The 2007 women's tennis season looked like a free-for-all when it began, with many of the game's biggest stars in a state of flux. Who knew that the year would wind up with a clear leading lady? (We will save the men's review for Friday.)
We've combed through the highlights and low points of the season, delivered a few picks, pans, favorites and unsolicited opinions, and added a new feature: our best call and biggest mishit from last year's review. Enjoy.
Player of the Year: Justine Henin did two remarkable things in 2007: She compiled the most impressive record of any player in tennis, and remade her image from austere and aloof to accessible and sympathetic.
The fact that these two accomplishments sprang from the same root seems obvious. Henin repeatedly said that hard-won personal growth made her more at ease in her own formerly prickly skin and expanded her comfort zone on the court. What she did competitively this year while enduring a divorce and reconciling with her long-estranged family would be admirable for a person in any profession, let alone someone under the media microscope. Some fans will never forgive Henin for past transgressions, like the first-you-see-it, then-you-don't gesture on Serena Williams' serve in the 2003 French Open semifinal, or her midmatch withdrawal from the 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo. We think it's time to put those incidents to rest. Unless there's a reprise of that behavior, Henin deserves the benefit of the doubt now, and credit for coming of age, at last, with grace.
Match of the Year: A tie between the Henin-Venus Williams U.S. Open semifinal and Henin's marathon, last-woman-standing victory over Maria Sharapova in the year-end championships. Honorary mention to Serena Williams' cat burglar performance in the Miami final. She was bagled in the first set, then staved off two match points and clawed back to pilfer the title.
Worst High-Level Match of the Year: The other U.S. Open semifinal was as wretched as Justine-Venus was great. Svetlana Kuznetsova survived Anna Chakvetadze in a demolition derby that featured 81 unforced errors against just 31 winners. Kuznetsova carried that negative mojo into the final and didn't give Henin much of a match.
Comeback Player of the Year: Jointly awarded to Venus and Serena Williams, who won a Slam apiece in the same season for only the second time in their careers (2005 was the first).
A year ago, the sisters had been written off. Now they're cozied up at Nos. 7 and 8 on the WTA hit parade, and their penchant for defying convention shouldn't negate their accomplishment. Honorary mention to Lindsay Davenport, who fooled a lot of us by bundling up baby son Jagger and going back out on tour, apparently healthier and just as motivated as she was when she left 11 months earlier. She won two of the three singles events she played and has her sights set on the Beijing Olympics. All three of these players should remind us that women's tennis careers in the 21st century could be a lot more fluid, as great athletes feel increasingly free to get on and off exit ramps.
Here to stay: Ana Ivanovic has a terrific game, a terrific personal story that began with practices in an empty swimming pool, and a terrific impact on people.
Now all the fourth-ranked Serbian needs to do is figure out how to solve Henin and the Williams sisters.
Player to Watch in 2007: Hungary's soon-to-be-19-year-old Agnes Szavay won a midseason clay-court tournament, then showed she had stuff on hard court as well when she reached the final in New Haven, Conn., and the U.S. Open quarterfinals before beating Jelena Jankovic indoors in the Beijing final. Szavay is ranked 20th with a bullet. Honorable mention to No. 26 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, whose cherubic exterior masks a nervy game. Radwanska, 18, charmed the press corps by rattling on about her pet rats in Miami and again six months later at the U.S. Open when she rhapsodized about Louis Vuitton handbags after upsetting Sharapova. How quickly they grow up. P.S.: Her younger sister Urszula can play, too.
Most intriguing newcomer: Seventeen-year-old Tamira Paszek of Austria has precocious poise and shotmaking skills that were displayed to best advantage this year at Wimbledon, where she knocked off two top-20 players. The next chapter should be interesting.
Biggest upset: No contest here. Who knew that France's Marion Bartoli would be the last player to upend Henin in 2007 when she played her unorthodox two-handed, double-winged game to perfection in the Wimbledon semifinals?
Player in the most pivotal position: The classy, likable Amelie Mauresmo, who won two Slams in 2006, finished outside the top 10 for the first time in seven years. The French star was hampered by an early-season appendectomy and got hurt again during the summer hard court swing. At 28, she's got plenty of time for another run or two at the top. We'd especially like to see her rivalry with Henin extended. Their scintillating three-set final on grass at Eastbourne, won by Henin, was probably Mauresmo's best match all year. Honorable mention to Israel's Sharar Peer, who's obviously at a different point in her career. Will the 20-year-old be able to build on her good Slam results this year?
