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#Tennisgiving (Part I): 10 WTA Reasons to Give Thanks

By Victoria Chiesa and David Kane

With another compellingly entertaining season in the books, TTI gathers round the Thanksgiving table, promising to leave you stuff with a two-parter of ten things we’re thankful for on each tour. Ladies first as Victoria and David profile the WTA horn of plenty.

10. Tennis music

First, there was Jay(ie) Z(heng). Next, there was Lorde’s “Tennis Court.” They say that art imitates life, and to kick off our second annual Tennisgiving countdown, we give thanks for this season’s music + tennis moments. Released three days before the end of this year’s Wimbledon Championships, a rap-pop masterclass by the Rich White Ladies was the song of the summer hardcourts. Name-dropping a who’s who in tennis from Venus and Serena, to Billie Jean King, the song is the guiltiest of pleasures. It even goes so far as to rhyme “Martina Navratilova” and “champagne supernova,” and you can’t find that sort of creativity just anywhere.

In the fall, we were treated to Ana Ivanovic’s “Shake It Off,” a parody of Taylor Swift’s chart-topping hit by the crew of Outside the Ball. What follows is a tennis-themed version of Swift’s iconic video.

It even got us thinking about pop songs *other* tennis players should sing.

9. The fountain of youth

We gave thanks for the breakthrough youngsters of a season ago, but it seems like the kids never stop coming. Led by Eugenie Bouchard and WTA Newcomer of the Year Belinda Bencic, the 21-and-unders had a very successful 2014. In total, they won eight titles, and all made great strides in the rankings. Eight players aged 21 or younger finished the year in the Top 50.

Yet, two of the most notable youngsters don’t feature in that group. Fifteen-year old Catherine Cartan “CiCi” Bellis, who spent a fair bit of 2014 as the top junior, announced herself in spectacular fashion this summer. A wildcard at the US Open, Bellis recorded her first WTA win over Dominika Cibulkova on a capacity (and newly built) Court 6. Although she fell in the next round to Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas, herself a young Rising Star, Bellis captured minds and hearts on that fateful day in Flushing. Not overawed by her triumph, Bellis won her first two professional titles at $25K events in October, and ended the season just outside the top 250.

Another honorable mention goes to Aleksandra Krunic, who reached the second week as a qualifier in just her second major main draw appearance. The Serb upset Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova, and her three-set defeat at the hands of Victoria Azarenka was one of the best matches of the year. She went on to pick up her first WTA title in Tashkent with Katerina Siniakova. Bubbling just under the Top 100, Krunic landed an off-season deal with Octagon. It remains to be seen whether Krunic’s US Open exploits were a flash in the pan or the start of something more, but whatever happens, we’re thankful for Krunic and her fingernails:

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 5.19.18 PM

8. Marathons

Covering a sport as all-encompassing as tennis hardly allows one time to zoom out on the athletic world at large. So leave it to resident “Sunshine” Caroline Wozniacki to shine a light on the skill she’s been trying to shoehorn into tennis for most of her career: marathon running.

Announcing a bid for the NYC Marathon not long after a professional and personal low, Wozniacki was inspired by this new challenge, and was determined to do her best for Team for Kids, the charity for whom she pledged to run. Where many had encouraged her to embrace more aggressive endeavors on the court, a commitment to marathon training turned out to be just the thing to pull her out of a two-year slump. Fitter and faster than ever, Wozniacki went on a tear during the Emirates Airlines US Open Series, testing friend and rival Serena Williams twice before meeting in the finals of the US Open itself. As the marathon drew near, questions about it were lobbed almost daily at the Dane, who was pleasantly surprised to have to put training on the back burner as she prepared for the WTA Finals. A week after another tremendous match against Williams in Singapore, Wozniacki finally took it to the streets, surpassing all expectations with a highly respectable 3:26 time.

Like life, a tennis season is a marathon, not a sprint; yet Wozniacki’s dramatic improvement looked to happen in the blink of an eye.

7. The WTA Finals in Singapore 

When it was announced that the WTA Championships would be not only moving from Istanbul, a city where it thrived for three years, but that it would be rebranded as the WTA Finals, many raised an eyebrow. The event landed in Singapore, marking the first time that an Asian city hosted the tournament since its inception in 1972. Much like its predecessor, however, a region with no tennis pedigree delivered a spectacular show. More than 129,000 fans came out over 10 days, and tickets for the finals were sold out a week in advance. The WTA’s innovations of Rising Star and Legends exhibitions also proved successful, and the debut edition delivered on WTA CEO Stacey Allaster’s “entertainment experience” vision.

While we sat here a year ago unsure of what Singapore had to offer, and thankful for the memories Istanbul gave us, we were pleasantly surprised by how fully the city embraced the WTA’s best.

Here’s to four more years.

6. Comebacks

“Once upon a time…” Every good fairy tale begins with the same line, and every good comeback begins with a different story.

The season began with Garbiñe Muguruza claiming her first career title in Hobart, in just her second event following ankle surgery. The Spaniard shut down her 2013 after Wimbledon, and no one could’ve foreseen how efficiently Muguruza would go on to start her comeback. She reached the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time in Melbourne, and followed that up with a quarterfinal showing at Roland Garros. She showed her versatility throughout the season, regularly competing in both singles and doubles. She qualified for the WTA Finals in Singapore alongside Carla Suarez Navarro, and also reached the semifinals of the Tournament of Champions in Sofia.

Also making a stunning return to the WTA in 2014 was Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky, who spent much of 2013 toiling away on the ITF Circuit, rebuilding her professional career. Bacsinszky started the year ranked No. 285, and she ended it nearly 250 spots higher. The Swiss had the best results of her “second career” in Wuhan, where she upset Ekaterina Makarova and Maria Sharapova en route to the quarterfinals.

