Top 32: Serena triumphs again; is Sharapova really improving?

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Top 32, Nos. 4-1

No. 4

Maria Sharapova

Did Maria have a great year in 2015? No, admittedly, she did not, but it wasn’t a bad year for the former No. 1 and given that she was hurt most of the summer and part if the fall, it was a very decent season. She won Brisbane over Ana Ivanovic; she reached the Australian Open final and lost a tight contest against Serena Williams; she won Rome by beating Victoria Azarenka and Carla Suarez Navarro; she reached the semis of Wimbledon, but Serena was nearly perfect and took her down; she won three matches in the WTA Finals and beat Simona Halep, Aga Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta before she lost against Petra Kvitova. However, in the Fed Cup Final, the Russian turned the tables and overcame Kvitova (which the Czechs won anyway).

Without a doubt, the 28-year-old Sharapova wants to win more majors and big tournaments. Of course the five-time Grand Slam champion has struggled against Serena for the past 11 years — not winning a thing – but she has been able to take down everyone else, and that is pretty darn good. Even though Sharapova was unable to win a Grand Slam this year, she has improved somewhat significantly now. She is no longer afraid to come to the net — which has taken her a solid 12 years while working on it – she is now more comfortable throwing out a drop shot, and she can even slice here and there with her ferocious backhand. She has always had one of the powerful forehands and backhands, she will crush her returns when her foes are popping it up, and physically, her body is substantially stronger and she can play for hours without becoming exhausted.

Can Sharapova win another major in 2016? Of course she can, but she has to continue to improve, like she must change-up her serve and not be so predictable, and she needs to discover which way her foes are trying to fool her when they are serving, especially against Serena, who tricks her all the time. Other than that, if she is healthy, she will go super deep every time out.

No. 3

Garbine Muguruza

Finally, one of the young players had risen and the Spaniard cracked the top 5, and then she ended the season at No. 3. She had a fine fall after she was nervous for a couple of months when she had reached the Wimbledon final and for the first time, the whole world had finally noticed her. After she woke up and realized that she could lock in when she was on the court, she wasn’t hearing the fans chanting at her name. Muguruza concentrated well and she attacked all the time.

This year, she overcame a number of the fine veterans: Radwanska, Caro Wozniacki, Angie Kerber, Pennetta and Kvitova. She managed to hang in when she lost against the mighty Serena in the Wimbledon final.

In the fall, the 22-year-old reached the final of Wuhan, she won Beijing and then she won three matches in the WTA Finals before she finally fell, going down against Radwanska 7-5 in the third. Really, she can legitimately beat anyone when she is on fire and she isn’t missing the ball. She can smoke her forehand and backhand crosscourt and down the line; her first serve is powerful and, unlike many of the young players, she can come into the net and handily put it away. She is always smiling and laughing which is terrific.

Muguruza still has to continue to improve over all, and if she isn’t getting too frustrated when it isn’t her day, she certainly will go super deep and win a couple more huge titles – the Premier 5 once again and possibly winning her first Slam in 2016.

No. 2

Simona Halep

It is so hard to figure out where Halep is going: will she win a major for the first time in 2016 and reach No. 1, or will she fall back?  Over the past two-and-a-half years the Romanian has been a darn good player. She is super competitive, she is incredibly fast and she is very steady. When she is feeling right, she will go for everything, especially her down the line. She can mix up her attack, she can spin it around and she has a tremendous drop shot.

The good news is that when she wasn’t deep into her head and becoming way too emotional, then she can drop off her game, just like at the majors in 2015. She did very little at the Aussie Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but at the US Open, she was so close to winning it all. She out-lasted Azarenka in a classic quarterfinal, and then in the semis against Pennetta, the Italian was much more confident while Halep quickly folded her tent.

Outside of the majors, she put together a number of tournaments: winning Dubai, Indian Wells, the semis of Miami when she nearly upset Serena, and she reached the final at Toronto (she fell versus Belinda Bencic in the final) and another final in Cincy (she lost again versus Serena and it was fairy close). In the fall, she was so-so at best.

Now it’s all up to her. There are times when Halep pushes the ball and there is no way that she can win a major if she does that. She has all the keys, it is whether she can relax and simply go for it. Will Halep win a Grand Slam in 2016? We will find out quickly because Halep loved the hard courts and the Australian Open is wide open.

No. 1

Serena Williams

No one is perfect, not Serena or anyone else, ever. But Ms. Williams played about as well as she ever has, winning three Grand Slams at 2015, beating just about everyone, taking down Sharapova in the Aussie Open final, running past Lucie Safarova at Roland Garros final, and out-hitting Muguruza at the Wimbledon final. She also won Miami by crushing Suarez Navarro, and she won Cincy by overcoming Halep.

