It has been a long season. Nobody can remember everything about. Not every title victory, nor every breakthrough performance, was deeply significant. But in Part One of my reflection on the 2016 WTA season, I pinpoint some of the key moments from the beginning of January through to the end of March. Three more editions to arrive in due course!
For me, the most influential moment of the WTA season was Serena Williams losing the Australian Open final.
Serena’s 2015 New York defeat against Roberta Vinci is one of those events that simultaneously feels so recent, and yet so distant. I was away for the weekend at the time (in Wales, the worst place in the world for mobile and internet signal), and I will not forget the shock of logging onto twitter and seeing the American in a third set. Before I knew it, she had lost a major-moment game she would never usually have lost, and then another, and that was it. Calendar Slam gone. Ambitions crushed. One of the greatest ever years in tennis prematurely cut short.
Some will argue that the American has never truly reproduced her powers since that loss. I would beg to differ. When she arrived in Melbourne for the 2016 Australian Open, Serena – who was sidelined from the exhibition Hopman Cup event – was fresh off a four-month-plus absence from the tour. Anybody else would have been so stiff that a quarter-final alone would have been a commendable showing, but not this wonderwoman. Ten months later, few recall that the four-time Olympic gold medallist stormed through her opening six matches for the loss of just 26 games. By this time, many were already crowning the 34-year-old Australian Open champion for the second straight time. After all, three-set dramas had become something of a regular for Serena over the past couple of years, and her 6-4 6-1 drubbing of Maria Sharapova (during the match that saw the Russian convicted for meldonium use) and 6-0 6-4 thrashing of Agnieszka Radwanska were anything but difficult.
But in hindsight, it could have been better for the top seed if she had lost early in Melbourne. For any other woman, the after-effects of no competition for 18 weeks would have kicked in a lot earlier. For Serena – after she had bulldozed through four women who could not hold a candle to her, and another two who she had always dominated – the discomfort showed against an unexpected Grand Slam final opponent, in her seventh match of the year. While many were, understandably, quick to praise shock champion Angelique Kerber after her maiden Grand Slam victory – seemingly desperate to point to life in WTA tennis outside of its queen – Serena’s statistics told the biggest story of the match. Hitting 12 winners to 23 unforced errors, she still only lost the opening set 6-4. But the damage was done. In winning a 6-3 second set, the American struck a mere five unforced errors – but 46 overall (even accompanied by 47 winners) did not live up to her usual major-winning standards. When Kerber served for the championship, an eerily calm Serena broke with near-ease – only to choke when the match was on her racquet.
Previously, Serena Williams has been recorded as saying that a Grand Slam really begins for her in the latter stages. She shakes off the rust against the lower ranked unknowns, and brings her vintage powers to blow away the elite. Statistics agreed with this. Prior to the first Slam of 2016, Williams had contested 25 major finals, and won a whopping 21 of them. Similarly, she had emerged victorious in 27 of 32 semifinals.
But the American’s wayward put-away on match point was a key shot of the entire WTA season. Because with it, Serena’s helmet of mental supremacy took a visible dent. Reaching the final was an achievement in itself, but it was not enough for the all-time legend. The Australian Open turned what could easily have been a three-Slam-winning season for the motivated 2015 Sportsperson of the Year into a disappointing campaign of stained records, absence and injury. Wimbledon would become her saving grace.
If Serena Williams losing the Australian Open was a massive deal, then the second most significant thing that happened to the WTA tour this season was Angelique Kerber winning it. I did not see this coming in any way, shape or form, and I have yet to speak with anyone who did. Entering the season at world no. 10, the counter-puncher was the consistent top 20 star who had once been forecasted for a top five spot, but was now brushed aside regularly by women far below her calibre.
Recently, Kerber’s countrywoman Andrea Petkovic provided some key quotes on the 28-year-old’s 2016 ‘transformation.’
“She stuck with the same coach, she did the same things,” the current world no. 1’s countrywoman said. “It’s always interesting to read the papers or hear the commentators say, ‘Well, she has changed this or that,” but in reality, the one thing she did was that she continued to believe in herself. At the moment, Angelique is the only player who is able to keep her level from the beginning to the end [of a match].”
It makes sense. In her Australian Open final against Serena, Kerber did not need to play lights-out tennis. Her strategy was brilliant: pulling Serena around the court with her varying depth of shot, angle and craft. Nevertheless, this would not have succeeded had the lefty not held full control of her mental game. She was contesting her first ever major final, and yet the German truly wobbled only once: as she served for the match. Serena’s own nerves forgave her, and it was a solid performance from the Brisbane finalist that would bestow her with key confidence for the biggest season of her career. In retrospect, perhaps the monumental moment of Kerber’s 2016 was not the one in which she claimed her maiden major trophy – but the one in which she saved match point in the first round of that same event. Her three-set survival against Japan’s Misaki Doi – keeping her goal of going deep at all four Slams alive – was the foundation that she needed for a greater inner victory.
