Thursday November 21st, 2013

Andy Murray Andy Murray broke the British men's drought at Wimbledon. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

The Beyond The Baseline awards are our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season. Today, we rank the four Grand Slam tournaments based on the combination of great matches, interesting storylines, exciting moments and overall drama. Click here for our complete archive of year-end awards.

1. Wimbledon

Champions: Andy Murray (Men's), Marion Bartoli (Women's), Bob and Mike Bryan (Men's Doubles), Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai (Women's Doubles), Daniel Nestor and Kristina Mladenovic (Mixed Doubles).

The Story: This was the most unexpected and unpredictable fortnight in recent memory. The surprises started immediately: Rafael Nadal lost to No. 135 Steve Darcis, the Spaniard's first opening-round loss at a Grand Slam tournament. By Day 3, though, Nadal's loss seemed like a distant memory. That's because Wacky Wednesday included the end of Roger Federer's record streak of 36 major quarterfinals; an upset loss for Maria Sharapova; the withdrawal or retirement of seven players, including Victoria Azarenka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and -- notable in retrospect -- Marin Cilic; and the elimination of all seven former No. 1s on the schedule. "This is easily the craziest day of tennis I have ever seen," legendary coach Nick Bollettieri tweeted. "And I have been doing this for 60 years."

The second week began with a bang, too, when Sabine Lisicki upset prohibitive favorite Serena Williams in the fourth round, snapping the defending champion's 34-match winning streak.

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From the chaos emerged two feel-good stories during championship weekend. Murray ended Great Britain's 77-year wait for a men's Wimbledon champion with a tension-filled, straight-set win over Djokovic. The one-of-a-kind Bartoli took advantage of a broken draw to win her first major in her 47th attempt, defeating a teary-eyed Lisicki in the final. One month later, Bartoli abruptly retired at age 28.

Aside from the big winners, smaller storylines kept us riveted. Poland sent two players into the semifinals in Agnieszka Radwanska and Jerzy Janowicz, who became the first man from his country to make a Slam semifinal. Along with Murray, 19-year-old Laura Robson kept the British fans cheering with a fourth-round appearance. In fact, it was a big tournament for the WTA's youngsters. Sloane Stephens made the quarterfinals, and Genie Bouchard, Monica Puig and Madison Keys all had confidence-building runs in the first week.

To round it all out, the tournament brought controversies to the fore. The quality of the slick grass made headlines in the first week. Federer's orange-soled shoes put the spotlight on the All England Club's nonsensical and arbitrary all-white rule. And who can forget Sharapova's clinical pre-tournament news conference addressing Williams' Rolling Stone comments? With fireworks from start to finish, Wimbledon was the best major of the season.

2. Australian Open

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic won his third consecutive Australian Open title. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Champions: Novak Djokovic (Men's), Victoria Azarenka (Women's), Bob and Mike Bryan (Men's Doubles), Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci (Women's Doubles), Matt Ebden and Jarmila Gajdosova (Mixed Doubles).

The Story: Melbourne delivered a satisfying tournament, even after Nadal's withdrawal left the first major of the year without the storyline of his much-anticipated comeback. Memorable matches, career-making performances and plenty of drama kept us hooked.

The reigning singles champions -- Djokovic and Azarenka -- defended their titles, but the path wasn't a smooth one. In the match of the year, Djokovic outlasted Stanislas Wawrinka 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in a five-hour, fourth-round epic. Djokovic would go on to complete his Incredible Hulk impression by rallying past Murray 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 in the final to become the first man in the Open era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles.

As for Azarenka, she had an eventful final weekend. I've never seen a player so actively hated during a Grand Slam final as Azarenka. Public sentiment turned against her during the semifinals, when she took a medical timeout while leading Stephens 6-1, 5-4. The delay, which lasted 10 minutes and included a trip to the locker room, was widely viewed not as a break to treat a legitimate injury but as a bit of gamesmanship that enabled her to gather herself after failing to convert five match points and getting broken in the previous game. Azarenka, who returned to break Stephens immediately to win the match, admitted afterward that "she almost did the choke of the year" and that "nerves got into me," but she later said she used the timeout to treat a rib injury that made it difficult for her to breathe. (Tournament officials said Azarenka was actually given two medical timeouts to address rib and knee injuries.)

