Is the WTA sure it wants to take its season-ending championships out of Istanbul? That’s the plan after next year. The tour has short-listed four possible cities as hosts in 2014: Mexico City; Singapore; Kazan, Russia; and Tianjin, China. None of those places spring immediately to mind as a natural fit for the biggest women’s-only tennis event in the world, but I’m sure they’ll do their best to make it a success. Wherever the tournament ends up, it’s going to have a hard act to follow. As entertaining as many of the matches were in Turkey last week, I found myself marveling at the crowds more than anything else. For a second straight year, they came early, they filled the place, they made noise, and they stayed late—extremely late, 2:00 A.M. late.
In a perfect world, the fact that this tournament could draw a dedicated audience wouldn't be all that noteworthy. After all, these are the eight best women's players in the world, they include two major stars in Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, and the round-robin format typically produces its share of epics. But after years of seeing mediocre crowds in Doha and Madrid for this tournament, and no crowds at all in Los Angeles, I admit that the Istanbul audience, its enthusiasm and endurance, was still a pleasant surprise the second time around. And I’m guessing it will be missed.
Before we get too deep into the off-season, or the exhibition season—Maria Sharapova has already turned her ankle at one in Prague—here are a few thoughts on four of the standout players from this year's WTA Championships.
She was criticized for many years for not playing enough, for not being in shape, for not listening to outside advice, for not racking up all of the Grand Slam titles she could with the talent she had. Some of us even wondered how she won with the overpowered equipment she used. Now, at 31, she’s doing all of those things, even switching racquets and strings and trying out a new coach in a new country. After 14 years on tour, it feels like she’s just starting to show us how efficiently dominant her game can be. She says that with her new team in Paris, she feels as enthusiastic as a tour rookie.
Most impressive of all about Serena’s Istanbul performance was that while she didn’t always have her best stuff, she still won five matches against the Top 8 without dropping a set. She won without her serve
against Angelique Kerber. She without her serve, or much of anything else, against Li Na. She bounced back
from a second-set letdown against Victoria Azarenka. And she stayed safely ahead of a determined No. 2 player in the world, Maria Sharapova, in the final
. Then, at the end, as she usually does, Serena found her best: She hit four straight winners to break Sharapova for the match.
Some like to say that Serena’s longevity is proof that young tennis players shouldn’t be so one-dimensionally focused on the sport. It doesn't prove that. Like the rest of her career, from her junior years on up, Serena’s continued excellence is proof that every champ has to find her own way. Even now, she’s still finding hers.
Was this Maria's best season? She didn’t finish No. 1, but she won a major for the first time in four years and was very good throughout. With her three-hour, 7-5-in-the-third comeback win
over Agnieszka Radwanska, she showed again what makes her special as a competitor: Her mental stamina. One example: After losing a long and close first set, Sharapova started the second by earning, and squandering, six break points on Radwanska’s serve. For most players, having to endure that frustration, and start over from deuce so many times, would have made them weary of the effort. Not Maria: She hung in, kept her fist clenched, and finally broke.
Sharapova was exceedingly pleased with her semifinal win
over Azarenka, and obviously disappointed after yet another loss to Serena, this time 6-4, 6-3. You might have thought that getting seven games would have been a victory of sorts for Sharapova, but she was downcast at the handshake. Good for her.
She’s not the Player of the Year, but Vika’s No. 1 ranking is well earned. Instead of succumbing to the pressure of that position, she used it as source of pride and motivation—clinching the year-end No. 1 spot is what got her through her epic round-robin match
with Kerber last week. But Azarenka still has work to do against the two women ranked just below her. She had no answer for Serena this year; she went 0-5 and couldn’t hold a second-set lead over her in Istanbul. Vika doesn’t have the same trouble with Sharapova. She beat her in most of their important matches in 2012—but not in the Istanbul semis. This time, down a set and a break, Azarenka appeared to have a leg injury. What was more apparent was that Vika wanted to make it clear to Maria that she had a leg injury. She knows how to beat Maria; now she needs to learn how to lose to her.
Kerber and Errani didn’t make the semis, but the YEC rookies were surprise hits in Istanbul. I found Errani, despite her gratingly raspy shriek, more fun to watch than I had before. I knew she was a fighter and a grinder, but I didn’t know she had such a wide assortment of shots—touch shots, drop shots, drop volleys. And she’ll try them all, even in a losing effort. At three-and-a-half hours, her round-robin match
against Radwanska was the longest three-setter in the history of the WTA Championships. It might have been a little too
long, even for those of us who enjoyed it. But not, apparently, for the Istanbul faithful. There were still plenty of them hanging around at the end. I shouldn’t have been surprised.