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Steve Flink: WTA season ends logically, with Serena as the victor

10/28/2013 1:00:00 PM

Only the eight best female players in the world are permitted to compete at the prestigious, season-ending TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships. It is a tournament made only for the elite, an event staged as a reward for the leading players as they conclude a long and hard campaign, a stage for these gifted individuals to showcase their talent. At this year’s festivities in Istanbul, the Red Group featured Serena Williams, along with Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber. The White Group performers were Victoria Azarenka, Li Na, Sara Errani and Jelena Jankovic. Regrettably, a recuperating Maria Sharapova was unable to compete, but even without the charismatic Russian the field was formidable.

In the end, however, there seemed to be only one logical outcome at this extraordinary round robin event. Somehow, it was nearly impossible to imagine anyone other than Serena Williams lifting the trophy. It had been a banner year for the 32-year-old American, the single most consistent season of her illustrious career, a time when she played far and away the best and most sophisticated tennis of her life. Williams had dominated the game all across the season with unrelenting pride and professionalism, treating each and every tournament as if it was a major, playing all of her matches with utter seriousness, giving the game she plays for a living absolutely everything she had. That she was victorious in Istanbul was entirely fitting within the context of her role in the 2013 world of women’s tennis.

By capturing the WTA Championships, she secured her eleventh title in 15 appearances over the course of the season. Once upon a time, back in the golden days of Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, taking at least ten championships in a year was almost a prerequisite for a woman striving to be the best in the world. But no longer is that the case. The last woman to equal or surpass Serena’s total of eleven titles in a year was Martina Hingis back in 1997, when the stylish Swiss competitor amassed 12 singles. Moreover, Williams set an annual prize money record for women, garnering an astounding $12,385,572. Azarenka had set a record in 2012 with an impressive $7,923,920, and so Williams had shattered that mark by an unimaginable margin. To put Serena’s prize money fully into perspective, consider this: the only man who has ever made more in a year than she has is Novak Djokovic, and he did not surpass her by much; the Serbian made $12,803, 737 last year and $12, 619, 803 in 2011.

To be sure, Williams earned every penny she made in 2013, winning 78 of 82 matches she contested for a phenomenal .951 winning percentage. She lost to only three players: Azarenka twice, Sloane Stephens and Sabine Lisicki. Her only regret must be taking only two of the four Grand Slam championships. Her loss to Lisicki was particularly disconcerting because she led 3-0 and 4-2 in the final set; at one stage she collected nine games in a row and yet she still was beaten in a quarterfinal she seemed certain to win. Probably Williams should have equaled her career best accomplishment of capturing three Grand Slam titles in a single year, a feat she realized in 2002 on her way to the so-called “Serena Slam” that she completed at the start of the following year.

But it would be ludicrous to diminish what Williams did in the year 2013. She was magnificent across the board, dedicated in pursuit of her highest goals to a degree she had never been before, determined to not only win prodigiously but to succeed by playing a brand of modern percentage tennis that she would never have envisioned a decade ago. Her athletic skills were always unassailable, but now her capacity to strategically navigate her way through matches and her tactical acuity have made her a greater champion than she has ever been before.

Be that as it may, Williams had to survive largely on willpower to secure her fourth WTA Championships title. She had swept majestically through her three round robin matches, dismissing Kerber, Kvitova and Radwanska at the cost of only 15 games in six sets. In that span, she lost her serve only once. Those contests revealed Williams in nearly full flight, and based on the form she displayed against all three of those worthy adversaries, it seemed as if she might well move seamlessly through the tournament without undue difficulty.

But it was not the same Serena Williams who faced a cagey and revitalized Jankovic in the semifinals. Despite losing two of her three round robin duels, Jankovic had still qualified for the penultimate round. Five years ago, the Serbian had concluded the season stationed at No. 1 in the world, falling in the finals of the U.S. Open against Williams. She had concluded the next two years at No. 8 in the world before slipping to No. 14 in 2011 and No. 22 in 2012. But, at 28, she reinvented herself in many ways during the 2013 season. Jankovic has beefed up her first serve considerably, and her forehand is more penetrating. Her greater offense on top of her renowned defensive capabilities has made her more versatile and less vulnerable in a number of ways.

Williams in mid-week form would have beaten Jankovic comfortably, but she was a shell of that player when she took on the Serbian. For most of the match, her first serve was not even three quarter speed, her second serve lacked bite and her usual kick, and her mobility from side to side in the backcourt was sorely lacking. Jankovic—a superb strategist and a fine match player—exploited those deficiencies to the hilt. Her uncanny instincts and court savvy were fully on display.

Jankovic established an early 3-1 lead in the first set with an irresistible combination of counter attacking and aggression. Her inside-out backhand return is perhaps the best right now in the women’s game, and she seized the initiative with frequency, forcing a listless Serena to do too much digging. The American was found wanting in that department. At break point down in the fourth game, Williams missed a forehand crosscourt, pulling it wide when trying to go behind Jankovic. Jankovic took a 3-1 lead with that service break, but her lead evaporated swiftly as Williams found a burst of energy and inspiration. She took four consecutive games to turn that deficit into a 5-3 lead, sweeping 16 of 19 points in the process. Williams did struggle to serve out the set in the tenth game, yet she managed to hold on to win it 6-4.

