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!

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