When Serena was healthy, she was completely locked in and lethal. She knew what to do all the time. She knew when she wasn’t playing all that well  and then she would decide to change it up. Intellectually, the now 34-year-old would think deep into her brain and she understood how she would disturb her foes.

Look at Paris, which was one of the most difficult tournaments of all time: She was up and down, she was spraying the ball and she was frustrated, but she wasn’t going to go away, and she managed to win five three-setters. Many other player can fold, but she refused to go away and Serena out-thought them once again.

Look at Wimbledon because that wasn’t easy either. In the third round, she was up against Britain’s Heather Watson. Serena was down in the third set, and Watson was playing better than she ever had, but Serena was calm, she took a deep breath and edged her 7-5 in the third. She had to beat her older sister, the five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, and she took her in straight sets, serving and returning absolutely huge. She yanked the aggressive Azarenka in three tight sets. She wanted to make sure that when she faced off against Sharapova in the semis that if she would attack her immediately and that’s what she did. In the final against Muguruza, she knew that the ‘kid’ is dangerous, but that didn’t really matter, all she had to do was to be more solid when the big points came and she won it once again.

However, at the US Open, she had finally began to feel tremendous pressure because the whole world were thinking that she was going to win all four majors in one year. She was no longer calm, and while she was composed enough to beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Venus and Madison Keys, once she came out on court for the semifinal against Roberta Vinci, her eyes were glassy and she was all over the place. She was not being patient, she was erratic and Vinci played wonderfully, beating Serena 6-4 in the third. The extremely upset Serena was gone, deciding not to play for the rest of the year.

Serena owns 21 Grand Slams now. If she doesn’t win at least another major title in 2016, that would be stunning, because since 2012, she has been dominating, grabbing almost every significant tournament and beating every top-10 competitors time and time again.

Was 2015 Serena’s best season ever? No, not for me. She ‘only’ won five tournaments and withdrew from three events. In 2002, she won three Grand Slams and eight titles: Scottsdale, Miami, Rome, RG, Wimby, the US Open, Tokyo and Leipzig. Back then, she was faster and healthier.

When Serena arrives at the Australian Open, she won’t have played in four months (she will play at an exo at Hopman Cup). Clearly, she wanted to rest her body and her mind. She is the favorite every where she goes, but in 2016, if she is going to tie the greatest player ever Steffi Graf at 22 Grand Slams (she won 109 career titles while Serena currently has 69 titles), she must be happy on court once again. If she does, when she eventually retires, she will be called the greatest player ever.

With a Little Help from My Friends

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Roddick can still dig down and fight. Photo: Andy J. Gordon

There’s nothing that compares to the excitement and anticipation in tennis when it comes to the four majors, and there is nothing more at stake either. Then there are the exhibitions in the sport which, aside from Word Team Tennis, typically occur in the short off-season (December).

Even the most rabid tennis fan can’t be blamed for not caring about these exos as they are often scripted, and there is no reward for winning matches and/or competing at the highest level. The feeling here is that a tennis exhibition event has but one purpose: to entertain. “Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche” took place at the UCLA Tennis Center this past weekend and featured Sharapova, along with former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, world No.4 and 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, Mardy Fish American rising stars Madison Keys, Jack Sock, Sloane Stephens, and Shelby Rogers along with Britain’s Laura Robson.

I was intrigued. This was a legitimate card, and the event planners played an even stronger hand by recruiting Fish to replace Michael Chang in the opening singles match against Roddick. This match did not disappoint. While Roddick was rusty, his competitive spirit shone brightly. Fish was only of  removed from playing on the tour and looked as if he had never left the game.

This skirmish between old rivals did not disappoint. I would pay money to watch these former high school buddies play Scrabble.

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Host Sharapova was a main draw. Photo: Andy J. Gordon

The match was settled in a deciding set, ten-point tiebreak, in which Fish had to save a match point before closing out the contest. It was tough act to follow, or so it seemed.

The host of the event was pitted against the promising AmericanMadison Keys. While their playing styles and physiques are similar, the comparisons end there. Even though the temperature was plummetingthe level of play did not. It was like deja vu; the match went the distance and Keys also held a match point, but she ultimately came up short and, like Roddick, lost the final set in a match tiebreak. The day concluded with a celebrity hit and giggle doubles match. The tennis was nothing to write about, but the entertainment value of the match was crowd pleasing.

