In many ways, the year 2014 was arduous, debilitating, infuriating and disconcerting for Serena Williams. In the first three Grand Slam championships, she never made it past the round of 16. Her swagger was largely gone. As she commenced her summer campaign leading up to the U.S. Open, the iconic American seemed to already be looking past this season toward a resurrection in 2015. After her astounding 2012 and 2013 seasons—when she won four of the eight majors, 18 singles championships altogether, and 136 of 144 matches—Serena struggled inordinately through much of 2014. After losing only eight matches across the previous two years, Williams was beaten eight times (in 60 matches) alone in 2014. Her bad days mounted. Her propensity to bring out her best on the biggest occasions was not what it once was. Her psyche was wounded.
But Williams left all of her disappointments behind her, and ended this season as stylishly as possible. She captured her sixth U.S. Open without the loss of a set, and not once over that fortnight was she taken beyond 6-3 in any set. She had some injury problems over the autumn, and arrived in Singapore for the WTA Finals in Singapore not really knowing what to expect from herself. And yet, Williams came away deservedly and somewhat fortunately with her fifth title run at the season-ending event, securing a seventh singles title for 2014, raising her career singles tournament victory tally to 64, closing her campaign in the most gratifying possible way. Williams has now been victorious in 63 of 80 career finals that she has contested (a 79% success rate), winning one title (the 2001 WTA Finals, when injured opponent Lindsay Davenport defaulted) without needing to step on court for the final.
Williams established herself as the first woman to take the WTA Finals three years in a row since Monica Seles realized that remarkable feat in 1992. What made her achievement all the more remarkable was that she had to topple Simona Halep in the final, and the Rumanian had upended Serena 6-0, 6-2 just four days earlier in the round robin portion of the tournament. Moreover, Williams could have missed out on qualifying for the semifinals had Halep not taken a set off Ana Ivanovic in her last round robin contest. And then the American was two points away from losing to Caroline Wozniacki in the penultimate round before emerging victorious in a blockbuster skirmish that was worthy of a final.
It seemed entirely possible that the emotionally exhausting semifinal win that Williams recorded over Wozniacki might leave her vulnerable against Halep in the final, but ultimately that was not the case. Williams exacted revenge on the woman who had crushed her so comprehensively in the round robin, and with the title on the line the American was the decidedly superior player. Halep was apprehensive in the first set when she might have had a chance to take control of the match, and Williams swept imperiously to a 6-3, 6-0 triumph. Williams collected the last eight games of the match, and in the second set she claimed 24 of 31 points. Those numbers are revealing. It was that comprehensive for two reasons: Williams raised her level decidedly and demonstrated once more why she is a singularly formidable front runner, and Halep wilted under the heat of a long week of competition and the realization that surpassing Williams twice in the same tournament is a nearly impossible task. Additionally, Halep was uptight because she was playing for such an important title; contrastingly, at Roland Garros in her first major final, she acquitted herself exceedingly well before losing a hard fought three set clash against Maria Sharapova.
In the early stages, Williams was clearly out of sorts, pressing frequently, searching for the right gameplan, executing her shots inconsistently. Halep sensed she could do some damage, and had her share of opportunities. The signs of uneasiness from Williams were strikingly apparent in the opening game of the match. Serena was twice down break point. There were two deuces. Although Williams connected with eight of ten first serves, she was hard pressed to hold as Halep netted a forehand approach to end that game. Yet it was hardly uplifting for Williams. Halep held at love for 1-1 as Williams committed three unforced errors. When Williams missed three out of five first serves in the third game, Halep seized the initiative and broke at 15.
Halep led 2-1, 40-15, but double faulted wide going down the T. Williams followed with an inside out forehand return winner for deuce. Halep had three more game points to reach 3-1, but an obstinate Williams broke back after five deuces when Halep cautiously netted a forehand. It was 2-2. Williams continued to have difficulty on her serve, but held for 3-2 after two deuces as the Halep forehand faltered again. Halep led 30-0 in sixth game, but a double fault at that juncture was costly. Williams swept four points in a row to lead 4-2, and then advanced swiftly to 30-0 in the seventh game. But Halep stood her ground ably to take the next point before Williams served consecutive double faults. Halep broke for the second time to make it back to 3-4.
