In sports it’s rarely a good thing to be second best but that’s what the WTA tour has been about in 2017 with perennial dominatrix Serena Williams out of the picture giving birth.
Since Williams exited the scene in January after winning the Australian Open for the seventh time – her 23rd overall Grand Slam title – no one has stepped up to fill the void left by her absence.
With the year-end BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore now underway, there remains an opportunity for someone to make a final statement. But even at that, none of the top four players with a reasonable chance to win – No. 1 Simona Halep, No. 2 Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Elina Svitolina – has the 2017 bona fides to make a real claim on the No. 1 spot for the year. Each has obvious flaws on their resumés.
SIMONA HALEP: One of three players to ascend (for three weeks) to No. 1 in 2017, she won only one title – the Premier Mandatory in Madrid. The personable Romanian was a heart-break runner-up at the French Open after leading by a set and 3-0 in the final against upstart Jelena Ostapenko. She was also runner-up at Premier events in Rome, Cincinnati and Beijing.
GARBIÑE MUGURUZA: She made it to No. 1 for four weeks and took home the biggest prize of the year – the Wimbledon title. But she won just one other tournament – the Premier 5 in Cincinnati – and made no other finals. Her best finishes were semifinals in Brisbane, Rome, Birmingham, Stanford and Tokyo.
KAROLINA PLISKOVA: The third 2017 first-time No. 1 (eight weeks) among Singapore competitors, the lanky, power-serving Czech was a 2016 US Open runner-up but only reached one Grand Slam semifinal (Roland Garros) this year while winning titles in Brisbane, Doha and Eastbourne. Next best results for her were semifinals at Premier events in Indian Wells, Miami and Cincinnati.
ELINA SVITOLINA: The 23-year-old Ukrainian won more titles than anyone – five – in 2017 but her best Grand Slam result was a quarter-final at Roland Garros. Her victories came in Taipei and Dubai, as well as at Premier 5 tournaments in Dubai, Rome and Toronto (Rogers Cup). While she has been a consistent player over the whole year, her lack of success at the Grand Slams is a blemish on her overall record.
The topsy-turvy nature of 2017 is further illustrated by the fact that last year’s WTA Finals finalists – winner Dominika Cibulkova and runner-up Angelique Kerber – didn’t even qualify in 2017. Kerber, who held No. 1 for more weeks (17) than anyone in 2017, tumbled to No. 19 by year’s end, had an overall 29-19 record and reached only one final – the International Series event in Monterrey, Mexico in April.
Also missing in Singapore is surprise US Open champion Sloane Stephens, although her results since her triumph at Flushing Meadows – losses in Wuhan and Beijing to players ranked No. 55 (Wang Qiang) and No. 71 (Christina McHale) with a total of just seven games won – suggest she may not have been much of a factor had she made it to the grand finale.
Muguruza (above with Novak Djokovic at the 2017 Roland Garros draw ceremony) was named Player of the Year by the WTA, even if doing that before the year-end championships are completed seems foolish. But she does have the most compelling case based largely on the Wimbledon title, and helped by her Premier 5 victory in Cincinnati. A win for her in Singapore would go some ways to establishing a more credible WTA pecking order heading into 2018 and the return of the No. 1 in waiting – Serena Williams.
— Gaby Dabrowski (@GabyDabrowski) October 24, 2017
Gabriela Dabrowski and partner Xu Yifan of China are playing in their first year-end championships this week in Singapore. That’s coach Scott Davidoff way in the background above.
The pair finished eighth in the doubles race but moved up to seventh when injured Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova (3) were unable to participate.
Doubles at the WTA Finals is a straight knock-out event and Dabrowski and Xu will face second seeds and defending champions Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the first round. Should they advance they will play the winner of Kiki Bertens/Johanna Larsson vs. Ashleigh Barty/Casey Dellacqua in the semifinals.
The top seeds are Chan Yung-Jan and Martina Hingis.
For those unfamiliar with the phrase ‘annus horribilis,’ it dates back to 1992 and the horrible year that Queen Elizabeth II had – one ‘low-lighted’ by several embarrassments including her son Prince Charles having a messy separation from his then-wife Princess Diana.
There was nothing embarrassing about Milos Raonic’s 2017 but it was definitely a year filled with bad luck and disappointment.
He began it with high hopes after finishing 2016 with a fabulous performance at the ATP World Tour Finals in London where he failed to convert a match point in a three-hour-and-38 minute thriller semifinal 5-7, 7-6(5), 7-6(9) loss to world No. 1 Andy Murray. His year-end ranking wound up being No. 3 behind Murray (1) and Novak Djokovic (2).
But things began to go south at his first 2017 tournament in Brisbane. After he came on strong to overwhelm Rafael Nadal in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 quarter-final, he lost to Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals following an abbreviated turnaround. By then he already had a recurrence of a right adductor issue that had scuttled his chances a year earlier in the Aussie Open semifinals against Murray.
He reached the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park but lost 6-4, 7-6(7), 6-4 to eventual runner-up Nadal with the adductor still bothering him.