But Jankovic was not discouraged, and Williams lost the crackle she had found in her game in the latter stages of the opening set. Serving relatively softly again, hitting her groundstrokes with uncharacteristic timidity, forced to scrape balls back off both sides, Williams lost her serve to trail 3-1 in the second set. Jankovic surged to 4-1, holding at 15 with an ace. In the sixth game, Williams missed three of her five first serves and was broken at 15 when she netted a forehand inside out. Serena broke back in the following game, but Jankovic fashioned another break to seal the set in the eighth game. Set to Jankovic, 6-2. It was one set all.

With Jankovic down a break point in the first game of the final set, Williams looped a forehand crosscourt that clipped the baseline. Jankovic thought the ball was out, and challenged the call. The shot was in, and Williams was up 1-0. But she double faulted to fall behind 15-40 in the next game, and lost her serve at 30 with an errant and unprovoked backhand down the line that went long. Williams retaliated boldly to break again for 2-1, lacing a backhand crosscourt into the clear. She held at 15 for 3-1 and broke Jankovic for 4-1, upping the ante with increased aggression. At deuce in the next game, Williams served an ace down the T, and she added a service winner to make it 5-1.

And yet, Jankovic was unwilling to surrender. She kept swinging freely, holding at 15 for 2-5. Serving for the match in the eighth game, Williams advanced to match point. She had control but Jankovic tenaciously stayed in the point, luring Serena into a forehand unforced error into the net. Williams then made a pair of unprovoked mistakes off the backhand. Her lead was reduced to 5-3. Jankovic connected with five consecutive first serves, holding at 15 for 4-5 with a service winner down the T after Williams had misfired twice off the forehand. Serving for the match a second time at 5-4, Williams was ahead 40-15 when she went for an ace out wide to the forehand in the deuce court, narrowly missing. She double faulted for 40-30, drove a two-hander long, and then sent another backhand tamely into the net.

Jankovic had come all the way from 5-1 down to within a point of 5-5. But Williams erased that opportunity with one swing of the racket, acing her opponent out wide with a clever kicker that kissed the sideline. Williams then opened up the court with a wide serve, driving a forehand down the line for a clean winner. Back again at match point, Williams converted, approaching down the line off the backhand, putting away an overhead emphatically. She had succeeded 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 despite a largely empty emotional tank.

Li Na, meanwhile, had taken apart Kvitova in the other semifinal with a first rate performance. The beguiling Chinese superstar broke twice for a 3-0 opening set lead over her sporadically brilliant yet undependable left-handed opponent, but Kvitova rallied admirably to reach 4-4. The pivotal game of the set was the ninth. Kvitova led 40-30 and had two game points, but Li eventually broke, driving a two-hander crosscourt with good pace, coaxing an error off the forehand from Kvitova. Li saved a break point in the tenth game, and held on with a well-placed body serve that Kvitova could not handle. Li had the set 6-4. After an early exchange of breaks in the second set, Li’s deep returns down the middle and her remarkable depth off both sides was too much for Kvitova. Li came through 6-4, 6-2, advertising her growing stability as a front line player in the women’s game.

And so the final was all set. For the first time in tournament history two women over 30 were playing for the title. Li, 31, did not come of age until her late twenties, and she has improved markedly under the tutelage of Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of Justine Henin. She took a daunting 1-9 career record on court with her against Williams, including a 6-0, 6-3 pasting at the hands of the American in the semifinals of the U.S. Open this year. But Li knew full well that she had often pushed Williams considerably during their head to head meetings. The one-sided score-line at the U.S. Open was essentially and exception to the rule; most of their matches have been much more competitive.

Fortunately for those who wanted to see a suspenseful and compelling final, for everyone hoping to witness a fitting conclusion to a first rate year on the WTA Tour, Li approached this collision in a determined frame of mind. Williams, meanwhile, seemed depleted in many ways, much the way she had a day earlier against Jankovic. While the American’s ball striking and mobility were well below par, Li was at the absolute zenith of her game. She took control of rallies methodically and unhesitatingly. She put into effect a diverse and shrewd gameplan, serving-and-volleying selectively, going behind Serena for spectacular winners, seldom backing away from an assertive strategy.

Williams held comfortably at 15 for 1-0, but that smooth start was misleading because she was headed for some rough territory. Li held at 15 for 1-1 despite missing three out of five first serves, backing up her second delivery with impressive pace and precision off the ground. At 1-1, 40-30, Williams made a costly forehand unforced error down the line. Li pounced. At deuce, she connected with a superb backhand down the line passing shot winner off a fine forehand approach from Serena. Now at break point, Li cracked a backhand crosscourt behind Williams, and the American could not respond. Li had the break for 2-1, and the confidence to back that up with some more stellar tennis.

