Sunday, December 21, 2014

Team USA Second-Half Awards!! Part 2: The Women

Go here for my men's second-half awards, and here for my women's first-half awards!

Top 10 second halves, over 18

1. Serena Williams - She had an exceptional half-year, winning Stanford, Cincinnati, the US Open, and the WTA Finals. Her only real hiccups were her shocking three-set loss to Alize Cornet...

...and the bizarre WTA Finals 0&2 beatdown by Simona Halep that she avenged a few days later, with her own lose-only-3-games win (thanks of course to Halep winning a fruitless second set against Ana Ivanovic...).

2. CoCo Vandeweghe - Look, she improved her ranking from #75 to #39, won her first career title in 's-Hertogenbosch (as a qualifier!), and had an amazing run in Montreal where she qualified and beat Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in back-to-back thrillers (involving tiebreak scores of 9-7, 9-7, and 10-8). She didn't fare as well in the two majors of the second half, or the first half, for that matter. She could well be seeded by the 2015 French, which might help.

Oh and she was one of three women to hit 300 aces this year.

3.  Madison Keys - She won her first title, on the Eastbourne grass, and improved her ranking from #42 to a year-end #30. She had a couple of disappointments: her 6-7(7) 6-6 retirement in the Wimbledon third round vs Shvedova sticks out, as does of course her seemingly inexplicable loss to Aleksandra Krunic in the US Open second round (which didn't look quite as bad after the Serbian took out Petra Kvitova in straight sets in the next round). She ended the year with a high-profile hire of Lindsay Davenport as her coach, which will hopefully give her momentum going into 2015.

4. Venus Williams - She rose from #30 to #18 and reached two finals in French Canada, where she also tried her hand at curling.

She also participated in one of the matches of the year (see "most crushing losses" below) and had a big win over one of the greatest players of all time, who also happens to be her little sister (see "most exciting wins" below).

5. Alison Riske - Her second half was going nowhere - a less-than-outstanding grass season (where she usually shines) and a really bad North American hard court swing featuring only two wins. Then Asia came, and she may have hit her low point: a second round loss in Guangzhou to #259 Zhang Kai-Lin. But then another Chinese wildcard might have turned her season around. Unfortunately, her good fortune came at the expense of 16-year-old phenom Xu Shilin, whose retirement at 46 64 66 (collapse) in the Wuhan first round seemingly took a weight off Riske's shoulders. She beat #12 Sara Errani in the next round, then after a loss to Bouchard, battled good friend and frequent doubles partner Keys tooth and nail in the first round of Beijing. She lost that one, but the following week, she won her first career tournament, in Tianjin, without dropping a set. Her win over teen titan Belinda Bencic in the final had to be the best moment in her tennis life. I certainly got chills.

6. Shelby Rogers - She didn't win a tournament, but her second half of 2014 was sparkling. She reached the final of Bad Gastein as a qualifier, beating Carla Suarez Navarro and Errani ON CLAY and then in Montreal double bageled local hero Eugenie Bouchard (with a 2-6 set thrown in for fun). She got to the semis of Quebec City. She improved her ranking from #169 to #73. And she was a finalist for WTA Newcomer of the Year. Pretty damn good stuff.

7. Varvara Lepchenko - Draaaamaaaaa queeeeeeen. She had a brilliant three-set win over Aga Radwanska in Stanford, then held match point in the second set against Angelique Kerber in the semis only to lose a heartbreaker in three sets. Then a third-set tiebreak loss to Aleksandra Wozniak in New Haven. After another three-set win over Aga in Seoul, she got a third-set tiebreak win over Christina McHale to reach her first final, which she lost in (of course) three sets to Karolina Pliskova. She ended her year in the quarters of Luxembourg where she faced #145-ranked qualifier Denisa Allertova. She won the first set, but lost the match 7-5 in the third. And that's why we call her L3pch3nko.

8. Jennifer Brady - In the first half, her UCLA Bruins won the NCAA championship with her at #2 singles and #1 doubles as a Freshman. She then played 10 North American ITF tournaments in the second half, winning 30 matches (including qualies), 9 of which came against Top 200 competition, and her first ITF title ($25K in Redding, CA). Staring the second half unranked, she currently sits at #219. She basically crushed it.

