inside the top fifty at the start of 2013 as high as #2 this summer, it doesn't seem like she's running out of steam any time soon. And within the next several months I expect her to become a more consistent force in Major finals and even on the winner's stand.

Well there you have it -- in a year so filled with ups and downs, upsets and breakthroughs, falls from grace and rises to fame, the handful of ladies who stood out most from the rest of the pack. If you think I missed someone, please let me know, and be sure to check back next week to find out which gentlemen will take home this year's awards.

And in the meantime, get excited by the fact that we're sure to have even more fun and drama on the courts next year!