Recapping a grand tennis season

NEW YORK -- Serena Williams' victory over Victoria Azarenka in the final of the US Open tournament capped the 2013 Grand Slam season, and with the final major in the books, it's time to take a look at the women who made professional tennis worth watching this season.

First, a recap of the winners: Azarenka won the Australian Open and Williams the French Open before Marion Bartoli won her first career Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, then promptly retired from tennis a month later.

But they aren't the only players worthy of note. Here are our awards for the women's slam season.

Breakthrough performer

Sloane Stephens

AP Photo/Andy Wong

Sloane Stephens herself found it hard to believe after she upset Serena Williams in the Australian Open in January.

Stephens, now 20, proclaimed her arrival in January by beating Williams in three sets at the Australian Open and progressed to a semifinal at the event to start her Grand Slam year.

Stephens, ranked No. 44 heading into the 2012 US Open, saw her ranking climb as she reached the fourth round of the French Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Stephens was stopped in the fourth round of the US Open by -- how's this for a bookend? -- Williams en route to her 17th title.

Match of the Slam year

Stephens versus Williams at the Australian Open

Not only was it a close match -- Stephens eventually won 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 -- but it signaled the emergence of a new rivalry and another power player who should eventually challenge for Grand Slam titles.

Stephens' win meant that, unlike in American men's tennis, the American women have a player who will be there when the 31-year-old Williams ultimately retires, whether that's in two years or 10.

Underachiever

Maria Sharapova

AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

Despite reaching the semifinals in Australia and the final at the French Open, 2013 was an overall downer for Maria Sharapova.

It's hard to say someone had a disappointing season after reaching the semifinal at the Australian Open and the final at the French Open, but it's what happened to Sharapova after those two results.

She hired Jimmy Connors as her coach after losing in the second round of Wimbledon and fired him after she lost in the first round in Cincinnati. The 26-year-old then floated the idea of changing her name to Sugarpova, the name of her candy, for the US Open fortnight. The idea met with a collective groan. Sharapova was given the No. 3 seed at the US Open, but pulled out with a shoulder injury.

This category could have a runner-up in Agnieszka Radwanska, who was ranked fourth in the world going into each major, but whose best result was a semifinal at Wimbledon, where she lost to Sabine Lisicki. She also reached two quarterfinals and the fourth round at the US Open. Certainly fine enough, but Radwanska's anticipated breakthrough has not progressed.

And for a second runner-up, you could point to Sara Errani, a No. 4 seed at the US Open who lost in the first round and then confessed that the pressure of expectations was sapping the joy of tennis for her. It was a frank admission, rare and raw.

Player of the year

Serena Williams

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Serena Williams, winner of the French Open, capped the Grand Slam season with her fifth US Open championship.

With the French and US Open victories, Williams now has 17 Grand Slam titles and is in the conversation about the best players of all time. She does not have a rival in the way Chris Evert had Martina Navratilova, and she has not reached their numerical milestones yet, but Williams dominates her generation on the court.

She won her first US Open title at 17 and her most recent at 31, an impressive span of excellence marked by peaks and valleys.

But there is no doubt Williams is playing some of the best tennis of her career right now and shows no signs of slowing down. She is at the top of her game, and 2014 marks a new year to amass these legacy-boosting titles.

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