Early-season WTA winners and losers
Before the clay-court season heats up, Beyond The Baseline is taking stock of the year in tennis so far. Here's a look at the WTA Tour winners and losers from the first three months. Click here for the ATP breakdown.
Li Na: Li took advantage of a favorable draw -- she didn't face a top-20 player -- to win the Australian Open. The most impressive and encouraging thing about her season, though, is that she hasn't experienced a letdown like she did after winning her first major, the 2011 French Open. After a brief blip in the Middle East, the 32-year-old rebounded in North America by matching or surpassing her career-best results at two big tournaments, making the semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open (where she lost to eventual champion Flavia Pennetta) and the final of the Sony Open (where she lost to No. 1 Serena Williams). That latter match, a 7-5, 6-1 defeat, may have shown that Li is a long way from No. 1, but her early-season performance leaves no doubt that she's a solid No. 2.
Serena Williams: The 17-time major champion is all about the Grand Slams, heightening the disappointment over a fourth-round loss to Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open. But she shouldn't be penalized by the impossibly high standard she's established for herself. Williams, 32, has won two of her four hard-court starts, the Brisbane International (where she beat Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka) and the Sony Open (where she won her record seventh title, thanks to comeback victories against Sharapova and Li). Fatigue finally caught up to her at the Family Circle Cup, where she lost her opening match to No. 78 Jana Cepelova in straight sets, but the time off should set her up well for the rest of the season.
Dominika Cibulkova: The 24-year-old Slovakian is to the WTA what Alexandr Dolgopolov has been to the ATP in 2014: a non-headline name who has consistently delivered the goods and entertained. Her terrific season would look even better if not for Li, who beat Cibulkova in the Australian Open final, and rallied past her in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open and semifinals of the Sony Open. Cibulkova also won the Mexican Open and cracked the top 10 for the first time, showing surprising consistency for a player with a go-for-broke style.
Simona Halep: She has quashed any skepticism about her ability to back up her breakout 2013 season. The 22-year-old advanced to the Australian Open quarterfinals for her best result at a major, knocked off three top-10 players en route to her biggest title, the Qatar Open, and produced her best showing at a Premier Mandatory event with a semifinal appearance in Indian Wells. She hits the clay, her best surface, ranked a career-high No. 5, the highest position for a Romanian in WTA history. Chapeau.
Ana Ivanovic: The former No. 1 has matched Li and Williams with a tour-leading two titles, and though the quality of competition was lacking at the ASB Classic and Monterrey Open, there's something to be said for taking care of business in the International-level events. Along with already clinching her first two-title season (in full-field tournaments) since 2008, the 26-year-old Ivanovic upset Williams to make the Australian Open quarterfinals.
Eugenie Bouchard: The 2013 Newcomer of the Year has picked up right where she left off, rising from No. 32 to No. 19 thanks in large part to her semifinal run in her first Australian Open, a career-best finish at a major and one in which she exploited a soft draw featuring three opponents with triple-digit rankings. Her performance at last week's Family Circle Cup was more impressive: The 20-year-old Canadian defeated Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic before narrowly losing to Andrea Petkovic in her first Premier-level semifinal.
Venus Williams: Grand Slam success remains elusive for Venus, whose first-round loss at the Australian Open marked her eighth consecutive major without a fourth-round appearance. But the 33-year-old Williams has made her mark elsewhere, advancing to the final at the season-opening ASB Classic and beating five top-35 opponents in straight sets to win the Dubai Championships for her first Premier-level title in four years. Venus has raised her ranking from No. 49 to No. 32.
Agnieszka Radwanska: It would be easy to focus on the missed opportunities -- losses to lower-ranked players in the Australian Open semifinals and Indian Wells final (where Radwanska was injured) surely sting -- but credit the 25-year-old Pole for her consistency. She's stayed solid at No. 3, and her three-set win over Azarenka in the Australian Open quarterfinals was one of the most entertaining displays of shot-making I've seen at that stage of a Grand Slam.
Flavia Pennetta: Another thriving thirty-something, the Italian defeated the top-two seeds, Li and Radwanska, at Indian Wells on her way to the biggest title of her 14-year career. She also had her best result at the Australian Open, making the quarterfinals before losing to Li. In fact, she's had personal bests at her last three majors, all coming after 2012 wrist surgery sidelined her for six months and threatened her career. She's surged back into the top 15 for the first time since 2011.
Victoria Azarenka: Women's tennis is a better product when Azarenka is healthy and challenging Serena. Injuries have kept the 24-year-old off the court for the bulk of the season, though. Down to No. 4, Azarenka has played just three tournaments in 2014 -- and, really, she should have competed in only two, given how much pain she was in during her opening-round loss in Indian Wells.
Maria Sharapova: Expectations were tempered after a shoulder injury ended her 2013 season in August; indeed, the Russian is preaching patience as she works on her match fitness. But setting aside 2009, when she got a late start because of shoulder surgery, this is the first year since 2004 that Sharapova goes into the clay season without having made a final. Two weeks ago, the 26-year-old hit a three-year low of No. 9.
Caroline Wozniacki: Once known for rarely losing to lower-ranked players, Wozniacki did so at her first four tournaments this year. Then came an embarrassing 6-3, 6-1 loss to Jelena Jankovic in Indian Wells, and by the time the 23-year-old Dane arrived at the Sony Open (where she would play better in reaching the quarterfinals), she had cut ties with coach Michael Mortensen after less than two months. The former No. 1 fell to No. 18 last month, a six-year low.
Sloane Stephens: She has made more headlines for her attitude than accomplishments this season, and while she preaches patience, her Generation Next colleagues are either closing the gap or passing her by. Reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of Indian Wells are solid results, but the 21-year-old continues to stall at smaller events. Stephens has failed to win back-to-back matches at five of seven tournaments, including this week's Claro Open Colsanitas, where she lost to No. 129 Mariana Duque-Marino in the first round. Roberta Vinci: The 31-year-old Italian has somehow managed to stay in the top 20 despite entering the week with a 1-8 record, including seven consecutive losses before an opening-round victory over Madison Keys at Indian Wells. She lost in the second round at this week's Katowice Open, which she won last year. Her countrywoman Francesca Schiavone, a 33-year-old former French Open champion, also lost her first seven matches and nine of 10 before a first-round win in Katowice.