While Sundays matches featuring Sock vs. Nishikori and Stephens vs. Rodgers did not have the same competitive spirit of day one, they more than made up for it with humor and flashy shot making.
The final match of the day was a mixed double match between Sharapova and Nishikori vs. Robson and Sock. Sock demonstrated why he is a Wimbledon double champion and was clearly the best double player on the court. The only double fault that plagued the exhibition was not having microphones on the players, particularly in all the double matches. The event could have served the fans and TV viewers better by simply miking the players. Unless one had a court side seat, most of the good-natured banter between the players was missed. The good news is that it’s an easy fix.

To her credit, Sharapova pulled off the weekend with a little help from her friends.

To catch re-airings of “Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche” go to www.tennischannel.com for times and dates.


Brad Falkner has worked in tennis media since 2002.

Fed Cup Final: Kvitova & Sharapova both win, faceoff Sunday

Czech’s Petra d Pavlyuchenkova, Maria d Pliskova, locked at 1-1

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Petra Kvitova with the Fed Cup, won in 2011.

PRAGUE – It was going to come to this, wasn’t it? Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova both won their contests on Saturday in the Fed Cup Final, with the Czech starting off the tie and besting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2-6 6-1 6-1 and then the Russian beating Karolina Pliskova 6-4 6-3. The tie is knotted 1-1.

On Sunday, they will clash first, starting at 12 PM. Whomever wins, it still won’t be over as their homeland has to win three matches. Still, Kvitova and Sharapova are not only that the best players out there, but mentally, they are the ones who their teammates will look for guidance.

On Saturday, both Kvitova and Sharapova sounded self-assured.

But, without a doubt, the 25-year-old Kvitova needs to find some patience.Kvitova was off. Way, way off. In the first set, she couldn’t put a ball in play, not to the left or the right, or short or deep. She was bad and, then, worse. She was so nervous that it didn’t matter whether which way she was aiming, because the ball was headed in the net or extremely wide or long. She couldn’t crack her first serves, either.

Pavlyuchenkova was fairly consistent, and she really didn’t have to do much. The Russian tossed up some big first serves, she rolled her forehands deep and she spanked her backhands, which was good enough. Down 5-2, Kvitova was trying to get herself going, yelling at herself, but she wasn’t quite there and Pavlyuchenkova won the first set by charging forward, lifting her backhand off and sweetly touching her racket just over the net for a winner.

Clearly, Kvitova knew that the match had a long way to go. In the first game of the second set, she smacked a couple accurate returns and she was ready to rumble. Instead of falling backwards, she was leaning forward. She knew when it was time to attack. The lefty was more patient and she was in control. Kvitova raced through the second set, finishing it off with a twisting ace.

“I was a little down on myself,” Pavlyuchenkova said.

It appeared that the third set would be extremely tight, as they had played eight times before and most of the contests were pretty close (six to two for Kvitova). However, very quickly, the Czech raced away. Kvitova knew that she was in a comfortable zone and she figured that on the fast courts, she would out-hit the Russian.

The Russian couldn’t move her strokes around and she couldn’t go down the line effectively.

Later, Pavlyuchenkova said that she was gone mentally. The Russian didn’t think she could come back.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be there anymore,’ ” Pavlyuchenkova said.

Kvitova admitted that her start was rough. “I was nervous, I was so tight and my body was so heavy,” Kvitova said. “But I got a break to start the second set and that was the key.”

Sharapova starts on a roll

Sharapova is set for a matchup vs. Kvitova. JIMMIE48 TENNIS PHOTOGRAPHY

Sharapova is set for a matchup vs. Kvitova. JIMMIE48 TENNIS PHOTOGRAPHY

Sharapova came out super aggressive and didn’t stop. Pliskova has improved a ton this year, especially in the first half. Her improvement stalled after reaching the final of Stanford in early August and then she fell apart until last week in November in Zhuhai.

She can hit her first serve about as hard as anyone out there, but she can falter fast. When she is on, she can smoke the lines with her forehands and backhands, but she does not move particularly well going side to side. Plus, the 23-year-old needs to improve her returns.

Pliskova certainly had a few good moments/ Even though Sharapova was a bit off with her strong first serves, Pliskova could not figure her out.

The 28-year-old Sharapova nailed a number of winners down the line when Pliskova didn’t know which way she was going, likely because the two had not faced off before.

In Prague, the packed fans were working to help Pliskova raise her game to her highest level. Down a break at 3-4 in the second set, Pliskova was up 0-40, but then Sharapova crushed a couple serves, rushed to the net, swung with her forehand that was coming down from the top of the ceiling and put it away. She held, she breathed a sigh of relief and ended up winning 6-3 6-4.

