Occupy Number One!
by Pete Bodo
The WTA year is long over, and the ATP provided us with plenty of fodder for thought over the past few weeks. And we still have an intriguing Davis Cup championship tie coming up — one that I wouldn't concede to host Spain quite as easily as some other fans or pundits. But let's use this slow news day to pass out some Thumbs Ups/Thumbs Downs based on the entire WTA year.
The other day, some comment posters took exception to the fact that I characterized Rafael Nadal as a "loser" in 2011. I understand their complaint; perhaps I should have noted that I was using that term in a relative way — anybody who wins a major or has a Top 10 ranking (never mind No. 1 or 2) is, by definition, a big winner. Still, Nadal started the year as No. 1 — and a dominant One at that — but he fell, fast and hard. He dropped to No. 2 and lost all six of his meetings with the new No. 1, Novak Djokovic. And Rafa kind of disappeared after the U.S. Open. We won't even get into the negativity and disillusionment that so often filters through his recent comments. So in the big picture, Nadal had a tough, sobering, unexpectedly problematic year, and he lost a lot more ground than he gained (or held).
Keep that in mind as we dole out these "awards." They're not based on overall performance against the rest of the field but on our legitimate expectations and the players' own natural desire to progress, fill in the blanks, plaster over the holes, and maximize their talents. We'll do them in order of ranking, starting with the No. 1, but leave out some players about whom not much needs be said.
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki — She's become the spokesperson for that offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement — Occupy No. 1. For the second year in a row she finished No. 1 without having won a Grand Slam title. And that hasn't happened ever before. Look, her consistency is admirable and not all that common a virtue these days in the WTA. Also. Wozniacki earned her ranking the clean, hard way. So give her credit for that. But this year she just added credence to the argument that she's No. 1 mostly be default, rather than through gift and grit. And it's not just that she hasn't won a major. That's not really a deal breaker in and of itself. It's that she's failed to lift her game to the appropriate level (of a No. 1) at the majors.
No. 2 Petra Kvitova — We all knew what kind of talent she had, so her bolt to the top is hardly surprising. Shy, reticent, and gangly, Kvitova barely turned 20 when she beat Maria Sharapova to bag her first Grand Slam title — Wimbledon, no less. But what I liked even more was the way rebounded from the shock of winning that first major to close the year in a way that invites comparison with the effort Roger Federer recently mounted. I believe she demonstrated that she's in it to win it. Every week. Gut feeling here is that she'll be No. 1 by the time the early hard-court season is over.
No. 3 Victoria Azarenka — This is a very tough call, because Azarenka was extremely steady through the year, and isn't all that far behind Kvitova in the hunt for the No. 1 ranking. She's in a position similar to Wozniacki (or, if you prefer, Andy Murray). But one big difference is that unlike Wozniacki — and like Murray — Azarenka lost to an impact player at every Grand Slam (in order, beginning in Australia: Li Na (eventual finalist), Li again (champion in France), Kvitova (Wimbledon champion) and Serena Williams (U.S. Open finalist). However. . . Azarenka came up small against Li (in Australia) and Williams, failing to win even a set in either match. The much-anticipated breakthrough never happened.
No. 4 Maria Sharapova — She's not the player she once was. That serve has become so unreliable as to be almost Dementieva-esque. She can stink out any stadium in the world when she starts shrieking and drilling balls in to the net, or fence. But despite all that, she's always in the hunt — always game and ready to take her best shot and to hail with the rest of it. If she could bottle some of that competitive desire and drive, Wozniacki would — or ought to be — right at the head of the line to buy it.
No. 5 Li Na — It's funny, but the top men are always saying that the Grand Slams are their main focus, and the rest hardly matters. Yet Li (and Serena Williams, of course) are the only players whose results reflect that sort of mentality. As woeful as Li often looked between majors, that near-miss final in Australia and her subsequent triumph at Roland Garros were bold and artful. In Paris, she won her first major on a string of really impressive wins (in order, starting with the fourth round: Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova, defending champ Francesca Schiavone). Azarenka and Wozniacki need to find a comparable way to elevate their games. And we all know what it meant for tennis to finally see an Asian Grand Slam champ.
No. 6 Sam Stosur — What are the chances that a 27-year old, renowned head case can slash her way to the U.S. Open final, look Serena Williams in the eye, and in effect say: No way, Serena, I want this one. Stosur put on a remarkable demonstration of cool nerves, quality play, and emotional stability to bag her first-ever major.
No. 7 Vera Zvonareva — She was oh-so-close to becoming a Grand Slam champ in 2010 (year-end ranking: No. 2), but instead of mounting a charge she called a retreat in 2011. After making a semi in Australia (l. to Clijsters), she never got past the quarters at any other major. The train has left the station, it seems.
No. 8 Agniezska Radwanska struggled with injuries and was a disappointment at the majors, but she won three events in the late summer and fall (Carlsbad, Tokyo and Beijing) and cracked the Top 10. . . No. 9 Marion Bartoli played 4,544 matchs in 345 tournaments as well as Fed Cup and a couple of exos; as the song says, "She works hard for her money" and I like that. . . No. 15 Sabine Lisicki gets enormous credit for sucking it up and playing ITF events as she tried to recover from injury. She made a great push to get back into the Top 20. . . No. 18 Dominika Cibulkova started the year outside the Top 30, but had wins over Wozniacki (twice, including a shocker at Wimbledon), Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, and Schiavone. . .No. 22 Ana Ivanovic is a former No. 1 and French Open champion who just keeps trying and trying. . . and trying to recapture the magic. It was nice to see her win the Bali, aka the Tournament of Also-Rans. She must have felt like she'd just won Wimbledon.
While I appreciate the hardships that No. 12 Serena Williams endured before she returned to the fray at Wimbledon, she kind of made a mess of it after she won those two summer hard-court events and just dropped from view after her controversial U.S. Open final loss. . . Always mercurial No. 19 Svetlana Kuznetsova leaves us wondering if those familiar resurrections aren't a thing of the past. . . if anyone ever figures out No. 26 Yanina Wickmayer, let us know — it wasn't so long ago that she was considered the latest Belgian "It" girl. . . No. 29 Nadia Petrova fell 14 ranking place this year but maybe it's all about her age (29); after all, her girlhood rival Elena Dementieva is long retired, and the days when Petrova was a Top 10 staple (circa 2006) seem like the distant past now. Perhaps she has one more push left, for 2012.