10 Things We Learned From… The WTA Season
1. No Number 1 Controversy This Time
Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, Serena won two majors and the Year End Championships, Azarenka only one major. But there can be little argument that week in and week out, Azarenka was the best player on tour.
Azarenka’s transformation has not been a drastic one. She has always looked a player capable of great things. Restraint, both in her attitude and her disposition in rallies has given her the extra 2% to push on to the next echelon of the game. In the past, it has been easy for us to build a narrative on why Azarenka has not done better. Her poor attitude. Her health. Her ability to come blazing out of the gates in big matches only to have those same flames consume her late into the match.
To start, the poor attitude seems all but gone. There is a fine line between cockiness and extreme confidence, and most would argue that Azarenka, at one point, fell on the wrong side of the coin. Often letting the little things get to her and being poor in losing, it looked like the type of thing that would hold her back. Suddenly those cries of frustrations have turned into healthy, self motivating leg slaps. Hair whips of determination and under the breath grunts “keep going”. It’s been turned inward in a positive way.
Her game has developed in a similar way. Vika at times appeared a ball basher who simply overwhelmed opponents with her weight of shot, with bouts of inconsistency. She has learned great constraint on the forehand, both in her regular, powerful topspin shot as well as in her more defensive, spinning forehand. When the ball isn’t in the greatest position for her, she’s become much better at finding ways to spin the ball cross court to gain time, instead of simply trying to rip it and hope for the best. Combining this with great movement, she can quickly get back into points and get back on top. She knows how to build points and she knows how to finish them off – and it’s a treat to see.
2. Serena is Here To Stay
For a time, it was hard to know if Serena would ever play tennis again. With a new lease on life, Serena is looking as fit and as calm as ever, a truly deadly combination. Wimbledon was a stroll in the park, and the US Open was straight forward outside of a very difficult final. The Year End Championship fell under a similar theme. She plans to train in Paris with her coach over the offseason, a first for her, and likely has her eye on doing another “Serena slam” and winning all four major titles in a row.
I’ve heard it noted several times, and it is hard to disagree. While Serena is “old” in tennis terms at 31, the time that she has missed through out her career, including recently, may help to considerably lengthen her career. Many players expire around 30 because after 15 years of serious grind, they burn out mentally, their bodies fall apart, and their endurance goes. None of these appear to be an issue for Serena, and she is so fit and with such natural power, it is difficult to see her dropping off any time within three to five years. Mind blowing stuff.
3. Another Year of Stability Should Await in 2013
Let’s be honest. At times, the past few years have been difficult for the WTA. We diehards don’t so much mind the top ranking being tossed around, or top 20 players winning major titles. However, sadly, it has been difficult to justify the validity of a tour with a number 1 without a slam and players coming from nowhere to win big titles. With Azarenka, Sharapova and Serena taking home all majors this year, it would be difficult to bet against them splitting all four between them again next year. While players such as Radwanska, Kvitova and Li Na will always have a chance against them, it is hard to see one of the big three not topping them in a final (much like the Williams/Radwanska Wimbledon final). A WTA “big four” sounds appealing to match it up to the ATP side of things, but in truth it is a “big three” who should continue raking in big trophies in 2013.
4. Castle Defenders
While a look at the final eight in Istanbul lends itself to a powerful baseline style, three names pop out: Radwanska, Kerber, and Errani. These players tend to be in tough against the top, hard hitting ladies (they went a combined 1-6 versus the other five, not including Stosur) they have the consistency, fitness, and creativity to consistently outmatch players outside of the top 10. I don’t like the term counterpuncher for any of them: neither of them prey on pace and turn it back on their opponent. Kerber prefers players with pace, but she specifically prefers players that open up the court for her to take advantage of – she doesn’t particularly reverse pace back on an opponent. Radwanska is an incredibly creative, instinctual player, likely with the greatest drop shot I have ever seen, men or women. And at a mere 5’5, Errani can run for days, and uses incredible wrist strength to command a longer handled racquet to cope with pace and push opponents back.
On Twitter I saw several people cry out against the Errani/Radwanska match as terrible matchup, expecting a boring match. While neither are big hitters, they have widely different styles and produced one of the matches of the year. While they may never solve the power puzzles in the way a player like Hingis managed to do, embrace and enjoy these players for all that they offer to the game.
