Triumphs to tears: Assessing the 2009 WTA stars

With a mid-tier event currently being played in Bali and the Italians hosting the U.S. in this weekend's Fed Cup final, the WTA tour's winter break has not officially begun quite yet. But in the blogosphere, 'tis eternally the season for passing judgment, so the fact that there's still a bit of tennis to be played in 2009 won't prevent me from offering this incomprehensive roundup of the year in women's pro tennis, shamelessly styled after Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom."

Serena Williams

The defining moment of Serena's 2009 season came not in Melbourne, where she dominated Dinara Safina for her 10th career Grand Slam singles title, nor at Wimbledon, where she soundly defeated her sister, Venus, for No. 11. Those victories were overshadowed by her notorious tirade against the lineswoman who called her for a foot fault in the U.S. Open semifinals.

But regardless of whether you were perturbed by the vitriolic nature of Serena's outburst (I was) or thought she should have been allowed to play the women's doubles final 36 hours later (I didn't), one has to acknowledge that from a competitive standpoint, Serena's season was an unqualified success. She may have bungled her apologies for foot-fault-gate (for which further punishment may yet be assessed), but in going 5-0 to win the year-end championships in Doha last weekend, Williams reminded us how dominating her top tennis is.

As my colleague Steve Tignor wrote earlier this week, her status as the world's greatest player derives not just from her serve -- the best in the women's game -- or her quickness, but also from her court coverage, her competitive mettle, and most of all her ability to hit winners from any position.

Ten years after she became the first Williams sister to win a major, and seven years after she first claimed the world's top ranking, Serena will finish the year ranked No. 1. It's appropriate that that distinction goes not to the hapless Safina but to Williams, the best in the game.

Elena Dementieva

It may seem harsh to offer a negative assessment of a season during which Dementieva won three titles and made the semifinals at two majors. But the Russian 6-footer has been near the top of the women's game for so long that at this point, her career is defined less by what she has accomplished than by what her competitive résumé lacks -- a Grand Slam title.

Over the past decade, Dementieva has been a finalist at two majors (the French Open and the U.S. Open, both in 2004) and made the semifinals six other times. This year, in one of the best-played women's matches of 2009, she had a match point against Serena in the Wimbledon semifinals before surrendering to the eventual champion. As the 28-year-old closes in on a second consecutive year-end top-5 finish, the absence of a Grand Slam goblet in her trophy case feels conspicuous, especially considering the volatility and inconsistency at the top of the women's game.

Dementieva's serve is no longer a liability, she's less prone to breaking down psychologically in the big moments, and she's as fit as ever -- yet her best tennis credential is still the 2008 Olympic gold medal in singles. Her emotional reaction to that triumph in Beijing demonstrates how significant the big wins are for her, but she has still yet to hoist a Grand Slam trophy. With Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin back on the scene and Serena looking as formidable as ever, Dementieva may have missed her window. I fear she's doomed to a career of major futility.

Svetlana Kuznetsova

After an embarrassingly lopsided loss to Justine Henin in the 2007 U.S. Open final, it looked as though Kuznetsova -- the 2004 U.S. Open champion -- was a one-hit wonder on the downside of her career.

But this year, Kuznetsova, inspired partially by a discussion she had with Roger Federer, rededicated herself to her game and her training, and her results reflected her raised level of commitment. Kuznetsova was up a set and a break on Serena in the Australian Open quarterfinals before officials invoked the extreme-heat rule and closed the roof. When the players returned to the court, Serena regained control, which she didn't relinquish for the rest of the tournament.

Kuznetsova got her revenge in Paris, however, knocking off Serena in the French Open quarterfinals en route to her second career Grand Slam title. Kuznetsova gets extra credit for the maturity and empathy she displayed in the Roland Garros final, during which Safina suffered another meltdown. After completely outclassing her countrywoman on the court, Kuznetsova proved to be a classy champion by keeping her celebration relatively subdued.

