Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best (Women's) Tennis Matches of 2011

Here are my picks for the "best" (or most memorable) tennis matches by women in 2011. These are basically the matches that had the most impact on me while they were occurring, feature some of the best play or most amazing shots, had the most impact on the rest of the tennis season or are matches that I would most likely to watch again in the future. You can see my previous lists: Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2011Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2010Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2009 and Best Men's Tennis Matches of 2006. (There were no men's lists in 2007 and in 2008 I was too busy with post-Proposition 8 activities to compile Men or Women.) I have also compiled lists of the Best Women's Tennis Matches for 2005200620072009 and 2010. These can all be accessed at my Tennis tab which also contains my coverage of the four major tournaments.

1. F. Schiavone ITA d. S. Kuznetsova RUS, 6-4 1-6 16-14, 2011 Australian Open 4th Round, Melbourne.
Less than one year after the longest men's match of all time enthralled the entire world (and not just fans of tennis or sports) the longest women's grand slam match of all time occurred in the 4th round of Asia-Pacific's major tournament to very little acclaim or notice (by anyone but hardcore tennis fans). 2-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova faced the reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in a mind-boggling battle of wills and fitness which lasted 4 hours and 44 minutes. Schiavone saved 6 match points in the 3-hour long final set and needed 3 match points of her own before finally prevailing to win 6-4 1-6 16-14. Kuznetsova was coming off one of her most satisfying wins by defeating her bete noire Justine Henin the round before, setting events in motion which would lead to that 7-time major champion announcing her (second) retirement soon afterwards. Anyway, back to the best women's match of 2011. The tennis (especially the last 80 minutes or so) was of an extremely high quality, with both players refusing to give an inch and pushing their bodies to their physical limits as they battled on and on and on for nearly 5 hours. Kuznetsova served for the match twice and repeatedly broke Schiavone when the Italian was serving for the match in the seemingly interminable 3rd set and although the 6 match points the Russian lost would seem to confirm her reputation for mental frailty, the reality is that the majority of these points were on Schiavone's serve and the Italian played some of her gutsiest tennis when she had her back against the wall. After multiple opportunities were squandered, the 30-year-old was able to come back from 0-30 down in the final game and execute a surprise serve-and-volley tactic to win the last point of this emotionally taut contest at the net with a crisp volley into the open court, demolishing her good friend Kuznetsova's hope for a good start to the year.

2. N. Li CHN d. F. Schiavone ITA, 6-4 7-6(0), 2011 French Open final, Paris.
The fact that a woman from a country with over 1 billion citizens was able to indelibly add her name to the tennis history books by winning her first major title is the single most important thing to happen this year that will impact the future of the sport. Amazingly, Li Na was appearing in her second consecutive major final, and ended up being the only player who was able to reach two major finals in 2011. Faced with the wily defending champion from Italy, the hard-hitting player from China was able to harness her power and control her emotions as she played the match of her life with the hopes and dreams of tens of millions of people hanging on every swing of her racquet. Schiavone showed that her win over the much-vaunted Australian Samantha Stosur the year before was no fluke by nearly repeating that feat this year. However this time Schiavone faced a player who used the experience gained from losing one major final to avoid repeating that result and instead successfully reached her goal while playing excellent, exciting tennis. Li played a tactically flawless match until she was about 2 games away from winning her first major and then she got a little nervous and let Schiavone back in the match. A controversial line call almost led to a set point for Schiavone, but instead she found herself in a tiebreak where her game completely unraveled against the Chinese barrage of pin-point accurate groundstrokes and she relinquished her major title with grace and style.

3. P. Kvitova CZE d. M. Sharapova RUS6-3 6-4, 2011 Wimbledon final, London.
Kvitova had been on the list of up-and-coming players to watch for quite awhile, having become the lowest ranked player (#143) ever to beat Venus Williams way back in 2008 and breaking through to lose a surprisingly taut 2-set semifinal encounter with eventual champion Serena Williams at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. Just one year later, Kvitova demolished the 3-time major champion Maria Sharapova relatively easily in the young Czech's very first major final appearance. It was a glittering performance, surprising to some, but not to anyone like myself who had been closely following the trajectories of thew two players through the tournament. Sharapova was constantly having serving issues throughout the tournament, usually winning matches with double fault totals in the double digits. Kvitova, on the other hand, was playing her brand of high-stakes, go-for-broke style of tennis regardless of the score and was allowing her lefty serve and penetrating groundstrokes to sweep her opponents off the court. Sharapova was just her latest, but not her last, victim. 