Jaw-dropper of the year: We were ready to nominate Martina Hingis' sudden and sad revelation last month that she had tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon, accompanied by a vehement denial of wrongdoing.
The looming battle to try to clear her name, along with nagging injuries, compelled her to retire for the second time in five years. Then the other shoe dropped. Head-spinning news crossed our transom this week that Hingis' former fiancé Radek Stepanek, 29, has apparently proposed to fellow Czech Nicole Vaidisova, 11 years his junior, only a few months after he and Hingis split. We'll refrain from bad jokes about bouncing Czechs.
Quietest hiatus: We named U.S. veteran Lisa Raymond and talented Australian Samantha Stosur the Unsung Heroines of 2006 after they won a second straight doubles title at the year-end championships even as Stosur's singles career prospered. But Stosur was sidelined for much of the second half of 2007 by a scary double whammy: viral meningitis and Lyme disease. We wish her the best as she tries to get back in time for the start of the 2008 campaign. The vacuum left by the absence of Raymond-Stosur was filled by Zimbabwe's Cara Black and new U.S. citizen Liezel Huber, who finished the year at No. 1.
Put us out of our misery: Ditch on-court coaching. Please.
Ill-advised shot of the year: A Sharapova overhead smash that hit Serena Williams in the first set of their lopsided Australian Open final. Williams was up 5-0 at that point and didn't need further kerosene dumped on the fire. The long, malevolent stare and muttered response Williams gave Sharapova was operatic in its intensity. Maybe it's coincidence, but Sharapova and her serve didn't fully recover until the end of the season.
Project runway: Tatiana Golovin's famous red knickers were the fun fashion statement of the year, and also led to a record for Most Minutes Devoted to Underwear, Grand Slam News Conference. The chic award goes to Sharapova for her elegant "white swan" dress in the same tournament. Honorable humanitarian mention for Venus Williams and the affordable line of clothing she designed.
Most testy exchange with reporters:
Serena Williams, deeply perturbed by her third straight quarterfinal loss to Henin at a Slam, told reporters at the U.S. Open she only showed up for the news conference because she didn't want to get fined. If there was a bright side to the churlish four-minute session, it showed that Serena still cares -- a lot.
Turns out men don't have a monopoly on betting interest: The WTA investigated two matches with unusual wagering patterns this season after being tipped by the Betfair online site, but found nothing competitively suspicious.
Sophomore slump: Vania King, named our Most Intriguing Newcomer of 2006, struggled in her first full year on the WTA circuit and wasn't able to put together back-to-back wins from June to October.
Off-radar: Shenay Perry of the U.S. and China's Jie Zheng, both sidelined since midseason with ankle and knee injuries, respectively.
Most dubious milestone: Switzerland's mighty mite and perennial top-20 player Patty Schnyder completed an 11th straight season without missing a Slam -- continuity to be admired -- but has reached a semifinal just once in those 44 appearances (the 2004 Aussie Open). After she frittered away two match points to Sharapova in a wearing round of 16 battle at the French Open, Schnyder said she felt like "the little champion who can't do anything."
Good call: We dubbed Jankovic our Player to Watch a year ago when she ended the year ranked 12th. OK, so that wasn't exactly going out on a limb -- but we REALLY hit the bull's-eye.
The personable Serb has figured out what it takes to close big matches, set a real example with her fitness, and wrestled her volatile emotions to the floor. Heck, her flirtatious chemistry with Jamie Murray at Wimbledon even made mixed doubles interesting. The more we see of Jankovic, the better, but we would like her to think about pacing herself a bit more so she's not played out at the end of the season.
Mishit: Russia's Nadia Petrova received our Here to Stay award last year. Oops. She dropped out of the top 10 (to No. 14) for the first time in three seasons, won one event (a Tier II indoor tournament in Paris), had indifferent results in Slams, defeated only one top-10 player all season and looked like she wasn't in the best shape of her life. Her year was the opposite of carpe diem.
Parting words: "I like the grace of it. I like the skill, to see who is going to outmanuever the other. I love the little tennis outfits that Chrissy [Evert] used to wear, with the little frilly panties, that kind of thing. I've been loving it a long time." -- Soul queen Aretha Franklin, who performed on opening night of the U.S. Open as part of a tribute to African-American women.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.