December 12, 2009

Year in Review: The Ladies

Well another year has come and gone and, as usual, we've got plenty to reflect upon. There was a ton of drama both on and off the courts, and while most of the top players held fast to their positions among the tennis elite, we saw quite a few twists and turns along the way.

The top ten players in the world aren't so different from what they were last year. There was a bit of shuffling and a couple ascendants. Notably missing are Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic -- more on them later -- but those that made the cut did so with varying amounts of fanfare:

  1. (2) Serena Williams
  2. (3) Dinara Safina
  3. (8) Svetlana Kuznetsova
  4. (12) Caroline Wozniacki
  5. (4) Elena Dementieva
  6. (6) Venus Williams
  7. (15) Victoria Azarenka
  8. (1) Jelena Jankovic
  9. (7) Vera Zvonareva
  10. (10) Aggie Radwanska

Elena Dementieva reached a career high ranking of #3 in the world back in April and began the year with a solid 15-0 record. She also was half of what was probably the best women's match of the year. Though she dropped a spot in the rankings, her three titles in 2009 show she's still at the top of her game.

Aggie Radwanska didn't quite have the success she did during her breakout year, but despite dropping a couple of spots here and there, she climbed her way back into the top ten thanks to a semifinal appearance in Tokyo and a runner-up trophy in Beijing.

But those performances only scratch the surface of all the action we saw this year -- good, bad and ugly. And in the spirit of the holiday season, let's start with the good:

The Highlights

Oddly -- or maybe not so much -- my two highest points of the year involve players not in the top ten.

I had never been a big fan of Kim Clijsters before her retirement, but even I have to admit that what she pulled off at the U.S. Open was nothing short of spectacular. Just one month and two tournaments back from her maternity leave sabbatical, she defeated both Williams sisters and a spunky Caroline Wozniacki to win her second title in Flushing Meadows, becoming -- as the commentators were quick to point out ad nauseum -- the first mom to win a Grand Slam) since Evonne Goolagong took Wimbledon in 1980. She did so with the grace and excitement fitting of a champion, bringing her eighteen-month-old daughter on court with her for the trophy presentation.

Not surprisingly, Kim's quick comeback and immediate success prompted fel low Belgian and another former #1 Justin Henin to return from her premature retirement. She'll make her re-debut on the Tour at some exhibition events next month to gear up for the Austalian Open.

Another star marked her own comeback this year, though her absence was less voluntary. After a nine-month hiatus Maria Sharapova finished this year outside the top ten for the first time since 2003. But that's not to say this was a disappointnig year for her by any means. Since returning from shoulder surgery in May she made at least the quarters of the first three tournaments she played. She played a relentless schedule, battling through weeks where she had a match almost every day, and finally won her first tournament in over a year in Tokyo. After falling to #126 in the world, she climbed her way back up to #14 -- not bad for having missed so much of the year.

Svetlana Kuznetsova was one of the few women who took my suggested New Year's Resolution for them seriously. Going more than a year without a title, she was barely holding on to the top tier before the spring. Then she won in Stuttgart and made the finals in Rome. And in Paris she survived a nearly three hour battle against Serena before routing top-seeded Safina in the finals, claiming only the second Major of her ten-year career. She put in a solid performance the rest of the year, too, winning the premier event in Beijing and making her way back to #3 in the world.

The Lowlights

Without a doubt, the worst part of the 2009 season came during Serena Williams' semifinal at the U.S. Open. Combined with Vera Zvonareva's profanity-laced outburst earlier in the week, the ladies just weren't very ladylike in New York. But I've already expounded on that at length, so there's no need to rehash my feelings here. In any case there were plenty of other meltdowns of a less offensive nature.

Venus Williams moved around quite a bit in the rankings this year, getting within a stone's throw of #2 and then falling to #7. While she had a chance to repeat with a second straight title in Doha, her year was more defined by an early upset in Australia, two consecutive losses to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and a demolition by baby sister when trying to win her sixth Wimbledon title. Of course she has a knack for coming back when you least expect it, but Venus certainly proved that almost anyone can beat her.

Dinara Safina exhibited her vulnerability as well -- though the twenty-three year old Russian spent a good portion of the yeat at #1, she seemed to bow under the pressure of her position. Not only the runner-up at Roland Garros, she was bagelled in the first set of the Australian Open finals, making her oh-for-three in Grand slam title matches. Sure she won a couple of premier events, but continued to prove, time and again, that she couldn't convert on the big stage. After winning the U.S. Open Series last year, she made an early exit in New York and then suffered two losses to players ranked in the triple-digits. Then she pulled out of her first match at the Tour Championships with a lower back injury -- one that's also going to keep her out of Brisbane in January. Not the best way to end a year you began with such promise. While Dinara still holds on to a #2 ranking, that grip seems tenuous at best -- if she doesn't learn how to perform on the big stage quickly, she may see her star tumble soon.

While Safina would choke in the late round of Majors, Ana Ivanovic had trouble from the get-go. She reached her career high last year, not long after she won her only Grand Slam title in Paris. But 2009 was self-admittedly a disappointment for her, as she couldn't get past the round of sixteen in any Slam. Plagued with a series of injuries she suffered some early upsets at the start of the year and only made the fourth round at Roland Garros. Worse, she lost her opening match in New York and withdrew from the China Open before eventually forgoing the rest of the season. With one let down after another, Ana saw her ranking drop to #22 at year end, but despite being so hard on herself she's hoping to make a strong comeback in Australia. It might take something a bit more than time off and new coaching, but I'm hoping for the best.

