The rise and fall of Rafael Nadal

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
5:47
PM ET
Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches | Dec. 11: Top women's matches | Dec. 12: Top shot-makers | Dec. 15: Top shots | Dec. 16: Top tirades | Dec. 17: Most mystifying moments | Dec. 18: Top on-court moments


The familiar and the new meshed in what was a frequently surprising year on the tennis tour. Here are some of the most significant on-court developments of the season.

1. Big Four dominance diminished

The Big Four won only two of the four Grand Slams this year, but let's also not get too carried away with talk of a decline. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray were still six of the eight Grand Slam finalists and won seven of the nine Masters 1000s. But each was a bit off. Murray's results haven't been the same since back surgery, Nadal had a string of physical problems, Federer was consistent but lacked a little extra in a few of his biggest matches, and Djokovic was up and down in a year where he had a lot happening off the court. That opened up opportunities for other players, making this season the most open on the men's tour in quite a while.

[+] EnlargeBouchard
AP Photo/Paul ChiassonCanadian Eugenie Bouchard made her mark this year by reaching the Wimbledon final.
2. Serena Williams ties major company

She tripped up at the first three majors, but Serena scored her 18th Grand Slam victory and a significant piece of tennis history at the US Open, tying Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert and lifting her to fourth in the all-time ranks. Margaret Court holds the record with 24 Grand Slam singles wins.

3. Rafael Nadal nets Slam No. 14

For all the Spaniard's physical problems and defeats on clay this year, he still won his record ninth French Open title. That gave him 14 Grand Slam singles titles, tying him with Pete Sampras for second-most all time for the men.

4. Influx of injuries

They have become a regular part of the sport for players, but injuries seemed to have an even bigger impact than usual. From Nadal's back injury at the Australian Open to Federer's back injury at the Tour Finals, there was a season-long surge of physical travails. Nadal also withdrew from the US Open with a wrist injury, while Kei Nishikori withdrew from the Miami semifinals and retired during the Madrid final with hip and back problems. And though he reached the US Open final, he almost didn't play the tournament because of yet another injury issue. Victoria Azarenka's foot problem kept her off the tour for most of the season, and Juan Martin del Potro's wrist surgery did likewise. Serena had back and knee problems during various portions of the season, as did Ana Ivanovic with her hip and Sloane Stephens with her wrist.

And scores of other players such as David Ferrer, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet had nagging problems that took them on and off the tour, with a few even driven into retirement.

5. Men's up-and-comers

They haven't toppled the top guys consistently, but younger players such as Nishikori, US Open champ Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Ernests Gulbis all followed through the door opened by Stan Wawrinka's Australian Open victory, crowding into the top 10. It was a significant shift from the veterans who had been filling the ranks in previous years.

6. Women's comebackers

Newer names like Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard had a big impact, but the women's game also saw several familiar figures move back toward their former heights. Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki returned to the top 10. Petra Kvitova won another Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, while Dominika Cibulkova hit her way into the Aussie Open final and Venus Williams found her way back into the top 20. But even with all this, the WTA comeback player of the year officially went to former prodigy Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who defeated Halep at the US Open before winning her first WTA title in 16 years in Quebec City.

7. Canada’s rise

Having steadily climbed upward for a few years, Canada announced itself on the world stage at Wimbledon this year with Raonic making the men's semifinals, Bouchard the women's final and Vasek Pospisil winning the men's doubles. Bouchard also reached two Grand Slam semifinals, while she and Raonic also qualified for the WTA and ATP Finals. And with doubles veteran Daniel Nestor also still playing and one or two younger women emerging, the new Canadian presence in tennis looks set for a while.

[+] EnlargeKei Nishikori
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesKei Nishikori has always had the talent and this year, he proved it.
8. The Southeast Asia boom

The Grand Slam season began with Li Na’s victory at the Australian Open, propelling her to No. 2 and the highest ranking achieved by an Asian player, and though she was about to retire by the US Open, the tournament saw Nishikori reach the final and get to No. 5, the highest for an Asian man. The growing number of players from the region comes coincidentally (or not) at a time when Asia is seeing a boom in the number of tournaments there.

9. Teenagers make their mark

Almost gone from the men's top 100 for a few years and only occasionally seen in the women's, teenagers re-established themselves this season. Nick Kyrgios pulled off one of the year's most significant performances by defeating Nadal at Wimbledon. The 19-year-old is joined by two others -- Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric -- as teenagers in the top 100. Meanwhile, Madison Keys won her first tour title at 19 and is one of four teens in the WTA top 100.

10. Switzerland takes Davis Cup

With Wawrinka establishing himself as a top player and Federer returning to the fold, Switzerland lifted its first Davis Cup by winning a fascinating final against France in front of record crowds. It can also be seen as Federer's most notable achievement of the season, giving him one of the few significant titles he had yet to capture.
Editor's note: For two weeks, starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com is unveiling its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches | Dec. 11: Top women's matches | Dec. 12: Top shot-makers | Dec. 15: Top shots | Dec. 16: Top tirades | Dec. 17: Most mystifying moments | Dec. 18: Top on-court moments

It was a season full of surprises on the tour, with plenty of twists, turns and talk. But some unfolded in particularly unusual fashion, arresting attention as they happened. Here are some of the moments that left tennis watchers gaping.

1. Serena Williams' Wimbledon exit

She had already been ousted from the singles in a dramatic three-setter, but Serena would make an even more eventful exit in doubles. With her sister Venus sitting expressionless beside her, Serena called for the trainer during the warm-up, saying her vision and balance were affected. She then attempted to play the match, sending the ball flying when making contact in the first game. Next Williams hit four double faults that often weren't even in the vicinity of the service box, retired from the contest and, ultimately, left the tournament before giving a news conference. And she has still not given a more specific explanation than illness, saying she planned to have tests in the offseason.

[+] EnlargeLi Na
Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty ImagesDespite winning the Australian Open earlier in the season, Li Na called it a career in 2014.
2. Li Na’s retirement

Li won her second Grand Slam at the Australian Open, injured her knee and had a sharp fall in her results during the clay season, had valued coach Carlos Rodriguez leave her following Wimbledon and withdrew from the US Open. With retirement rumors swirling, Li announced she was stopping just before her hometown tournament, which was to be played for the first time this year with her as its top attraction. Quite a roller-coaster season.

3. Rafael Nadal's injury issues

Nadal's physical problems produced some unusual sights on the court this season. He began experiencing back problems in the warm-up during the Australian Open final against Stan Wawrinka and called the trainer down a set and 2-0. Nadal had to leave the court to be examined, which led to a break of about 10 minutes, causing Wawrinka to complain angrily to the umpire. Nadal was even booed when he returned to court, but it was apparent the Spaniard was really hurt when he began serving at about 80 mph and could barely stay in points. He then improved and somehow won the third set against a nervous Wawrinka, but the first-time Grand Slam finalist was able to clinch the match in the fourth -- one of the stranger Grand Slam finals ever played.

Nadal had then only just returned from a wrist injury when he developed appendicitis in Shanghai, but chose to take antibiotics and keep playing rather than have surgery right away. Initially unable to practice and not sleeping properly because of the painful condition, he had poor showings in Shanghai and Basel and then decided to stop for the season.

4. Miami's men's semifinals

The Miami semifinals were supposed to feature Nadal versus Tomas Berdych and Djokovic versus Kei Nishikori, but instead saw no action when Nishikori withdrew with a hip injury and Berdych followed suit with a stomach problem. It wasn't the only no-show day on the men's circuit in 2014. Roger Federer withdrew from the final of the ATP World Tour Finals against Novak Djokovic because of a back injury.

