Here’s part three of the countdown of my favourite WTA matches in 2015. There’s probably a few surprises in this part including a match from the very first week of the 2015 season which nearly slipped through the net! In case you missed it, part one can be found HERE and part two can be found HERE. Read on to find matches 10 to 6 in this year’s countdown.
10. Stephens d. Bencic, 6-4 7-6(5) (Miami, R4)
Miami never features prominently in my countdown but this year, a gem of a fourth round match, featuring Sloane Stephens and Belinda Bencic sneaks into my top ten. Both players had made poor starts to the year, combining for just three WTA main draws through the first two months of the year. However, Indian Wells and Miami marked a change in fortunes for both; Bencic won five matches at Indian Wells and Miami, while Stephens recorded seven, beating Bencic in this tight two setter to reach the quarter-finals.
This was a thoroughly entertaining match packed full with long and meaningful rallies. The match built up to a worthy crescendo with the best tennis coming at the very end in a dazzling second set tiebreak. Stephens’s backhand down-the-line was working beautifully but every now and then, Bencic would come up with some magic. However, the Swiss player didn’t quite have the power to break through the barriers of Stephens’s defence and superior athleticism, and wasn’t quite confident enough to close points out the net, often getting caught in no man’s land.
In the first set, Stephens broke when it really mattered with Bencic serving at *4-5. The Swiss player had her chances in the second set, securing a 5-3 lead with some blistering backhands. However, Stephens’s depth, on another tremendous rally on break point, forced Bencic long when she tried to serve out the set. The set went into a tiebreak where a forehand putaway after one of the best rallies of the tournaments helped Stephens seal the win.
As always, Bencic gave a classy handshake, but it was Stephens who came out on top, producing a gritty and fighting display that was surprisingly characteristic for much of her 2015 season.
Match Time: 2h 07
9. Pliskova d. Azarenka, 4-6 7-6(9) 6-4 (Brisbane, R1)
The first week of 2015 yielded a fascinating first round match-up in Brisbane featuring Karolina Pliskova and Victoria Azarenka. There was much expectation around this match; Pliskova had gone on a tear during the 2014 Asian Swing, winning 16 matches after the US Open including two titles in Seoul and Linz, while Azarenka was coming back from a long lay-off after an injury ravaged 2014. Azarenka was the more dynamic of the pair early on, exploiting Pliskova’s movement with some dominant all-court tennis, going up 5-1 and eventually sealing the first set, 6-4.
Pliskova improved as the match wore on; her powerful and reliable serve coupled with a nonchalant ability of crushing down-the-line winners began to make an impact. Azarenka hadn’t won a match for four months and that began to show as she failed to serve out the match at 6-4 *5-4, missing one match point, and was unable to convert on another one in the second set tiebreak; Pliskova forced a deciding set by winning the second set tiebreak, nine points to seven.
The third set was terrific; Azarenka showed plenty of mental resolve to save three break points at 3-3 but could not hold on in her next service game with Pliskova producing a huge forehand down-the-line winner on break point. While Azarenka has been known as one of the best competitors on the WTA tour, it was the Czech player’s nerve that held in the big moments. Azarenka had three break points in what would be the last game but Pliskova saved them all, the first two on monstrous winners and the third with an ace. Pliskova set up her first match point with a thunderous pass before Azarenka went wide on match point. It was great to see Pliskova so fired up and she played a near-flawless third set.
This match reminded me how excited I was about Pliskova’s game during the first few months of the year. Unfortunately this was somewhat clouded during the year as a heavy schedule and tired legs took away some of the early magic. She ended it though on a real high, helping the Czech Republic win the Fed Cup. I hope we get to see Pliskova play a more balanced schedule next year, taking into account the successes she had in 2015.
Match Time: 3h 13
Match Stats: Pliskova (55 W and 39 UE) and Azarenka (42 W and 44 UE)
8. Kerber d. Wozniacki, 3-6 6-1 7-5 (Stuttgart, Final)
Sinking to her knees in both relief and celebration, Angelique Kerber’s victory in Stuttgart was one of the most uplifting stories of 2015. Kerber defeated the defending champion, Maria Sharapova in the second round and kept her run going all the way to the final where she recovered from 3-5 down in the final set against Caroline Wozniacki to win her 11th consecutive match in a pulsating encounter.