4. M. Bartoli FRA d. S. Williams USA6-3 7-6(3), 2011 Wimbledon 4th round, London.
 The 2007 Wimbledon finalist was facing the 4-time Wimbledon champion in only Serena's 3rd event back after a nearly year-long hiatus from the sport in which she nearly died due to a freak illness. Bartoli is known as one of the most unconventional players on the tour, hitting her groundstrokes with two-hands on both sides and what can only be described as a curious service motion concocted by her coach and father. However, in this showdown with the most powerful player on tour Bartoli produced flawless tennis from every aspect of her game, repeatedly out-hitting the 13-time major champion on both the forehand and backhand sides. But it was the Frenchwoman's serve that was the true weapon. She had made the decision early on to go for both her first and second serves and it paid off. Her service percentage was incredibly high and her surprisingly powerful second serve was very effective. This match was one of the rare occasions when Serena Williams was on the court but the outcome of the match was not really dependent on the American's level of play, but would be decided by the Frenchwoman continuing to play some of the best tennis of the year until she won the last point of the match. 

5. S. Stosur AUS d. S. Williams USA6-2 6-3, 2011 U.S. Open Final, New York.
This result was one of the most surprising in a major final in the last decade. Serena Williams had won 18 consecutive hard court matches in a row, racking up two titles, including one won over this very opponent during that streak. Stosur was clearly playing some of her best tennis during the tournament, displaying surprising mental toughness by surviving grueling 3-set matches with Maria Kirilenko (which featured the longest tie-breaker in women's grand slam tennis) and Nadia Petrova (which featured the most number of games in a women's match at the US Open)Stosur had learned from the experience of famously losing the 2010 French Open final to Schiavone despite being heavily favored to win. This time Stosur was not favored to win this match and I believe this freed her up to play some of the best tennis of her career. Serena obviously was not playing some of her best tennis, her total of 5 games in a Grand Slam match is her lowest total in her entire career. The reason for this performance is still unexplained and remains a mystery. Personally, I think it is because Serena re-injured her foot during her semifinal beatdown of World #1 Caroline Wozniacki the night before. Regardless of what the cause for her listless play was, the match is now famous for another reason: the ridiculous decision by the umpire to dock Serena a point (and thus a game, since the incident occurred on a break point) for a verbal outburst during play which allegedly hindered her opponent. Even without that exciting (and controversial) moment this match would be memorable for the rare result of Serena Williams losing a major final and the very popular Sam Stosur finally actualizing her talent to win a major.

6. P. Kvitova CZE d. V. Azarenka BLR, 7-5 4-6 6-3, 2011 WTA Championships, Istanbul.
The very last competitive match on tour at the year end championships is often on the list of most memorable matches of the year because by definition the winner of that match is most likely to have an impact on the following year's tennis results. This year, Petra Kvitova, the most improved player on tour this year (zooming from #34 at the end of 2010 to #2 at the end of 2011) won the year-end championship by culminating her astonishing 18-match indoor winning streak with a hard-fought 3-set win over Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. The match was also one of the more exciting encounters on tour all year long. The Czech powerhouse rolled to a quick 5-0 lead in the first set, blasting powerful winners into all four corners of the court. Then, surprisingly, Azarenka was able to slowly crawl her way back into the match as Kvitova's balls started having difficulty landing in the court. Eventually Azarenka was able to even the first set at 5-all by winning five games in a row but then ended up losing the set as Kvitova was able to rein in her errors at precisely the right moment. In the second set, Azarenka got pretty lucky when she went for broke on her first set point and painted the sideline for a winner, evening the match at 1 set each. After saving two breakpoints in the first game of the third set and eventually holding serve, Kvitova never looked back and eventually wracked up an insurmountable lead which she maintained easily to win her second million-dollar plus payday of the year, but it is very likely there will be many more such days in her future. Kvitova is "the real deal," joining Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova as one of the rare players to win the year-end championships in her debut at the tournament. Azarenka, too, should be pleased with her performance in Istanbul because she was finally able to reach the final of a very important tournament, and this should bode well for her goal of becoming a major champion in 2011.