But the continuing success did not come immediately. As many have forgotten how strongly Serena Williams started the season, few remember how Angelique Kerber went on a wander after winning Melbourne: losing three of her next four matches contested. View it how you will, but the new star’s immediate struggles came during the few months in which at least one of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka was constantly on the scene.
That brings us to the third most significant thing that happened during this season – and I must jump ahead of myself a little here. Rather than an occurrence on the court (but strongly linked to those events), it was Victoria Azarenka’s announcement of pregnancy. While the former world no. 1 shared the news after her French Open campaign met an early, injury-marred end, it remains important because of her stunning displays of power and dominance beforehand. This is one more situation in which we can only wonder what could have been. Based on her showings throughout the first part of the year, Azarenka could have been the woman to take advantage of Serena’s sporadic appearances – and could therefore have been the woman responsible for quelling Kerber’s good intentions.
Last season, Azarenka forged the beginning of a comeback from a 2014 campaign flooded with inner and outer turmoil. Her quality was hidden amidst an unrelenting string of tough 2015 draws, and this saw many underestimating her at the beginning of the new year. But with an ambitious and grounded team around her – featuring Wim Fissette, who had guided Simona Halep to much success, and Serena’s old confidante Sascha Bajin – the precise baseliner burst from the starting blocks in unstoppable fashion. Brisbane International triumph – which saw her drop just 17 games – culminated with a 6-3 6-1 dismissal of fourth seed Kerber, which shoved the German rudely under the radar. Carrying her fire to Melbourne – and virtually christening herself second favourite for tournament glory, as a result – the Belarussian was still yet to drop more than six games in any one match prior to her quarter-final showing. Therefore, the 6-3 7-5 defeat she suffered to Kerber soon after came as a shock to the system. It had two effects: building the German’s confidence, and crushing the two-time champion’s spirit.
Yet with the wind taken out of her sails, Azarenka took the opportunity to show herself a completely rounded champion. The 26-year-old does not have the slick power of Serena, the angles of Kerber or the many accomplishments of Venus, but she does have a brilliant work ethic, relentless fight and energy, and a head for the big moments. While she began the clay-court season at world no. 5, she deserved to be no. 2 – at least. Entering Indian Wells lossless since Melbourne, Azarenka became only the third woman to complete the Indian Wells-Miami double with victory in the second Premier mandatory tournament of the season.
Perhaps more impressive than her 12 straight match wins accomplished were the players the former prodigy had taken down. French Open semifinalist Sam Stosur, US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova, Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig, French Open champion Garbine Muguruza and two-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber managed to win just two sets between them as they fell before the zoning force. But her win over Serena Williams – 6-4 6-4 in the Indian Wells grand finale – was the Belarussian’s most valuable triumph, following three failed attempts against the American last season.
When asked whether she considered herself to be the best tennis player in the world, Vika Azarenka responded: “I wouldn’t go out there and kill myself every day if I didn’t feel like that.”
Azarenka’s post-Melbourne rebound proved her one of the most dangerous, talented and focussed forces out there. She will forever be the question mark of 2016.
Of course, there were other prophetic storylines from the hard-court swing that opened the season. Melbourne semifinalist Johanna Konta – who beat Venus Williams in round one – capitalised on an opportune draw to prove that her late 2015 surge last season was no flash-in-the-pan. More impressive in the mental department as much as anywhere else, the Aussie-turned-Brit was kept under the radar by Kerber in the late-blooming department.
And those were not the only two women to make a splash at the senior end of the playing scale. Svetlana Kuznetsova had won her only two Grand Slam titles in 2004 and 2009, and has been a hot-and-cold presence ever since. Nevertheless, in just her second tournament of the season, Kuznetsova became the victor of the Apia International Sydney with a 6-0 6-2 drubbing of in-form qualifier Monica Puig. Unknown to us all at the time, her next few weeks of her season replicated months to come. While she still went on to lose to random opponents and flat out dash people’s expectations, the veteran also made noise on a big stage before the tour transitioned to dirt. Her run to the Miami Open final featured a rare win over world no. 1 Williams in round four: 6-7(3) 6-1 6-2. Serena was the three-time defending champion at the event.
But once again, Serena looked out-of-sorts against a playing style that did not pose any overwhelming threats to her own game. The 55 unforced errors went a long way to helping her Russian opponent to victory.
Out of the three players who – for me – mainly defined the current season, it was the 22-time Grand Slam champion who truly dictated the proceedings. Angelique Kerber beat Serena, Azarenka, and anyone worth beating almost before the season had reached its halfway point. But when you are as awesome and dominant a talent as Serena Williams, only she herself can truly stand in her way. That remains true – whether her issue is self-destruction, or physical-destruction. The earliest months of the season were scattered with injury and illness for the younger Williams sister – meaning she contested just three hard court tournaments in those opening weeks, compared to Kerber’s seven…
TO BE CONTINUED! Thanks for reading, and please leave your comments as to what stood out for you at the beginning of the season. Could Victoria Azarenka have stalled Kerber’s progress?