2008 season highlighted by topsy-turvy battle for WTA supremacy

The sudden retirement of incumbent No. 1 Justine Henin left the WTA Tour in anarchy. Mark Renders/Getty Images

If you've ever played that game where you build a tower of wooden blocks, then withdraw them one at a time while trying to prevent the tower from toppling, you'll understand what Justine Henin's abrupt retirement in May did to the hierarchy of the women's game. It removed a structural beam, and the resulting pile was kind of a mess. If you like parity, variety and surprises, 2008 was your year. We review some of the highlights and head-scratchers below.

Player of the year

The contenders should be plain to everyone: Rock, Paper and Scissors. Jelena Jankovic finished the year at No. 1 and won four tournaments but no majors. Ana Ivanovic won Indian Wells and her maiden Slam at the French Open, and she also briefly held the top ranking. Venus Williams earned her fifth Wimbledon championship (and seventh Slam overall) along with the year-end title. After considerable waffling, we've decided to waffle. There is no clear POY, or even a clearly defined debate, and we're not going to force it.

Match of the year

Serena Williams defeats Venus Williams, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7), U.S. Open quarterfinals. It may seem strange to choose a two-set match for this honor, but the 17th meeting between The Sisters was the most riveting of their long, convoluted series, and better than their Wimbledon final, or any other 2008 Grand Slam final for that matter (though Serena's victory over Jankovic in the Open final had its moments). The match represented a complete turn of the wheel since the early days of their rivalry, when the siblings seemed so conflicted about playing one another that their encounters were flat or worse. This time, both Williamses were in top form, ultra-professional and intense, and went at each other as if their reputations were on the line. We hope to see many more like it.

Most improved player

Once again, we'll opt for a player who climbed a few steps closer to the top in thin air rather than someone who made a lot of progress from base camp. With the help of new coach Zeljko Krajan, No. 3 Dinara Safina harnessed her emotions so they complemented her game more than they sabotaged it and learned to dig herself out of holes where she would have been buried in the past. Marat Safin's little sister won four important titles, reached her first Slam final at the French Open and finished the season in the top 10 for the first time in her career. If she keeps it up, Marat may be known as Dinara's big brother in years to come.

Most improved American

Bethanie Mattek began the year ranked No. 114, and most tennis insiders thought her stock would hover around that level indefinitely. After all, she was already 23 and better known for wild outfits than match toughness. The effervescent Minnesotan committed to fitness and came dressed for success this season. After an indifferent start, Mattek collected herself with good results in lower-level clay-court events, took a set off Maria Sharapova at the French Open, then took off on grass, reaching the semis at Birmingham and the fourth round at Wimbledon. Mattek ended the season on a high note, appearing in her first WTA final in Quebec City and winding up at No. 39. As a bonus, she's lost none of her down-to-earth, player-next-door charm.

Young player to watch

Portugal's hard-hitting Michelle Larcher de Brito will turn 16 in January and thus is still limited in how many WTA-level events she can play. This phenom and Florida resident had some quality wins in 2008, notably in Montreal, where she qualified into the main draw, beat Vania King and then-No. 18 Flavia Pennetta, and pushed then-No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova to three sets in the round of 16. Larcher de Brito finished the season at No. 126. Honorary mention: At age 14, it's still too soon to get an accurate read on Laura Robson's chart, but it should be interesting to see the Wimbledon junior champion contend with the British yearning for a female player to rise up and join Andy Murray on the world stage.

Biggest upset

Coming into the U.S. Open, Ivanovic was struggling with injury and the pressure of being No. 1. That doesn't mean she was a pushover, especially in the intimidating confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium. No. 188 Julie Coin of France, a qualifier and former Clemson University player, pulled off one of the most mathematically improbable results in Grand Slam history when she ousted Ivanovic 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in the second round.

Golden glow

Once hamstrung by yips on her serve, No. 4 Elena Dementieva has conquered her demons to become one of the game's most consistent performers. The soft-spoken, engaging Russian had her best year since 2004 in Grand Slams, reaching the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but the crowning achievement of her season and perhaps her career was the Olympic singles gold medal in Beijing. Dementieva candidly admitted the win means more than any major in her home country. "In Russia, if you stop anyone in the street and ask what is a Grand Slam, I don't think many people can tell you what is this,'' she told reporters at the U.S. Open.

Strangest season, competition category

After Sharapova's impressive, take-no-prisoners march to the Australian Open title, this looked like it could be the year the statuesque Russian consolidated her patented strength with a more varied game and made 2008 her own. That scenario was derailed by a chronic shoulder injury that limited Sharapova to four matches after the French Open. She vanished in August, resurfacing only in commercials and on red carpets, and leaving a gaping hole in the women's game.

Strangest season, non-competition category

It's hard to imagine a more tumultuous off-court saga than Ashley Harkleroad's. After recovering from a frightening emergency surgery to remove an ovary in the spring, Harkleroad announced she had posed for Playboy magazine and entertained reporters with details of her photo shoot at subsequent news conferences. Then, just a few weeks after her appearance as the August cover girl, Harkleroad, who is engaged to her coach, Chuck Adams, discovered she was pregnant and abruptly withdrew from the U.S. Open. Perhaps one of these days life will slow down for the amiable Georgian, but we wouldn't bet on it.

Dubious milestone

Only 18 women have ever held the No. 1 ranking since the WTA instituted a points system in 1973. Five players traded the spot like a hot potato this year: Henin, Sharapova, Ivanovic, Serena Williams -- who regained it after five years, the longest such drought in history -- and finally, Jankovic.

Non sequitur of the year

In Jankovic's last U.S. Open news conference, reporters asked the runner-up if she had seen her mother yet. "I don't know where she is now,'' said the Divine Miss J. "I just received a vaccine, you know, so that's the first thing I've done, receive the needle in my arm and some more torture. … You think it's easy being a professional athlete?'' The sinister-sounding incident actually was a shot prescribed by WTA doctors. In the same session, Jankovic declared she should have won a trophy for her acting. We would agree and recommend her for open casting calls on any medical drama. The expressive, athletic Serbian channeled Lucille Ball a few times this season. Who else would have dashed across the Australian Open grounds in a soaking wet dress after an ice bath or refused to let go of the microphone on court after the U.S. Open final, asking how much prize money she'd just won?

Off the radar

Michaella Krajicek's 2007 appearance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals at age 18 seemed to confirm her potential, and she was ranked as high as No. 30 early this season. But the Dutch teen lost her first 10 matches of the year before briefly righting herself with a couple of grass-court wins, then spiraled downward again, bothered by a knee injury, and found herself having to qualify for lower-level events; by year's end, she'd drifted to No. 206.

Parting words

"I don't need this adrenaline of being in front of thousands of people to really be happy.'' -- Henin at a news conference on the eve of the French Open, less than two weeks after her sudden retirement.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.