The Resurgents

While some fell, others climbed.

Sam Stosur has been around for over a decade, but she was never really a force until this year. In her early career she did well on the ITF circuit, winning four titles in 2001, but she was kind of a middling player on the main singles Tour -- she had won a slew of doubles titles, including the French and U.S. Opens. Then 2009 came around and things changed. Just a year after returning from a nagging viral illness, she reached the quarters in Miami and the semis at Roland Garros -- her best ever performance at a Slam. During a year in which she notched wins over Serena, Dinara and Elena Dementieva, she also earned her first championship with a straight-set win over Francesca Schiavone in Osaka. Her year-end ranking of #13 makes her the best Australian player in the world -- not bad for a country that boasts greats like Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis and the Woodies.

Kimiko Date Krumm also had a lot to be happy about this year. The one-time fourth-ranked player in the world came out of a ten-year retirement and had a better year than most. She made it through the qualifying rounds in Melbourne before losing to Kaia Kanepi, 6-8 in the third, and received a wildcard entry to Wimbledon. After winning three ITF titles last year, she followed up with another win in Monzon, Spain and brought her ranking back into the double-digits. Her inspiring run culminated with a trophy in Seoul, where she'd defeated top seed Daniela Hantuchova and a strong Alisa Kleybanova, one day before her thirty-ninth birthday, making her the second oldest woman ever to win a Tour title.

The Newcomers

On the opposite end of the spectrum are a couple of teenagers who made their presense known loud and clear in 2009.

The year started out being all about Victoria Azarenka who took home three trophies all before the end of the first quarter. The nineteen-year-old (she turned twenty in July) began by winning her first title in Brisbane and following it up with trophies in Memphis and Miami, defeating Safina and Serena on the way. She cracked the top ten in March and held on to the position, qualifying for her first year-end Championship in Doha. While she didn't have the best results in the back half of the year, she definitely still has the strength and smarts to get herself back on track.

Sorana Cirstea also began the year on fire. She made the semis at Marbella and the quarters in Estoril. Her power-hitting strokes and good looks caused some commentators to tout her as the new generation's Jennifer Capriati during the French Open, where she upset Alize Cornet and Jelena Jankovic before ultimately falling to Stosur in the Round of Eight. That run earned her a seed for both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and a couple of big wins during the hard-court season showed that she still has potential for next year, even if she fell in a handful of first rounds in the fall.

While both girls began the year strong, a couple others finished it out. Melanie Oudin became the darling of Flushing Meadows when she became the surprise quarterfinalist, notching wins over three seeded players in a row. But her breakout started even earlier in the year than that. She was the surprise heroine in the U.S.'s first round defeat of Argentina in the Fed Cup World Group and she ousted Jankovic in the third round at Wimbledon. Her ascent from #177 in the world at the end of last year to #48 now is clearly an indication that American women's tennis -- outside the Williamses -- should not be written off just yet.

Another teenager Caroline Wozniacki was the spoiler in Melanie's miraculous run at New York. The nineteen-year-old Dane had inched precariously close to the top ten by the end of last year, but didn't really start to shine until 2009. She made the finals in Memphis and the quarters in two consecutive premier events -- Indian Wells and Miami -- before taking the title in Ponte Vedra. She racked up wins over Elena Dementieva and Daniela Hantuchova early off in the year and repeated her championship run in a rain-soaked New Haven before acheiving her highest honor. During the finals of the U.S. Open, she put up quite a fight against the veteran Clijsters before falling in two sets. But for a girl who's only played on the Major tour for three years, she certainly isn't slacking.

The Out-Goers

We said good-bye to a few familiar faces too, this year.

Veteran doubles champion Ai Sugiyama made her last appearance in her hometown of Tokyo back in September where she and long-time partner Daniela Hantucova made the finals. During her nearly seventeen-year career, she's racked up six singles and thirty-eight doubles titles, reaching the quarters in a few Grand Slams and taking home three Major doubles trophies. At the '09 U.S. Open she set the record for most consecutive Slam main draw appearances -- sixty-two. That's a lot of time for someone of such grace and talent to make a lot of friends, and she will surely be missed on Tour.

When I started writing this post Amelie Mauresmo hadn't formally announced her retirement yet, but that's just what she did earlier in December. After a disappointing season the two-time Slam winner and former #1 said she no longer felt the desire to train or compete. Though she won her first title since 2007 at the Paris Indoors, Mauresmo didn't have a lot of luck in the Majors this year. She withdrew from tournaments in the fall with an abdominal injury and back in October she wrote on her website:

"Since my return from the U.S. Open, I tried to practice, but I haven't found the thirst to compete. I won't rush into things or force the issue. I'll give myself time to think,in order to make a decision as for the rest of my career."

Always a force on the Tour, the competetive spirit Amelie brought to the game will certainly be missed. But hopefully there are a few other players there ready to pick up where she left off.

So it's certainly been an interesting 2009, an appropriate ending for a very eventful decade. And just in case fans were about to write off women's tennis, this year showcased the very best -- and some of the worst -- of the athletic and emotional ability of these ladies.

And we seem to have set the stage for what could be a very exciting 2010.

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