Hot one season--not-so the next. A break-out season can sometimes be followed by a slump, and a good season can be followed by serious injury or illness, which results in a slump. Some players have trouble coming back after losing ground because of an injury. This happened to Flavia Pennetta, but she overcame it in a big way. Nathalie Dechy solved her injury comeback problem by concentrating on doubles rather than singles (maybe not so great for her fans, though). Amelie Mauresmo has yet to solve her injury/illness comeback crash, but is hiring a new coach in the hope that 2009 will be better.
How do the players line up for 2009?
Venus Williams: This was a great year for Williams. She won Wimbledon for the fifth time, defeated her sister in the Wimbledon final for the first time, and won the Sony Ericsson Championships. Liability: When she gets tight, her forehand goes to pieces.
Serena Williams: Playing at her best, she's almost unbeatable. She won the Sony Ericsson Open and the U.S. Open. Libabilities: She sustains a lot of injuries, especially with her bad knee. She sometimes gets out of the zone for long periods of time and becomes very error-prone.
Jelena Jankovic: At long last, she got to the final of a major, her serve is very much improved, and her fitness is also improved. She has everything--superb athleticism, positive attitude, superior mental game. Liability: Jankovic has a fragile body.
Dinara Safina: She burned down the house in 2008, but became mentally weary at the end of the season, and fizzled out. Liabilities: Safina needs to become consistent with her serve, which is either wonderful or terrible. And she needs to get more accustomed to the mental pressure of being at the top, and find a way to conserve some energy.
HEATING UP IN 2009
Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's shoulder--and her doctors--let her down again this year, but there is every reason to believe that the fighting Russian will fight her way right back to the top rung of the tour ladder. Liability: Her shoulder, which is now a chronic problem.
Ana Ivanovic: After Ivanovic injured her thumb, she just wasn't the same. But a new season should bring back the old Ivanovic, who is capable of doing great things on a tennis court. Liability: Though few talk about it, Ivanovic can be a bit mentally fragile.
Agnieszka Radwanska: Radwanska is no Chris Evert, but she sometimes reminds me of the great Evert, with her blank affect and repeated stinging of the baseline. Radwanska is all business on the court, and she plays with a precision that belies her lack of "weapons." The greatest weapon of all is the head, and Radwanska's is on straight. Liability: She needs to become more comfortable at the net.
Elena Dementieva: 2008 was a standout year for Dementieva, who finally found a good serve, and whose confidence shot up when she won an Olympic gold medal. Is her time (as in, Grand Slam tournaments) past? Perhaps not. Liability: Dementieva runs hot and cold; one moment she is the most mentally tough player in a tournament, and the next, she has a meltdown.
Caroline Wozniacki: Wozniacki is a fiery and skillful player, and as she matures, we can expect her to become more aggressive and take more risks. Liability: Wozniacki is still relatively inexperienced and sometimes struggles against top players.
Alize Cornet: She's great on clay, and will probably be very good on hard courts. Cornet brings spirit and a kind of limber athleticism to her game. Liability: She needs to develop more tactics for playing on a faster surface.
Vera Zvonareva: Zvonareva simmered so much in 2008, she should be about ready to boil-- and maybe she is. We saw the best tennis of Zvonareva's career this year, and we saw her return to the top 10, where she belongs. Liability: Zvonareva has a really bad temper on the court, which does not always work against a player, but probably works against her more than it helps her.
Nadia Petrova: Petrova used to be sizzling, but she cooled down to almost frozen dessert level. 2008 saw her looking a lot more like herself, and 2009 should be a good year for her. Liability: Petrova has been known to lose her focus and become defeatist.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: Remember the words to that song from Funny Girl?: "Everything you've got's about right, but the damn thing don't come out right." Kuznetsova can skillfully serve, volley, hit solid groundstrokes, and run quickly both ways around the court. She has moved back to Russia and will be working with Olga Morozova with the hope of having a better season. Liability: Head case.
Flavia Pennetta: Pennetta had to almost start all over when she lost her confidence after an injury layoff. She played a lot of small tournaments and did well, then proceeded to go to the finals in both Los Angeles and Zurich, and to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. She is now back in the top 20. Liability: Pennetta has been playing with a bad foot for some time.
Victoria Azarenka: There is no doubting Victoria Azarenka's talent. A tough baseliner, she also has some very nice doubles skills. Azarenka is steadily improving, and could make a real dent in the 2009 season. Liability: Azarenka has difficulty closing.
Patty Schnyder: Schnyder is about to turn 30, and--in my opinion--is the biggest under-achiever on the tour. She gets into final after final--some of them quite big--but rarely wins the trophy, creating excessive fan frustration (I can only imagine how she feels). No one knows how much longer the intelligent and inventive Schnyder will play singles--she has revived her interest in doubles--but she has fitness on her side, an improved serve, and an improved backhand. Liability: Schnyder has major difficulty closing big matches.