Yet the 23-year-old would never win another game. Serving at 3-4 in a critical game, she released an ace for 40-30. But then Williams went fully on the attack, making it to deuce when she followed an excellent return in to put away an overhead on the bounce. A forehand drop volley winner brought Williams to break point, and she sealed it when Halep was off the mark with a backhand down the line wide. Williams was right where she wanted to be, serving for the set at 5-3. She cracked a pair of aces for 30-15, double faulted on the next point, but held on commandingly from there. Set to Williams, 6-3.
Serving at 30-30 in the opening game of the second set, an increasingly uncertain Halep—perhaps recognizing that Williams was ready to attack on the return—double faulted. On break point, Williams directed a backhand conservatively down the line, but Halep was unravelling. She netted a forehand. Williams was quickly ahead 1-0. Williams opened the next game with an ace, and held at 15 for 2-0. Now Williams was opening up freely. With Halep serving at 0-2, 0-15, the American unleashed a blazing forehand return that left her opponent no time at all to respond. Williams secured the insurance break for 3-0 at 30, driving a forehand down the line cleanly for an outright winner.
There was no halting the favorite thereafter. She held at love with an ace out wide for 4-0, and then broke Halep at 15 for 5-0 with a superb forehand return winner off a wide serve. Williams bolted to 40-0 in the last game, netted a drop shot, but concluded the brief battle with a winning high forehand volley on her second match point. She had won only two games in her first meeting with Halep during the week, but had retaliated ferociously by conceding only three games to the same adversary in the final. That was no accident. Williams has now won 25 of her last 27 final round duels since losing to Sam Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open final; the only player to beat Serena in a title round meeting in that span is Victoria Azarenka, who did it twice in 2013. Williams is the ultimate big occasion player of the modern era in the women’s game, and Halep was never able to contain her towering opponent.
It was unfortunate that the final was so one-sided, because there were so many captivating contests played over the course of the week. None was better than the pulsating collision between Williams and Wozniacki. In my view, that scintillating duel was the best match played all year long in the women’s game. Wozniacki had not lost in the round robin, commencing her week with a riveting 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-2 triumph over Maria Sharapova. She subsequently handled Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 6-3 and took apart Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-3. Wozniacki loved the relatively slow court, and the conditions suited her to the hilt. She could display her outstanding defensive skills constantly, and yet seldom wasted an opportunity to step up the pace of her shots and exploit her considerably improved flat forehand.
The popular Dane seemed to approach her appointment with Williams in the right frame of mind. Wozniacki walked on court with a 1-9 career head to head record with Williams, and that included a decisive 6-3, 6-3 defeat at the hands of the American in the U.S. Open final. But the fact remained that Wozniacki had pushed Williams to the hilt in two collisions leading up to the Open, losing to the American 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 in Montreal and falling 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 in Cincinnati. She had played first rate tennis on both of those occasions, but did not have the capacity in the end to close out those accounts because Williams had too much firepower when it counted the most.
This time around in Singapore, Wozniacki surpassed her Montreal and Cincinnati performances more than slightly. She wore the expression of a woman who genuinely believed she was playing the kind of tennis that could carry her to victory. Her standards had been raised significantly over the second half of the season, and her level now is plainly a whole lot better than when she finished 2010 and 2011 as the top ranked woman player in the world. Wozniacki’s first serve has more weight and better placement. Her forehand is more penetrating and she refuses to back off her position on the baseline, flicking half volleys off deep balls whenever necessary. She is more willing to come forward and finish points at the net, and her anticipation is sharper these days. Moreover, her volleying technique has also improved markedly.
Williams was well aware of Wozniacki’s capabilities when she stepped on court for this semifinal meeting in Singapore, and Serena was thoroughly outplayed by her Danish friend all across the first set. Unerring and aggressive off the ground, serving intelligently, covering the court with alacrity, Wozniacki opened up a 3-0 lead, and never looked back. She won that set systematically, taking it 6-2. While Wozniacki was virtually letter perfect, Williams was misfiring flagrantly, bungling too many returns, making expensive mistakes. Williams made 14 unforced errors in the first set while Wozniacki had only 2 unprovoked mistakes. Moreover, Wozniacki won 16 of 19 points on serve. She had her bearings, and Williams clearly did not.
