The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Last week, Serena Williams won the WTA Championships and Juan Martin del Potro continued his fine post-U.S. Open form.
Serena Williams: A-plus. What’s left to say about Serena Williams? At 32, she put together the most consistent season of her career, one that actually left her wanting more. With a 78-4 record, capped by a title at the WTA Championships, Williams posted the tour’s highest single-season winning percentage since 1989. She won a career-high 11 titles and earned a women’s record of $12.4 million. Her most frustrating losses came to Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, where Williams was nursing ankle and back injuries, and to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of Wimbledon, where Lisicki played lights out on her best surface.
Most impressive is how mentally strong Williams remained all year. Unlike her other dominant seasons, there were no bad losses this year, no weeks in which she seemed like she wanted to do anything but swing her racket and no moments when she seemed to happily lose if it meant she could earn herself a break. Last week, Williams could have easily folded against Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals, when she confessed to hitting a wall the night before, and with the way Li Na played in the final, Williams would have been forgiven if she allowed her mind to wander about her vacation plans.
Instead, she battled and bullied her way back into both matches to win the WTA Championships for the fourth time. This is the Serena Williams so many have wanted to see for a full season: healthy, hungry and committed. If she can find a way to maintain that level of motivation, 2014 could be a record breaker.
Li Na: A. After playing some of her best tennis of the year in the first set of the WTA Championships final against Williams, she simply ran out of gas. However, her consistent season and her improved mental fortitude gave her the ability to focus on her season-long goal of finishing No. 3 in Istanbul. And, in her second-to-last match of the season, she clinched that ranking, becoming the highest-ranked Asian player in tennis history.
The best thing that comes out of this (I hope) is that the 31-year-old stops making casual jokes about retiring soon. Much like Williams, she just had one of the best seasons of her career, and she’s enjoying the challenge of adding more dimensions to her game.
Juan Martin del Potro: A. Del Potro sustained the great form he’s showed this fall to beat Roger Federer in the final of the Swiss Indoors for the second year in a row. The 25-year-old Argentine matched his career high of four titles in a year, set in 2008 and equaled in 2012. I’m already looking forward to what he might be able to do at the ATP World Tour Finals next week.
Roger Federer: B-plus. Federer wanted this Swiss Indoors title, and not just because it would have qualified him for the ATP World Tour Finals, given him his first hard-court title of the season and snapped his seven-match losing streak to top 10 players, but because, well, he needed it. A loose game early in the third set spelled doom in the final, but overall it was a positive week for Federer, who withstood the pressure of the much-hyped match against Grigor Dimitrov and backed up that straight-set victory with a good win over a game Vasek Pospisil in the semifinals. And to top it off, the Basel fans showed their support for Federer with this overwhelmingly long round of applause. That had to be a morale booster.
Petra Kvitova: B. Can Kvitova use her 2013 finish to kick-start her game? She closed the year by winning the Tokyo Open and reaching the semifinals of the China Open and WTA Championships, where she lost in straight sets to Li. Two things make me think 2014 will be a positive one for Kvitova: She’s already looking much fitter under her new fitness trainer and is intent on working even harder during the offseason, and she’s trying to get to the bottom of her illness issues.
Jelena Jankovic: B-plus. In a tournament filled with weary players crawling toward the finish line, Jankovic — the only woman in the WTA Championships field who hadn’t played in Istanbul before — was a dancing, smiling, laughing breath of fresh air. How many top players would say they had fun and enjoyed themselves after a disappointing loss to Williams? Jankovic was so upbeat that it was easy to forget that she actually won only one match all week, against Victoria Azarenka in group play. The spotlight suits the eighth-ranked Jankovic, and if she continues to commit on the practice courts — practice? We’re talking about practice? Yes, yes we are — she could rejoin the top five next year. The 28-year-old Serb is yet another veteran showing the kids how it’s done.
Grigor Dimitrov: B. Bearing the unwanted nickname of “Baby Fed” is tough. Having to actually face your namesake in his hometown is tougher. Dimitrov had his chances against Federer and acquitted himself well, leading the second set by a break before being overtaken. He’s done that a few times against top players this year, but it’s all part of the learning process.
Victoria Azarenka: D. It was a WTA Championships to forget for Azarenka, who admitted she was struggling with her motivation and then injured her back in her last match of the season. She could barely play out points, but she chose to push through the match partly out of obligation to the fans and partly because she didn’t want to give people another reason to criticize her fragile history. Azarenka and her team were right: It was a no-win situation for her from a public relations standpoint. But for a player who says she’s not too concerned with what people think, it was surprising to see her put her body at risk like that, especially after the hard-luck season she had with injuries. It was tough to watch.
Agnieszka Radwanska: D. The conventional wisdom would say a player hailing from Poland, where the harsh winters force players indoors, would excel on indoor courts. But in a week in which Radwanska went 0-3 in group play without winning a set, she conceded that maybe indoor courts just aren’t her thing.
Mikhail Youzhny: A. The 31-year-old Russian upset third-ranked David Ferrer 6-3, 7-5 to win the Valencia Open, his second title of the year. Youzhny picked up his first victory against a top-five player since 2010. At No. 15, Youzhny has his highest ranking since August 2011.
Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai: A. The WTA had to be pleased to see Taiwan’s Hsieh and China’s Peng win doubles title at the WTA Championships, given that the tournament moves to Asia next year. Something tells me they’ll be featured heavily in the promotional materials to drum up interest and ticket sales in Singapore.
Carlos Rodriguez and Patrick Mouratoglou: A. Credit to them for not only keeping their players motivated but also improving their games tactically. With Mouratoglou, Williams is thinking more about working a point as opposed to relying on her power. And the sight of Li’s stylish net play, which Rodriguez has stressed, had to bring a tear to the eye of those who long for the women’s game to feature more serve-and-volley and attacking play. They’re my candidates for coach of the year.
ESPN: D. Look, I know it was a heavy sports weekend. But Serena Williams is playing Li Na in the most prestigious WTA tournament of the season and it’s not even live on TV? ESPN3, TennisTV and illegal streams are great and all, but that’s a disappointing decision from a network so committed to tennis.
Istanbul: A. Hats off to you, Istanbul. It was a little chaotic for the players, but the crowds were big and engaged. From what I can tell, fans at home enjoyed Istanbul’s run as host. The event grew in stature under its three-year stewardship, something that can’t be said about the previous host, Qatar.