Despite two double faults in the fourth game, Li still led 40-30 when she played one of her unexpected serve-and-volley points. She made a terrific pickup off a low return, sending a forehand half volley low over the net. Williams missed a passing shot. It was 3-1 for the Chinese competitor. Williams knew she was going to have considerable trouble turning the set around. Serving at 1-3, 30-15, she double faulted. Li sensed an opportunity for an insurance break, and she pursued it fully. At 30-30, she drove a flat forehand crosscourt to elicit a mistake from Williams. The favorite then missed a first serve, and Li exploited that opening. She took her second serve return extraordinarily early, finding a sharp angle to send a backhand crosscourt for a clean winner and a 4-1 lead.

Li continued to have alarming problems with her first serve, missing three of four in the sixth game. But the rest of her game was so impressive that it hardly mattered. She held at love for 5-1 with a winning backhand passing shot crosscourt. In three service games, she had conceded only three points despite missing 10 of 15 first serves in that span. Williams was in a somber state, dazed and not highly charged, yet aware that she was being thoroughly outplayed by an inspired opponent. Serving at 1-5, she trailed 15-40, but she connected with four first serves in a row and held on for 2-5. Li held on from deuce to seal the set, serve-volleying again on set point to catch Williams off guard. Despite a dismal 30% on first serves, Li had prevailed because she was beating Williams to the punch from the backcourt.

Williams knew she had to make her move immediately, and she did just that. In the opening game of the second set, she was pushed to nine deuces by her obstinate adversary. Li had only two break points in that marathon, 24 point game. But the defending champion prevailed, holding on her eighth game point with a service winner. That was a crucial juncture in the match. The next game went twice to deuce, but once more it was Williams who came through when counted. Li came in on serve at break point down, but Williams was ready for it, keeping her return low, setting up a passing shot that was too arduous for Li to handle on the volley. The American led 2-0, and she swiftly advanced to 3-0, holding at love with two service winners and a pair of forehand unforced errors from a discouraged opponent.

Yet Li pressed on admirably. She held in a three deuce game for 1-3, and then broke Williams in the fifth game with a blistering forehand return deep down the middle that was unmanageable for the top seed. At 2-3, 40-30, Li aced Williams out wide in the ad court. She had rallied gamely to collect three games in a row, reaching 3-3, moving within range of a substantial victory. But Williams recognized the magnitude of the moment. She held at 15 for 4-3, and then applied the pressure. At 3-4, 0-15, Li’s serve-and-volley attempt failed as another low return from Williams provoked an errant first volley from the Chinese player. At 0-30, an uncomfortable Li double faulted, and then she missed a forehand down the line. Williams had broken at love for 5-3, but her hard work was not finished. Serving for the set in the ninth game, Williams was up 40-30 but Li clipped the baseline for an outright winner and then she forced the American into a backhand error.

It was break point for Li, but the American’s big point prowess was showcased. She drove a forehand winner cleanly down the line for a winner. Williams garnered a second set point, but Li’s scorching return set up a backhand crosscourt winner. Now Li earned a second break point, but her return was too short and lacked pace. Williams stepped in and measured her forehand impeccably, driving that shot crosscourt and well out of Li’s reach. Li netted a backhand return off a first serve to give Williams her third set point, and this time Serena converted as Li pulled a forehand inside-in wide. Set to the American, 6-3.

The opening game of the final set was critical for Li, who desperately needed to halt the momentum of Williams. That game went to deuce three times, but Li double faulted at break point down, gambling by going down the T in the ad court but missing it wide. Buoyed by an ace for 30-0, Williams held at 30 for 2-0. She was soaring now and Li no longer believed she could win; that was painfully apparent to her fans. Li was broken at 15 in the third game, missing four of five first serves, double faulting to trail 0-30. Williams held at 30 for 4-0 with an ace, and broke at love for 5-0 as Li double faulted at 0-40. After the hard fought first game of that final set, Williams had won 16 of 21 points. Williams got a little ahead of herself at 5-0, double faulting twice on her way to a 0-40 deficit. But, after four deuces, after saving five break points, Williams sealed the victory on her second match point fittingly—with a backhand winner struck immaculately down the line. Victory went to Williams 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 as she claimed the season-ending title for the fourth time.

It was a remarkably good year for the women from start to finish, although the ending in Istanbul could have been more absorbing. While Williams willed her way ferociously to another significant championship, and Li signaled that 2014 might well be her best year yet, there were some disappointments, including Sharapova’s absence and Azarenka’s ineptitude. The world No. 2 was clearly spent, winning only her opening match against Errani, playing lifelessly against Jankovic and Li, missing the semifinal cut. She tried to summon some spark, but had nothing left.

Be that as it may, the women had much to celebrate in 2013. Williams set the pace relentlessly from beginning to end, securing her 16th and 17th Grand Slam singles titles, seldom letting her guard down. Azarenka won a second straight Australian Open. Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon before announcing her retirement over the summer. So there were three different champions at the Grand Slam events. And yet, in the end, after everything else was said and done, the women’s game was above all else a platform for Williams to enlarge her place in history.

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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.