7. S. Lisicki GER d. N. Li CHN, 3-6 6-4 8-6, 2011 Wimbledon 3rd Round, London.
This match featured some of the most dramatic moments and best tennis at Wimbledon this year. Lisicki had won one of the grass-court warm-up tournaments and received a wild card entry into Wimbledon by the All-England Lawn Tennis Club's seeding committee after she handwrote a personal plea to the committee because her ranking had plummeted due to a serious injury. Li was a newly crowned Grand Slam champion and has often had good results on this surface as well. She won the first set relatively easily and had 2 match points on Lisicki's serve at 4-5 in the third set when an astonishing thing happened: the German player served 4 consecutive service winners (including two aces) to hold serve and completely even the match at 5-all. It was one of the gutsiest serving performances of the year and immediately hurtled this match into the top tier for the year. Wimbledon, famously, does not have a tie-break in the deciding set and so the match would have to end after a service break. What followed was a tense contest of will and nerve which Li lost when she lost her serve and Lisicki was able to call upon her excellent nerves (and serves) again to serve out the match and eventually reach the semifinals (where she would lose to Sharapova).

8. S. Williams USA d. V. Azarenka BLR, 6-1 7-6(5), 2011 U.S. Open 3rd Round, New York. 
When the draw for the 2011 US Open came out this showdown between the recovering 13-time major champion and the World's #4 ranked player was quickly identified as likely to be one of the best matches of the tournament. Surprisingly, the actual contest easily matched (and perhaps surpassed) these mouth-watering expectations. What resulted was a clinic on "Big Babe" tennis as both players pounded the balls into the far reaches of the court and demonstrated their spectacular defensive and offensive skills to produce extended rallies. In the first set there was really not much that Vika could do to get the ball past Serena and she was actually pretty lucky to win the one game she did. In the second set it was pretty much a lot of the same, with Serena managing to break in the seventh game and hold in the 8th to go up 6-1 5-3 when suddenly things started to get verrry interesting. Azarenka was able to hold her serve in that game despite looking straight into the jaws of defeat at triple match point at 0-40, forcing Serena to try to serve out the match at 5-4. Amazingly, despite having a match point on her own serve, Serena was broken and suddenly the 2nd set was completely even and the momentum had completely shifted to the higher ranked player. Despite needing 3 deuces, Azarenka was able to hold her service game, pushing her nose ahead in the set for the first time to 6-5. A quick hold by Serena resulted in a tiebreaker which was a must win for Azarenka. Unfortunately for her, Serena was able to reach her 5th match point at 6-5 in the tiebreak and win the match due to one more error by her opponent.

9. K. Clijsters BEL d. N. Li CHN, 3-6 6-3 6-3, 2011 Australian Open final, Melbourne.
Kim Clijsters had won three U.S. Open titles (2005, 2009 and 2010) and appeared in 4 other major finals but had never been able to actually win the title at any other major except for in New York. This was always somewhat surprising since she is almost universally loved in Australia due to her longtime (ended) relationship with Lleyton Hewitt where the locals have taken to calling her "Aussie Kim." With defending champion Serena Williams unable to defend her 2010 title due to illness, Clijsters was the favorite to finally claim her first Australian Open title, despite her #3 seeding. Li, on the other hand, was finally able to break through to her first Grand Slam final after reaching four quarterfinals and one semifinal in her illustrious career to date. She had had to get past the #1 ranked player in the world to do so, and she did it in a tough 3-set match while saving a match point. No one really gave the Chinese player much of a chance in this final  even though she had beaten Clijsters a few weeks before in Sydney (by coming back from a 0-5 deficit). So it was quite surprising when Li won the first set relatively easily and stayed even for the early part of he second set by trading service breaks. Clijsters calmed down in the last two sets and dug in, determined to get as much balls back in the court as possible and reduced her unforced errors, eventually leading to her first win in Australia. Unfortunately for her, Aussie Kim's brilliant start to the year was the best part of her 2011 as she did not win any other tournaments for the rest of the year and ended up skipping Wimbledon and the U.S. Open completely.

