It was a very unusual season of tennis. Four different women--Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic, Serena Williams, and Ana Ivanovic--claimed the world number 1 spot in the course of the year. Russia won the Fed Cup title for the fourth time in five years, and Russians swept the Beijing Olympic medals in singles competition. Cara Black and Liezel Huber had a terrific season and retained their world number 1 title, while a variety of other doubles teams performed well.
Martina Hingis was found guilty of violating the doping ban and was given a two-year suspension, leading to her final retirement. Laura Robson--a delightful and cheeky Brit--won the junior Wimbledon title, and an American, Coco Vandeweghe, won the junior U.S. Open title. Kimiko Date, long retired, came back at the age of 37 and won several small Asian tournaments.
Li Na, out for six months with a second major injury, returned this year and immediately won Gold Coast, the first tournament of the season. Sam Stosur, also out for a long time with a major illness, returned to the tour. Patty Schnyder, who marked 500 wins this year, silenced many by getting to the quarterfinals of both the French Open and the U.S. Open. And Alicia Molik--who never got her great career going again after a very long illness--retired, to the disappointment of her many fans.
Ever-sexist ATP player and commentator Justin Gimelstob had his wrist slapped a little when there was a major outcry against his obscene and misogynistic comments about Anna Kournikova. Gimelstob protested his innocence (it was only "trash talk," Lindsay Davenport defended me, blah, blah, blah), and apologized for verbalizing his thoughts, but did not apologize for his bigotry.
Amelie Mauresmo, who missed most of last year because of illness and illness-related injury, had a disaster of a year, which ended with her parting ways with longtime coach and mentor, Loic Courteau. Her countrywoman, Tatiana Golovin, has also been out for months because of surgery for a cyst, and no one knows when she will return. Flavia Pennetta, whose return from injury had been plagued with self-doubt, made a comeback so impressive that she wound up playing the best tennis of her career.
All of these happenings--good and bad--would be enough to make 2008 memorable. But there was more. Much more. Here are my personal top 10, in ascending order:
10. The Bondarenko sisters win the Australian Open.
In a final worth watching, the always-entertaining Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna--who, after 38 tries, had never won a doubles title together on the tour--decided it was time to correct that omission, and won the Australian Open. They defeated Victoria Azarenka and Shahar Peer in the final, and on the way, they beat world number 1 team Black and Huber in straight sets. The Bondarenkos would go on to win their next tournament (Paris), but Alona's knee injury would hamper her for much of the season.
9. Zheng Jie has a break-out season.
Injured throughout most of 2007, doubles champion Zheng Jie came back healthy and decided to show the world that she can play singles, too. Zheng went to the Wimbledon semifinals by beating top seed Ana Ivanovic, as well as Dominika Cibulkova, Agnes Szavay and Nicole Vaidisova. She fell to Serena Williams in straight sets, but not without putting up an impressive fight, and not without holding a set point in the second set. Zheng then went to two more semifinals, and also won a bronze medal in doubles at the Beijing Olympics.
8. Julie Coin has her own personal field day at the U.S. Open.
Despite trying for years, Frenchwoman Julie Coin had never before made it into the main draw of a Sony Ericsson WTA tournament, but she finally got through qualifying at the 2008 U.S. Open. Getting into your first main draw at one of the four majors and then winning your first round is a story in itself, but why make one story when you can make a whole newscast? Coin proceeded to take out top seed and world number 1 Ana Ivanovic in the second round. It was an amazing match, with Coin--number 188 in the world--holding steady throughout. In defeating Ivanovic, Coin pulled off the biggest upset in Grand Slam history. Coin also became the lowest-ranked player to ever defeat a world number 1.
7. Venus and Serena play a classic U.S. Open quarterfinal, and Serena wins the Open.
I've never been too fond of Williams sisters matches, but I had a feeling, right after the U.S. Open third round, that this quarterfinal was going to be different. My feeling served me well. The sisters put on the show of shows in Flushing Meadows, though it was an excruciating experience for Venus fans: She failed to convert eight set points in the second set, and Serena won, 7-6, 7-6. It was something to see. Serena then went on to defeat Dinara Safina in the semifinals, and then Jelena Jankovic, in a very entertaining final.
