December 13, 2008

The Ladies of 2008

It's been a pretty tumultuous year for the top women's tennis players.

After Justine Henin prematurely retired in May and the door to #1 swung wide open, five different women held the top spot with varying lengths of stay and degrees of success. But at the end of the year, the top ten were comprised of some old stalwarts, a few new faces, and a brand new queen at the head of the rankings.

1. Jelena Jankovic, Serbia
2008 Record: 65-19
Titles: Rome, Beijing, Stuttgart, Moscow
Highlights: Reached first career Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open; Won three straight WTA titles

Jelena was truly inspiring on the court this year. From her gymnast-like splits to her bullet-fast returns, she proved she'd earned her place among the tennis elite. She ended the season with the most match wins, tied with Vera Zvonareva. She'd beaten both Williams sisters, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, among others on her way to gaining the #1 ranking just before the Olympics. While she ceded the position for a few weeks, her year-end surge brought her three consecutive Tour titles, the first woman to do so in three years. Now Jelena just needs to capitalize on her momentum early in 2009 if she wants to hold onto the top spot.

New Year's Resolution: Win a Major!

2. Serena Williams, U.S.
2008 Record: 44-8
Titles: Banglore, Miami, Charleston, Olympics (doubles), U.S. Open
Highlights: Regained #1 ranking for first time since 2003

2008 marked the return of the Williams sisters, and more accurately, the return of Serena. An injury two years ago had dropped her to #139 in the world, but she was well on her way back in 2007. Serena wasn't able to defend her Australian Open title, but she took three tournaments in a row after that. She followed up a final appearance at Wimbledon, where she lost to Venus, with a sweeping victory at the U.S. Open, where she didn't drop a single set and a brand new #1 ranking. Though she won her first round-robin match at the Sony-Ericsson Championships, she pulled out with a stomach muscle injury. If she wants to continue her success next year, she'll need to stay healthy and strong, but I'm sure she's still got it in her.

New Year's Resolution: Beat my sister at Wimbledon!

3. Dinara Safina, Russia
2008 Record: 55-20
Titles: Berlin, Los Angeles, Montreal, Tokyo
Highlights: Won U.S. Open Series; Olympic Silver medalist; Qualified for first year-end Sony-Ericsson Championships

Dinara Safina started the year ranked #15 in the world, but was quick to prove she had her sights set on the top five. She followed up a win in Berlin with a trip to the finals at the French Open -- her first Grand Slam championship match. She scored impressive wins over Lindsay Davenport, Henin, Elena Dementieva and the younger Williams. Dinara saw the greatest success this year over the summer when she took titles at two U.S. Open Series tournaments and made it to the semis at Flushing Meadows. And while her brother Marat angrily and loudly declared his presence on the court, Dinara quietly slogged away quietly on her own and made her own mark on the sport.

New Year's Resolution: Show up my brother! Win a Slam!

4. Elena Dementieva, Russia
2008 Record: 56-17
Titles: Dubai, Olympic Gold, Luxembourg
Highlights: Led All-Rusian medal sweep in Beijing; Finished year with career high ranking

Elena has long been one of my favorite players, and I'm glad to see her make it into the top five for the first time. With wins over Jelena, Serena, Dinara and Ana Ivanovic, she showed that she had some real power despite her tiny frame. Even still some frustrating losses along the way kept me nervous every time she took the court. But a semifinal appearance in Doha could give her the confidence she needs to start the 2009 season on the right foot.

New Year's Resolution: Stop losing to players I should beat!

5. Ana Ivanovic, Serbia
2008 Record: 38-15
Titles: Indian Wells, French Open, Linz
Highlights: Rose to #1 for first time; Reached second Grand Slam final (Australia) and won first major title (French)

Ana Ivanovic had a magnificent start to the year, reaching the finals in Australia and winning at Indian Wells. When Henin retired just weeks before the French Open, the road was cleared for Ana to take her first Grand Slam title, which she did by losing only one set. The win gave her the #1 ranking, a spot she held for twelve (non-consecutive) weeks. The latter part of the year was slightly more difficult. After Wimbledon, Ana lost in her first or second match at five straight tournaments -- including a second round loss to Julie Coin at Flushing Meadows. Though she did win at Linz, a viral illness caused her to withdraw from the Sony-Ericsson Championships after her two round-robin matches. In 2009 she's gonna want to make an impression early if she doesn't want to be forgotten as the other Serbian player.