“The courts were faster,” Sharapova said. ‘“She likes the fast ball and hits it deep and hard and try the angles, and make her move a little and some defense. The returns helped because I didn’t serve at all. When it mattered, I stayed up.”

Two weeks ago in Singapore, Kvitova and Sharapova played in the semis. The Czech won by the Czech as she edged the Russian in two tight sets. Sharapova is 6 to 4 head to head, having beaten Kvitova in two semifinals at the 2012 Australian Open and Roland Garros. But let’s not forget that in 2011, Kvitova stunned Sharapova in the Wimbledon final.

Sharapova has won five majors, while Kvitova has taken only two. Over the years, the Russian has been more successful, but in Prague, the Czech has to be given an edge, as she has been lights out in the Fed Cup. However, even though Sharapova said that she was nervous during the entire match against Pliskova, she wasn’t shaking. Perhaps she will be on Sunday, but we all know that Kvitova will be, too.

“We know each other so well,” Sharapova said. “She’s very tough, it will be a great atmosphere, and she’s a great player.”

Whoever wins, there will be a fourth match, between the Russian Pavlyuchenkova (assuming the somewhat hurt Ekaterina Makarova comes in at the singles) versus Pliskova (assuming Lucie Safarova will be healthy and can play singles). That is a toss up.

It could be 2-2 and the Fed Cup Final could go be the last contest in the doubles: maybe the fine, highly-ranked team of Makarova/Elena Vesnina against the talented Safarova/Barbora Strycova.

As the Russian captain Anastasia Myskina said, “There is a lot of pressure.”

And how.

Shocker? Radwanska d. Murguruza, Kvitova d. Sharapova to reach final in WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE – For the first time at the WTA Finals, two players who went 1-2 in the groups have now reached the finals: Aga Radwanska surprised the up-and-coming Garbine Muguruza 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5, while Petra Kvitova out-hit Maria Sharapova 6-3 7-6(3).

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The 22-year-old Muguruza, who is ranked No. 3, was worn down in the season’s final tournament. Even


though she was tired after a tough week as she was competing in singles and doubles, she nearly came though.

“I just wanted to give everything I had, and doesn’t matter how long I was going to be able to keep it. I just went out there, and if I die on the court, I die, but at least I go out from there happy,” the Spaniard said.

Like Muguruza, Sharapova was 3-0 entering the semifinal. She had beaten Kvitova five of the last six times, but the Czech couldn’t let her breath. She came right at her and didn’t stop. Sharapova knows that when Kvitova is on fire, it’s hard to handle her.

“She’s a very aggressive player. She has a lot of depth and power. She goes for her shots. I think when she commits to her game and she executes, it’s a very powerful game,” Sharapova said.

Somewhat amazingly, Kvitova and Radwanska have played eight times, with the Czech owning with a 6-2 edge. However, the 25 year olds have played four WTA Finals, in 2011, when Kvitova won the title, beating the Pole in straights in the Round Robin in Istanbul; in 2012, when Radwanska won in straight sets in a Round Robin; in 2013, with the Czech winning in straight sets and in 2014, when ‘Aga’ won easily last year in the Round Robin at Singapore.

They are tied up in the WTA Finals. While Kvitova has been a better player overall, Radwanska is on a roll. The contest should be very close.

“It’s difficult opponent, for sure,” Kvitova said. “She’s very smart. I think she has a lot the variety on the court. She getting so many balls, so sometimes it feels that she’s never‑ending story on the court.

So it’s really about the patient and still be kind of sharp, but playing a lot of shots and rallies. It’s difficult. So both of us will leave everything.”

 

Pennetta waves goodbye forever after she loses to Sharapova

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Flavia Pennetta: in her last WTA match. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography.

SINGAPORE — Say goodbye Flavia Pennetta, who fell to Maria Sharapova 7-5 6-1.

With her 2015 U.S. Open trophy in her hands, Pennetta announced thus Woolf be her last season. If she had extended the match, she would have lived to play another day in the semifinals. But, Sharapova is a steamroller now and she denied Pennetta.

The 33-year-old Italian was very aggressive and forceful in the first set, but Sharapova kept going for her shots, moved forward and make sure that she wasn’t going to go side to side for a few hours.

After beating Radwanska on Sunday, Sharapova was thrilled. Since Wimbledon, she only had been able to play for half a match in Wuhan before she retired with an injury. Then she went to Europe to get her legs better and then she came over to Singapore early. She really wanted to get out on court and try it. She did not become injured again, could run as fast as she could, and could swing away with her powerful arms.

As Pennetta said, she played very well, but Sharapova was on fire, especially in the second set, wracking winners. Her huge serve, her massive forehands and backhands, and her ability to charge the net and not go backwards showed how confident she is.

