Thursday, December 13, 2007
Strong finish for Sharapova; stronger return by Davenport
By Joel Drucker
Special to ESPN.com
With the 2007 women's tennis season over, it's time to look back. If not a year of many great matches, certainly there were many engaging occurrences that could well spin forward into 2008. Here's a look at six of the most notable:
Match of the Year
Sony Ericsson Championships
Justine Henin def. Maria Sharapova, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3
The final match of a beguiling WTA Tour year turned out to be its best. In large part, the outcome was less important than the playing styles and off-the-chart intensity of each player. Henin was assured of the world's No. 1 ranking, but surely wanted to add an exclamation point to her superb year. Sharapova had been pummeled in all four Grand Slams. When Sharapova took a tight first set, it appeared she'd be the one to conclude 2007 in grand style. But Henin fought hard to scrap out the second and took charge in the third, fighting off five of Sharapova's six break points. Over the course of a staggering 3 hours and 24 minutes, the quality hardly lagged. In large part, Sharapova gained even more, salvaging at least a remnant of hope in a lackluster year. "It's an honor to play against her," said Sharapova, who won the event in her 2004 debut. "I hope we can play a few more times. I hope I can get my revenge a few more times."
U.S. Open quarterfinals -- Venus Williams def. Jelena Jankovic, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4). Taut drama and crisp all-court tennis from both players.
Justine Henin-Serena Williams
It had been four years since the sleek, silent Belgian and the powerful, vocal America had met -- an acrimonious semifinal in the 2003 French Open. But in 2007 they went toe-to-toe four times. At the Sony Ericsson Open final in March, Williams overcame two championship points to beat Henin 0-6, 7-5, 6-3. Subsequently they encountered one another in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, each match punctuated by the pleasing contrast between Henin's all-court versatility and Williams' firepower. Though Henin won all three -- and lost only one set -- it's clear that heading into 2008, these two have all the makings of a superb rivalry.
Rise to the Occasion: Sister Slams
For all their indifference and up-and-down play, on one big stage apiece Serena and Venus Williams proved how good they can be. In January, Serena appeared woefully out of shape and stale. Losing in the quarterfinals of a small Australian Open tune-up event, she vowed to do better. It was hard to believe.
Arriving at the Australian Open ranked 81st in the world, Serena stormed through the field, playing bold, attacking tennis to reach the finals, beating such rough customers as Nadia Petrova (who served for the match), Jelena Jankovic, Shaheer Peer and Nicole Vaidisova. But her best moment came in the final, when she conceived and executed one of the finest wins of her career, obliterating Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in 52 minutes to earn her third Australian Open title and eighth Grand Slam singles crown.
Venus Williams ended 2006 ranked 48th on the WTA Tour while Serena was ranked 95th. Both finished 2007 in the top 10.
Six months later, Venus won her fourth Wimbledon. Through the first half of the year she had played sluggishly. Just prior to Wimbledon she'd been ushered out of the French Open in the third round by Jankovic. A similar exit loomed at Wimbledon when Akiko Morigami served for the match -- notably, on Court 2, dubbed "the graveyard of champions." But Venus recovered, beat Morigami and never looked back -- she didn't lose a set in four subsequent matches.
Comeback of the Year: Davenport Returns
A year ago, the big-hitting American was pregnant and assumed she'd never play again. But once her son, Jagger, was born in June, Davenport asked herself a simple question: Why not? If the movement took a while to get back, anyone who strikes the ball as sweetly as Davenport should have no problems getting her game back. But few would have thought it happen this quickly.
In her first singles tournament in a year, in Bali in September, Davenport swept through the field to take the title, her five victories including two three-setters over then-No. 3 Jelena Jankovic and 12th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova. Six weeks later at Quebec City, she earned her second tournament win of 2007. If not quite committed to a full schedule, look for Davenport to make a significant impact in 2008. "It has been a much different experience coming back this time around," said Davenport after the win in Quebec City. "I just feel a lot less pressure, and I'm just trying to enjoy it as I go. I haven't set any goals. It's kind of undefined."
Arrival of the Ingenues: Surging Serbs
Though the goal here isn't too overly polarize, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic are different personalities. Jankovic can be downright goofy, wearing her emotions on her sleeve, even joking with Jerry Seinfeld during a U.S. Open match. Ivanovic is demure, at this point armed with a polite, kind word for all. What they share are thundering groundstrokes and, at least as of now, strong ambition. Jankovic played a staggering 28 events, paced by her forceful backhand. Ivanovic competed in a more modest 20, her heavy forehand leading the way. 2008 could well be a year of reckoning -- advance or retreat -- for each. Can Jankovic schedule herself efficiently enough to peak at the majors? Will Ivanovic continue improving?
Going, going, gone
At the start of 2007 three popular European veterans -- France's Amelie Mauresmo, Belgian Kim Clijsters and Switzerland's Martina Hingis -- all held places in the top 10. But No. 3 Mauresmo was stricken with appendicitis early in the year, failed to win a tournament after February and ended '07 ranked 18th. Clijsters opened strong with a run to the Australian Open semis, issued one hint after another about not playing any more Slams and announced her retirement and pregnancy in May. Hingis' exit was particularly ignoble. Dropping out of the top 10 was one thing; deciding to retire amid controversy -- testing positive for cocaine during Wimbledon -- was exceptionally agonizing.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.