New Year's Resolution: Successfully defend my French Open crown!

6. Venus Williams, U.S.
2008 Record: 40-11
Titles: Wimbledon, Olympics (doubles), Zurich, Sony-Ericsson Championships
Highlights: Won third Wimbledon title in four years; First WTA year-end title

It's a funny thing about Venus Williams -- every time you count her out, she comes roaring back. I've never been one to discount either of the Williams sisters, no matter what their ranking was, and even though she was often the official underdog to players like Jankovic, Safina and Ivanovic for most of the year, it was never really a surprise when she pulled out the win. And when she beat her sister at the All England Club in straight sets, she clearly told the world that she was the only real force on grass. And though she held the seventh seed at the eight-player year-end tournament, once she got to the semis, I'm sure her opponents were shaking in their tennis shoes. Her victory got her inches from the top five, a place she hasn't been since 2003.

New Year's Resolution: Four-pete at the All England Club...and get back in the top five!

7. Vera Zvonareva, Russia
2008 Record: 65-22
Titles: Prague, Guangzhou
Highlights: Olympic Bronze medalist; Sony-Ericsson runner-up

Where did Vera Zvonareva come from this year? She went from being a Tier II contender to a real giant killer. She made it to the finals at Doha and Charleston before winning in Prague, but then pulled out a medal in Beijing and wins over four of the top five women this year -- not to mention a 3-0 record in the Doha round-robins on her way to the finals. She also tied with Jankovic for the most match wins this season which, for someone who played 25 tournaments, is pretty impressive. Going into 2009 I want to see Vera advancing further in some of the bigger tournaments, and maybe avenge her Sony-Ericsson loss to Venus to prove she's a real force.

New Year's Resolution: Win a Tier I title or make a Grand Slam final!

8. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Russia
2008 Record: 44-21
Highlights: Part of Fed Cup Championship team; Finalist in Sydney, Dubai, Indian Wells, Tokyo & Beijing

After spending nearly three years solidly in the top five and starting 2008 as #2, Kuznetsova was one of the few healthy players to fall in the rankings this year. That's not to say she was unsuccessful -- her five final appearances prove she's still got spunk. But losses to players like Alize Cornet, Katarina Srebotnik and Caroline Wozniacki didn't exactly help her case. And she wasn't able to repeat her success at last year's U.S. Open, where she made it to the finals against Justine Henin. If Svetlana wants to get back in the top five, she's got to make her case early in the year and win a tournament or two. Otherwise there are some talented teens in the top fifteen that will be eager to take her place.

New Year's Resolution: Remind 'em there are other Russian players to watch!

9. Maria Sharapova, Russia
2008 Record: 32-4
Titles: Australian Open, Doha, Amelia Island
Highlights: Regained #1 ranking after Henin's retirement in May

Maria won her third Grand Slam title in January when she beat Ivanovic in the finals and saw a wave of success in the first part of the year, winning three of the first four tournaments she played. But a nagging shoulder injury began to weigh on her performance in the early summer. She lost in the fourth round at Roland Garros to Safina and was upset in her second match at Wimbledon by Alla Kudryavtseva, ranked #154 at the time. Sharapova only played one more tournament for the remainder of the year, and by late September said she wouldn't return to the circuit until 2009. So far there's been no news of exactly when Maria will be back, but I'm hoping to see her strong Down Under.

New Year's Resolution: Get healthy and get back out there!

10. Aggie Radwanska, Poland
2008 Record: 54-20
Titles: Pattaya City, Istanbul, Eastbourne
Highlights: Alternate at Sony-Ericsson Championships

Aggie Radwanska had a break-out year in 2008. The nineteen-year-old made it to the quarters at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and scored impressive victories over Ivanovic, Dementieva and Kuznetsova. When Ivanovic withdrew from Doha, alternate Radwanska came in and won the only match she got to play at the year-end championships. She may be young, but she's proven she's got some mettle this year -- now she just needs to follow through in 2009.

New Year's Resolution: I'm not a teen anymore...Win an adult's tournament!

These ten women certainly gave us something to watch this year, but there are plenty of girls vying to replace them -- Nadia Petrova and Caroline Wozniacki are just one tournament win or two away from the top ten.

So good luck next year, and keep up the good work!

I'll be watching you!

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