Friday, December 31, 2010

Best (Women's) Tennis Matches of 2010

Here are my picks for the "best" (most memorable) tennis matches by women in 2010. These are basically the matches that had the most impact on me while they were occurring, feature some of the best play, had the most impact on the rest of the year or would be ones that I would most likely to watch again in the future. You can see my previous lists: Best Women's Tennis Matches of 2009 ,Best Women's Tennis Matches of 2007, and  Best Women's Tennis Matches of 2006.

1. S. Williams USA d. J. Henin BEL6-4 3-6 6-2, 2010 Australian Open final, Melbourne.
The finals of the 2010 Grand Slam tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S.) are often contenders for the most memorable matches of the year, due to the historic and reputational stakes at play depending on the result which sometimes (but not often) leads to high-quality tennis. The set up for this match was Justine Henin's return to professional tennis after a "retirement" of just over 18 months. The two had never been friendly and Henin had beaten Serena Williams in three consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals the last year they had met in 2007. Williams had won this tournament 4 times before (always in an odd year) and had never been able to successfully defend an Australian Open title. She had also had a near-death experience on her way to the final against Vika Azarenka; it was unclear if this would strengthen or weaken her confidence. What resulted was a match for the ages; Henin (inexplicably) decided to radically modify her game and go for broke on her return-of-serve and basically hit the ball as hard as she could whenever she had the opportunity. She also repeatedly rushed the net. Williams was placed into the unusual position for her of facing someone who was being even more aggressive on court. It was a high-stakes gamble for Henin which in one 10 minute period towards the end of the second set appeared to be paying dividends when the Belgian was able to win 4 games in a row (barely losing a point). However, in the third set Williams steadied her game and Henin's match inexperience with her own new service motion led to her downfall as the double faults and missed serves began to pile up, allowing Serena to win her 5th Australian Open title and 12th major title overall.

2. S. Stosur AUS d. S. Williams USA6-2 6-7(2) 8-6, 2010 French Open quarterfinal, Paris.
This was the match that decided the 2010 Roland Garros title. I am absolutely convinced that if Serena Williams had won this match she would have gone on to win her second French Open title. Amazingly, Williams actually possessed a match point late in the third set but hit an attempted winner down-the-line (instead of cross-court!) an inch or two long. Samantha Stosur had been widely regarded as a very talented doubles player but not really much of a singles threat at a major prior to this tournament. In fact, Williams had easily beaten Stosur in straight sets in Australia earlier in the year. However, in the 2010 clay court season Stosur had the most match wins of anyone on tour and her universally respected serve had become more of a weapon as her confidence increased in direct proportion to her match-win total. Always an excellent mover and possessing a great top-spin forehand as well as a both a slice and two-handed backhand, Stosur's Achilles heel had been her mental toughness. However, after beating Justine Henin, the 4-time French Open champion in the round before, Stosur showed that she had made significant progress towards erasing those doubts and took the rightful place her talent indicated in the Top 5 of Women's Tennis and a perennial threat to win major titles in the future.

3. K. Clijsters BEL d. V. Williams4-6 7-6(2) 6-4, 2010 U.S. Open semifinal, New York City.
A major tournament is always diminished by the absence of the #1 player in the world, even if they are not the defending champion. Serena Williams' absence at the 2010 US Open loomed over the tournament like the very dark stormclouds which disturbed play in the later rounds. Serena's absence led to speculation that it could help her sister Venus Williams to her best performance at a non-Wimbledon major tournament since 2003. Venus was not at her best physically but had a dream draw until she ran into defending champion Kim Clijsters after winning 5 matches relatively easily. The result was another curious showdown between Venus and Kim (but not as curious as 2009's 6-0 0-6 6-4 quarterfinal result) where the Belgian was able to come out on top by simply playing the big points better even though Venus basically dictated play for most of the match. Venus failed to respond to the call of history when the big moments showed up (2nd set tiebreak and 4-all in the third). Clijsters went on to win her 3rd US Open title in three tries and has a remarkable winning streak in New York dating back to 2005. Hopefully she can broaden her success to the other majors before she leaves the tour again in 2012.