Wozniacki took a 2-1 lead on serve in the second set, but from that moment on Williams raised her game and reduced her errors with cool resolve, high intensity and clear purpose. Wozniacki maintained her lofty standards and still gave away almost nothing, but Williams altered her ways substantially. She took five of the last six games to win the second set 6-3, connecting with 78% of her first serves, making only six unforced errors, sprinkling the court with 15 winners—which was eleven more than a pensive Wozniacki. On they went to the third set, and unmistakably Williams had the winds of momentum at her back. At 1-2 in the final set, Wozniacki fought off a break point by prevailing in the finest rally of the match. On the 26th stroke of that stirring exchange, Williams missed with a running crosscourt forehand wide. Wozniacki played that point largely on her terms. She held on for 2-2. Both players held comfortably until 4-4, when Wozniacki made her move. Williams double faulted to trail 0-30 in that ninth game. An ace brought her back to 30-30, but Wozniacki advanced to break point at 30-40 with a piece of good fortune. Her crosscourt forehand trickled over the net off the net cord. Williams saved that break point, but Wozniacki came through beautifully with a backhand inside in return winner to garner a second break point opportunity.
This one she took. Williams hit a forehand drop shot, but Wozniacki handled that play commendably, sliding a backhand low crosscourt to provoke Williams into a backhand passing shot error. Wozniacki had broken for 5-4, and was serving for the match. Here the Danish competitor played it all just a shade too safely. Wozniacki needed to raise or at least maintain her level of aggression with so much on the line, but she did not quite make that commitment. Contrastingly, Williams cast aside any caution and was absolutely assertive and unbending. She came forward to put away a forehand volley from close range on the first point of the tenth game, and then drove an awkward forehand down the line for a winner to make it 0-30. Wozniacki saved a break point at 15-40, but Williams pounced on the next point emphatically, approaching down the line off the forehand, closing in unhesitatingly to put away an overhead.
The set was deadlocked at 5-5, but Wozniacki remained resolute. She reached break point at 30-40 in the eleventh game, and her return was excellent, forcing Williams to roll the ball back defensively off the backhand. Her shot was not deep, landing rather short and high. Wozniacki went for a backhand down the line but sent that shot into the net. Williams held on from there to move ahead 6-5. Now Wozniacki was serving to stay in the match. The American was unrelenting, moving to match point. But Wozniacki brought the appreciative crowd to its feet with an exhilarating display of gumption. She released a deep forehand down the line, moved forward, and then sent a forehand approach deep into the American’s forehand corner. Williams tried to pass Wozniacki down the line, but the Dane read that well, punching a backhand volley crosscourt.
Yet that volley was not angled enough. Williams gamely chased it down, going crosscourt with her passing shot. Wozniacki went for a backhand drop volley down the line, but Williams was in no mood to make concessions. She chased that down and tried for a crosscourt pass, but Wozniacki read that shot impeccably, punching a forehand volley into the open court. Jubilant after that spectacular point, delighted to still be alive, Wozniacki held on for 6-6.
In the tie-break, Wozniacki held the upper hand at the outset. She got the mini-break for 3-1 with a deep crosscourt backhand coaxing an error from the American. Then Williams double faulted. Wozniacki was three points from perhaps the biggest win of her career, serving with a double mini-break lead at 4-1. But Williams was awfully fortunate. Her forehand down the line dribbled off the net cord and fell over for a winner. That was a pivotal moment, and a cruel twist of fate for Wozniacki. Williams followed with a backhand crosscourt winner to close the gap to 4-3.
Williams swiftly took her two service points to establish a 5-4 lead, and then attacked the net for an unstoppable overhead. She has collected five points in a row to reach double match point. But Wozniacki moved in and made a fine backhand volley down the line to elicit an errant passing shot. She had saved a second match point to make it 6-5 for Williams, and now Wozniacki erased a third when Williams netted a crosscourt forehand under no duress. Back to 6-6 was Wozniacki. Both players were two points away from victory. But Serena was serving. She aced Wozniacki out wide for 7-6, travelling to match point for third time in the tie-break. Wozniacki got her first serve in, but the return was deep. Wozniacki erred on a running forehand down the line. Match to Williams 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
The beauty of that encounter was that both women played top of the line tennis simultaneously in that electrifying final set. It should indeed have been the final, and that would have been the most fitting way to end a tournament that was so intriguing across the board. In my view, this field was as appealing a group of eight players as the women have fielded at the WTA Finals in a very long while. Wozniacki was the pace setter in the White Group with her 3-0 record, but the three other players—Sharapova, Radwanska and Kvitova—all finished at 1-2. Radwanska finished second in the group because her record in sets was 3-4, while Sharapova was 3-5 and Kvitova was 2-4.