5. Eugenie Bouchard's Montreal appearance

It was one of the most hyped appearances of the year -- Montrealer Eugenie Bouchard playing her hometown event in her first tournament since reaching the Wimbledon final. There were record ticket sales, television cameras and packed crowds as she walked on court for her opening round against little-known qualifier Shelby Rogers. Clearly affected by the attention, Bouchard didn't win a game in the first set and told her coach, Nick Saviano, that she wasn't even in the match. She gathered herself and took the second set, but then unraveled -- the 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 score line telling the story of a very ragged match.

6. Stan Wawrinka's Davis Cup faceoff

The fifth match of the Davis Cup final wasn't played as Switzerland took a winning 3-1 lead against France, but Wawrinka still had a faceoff with the French team that evening. A slightly tipsy Wawrinka had said during the news conference that the French players had "talked too much" going into the tie, and they confronted him in the bathroom about his comments during the Davis Cup dinner. French player Julien Benneteau told a French newspaper that Wawrinka apologized and there was no violence, but a heated five-minute discussion ensured before Gael Monfils stepped in to calm things down.

[+] EnlargeShuai Peng, Caroline Wozniacki
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty ImagesShuai Peng couldn't overcome full-body cramps against Caroline Wozniacki at the US Open.
7. Shuai Peng's US Open collapse

A hotly contested match on a hot day at Flushing Meadows was too much for Shuai Peng, who collapsed on court during the second set against Caroline Wozniacki. The trainers conducted a lengthy examination that determined Peng was experiencing heat illness, not cramps, which allowed her to receive medical attention midgame. Though advised not to keep playing, she resumed for five more points before again falling to the court and retiring. The scenes of Peng on the ground crying and being wheeled off court led to tournament officials being criticized both for giving her too much assistance, disrupting the match, and for not giving her enough, potentially compromising her health.

8. Andy Murray's referendum tweet

Having insisted that he did not plan to publicly express an opinion on this year's referendum on Scottish independence, Andy Murray caused waves by sending a tweet that morning apparently supporting the “yes” side.


It became one of the most retweeted comments of the referendum, prompting so much negative reaction from the opposing side there was even a police investigation into some of the comments. Murray subsequently said it had been an impromptu decision, and that while he did not regret expressing an opinion, he would now have done it a different way.

9. Spain's Davis Cup captaincy

Former WTA player Gala Leon Garcia, now sporting director of the Spanish tennis federation, was appointed to select Spain's next Davis Cup captain when Carlos Moya decided to leave his position because he was unhappy that the top players had declined to show up for the World Group playoffs. Garcia chose herself, becoming the country's first female Davis Cup captain and setting off controversy. Prominent players like Nadal, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, as well as Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni, complained they had not been consulted and criticized her lack of coaching experience, especially on the men's tour. That led to accusations of sexism, particularly on the locker-room question, which Nadal countered by saying the new captain was misrepresenting her critics' position. Next season Spain will attempt to rebound from relegation and get the top players playing again.

10. Simona Halep's coaching changes

Simona Halep had her best season yet, reaching as high as No. 2 and making a Grand Slam final at the French Open. Much of it was while working with Wim Fissette, the former coach of Kim Clijsters, but Halep decided to get rid of him as the offseason began. There were plenty of questions about why she would change a winning formula, but then again, maybe she wasn't. Halep had done exactly the same thing a year ago, dropping Adrian Marcu despite getting to No. 11 and winning a host of titles. Perhaps her next coach shouldn't do such a good job, if he wants to keep his job.

Editor's note: For two weeks, starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com is unveiling its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches | Dec. 11: Top women's matches | Dec. 12: Top shot-makers | Dec. 15: Top shots | Dec. 16: Top tirades

The tension of a match can lead to tempers and rackets flying, and this season was no exception. There were heated discussions and shows of anger as players argued -- often correctly -- with umpires, each other and whoever else happened to be around. Here are some of the more notable tirades from this season.

1. Fabio Fognini: Hamburg Open



Fognini could fill up all the spots by himself, erupting at almost every tournament he played this season. From a racial remark in a match at Hamburg to giving the crowd the finger in Shanghai, there was no shortage of distasteful behavior by the Italian. He was fined $27,500 at Wimbledon for breaking rackets and other violations, as even his frequently entertaining theatrics became wearisome. Then there was the display in Madrid, where Fognini suggests retribution for the umpire following a disagreement about a ball mark, another troubling example.

2. Stan Wawrinka and Mirka Federer: Tour Finals, London

This would have been a regular run-of-the-mill complaint about the crowd -- especially coming from a regular like Wawrinka, except that it happened to be about Federer's wife. Wawrinka objected to the timing of Mirka's cheering, telling the umpire "she also did it at Wimbledon" when the two players played in the quarterfinals. On TV replays, a female voice was subsequently heard yelling "crybaby," to which Wawrinka appeared to react toward Federer.

It became even bigger news when reports surfaced that Wawrinka and Federer then had a 10-minute discussion in the locker room about the argument, with the two scheduled to play together in the Davis Cup final the following week. But that's as far as it seemed to go between the two, who were perfectly friendly when they re-appeared as teammates just a day or two later.

3. Andy Murray: Sony Open



A player gets cut some slack when arguing correctly against an umpire's call, like Murray was in the Miami final against Novak Djokovic. He wasn't alone this season, as Denis Istomin (Indian Wells), Fognini (Indian Wells), Daniela Hantuchova (French Open), Rohan Bopanna (Wimbledon), Roberta Vinci (Stuttgart), and a few others described here all had reason to question obvious mistakes by officials.

In this case, Murray was objecting to Djokovic reaching across the net to put away a volley -- a no-no in tennis rules. But the umpire did not see Djokovic make contact with the ball on his opponent's side of the net, though replays clearly showed he had done so. The ensuing cross-talk between Murray and the umpire had the world No. 6 laughing at the absurdity of it all. Djokovic, who is known for giving points to opponents when the occasion demands, said following the match that he had not known the rule.

4. Maria Sharapova: Western and Southern Open

No lengthy rant, this one, but it was as cutting as it was concise. As Sharapova double-faulted to drop her service game in the third set against Ana Ivanovic, she gestured angrily and told the umpire, "Check her blood pressure." The Russian was still fuming about Ivanovic calling a medical break during the third game of the set, when the Serb said she was nauseous and had her blood pressure checked by the doctor, though her play did not seem to be affected.

5. Serena Williams: WTA Finals, Singapore



Serena Williams didn't even need words; a well-performed destruction of her racket spoke eloquently as she went down in the first set to Caroline Wozniacki. Three mighty swings and it was crumpled. Even Serena called it "legendary." By consensus, this was the best racket smash of the season.

6. Donald Young: Tallahassee challenger



It's not often that a player will go to such lengths to argue that an opponent's ball was in, but that's what Young did during his match against Alex Kuznetsov at the Tallahassee challenger. With his opponent serving, Young successfully returned the ball, only for the umpire to say Kuznetsov's delivery had been long. The two players then exchanged words about the disruption in play, and the umpire agreed to Kuznetsov's request for a first service. That started Young off again, with demands to call the supervisor.

7. Tomas Berdych: US Open



Berdych protested furiously when he was called for a double bounce, asking the umpire if she had been "in the sun" for too long or "ever had a racket" in her hand. But when he saw replays following the match showing the ball had indeed bounced twice, Berdych tweeted an apology.

8. Sara Errani: Western and Southern Open



Errani had enough reason to rant when the umpire saw a ball well inside the service box as wide, but she became even more rattled when he ordered the point replayed. Convinced that her opponent, Yanina Wickmayer, had not made the return and the point should be hers, the Italian let the umpire have it.

9. Benoit Paire: Wimbledon

The Frenchman has to be credited for persistence, keeping his campaign against the All England Club going for a second straight year. Paire spoke at length about his dislike of Wimbledon following his defeat at the tournament, saying, "I'm glad to leave as soon as possible." A year before, he had smashed his rackets against a wall, complained about the courts, and said "all they like is giving fines."

