1. Wimbledon semi-finals: Sabine Lisicki beat Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-4, 2-6, 9-7
The WTA Fans’ Favourite Agnieszka Radwanska had hit No2 in the rankings after reaching her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon last year. But despite Radwanska’s credentials, she would have been very well aware that Sabine Lisicki’s best results were also at Wimbledon, with a semi finish in 2011. And here she was again, having put out three Grand Slam champions: Francesca Schiavone, Sam Stosur and the biggest scalp of all, Serena Williams.
Lisicki, with a smile and an attacking game that had stolen the hearts of Wimbledon, looked the more physically robust as they took to Centre Court. The slight frame of Radwanska had strapping around both thighs and knees—her three previous matches had been three-setters—but she assured fans: “I think there’s no limit to how much pain I have to feel to give up.”
From the first, their contrasting styles made this a compelling contest. Lisicki is an all-out, heart-on-her-sleeve player, with power serve and ground strokes, an eager net game and the kind of fast tennis that finds its natural outlet on grass.
Radwanska is a counter-puncher possessed of remarkable defensive skills, tactical guile, and disguise and variety in all departments. She can transition from sliced defence to forehand whipped attack in a flash, chase down drops and make angled touch winners or lobs at will.
The speed with which the first two sets were decided belied their quality. In the first, Lisicki made 12 points at the net, made 19 outright winners, and hit her serve at 122 mph. Radwanska countered with only two unforced errors and served at almost 80 percent accuracy. The only break came in the seventh game: Radwanska pulled back from 0-40 to deuce, only to have a net cord deprive her on the fourth break point. After an intense half hour, it was 6-4 to Lisicki.
The second set took only 36 minutes, but brought a complete reverse of fortunes. Radwanska began to manipulate her opponent into more errors, and after an exchange of breaks, she broke the Lisicki serve twice to level the match, 6-2.
Radwanska had made just three additional errors in the set, while Lisicki’s errors had soared to a total of 30. The German needed to refocus, and quickly.
Whatever pain Radwanska felt in her legs did not detract from her game. She chased down shots and placed her returns with wicked accuracy, and broke serve straight away to lead 3-0 lead. But Lisicki got a second wind, broke in the fifth game and pounded out three unreturnable serves to hold for 3-3. It now seemed she could do no wrong, and broke to serve for the set.
Then it was Radwanska’s turn to switch on the magic. She tracked down drops and made lobs with pin-point accuracy, earning a fourth break point with a bullet of a backhand return-of-serve. She broke to level, 5-5—and so the nail-biting drama continued until Lisicki broke once more as the set moved into its second hour.
This time the German made no mistake, taking set and match with her 26th winner of the set, her 60th of the match, 9-7.
It made her the first German woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Steffi Graf in 1999, but overcome by the occasion—and a fearsome Marion Bartoli—she was unable to claim the title.
2. Miami Premier final: Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0
Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams first played one another almost a decade ago: It was in Miami and Williams won in straights. Then came the break-out year for the teenage sensation: Sharapova beat Williams in the Wimbledon final in 2004, losing just five games, and again at the year-end Tour Championships, coming back from a set down.
But that was it. Since then, Williams had won all 13 matches, the bulk of them in the last two years. Sharapova had not even won a set since Charleston in 2008—until their return to Miami this year.
Williams survived a 15-minute battering, seven deuces and three break points in the third game, but was broken in the fifth. She struck straight back, but Williams’ serve was erratic, exposing her to the Russian’s first-strike tennis. Sharapova broke and served out the set, 6-4, despite trailing Williams in winners, 5-14—the Russian’s first set against the American in five years.
Williams—who had found herself a set down to Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth round, too—dug deep, cut down the errors, and refused to be bullied by Sharapova’s firepower. She broke to love in the second game, only to concede the break back in a tense, error-strewn third, and Sharapova produced two outstanding returns of serve—one on the forehand, the next on the backhand—to break again. Now though Williams regained her focus with an almost zen-like calm, to break not just in the sixth game but in the eighth as well, and served out the set, 6-3.
The question was whether Sharapova could find enough, and consistently, to counter the Serena surge, and she certainly gave it her all. But Williams hustled and attacked to break immediately, and even a foot-fault on serve did not ruffle her. She held, broke twice more, and finally let her emotion burst forth—a roared fist-pump—before calmly walking to her chair to prepare for the final assault. She served out the match with a resounding 6-0 to claim a record sixth Miami title.
These two would go on to play two more matches in quick succession, the last of them the French Open final where Sharapova was defending champion. In 2012, Williams had fallen in the first round in Paris and this time she was determined to make a point in what had become her second home since that shock loss. It was business as usual from Williams, and one more straight-sets win over Sharapova to take her first French title since 2002.
3. Tokyo Premier semi-final: Petra Kvitova beat Venus Williams 3-6, 6-3, 7-6
While Serena Williams celebrated her 32nd birthday in the afterglow of her 17th Grand Slam singles title and sealing the year-end No1, the spotlight was turning on another remarkable Williams, the elder sister who Serena has called her “inspiration”.