9. Nicole Gibbs - How can you not love Nicole Gibbs? Unless you're a jealous hater of course, and hey I respect that.  The former Stanford Cardinal busted into the Top 100, won the USTA Pro Circuit US Open Wild Card Challenge (USTAPCUSOWCC), then made good on that with a dream run to the US Open third round. And in Seoul she reached her first WTA quarterfinal, as a qualifier, with a third-set tiebreak win over Danka Kovinic, who had beaten her earlier in the year. It'll be fun to see her more regularly in WTA tournaments next year.

10. Madison Brengle - Honestly, part of me wanted to put Madison first on this list. Following a soul-crushing 36 63 16 loss in the final round of Wimbledon qualies to Tereza Smitkova - her TWENTY-FOURTH consecutive major in which she failed to qualify - I wondered if a breakthrough would ever happen. But she had an impressive summer hard court season, finishing second to Gibbs in the USTAPCUSOWCC and being granted a wildcard of her own to Flushing. Then she won her first career match at a major, against Julia Glushko. This fall she won the $50K Las Vegas tournament and won main draw matches at the WTA level in Quebec City and as a qualifier in Linz (then got a walkover from Ivanovic to reach her first career WTA quarterfinal). She ended the year at #94, a spot many thought she would never reach.

Honorable mention: Irina Falconi (186 to 112, Australian Open wildcard), Caitlin Whoriskey (555 to 324)

Incredible journey award

Victoria Duval - Duval started the second half qualifying for Birmingham and taking out Caroline Garcia in straight sets. Then she beat Marta Sirotkina in the first round of Wimbledon qualfying. Then she was diagnosed with Hodkin's Lymphoma. Then she won two more qualifying matches and took out Sorana Cirstea in the first round. Then she began treatment. Then she made her Top 100 debut (thanks to her Wimbledon wins). And now she's back on court, preparing for 2015.

There are no words.

Top 5 second halves, 18 & under

1. CiCi Bellis - She won the USTA Girls 18s (at 15!) over a talented field and then used that wildcard to shock the world with a dramatic three-set win over Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of the US Open. She then won back-to-back $25K pro titles to rocket to #254 in the world (she started the second half in the 1200s), and to top it off, ended the year as the ITF #1 junior girl, only the second American to accomplish that in the last 30 years. Yeah, so: Bam.

2. Taylor Townsend - The ITF #1 junior girl from two years ago followed up her excellent first half with qualifying runs in DC and Cincinnati (and winning a main draw match at both) and peaking at #102 in the rankings. But she's really this high thanks to her dream run with fellow Chicagoan Donald Young (wooo Chicago!) to the US Open mixed doubles semis. That was fun, while it lasted.

3. Katerina Stewart - The 17-year-old started the second half with back-to-back titles in $10Ks and won a round in US Open qualies. She jumped 300 spots. And she made a big splash in the US Open Juniors, with a brash run to the semifinals including a 1&1 win over the 12th seed.

Chirico with Sanaz Marand in Quebec City.
(c) Jonathan Kelley
4. Louisa Chirico - She started the second half with 9 straight wins at $25Ks in Italy, followed by a quarterfinal and semifinal to start the USTA Pro Circuit summer. She also reached a semi at the $75K in Albuquerque and ended the year at a career high #183 - a jump of nearly 140 spots from her midseason ranking.

5. Sofia Kenin - It was a quiet second half for the 16-year-old Floridian, notwithstanding a nice run through Albuquerque qualies, until her last tournament of the year: The Orange Bowl. There she won six matches, including her last three during which she dropped only 15 games in six sets, and beat the world #1 junior in Bellis.  Winning the prestigious Grade A title was enough to get her onto this list.

Honorable mention: Tornado Alicia Black, Caroline Dolehide

5 disappointing second halves

1. Sloane Stephens - Won only 7 matches, played only one match after the US Open, finished the year out of the Top 35, and crashed out of the 2 second-half majors extremely early. We'll call 2014 a sophomore slump year. Here's hoping reconnecting with Nick Saviano will engender better results.