Despite putting her personal demons behind her many years ago, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni never managed to capture the form that saw her rocket up the rankings in the late 90’s.

Until 2014.

The Croat was by far the most heartwarming story of the season, earning the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award. She reached the second week of the US Open after upsetting Simona Halep, advancing to that stage at a major for the first time in 16 years. Only two weeks later, she defeated Venus Williams to win the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, setting a record for the longest gap between WTA titles in the process.

American teenager Vicky Duval found herself up against an opponent that was stronger than anyone she’d ever faced on the tennis court. The 18-year-old was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during Wimbledon qualies, and after reaching the second round of the main draw, she ended her season to fight the illness. By late September, she was cancer free.

Strong-willed women overcame the odds in 2014, and we’re thankful to be able to tell their story.

5. Upsets at Slams

In the last decade, the women’s game became synonymous with “chaos.” The top seeds were almost never locks to reach the later rounds; young upstarts and resurgent former stars alike were always nipping at their heels. Since 2012, however, that narrative had begun to feel fairly antiquated. With Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka sharing the Slams and top ranking between them, a long-awaited air of stability had descended over the WTA Tour. Yet there were signs, even at the end of last season as Azarenka hobbled through Istanbul, that such a pristine ideal was not to last. Williams entered all four majors as the overwhelming favorite, only to lose before the quarterfinals at three of them. Sharapova gutted through a dramatic clay court season, but looked ordinary on the harder surfaces she used to dominate.

In their absence, the Rising Stars rose, big time. Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard each cracked the Top 5; veterans like Lucie Safarova and Peng Shuai found themselves as surprise Slam semifinalists. By the second week of nearly every major tournament, it was anyone’s game. One might be quick to charge the WTA with taking a step back, yet this season managed to represent the most balanced chaos possible. For every big name that bottomed out, another was left standing to hold the trophy aloft. We should be thankful that, though they came closer than ever, the WTA did not, in fact, cause a wrinkle in time.

4. Blood Pressure Monitors

Far from the world of The Real Housewives, where reunions feature scepters and bullhorns, the epic Cincinnati encounter between Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic featured an unexpected prop of its own.

It all started so simply.

Sharapova begins slow. Ivanovic dashes out to a set and 4-0 lead. A questionable call. A dramatic reversal. Sharapova fights back. The final set looked even more likely to follow the script when Ivanovic was suddenly overcome, bounding off the court before a Sharapova serve to call the trainer. The doctor took her blood pressure and in a flash, she was back(!) and ready to play. The decorum-favoring Russian was far from impressed by this abrupt non sequitur and struggled to find that competitive zen that has taken her through so many tough matches in the past. Irate at losing her serve on a double fault, she motions to her arm and yells, “Check her blood pressure!” The catchphrase was a battle cry to some and an obscenity to others.

Ivanovic went on to topple the Russian, claiming her first hard court victory over her nemesis since 2007, but the meme-able moment will be hard to forget:

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Photo: Christopher Levy

3. Li Na 

When Li Na defeated Dominika Cibulkova to win her second Grand Slam at the Australian Open, no one could’ve foreseen that the woman who began the season 13-0 wouldn’t see 2014 through to its conclusion. Few, save perhaps  maybe Mary Carillo, saw Li’s retirement due to ongoing knee troubles coming.

Her September announcement sent shock-waves through the tennis world. The WTA was about to commence its swing through Asia, a part of the calendar that wouldn’t have been possible without Li’s success. Instead, they had to face life without Li sooner than they expected. Rather than christening the Wuhan Open with her play on Center Court, Li made a tearful goodbye to the WTA in front of her peers and hometown fans.

While Li made the decision to hang up her rackets at the age of 32, one can’t help but feel like the former World No. 2 was taken away from tennis too soon. Missing months at a time with troublesome knees, she only became a consistent threat when she ascended to the world’s elite in 2010. In that brief time, however, she transcended the sport. She charmed crowds across the world with her off-beat humor, and brought tennis to places it had never been. While it remains to be seen exactly who will follow in her Nike-clad footsteps, we’re thankful for all she did for tennis.

And this. We’re especially thankful for this.

2. Alizé Cornet, Human Vine

In an era of ever more interactive social media, pictures have become old hat. Taking a page from a Hogwarts spell book, we want our images moving and yelling at us as frantically as we update our timelines.

Enter Alizé Cornet, with a catchphrase for every occasion. Feeling shocked?

Feeling Indignant?

Or just Feeling It?

She may only be No. 2 on this list, but in the hearts and minds of many she is the real No. 1:

1. The Williams Sisters

Tied for first place, the tennis world remains thankful – nay, grateful – that the premier stateswomen of the WTA Tour performed another successful season, where each continue to defy the odds. In their youth, few believed they had staying power, yet here they are, having outlasted nearly all of their primary peers, and showing very little signs of wear.

A “below-average” year for Serena still saw her outpace the field, capturing seven titles and an eighteenth Grand Slam crown, tying living legends, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. She who was once questioned for her commitment retained the No. 1 ranking the full season, and ended on a high with a fifth title run at the WTA Finals.

Big sister Venus didn’t reach the same dizzying heights, but she reminded us throughout the year just why she still plays her timeless brand of tennis. After roaring to a title in Dubai, she forced eventual champion Petra Kvitova to an insta-classic at Wimbledon. Unseeded and looming in Montreal, she upset two Top 10 players – including Serena – to reach her second Premier 5 final of 2014. One more final in Québec City guaranteed the Williamses end yet another year entrenched in the Top 20.

Some players chase history. Venus and Serena make it.

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  1. #Tennisgiving (Part II): 10 ATP Reasons to Give Thanks | The Tennis Island

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