No. 4: Friendly Fire

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If we had a prize for Relationship of the Year in 2014, it would surely go to Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. Off the court, these two partied together from Miami to Manhattan to Singapore, and sent us the requisite flurry of selfies to prove it. On the court, their matches helped make each woman a better player as the year progressed.

Serena’s support may also have helped Wozniacki bounce back more quickly after her fiancé, Rory McIlroy, broke off their engagement in May. Caro bounced back so quickly, in fact, that she nearly beat Serena three separate times from August to October. The third and final of those meetings, their see-saw semifinal at the WTA Finals in Singapore, comes in at No. 4 in our countdown of the 10 best matches of the year. Its three sets of entertaining push-and pull, eventually won by Serena, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6), sent the women’s tour out on a high note.

*****

—You can see that push and pull in the first two points. Serena wins the first one with a putaway volley; Wozniacki fires back with a forehand winner to make it 15-15. It’s Caro who goes on to hold and then run away with the opening set. 

—In the way it’s played, and the way it unfolds, the match is illustrative of both players’ seasons. Wozniacki, refocused on her career, was better in every department than she had been in three years. Here her first serve is sharper, her returns are more aggressive and penetrating, she’s competing with her old spiky tenacity, and she’s doing the little things well. See the dipping, well-measured backhand pass she puts at Serena’s feet early in the first set. While Serena was misfiring from the ground, she did make 80 percent of her first serves; how many times has she done that and lost a set 6-2?

—Serena comes out too strong at first. She has always gone for the early knock-down, but she had some trouble in 2014 finding her range. That was especially true over the first six months, when she lost early at all three majors. But Serena began to find ways out of her shaky patches after Wimbledon. Unfortunately for Wozniacki, she was often the victim of Serena’s turnarounds. Three times Caro won the first set against her friend this year; three times Serena came back to beat her. 

This is the downside of consistency: You’ll out-rally most players, but the best of them can use the shots you give them to find a groove. That’s what Serena does in the second set of this match. As Tracy Austin, the commentator here, says, Serena’s balance is improved, her swings are smoother, her extension is better, and her shot selection is more controlled and thought out. Nobody beats her when she’s in that kind of mood.

—One other thing about Serena in the second set: She’s quiet. That’s usually when she’s most lethal. In this match, though, it took a lot of noise to get her to that calm place. Like her fellow No. 1, Novak Djokovic, Serena often needs to work out her competitive nerves early before she can settle down. She works them out in grand style here, by totaling her racquet at the end of the first set, and by shouting her way to a hold at 1-1 in the second—it may have been the loudest winning game of 2014. Few players can successfully ride such so much emotion the way Serena does there.

—With the first two sets split, the match takes off in the third. Punch begets counterpunch, ace begets return winner, fist-pump begets primal scream. Serena powers forward, while Wozniacki changes direction with the ball brilliantly. Neither gives an inch or stays down for long. The only conspicuously weak link is Wozniacki’s second serve; her short spinners cost her when she serves for the match at 5-4. 

—Yet even in defeat, Wozniacki reaches a peak moment of her 2014. Match point down at 5-6, she takes a sharp backhand pass from Serena and drops it within a few inches of the net. When she finishes the point with a winning volley on the next shot, Wozniacki lets out a shoulder-shaking shriek. Win or lose, it was the punctuation mark on her second-half resurgence. Nearly out of the Top 20 in March, she finished the season back in the Top 8 and made herself a contender again for her elusive first major in 2015.

—One key moment of the match, at least as far as what’s shown here, comes with Wozniacki up 1-0 in the tiebreaker. After the previous game, the momentum is with her, and she takes control of this rally. But she squanders the advantage. Instead of sending a mid-court forehand into the open court for a possible winner, Caro hits it right back to Serena, who pounces for a backhand winner down the line. 

Wozniacki still goes up 4-2, only to give the advantage back again. She tries a slice two-handed backhand that lands short; Serena is on top of it in a hurry, whipping a crosscourt backhand for another winner. It’s a shot that Wozniacki has no answer for, just as she has no answer for the ace Serena hits at 6-6, and the deep return she comes up with on match point. 

There are, as far as I can tell, no words between the two during their handshake. The match said it all. Their friendship and rivalry had helped them both, on court and off, in 2014.


The Top 10 Matches of 2014

No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer at Wimbledon
No. 2: Sharapova d. Halep at Roland Garros
No. 3: Kvitova d. V. Williams at Wimbledon
No. 4: S. Williams d. Wozniacki at WTA Finals
No. 5: Wawrinka d. Djokovic at Australian Open
No. 6: Murray d. Robredo at Valencia
No. 7: Federer d. Wawrinka at ATP World Tour Finals
No. 8: Federer d. Monfils at U.S. Open
No. 9: Kvitova d. Kerber at Fed Cup
No. 10: Nishikori d. Ferrer at Madrid

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