From there it was an escalating series of misfortunes – a right hamstring injury forced him to pull out of the Delray Beach final in February after defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the semi-finals. It basically – except for one match in Miami – kept him out until the clay-court season in May in Istanbul.
On the European clay, he reached a final (Marin Cilic) in Istanbul and won a match in Madrid and two in Rome before battling a virus while losing 7-6(5), 7-6(2) to Tomas Berdych in the Lyon semi-final.
He played some good tennis at the French Open and arguably had his finest performance of the year in the round-of-16. On his least favourite surface he fought ferociously before losing 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-7(6), 6-4, 8-6 in a high-quality duel with Pablo Carreno Busta.
The grass-court season got discombobulated by a outlier 7-6(5), 7-6(8) first-round loss to Thanasi Kokkinakis at Queen’s Club – a match where the Aussie never got past 30 on the Raonic serve but managed to stave off all nine break points he faced on his own serve, as well as three consecutive set points in the second-set tiebreak.
At Wimbledon, Raonic, later admitting he was already feeling a left wrist issue that would require surgery on August 23, was below his best but managed to reach the quarter-finals where he lost 6-4, 6-2, 7-6(4) to eventual winner Roger Federer.
The rest of the summer was compromised by the wrist as he won two matches in Washington before being beaten by Jack Sock in the semifinals, and was no match for Adrian Mannarino with his bum wrist at Rogers Cup in Montreal. After that he only played one more match the rest of the season – downing Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-4 in Tokyo despite not being able to hit two-handed backhands. He played just one game in his next match before retiring with a right calf strain against Yuichi Sugita in what turned out to be his final appearance of the year.
Raonic joined a group of players ending their 2017 year prematurely that includes Murray, Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Gilles Muller, Tomas Berdych and Nick Kyrgios. In fact none of the top-five from 2016 – Murray (hip), Djokovic (elbow), Raonic (calf), Wawrinka (knee) and Nishikori (wrist) – were able to make it to the finish line in 2017.
It seemed in the spring when Raonic found some form through the clay-court season and into the grass tournaments that he had overcome the lower-body issues, which was encouraging. But the calf problem three weeks ago in Tokyo creates more concern.
He wound up playing only 12 tournaments in 2017 compared to 18 in 2016.
“It’s been a difficult and frustrating year,” he said after retiring in Tokyo. “I obviously wish I could have focused on tennis more rather than chasing help all the time.”
No one questions Raonic’s work ethic – if anything he may train too hard – so he will surely do all he can in the off-season to be fit for the 2018. After turning 27 on December 27th, he will commence his seventh full-time year on the main tour.
But he will start with a disadvantage in terms of seeding. Because he will not be able to defend 360 points he earned a year ago for reaching the semifinals at the Paris-Bercy event and the 400 for finishing as a semifinalist at the ATP World Tour Finals, his final 2017 ranking will drop to about No. 23. If it somehow slipped as low as No. 25, he could face a top eight seed as early as the third round of the Australian Open.
That’s highly unlikely and in any case, if Raonic’s healthy, he might actually relish playing one of the big boys that early in the tournament.
Denis Shapovalov moved into the second round of the ATP 500 in Basel on Monday with a 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(3) victory over No. 38-ranked Yuichi Sugita of Japan.
After a sketchy first set, Shapovalov found his rhythm and was his usual explosive self from there to the finish. He had a slight blip in the third set when he lost his serve leading 4-2 but his nerves and bold strokes were superior to those of the 29-year-old Sugita, especially in the decisive tiebreak.
Mark Petchey, a former player and one-time coach of Andy Murray, did a great job in the commentary booth. He was very impressed with the 18-year-old Shapovalov, saying about his one-handed backhand, “he has such a long elegant swing that you catch yourself (just) watching him hit the ball.”
He also noted that Shapovalov’s head is very still on his forehand, which aids his peripheral vision and allows him to see last-second movements by his opponents.
“His forehand is one of the best out there in terms of how it’s produced.” Petchey commented.
Shapovalov had tape below his right knee and kinesio tape on his right thigh but did not seem in any way inhibited during the match.
Now ranked No. 49, the 45 points he earned for winning the first round in Basel will probably not change his ranking but a victory in the next round on Thursday over either Adrian Mannarino or Ruben Bemelmens would improve it to about No. 45.
Mannarino, ranked No. 28 and seeded seventh in Basel, would be a rematch of Shapovalov’s 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 quarter-final win over the Frenchman in Montreal at Rogers Cup in August.
Watching courtside on Monday were Shapovalov’s coach Martin Laurendeau, his mother Tessa, his physio Dr. Nick Martichenko and, in the second row, Félix Auger-Aliassime and his coach Guillaume Marx. Auger-Aliassime lost 6-4, 6-3 in the first round of the Basel qualifying to veteran Frenchman Julien Benneteau.
— jamie delgado (@DelgadoJamie) October 22, 2017
Andy Murray, off the tour with a hip injury since a quarter-final loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon on July 12th, intends to play a charity exhibition match against Roger Federer on Tuesday November 7th in Glasgow.
His coach, Jamie Delgado, last week posted this video of Murray back hitting.