10. Caroline Wozniacki: WTA Finals, Singapore



Wozniacki had used up all her challenges against Sharapova at the Tour Finals and then got a bad call, as Sharapova's ball was called in when replays showed it went wide. Wozniacki demonstrated the shot to the umpire, smacked her racket against the net and waved her hands, but to no avail, finding herself facing a set point in the second set.
Editor's note: For two weeks, starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com is unveiling its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches | Dec. 11: Top women's matches | Dec. 12: Top shot-makers | Dec. 15: Top shots

Every tennis season brings with it a hefty helping of great points. They can happen at any time in any match -- a combination of stellar shot-making in a sustained exchange. Although Big Four dominance declined on the men's tour, their ability to produce stunning shots -- and inspire them from opponents -- seems as good as ever. And even if the counterpunchers on the women's tour didn't lift the big trophies, they showed some big swings of their own. Here are a few examples sampling this year's smorgasbord of memorable exchanges.

1. Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic, Dubai SF



This was the Big Four rivalry of this season, and it produced some of its best points. The consistent quality of this exchange is exceptional, punctuated by a skillful Federer lob followed into net to put away the point.

2. Grigor Dimitrov vs. Andy Murray, Acapulco SF (click for clip)

Grigor DimitrovScott Barbour/Getty Images
The pyrotechnics in this one are something to see. A 27-shot rally, highlighted by some typically electric shots from Dimitrov that had the crowd roaring as he captured the point.

3. Andy Murray vs. Rafael Nadal, Rome QF



Murray shows that it takes something special to get the ball by Rafael Nadal on clay.

4. Angelique Kerber vs. Jelena Jankovic, Doha R



Two of the best point-extenders on tour do what they do, as the Serb yanks (Janks) her opponent across the court before the German finds a winner to curb (Kerb) the onslaught.

5. Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic, Monte Carlo SF



They're at it once more, an entertaining exchange that makes it hard to tell Djokovic has a bad wrist.

6. Stan Wawrinka vs. Novak Djokovic, Australian Open QF



Like their other recent Grand Slam encounters, Djokovic and Wawrinka saved some of their best tennis for the biggest moments, such as this break point with a thunderous exchange decided by the type of Wawrinka winner seen so often during the tournament.

7. Caroline Wozniacki vs. Maria Sharapova, US Open fourth round



The marathon woman ran down everything Sharapova threw at her, and then struck a blow of her own in the turning point of a long and demanding match.

8. Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan vs. Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, Madrid final

Bryan BrothersAP Photo/Mike Groll
Put two good teams on the court, and doubles contests routinely throw up sparkling exchanges. This is just such an example between two seasoned pairs.

9. Eugenie Bouchard vs. Alisa Kleybanova, Estoril 2R



A pretty good rally, but it puts itself on the highlight reel when Bouchard stumbles and falls but keeps on playing, giving added meaning to hitting off the ground.

10. David Ferrer vs. Rafael Nadal, French Open QF (third point)



These two titans of the clay courts show why this is their terre-ritory, with Nadal hitting his signature forehand but Ferrer still finding a winner.
Editor's note: For two weeks starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com will unveil its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches | Dec. 11: Top women's matches | Dec. 12: Top shot-makers

Perhaps not the winningest players in 2014, Gael Monfils and Agnieszka Radwanska were certainly the flashiest.

With that, your top shot-makers of the year.

Men: Gael Monfils

This usually comes down to a competition between Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov, though Dustin Brown is definitely starting to get a look with an improved ranking that allows him to show his skills at ATP events more often. Dimitrov, however, has ditched some of his showmanship in favor of a more disciplined, determined approach, which has seen him climb toward the top 10 in the rankings, and Brown still doesn't play a lot of high-profile matches.

But Monfils is as freewheeling as ever, leaping and hitting from everywhere in the court despite injured knees that regularly sideline him. He is at his best with big occasions and big crowds, as he showed in his straight-sets defeat of Roger Federer in front of a packed stadium in the Davis Cup final and taking a two-set lead against Federer in a night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open a couple of months earlier.

Monfils hit so many dazzling shots, the bigger challenge might be choosing among them. Here's a selection that shows some of his range.

Slide, lunge and stretch. Or all at once.



This forward, between-the-legs leaping shot has become almost a signature move.



There's even touch.



When the opponent is 6-foot-6, this is not the easiest way to win a point.


He can do it looking the other way -- just twist to open.


He can even do it with the other hand.


Not that Dimitrov has gone completely on the straight and narrow, either. The 23-year-old Bulgarian still produced plenty of hot shots this season, but what makes this one so nice, is that he did it twice.

Women: Agnieszka Radwanska

There isn't a player on the WTA Tour who can match Radwanska for shot-making these days, with the 25-year-old becoming increasingly known for her improvisation and variety on court. Despite a subpar season that saw her reach only one Grand Slam semifinal and fall to No. 6 in the rankings, she added to her reputation for plucking spectacular shots from awkward positions. Here's a selection from the wand that is her racket.

This was voted the WTA's shot of the year, a backhand smash that few could pull off.


When the ball hits Radwanska's racket, it's anyone's guess what will happen.


It's not often that a player draws cheers and didn't win the point, but this backwards scoop backhand gets the crowd sitting up.


She can even do it sitting down.


Drama-filled matches for Serena, Sharapova

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
6:00
AM ET
Editor's note: For two weeks starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com will unveil its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches | Dec. 11: Top women's matches

Not only did Serena Williams snare the WTA Player of the Year honors (again), but she also played the most thrilling women’s match of 2014. Your top 10:

1. Serena Williams defeats Caroline Wozniacki, WTA Finals SF, 6-2,3-6, 7-6 (6)

Not only were these two players increasingly friendly off the court this season, they were increasing rivals on the court, going three sets in three of four matches.

Wozniacki had been on a long slide since dropping from the No. 1 ranking but began playing better right around the time she committed to running the New York Marathon, which was following Rory McIlroy's decision to call off their engagement. She warmed up for it with this marathon match against the world No. 1, dominating the first set against a frustrated Williams and serving for the match in the third set. But Williams, who was coming in off a leg injury and had won only two games in one of her round-robin matches during the week, struck back to win a tiebreaker.

She then swept through in the final and was at the marathon the following week to greet Wozniacki as the younger player completed the run in impressive time.

[+] EnlargeSharapova
AP Photo/Thibault CamusMaria Sharapova showed some serious game, winning the French Open in dramatic fashion.
2. Maria Sharapova defeats Simona Halep, French Open F, 6-4 6-7 (5), 6-4

The French Open women's final finally produced a compelling contest following years of straight-setters, with Sharapova and Halep on court for more than three hours. Sharapova had already played three-setters in her three matches coming into the final, dropping the first set each time. She changed that in this match, but Halep, playing her first Grand Slam final, hung on in the second set. The Romanian was broken twice while serving for the set but came from 5-3 down to win the tiebreaker. The match reached fever pitch in the third, but Sharapova's experience showed as Halep was rattled by an umpire's call and the Russian took eight points in a row to secure her second French Open title.

Sharapova could only imagine her reaction had anyone told her she would one day have two Grand Slam titles on what used to be her least preferred surface. "I would go get drunk," she said. "Or tell them to go get drunk."

3. Petra Kvitova defeats Venus Williams, Wimbledon 3R, 5-7, 7-6 (2), 7-5

This could have been the match that decided the tournament, with five-time champion Venus giving eventual champion Kvitova her tightest contest during the tournament. Both women were broken only once during the three sets, almost unheard of in a contemporary WTA match, and there was little let-up in this high-quality tussle. Venus was two points from victory in the second set, but Kvitova got on top in the tiebreaker and snuck through in the third.

