When anarchy descended on the WTA
"I finally feel like you can call me 'Aussie Kim' because I've won the title," Clijsters told the crowd afterward, referring to her brief engagement to beloved Down Under star Lleyton Hewitt.
It was Clijsters' third Grand Slam singles title in six tries since returning from a two-year sabbatical, and back in late January, it looked like The Establishment was positioning itself to dominate the rest of the year. After all, Serena Williams was due to return from a foot injury, and Maria Sharapova was making steady progress after undergoing career-threatening shoulder surgery.
And then anarchy -- as much as can be imagined in professional tennis -- descended on the WTA.
Li won the French Open, becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Grand Slam singles title. That wasn't completely off the menu, because Roland Garros has a way of serving up surprises. Wimbledon, though, was a spectacular chef's amuse bouche. Clijsters was absent after suffering an ankle injury when she was dancing at a wedding, and Serena -- who missed the French Open -- was in the draw after a dramatic series of health scares. Petra Kvitova, a long lefty from the Czech Republic, won her first major, beating the more experienced Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova in her last two matches. Samantha Stosur overcame another Serena chair umpire tantrum at the U.S. Open, and the fit Aussie won her first major.
The story of the season? With her title at the year-end TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul, it was Kvitova. For while Li is 29 and Stosur 27, Kvitova is only 21 and promises to be a major factor for many years.
"It's really surprising," Kvitova told ESPN.com of her breakthrough. "But it's very nice to have more players in the top. It's going to be more open at the Grand Slams now."
Kvitova became only the third first-time qualifier to win in her debut, following Serena (2001) and Sharapova (2004). Kvitova took home $1.75 million and saw her ranking rise to No. 2 -- a surprising surge considering she was No. 34 when the year began. Kvitova, who is 6 feet tall and plays with both power and deft touch, has a serve that should keep her at or near the top. She was 19-0 in indoor matches this year after beating Azarenka in the Istanbul final, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
The win in Turkey gave Kvitova six titles in 2011, matching No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki -- whom Kvitova beat in round-robin play. Moreover, Kvitova had a better win-loss record than Wozniacki, 58-13 (.817) versus 63-17 (.788).
It was only a little surprising that none of those three first-time major winners was named Wozniacki. The 21-year-old Dane has run her reign at No. 1 to 55 weeks -- six more than Clijsters, Sharapova and Venus Williams have combined for during their careers. They have won a total of 14 majors, and Wozniacki still is looking for that validating résumé item. The closest she has come is the final of the 2009 U.S. Open, in which she lost to Clijsters. This year Wozniacki was disappointing in the majors, losing to Li in the semifinals of the Australian Open, Daniela Hantuchova in the third round at Paris, Dominika Cibulkova in Wimbledon's fourth round and Serena in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
Probably not. Oddly enough, it looks like there might be one more retro season of The Establishment. With the Olympics in London beginning in late July as the carrot, Clijsters and Serena are preparing for another campaign. Even at their relatively advanced ages (29 and 30 at the time of the Games), it would not be a stretch to see them winning the three majors not played in Paris. Maybe Azarenka, still only 22, will find the resolve to break through. Stosur, with the confidence gained in New York, is an early line favorite at Roland Garros, along with Francesca Schiavone.
"With Kim and Serena, you never know," Kvitova said. "When they come back, they will be strong. They want to win everything. They'll be tough to play against."
5 Questions With ...
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Three years ago in Memphis, Petra Kvitova became the lowest-ranked player (No. 143) to ever beat Venus Williams. Coming into this year, she had won only a single title, but in her first tournament in Brisbane, Australia, she beat four top-35 players to win, including Nadia Petrova and Andrea Petkovic. Closing out a terrific season, she finished strong in Istanbul, going 5-0 against a loaded year-end field. Kvitova spoke with ESPN.com by telephone last week after her round-robin victory over No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.
ESPN.com: How did it feel to beat Caroline?
Petra Kvitova: Great! We are very good friends. She is very hard to play against. She gets everything back and forces me to move a lot -- too much. She had beaten me before [three of four], so this felt good today.
ESPN.com: You've gone from No. 34 in the WTA rankings to No. 2. At the beginning of the year, what goals did you set for yourself?