Victoria Azarenka

The Belarusian's play in the first half of the year announced her as a starlet in the making, and the poise she showed in defeating Serena Williams in the Key Biscayne final seemed to clinch her status as the "next big thing" in the women's game: She's athletic and powerful, blond and bubbly.

But the intensity that the Arizona-based Azarenka shows on the court is not necessarily a competitive asset. She lost her composure during her ugly third-round loss to Francesca Schiavone in the U.S. Open, berating the officials, the fans and herself before double-faulting on match point. Last week at the tour championships during her round-robin match against Caroline Wozniacki, the tantrum-prone 20-year-old suffered another meltdown. It was an inauspicious end to a season during which Azarenka established herself as a top-10 player.

Players of Polish descent

Danish teenager Caroline Wozniacki, who was born in Denmark to Polish parents, won three more tour titles this season, raising her career total to six, and established herself as a top-5 player. Entering the U.S. Open, she had never made it past the fourth round of a major, but she went all the way to the final there -- and then in the on-court interview afterward addressed her fans in English, Danish and Polish.

Canada's Aleksandra Wozniak, the daughter of Polish immigrants, also enjoyed the best season of her career, reaching the fourth round of the French Open and achieving a career-high ranking of No. 21 in June. Polish player Agnieszka Radwanska, 20, maintained her spot in the top 10 despite not winning any tourneys, and her younger sister Urszula, 18, made her debut in the top 100, reaching No. 62 in August.

Serbian players

In 2008, French Open champion Ana Ivanovic became the first Serbian player, male or female, to achieve the No. 1 ranking. She was displaced at the top spot by her countrywoman Jelena Jankovic, who won four titles in 2008 and ended the year ranked No. 1. This year, both Ivanovic and Jankovic seemed to regress. Ivanovic, now ranked No. 22, didn't make it past the fourth round of a major (and flamed out in the first round of the U.S. Open). Jankovic, whose stellar 2008 Grand Slam record included a final and two semis, also failed to advance past the round of 16 at a Slam this year, and now finds herself ranked eighth.

On-court creativity

We were reminded this year that bludgeoning the ball isn't the only way to be effective, and that multidimensional games make for compelling viewing. Notable players who, refreshingly, incorporated some variety into their play include Flavia Pennetta, who this summer cracked the top 10 for the first time; the undersized and inexperienced but surprisingly crafty Melanie Oudin; and, most significantly, U.S. Open finalist Wozniacki. (Woz, however, gets a few points deducted for that unflattering, multi-layered lavender train wreck of a Stella McCartney smock/dress.)


Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open in her third tournament back from retirement. Kimiko Date Krumm, who hadn't played competitive tennis since the Clinton administration, returned to the tour and won a tournament the day before she turned 39. Maria Sharapova came back from a career-threatening shoulder injury to make the French Open quarterfinals, and during that Paris run spoke eloquently about the satisfaction she derived from having rejoined the pro ranks. Given Clijsters' fairy-tale return to the fold, and Sharapova's more qualified success, it is little surprise that the retirement of another former No. 1, Justine Henin, didn't take.


The most promising newcomers to distinguish themselves in 2009 included Germany's Sabine Lisicki, a "Fraulein Forehand" for the new generation and a winner in Charleston; Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova, who made the semis of the French Open; and Sorana Cirstea, whose spirited effort against Jankovic at Roland Garros (Cirstea won 9-7 in the third) earned the Romanian a berth in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.


Though his weepy performance following his loss in the Australian Open final made Roger Federer this year's top lacrimation sensation, there was no shortage of tears on the women's side. The talented but tragicomical Dinara Safina made it halfway to a Sob Slam by tearing up during the finals of two consecutive major finals (the Aussie and the French, both of which she lost badly). Ana Ivanovic sobbed when injury forced her to retire from her fourth-round match against Venus Williams at Wimbledon. And Vera Zvonareva, already known as the master of the meltdown and a champion of self-flagellation, added to her legend in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, where she failed to convert any of six match points during her wrenching 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-0 loss to Flavia Pennetta. Not everyone is as unflappable as Don Draper, but the volume of tears shed during that epic loss was high, even by Zvonareva's standards.