As another season concludes on the WTA, its is only fitting to reflect on the moments that branded it and look forward to what might be in store for 2009.
The Russian onslaught continues with half of the players ranked in the top ten coming from that nation. One of the pack’s standouts, Maria Sharapova, bulldozed over her opponents to win the year’s first major in Australia. However, after an impressive winning streak, Sharapova went on forced sabbatical due to an old shoulder injury resurfacing. Dinara Safina and Vera Zvonareva finally lived up to their promise, as these two had a phenomenal run in 2008. Sporting new coaches, these two women known for their volatile outburst on court, bottled their tempers which translated into great results. Safina’s newfound mental solidity carried her all the way to the French Open final. For her part, Zvonareva was a finalist at the year-end Sony Ericsson Championships where she lost a heartbreaking match to Venus Williams. Moreover, this powerhouse of tennis swept the medals at the Olympics with Elena Dementieva taking gold, Safina silver, and Zvonareva bronze. In team play, the Russians were also supreme, crushing Spain to grab another Federation cup.
The Serbians also became more firmly entrenched in the sport. After her defeat in the Australian final, Ana Ivanovic claimed her first major in Paris. Compatriot Jelena Jankovic made her first majors’ final appearance at the U.S. Open, but lost a tough three setter. As a result of the French Open title, Ivanovic captured the number one ranking. But with a niggling thumb injury, Ivanovic struggled the remainder of the year. On the other hand, Jankovic overflowing with confidence after her great U. S. Open showing, won three straight tournaments and finished the year at number one. Jelena is the third player after Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis to hold that honor despite failing to earn a major trophy.
The Williams sisters persist as the beacon of light of American tennis with Venus shining on her best surface, the grass at Wimbledon. Venus seized her fifth title at sister Serena’s expense. But the latter’s tears were short-lived as the siblings took the Wimbledon doubles title and repeated with doubles gold in Beijing. Moreover, Venus showed that at 28, she still could keep up with her younger peers by winning both in Zurich and at the prestigious year-end championships. While Serena, no spring chicken herself, prevailed for the third time at the U.S. Open.
The number one ranking bounced around this year with the unforeseen bombshell dropped by Belgian Justine Henin mid season. Only two weeks from defending her French Open title, Henin, the world’s number one, announced her immediate retirement. This was a jaw dropping moment considering Justine’s extraordinary performance in 2007. Fans will miss that acclaimed one-handed backhand. With Henin’s sudden departure, a colossal vacuum was left leading to a rotation at number one beginning with Sharapova, followed by Ivanovic, then Serena and Jankovic. It’s anyone’s guess how long the current holder, Jankovic, will hang on.
Doubles partners, American Liezel Huber and Zimbabwean Cara Black claimed their first U.S. Open trophy. Furthermore, they defended their year-end championship title. It will be interesting to see if that team can win in Paris in 2009 to complete the career grand slam. Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual secured their first major title at the French and took Olympic silver. Another sister combination, Ukrainians Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko, captured the initial doubles major in Australia.
Several teenagers served notice of their plan to shake up the status quo. Pole Agnieszka Radwanska, who first made her mark in 2007 by beating Sharapova in the fourth round at U.S. Open, capitalized on her success with quarterfinal results at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, she is now ranked 10th. While the sun may be setting on former Wimbledon and Australian champion Amelie Mauresmo’s career, the French torch is being passed on to 18-year-old Alize Cornet. Currently ranked number 16, the teenager won her first WTA title this year. Dane Caroline Wozniacki is another youngster who made tremendous strides, climbing to number 12 and getting a couple of titles under her belt. With Henin retiring, Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova may be the new standard bearer for the petite crowd. Cibulkova was a finalist at the tier I Rogers Cup and Amelia Island. Belarusian Victoria Azarenka is another player whose game steadily improved with a number 15 ranking to boot. Azarenka won the mixed doubles trophy in Roland Garros with Bob Bryan. Expect great things from the 19 year old the upcoming year.
This tour cycle, some veterans’ careers went through a revival. Italian Flavia Pennetta was a thorn in Venus’ side at a few tournaments, for instance stopping the American at the French Open. Pennetta made it to the quarters at the U.S. Open and posted her best career ranking at 13. Garrigues’ achievement in doubles boosted her singles play. The Spaniard finished the year ranked just outside the top twenty. Russian Nadia Petrova had a resurgence, with a new attitude and coach competing became more enjoyable which resulted in a quarterfinal appearance at the All England Club her best outcome in a major since 2006. American Lindsay Davenport seems to be in the twilight of her career. After a much-anticipated return, her results were disappointing. The American handicapped by injury had little impact on the majors; retirement may not be far behind.
China gave us a lot to talk about in 2008. Not only did it stage the Olympics, Jie Zheng, one of its brightest stars, staged a comeback after an ankle problem caused her to miss a chunk of the previous season. As a wildcard Zheng reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, beating Ivanovic along the way and won Olympic bronze with Zi Yan. China has been investing a huge amount of funds in the development programs. Will 2009 be the payoff by way of a majors’ trophy?
In 2009, a new system the so-called “roadmap” will be debuted. The question will be whether it will live up to one of its key intents: reducing player injuries. With Henin’s exit, the top six players are not far apart. This presumed parity is perhaps erroneous since injury has had a say in the ranking. Undoubtedly, Jankovic is primarily a defensive player. Therefore, the question is whether she can broaden her game enough to justify her current number one ranking, which she can solely do by winning a major. The smart money in 2009 may be on recycling. Meaning if the new schedule works as proposed and Serena, Venus, or Maria stays healthy, one of these women is likely to emerge as the undisputed frontrunner. With the calendar opening January 4th , answers will soon be forthcoming.