It was the fourth straight match between these two to go three tight sets, including a similar encounter a few months before in Doha. This meeting confirmed the rivalry as one of the best on tour and was another indication of a Venus resurgence that would see her return to the top 20 in the rankings.

4. Ana Ivanovic defeats Serena Williams, Australian Open 4R, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3

Ivanovic was on the upswing and looking more competitive than in their recent matches, but it didn't look like that would make a difference as Serena still took the first set. But the Serb stepped up, imposed herself against Serena's serving and hit 33 winners, most off her stronger forehand. It was her best victory since winning the French Open title in 2008. For Williams, who said she almost didn't play the match because of a back injury, it would be the first of three unexpected defeats at the majors during a period of increased inconsistency.

5. Agnieszka Radwanska defeats Victoria Azarenka, Australian Open QF, 6-1, 5-7, 6-0

This match featured some of the most spell-binding tennis of the season, as Radwanska unfurled her beguiling array of shots against a former friend who had generally had the better of their matches. Azarenka, hampered by the leg injury that would keep her sidelined for most of the season, got into the match in the second set, only to be caught in a whirlwind of drop volleys and winners. Even Radwanska had to smile at some of the shots she produced, and Radwanska does not smile on a tennis court very often.

6. Maria Sharapova defeats Karin Knapp, Australian Open 2R, 6-3, 4-6, 10-8

It began as just another match on a busy third day at the Australian Open but turned into the highlight of a scorching day in Melbourne. Play dwindled as the tournament's extreme heat policy came into effect, and soon these two were the only ones left on court. Attention gathered on the match as they played on and on, earning admiration for their fitness and determination in brutal conditions.

Sharapova has long been established as one of the sport's toughest competitors, but the lesser-known Knapp also showed her stuff, breaking back during the third set before Sharapova finally came through in 3 hours, 28 minutes of torrid play.

7. Li Na defeats Lucie Safarova, Australian Open 3R, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3

She would go on to win the tournament, but Li's campaign turned on a few inches as Safarova swung a backhand by her on match point in the second set. A Hawk-Eye challenge confirmed the ball was long, keeping Li in the match -- and the tournament. Her talented but erratic opponent wasn't quite the same once the contest resumed, and Li, buoyed by her second chance, would start playing better and wound up lifting the trophy.

8. Caroline Wozniacki defeats Maria Sharapova, US Open QF, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2

Their match at the WTA Finals was tighter, but this one was more significant, announcing Wozniacki's return to Grand Slam relevance. Sharapova played a lot of three-set matches this year and usually won them, but not this one. Wozniacki was feistier and fitter in the hot conditions and wore down Sharapova in the third.

9. Petra Kvitova defeats Angelique Kerber, Fed Cup, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4

It took a match between of the tour's most inconsistent players and one of its steadiest to produce this up-and-down, back-and-forth encounter. The Czechs had won their first two matches against the German team, with this match starting the second day of play. Kerber led 5-2 in the first set and had five set points at 6-5, only to see Kvitova take the tiebreaker as the Czechs attempted to win their third Fed Cup in four attempts. In the second, Kvitova would go up 3-0 before Kerber leveled the match to keep Germany in the tie. Played in front of a full stadium in Prague, the third set would again see a change in momentum as Kerber took the lead before Kvitova delighted the home crowd by clinching the match and securing a 3-0 victory.

10. Angelique Kerber defeats Maria Sharapova, Wimbledon 4R, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 4-6

As well-contested as this match was all the way through, it became most memorable when Kerber reached match point. It was 5-2 in the third set. Sharapova, showing her mettle once again, fended it off. Kerber reached match point again at 5-4. Sharapova fended it off again. And again, and again -- six in total -- before Kerber converted the next to somehow put away her steely opponent. The spectators watched raptly as the match teetered, and others gathered to watch as the games carried on and on.
Editor's note: For two weeks starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com will unveil its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year | Dec. 10: Top men's matches

For another year, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic dominated the best contests, topped by the one that featured them both. Although the meetings between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal lacked their usual enthralling quality, plenty of other players stepped up to challenge the top players. Here are your 2014 matches of the year.

1. Stan Wawrinka defeats Novak Djokovic, Australian Open quarterfinal, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7

Given the two classic five-setters they played the previous season, this was almost expected to be another top-notch contest. They delivered and went the distance again in another high-quality encounter, with which they reprised their memorable meeting in the fourth round a year ago. Only this time, it was Wawrinka's turn to win, and he would go on to take the title and give the tour its first new Grand Slam champion in a while.

2. Roger Federer defeats Stan Wawrinka, ATP Tour Finals semifinal, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7)
[+] EnlargeDjokovic
AP Photo/Sang TanNovak Djokovic needed some serious OT to win his second Wimbledon championship.

The emergence of Wawrinka turned this duo's meetings into a genuine rivalry, rather than the Federer domination of old. They went into this encounter having split their two first meetings this season, and the match that followed would be the best of the three -- a tight, tense three-setter with high-quality baseline exchanges, net play and even Wawrinka getting into it with Federer's wife, Mirka. Federer would eventually take the match in 2 hours, 48 minutes. He saved four match points in the process.

At first, it seemed the match had come at a high cost. Federer tweaked his back during the tiebreaker and had to withdraw from the final, which put his Davis Cup appearance the following week in doubt, and he and Wawrinka clashed in the locker room about Wawrinka's complaints regarding Mirka's cheering. But they were all smiles in a few days, and they combined to give Switzerland its first Davis Cup victory.

3. Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer, Wimbledon final, 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4

Another Grand Slam victory, another lengthy encounter for Djokovic. Following a solid start by Federer, Djokovic was more in command than the score line indicated, but the Serb's nerves and Federer's opportunistic net play prolonged the encounter. The seven-time Wimbledon champion came from 5-2 down in the fourth set to send the match into a fifth. Djokovic not only won his second title at the All England Club, but he also returned to No.1 and then got married the week after his win to cap a special period that took some of the edge off his play for a few months.

4. Andy Murray defeats Tommy Robredo, Valencia final, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (8)

This 3 hour, 20 minute match, in which Robredo had five match points, would be compelling enough in and of itself, but it was all the more remarkable because the pair had played a similar final just a month before. In that encounter, Robredo had five match points in the second set, only for Murray to run away with the third. This one would be much tighter, with the Spaniard holding two match points in the second set and three in the third, but it was Murray who came through once again in a dramatic tiebreaker.

The veteran Robredo then showed Murray both middle fingers when the two met at net, which ensured a memorable handshake for a memorable contest.

5. Nick Kyrgios defeats Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon fourth round, 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3

It wasn't the most competitive encounter, but that only makes it more remarkable. The Australian 19-year-old, No. 144 in the world, took charge against former champion Nadal. He blasted winners left and right and sent the top seed packing like he was the one expected to win the match. Order seemed to have been restored, as Nadal rebounded to take the second set, but Kyrgios refused to go away and looked dominant by the time he broke to take a lead in the fourth set.

Nadal, coming off a French Open title and some nagging injuries, was not at his best, but Kyrgios showed some formidable ability to produce perhaps the year's most surprising match.

6. Kei Nishikori defeats Stan Wawrinka, US Open quarterfinal, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (5), 6-4

This was a back-and-forth encounter, with Wawrinka controlling the start of the match before Nishikori somehow grabbed the second set. The 24-year-old from Japan had a lead in the third but was broken back before he won it in a tiebreaker, while Wawrinka went up two mini-breaks in the fourth-set tiebreaker and only just squeaked through. Nishikori would finally break again in the fifth set to secure the match in 4 hours, 15 minutes and go on to reach the final.