Kvitova: I didn't imagine that in the beginning of the year. No, really? No. 1 in the world? I wanted to go deep in the Grand Slams this year. I didn't have a goal -- or a number in front of my name. I just wanted to improve. I knew my ranking would improve if that happened.
ESPN.com: Which parts of your game improved the most?
Kvitova: I need to work on a lot of things. I have more experience now. I'm a little bit older and have been through a few seasons. I think my movement has improved a lot, but the No. 1 thing is mental. I am much better this way now.
ESPN.com: It's been nearly four months since you won at Wimbledon. How has that memory stayed with you?
Kvitova: At first, it didn't seem real. It was totally weird for me. But now, I'm OK. When I look at the pictures or videos, it comes back. It's strange to hear my name as the Wimbledon champion.
ESPN.com: How does it sound?
Kvitova: Oh it sounds really cool, doesn't it?
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
On The Move
Sabine Lisicki: No. 175 to No. 18, plus-157
Chanelle Scheepers: No. 103 to No. 38, plus-65
Shuai Peng: No. 72 to No. 16, plus-56
Monica Niculescu: No. 82 to No. 29, plus-53
Agnes Szavay: No. 37 to No. 256, minus-219
Venus Williams: No. 5 to No. 104, minus-99
Aravane Rezai: No. 19 to No. 113, minus-94
Kimiko Date-Krumm: No. 46 to No. 116, minus-70
Alisa Kleybanova: No. 25 to No. 69, minus-44
Countdown To Melbourne
First ball at the Australian Open is only 76 days away. To help pass the time, here are a few more WTA highlights from 2011:
• The third set alone required 3 hours exactly, which is really all you need to know about Francesca Schiavone's 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 fourth-round victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova in Melbourne. At 4 hours, 44 minutes, it was the longest women's Grand Slam match in the Open era. "At some stage, I was like, 'What's the score? Who's serving?'" Kuznetsova said afterward. "I was like, 'What's going on anyway here?' I had no clue sometimes." Schiavone saved six match points.
• The balance of power in women's tennis continues to swing toward Europe -- and away from the United States. At year's end, undersized and overlooked Romania had just as many top-100 players as America -- No. 29 Monica Niculescu, No. 40 Irina-Camelia Begu, No. 52 Simona Halep, No. 61 Sorana Cirstea, No. 70 Alexandra Dulgheru and No. 97 Alexandra Cadantu.
• In that vein, here are the titles by country: Russia, Czech Republic (7), Denmark (6), Spain (5), Italy (4), Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, Germany, Australia (3), France, U.S. (2).
• On the bright side, there were some terrific gains by three young Americans: 18-year-old Sloane Stephens, to No. 92 from No. 204; 21-year-old Columbian-born Irina Falconi, to No. 79 from No. 184; and 19-year-old Christina McHale, to No. 42 from No. 109.
• No. 1 seeds took 12 titles this year, but there also were 11 unseeded winners.
• Entering the year-end event in Istanbul, Maria Sharapova was the only participant with a .500-plus record against top-five (23-20) and top-10 (53-36) players.
• Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond earned their first WTA year-end championship doubles title together in Istanbul. Previously, Huber had won twice (2007-08, with Cara Black) and Raymond three times (2001, 2005-06, with Rennae Stubbs and Sam Stosur). Raymond became only the second woman to win with three different partners, joining Lindsay Davenport. Huber and Raymond also won the U.S. Open. Raymond has taken home six majors, while Huber has five. "The first part of the season is long forgotten," Huber said. "We've worked very hard and have learned a lot about our own character. I think the chemistry now is that we really want to play together, and we'll do anything to make it work. This is a fantastic moment for us right now."
• WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster was given a five-year contract extension, running through 2017. Under Allaster, the WTA has weathered difficult economic times, increasing prize money, television ratings and attendance at its marquee events.
• There is still one more event on the WTA calendar: the Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions in Bali, Indonesia, starting Thursday. The field, which has won 11 singles titles collectively: Marion Bartoli, Sabine Lisicki, Roberta Vinci, Daniela Hantuchova, Anabel Medina Garrigues, Nadia Petrova, Ana Ivanovic and Shuai Peng.
• Christine Frost was named the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum's chief development officer. Frost will be responsible for developing donor relations and leading fundraising campaigns. Previously, she worked in Brown University's office of university advancement.