6. Sharapova's shoulder takes her out of competition for the second year in a row.
It must have been rough for Maria Sharapova in 2007, when she had to drop out because her shoulder was giving her so much trouble. She came roaring back, though--driving Justine Henin to the brink in the Sony Ericsson Championships, and then brilliantly winning the Australian Open this year. It turns out that Sharapova's (probably very well paid) doctors failed to notice a torn rotator cuff tendon. She played with the injury for months, and then finally had to call it quits again, missing both the Olympics and the U.S. Open.
5. Ivanovic wins her first major.
Last year, Ana Ivanovic stood on the court looking dazed and confused as Justine Henin defeated her for the French Open title. This year was a different story. Ivanovic played superb tennis throughout her time at Roland Garros, brilliantly defeated Jelena Jankovic in a semifinal thriller, and got the better of a very tough, though somewhat tired, Dinara Safina in the final.
4. Jankovic goes to the next level.
It is no secret that I think Jelena Jankovic is the most watchable player on the tour. Her court savvy and her athleticism come together to create a tennis player of outstanding creativity and skill. But for various reasons--a fragile body, a ridiculous playing schedule, a terrible serve--she had not gotten beyond the semifinal of a major before this year. In 2008--credit to coach Ricardo Sanchez--Jankovic took a big step forward. Her second serve is still much in need of improvement, but her first serve has gone from poor to sometimes excellent, and nearly always better than adequate. She is fitter this year, too, despite having a variety of injuries. She made it to the final of the U.S. Open, and what a final it was. Jankovic lost, but she has a lot to be proud of. Jankovic defended her Rome title this year, and this fall, she won three tournaments in three consecutive weeks.
3. Venus adds jewels to her crown.
By now, everyone seems to get it: The Williams sisters are champions. They were champions when they were very young, and they are now. They don't do things the way they are "supposed to," but the way they do things is plenty good enough. Venus defended her Wimbledon title this year, defeating none less than her sister Serena in the final, and holding up the Venus Rosewater dish for the fifth time in her career. It was the first time Venus had defeated Serena in a Wimbledon final. She went on to win Zurich, but the real topper occurred this month, when she also won the Sony Ericsson Championships for the first time.
2. Safina provides thrills beyond anyone's expectations.
I will always think of 2008 as the year of Safina. The talented Russian, who had never quite been able to put all of her skills together, put them together this year so dramatically that she was the most exciting player on the tour. It started in Berlin, where she not only beat world number 1 Justine Henin (and Elena Dementieva and Serena Williams), but played thrilling, come-from-behind tennis repeatedly, to win the title. Dinara Safina then went on to play the same kind of heart-stopping tennis at the French Open, eventually developing mental fatigue and falling in the final to a very in-form Ana Ivanovic. So many times this season, Safina looked certain to lose a match, and she would turn it around, providing tremendous excitement for fans, but perhaps a bit too much for herself. (At one point, when she was down a set and a couple of breaks in a match, commentator Mary Carillo, speaking of Safina's opponent, quipped, "Ah, Safina has her right where she wants her.") Safina went on to win the U.S. Open Series by taking both Los Angeles and Montreal, and she also won in Tokyo, and claimed a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. Injury (and a determined Shahar Peer) took her out of Wimbledon, and fatigue--perhaps more mental than physical--did her in at both the U.S. Open and the Sony Ericsson Championships. Nevertheless, Safina's 2008 rise was both delightful and very impressive.
1. Justine Henin retires.
The tennis world was rocked in May when world number 1 Justine Henin announced her retirement, effective immediately. In an act of both finality and generosity, Henin also requested that her name be removed from the rankings. She retired right before the French Open, where she was the both the defending champion and the favorite. And she retired before having one more crack at winning Wimbledon, which surprised me. For years, Henin thrilled fans with her fluid movement, remarkable court savvy and brilliant backhand. Her forehand was also one of the best on the tour. If I had to choose one image from 2008 that summed up how strange the season was, it would be the photo of Henin handing out the Roland Garros trophies. Henin's absence probably has not totally sunk in with most of us; she was a phenomenal talent on the tour.