Venus Williams launched onto the tennis stage by reaching the final of the US Open as a 17-year-old in 1997 and would go on to win 44 singles titles, seven of them Majors. But in 2011, Venus was hit by a succession of health problems that seemed destined to draw a line under her long career. First a hip injury, then an abdominal injury, forced her out of most of the first six months of the tour. She played the short grass swing before again falling ill on the summer hard courts, revealing at the US Open that she had Sjögren’s Syndrome. She ended 2011, having played just four tournaments and 12 matches, ranked 134.
In 2012, she could not play until mid-March but showed, when she did return, that she was not ready to throw in the towel, and ended the year with the Luxembourg title and a ranking of 24.
But 2013 brought more obstacles. After a semi finish at Charleston in April, she arrived at the autumn Asian swing having made four first-round exits and winning just two matches as she wrestled with persistent back problems.
Come the Tokyo Premier, however, Venus strode back onto the big stage to reach the first Japan Open semi-final of her career.
Ranked 63, and thus unseeded, she first took out top seed Victoria Azarenka in Round 2. Then she beat one of the hottest players of the year, 22-year-old Simona Halep, who already had four titles in 2013 and would end the season with back-to-back victories in Moscow and Sofia and a ranking of No11.
Having come back from a set down to one young rising star, Williams battled to another three-set win over Newcomer of the Year, Eugenie Bouchard, in three hours of aggressive all-court tennis. She hit 43 winners and a record-equalling serve. The scoreboard flashed up 209 kph to match her own record.
However, when Williams returned, fewer than 24 hours later, to play 23-year-old Petra Kvitova, the 33-year-old American bore all the signs of her tough progress to the semis: strapping on her right thigh and her right wrist.
Each broke the other in the opening games before Williams broke again in the sixth in a terrific battle of powerful ground-strokes, net attacks and, of course, big serving. She took the first set, 6-3, but Kvitova turned the tables in the second, breaking in the fourth game to level the match, 6-3.
Just as in both their previous matches, it would take three sets to decide, and it seemed inevitable that fatigue, the central feature of Sjögren’s, would become a factor for Williams. Yet the final set could not have been more tightly contested, with the two on 74 points each after two service holds.
At two hours, Williams had 31 winners to Kvitova’s 23 but had converted just two of 13 break chances in the match, a stat she would rue as they headed to a tie-break. Kvitova found near perfect tennis to race to a 6-0 lead and she closed out the match, 7-2.
Kvitova went on to take the title but Venus would play and lose just one more match in 2013, leaving her out of the seedings come Australia. But as Serena tweeted during Tokyo: “If u ever think about quitting—just think about my sister…She’s the greatest.”
US Open final: Serena Williams beat Victoria Azarenka, 7-5, 6-7(6), 6-1
No-one who watched Williams surge back from her first-round loss at the French Open in 2012 to claim Wimbledon, Olympic gold, the US Open and the WTA title by the end of the year could doubt the competitive fire of Serena Williams. Yet how many expected 2013 to bring even greater focus, physical dominance and desire to win from the oldest ever No1 in women’s tennis?
By the time she began the defence of her US title, she had already won eight titles from 10 finals, including the French Open.
And Williams barely broke a sweat, dropping only 16 games in six matches, on her way to a rematch with Azarenka, who denied Williams the Cincinnati title a fortnight before. And again, the No2 seed would push Williams to the limit, coming back from a set and 1-4 down to force a second-set tiebreak. Although Williams served for the match, Azarenka held her off to take the set, 8-6.
In the third, though, Williams hit hard and fast, racing to a 6-1 set and victory in the longest US Open women’s final since 1980. It earned Williams the largest prize ever in women’s tennis, $3.6 million, it reasserted her superiority over No2 Azarenka, and it sealed the year-end No1 a fortnight later, on her 32nd birthday.
Not content with that, she finished the year unbeaten with both the Beijing Premier and the WTA Championships. She went on to say: “I have never felt better. I haven’t felt like this in a number of years. I’m excited about the possibilities.” Woe betide the rest in 2014.
Toronto Premier Round 2, Sorana Cirstea beat Caroline Wozniacki, 5-7, 7-6(7), 6-4
Halep was not the only young Romanian to burst into the spotlight in 2013. The 23-year-old Sorana Cirstea reached a career-high No21 in August courtesy of a remarkable run at the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
In a tough draw, Cirstea came back from the brink of defeat against No9 seed Caroline Wozniacki, saving two match points at 15-40, 5-6 in the second set, having lost the first, 5-7 And she did it in style, winning 15 points in a row to win the game, then the tie-break to love, and her opening service game in the final set to love.
She repeated her Houdini act at break point down in the third, 4-4, to win seven straight points and the break, taking a dramatic win, 6-4, after three hours.
The inspired play did no stop there. Cirstea went on to beat No15 seed Jelena Jankovic in straights, No6 Kvitova—winning seven straight games from 6-4 5-4 down, and No4 Na Li, 6-1, 7-6, having been 2-5 down in the second set and 4-1 down in the tie-break.
Her giant-killing run sealed her first final since 2008, only the third of her career, but she could not withstand Williams in the final, winning just two games, and she would win only three more matches in her six remaining tournaments of the year.
2013’s best bits: New and late bloomers
2013’s best bits: Young women make strides
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic wear it well
The year’s best men’s matches – Part one
The year’s best men’s matches – Part two
The year’s best women’s matches – Part one
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly