Sportswriter and broadcaster David Fearnhead, Women’s Tennis Blog’s long-time contributor, shares his Top 5 talking points from the WTA season behind us.
THE SERENA SLAM
When the final history book of women’s tennis is written, one name will surely appear with great frequency. Serena Jameka Williams is a phenomenon. To many, whose opinions are worth listening to, she is the greatest female player ever to pick up a racket. Her only possible rival is Steffi Graf, and the German player does hold something Serena does not. In 1988, Graf had a clean sweep of the majors – all four Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year, plus the Olympics.
Talk of Serena equalling the feat came as early as January, when the Serena Slam was berthed into the common tennis vernacular. Momentum grew after her securing the Australian Open. Roland Garros also fell to American champion. Surely nobody could stop her on grass. At Wimbledon the seeds tumbled. Serena briefly wobbled against home favourite Heather Watson, and started slow against Victoria Azarenka, but came through strong. A straight sets victory over Garbine Muguruza in the final gave her a sweep of sorts. Having won the US Open the previous year she now held all four titles at the same time, but not in the same calendar year.
All eyes were on New York. Serena the invincible was hunting destiny. She looked the part in the opening round, but against wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands in round three things were more heavy going. She lost the first set, won the second 7-5, and then won all six games of the third set. A dropped set against her sister was not a cause for concern either. Then came Roberta Vinci in the semifinal. Whilst many looked past the Italian and on to who would be her final opponent – the rejuvenated Simona Halep, or the veteran Flavia Pennetta – I went about talking up Vinci as far more of a threat than she appeared. Indeed I’d put my money where my mouth was and bet on an upset.
Serena comfortably took the first set 6-2. At first, neither my bet, nor my reputation were looking good.
What followed next was one of the greatest fight-backs in tennis. A magical match, a champion weighed down by expectation against an opponent playing with all her 32 years of experience combined with the freshness and bravery of a 17-year-old. Vinci played like a player with nothing to lose and in doing so secured victory. The Calendar Slam was done for this year at least. Italy had taken New York with Pennetta knocking out Halep for an all-Italian final.
Vinci was unable to continue the form she’d had against Serena, emotion had drained her, but the final was noted for obvious friendship between the two rivals for the US crown. Pennetta won and immediately retired. It seemed a premature end for a player who, like a fine wine, was continuing to improve with age.
2015 proved a rather special year for two European tennis nations. Italy was one, the other being the Czech Republic. Lucie Safarova started the year with a doubles crown Down Under with the flamboyant Bethanie Mattek-Sands and the two repeated that success at the French Open. In March, the Czechs broke tennis records by having four players in the Top 20. It’s hard to think of a country which rivals them for strength in depth. Their success in the Fed Cup was a testament to that. Whatever the Czechs are doing should be the blueprint for other countries to copy, although you can’t teach the terrier-like tenacity of a player such as Barbora Strycova, nor the strength of Petra Kvitova who played on through illness.
ROLLING UP HILL
Jordanne Whiley continued her ascent to becoming a great of the women’s wheelchair game. Having completed the grand slam of doubles titles last year, she became the US Open singles champion in 2015. She may not yet be receiving the media accolades that her achievements deserve, but slowly and surely she is making her mark which will see her one day recognised as a great of the game.
My good news story of the year was the return of Timea Baczinszky. Life has not been easy for the Swiss player. Persistent injuries on court and domestic problems off it saw her walk away from the game. Then came a wildcard to the French Open and she showed what a true champion she really is. Two WTA titles, nearly $2 million banked in winnings, and an astonishing rise to number 12 in the WTA rankings. Not a bad year for a player once ranked as low as 578 in the world.