David & Victoria continue their countdown of the most egregious catlysts for bad tennis in 2014. Miss Part I? Check it out here.
4. The “Sand Lizard on Cement”
It’s hard to say exactly when Maria Sharapova’s “cow on ice” remark – made about her once subpar prowess on clay – entered tennis lore. But the Russian claimed another Roland Garros title in 2014, and based on several of her losses on hard courts last season, she might need to change her spirit animal.
Outside of the China Open in Beijing, a tournament she won with the loss of just one set, Sharapova’s 2014 on what was used to be her best surface was decidedly underwhelming. She lost two straight-set semifinals to Serena Williams in Brisbane and Miami in straight sets, but far more concerning was Sharapova’s penchant for flaming out in dramatic three-setters. Seven of Sharapova’s other nine losses on the surface came in a final set, and the alarms sounded early as she dropped matches to Dominika Cibulkova (Melbourne) and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Paris Indoors) after winning the first set.
She didn’t have much luck on the North American hard courts either; her losses to Camila Giorgi (Indian Wells), Carla Suarez Navarro (Montreal) and Ana Ivanovic (Cincinnati) were surprising, to say the least. Sharapova’s meltdowns in these matches were two-fold; not only did the Russian’s game fail her in the tightest moments, tallying large numbers of double faults and unforced errors, but she lost some of her trademark composure as well:
Sharapova’s season ended as limply as it began; her performance on the cement of Singapore was a microcosm of her season. She came out on the losing end of a three-hour epic against Caroline Wozniacki and was easily swept aside by Petra Kvitova, failing to advance past the round-robin stage for just the second time in seven attempts. Having won just two titles on hard court since 2012, the World No. 2 is going to have to figure something out if she wants to challenge for the top spot in 2015.
3. “This Ain’t Wimbledon, Boo Boo”
A player talented enough to win a Grand Slam title tends to be one that, barring injury, remains part of the larger conversation throughout the season.
No matter what, Petra Kvitova always keeps people talking.
But the talking points revolving around the Czech star often boil down to “Huh?” and *shrug*. ICYMI: 2014 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova began her year with a loss to World No. 88 Luksika Kumkhum at the Australian Open. For further context, this served as Kumkhum’s lone Grand Slam main draw win for the season. When Kvitova is playing well, matches are quick and effortless. When she’s not, she’s losing epically uncomfortable three-setters to Zhang Shuai on the clay courts of Rome. Her Emirates Airlines US Open Series was equally underwhelming, and though she won a title in New Haven, she was decidedly below her best under the Flushing sun against Aleksandra Krunic. The young Serb mixed up the pace while Kvitova’s only variety came in how the inevitable unforced error would arrive. Ending the year at the tournament she once won to put her a fingernail away from the No. 1 ranking, she lost two quick matches to players she can hit through.
No one can take anything away from Petra Kvitova. For better or for worse, that’s been her job.
2. The Injured Extremes
To play or not to play is rarely a debate an injured player argues correctly. Withdraw and have your commitment questioned. Play through the pain and the same goes for your sanity. The former is far more often an issue for the WTA, or perhaps more for those who criticize it. This season provided the tennis world with a long, hard look at the latter.
Top Brit Laura Robson played the Australian Open with a wrist injury, won three games against Kirsten Flipkens and spent the rest of the year off the tour, dropping as low as No. 929 in November. Once brashly unapologetic about her frequent retirements and withdrawals, the too-often tone-deaf Victoria Azarenka decided to turn over a new leaf in 2014, and took all of us wincing and smarting along with her. Playing through obvious pain in an Indian Wells encounter with Lauren Davis that drew boos from the pro-American crowd, the Belorussian proudly played through the pain for most of the summer, looking close to tears during a three-setter to an otherwise engaged Alizé Cornet.
She mercifully shut down her season in the fall, making way for one Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian didn’t appear to be playing through pain in Singapore, but through lack of preparation that had been interrupted by pain. Either way, the results weren’t pretty. At the expense of good tennis, this season may have definitively proven that there is little honor to be found in the “noble loss.”
1. The French Open
Much has been made about the ladies’ final at Roland Garros. While it proved to be some of the best tennis of the year, it was also the only saving grace left to cap off a lackluster two weeks. This one was too big for one person. So, we’re taking turns.
DK: It was only spring, but The Fall of Li Na had already begun, and she was taking hostages. Against the powerfully unaesthetic Kristina Mladenovic, this clunker of a first round combined two unpredictable talents for a predictably low-quality encounter. Go.
VC: Li’s opening round flame-out was just a sign of things to come, and the top seeds were on upset alert for much of the early rounds. One of the messiest women’s matches, however, went unnoticed despite dragging out over two days. Jelena Jankovic’s first round match against Sharon Fichman was postponed from Monday into Tuesday, but it wasn’t one to write home about. Pushed out to Court 7, the two combined for nearly 80 unforced errors and nine breaks of serve. Vamos.
DK: With the No. 2 out in round one, the draw looked even more wide open for top seeded Serena Williams to cruise to an easy title defense. An unsteady win over Alizé Lim foreshadowed the American’s lackluster form in Paris; playing against an inspired Garbiñe Muguruza, she had no answers. Even when an opponent is at her best, the 18-time Grand Slam champion has to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting to lose 6-2, 6-2, and this match was no exception. With Serena’s section wide open, the talented Mona Barthel looked poised to make a major breakthrough, only to play an even worse match in a three-set implosion to hometown wildcard Pauline Parmentier. Allez.
VC: When five of the Top 10 seeds at a Grand Slam fall before the fourth round, some less-than-impressive match-ups take center stage. No. 28 seed Andrea Petkovic was the beneficiary of this scheduling and featured on Court Philippe Chatrier from the third round on. Unfortunately for the German, she didn’t always showcase her best on the event’s biggest stage. In the fourth round, Petkovic took on Dutch qualifier Kiki Bertens as the only seeded player remaining in Li Na’s section of the draw. The match itself was patchy at best – with Bertens (35 W/48 UEs) and Petkovic (14 W/29 UEs) well in the red – and wasn’t without controversy. Davai.
Late in the third set, the former No. 9 got into two disputes with chair umpire Louise Engzell when Petkovic pointed to incorrect marks on contested calls. Engzell, who had an eventful Roland Garros herself, didn’t buy what Petkovic was selling, and while the German eventually won the encounter 1-6, 6-2, 7-5, she didn’t exactly cast herself in a great light in the closing games of the match. Bad tennis + questionable sportsmanship = no-brainer.
DK: No critical look at the French Open would be complete without a look at every match Maria Sharapova played from the second week to the final. To be clear, the Russian’s competitive instincts are beyond compare. There is something compelling about watching a competitor struggle beneath the burden of being the favorite. Against Samantha Stosur, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Eugenie Bouchard, Sharapova dug deep, and got the job done.
That doesn’t mean any of it was pretty.
For a player loudly lauded for her improvements on this surface, the would-be winner looked uncomfortable for large portions of the fortnight, having issues off the ground and on the serve. Falling to within mere points of defeat on each occasion, it was only because of that ever-present fire that she was able to turn things around.
The “Glamor Girl Wins Ugly” narrative is trite and overplayed, for Sharapova – certainly any athlete, male or female – has the right to play however they have to in order to win. The viewer, by contrast, is equally empowered by his right to recognize ugly tennis when it double faults him in the face. Done.
What moments didn’t make the cut? Sound off in the comments!