It’s weird what we remember when looking back on a WTA season. With every result etched into the record books, I’d rather recall the oddities .
Sure, Naomi Osaka won the US Open, but remember when she crowdsourced advice on how to hit a 'tweener? How about what kept Simona Halep hungry for more success after winning Roland Garros? These are what give color to scorelines and first serve percentages, the moments that keep you tuned into a 10-month season, 24/7.
As 2018 comes to a close, check out my list of things I can’t let you forget.
1. That time Daria Kasatkina taught Naomi Osaka a ‘tweener.
Remember when we used to think out loud, ask questions to no one in particular? Me either. Nowadays I tweet, which is what Osaka did back in February.
The bat phone rang and 'tweener Queen Kasatkina answered the call, converging on the BNP Paribas Open with Osaka for an impromptu master class ahead of the year’s first Premier Mandatory.
“She's bad,” Kasatkina flatly assessed after the lesson. “I don't know. She cannot get it. But she can hit the ball. If she will keep trying, I think she can do it better, because at the end of the lesson, she was already putting ball in. Technically, it was so-so, but the ball was going in, at least.”
Though Osaka hasn’t quite incorporated the trick shot into her repertoire - calling it “an unused half-skill” - she and Kasatkina nonetheless took that spirit of learning all the way to the final, and later shared a private jet to the Miami Open.
“I'm going to try not to listen to music, so I'm going to see if she's going to talk to me,” she said of their burgeoning friendship. “I'm going to see how that works out.”
2. That time Elena Vesnina took over the California desert.
Welcomed as I felt throughout my first trip to Indian Wells, I doubt my experience compared to that of defending champion Vesnina, whose impact was felt all over the BNP Paribas Open.
“It’s great that the tournament is doing this for the champions, to keep them in its history forever,” she told me of the mural that immortalized her 2017 title run.
Fans could fully treat themselves to a day dedicated to the Olympic champion and mom-to-be, feasting on a salad recipe she contributed to the tournament’s restaurant menu.
“I make this salad at home. It’s really healthy, tasty, and light. It’s perfect before a match, if you want to eat something quick for some vitamins and energy.”
The red carpet only stopped when it came time to revisit last year’s trophy swipe.
3. That time Andy and B became the Angry Birds.
Under the eyes of Vesnina(‘s defending champion portrait), Barbora Strycova was talking to me about her successful week of doubles with Hsieh Su-Wei when childhood friend Andrea Sestini Hlavackova gave a congratulatory whack with her visor.
The two had intended to play together in Indian Wells but decided too late. Postponing their partnership to Miami, the Czechs made up for lost time during the clay court season, picking up a catchy nickname in the process.
“My coach came up with it in Madrid, because he saw us acting a bit feisty on the court, which, we maybe need to be a bit angry on the court,” Sestini Hlavackova explained at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. “He said we were acting like two little angry birds, and then he said, ‘That’s actually catchy, because Angry is like Andi, and Bird is like B.’”
Based on the popular Finnish export, the name stuck as the fan favorites continued to post impressive results to qualify for to the WTA Finals, where Strycova made the semifinals in her debut appearance.
4. That time the teens took over Moscow.
Back in 2001, I convinced my mom to take nine-year-old me to a showing of the cult classic Legally Blonde. Olga Danilovic and Anastasia Potapova weren’t making many plans that summer. They were busy being born.
At 17, neither are eligible to match Elle Woods’ 179 on the LSATs, but the two earned snaps in their own profession when they became the first players born in the new millennium to make a WTA final.
Lucky loser and wildcard at the inaugural Moscow River Cup, Danilovic and Potapova treated the crowd to a memorable week of firsts that culminated in a classic three-set final.
"She’s an amazing friend,” Danilovic said after winning her first WTA title. I’ve known her all my life; we’ve been playing the same tournaments since we were 12! I think it’s a big achievement for both of us to be in a WTA final. There is not much to say, the pictures kind of say it all!"
5. That time nothing came between Simona Halep and her crepes.
Halep had just won her maiden major title at Roland Garros, and one had to wonder if the hunger was still there as the tour turned back to the North American hardcourts.
Enter coach Darren Cahill.
As it turns out, the Romanian was indeed hungry for more success in Montréal, winning her second Coupe Rogers title in a classic over Sloane Stephens and securing a helping of her beloved nutella pancakes in the process.
6. That time Sloane Stephens got to the point.
You called it a title defense, not the US Open defending champion. Stephens commanded the press room through a largely successful encore at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, returning to the quarterfinals with some statement wins and statement shots.
“She hit a dropshot, I hit a dropshot back,” she said of one in particular against out Elise Mertens. “Then she lobs me to my forehand. I ran back and hit a forehand cross-court and the crowd went crazy.”
She hangs onto the last word for extra emphasis.
While the American only deems a true title defense to be one where you defeat the same seven en route to Grand Slam glory, Stephens still used the US Open as a springboard to a highly-anticipated WTA Finals debut. Speaking of…
7. That time Stephens and Svitolina stuck it to the haters.
How much do players read their own press? Enough, it seems, for them to call out their critics.
“Everyone was, like, ‘Oh, she's a one-hit wonder, she'll never do anything again, it was just lucky…” Stephens said in Singapore.
But it was eventual champion Elina Svitolina who got the ball rolling at the beginning of the week, making a memorable dedication after snapping a 14-set losing streak to Petra Kvitova.
“I want to take this as one to go forward, and for all those people and haters that were saying that I don't deserve to be here.”
Svitolina struck that defiant stance all the way to the biggest title of her career, seemingly silencing the haters once and for all.
8. That time Karolina Pliskova binge-watched her competition.
Even if they had the time, why would players spend their time watching a sport they spend hours playing each day?
Because it’s fun, insists the once and future Ace Queen.
“Maybe sometimes I enjoy more to watch than to play, but only sometimes,” she said at the WTA Finals. “Since I was little I was watching tennis. For me, it's better than any movie.”
The former World No.1 gave a ringing endorsement of her tour, loving the drama and momentum swings each match includes, while giving her own insider analysis.
“You feel when there is a chance when some outsider is gonna beat a top player. I know some players are very tricky and very tough, and they can beat top players sometimes on Grand Slams or big tournaments.”
9. That time Francesca Schiavone wrote her final chapter.
It’s hard to say goodbye, something the former French Open champion learned as she toyed with her decision to retire several times in the last few years, vlogging about the journey back in 2016.
"I always felt a big passion, big love. I loved always to fight, and have a challenge,” she told me at the US Open. “The challenge brings you to push forward, and go through limits, through fantastic, and even bad things. Frustrations are always right behind the door in this sport."
Speaking to Schiavone for just six minutes, I was left with enough quotes to fill a novel, only fitting for a player who had a career worthy of an Oscar winner.
"My heart still beats for this sport,” she promised. “I will find a way to express myself, not just inside, but outside, so I can transmit some good stuff, and fight in a different way."
10. That time Sabalenka marched into the big leagues, drummer and all.
Aryna Sabalanka is, objectively, a breath of fresh air. She hits big. She smiles bright. She peppers her excited interview answers with an enthusiastic variety of swear words.
The Belarusian does everything just a little bit different, down to her insistence on fulfilling her media obligations straight after a match, racquet bag still on her shoulders.
Where others will walk on court with a small child in tow, Sabalenka lifted one into her arms at the Henquin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, eliciting ‘aws’ from the crowd.
“I’m just growing up,” she told me at the US Open. “I’m starting to feel more confident.”
Two observations that could spell bad news to the field in 2019.