4. K. Clijsters BEL d. J. Henin BEL6-3 4-6 7-6(6), Brisbane International final, Brisbane.
This was the first match that I saw in 2010 that I knew would end up on this list of the most memorable of the year. Despite their public protestations to the contrary, it is clear the "Belgian sisters" Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin do not like each other and that became blindingly clear in as this match progressed. Henin was playing in one of her first matches back on the tour, and Clijsters was coming off her 2009 US Open win. Clijsters easily won the first set and was cruising up 4-1 in the second when suddenly the wheels fell off and she couldn't buy a first serve or keep the ball in play. Henin, always one to take advantage when seeing an opponent in distress, easily won the 2nd set and was up a break in the third when Kim woke up from her "walkabout" and resumed playing high-quality tennis. In fact, the third set contained some of the best tennis played by any two women on tour all year. Clijsters came back from down a break (twice!) at 3-1 and 5-3 but fought back to take the match to a third-set tie-break. Henin was not done, saving 3 match points in the tie-break before finally succumbing. The length of the rallies, brilliant shot-making, and impossible defense were breathtaking and made this tennis fan very happy that both of these great champions had un-retired and returned to the Tour.

5. F. Schiavone ITA d. S. Stosur AUS, 6-4 7-6(2), 2010 French Open final, Paris.
No Italian woman had ever been in the Top 10 of the women's tour and certainly never in the final of a major championship. At nearly 30 years old, who would have expected Francesca Schiavone to lose the first set she played at the 2010 Roland Garros tournament and then never lose another, eventually holding the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen after outplaying a stronger, bigger (and arguably more talented) player in the final? But that's exactly what happened and the tennis world was the better for it. By winning Schiavone again demonstrated why we watch sports: you never know what could happen; impossible dreams can come true. Schiavone ended the year at World #7.

6. V. Zvonareva RUS d. K. Clijsters BEL, 3-6 6-4 6-2, 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinal, London.
This year's Wimbledon was an odd tournament for me because I was actually in London for the final 5 days of the tournament (but only had tickets to the men's final). Anyway, because of this I actually saw much less of the latter round matches than usual (but still predicted the winners with better than average accuracy). Vera Zvonareva had her great breakthrough in 2010 at last, when her other, more famous Russian contemporaries (Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva) either flamed out, wimped out or limped away from the court. That Zvonareva was talented was never in doubt; she's an excellent mover, has a world-class two-handed backhand and great hands at the net. Similar to Samantha Stosur, it was her emotional fortitude that had been tested and found wanting (her 2009 meltdown to Flavia Pennetta is legendary). Somehow, this year, on the grass of Wimbledon, trading backhand after backhand with Kim Clijsters, Vera found a way to play through the mental tumult by realizing the game of tennis is actually quite simple: just hit the ball into the court more times than your opponent. Surprisingly, it was the 2-time major champion who wilted first, handing the Russian just her second major semifinal berth of her career. Vera did not squander this opportunity and made it all the way to her first major final where she ran into an unstoppable force named Serena Williams. It's not clear that this tournament's winner was ever in doubt when both Williams sisters were in the draw, but this match at Wimbledon was a crucial turning point for women's tennis for 2010 when Zvonareva proved that she had reached the very pinnacle of women's tennis, ending the year at World #2.

7. S. Williams USA d. V. Azarenka BLR4-6 7-6(4) 6-2, Australian Open quarterfinal, Melbourne.
Serena Williams was down 6-4, 4-0 against the hard-hitting Victoria Azarenka when suddenly both players realized that Serena Williams, the 4-time defending Australian Open champion could lose this match. This realization had immediate and opposite impacts on both players. Azarenka started playing more tentatively (and was probably impacted by the fact that it was almost exactly a year before that she had had Serena in a similar position on this same court after easily winning the first set when Vika was forced to retire from the match due to the extreme heat). Serena on the other hand was enraged with herself and basically willed herself not to lose, slowly but surely making up the huge deficit against Azarenka point by point and game by game. Everyone watching the match was pretty convinced that the 2nd set tie-breaker would be determinative. If Vika won, the match would be over (obviously) but if Serena could come back to even the match score the mental and physical advantage would be hers. The tie-break was a taught, nervy affair but Serena was the more aggressive player and won the tie-break and went on to win the match. She was never really in much danger of not defending her title after that moment.