“I was playing I think really well. I just has one game in the 4‑3 where I play a little bit worse,” Pennetta said. “I had two double fault, and so I lost my chance I think on that game. But I think was really good game. She play unbelievable. I didn’t remember see Maria playing so good and serving so good from ‑‑ the second set was perfect for her doing everything, drop shot, volley. Everything was work good for her.”

The last time they played, Pennetta out-stroked Sharapova at Indian Wells last March. That time, Pennetta was dictating once they got into rallies. But on Thursday, the five-time Grand Slam was under control

“It’s strange, I have to say,” Pennetta said. “Before the tournament I didn’t expect to see Maria so focus and so good and everything. Sometimes it’s good to stay away a little bit. You recover and you have more energy. You come with more ambition. So sometimes you need to stay away for a while. So for her, of course it’s working really good.”

Sharapova said wanted to be 100 percent before she got to Singapore, and she wanted to make sure that she is fully healthy. She did not want to have to stop again. She hit the gym and practiced when she could.

“So in a way, yeah, you’re taking a break, but you’re still working towards staying fit and strong and mentally positive,” Sharapova said. “You still have to work a lot. You don’t just sit around and hope that you feel better one day.”

Pennetta is retired now, but she doesn’t realize it yet. She says that she feels happy, but she didn’t want to stay on the court after she was done, as she didn’t want to cry. She will miss seeing week in and wake out, but she can deal with that, as she will be around here and there at the tournaments, watching her fiancee, Fabio Fognini.

“I will miss the competition. When you go on the court, the central court, it’s something special,” she said. “I don’t think I will have it anymore.”

Sharapova doesn’t know whom she will play on Saturday. The US Open champion Pennetta doesn’t know what she is going to do on Saturday either.

Maybe she will rest, for the first time when Pennetta became a pro in 2000. Maybe she will just bounce the balls around. Pennetta isnt sure yet, but she is already smiling.

“I am really happy to start a new part of life, new things.”

Sharapova confounds Halep; Playing hard, Pennetta overcomes Aga

Flavia Pennetta wants to stick around a little bit longer. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

Flavia Pennetta wants to stick around a little bit longer. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

SINGAPORE – For reality checks, Flavia Pennetta isn’t ready to go home, and Maria Sharapova wants to beat her before she waves bye-bye.

Pennetta out-stroke Aga Radwanska 7-6 6-4, while Sharapova out-bashed Simona Halep 6-4 6-4. Pennetta is 1-1 in the Red Group Singapore, having lost to Halep on Sunday. Sharapova out-lasted Radwanska in three sets.

If Sharapova wins a set against Pennetta, then she will qualify for the semifinals. If she loses in straight sets, then who knows? In fact, no one really knows as Pennetta and Halep (who blitzed the Italian on Sunday) can have legitimate chances, and Radwanska also does, too. Ping-Pong.

The soon-to-be-retired Pennetta isn’t just happy to be here. Before she came out, many of the people in the stands were unsure. She has finally won a Slam andis going home in Italy very soon. So, all she had to do is play hard and don’t worry about the score. Uh-uh.

Against Radwanska, Pennetta pushed herself extremely hard. She served big, attacked the net when she could and went toe-to-toe from inside the baseline. When Pennetta missed a few bad shots, she grew angry. Guess what? When she went on court, she forgot this is her last tournament.

“I’m not thinking like this,” she said. “I don’t have this way to think. I don’t go in the court and think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be maybe my last one or I have tomorrow,’ I have three more. I just go to the court and say, ‘Okay, I have to play.’ That’s it. I don’t know how it’s happen, but it’s like this.”

Everyone talks about how smart Radwanska is, and that is very true, but Pennetta knows where she is going and that she can go for her shots when the lines are barking at her. Her forehand and first serve give the Pole a lot of trouble, and when they were contesting long rallies, Pennetta would hit behind her, or nail huge shots right down the middle. She has matured a great deal.

The same goes with Sharapova, who faced No. 2 Halep. She cannot allow Halep to go inside the court. Whether she was serving or returning with authority, Sharapova was the dictator. Halep is faster and would prefer to run around side-to-side, but there is no way that she can yank her around all night long when the Russian/American wouldn’t be able to hammer the corners.

That is why Sharapova is now 6-0 head-to-head against Halep: she consistently bothers her because she doesn’t allow her to grind every point. Halep can certainly grind on occasion, but she can’t handle her forehand side and she doesn’t push Sharapova back enough. Maybe the Romanian will do so again if they happen to a face off on Sunday, but right now, she is confounded by her.

