Passing Shots: Serena works OT in 2013
ISTANBUL -- Emptying out the notebook from a week at the WTA Championships ...
• Serena Williams played a tour-high 82 matches this year, a whopping 20 more than her previous career high of 62. Winning so often certainly helped pad that total; the 32-year-old Williams finished 78-4 with 11 titles.
• Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, posed a rhetorical question to reporters after Serena defeated Li Na in Sunday's final: "Can you imagine the effort it took her to do what she did this year?" referring to the number of matches she played and the sheer focus needed to approach each one with the same intensity, whether it was a major final or an opening-round match in Bastad. It seems odd to pat a professional athlete on the back for, you know, trying every day, but Mouratoglou is absolutely right. For a player who has been knocked for her commitment level, this was an unprecedented effort from Williams.
• It's a bit weird that Maria Sharapova is no longer the highest-ranked client of sports agent Max Eisenbud, who also represents Li. The 31-year-old Li supplanted Sharapova at No. 3 after reaching the final of the WTA Championships.
• The WTA Championships missed Sharapova's star power. No doubt about it.
• Tennis isn't leaving Turkey. Though the WTA Championships will move to Singapore from 2014-2018, the tour will bring back the Istanbul Cup next year after a three-year break. The International-level hard-court tournament will be held in mid-July, after Wimbledon and before the U.S. Open Series. The event will be a true test of whether the Championships' three-year run -- which featured engaged and excited crowds -- whet the appetite for the sport here.
• Istanbul did a top-notch job hosting the WTA Championships despite limited infrastructure. The last three years were a big improvement over the dud that was Doha. As I've written before, the Istanbul crowds seemed to give the players the infusion of energy they needed in their final tournament of the season. Whether Singapore can drum up the same excitement remains to be seen, but in terms of organization, reliability and stability, it seems up to the challenge.
• If you want an example of Singapore's pride and ambition: A mixologist from one of its most famous bars came to Istanbul to make drinks for a presentation for media and VIPs. I was told he brought 14 bottles of special liquor and spent five hours squeezing fruit juice after he landed. That's some attention to detail.
• Fun nugget: The winner of the Singapore WTA Championships will get an orchid named after her.
• Jelena Jankovic, back in the spotlight (and top 10) after a long slump, was a breath of fresh air at the tournament. While most of the other players are just trying to battle through and already have one eye on their vacation itineraries, Jankovic was genuinely excited to be here and driven to compete. It's no secret that she loves the attention.
• Best press-room exchange goes to Jankovic after she beat Victoria Azarenka:
Q. Coming into this match, you didn't have a lot of success against top 4 players recently.
JELENA JANKOVIC: Who cares?
Q. Fair enough.
JELENA JANKOVIC: I don't care, so you guys shouldn't either.
• Azarenka's stark honesty in admitting that she was struggling to find her motivation at the WTA Championships was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was a refreshing glimpse into the reality of a top athlete who consistently competes under the mental pressure to win almost every time she steps on court. On the other hand, how must Billie Jean King, who fought to form the WTA Tour 40 years ago and pushed for equal prize money, feel when she hears that the top players (Azarenka wasn't the only who talked about motivation issues) can't get up to compete at the tour's most prestigious tournament with a $6 million purse?
• Speaking of King, I remember an interview she gave last year in Charleston, S.C.. The first thing she did was thank the media for attending her news conference, because when she helped start the WTA Tour 40 years ago, she had to beg reporters to come to tournaments. In response, newspapers would send their fashion writers, and the players would have to educate them on the sport. Today's players obviously don't have to deal with that. Younger players now feel perfectly fine declining interview requests. In a way, that's a huge statement on the state of the tour and the interest it generates on its own. I just hope they understand what the women who came before them had to do in order to give them this luxury. Everyone has to do their part to grow the sport.
• Hearing Li's coach, Carlos Rodriguez, talk about tennis is fascinating. It's telling that he refers to Li's game as "the machine." Speaking about her third-set collapse against Williams in the final, he said hadn't spoken with her yet but he needs her to give him "the right information" so that he can do his job. Input, output. The machine.
• Growing up in a Chinese system in which even success was sometimes punished, Li can get discouraged quickly when things go wrong. So it says a lot about the respect Li has for Rodriguez that, at this stage of her career, he's sold her on the need to get to the net more. I thought she'd resist the strategy if it didn't work early in the season -- no one likes getting passed and bricking volleys to the sound of groans from the crowd -- but she bought into the game plan 100 percent. That's not just a positive development in her game, but also for her psyche.
• Bar chat: How different would this season have looked if Li hadn't fallen on her head during the Australian Open final against Azarenka?
• Here's Azarenka's PR team's response to that hypothetical.
• Bar chat: How different would this season have looked if Li had challenged that serve out wide on set point against Agnieszka Radwanska in the Wimbledon quarterfinals?
• All that is to say, Li put herself in great position to win two Grand Slam tournaments this year.
• And if you're enjoying the "What if" game, an unlucky injury and an inspired Sabine Lisicki may have been the only things keeping Williams from a calendar-year Grand Slam.
• Petra Kvitova revealed she's good friends with Li because they share a similar sense of humor. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of those conversations ...
• I want to give a big high-five to the fan who made a "WE MISS YOU SIMONA HALEP" sign and waved it proudly in the stands during the final. That's some awesome WTA nerdery.
• I rode the hotel elevator with WTA Championships alternate Caroline Wozniacki and her parents and she squealed when it stopped and Radwanska got in. So, yes, they're still good buddies. • It's not a women's sporting event until you've heard Katy Perry's Firework 8,000 times in the span of a week.