Friday November 18th, 2011

I offered some of my thoughts on the WTA season in this week's SI.com roundtable. I'm going to have more reflections on the year in this space now and in the coming days, starting with five memorable moments:

The Match Everyone Watched -- Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Francesca Schiavone, Australian Open: Before this year, I was only familiar with the relatively quiet media centers of smaller, Tour-level tournaments. With only a handful of matches going on at any one time and the press rooms filled primarily with local reporters, those events give you time to breathe. Everyone is generally writing on the same matches and attending the same news conferences, and a camaraderie quickly forms among the scribes because of the small quarters and intimate setting.

All that changes at a Grand Slam tournament. This was my first year chronicling any of the majors as a credentialed media member (I covered the Australian Open and the U.S. Open) and, boy, those press rooms are like Grand Central Station. With an international press corps and a stream of matches and news conferences, everyone is focused on different tasks. Chinese journalists on my left are monitoring the progress of a doubles match on the outer courts, and Russian journalists on my right are watching to see if Mikhail Youzhny will batter himself once again on his way to a loss.

So it takes something extraordinary in the early rounds to unite the media and compel folks to stop what they're doing and pay attention to a single match. I witnessed two of those moments this year while covering the first and last majors of 2011.

The first came in Melbourne, where Francesca Schiavone outlasted Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 in the fourth round. By the end of the record four-hour, 44-minute epic, my entire row of international journalists were on their feet, watching the TV feed from Hisense Arena with arms crossed and bemused smiles. Most had ignored the first three hours of the match, but as the two Grand Slam champions got deeper into the 30-game final set, it was hard to turn away as these women fought fatigue and each other to produce scintillating tennis. This wasn't a match that carried on simply because both players were choking away their chances. That final set lasted three hours because neither woman would fold -- even while struggling to keep their focus.

"At some stage, I was like, 'What's the score? Who's serving?' " Kuznetsova said afterward. "I had no clue sometimes. It was so hard to count."

The Tiebreaker Everyone Watched -- Samantha Stosur vs. Maria Kirilenko, U.S. Open:  Similarly, the media seemed to live and die by every point played by Kirilenko and Stosur in their record-breaking, second-set tiebreaker in the fourth round in New York. From Stosur's incredible shot-making to Kirilenko's successful-by-a-hair Hawk-Eye challenges (the Russian would prevail 17-15 but lose the third set to the eventual champion), the gasps and incredulous laughter as reporters sat riveted to their screens made for an unforgettable scene. I can still hear the frantic shouts of "Was that in? Out? Anybody see it? OUUUUUUUUUUUT!" Classic.

The Match (Almost) No One Watched -- Ana Ivanovic vs. Kim Clijsters, Miami: Rain delays throughout the day, combined with a never-ending match between Jelena Jankovic and Andrea Petkovic on Stadium Court, forced Sony Ericsson Open organizers to move this appealing matchup to Court 2, a non-TV venue that sat only 2,500. Those lucky people not only got an up-close look at Clijsters in a rare outer-court appearance, but they also witnessed a highly entertaining fourth-round match full of fits and starts. Ivanovic built a 5-1 lead in the third set and held triple match point on Clijsters' serve, only to lose 7-6 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (5).

But what made this such a memorable match was the aftermath. Given the fact that it was a high-profile, three-setter played on a non-TV court, not many people saw it. All most knew was what was on the stat sheet: Ivanovic led 5-1 in the third and blew four match points to lose. The narrative quickly became about the Serb's choke job. But that's not what the spectators observed that day. They saw a great champion who played those four match points incredibly well, and a fatigued Ivanovic who simply ran out of gas. It reminds me a bit of a line from one of my favorite LCD Soundsystem songs: "Read all the pamphlets and watch the tapes," the emphasis being on "watch the tapes."

The Williams Sisters Invade Eastbourne: Situated on the south coast of England, Eastbourne is a sleepy seaside town full of retirees and affable folks. Every morning as I walked along the water toward the tennis center, I would see rows of older men and women sitting on benches, silently staring out at the water. I felt like I was in a scene from Cocoon.

So imagine the buzz when Serena and Venus Williams announced that their returns from lengthy absences would begin in Eastbourne in June. The international media immediately descended on the town, the Lawn Tennis Association dispatched its best and brightest in an "all hands on deck" directive, and what seemed to be a relatively small warmup tournament for Wimbledon suddenly became the center of the WTA world.

Venus Williams (pictured) and sister Serena were the center of attention in Eastbourne. (Zumapress)

It all led to a very odd scene on site. The small grounds suddenly felt like a TMZ zone, as hoards of cameras followed the Williamses' every move. Want to know if Serena's practicing? Just look for the five cameras set up courtside. Why were fans suddenly parting like the Red Sea? Serena's security team is walking her through to her court. Why are all the fans standing around an outer court suddenly whispering to each other and pointing while surreptitiously taking pictures of another bystander? Oh, Venus is standing courtside enjoying a match.

The fans came out in full force for an opportunity to see the sisters begin their comebacks. It was a nice reminder of how important they are to the game. • If You Build It, They Will Come: There could not have been a better way to cap the season than to walk into Istanbul's Sinan Erdem Dome for the first match of the WTA Championships and see a nearly packed house of about 10,000 fans, young and old, who were excited to watch women's tennis. I have never seen a crowd like that for a WTA-only tournament. The cynic in me thought it had only shown up to see Maria Sharapova. But as the tournament progressed and the marketable stars departed, the attendance only got bigger. The shocked looks from Tour officials said it all: No one expected it and everyone was pleasantly surprised.

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