Sharapova and Pennetta have played each other five times before, all three-set matches. Pennetta bested her at 2015 Indian Wells. She loves at the tournament, especially when she won her first big title there in 2014. Pennetta was a 31-year-old then, and while she has been very good at times over the past decade or so, few sensed that she was getting better and better.

At the 2015 US Open, she finally put it all together and won the crown. As Sharapova said, she was a little surprised that she won, but she truly deserved it. They will clash again on Thursday. Without a doubt, they respect each other, but both of them want to win badly.

“It is [a little surprising], but I feel like there is always a moment for people to shine,” Sharapova said. “I know there are players that are extremely consistent that are at the top of the game, and I’ve been playing for many years and been fortunate to win Grand Slams. But I work hard and I don’t just sit there and say I’m only player that does it. There are hundreds of players that probably work harder than I do and commit more time than I do and sometimes don’t get the results. I realize how fortunate I am.

“I know that Flavia has been through a lot in her career with surgeries, injuries, work and effort coming back, stopping. A lot people don’t talk about that, but I think you should. That matters. I think that when you go through those moments, eventually it pays off. That was her time to shine, and I was really, really happy.”

Muguruza smashes Safarova; Kerber canes Kvitova

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Super-aggressive Muguruza bashes Safarova. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

SINGAPORE – Before the tournament began at the WTA Finals, it looked like every player amongst the top 8 had a real shot to win the title. But reality set in quickly when the more confident competitors won on Sunday – Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova – and on Monday, two players who have been looked intense in Asia, Garbine Muguruza and Angie Kerber, who won their contests.

Muguruza out-muscled Lucie Safarova 6-3, 7-6. The 22-year-old Spaniard has been on fire, winning Beijing, walking without fear and playing very smartly. Safarova has just come back due to a bacteria infection and, while at times she was striking the ball fairly deeply, she wasn’t as powerful as she did during the summer. Anytime she wanted to, Muguruza would attack. She was wasn’t playing perfect, but she was forceful. Both of them are in the doubles at the tournament, too, so they both are very confident at the net, and they can jump all over soft serves.

Muguruza was gutsy, and she was consistently better. She didn’t shake. Right now, she looks like she is super confident, just like in early July, when she was grinning all day, every day, when she reached the final at Wimbledon.

“I love the way she plays and her mentality,” said the former No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. “She’s a great player and person. It’s excellent.”

Safarova thinks that Muguruza is a “young very, very great player.” But for herself, the Czech isn’t quite there yet. She said that she was a little sad, because in the second set, she was very close, but physically, she wasn’t able to disturb her.

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Angie Kerber won the all-lefty battle.

“I’m slowly back in my game, but of course you need the wins,” Safarova said. Yes she does, when she will have to go up against Petra Kvitova on Wednesday.

The other lefty Czech Kvitova also went down, losing against Angie Kerber 6-2, 7-6. Kvitova had beaten Kerber the last three times they played, all long three-setters, including at the 2013 WTA Finals, and last November, in the Fed Cup final when Kvitova came through 7-6 (5) 4-6 6-4. In Prague, the fans were delirious.

This time on Monday, Kerber was slightly better. The German was more composed, she wanted to engage as many rallies as she could and if Kvitova happened to hit short, Kerber jumped on them. Over the past four years ago, when they both became very good, Kvitova was more courageous, which is why she has won two majors and Kerber has yet to do so. The Czech has a substantially bigger serve and her forehand is more powerful. However, Kerber can be more patient, is faster, can go side-to-side and whack her sharp backhands. When Kvitova gets into a zone, she can out hit anyone, because she absolutely crushes the ball. But, once again, she isn’t feeling right physically and she went down.

“It’s really tough to describe,” Kvitova said about her health. “I was just talking with my fitness coach and I was trying to describe it and it’s very difficult. I mean, it’s just something what I really can’t do anything against. My blood test was not the best one. So I couldn’t really do the one I wanted to be prepared for everything. I felt I wasn’t able to stay in the kind of good rally what she played. I miss so early. From that time I started to hit a little bit harder and I made some mistakes, so it was a little difficult to find a balance like between rallies and winners and some kind of volleys and anything. She still played very good shots out there today, and I am going to try to do my best the next match.”

Kerber has been very effected during the Asian swing, so this time around, she didn’t decide that she could engage a marathon – which she loves to do – but she would be aggressive whenever she could. She also wanted to make sure that she could get the balls back anyway she could. Next up is Muguruza and Kerber will have to change it up, because the Spaniard has her number.

I lost to her in two Grand Slams and also in the Asia swing,” Kerber said. “I’m looking forward to play against her. I will try to take my revenge now and try to go out there to beat her. She had an amazing year. She played unbelievable this year, so it will be for sure a tough match. But at the end I know a little bit how she’s playing. I will try to go for it. That’s for sure.”