10. S. Kuznetsova RUS d  J. Henin BEL, 6-4 7-6(8), 2011 Australian Open 3rd Round, Melbourne.
The 2-time major champion from Russia had always had difficulty winning matches against the 7-time major champion from Belgium; Henin lead their career head-to-head rivalry 16 to 2 when they met in the 2011 Australian Open 3rd round where Henin had reached the final the year before. It was the first time the two  had met since Henin had "unretired" and in the interim Kuznetsova had picked up her second major title (the 2009 French Open). Henin did not play her best tennis in this encounter, but Henin had beaten Kuznetsova over a dozen times without always playing her best tennis so I'm sure she very much expected to win this match. Kuznetsova came out strong early and secured the break in the first set and nursed it to take the set without much complication. In the second set, Kuznetsova served for the match (twice!) but was broken both times and was forced to save multiple set points in the tiebreaker, which was one of nerviest and drama-filled affairs of the year. Losing this match was a huge contributing factor to  Henin announcing her second (and presumably last) retirement from competitive tennis. The departure of the 7-time major champion and the absence of the 13-time major champion Serena Williams led to the occurrence of four individual winners of the four majors this year.

A. Petkovic GER d. C. Wozniacki DEN, 7-5 3-6 6-3, 2011 Sony Erisson Open 4th Round, Miami.
N. Li CHN d. C. Wozniacki DEN3-6 7-5 6-3, 2011 Australian Open semifinal, Melbourne.
K.Clijsters BEL d. A. Ivanovic SRB, 7-6(4) 3-6 7-6(5), 2011 Sony Ericssno Open 4th Round.
M. Sharapova RUS d. A. Dulgheru ROU, 3-6 7-6(6) 7-6(5), 2011 Sony Ericsson Open quarterfinal.
F. Schiavone ITA d. A. Pavlyuchenkova RUS, 1-6 7-5 7-5, 2011 French Open quarterfinal, Paris.

S. Stosur AUS d. N. Petrova RUS, 7-6(5) 6-7(5) 7-5, 2011 U.S. Open 3rd Round, New York
S. Stosur AUS d. M. Kirilenko RUS, 6-2 6-7(15) 6-3, 2011 U.S. Open 4th Round, New York.
C. Wozniacki DEN d. S. Kuznetsova RUS, 6-7(6) 7-5 6-1, U.S. Open 4th Round, New York.
M. Bartoli FRA d. V. Azarenka BLR, 5-7 6-4 6-4 , WTA Championships, Istanbul.
E. Makarova RUS  d  A. Ivanovic SRB, 3-6 6-4 10-8, 2011 Australian Open 1st Round, Melbourne.
K. Clijsters BEL d  D. Safina RUS, 6-0 6-0, 2011 Australian Open 1st Round, Melbourne.
M. Sharapova RUS d  J. Georges GER, 4-6 6-4 6-4, 2011 Australian Open 3rd Round, Melbourne.
A. Petkovic GER d  V. Williams USA, 1-0 (retired), 2011 Australian Open 3rd Round, Melbourne.
C. Wozniacki DEN d  F. Schiavone ITA, 3-6 6-3 6-3, 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal, Melbourne.
N. Li CHN d. K. Clijsters BEL, 7-6(3) 6-3, 2011 Sydney final, Sydney.
A. Petkovic GER d  M. Sharapova RUS, 6-3 6-2, 2011 Australian Open 4th Round, Melbourne.
P. Kvitova CZE d  S. Stosur AUS, 7-6(5) 6-3, 2011 Australian Open 3rd Round, Melbourne.

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