Travelling along the Road To Singapore, the WTA's athletes have provided much entertainment so far this season. So we have taken a look back at some of the best matches of 2014 away from the Grand Slams. Doubtless, there is much more to come from the tennis elite this season, which culminates at October's BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
Venus Williams vs Serena Williams, Montréal semifinals:
Here was a humdinger of a tennis match - a three-setter lasting a minute over two hours - that answered anyone who had been contending that the Californian sisters no longer produce high quality matches. This was also an occasion - whenever these two play against each other, it's an occasion - that Venus still has the firepower in her arm to blast great holes in others' ambitions, even if her opponent happens to be the World No.1 and her younger sister. Anyone who watched Venus play Petra Kvitova, the eventual Wimbledon champion, at the All-England Club this summer would have been aware that she has no intention of coasting in her mid-thirties; this was another demonstration of her own ambition. Plenty of exceptional tennis was played over the course of the week in Canada, and Venus didn't go on to win the Rogers Cup - she was the runner-up to Agnieszka Radwanska - but this semifinal wasn't short on significance. For the first time since 2009, so ending a run of five defeats, Venus beat Serena. It was also the first time for more than five years, since a victory over Russia's Dinara Safina at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, that Venus had defeated a current World No.1. "The level of game we played was pretty high," Venus said of her 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-3 victory. As Serena reflected: "Big sister taught little sister a lesson."
Serena Williams vs Victoria Azarenka, Brisbane final:
Wherever she is in the tennis world - Queens in New York, Queensland in Australia - Williams brings drama. For Williams, a trip to the Australian state of Queensland didn't provide a soft, quiet introduction to the 2014 tennis year; this was the first week of the season, and she felt as though she was "being pushed into the deep end straightaway". But that was just as Williams had wanted it; how better to prime herself for the season ahead than by fending off opponents who had "brought their A-games". Having defeated Maria Sharapova in the semifinals - so extending an unbeaten run against the Russian that began a decade ago - she then found a way of dealing with Azarenka's game. It's not often that the two highest-ranked players in the world meet in the opening week of the calendar, and this final didn't disappoint, with the top-ranked Californian and the World No.2 from Belarus producing a fine match. This was a straight set, 6-4, 7-5 victory for Williams, but it was far from straightforward - she had to overturn a 2-4 deficit in the second set to stop this going to a decider.
Maria Sharapova vs Simona Halep, Madrid final:
Call her Siberia's Terracotta Warrior. While it would be ludicrous to describe Sharapova as a clay court specialist, or a dirt-baller in a skirt, it's certainly true that some of her best results and performances in recent years have come on the orange-red courts of Europe - this year's clay court swing brought titles in Stuttgart, Madrid and Paris, with the French Open now the only Grand Slam she has won twice. But twice WTA Rising Star Halep came mighty close to unseating Sharapova on the scorched earth this year. The second of those memorable three-setters was the French Open final; the first came when they met in Madrid's Magic Box. When Halep took the opening set for the loss of just one game, it appeared as though the Romanian was on the way to winning the biggest tournament of her tennis life. But tennis's candy magnate turned the match around to win the title in the Spanish capital for the first time. "It doesn't matter if I'm playing on the moon or in Madrid, to be in the final is an honour," said Sharapova, a 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 victor.
Serena Williams vs Ana Ivanovic, Rome semifinals:
Every time Williams and Ivanovic have met this season, they have never been anything less than compelling viewing. On each of the three meetings so far - in the fourth round of the Australian Open, in the last four at Rome's Foro Italico and then in the second round in Stanford - they went the distance, splitting the first couple of sets before settling matters in a decider. There's no doubt that, of the three, the most significant was Ivanovic's victory at Melbourne Park, coming as it did in the white heat of a Grand Slam, with Williams the favourite for the Australian Open title, but their meeting in Rome was a lively, spirited, hugely competitive occasion. One of the storylines to follow this season has been the resurgence of Ivanovic, a former French Open champion and World No.1, and the Serbian turned in a fine performance against the American. In the end, though, Serena won their match in Rome (6-1, 3-6, 6-1), with the same result in Stanford.
Venus Williams vs Victoria Azarenka, Stanford second round:
When a couple of alpha females meet for a place in the quarterfinals, it feels premature, as if the match is coming too early in the tournament. Shouldn't we be waiting until the prize-giving weekend for a match between two former World No.1s? While there were a fair few unforced errors from Azarenka - who was still on her way back from injury, having returned to competition on English grass courts in June - this match, which Williams won 6-4, 7-6(1), was fun to watch.
Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis journalist and author based in London. He has just completed his latest book, which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.