Another classic in WTA Final: Sharapova overcomes Radwanska

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 25 : Maria Sharapova in action at the 2015 WTA Finals

Maria Sharapova in action at the 2015 WTA Finals. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

SINGAPORE – Maria Sharapova and Aga Radwanska have played each other numerous times, and for the most part, they have been fairly tight. But in the end at the WTA Finals, the Russian/American has come through every single contest. All of them have been phenomenally close. Try in 2012, when Sharapova came through 5-7 7-5 7-5 in 3 hours, 12 minutes in Istanbul. In 2014, Radwanska ran side to side, but Sharapova came though again in Singapore, winning in 3 hours, 10 minutes. On Sunday night, when she hasn’t play a full match since Wimbledon, the enthusiastic Sharapova pulled it off, defeating Radwanska 4-6 6-3 6-4 in 2 hours, 47 minutes. Was that too short? Too long?

Even though Radwanska has taken down just about every top competitor, when she is super close, she can back off a little bit. She held two break points at 4-5 in the third set, but when she rushed the net, she landed her volley in the middle of the court and Sharapova launched a lob for a winner. Then the Pole missed a standard forehand long. When Sharapova had her first match point, she blasted a forehand down the line for a winner. Game over. Radwanska can’t figure out how to pull it off.

“Very powerful. Solid player,” said Radwanska, who is now 2-13 head to head against Sharapova. “I think no normally weak points and pretty much everything which is on the same level. She’s really going forward from the first point. So you cannot really step back, because otherwise she’s going to pretty much kill you from every point. That’s why you really have to play aggressive as well from the beginning. As she serving well and first two serves and return she’s really going for it, so the way it is, just not to get back too far and trying have some control as well on the court.”

Sharapova later said that after she was hurt again in the end of September when she played her only match in Wuhan. She could have said OK, my body just won’t be healthy this year and it’s time to shut it down. But she didn’t, went to Europe, had a doctor who worked on her, she got back on the court in LA, and at least on Sunday night, she was moving around pretty quickly.

“I was very determined going into this match. I felt like I was focused and I did everything I could to be ready in the last three weeks,” Sharapova said. “I think it could have been quite easy for me when I was in Wuhan after that match to just contemplate and say, ‘You know what? I’ve had a few frustrating months. Be really easy just to skip this last one.’ But I made my way to Europe to try to get better as fast as I could. Flew back to the United States an, started training, and here I am. I feel like this match, as I look back, I know it’s still a long road to go in this event, but as far as a personal achievement, it’s nice to look back three weeks ago and think I’m glad I did that and got through it and gave myself a chance to play here.”

In the third set, it looked like Sharapova might grow wild. She isn’t fast as Radwanska, but she’s tougher. Look at their forehands and Sharapova’s is substantially better. Plus, over the past five years or so, her legs have become stronger. She rarely becomes too tired. She doesn’t mind coming into the net once and while and she can toss in a drop shot.

“I know we have pretty long ones. I know a lot of you look forward to them,” Sharapova said. “I do, too. I really do enjoy playing against her. I feel like those are some of the matches that I like to watch on TV, when different styles of games clash against each other. Becomes that bit of a cat and mouse game. That’s something that my father talked about so much when I was a young girl. Just have to figure out a way to win no matter how similar or different the games are. I think that combination just creates really good matches between each other. I think the game in the third set, I think it was my first service game to hold to 1‑all, that was a pretty big game. Very physical, a lot of long rallies, and I came through. Even though I hit some doubles, I came through with some aces.”

WTA Finals: Maria Sharapova finally returns, to face improved Aga

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SINGAPORE – Marie Sharapova says that if she manages to play three matches of the Red Group at the WTA Finals at Singapore, she will be happy, especially if she plays reasonably well. The five-time Grand Slam champion has played once since Wimbledon, due to various injuries, and clearly, she has been frustrated. But, the 28-year-old has been around for a long time and she knows that if she can be patient, she will eventually find her way back to top form. If she does, she will shake the rust off and go for her massive shots.

Sharapova has always been a force against Aga Radwanska, whom she will face on Sunday night. However, the Pole is very creative and she has been playing substantially better since the first half of the year, when she was very frustrated. She was pushing the ball frequently, wasn’t going for the lines and wasn’t attacking the net often enough. But, during on the grass season, she figured out what ailed her, mixed her shots, moved forward when she could and, over the past three months, she has rediscovered her shots.