It was an especially notable performance, given that Nishikori had almost not played the tournament due to a surgical procedure on his foot. He came in with no warm-up hard-court events -- not to mention the match he had played the round before (see next).

7. Kei Nishikori defeats Milos Raonic, US Open fourth round, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4

Two of the top up-and-comers went at it for 4 hours, 19 minutes, and wrapped at 2:26 a.m. to tie the US Open record for the latest ending. A contrast of styles between the big-serving Raonic and the counterpunching Nishikori, each set was tight, but it was Nishikori who proved more effective against his opponent's deliveries.

The match was expected to leave Japan's highest ranked player ever with little for the next round -- but far from it. He would return and do it again by going five sets against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals and sending his country into a whirlwind of excitement -- all before ousting Djokovic in the semifinals.

8. Roger Federer defeats Gael Monfils, US Open quarterfinal, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2

The two had gone three entertaining sets in Cincinnati just two weeks before, and they weren't done yet. Monfils delighted in front of the night crowd on Ashe and played in his inimitable, athletic style to take a two-set lead. Even with Federer taking the third set and going up a break in the fourth, the Frenchman stayed with him by blasting away from the baseline and earning two match points in the fourth set.

But the 17-time Grand Slam champion took a deep breath, told himself, "Don’t miss an easy shot" and held on to level the score before running away with the fifth set.

9. Rafael Nadal defeats Pablo Andujar, Rio semifinal, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10)

The lower-ranked Spaniard had never given his illustrious countryman much trouble, but it was a different Andujar on court for this match. With Nadal still finding his game after a back injury, he was able to take more control of points and win the first set convincingly. Even with Nadal coming back in the second, Andujar kept up, and the two played one of the best tiebreakers of the season. They scattered winners across the court as Nadal fought off two match points to come through.

10. Grigor Dimitrov defeats Andy Murray, Acapulco SF==semifinal, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3)

Murray was finally playing like himself after back surgery, Dimitrov was up to his usual shot-making extravaganzas, and they entertained the midnight crowd well into this three-setter. Both had played three-setters coming into the match, and the Bulgarian would go the distance again in the final to take the title. But this was his biggest win of the week, and a reflection of the tennis -- and increased fitness -- that would see him climb to No. 8 in the rankings.
Editor's note: For two weeks starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com will unveil its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

Dec. 8: Men's player of year | Dec. 9: Women's player of year

Sometimes there just isn't much competition. Serena Williams did not have a stellar year by her standards. She still won seven tournaments, including the US Open, the WTA Finals and two top-level WTA events, but that doesn't quite compare to the previous season, when she won 11 titles and two Grand Slams despite receiving greater challenges from rivals Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty ImagesAfter a disappointing Grand Slam season, Serena Williams won the US Open and the WTA Championships to close out the season.
But all the same, she is once again the Player of the Year, for the measure is not against herself but against the field. Although Williams didn't dominate as in the year before, her rivals fell back even more. A combination of inconsistency, injury, fatigue and even retirement scattered the order that was beginning to build among the established names on the women's tour, and emerging players such as Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard are still adjusting to the upper levels. Azarenka, in particular, spent much of the season injured, while Grand Slam champs Sharapova and Petra Kvitova did not sustain their form for long periods.

Williams was also inconsistent and injured sometimes. She suffered surprising losses in the first three majors of the year, said she wanted to take a break following a lackluster performance at Charleston and had problems with her back and knee during the season. Then there was her memorable and bizarre display at Wimbledon, when she was defeated in the singles and appeared ill when she returned for doubles and served four double faults before withdrawing from the match.

But she returned with a vengeance and won five tournaments. "It was really up and down," she said of her season. With no consistent challenger, her most significant victory of the season was one for the record books -- an 18th Grand Slam title to equal the totals of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for fourth among the all-time singles Grand Slam winners. And this at an age when most players are not still playing on tour, let alone at the top of their games.

She doesn't look like she has any intention of letting up, either. "You know, I've just been having such a great time winning titles, chasing different goals that I have, personally," Williams said of her motivation to stay on tour during the WTA Finals.

It remains to be seen whether Williams will play as much next season or only appear at the bigger events. Either way, she is still the player both the tour and record books can expect to be their biggest challenge.
Editor's note: For two weeks starting Dec. 8, ESPN.com will unveil its 2014 tennis awards once per day.

He isn't the most straightforward choice, but choosing the player of the year isn't just about achievement. It's about impact as well.

Novak Djokovic might have won more. A Grand Slam title, the ATP Tour Finals and four Masters were among his seven tournament victories. Roger Federer might have been more consistent; he reached at least the semifinals in 14 of 17 tournaments. Even Rafael Nadal's injury-plagued season had similar silverware: one Grand Slam victory, a Masters title and two other tournament victories.
[+] EnlargeStanislas Wawrinka
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesStan Wawrinka won the Aussie Open and, in the process, instilled confidence in the non-top-four players that they, too, could win.

But none of them had a career year, and in a season with four different Grand Slam winners and no dominant player, no one shook things up more than Stan Wawrinka. The second most well-known player from Switzerland established himself in his own right. He won the Australian Open and became a first-time Grand Slam champion as a 28-year-old, then took his first Masters title at Monte Carlo (by beating Federer in the final) and hoisted the Davis Cup alongside his teammates.

"Clearly, it's been an exceptional year for me," a smiling and slightly tipsy Wawrinka said after Switzerland's Davis Cup victory.

But it isn't just that Wawrinka broke new ground for himself; he did so for others as well. Going into the season, the Big Four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray had won 34 of the previous 35 Grand Slams. The “Wawrinka effect” was noticeable following his unexpected Australian Open triumph, as regular players saw one of their own capture one of the sport's biggest titles.

Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic and Ernests Gulbis were among those who noted a new sense of opportunity in the locker room, and several emerging names subsequently took big strides toward the top. Kei Nishikori and Raonic reached the top 10, and the season got a second new Grand Slam champion when Marin Cilic won the US Open.

The top players were also affected by Wawrinka and his big-swinging game. He loosened the grip Djokovic and Nadal had established on the big events the previous season and prompted Roger Federer to pursue one of the few things the 17-time Grand Slam champion had left to achieve -- the Davis Cup. What Wawrinka lacked was consistency.

All three of his tournament victories were at the beginning of the season, when he went 6-0 against top-10 players, but then he was sporadic until he found his game again at the Tour Finals and Davis Cup. He'll take it, however, especially following all those tight defeats against the big names the previous season.

"I couldn't ask for more this year,” he told reporters in Shanghai. “Winning Grand Slam, Masters 1000, being in the top five. Everything has been amazing."

For men's tennis, this was an unusual -- and potentially seismic -- year. There's little doubt much of that was thanks to Wawrinka.
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If four brand new swanky Roger Federer rackets aren’t enough, how about a high-tech bag to complete your collection?

This one, it should be pointed out, is quite a bit different than traditional storage, to say the least. Wilson describes the Federer elite bag as having a torpedo shape. The idea was that most racket bags have a similar architecture -- larger where the racket head lies and then narrower at the other end.

So, as John Lyons, global product director of Wilson Racquet Sports, explained, the impetus behind the Federer bag was to maximize the negative space.

“When you put a racket into a bag, traditionally there’s a good amount of unused real estate by the handle,” Lyons said. “And it’s pretty safe to say players don’t really want to jam apparel down there because it’s then difficult to get the rackets out. So the concept here was to create a compartment under the handles (i.e., the negative space), where you could place your shoes, wet clothes -- whatever you want.”

Federer Bag
Courtesy Wilson Sports This bag fits all your needs and keeps out the moisture. What else could you ask for?
Once this was completed, the bag took on a new configuration, and as the development process wore on, it became apparent that you could actually make the bag smaller and still fit the same amount of equipment. So a lot of players who carry massive three-compartment luggage -- which in tennis-equipment parlance is known as a 15-pack or Super 6 -- are actually toting around a lot of extra baggage.

