By: Jane Voigt
It was the twenty-eighth of May, a chilly spring day in Paris. Only a few fans warmed the seats inside Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Serena Williams and Li Na had each lost in their second round matches at the French Open. Never before had the top two seeds lost that early in a major tournament in the Open Era. Later that day, Serena’s big sister, No. 29 seed Venus Williams, went down as well.
Venus at 33, Serena at 32, and Li at 32 represented the wise and worn champions. Serena was looking to defend her title while Li’s hoped to notch a second French Open title, a first since 2011. And yet, their draws seemed to be cast by youth advocates.
Venus had first faced off 17-year-old Belinda Bencic, only to quickly find herself across the net from Anna Schmiedlova, another youngster at 19, and be faced off herself. Serena, too, was torn down by youth. Although she initially eliminated French Wildcard Alize Lim, Serena was at a loss against Garbiñe Muguruza, a 20-year-old Spaniard whose style mirrored that of a familiar foe — Maria Sharapova. The score shocked the tournament.
Williams lost 62 62.
Li was at the other end of the draw, devastated by 19-year-old Kristina Mladenovic. The French phenom had been more prominent in the doubles field before this May day.
Most uprisings at a major, or any other sanctioned tournament, settle down quickly. Whoever engineers the upset usually loses in the next round. For the three teens that shut down hopes for Serena and Venus Williams, plus Li, the French Open was a red-clay carpet…an introduction to a career of possibility. Muguruza battled through to the quarterfinals, taking out Schmiedlova along the way. The Spaniard lost in the quarterfinals to Sharapova, a more determined competitor, and eventual champion. Mladenovic was successful for another round, but Andrea Petkovic stopped the tall Frenchwoman.
At Wimbledon, fresh thoughts rose about Serena’s mental and physical conditions. She certainly wasn’t playing up to expectations. She lost early – again – to Frenchwoman Alize Cornet. The loss blew against Serena like a bitter north wind. The American retreated, didn’t eat, only to reappear with Venus for a doubles match – a unforgettable moment when surprise met shock and concern.
Venus tucked the distraction away. She was at her favorite venue. Alas, she, too could not make the second week in singles. Her loss, though, to the eventual champion, Petra Kvitova, was arguably one of the best matches of the year. Venus would have wanted to win, but the challenge seemed to precipitate a change in her that would bloom later in the year.
By week two Li, too, was out of contention at Wimbledon. She lost to the resurgent and feisty Barbara Zahlavova Strycova, also of the Czech Republic. Li does not hide her emotions well. She refuted claims that her split with Coach Carlos Rodriguez after two years affected her performance, although they had called it quits on July 2. Over the summer hard court stretch more troubles were witnessed. Li withdrew from everything, citing her chronic knee problems.
Although Serena won Stanford, her big wake-up call was delivered by Venus in Montreal at Rogers Cup. For the first time in 10 years, big sister got the win in three marvelous sets of Big Babe, high-power tennis. Fan sentiment rose as Venus showed skills not seen in years, winning 67(2) 62 63. Somewhat tired, she lost to Agnieshka Radwanska in the final.
Serena hates to lose. If she wanted to make anything of her year, she had to get herself together and learn, as she had all her life, from Venus – her guiding light.
Learn, she did. Serena won Cincinnati. Serena put the pedal to the metal at the US Open with more vengeance for her very own the last Major title of the year, her 18th Grand Slam title.
She played with similar resolve at the WTA Championships in Singapore, but not before getting knocked about by the likes of Simona Halep, a first-timer to the tournament, and not until Caroline Wozniacki had the final match on her racquet. That’s when Serena, once again, rose from the ashes and fought as we all know she can, clawing, running, and stubbornly refusing to lose. The title was her third successive and fifth overall.
Serena Williams ended the year at the highest of highs, at number one in the world for the fourth time in her career. In less than two months, she had earned over $6 million USD.
Venus’s year should be considered a success, too. She made the final of Quebec City, after a third-round loss at the U. S. Open, ending the year ranked No. 19. She was ranked No. 49 during the Australian Open.
The news of Li Na’s retirement in mid-September didn’t come as a big surprise. The 32-year-old had had enough surgeries on her knees; she was ready to move on. She cried as did fans across the world. She remains a talented, spirited, funny woman that expanded the game to a continent crazy for sports and crazy for what Li had brought directly to them – a champion, a woman’s champion.
And what about our teen-age draw breakers from The French Open?
Garbine Muguruza ends the year ranked No. 21. In Melbourne that number read 35. Although she did not qualify for the WTA Championships, she was invited to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the “second tier” WTA end-of-year tournament where she lost in the semifinals to eventual winner Andrea Petkovic.
Kristina Mladenovic was not as fortunate. Her surge in Paris did not maintain the spark needed throughout the year. She sank over 20-ranking points, ending her 2014 at No. 81. Not to fear. At 21, she has time.
Anna Schmiedlova, now 20, maintained a consistent year. In Melbourne her ranking was 75. Today it stands at 73.
Alize Cornet can say for the remainder of her off season, and life, that she was the woman who defeated the year-ending number one and 18-time Grand Slam Champion Serena Williams three times in a season.
Follow Jane on Twitter @downthetee!