As Radwanska said, she just didn’t want to fold her tent. The former No. 2 wanted to find a way to be back at the WTA Finals once again, and she did. Radwanska knows that she has legitimate shot to upend Sharapova, but even though the Russian will be a little wary given that she won’t be very confident. If the Pole plays very well for at least the first hour, ‘Aga’ will have to jump on her second serves quite a bit.

Back in February at the Fed Cup in Poland, Sharapova just blew Radwanska apart. This time, Radwanska cannot hesitate and must be aggressive. Sharapova is very pleased that her body is feeling much better now, but Radwanska has been playing seemingly every weekend and should grab it in three sets.

Simona Halep will go up against Flavia Pennetta on the first day in the afternoon on Sunday. Halep may not be 100 percent with her sore left ankle, but as she says she is ready to push as hard as she can as it’s the last week of the season. The Romanian played incredibly well in 2014, when she reached the final here at the WTA Finals. She stunned Serena Williams in their first match. But, in the final, the American was then locked in and beat her pants off.

Outside of the majors, on clay and on grass (which were pretty miserable), Halep was substantially better on the hard courts, except when facing Serena, who isn’t playing this tournament. She is so fast; she can zoom up and back and side-to-side, and she can rip both her forehand and backhand. Mentally, if she is in the right space, she can win this tournament. However, she can get angry and frustrated, which is why she can fall off against Pennetta.

The Italian played wonderfully winning the US Open, including when she blitzed Halep in the semifinal. Halep was the favorite, but she folded while Pennetta kept smoking the ball, very deep and true.

In a sense, Pennetta is just happy to be here in Singapore. She will retire after this week. She is as happy as she has ever been. While she will try hard, she isn’t going to go up over the wall and back down again. She just wants to have a great time, and doesn’t want to collapse after battling for three-plus hours. She won’t be nervous at all, while Halep will. It’s really up to the world No. 2 to win or lose, but if Halep gets frustrated early, Pennetta can dance around the court if she out-schools her.

Halep said that she and her coach, Darren Cahill, have yet to decide whether they will continue next year. Cahill knows his stuff inside and out. If Halep is very smart, she should give him a full year and realize how much she can improve.

Speaking of which, Garbine Muguruza said on Saturday that she and her new coach, Sam Sumyk, will continue in 2016. In the White Group, she will face Lucie Safarova on Monday.

Two lefties Petra Kvitova and Angie Kerber will face off on Monday.

Wimbledon: Serena clocks Sharapova, young Muguruza stops Radwanska

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It was inevitable. Maria Sharapova was going to hit the corner as hard as she could, but before she started, she had to return Serena’s massive serves and when she was serving, she had to be very unpredictable. She did not on both accounts.

Once again, Serena Williams thumped past Sharapova 6-2 6-4 to reach the Wimbledon final for the eight time. The 33-year-old Serena was cool, collected and lethal. She did not face a break points, she nailed 13 aces, and she won 86 percent of her first serves (25 of 29, thank you). She broke Sharapova three times. That was enough.

Yes, Sharapova had a few fine moments, but she was not close to being playing perfect, while Serena almost did. Essentially, it is all about why Serena has beaten Sharapova 17 matches in a row: Serena has a much better first and second serves, and Serena reads Sharapova’s serves substantially better. It is simple, but every effective. When Sharapova manages to get into the points it is 50-50, but that isn’t often enough, as she is frequently skidding around and she cannot dictate. Look at her percentage when Sharapova was hitting her second serve on Thursday: try 29 percent (6/21). Ouch and goodbye.

Perhaps someday, she will finally upset Serena, but she has to figure out where exactly Williams tends to go. She has to dash over quickly and get the ball into play and deep. Serena has a very good idea which way Sharapova is serving (such as down the T all the time), but maybe the Russian/American will finally find it. You know, all the so-called Big-4 (Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal) can return the big guys who serve 140-plus and winning those matches. Is it possible for the five-time champion Sharapova be able to return the 120 mph too? Not yet, but she will keep pushing on.

Eventually, a 21 year old was ready to jump up, and that is exactly what Garbine Muguruza did, when he took down Aga Radwanska 6-2 3-6 6-3. Yes, Radwanska could have played better in the third set, but the Spaniard out hit her and she was very intelligent. She knew that the Pole would try to be trick her, but Muguruza kept looking where the opponent was going. She was patient and when she had a legitimate chance, she went for it. She has a big first serve, she can crack her forehand and backhand and she isn’t shy at the net.

Yes, Williams is the favorite for sure, but Muguruza shocked her at the 2014 Roland Garros and Serena bested her in the Aussie Open, but it was three sets. If Muguruza isn’t very nervous, she can push her.