The backstory behind this bag comes with a technological twist as well. In the racket compartment, there’s a small mesh pocket on the side wall. Inside the mesh pocket is a silver canister. And inside the canister is a desiccant, a moisture-absorbing material, the same substance found in the small bag in a box of electronics.

It’s actually an active moisture-management system.

“It’s based on the idea that strings, particular gut, absorb moisture, and that affects their play,” Lyons said.

“So we did some testing by saturating the string. This literally meant weighing a set of string, submerging it in water for a period of time to allow it to absorb moisture more rapidly than it normally would, find out the maximum water it could absorb and then weigh it afterward.”

What Lyons & Co. found was that gut absorbs a good amount of moisture, which makes up a lot of the string’s weight. Nylon-based string like synthetic gut or a multifilament can consume about 15 percent of its weight, give or take.

And as strings absorb moisture, there’s a discernible drop-off in strength. Natural gut and nylon-based strings specifically began to lose durability, if not break. Bottom line: These strings are painfully susceptible to moisture.

Polyester strings, which Lyons refers to as non-hydrophilic -- that is they don’t absorb much moisture -- weren’t affected nearly as much as you’d imagine, but even small doses caused some tension loss. Maybe a half to one percent, Lyons said.

So the idea of that small canister in the Federer bag is that it absorbs the moisture. Wilson tested this by building a moisture chamber and then tested the bag with and without the desiccant.

“We found out, we got half the moisture in the bag when we used the desiccant canister,” Lyons said.

Another cool concept is that the canister is rechargeable. There’s a little window on it in where the beads change color when fully saturated. You can take the thing out, bake it in your oven, which evaporates the moisture, and re-use it over and over.

The result is that your strings and grips will play better when protected from moisture.

Tech it out: Head Graphene XT Speed

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
11:07
PM ET
HeadCourtesy Head TennisHead tennis opens up the new racket season with a sweet update to its Speed series.

Think about the possible permutations when constructing a tennis racket. Seriously, take any major brand and look at the multiple iterations they produce to account for the vast appetite from players of all skill levels.

Some are created with power in mind, others with spin or control or speed. Which one do you buy? Help!

Here’s where Head Tennis can assist. In its latest line, the Graphene XT, you, the consumer, can toggle between a spin-friendly 16-16 string pattern and a more dense 16-19 pattern, which is essentially like getting two rackets for the price of one. With the purchase of a Graphene XT Speed MP A or Graphene XT Speed Rev Pro, Head will send along a second set of grommet strips that you can sub in when re-stringing your racket.

Head is calling it an Adaptive String Pattern (ASP) technology, which, when you think about it, is a pretty novel concept. And the truth is when switching courts and surfaces, you may opt for a control-oriented setup or vice-versa. Now you have that flexibility.

All that being said, while racket manufacturers are becoming smarter and more creative with their bells and whistles, the bottom line is still to produce a solid frame.

So how did Head do to kick off its 2015 line?

Pretty sweet, actually.

I was a big, big fan of the Novak Djokovic-endorsed Speed Pro from earlier this year. It had good weight and a ton of stability with exceptional maneuverability and forgiveness. It was one of the few rackets that excelled in nearly every aspect. If I had one complaint, it was that I had nothing to complain about. Serious, it was a fantastic stick that played much more fluidly than you’d typically get from a 11.8-ounce frame.

Needless to say, I was both excited and skeptical when the latest line of Speed rackets arrived last week. Head says its new Graphene XT technology “features a 30-percent stronger material structure that has been engineered to optimize the racket’s weight distribution to where players need it most.”

Simply, what that means is that the weight of the racket has been moved closer to the tip of the head. The result: Extremely easy power from a racket that is still very maneuverable. I immediately felt the difference in swing weight. Although the MP A version is quite a bit lighter than the Speed Pro from last year, it hit just as heavy because of the weight distribution.

I found this to be especially helpful in the 16-16 setup. I’ve never really gravitated toward these en vogue open patterns. I find them too unpredictable. But in the case of the MP A, because the balance point was higher in the head, it helped keep my swing under control. The result was a ton of spin with minimal effort. And, oh by the way, it had the same fantastic feel as its predecessor, but perhaps a little more buttery smooth. And, to boot, with the open pattern the sweet spot on the frame was enormous. Not a dead spot to be found.

A couple of days later, I cut the stings out and restrung the Graphene XT Speed MP A with the new denser setup. Honestly, I thought I’d like the racket even more. What I found was a ton of control, good power, great spin but the sweet spot had shrunk.

Now granted, there’s a good possibility I strung it too tight. As I started to get into a groove, though, I found the 16-19 pattern far more satisfying. Especially at net where the racket did all the work. One of the most efficient rackets I’ve ever used at net, actually.

The end result was this: This racket is every bit as savory as last year’s model, maybe more so. With the option to open the string bed (or close it), it’s impossible to go wrong. Trust me on this one.

Graphene XT Speed Rev Pro

A very similar feel to the Graphene XT Speed MP A, the Rev Pro comes a little lighter and a little longer. And also with two sets of grommets to change the string pattern.

I enjoyed the extra length on this racket, but at just 10 ounces strung, it was light, though not nearly as fragile as I thought it would be. With a 1-point head-light balance, the racket felt akin to a low 11-ounce racket.

It hit surprisingly heavy for a lightweight. With the extra leverage, I could crank groundstrokes, but there was a noticeable difference when I didn’t meet the sweetspot -- this unlike the MP A.

I added some lead tape around 10 o’clock and 2, which helped the stability quite a bit.

Serving was a gem with this frame. Certainly, my speed increased, as you’d suspect from a longer racket, but it was more the easy, consistent power.

I used this racket with both the 16-16 and 16-19 setup. In this one, I actually preferred the denser pattern, mainly because it helped alleviate some of the instability.

The XT Speed Rev Pro has some good potential. The static weight is low, but a solid option for 3.0-4.0 players. And if you’re enamored with the added length but want more beef, add some tape. Definitely worth a hit.

Head Graphene XT Speed S

At first, I wasn’t sure how the racket would stack up against its slightly heavier Speed MP A brother. It’s more or less the same mold, just a half-millimeter thicker and .4 ounces lighter.

The Speed S, which comes only in a 16-19 pattern, hits a very plush ball. The frame is only one-point head light, though, and that means it hits much heavier off contact than you’d think. The reality is that it’s not terribly different than the MP A, but make no mistake: It is a groundstroke machine.

I often talk about how the best rackets are those that feel like an extension of your arm. The Speed S was certainly that. It hit heavy and with excessive spin. If I could hang back at the baseline all day, I might never put this racket down.

Serving was good, not great. It felt a little unwieldy. This is where the head balance can be an impediment. I didn’t feel this way on either the other two frames in this review -- perhaps because the beam was narrower and thus moves quicker through the air.

This was a really nice frame, one that would appeal to a wide range of players.

Overall, the Graphene XT series is a sweet update. The weight distribution, which now lives closer to the tip of the racket, makes sense. More importantly, though, these frames truly have a unique, precise response. Who doesn’t want a piece of that?



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Consensus about the speed of the court has been almost as hard to find as a competitive singles contest at the ATP World Tour Finals this week. Despite an elite field of eight, there have been mismatches rather than matches. With almost all lasting little more than an hour, the hunt has been on for an explanation, with Roger Federer even suggesting that the two are linked.

"I think it's actually quite simple, in my opinion, because the court plays somewhat slow, and the serve doesn't have that much of an impact depending on you how back it up, your serve," he said. "I think it's very much a game of movement and the baseline game. Whoever's better from the baseline has the upper hand, then dominates."

