2014 Year in Review: The Best of the WTA

With more twists and turns than an episode of Scandal, the WTA tour’s 2014 season was nothing less than fascinating.  From the resurgence of faded champions to the emergence of new stars, this year’s WTA tour had something for everyone.  Here are my favorite stories of 2014.

1.  Fierce Caroline

After spending the past three years as a part of Wozzilroy and contemplating family life and early retirement, Caroline Wozniacki found herself on the end of a public and abrupt breakup with Rory McIlroy on the eve of the French Open.  Yet, seven months later, McIlroy’s name hardly comes up when discussing Wozniacki’s year, which is a testament to the savvy way the Dane has rebuilt her game and her life.  Though often considered too “nice” to win the big titles, Wozniacki’s upbeat disposition served her well in 2014.  To refocus herself, and, perhaps, the press from the cancelled nuptials, Wozniacki committed to run the 2014 New York City Marathon in support of Team for Kids, and ran it in an impressive 3:26:33, despite having never run more than 13 miles in training.  She also turned a corner on the court, playing tough matches against “bestie” Serena Williams, and out-gritting Maria Sharapova, of all people, at the US Open during her run to the final.  And, she even managed to become part of a more high profile sports couple along the way.

Whatever the catalyst was, seeing Wozniacki put it all together once again was an exhilarating ride, and I can’t wait to see how she builds on her momentum in 2015.

2.  Fighting Maria

Despite her well-documented off-court income, Maria Sharapova still plays every point as if her life depends on it.  Frequently hampered by poor serving, Sharapova’s survival on the tennis court in 2014 required her to use every last bit of her competitive instincts.  Losing first sets, and coming back late in third sets, Sharapova clawed her way to a second French Open title, but failed to advance past the fourth round in the remaining Slams.  It’s clear that Sharapova can still win the big ones, but she certainly has not taken the easy road as of late.  If Wozniacki provided the tour with this year’s feel-good story, Sharapova certainly brought the drama – just ask Ana Ivanovic.

3.  New Kids on the Block

Ironically, despite the talk of greater parity on the WTA tour than in the ATP, there were no first time Slam winners on the WTA tour in 2014, compared to two first time winners on the ATP tour.  But it certainly was not for lack of effort on the part of the WTA upstarts.  The first half of the year was largely defined by the fearless play of two players who established themselves within the top 10 by year end.  Genie Bouchard was already a celebrity, with her own army of stuffed-animal wielding fans at the start of the year.  Advancing to the semifinals at the Australian Open and Roland Garros, Bouchard more than lived up to her considerable hype, but could do nothing to blunt the onslaught of a zoning Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon final.  Unfortunately, perhaps the sting of losing the Wimbledon final, plus the considerable demands of being tennis’ new “it girl,” have left Bouchard decidedly more vulnerable and less tenacious in the second half of the year.  That said, it is hard to imagine a player with Bouchard’s swagger staying down for long.

Simona Halep, 2014’s other standout upstart, followed up her five tournament wins in 2013 by reaching the French Open final and the Wimbledon semifinals, where she lost to Bouchard after injuring her ankle.  Despite a relatively lackluster post-Wimbledon run, Halep managed to right the ship by handing Serena Williams a 6-0, 6-2 loss in the round robin play of the WTA finals, and then showing her integrity as a competitor, defeating Ana Ivanovic to ensure that she would have a rematch against Serena in the final of the WTA Finals.  Needless to say, Serena remembered the earlier loss and avenged it.  But Halep showed two important things – she is not afraid of Serena and she is a competitor.  Both will come in handy on the tour in 2015.

4.  Petra Power

Much like her inspired run to the Wimbledon title in 2011, Petra Kvitova steamrolled the field to take her second title.  Kvitova’s masterful performance in the final was so inspired that even the most hardened WTA critics were loathe to complain about the one-sidedness of the final.  While New York once again proved to be too noisy and “crowdy” for Kvitova, she managed to follow up her second Slam by leading the Czech Fed Cup team to victory against Germany.  It’s inevitable to want Kvitova to sustain her Wimbledon form and start racking up Slam titles left and right, but perhaps that is unrealistic and unfair to the talented Czech.  A small town girl at heart, it’s not surprising that Wimbledon’s subdued atmosphere fits Kvitova so well, and her grass court game fits SW19 like a glove.  While we would love to see her expand her empire across the other Slams, we appreciate the inspired pairing of Kvitova and Wimbledon’s grass courts and hope that she can continue to generate magic on Centre Court for many years to come.

5.  The Gang’s All Here

While the Big Four’s hegemony has provided the ATP with compelling, yet predictable storylines, the WTA’s cast of contenders is ever expanding.  From upstarts like Genie Bouchard and Simona Halep to champions like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, there is a seemingly limitless number of high profile players populating the WTA fields.  While Aga Radwanska’s ninja warfare and Vika Azarenka’s consistent toughness took a back seat to the upstarts in 2014, former Slam champions Ana Ivanovic and Venus Williams found their mojo and competed more impressively than they had in years.  For Venus, it is a fitting last act for a tennis career that is likely only a prelude to what is likely to be a thoughtful and meaningful second act.  For Ana, there is hope that she will build on her progress in 2014 to challenge for Slams in 2015.  While it’s still true that an in form Serena Williams is still the person to beat, there have been many occasions where Serena has faltered, and the WTA’s sprawling cast of characters has provided plenty of excitement in her absence.

6.  18

This picture says it all:

This was a year of “it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish” for Serena Williams.  Lackluster performances in the first three Slams of the year left her wondering if her inevitable 18th Slam would ever happen.  Despite her frustrations and that scary Wimbledon doubles match, Serena largely seemed to find joy in competing on the tour and in having a bestie to hang with off the court.  And, once again, Serena battled her way into the history books, and picked up some nice jewelry from Chrissie and Martina along the way.  Now, all she has to do is win four more to test whether the famously elusive Steffi Graf will pony up some baubles and show up for the trophy ceremony.

7.  Please Don’t Go: Li Na

In a year filled with feel good moments on the WTA tour, the best one might have been right at the start of the year: Li Na’s win at the Australian Open.  Losing the 2013 final after a freak fall and an ill-timed fireworks break, the 2014 title seemed like appropriate karmic payback to a woman who has brought tennis to Asia and joy to tennis fans and journalists with her easy sense of humor and penchant for wisecracks at her husband’s expense.  After the Australian Open win and a year where she faced more injuries and then lost her beloved coach Carlos Rodriguez to his coaching commitments in China, it was not a shock that the 32 year old decided to call it quits.  But, we’re still sad to see her go.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else on the tour giving a speech like this:

What were your favorite WTA moments in 2014?  What are you looking forward to most in 2015?

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