Remarkably, Sharapova had a chance to still make it to the semis when she confronted Radwanska in her last match, despite walking on court having lost her first two matches. Had she beaten Radwanska in straight sets—and if Wozniacki followed with a straight sets win over Kvitova (which happened)—Sharapova would have been around for the weekend. She came exceedingly close to her goal. She took the first set from Radwanska, and led 5-1 in the second set. Three times she advanced to match point, but she could not get across the finish line. Astoundingly, Radwanska captured the set. Although Sharapova won the match 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2, she was playing only for pride by then. Radwanska proceeded to lose her semifinal 6-2, 6-2 to a strikingly sharp Halep, who put on a backhand down the line clinic.
Meanwhile, the Red Group was also fascinating. Halep won that group with a 2-1 record and was 5-2 in sets, while both Williams and Ana Ivanovic also finished 2-1. But Williams was 4-2 in sets while Ivanovic was 4-3, and so Williams made it narrowly into the semifinals. She had started with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Ivanovic, with the outcome largely settled at 4-4 in the first set. Williams had led 4-1 but Ivanovic secured three games in a row and then had a break point. Ivanovic’s inside out forehand approach was a too conservative, and Williams got enough pace on her passing shot to provoke an errant forehand volley. Williams held on and carved out a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Serena, of course, was crushed in her initial meeting with Halep. She never broke serve in that 6-0, 6-2 setback, going 0 for 6 on break points. Halep was 5 for 6 on break points and her ground game was outstanding. Halep had great length on her shots that entire match, and she broke Williams down off both sides with superior shot selection and the soundness of her execution. In the first set of that match, Halep won 25 of 34 points. But Williams served abysmally. Her six double faults were spread out over three service games. She played horrifically while Halep was unerring. Although Williams raised her game marginally in the second set, it was not enough. Her six break point opportunities occurred in three different service games, but she kept pressing. A disciplined, probing and unerring Halep thoroughly deserved that triumph.
Ivanovic nearly prevented Williams from moving on to the semifinals. She took on Halep in her last round robin match. Halep knew she was going to be in the semifinals but played hard all the way through this high quality contest. Ivanovic needed a straight set win, and rallied from 2-5 and two breaks down to win the first set, saving a set point with a bold forehand winner in the tie-break. But she lost the second set before recovering to win 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3. Once the commendable Halep won the second set in a largely meaningless match for her, Ivanovic no longer had a chance to be in the semifinals. Ironically, Halep had saved Williams with her professionalism, but had hurt her own chances in the process.
The only player in either group who did not win a match was the compromised Eugenie Bouchard, who was hampered by a leg injury all week long. She was beaten in straight sets by Halep, Williams and Ivanovic. The Canadian never had a chance to display her finest colors, and that was too bad for a player making her debut at the WTA Finals. Somehow, Bouchard deserved better.
Ultimately, though, there were very few negatives surrounding the showcase event in Singapore. The tennis across the board from most of the players was soaring, inspired, and imaginative. The slow conditions were ideal for producing absorbing rallies and gripping showdowns. These women gave it their all at the end of a long and exacting season. Serena Williams won the tournament with immense willpower, unshakable inner conviction and the heart of a great and enduring champion. At 33, she finishes the year at No. 1 in the world for the second year in a row and the fourth time in her illustrious career. She is the oldest since the introduction of official WTA computer rankings in 1975 to celebrate year-end No. 1 status.
No one could say with any credibility that she does not merit the honor of being the best player in the world of women’s tennis. Her thirst for winning the sport’s most prestigious prizes and making the most of her opportunities could well signal that Serena Williams will remain the preeminent player in the world of women’s tennis for another couple of years.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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