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.

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