But when pressed on whether there was a difference between the court this year and the much tighter affairs a year ago, Federer said, "No, it's the same. It's just matchups."

Tomas Berdych also pointed to the surface, saying, "I don't know what's the explanation. But there could be also something about the surface.

"It doesn't allow you for any mistakes. In my word, I think it's very slow. You know, for us who wants to hit the serve and try to play aggressive, it's very difficult. You're facing the best players in the world. So when you put these things together, then the scissors opens too much and then it creates the scores how it is."
[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSome players like it, others don't. Nonetheless, the court at the ATP World Tour Finals is one of the more unique surfaces on the circuit.

The reaction was a stronger version of his initial comments. "The courts are pretty much every year very same,” Berdych said. “If there is a small difference, it's very little,” he said following his first match. "But I found the surface quite challenging. When you hit the ball very flat, it stays flat. When you put a lot of spin or some spin, it taking the spin quite a lot, too."

In an odd way, those words might please the man responsible for the court, Javier Sanchez, one of the famous tennis-playing Sanchez brothers (who have an even more famous sister) as well as the owner of the court surface company GreenSet. Not only is the court exactly the same as previous years, he insists, but it is exactly the same as those at preceding events at the Paris Masters and Basel -- right down to the guy putting down the court.

"I try to do a speed that if you want to go to the net, you can go, or you want to stay at the back, or you want to hit a slice, the ball goes down, you want to hit a topspin, the ball takes the topspin," he said. "Fair to everybody."

The surface is used at most of the dozen or so ATP and WTA events GreenSet does the courts for and has been tested using the experiences of variety of professional and recreational players. He says that provides a better test than mere machine measurements of speed.

"Really, I don't know the numbers of this court," said Sanchez, who bought the company when he retired from the game in 2000 and moved it from France to Spain. We try to do it with the sensations of a real game, not with a machine. A machine is speed and no feeling."

The company prides itself on two things: consistency between its courts and consistency on its court.

"We think we make all the courts the same, doesn't matter if it's here or it is in Basel or Valencia or Barcelona or China. The consistency when we do it, we try to do it the best," said Sanchez, adding, "The texture is completely in all [of] the court equal. That is also important. Doesn't have to bounce different in any place -- not the lines, not on the courts."

According to ATP officials, GreenSet is the court used at the Tour Finals every year it has been held in London. The Paris tournament has used GreenSet since 2012.

The company takes the concrete floor on the stadium, installs its own wooden base on the concrete floor of the stadium and paints the court with its mixture to create the indoor hard court.

But what about the players' complaints that the courts at the three events play quite differently? Is it all in their imagination? Not quite, acknowledges Sanchez. The speed and bounce of a court can be affected by several factors, including:

" The surface underneath: While the 02 Arena this week has a concrete floor, the Bercy stadium at Paris is partially wood filling in an indoor hockey rink, making the court softer -- and slower -- in those spots.

" The balls. While the balls in London and Paris are the same, they do frequently change between events. Balls play at different speeds, and those which fluff up more get slower.

" The altitude: The courts at London and Paris would be significantly slower than at Basel, which is 500-600 kilometers above sea level.

" The temperature: Play is slower in colder conditions.

" The space around the court: The O2 arena is said to have two meters more behind the baseline than Paris, changing the visual perception of the players as well as giving them the opportunity to chase down more balls.

Sanchez says he has never had a request from a tournament director to make the court a particular speed, though the ATP event in Bogota is slowed down to adjust for the altitude.

There are several other reasons the matches have been one-way traffic. They include injuries, exhaustion attempting to qualify for the tournament, lack of form among the big servers, and a relatively inexperienced field with three newcomers. The only round-robin contest through the first 11 matches to go three sets involved a substitute, David Ferrer, who was filling in for Milos Raonic.

But the surface has also come under scrutiny, and it's little wonder that attention has honed in on the floor. The players on receiving the beatdowns have had few other places to look.

Tech It Out: iDapt Force 98/100

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
7:08
PM ET
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If only you could design your own jeans or shoes. Or tailor your food order exactly the way you want it. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Or, say … customize your own tennis racket. There’s a novel idea. Well, welcome to the game, Dunlop iDapt.

Think your tennis racket isn’t pretty enough? No sweat. Too long? Too short? Not an issue. With Dunlop’s latest line, you have options aplenty. The company has created four new models in the iDapt Force series, all customizable and, truthfully, a potential game-changer.

With each model you can select standard or extended length frames, choose the feel (flexible, medium or firm) and, naturally, pick out the cosmetics that suits your discerning eye.

Serious, you can go flashy or air on the side of monochromatic, if that’s your style.

But here’s the thing: These sticks are more than a pretty face.

I took a couple for a test drive recently and was admittedly surprised at the feel off these frames.

iDapt Force 100

For the record, here’s how I customized my frame: standard length, firm and neon yellow (think the color Jimmy Connors’ racket during his 1991 US Open run).

Bottom line: stout. The first things I noticed was the massive plow-through and the gaping sweet spot. The racket was just about as comfortable as any frame I have tested this past year. I’ve seen some comparisons to the Babolat Pure Drive, but I wasn’t buying it. This iDapt had a much deeper cushion and was noticeably less harsh on my arm.

The frame weighs in at 11.3 ounces, but at only three points head light, it packed a much bigger punch than I expected. The head-heavy feel augmented an already plush response.

I was able to hit big groundstrokes continuously without feeling fatigued or overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, more than most rackets, I felt this one gave me the option to be aggressive while maintaining serious control.

Net play was smooth. The racket had no dead zones and sticking a ball deep in the court or dropping it over the net seemed seamless. This frame served huge. For a “tweener,” this racket felt much more like a player’s stick than some other wider-beamed rackets.

I used the racket for about 75 minutes, hitting a series of crosscourt groundies and then some volley drills. The end result was explosive shot-making, which instilled confidence to hit even bigger shots.

So there you have it. Pretty and potent. Not a bad combination. Actually a stellar one.

iDapt Force 98

This was a fun racket for me. Light and maneuverable with easy access to spin, in many respects, this racket felt similar to its slightly larger brother, the Force 100, but without as much of the plush response. I ended up adding some lead tape around 3 and 9 o’clock, which helped. (By the way, Dunlop offers “Blast Zone weights” that add two or three grams of weight.) Just another cool, customizable feature.

This was one of those rackets that truly felt like an extension of my arm. The directional control was exceptional. If there was one downside, this one lacked some of the stability the 100 had. I noticed this more when hitting from a defensive position. Offensively, though, the Force 98 allowed me to take healthy cuts from both wings without the fear of spraying too many balls -- which, yes, I can do.

The highlight on this frame was the ease in which the 98 moved through the air. This racket is right in the wheelhouse of specs I typically gravitate toward -- a weight just north of 11 ounces with a swingweight around 320. It allows for some customization without drastically altering the feel off the stringbed. This racket had comfortable power without producing those vexing fliers. I felt like I could either swing out or take some speed off the ball and hit sharper angles without having to think about it.

Like the 100, I went with the firmest iteration of this frame and standard length. I feel like I would have benefited from the half inch if I had chosen that route. Especially on the serve, which was very much control oriented, but lacked a little bit of the punch I found in the iDapt Force 100.

But I’ll say it again: Whether going for broke down the T or kicking serves out wide, I felt like the directional control was superb.

This racket was easy to wield around net, and the added weight really helped the stability in sticking volleys where I wanted.

All in all, the iDapt 98 is a fantastic all-court frame, which, by the way, comes in three nifty colors as well. I’d recommend spending some time manipulating the specs. Mostly the weight. If you get it right, you won’t be sorry.

The bottom line here is that both the 98 and 100 frames are quick and eminently comfortable. And if you need a tweak here or there, Dunlop gives you that option.