8. S. Stosur AUS d. E. Dementieva RUS6-3 2-6 7-6(2), 2010 US Open 4th Round, New York City.
The latest finish of any professional women's match of all time was an incredible slugfest between two great players who have never won a major title. This match was what Pam Shriver calls a "barn burner." On both sides of the net one saw world-class ground-strokes, excellent net play, incredible movement and mental anguish. Both players became tentative on their serve and both players blew leads which should have been insurmountable. This was really Dementieva's match to win. She broke Stosur impressive serve four consecutive times in the second set and in the third had a match point at 5-3 on her own serve as well as three more on Stosur's serve in the next game. Amazingly, almost all of these match points were decided by winners by Stosur who kept on going for her shots, despite being pummeled by powerful ground-strokes from the Russian. After that excitement it was only fitting that it came down to a 3rd set tiebreak, where surprisingly, it Dementieva's game which broke down first and she lost the match on a series of forehand errors at 1:36am.

9. E. Dementieva RUS d. L. Safarova CZE, 6-7(5) 6-1 6-4, Open Gaz de France Suez final.
In a curious twist of fate, Elena Dementieva won what was her last career tour title in front of Amelie Mauresmo, who had won this final hometown title the year prior to retiring at the end of 2009. This year it was Dementieva's turn for one last hurrah as she faced a determined Lucia Safarova who played "out of her head," aiming for the corners and regularly connecting to send winners screaming to the baseline out of reach of the Russian. There were some incredible, hard-hitting baseline rallies until finally Safarova's inconsistency caught up with her and she succumbed to the greatest player never to have won a major championship. I wonder who Dementieva will be watching win this title from the stands in 2011?

10. S. Williams USA d. V. Zvonareva, 6-3 6-2, 2010 Wimbledon final, London.
It's not very often that the Wimbledon final is not one of the top 5 most memorable matches in the final but that's exactly what happened this year. The reason why this match is even on this list because it was the very last match Serena Williams played in 2010, and it demonstrated how dismissive she could be of the player who ended the year ranked World #2 and had an envious second half of the year, with two consecutive Grand Slam final appearances, something no woman has done since Serena in 2008. There was never really any doubt who would win this match, or the 2010 Wimbledon title. Hopefully, Serena will return early enough in 2011 to make another impressive mark on the majors next year.

S. Williams USA d N. Li CHN, 7-6(4) 7-6(1), 2010 Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne.
K. Clijsters BEL d. C. Wozniacki DEN, 6-3 5-7 6-3, WTA Championships final.
S. Kuznetsova RUS d. A. Radwanska POL, 6-4 6-7(7) 6-3, Southern California Open final.
V. Zvonareva RUS d. C. Wozniacki DEN, 6-4 6-3, 2010 U.S. Open semifinal.
C. Wozniacki  DEN d. M. Sharapova RUS, 6-3 6-4, 2010 U.S. Open 4th Round.
K. Clijsters BEL d. S. Stosur AUS, 6-4 5-7 6-3, 2010 U.S. Open quarterfinal.
J. Jankovic SRB d. S. Williams USA, 4-6 6-3 7-6(5), Rome semifinal.
J. Jankovic SRB d. V. Williams USA, 6-0 6-1, Rome quarterfinal.
K. Clijsters BEL d. J. Henin BEL, 2-6 6-2 6-3, 2010 Wimbledon Championships 4th round.
S. Stosur AUS d. J. Henin BEL, 2-6 6-1 6-4, 2010 Roland Garros 4th Round.
K. Clijsters BEL d. V. Williams USA, 6-1 6-2, Sony Ericsson Championship final.
P. Kvitova CZE d. K. Kanepi EST 4-6 7-6(8) 8-6, 2010 Wimbledon Championships quarterfinal.

J. Henin BEL d. E. Dementieva RUS, 7-5 7-6(6), 2010 Australian Open 2nd Round.

1 comment:

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