2. Christina McHale - Went 9-12 with 10 losses in the first or second round and one loss in qualies. Her best run was to the semis of Seoul, where ... well, just read "most crushing losses" below.

3. Melanie Oudin - She had a few nice wins - including one over Annika Beck at the Contrexeville ITF tournament and three third set tiebreak victories.  But she couldn't defend a bunch of points in the fall and ended the year with heart surgery. She seems to have a bit of a dark cloud following her, which makes her persistent sunny disposition all the more impressive.

3. Vania King - Played only four events, and two of them ended in retirement. Fortunately, the other two events were majors at which she was able to pocket a cool $100,000 by winning just one match.

5. Julia Cohen - She's in the midst of a 17-match losing streak, with her last loss a straight setter to the world #1007. She started the second half at #237. She's now at #582.

5 most exciting wins

1. CiCi Bellis d. Dominika Cibulkova 61 46 64, US Open 1R
I mean, it made Deadspin. Tennis is alive!

Townsend & Koukalova at net
2. Taylor Townsend d. Klara Koukalova 63 46 75, Cincinnati 1R
I was there, so it made the list. TT started strong, faded in the second, and survived raindrops and some Koukalova falls to avenge her loss at Wimbledon. It was lovely seeing her power and aggression up close. And I like to think my hooting, not to mention my hollering, helped get her over the line. Then she stuck around and signed autographs for everyone and took photos with everyone. It was sweet.

Muhammad waiting to return serve
3. Asia Muhammad d. Johanna Konta 62 67(0) 76(4), Quebec City 1R
I was there, too, so it made the list, too. And in this case, I'm pretty sure Konta actually complained to the umpire about my yell on match point (it was after she struck the ball, which went long). Regardless, it was gutty stuff from the American. She played terrific in her subsequent match, as well - a crazy 76(5) 67(2) 76(5) loss to Rogers that took nearly three hours.

4. Venus Williams d. Serena Williams 67 62 63, Montreal SF
Serena's greatest rival remains her sister. And this match brought Venus' career win total against Serena to a special number - ELEVEN.

(That's the name of her clothing line FYI.)

5. Madison Brengle d. Lucie Hradecka 76(3) 67(4) 63, Linz 2RQ
Brengle's first round win over Gioa Barbieri ended at 1:00 a.m. and this one went 2.5 hours. I only followed the scores, but boy was it a roller coaster. Brengle was down 0-4 in the first set to the hard-hitting Czech but came back to take it in a tiebreak. Then in the second set, Brengle was up two breaks at 3-0, served for the set at 5-4 and 6-5, and was up two minibreaks in the tiebreak, only to lose it. In the third, Brengle was down 1*-3 0-30 ... then held and won the final four games.

The next day she qualified, winning from a set down vs. Sasnovich; then she upset Irina-Camilia Begu 75 31 (ret.); finally, she got the benefit of a walkover from Ivanovic to reach her first career quarterfinal. I like to think she earned that "luck" by way of her work in qualies.

Honorable mention: Shelby Rogers d. Asia Muhammad in 3 tiebreak sets in Quebec City (would be higher, but tbh I was rooting for Asia); Rogers d. Genie Bouchard 60 26 60, Quebec City 2R

5 most crushing losses

1. Sloane Stephens l. Johanna Larsson 75 46 26, US Open 2R
Stephens demolished Annika Beck in the first round and looked to be in cruise control against the 96-ranked Swede, up a set and 3-0. But dang it if she didn't mishit her way out of the second set, and then lost the last 6 games of the match, leading to this ... evaluation ... from Courtney Nguyen in Sports Illustrated. Stephens played one more match - a three set loss to #73 Silvia Soler-Espinosa in Guangzhou - then shut her season down citing injury.

And Larsson lost to Jankovic in the next round, winning 1 game in the process.

2. Christina McHale l. Varvara Lepchenko 63 16 67(5), Seoul SF
As awesome as it was to see Lepchenko make her first career final at age 28, McHale fans hated to see it happen like this. McHale went up 3*-0  in the third and had match point, but the lefty came out the victor. McHale would go on to lose her final 3 matches of 2014, with the last one coming to #93 Luksika Kumkhum in Osaka.