Dominika Cibulkova: Just as the hummingbird is technically unable to fly, the 5-foot, 3-inch Cibulkova isn't supposed to play pro tennis, but she does so with quite a bit of determination. Cibulkova has had a lot of court poise from the start, and she can hit the ball harder than one might think. Liability: She gets injured a lot.
Maria Kirilenko: Kirilenko has an elegant game that is a joy to see, and 2008 was a good season for her. Liability: She is chronically inconsistent.
Li Na: Li is a strong hard court player, but in the last year and a half, she sustained two very serious injuries which put her out of commission for months at a time. Liability: Despite making a good start in 2008, she still has to play catch-up.
Katarina Srebotnik: Srebotnik had a knock-out year, tossing Serena Williams out of the French Open, and then doing likewise with Svetlana Kuznetsova at the U.S. Open. She made it to the quarterfinals of both tournaments (falling to Schnyder in both), and also achieved a career-high ranking of 20. Liability: Srebotnik puts a lot of her practice time into doubles.
NEAR THE BURNER
This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Kaia Kenepi, Sara Errani, Bethanie Mattek, Alona Bondarenko, Kateryna Bondarenko, Tamira Paszek, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Sorana Cirstea
Amelie Mauresmo: The former world number 1 had some very bad luck last year with injury and injury-related illness, and this year, she just couldn't get it together. We are all waiting to hear whom she has selected as her new coach. Asset: She has been at the top before and with some belief, she could use her experience to make another good run.
Tatiana Golovin: A cyst on her hip put Golovin out of the game, and prior to that occurrence, she had chronic problems with her ankles. The most frustrating part of this misfortune is that after she spent some time working with Mats Wilander, she had improved her game most impressively. No ones knows when to expect her back on the tour, or how long it could take her to get back to her post-Wilander form. Asset: Golovin is young, and has time to return to form.
Marion Bartoli: Bartoli's post 2007-Wimbledon slump was no surprise, but it is too easy to just dismiss her as someone who once had a shining moment. Bartoli plays an unusual style of tennis, and she plays it well. This year, she made significant improvements to her serve, too. When she is healthy and tuned in, she is almost unbeatable. But Bartoli's body is fragile (perhaps from those endless drills her father has her do, including two hours before her matches), and one gets the impression that her mentality is sometimes fragile, too. I wish she would try out a new coach. Asset: Bartoli is often accused of "living in her own world," but this could work to her advantage.
Agnes Szavay: What happened here? Szavay is a really good player with a beautiful backhand, but she has had a terrible season, falling in the first round over and over. The 2008 experience will show us how mentally tough Szavay is. Asset: Szavay is young, talented and healthy.
Anna Chakvetadze: Chakvetadze is loaded with talent and a lot of fun to watch, but this season, she was sometimes barely able to keep the ball within the court. Always emotionally fragile, Chakvetadze suffered a terrible trauma a year ago when she and her father were tied up, robbed and brutalized. She says that she has recovered from the event, but I doubt that is the case. Not known for mental toughness, Chakvetadze now risks having a total meltdown on the tour. Asset: Chakvetadze is likely to get all the support she needs from a strong national federation.
Daniela Hantuchova: Everyone's favorite head case had some serious problems with her feet, too, this year. When she returned to the tour, she had difficulty getting out of early rounds. When Hantuchova is on her very elegant game, she is a top player, though she is also a world-class choker. Asset: Hantuchova is too intelligent, and likes tennis too much, not to have a plan.
Sania Mirza: At the end of 2007, Mirza returned from a wrist injury layoff to play some of her best tennis. But she continued to have chronic problems with her wrist, and chronic problems with the Indian press and Indian government. Asset: Mirza appears to be independent and determined, and--if her wrist cooperates--she may be able to overcome her problems.
Michaella Krajicek: Krajicek went on a big losing streak this year, which she finally broke in June. However, she lost in the first round at Wimbledon, where she had quarterfinal points to defend. She then sustained a knee injury, did not play for a while, and fizzled out toward the end of the season. Asset: Krajicek is young and has time to straighten herself out.
Nicole Vaidisova: Once touted as a phenom, Vaidisova has not always been able to deliver on the predictions about her success. Last year, she had to deal with both a viral illness and a wrist injury, which put her behind. This year, she started well, had to cope with the wrist injury again, and then went from being inconsistent to having the same fate as Agnes Szavay. Even at her best, Vaidisova sometimes lacks mental toughness. Asset: She is young and quite talented, and has time to gain confidence and strengthen her game.