What more could you ask for in a racket?
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In medieval times, handshakes were used as a cue to solidify a truce between armor-clad warriors. A peaceful ending to a potentially hazardous outcome. However, if they drew a dagger instead, it was, well, game on. Yikes.

In tennis, handshaking isn’t so much a life-or-death gesture as it is a tacit understanding of respect. Though we’ve seen a few controversial handshake snubs throughout the years, this custom is by and large quick and innocuous in nature.

And then Sunday happened.

In case you missed it, in the Valencia Open final, Tommy Robredo squandered five match points against Andy Murray, and as they embraced at the net, the Spaniard gave Murray not only the middle finger, but the double-barreled one-finger salute, which is generally reserved for only the most abhorrent and appalling of actions.

Granted, it was all in fun. The truth is that the exhausted finalists embraced for a few warm moments at net just as the drama mercifully ended. But, seriously, who can blame the befuddled Robredo? After all, he has suffered two heartbreaking losses to Murray in the past month. In the Shenzhen Open final, Robredo also failed to convert -- you guessed it -- five match points. For you math wizards, make that two matches, 10 match points for the cursed Spaniard, and nary a win to show for it. No wonder Robredo told Murray to, um, flipping buzz off.

But here’s the thing: This series of events -- the impossible win from Murray, the vastly disappointed Robredo, the all-around theater -- was only the third most interesting thing that happened Sunday.

That just the way it goes when you have Serena Williams and Roger Federer winning titles.

Serena, just days after being crushed by Simona Halep in the round-robin stage of the year-end champions tournament, returned the favor in Sunday’s final, picking up a third straight win in the year-enders.

Moments later, it was Federer’s turn. In 52 minutes, he swept away David Goffin for a sixth title in Fed's hometown of Basel at the Swiss Indoors championship.

So there you have it: The two most prominent players in today’s game adding to their already ridiculous résumés -- both at the surreal age of 33.

Who said fall tennis doesn’t matter again? In the month of October alone, we’ve seen Federer win the Shanghai Masters for the first time and return to No. 2 in the world with more than a fighting chance to snare the top spot by year’s end since 2,500 points are up for grabs at the Paris Masters and ATP World Tour Finals, respectively. Federer trails No. 1 Novak Djokovic by only 490 points.

And, in case you're not keeping track, Federer has now won 12 straight matches heading into the season’s penultimate event. And what’s to stop him from here until the end?

Djokovic has played less-than-commanding tennis since the onset of the summer, and his wife just gave birth to their first child this past week. Sleep deprivation, anyone? Rafael Nadal is out for the rest of the year after a season-ending appendectomy, and players such as Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic have taken precipitous drops since pockets of sublime play earlier this season. And Murray, despite winning in Valencia, is playing for the sixth straight week.

But this is really about Federer’s form. Against Goffin in the Basel final, Fed was spectacular, winning 32 of 37 points on serve en route to his fifth title of the season. For good measure, he leads all players with 66 match wins this season. Since turning 33 years old in early August, he is a near-perfect 26-2. (Wasn’t there some kind of old-guys-can’t-play fodder making its rounds through the tennis brass a year ago? Anyway, we digress.)

As for Serena, she played tepid, distracted tennis for part of the season, but with scrutiny at an all-time high following her Wimbledon doubles episode, she vowed to turn things around, and did. She won four titles in seven events to close out 2014, including the US Open and the year-end championships.

In Singapore, after Serena won her third straight title, the tournament named an orchid after her -- one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on someone from that city.

As Simona Halep said in her postmatch interview, “Congratulations to you, Serena. You are the best.”

Not sure anyone could, uh, flip that script.

Tech It Out: Gamma RZR 98/100 M

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
1:03
PM ET
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The search for the perfect racket is a by and large a futile endeavor. Whether it’s too stiff, too light, too clunky, (too ugly!), this seemingly simple task is frustrating. I have found a host of rackets I have really enjoyed, but perhaps the last time I found the perfect racket came eight years ago.

It was the Gamma Ipex 7.0. Fast, sleek, maneuverable and spin friendly. And pretty. I bought three of them in advance of my first sojourn to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Yes, that frame turned me on to Gamma tennis rackets. Typically renowned for its advanced string technology, Gamma rackets have typically gone under the radar compared to other alpha-dog manufacturers, which is somewhat befuddling if you ask me. A few years later, I began using the T-7, which was rock solid, and then the Gamma 330X, another stellar frame.

Needless to say, I was geeked up when the RZR series came out a year ago. At the time, I tried out the 98T, but was disappointed by the unforgiving feedback and lack of maneuverability. But this season, the RZR line redeemed itself with a newer, more versatile frame.

Meet the RZR 98 M, a fantastic all-court racket. When I first started hitting, I was impressed how easily this frames moved through the strike zone. The racket was as sleek as its slick black design. Spin off this frame was nasty -- actually far more fierce than I had predicted.

Though the racket did lack a little backbone (which you might expect from a flex rating south of 60), I really enjoyed the arm-friendly comfort and zip off the strike zone. I was able to hit consistently deep in the court with about as much spin as any other frame I have used in the past year.

Serving was the racket’s best attribute. Because of the maneuverability and power, I saw a discernible increase in my MPHs, while kicking serves out wide had quite a bit of bite. The racket weighs in at 11.4 ounces, which is an ideal weight for club and advanced players. It also allows for some customization. I added a little to experiment but ultimately took it off because the racket felt a little clunky.

It should also be noted, I strung the racket with Gamma’s much-ballyhooed Glide string in the crosses. According to Gamma, the string is “made from a proprietary, super elastic fluorinated polymer that dramatically reduces the sliding friction between strings. This allows the main strings to ‘glide’ farther and faster along the cross strings to store and return more energy to the ball. The radically faster “snap-back” generates greater spin with more power, feel and comfort.”

Which is just a complicated way of saying, “When power meets spin, good things happen.”

For comparison’s sake, I strung the same model with a full bed of Gamma iO18 poly and played about 30-45 minutes with each frame. The racket with the Glide setup felt markedly quicker off the string bed than the other racket and with more spin. So from an offensive perspective, I really enjoyed the hybrid.

Typically, I am a fan of full poly in most rackets. The all-around control and confidence to strike the ball with all-out swinging are just a couple of the byproducts of using this stiffer material, but the longer I hit with the Glide, the more I began to see the advantage. Especially after 90 minutes or so on court, easy power is a good thing. The next time I take this racket out, I’d like to string it about five to seven pounds tighter, especially in the RZR 98 M, which already packs a punch.

But this is one of those racket-string combos, that when you get it right, is a difference-maker. I’m a big fan of Gamma frames in general and the RZR 98 M only validated my allegiance.

Gamma RZR 100 M

Comfort, comfort, comfort. This frame (also strung with a Glide hybrid setup) was remarkable from the baseline. With a more head-heavy frame than the 98, this one swung through the air with more conviction. I felt completely in control of the point, especially with a stiffer frame.

Offensively and defensively, this racket put me in good positions to win points. Although I preferred the directional control of the 98, the 100 compensated with a more dense hitting and fewer fliers. And the sweet spot was noticeably larger as well.

The frame was nicely tapered at the top of the head, part of the aerodynamic design Gamma had in mind. The result was all-out swinging with tremendous bite off the ball.

Like the RZR 98 M, I felt the 100 M’s best attribute was serving. Because of the controlled power and the acceleration off this frame, hitting flat up the middle came with minimal effort, and it goes without saying that kickers had a little more juice than most other rackets.

This year’s RZR line is a vast improvement over last year’s models. In the ever-growing racket ecosystem, Gamma’s frames in general are underplayed. But make no mistake, its frames are just as potent as any other company, and you’d be wise to take both these for a whirl.






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