This was Wozniacki’s best week of the year; playing aggressive and decisive tennis on the indoor clay; the Dane had already beaten clay court stalwarts, Carla Suárez Navarro and Simona Halep. Wozniacki carried that form into the final, winning the first set, 6-3. Kerber showed signs of awakening in the final game of the first set, winning a gripping forehand to backhand rally. She built on a service hold to love at the start of the second set to win six of the next seven games and force a deciding set.
The third set was the stand-out of this contest. Kerber secured a vital early hold despite Wozniacki coming close to the break. The Dane was returning so aggressively, managing to find the line on one return from practically outside of the tramlines. Kerber started to exhibit heavy legs with Wozniacki taking advantage of a slack service game from the German player to lead 5-3 in the third set. Adrenaline kicked in for the home favourite though who mounted a stirring comeback. While Wozniacki looked great for much of the week in Stuttgart, when things gets tight, she still reverts back into defensive “brick wall” mode. This allowed peak Kerbs to make an appearance who played the big points better in the end. On her fourth Championship point, a well struck forehand down-the-line sealed the comeback win for Kerber.
Match Time: 2h 04
7. Azarenka d. V.Williams, 2-6 6-2 6-4 (Doha, SF)
I enjoyed Doha for obvious reasons this year with Lucie Safarova crowned the champion! In terms of quality, the best match of the week was the semi-final match between Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams. Vika headed into this match having lost eight straight sets against Venus. Early signs were that this was heading the same way as their first four encounters with a number of glorious backhands helping Venus seal the first set, 6-2.
Vika showed her battling qualities to fight back in the second set. In my opinion, Azarenka is one of the few players who has a plan B and can change it up when necessary. Playing more aggressively and charging the net, Azarenka won her first ever set against Venus, 6-2; she secured her first break of the Venus serve with back-to-back return winners and then got the insurance double break with a forehand down-the-line winner that ended with her on the floor.
This was a wonderfully contested match and more often that not, the points were being won rather than lost. Furthermore, Venus and Vika are two of the most competent players at the net so it was a fun watch. It was Azarenka who dominated at the net, winning 23 out of 29 points in the forecourt. Venus hit a couple of crackers in the decider but it was Vika’s sustained aggression that saw her go up 4-0. Venus staged a fighting comeback, winning three straight games from 1-5 to 4-5, but Vika hung tough. An ace at 15-15 was crucial as Vika sealed her first win over Venus. While it was still a year that was affected by niggly injuries, there were promising signs for Vika and this was one of her best wins of the year.
Match Time: 2h 18
Match Stats: Azarenka (36 winners to 27 unforced errors) and Williams (43 winners to 20 unforced errors)
6. Kerber d. Radwanska, 4-6 6-4 6-4 (Stanford, QF)
Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska served up an absolute treat of a quarter-final in Stanford earlier this summer. I have to admit that when I watched this match for the first time, having seen all the “match of the year” references on Twitter, I felt it was a tad overrated. However, when watching back the highlights in preparation for these posts, I was able to appreciate the quality much more compared to other matches. This match can be simply summed up by Radwanska’s dress… dazzling! Where it excels against most matches was the quality never really dipped through the three sets.
Even from the first point, Radwanska was racking up the hot shots highlight reel. Radwanska’s ability to move forward, take the ball early and anticipate the play was quite breathtaking. Her drop shots were on point and she was so sturdy at the net. Radwanska was the better player in the first set but that’s not to say Kerber was playing poorly at all. The German player was still able to crunch a handful of down-the-line winners when the opportunity arose. Radwanska broke Kerber’s serve to win the opening set, 6-4.
Radwanska was the better player for large chunks of this match, but Kerber’s dogged determination kept her in it. Saving a break point down *3-4 *30-40, Kerber won three straight games to bag the second set. The third set was just as good as the first two and Radwanska even managed to pull off the most audacious of her collection of drop shots, hitting one off the return. The third set, like the second, came right down to the wire, but it was Kerber who was a touch more solid in the critical moments. The crowd gave the pair a deserved standing ovation just after the second set. This was a wonderful advertisement for the women’s game and an example that the WTA tour has plenty to offer in terms of variety.
Match Time: 2h 26