5. The Future of Power
With that being said, it is very clear that the future of the WTA looks very much to favour those with large amounts of power, and there is likely to be more Kvitova winning Wimbledon coming out parties than Schiavone late but great Roland Garros wins. With a big three playing this well, the only way to beat them appears to be beating them at their own game, something Azarenka nearly did at the US Open this year. It’s not just the results, but the quality of results that these three tend to get against players hoping to use creativity, defense or counterpunching – it is very rarely close outside of clay.
6. Sweet Caroline, Where Art Thou?
It’s hard to blame Caroline Wozniacki for having a bit of an off year, and losing her number 1 ranking. In fact, I’m almost happy for her. Huh?
This is a girl who shot up the rankings like Jack’s beanstock, it didn’t stop until it reached the clouds. And despite living in the clouds (and dodging the trolls’ rocks) for two years, she was bound to come back to Earth. Truth be told, she hasn’t much come back to Earth as much as other players (notably Azarenka) have raised their game and figured her out.
While her relationship to Rory McIllroy seems like a cheap one, it’s hardly cheap at all. The two of them clearly get along and go well together. If that had some play in having her play less tournaments, good. She played an incredible amount of tennis in 2010 and 2011 and it was bound to catch up with her. She may be a player to watch out for in 2013, now that the pressure is off once again.
7. Kvitova Needs Time
Kvitova had a break out year in 2011 when she won Wimbledon. It was difficult to know if the soft spoken Czech was a fluke win, or a new power player here to stay. Despite the fact that she didn’t win a major title, and many are quick to say so, she had an excellent year once again, qualifying for the Year End Championship easily as well as taking her country to the Fed Cup final. Breathing issues aside, Kvitova shows shades of Azarenka a year or two. Incredible amounts of power and incredible amount of potential, but still prone to concentration lapses and having the biggest shots break down. Just 23 years old in March, Kvitova will continue to improve and will need time to crack the top 3. Regardless, she isn’t going anywhere.
8. Teenage Phenoms May Be A Thing of the Past
As of the end of this season, there will be no teenagers in the top 50, and very few in the top 200. This tells us several things. To start, new regulations about going pro have helped keep this away. This is something we as a tennis community should be proud of. We don’t need to see another Capriati burn out or Sharapova shoulder blow out.
Furthermore, we are starting to see that, similar to the men’s game, women are not coming into their own until a later age. The 1989 (a fine year to be born) babies Radwanska and Azarenka have had career years and now look the consistent players that they are likely to be for years to come. In other words, this is the best they have ever been, at age 23. While 20 year olds Christina McHale and Heather Watson look incredibly impressive, they still look incredibly green (in a good way) to those a few years older. In other words, those youngsters will continue to improve over the next several years. The level of women’s tennis has just gotten that much better.
9. Players to Watch for in 2013
Obviously, each year gives us not only a glimpse into the next year, but the players that may find big success in years to come. I maintain that the two groups of twins, Watson/Robson and McHale/Stephens have fantastic games and could be top 20 candidates for the future. There is a very legitimate chance that Serena could be nicely passing the American tennis torch to those two, and they would be more than capable recipients. McHale plays a true counterpunching game, feasting on pace with excellent movement and a stellar backhand. Stephens is just pure power with tons of potential.
Watson and Robson are both well on their way as well. While I often get upset about how much people talk about how players hit the ball instead of where they hit the ball, Watson has such a lovely ease to her game. Her footwork is fantastic and every shot she hits looks very similar, in the best possible way. Her game looks very unlikely to ever break down on her, and she looks like a player who has put in considerable hours. Robson, still just 18, had some excellent results at Wimbledon and at the end of the year on clay. She has a massive lefty forehand and a pretty solid backhand as well, and loves an open court to hit at. If they stay healthy, keep an eye on the draws for any of these four, all well on their way.
10. Stability and Questions
It appears that there will be a considerable amount of stability in the WTA tour, particularly if those names stay healthy. However, there must be questions about how it will grow off of the court. Stacey Allaster has done excellent work in her short time at the WTA, and very clearly knows the culture of the players and the fans, having been involved with tennis for so long. However, the WTA is going to be out of a title sponsor as well as out of a place to hold its Year End Championship. These are problems that will be solved, and may give us an idea of where the WTA is heading for the future. While it has grown exponentially in markets such as Asia, with such a broad fan base, tennis in general may be in trouble of alienating North American or even European viewers, or missing out on gaining a new generation of tennis fans. They hope the sport, not the brand will survive on pure merit. All interesting questions for a sport that is becoming ever more globalized and ever larger.