2. Venus Williams l. Petra Kvitova 75 67(2) 57, Wimbledon 3R
Petra baked 3 bagels and 2 breadsticks during the fortnight. But Venus gave her quite the tussle. Kvitova needed all 48 of her winners to get past the veteran. Could Venus have won her first post-Sjogren's diagnosis major had she emerged the victor? It's impossible to say. But Petra's next four opponents were Peng Shuai, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, Lucie Safarova, and Eugenie Bouchard. Not exactly Murderer's Row.

4. Maria Sanchez l. Gabriela Dabrowski 46 62 67(7), Toronto $50K F
I mean, awesome for the Canadian, who won her first singles title, and in her native province no less. But Sanchez has been struggling to get back to her near-Top 100 form of 2013. And she was up 5-2 in the third, serving for the match at 5-3. And she was up 5-2 in the tiebreak. And had a match point. Rough.

At least the former USC Trojan got a win over Dabrowski in doubles, a thrilling 75 46 [15-13] final with Taylor Townsend that helped her reach a year-end #79 in the doubles rankings, her career high.

5. Asia Muhammad l. Ellie Halbauer 63 57 06, Macon $50K 2R
Again, hooray for the winner, a 17-year-old American who had upset Conny Perrin in the first round. But Muhammad, who had a terrific win over top seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, was up 63 53 and had a great path to the final. 10 games later, it was all over. Brutal.

Muhammad played two more matches to close out the season, both losses.

Honorable mention: Lepchenko l. Angelique Kerber 64 67(4) 62, Stanford SF (was up 5-2 in the second set); V. Williams l. Errani 06 60 67(5), US Open 3R (shhhh!) (Venus served for it at 5-3); Grace Min l. Louisa Chirico 67(6) 75 57, Captiva Island 2R (Min would've broken into the Top 100); Stephens l. Jankovic 76(7) 46 67(4), Montreal 2R.

Breakout performance
Nicole Gibbs, US Open. In the first round, she beat 2014 first-half breakout star Garcia in three sets. In the second round, she overcame a devastating 8-6 second-set tiebreak loss to take out Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-3 in the third. Though she subsequently lost to Flavia Pennetta 4&0, she showed the world she has moxie to spare, and plenty of game as well.

Honoroble mention: Vandeweghe, 's-Hertogenbosch; Keys, Eastbourne; Min, Bad Gastein

Most improved
Shelby Rogers. She really did have a dreadful first half of the season. But then she turned on the burners in Bad Gastein, got 7 wins in French Canada (including one over #8 Bouchard), and beat world #21 Cornet in Washington, DC. Her fitness seemed much improved, and her power game was devastating (when on).

Comeback playerS of the second half 
Alexa Glatch. YAYAYAYAYAY! Not only did the 25-year-old come back in September from a year-plus-long absence, but she picked up some points (ending the year at #605) and had some other near wins, including a three setter vs. fellow comeback kid Nicole Vaidisova and a third set tiebreak loss to eventual finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia at her final 2014 event, an ITF tournament in Mexico.

Edited to add: Nadja Gilchrist. Many thanks to Stefano Berlincioni for reminding me that Gilchrist's story was an impressive story. Her big tournament came in the first half - returning from six YEARS out of professional tennis (in college, like our male comeback player, at Georgia for four of those years) she qualified for and reached the final of the $10K in Sumter, SC. In the second half, she continued to play well, earning enough points to get a ranking (#1050) and then methodically working her way up to her current ranking of #578. She reached the Winnipeg $25K semis and for the first time successfully qualified for a $50K in her last tournament, in Saguenay.

Honorable mention: Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Best Soap Opera plot
Gonna go with Sloane and Jack. Are they or aren't they, basically. With some birth control/private parts discussion tossed in!

Injured reserve - Jamie Hampton, Allie Kiick, Jessica Pegula, Vania King, Victoria Duval.

Farewell - Mallory Burdette, who announced her retirement in October. Here's the announcement. Sad but I have no doubt she'll be successful in her endeavors.

Special farewell - Elena Baltacha. Just devastating.

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