The controversy served as the backdrop for Azarenka's highly intriguing final against tennis' reluctant charmer, Li Na, who perhaps would have won if she hadn't injured her ankle or slammed her head to the court during the three-set match that lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes.

All in all, there was some weird mojo floating around Melbourne in January. Gael Monfils won a match despite serving 23 double faults, four of which came as he served for the match. Sharapova looked dominant, dropping just nine games heading into the semifinals, but was summarily dismissed by Li 6-2, 6-2. Ankle and back injuries hampered Williams, who lost to Stephens in the quarterfinals -- a match that set the stage for the younger American's critical comments about Serena. And then there was that feather, which, if you believe some of the British press, caused Murray to lose the final.

3. U.S. Open

Serena Williams Serena Williams beat Victoria Azarenka to win the U.S. Open. (Darren Carroll/SI)

Champions: Rafael Nadal (Men's), Serena Williams (Women's), Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek (Men's Doubles), Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka (Women's Doubles), Max Mirnyi and Hlavackova (Mixed Doubles)

The Story: The majors season ended with the No. 1s and No. 2s producing the best pair of Slam finals of the year. Nadal traded blows with Djokovic en route to a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win, and Williams weathered Azarenka's spirited comeback to prevail 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1.

Not that there weren't upsets, unforeseen deep runs or notable angles to bring variety. Li, Flavia Pennetta, Richard Gasquet and Wawrinka (who crushed defending champion Murray in straight sets) all had career-best New York performances to make the semifinals; Tommy Robredo spoiled the long-awaited Federer-Nadal meeting at the U.S. Open by upsetting Federer in the fourth round; Victoria Duval, 17, created buzz with a first-round victory over 2011 champion Sam Stosur; James Blake bid farewell -- in dramatic and heartbreaking fashion; and the New York crowd backed a Frenchman (Monfils) against the top-ranked American (John Isner). The tournament also featured a number of marquee matchups, including another riveting Djokovic-Wawrinka five-setter and Williams' first match against Stephens since the Australian Open.

The attention on doubles distinguished the U.S. Open from the other three majors of the season. The Bryan brothers commanded the stage in pursuit of the calendar-year Grand Slam; they fell two victories short, losing to Paes and Stepanek in the semifinals.

4. French Open

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal is the only man with eighth titles at any Grand Slam tournament. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

Champions: Rafael Nadal (Men's), Serena Williams (Women's), Bob and Mike Bryan (Men's Doubles), Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina (Women's Doubles), Frantisek Cermak and Lucie Hradecka (Mixed Doubles).

The Story: Williams marched methodically to her first French Open title since 2002. She dropped one set for the tournament, lost one game to Errani in the semifinals and defeated Sharapova 6-4, 6-4 in the final. Meanwhile, her 2013 ATP doppelgänger, Nadal, withstood a stiff challenge from Djokovic in the semifinals (9-7 in the fifth set, during which the Serb was up a break at 4-3) and went on to win his eighth French Open title, the most for any man at any Slam.

The Frenchmen supplied drama throughout the tournament. Monfils was the man of the first week, for better and worse, knocking off Tomas Berdych in the first round and Ernests Gulbis in the second round before squandering a two-set lead to Robredo. So, basically, it was a quintessential Monfilsian run at a Slam.

Robredo, meanwhile, joined Tommy Haas in turning back the clock to grind into the quarterfinals. Robredo, 31, became the first player since 1927 to come back from two sets down to win three consecutive matches. Haas, 35, needed 13 match points to get past John Isner 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8 in the third round. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the French story of the second week, dismantling Federer in the quarterfinals to set up a winnable match against David Ferrer. But Tsonga lost quietly in straight sets to Ferrer, who reached his first major final. From there, unfortunately, the final was more notable for a flare-wielding protestor than the competitiveness on the court, as Nadal rolled 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

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