Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Decade's Best: U.S. Open, 2000-09

The decade began with the Williams Sisters causing a stir at the U.S. Open. It ended the same way.

From 2000-02, Serena and Venus ruled the grounds of the USTA National Tennis Center, winning all three singles titles and facing each other in two finals. By the end of the decade, many things had changed: the women's final began to be played under the lights on Ashe Stadium (but none ever went three sets), "fashion wars" commenced, the Tennis Center was named in honor of Billie Jean King, one poorly-officiated match essentially gave birth to the replay system, four other women raised the Open champion's cup, two champions retired before they could defend their singles crowns, and the courts were painted blue. One thing that didn't change, though, was that wherever the Sisters went, either greatness or controversy was sure to follow. As the decade came to a close with a 2009 tournament that turned out to contain the wildest mix of stories ever, the moment that turned out to linger the longest and spark the most emotional response around the sport revolved around, you guessed it, Serena.

In the end, unlike at the other three slams, there wasn't a single dominant player at the U.S. Open over the last ten years. In fact, one could argue that four different players, each with two singles championships this decade, finished in a virtual dead-heat finish in the battle to be the tournament's top player during the 2000's.

Ah, but someone has to be #1. So... here's one point of view about how they ranked:

*2000's TOP 10 - U.S. OPEN*
1. Serena Williams, USA:

Serena broke through at the Open in 1999, winning the singles title as a 17-year old (beating older sister Venus, who watched from the stands with an odd expression on her face, to the victory stand). It was only the beginning. During the 2000's, she won two more titles ('02 & '08) and reached another final. A semifinal, three quarterfinals and two Round of 16's rounded out a particularly consistent span. She took the lead in making wild fashion statements in night matches, as well, as she sported the likes of "superhero" boots, a body suit, leather, denim and warm-up jackets with sequins that spelled out "Serena" on the back. In 2009, she and Venus won their only U.S. Open doubles title of the decade, but her post-foot fault, profanity/threat-laced outburst at a lineswoman pointed all the attention in her direction even as she went out in the SF. It could only happen to Serena.
2. Justine Henin, BEL: The '03 and '07 champion put together arguably the decade's best back-to-back wins in a 24-hour period in taking her first Open championship. After being exhausted after defeating Jennifer Capriati in a three-hour SF she didn't get to sleep until 2:30am, then still managed to return the next night to defeat countrywoman Kim Clijsters in the final. In 2006, she lost to Maria Sharapova in the final, then returned a year later to claim the title in what was (so far, at least) her final trip to New York before retiring in 2008 at age 25 while ranked #1.
3. Kim Clijsters, BEL: Clijsters actually missed the '04, '06, '07 and '08 Opens, the first two due to injury and the latter two because to her '07 retirement (at 23) and subsequent motherhood. But when she played, she was hard to beat. She lost the '03 final to Henin, but finally grabbed her first career slam title at the end of a near-perfect hard court summer in '05. Returning to the tour after a two-year absence this year, in her third tournament back, she rode a wild card entry into the draw to a second U.S. Open title (defeating both Venus and Serena along the way). Ending the decade on a fourteen-match Open winning streak, with 20 wins in her last 21 matches in the tournament, she hasn't tasted defeat in New York since the 2003 final.
4. Venus Williams, USA: Venus started the decade as a dominating presence on hard court, winning the title in 2000-01 and reaching the final in '02. Thing is, she hasn't reached another final since, having seen her HC throne usurped by her sister, the Belgians and a spare Russian or two over the years. She still reached an additional semifinal, two quarterfinals and a pair of 4th Rounds, then won the '09 Doubles title with Serena, but she's really only been a true threat to win a slam title at Wimbledon in the back half of this decade. But then again, maybe she's just had bad draws... five of her eight Opens this decade ended with her losing to the eventual champion, including Clijsters at this year's tournament.
5. Virginia Ruano-Pascual & Paola Suarez, ESP/ARG: one of the winningest duos throughout the decade, Ruano-Pascual & Suarez were the most successful pair at the Open in the 2000's, as well. They won three doubles titles in all. No other team won more than one.
6. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS: In 2004, a teenaged Kuznetsova concluded the Russian summer of love by becoming the third straight Hordette to claim a slam title that season. She seemed equipped with the game to challenge for the top position in the rankings, but it took her five years to win another slam (at Roland Garros). While she came close at other slams during the decade, holding match points or serving for the match against eventual champions multiple times, she's rarely been in the mix again at the Open. She did reach a second final in '07, but hasn't reached even the quarterfinals in any other year.
7. Maria Sharapova, RUS: In 2006, the Open seemed to exist as a showcase for Sharapova. She easily won the title, and looked "Exquisite in the City" while doing so. She had one pre-'06 semifinal result, but has experience nothing but disappointment at Flushing Meadows since she became the Open champion -- losing early in '07, missing '08 with a shoulder injury and then losing early again in '09 while trying to return to form after surgery on that same shoulder.
8. Lindsay Davenport, USA: The '98 champion reached the final in '00, but could never break through the Williams' blockade early in the decade during what would have otherwise been prime years (she finished the season at #1 three times between 2001-05) for her to claim another slam. She did reach three more semifinals and three quarterfinals, though.
9. Lisa Raymond, USA: She won three overall Open titles during the decade, two Doubles crowns and one Mixed with three different partners.
10. Elena Dementieva, RUS: She met Kuznetsova in the first all-Russian final in grand slam history in '04, but has never been able to break through to grab a slam crown (even after heading into the tournament after winning Olympic Gold in '08 and winning the U.S. Open Series in '09). Still, an additional three semifinals, a quarterfinal and two 4th Rounds, along with two Doubles finals, made her a force to be reckoned with in the Open through the years.
HM- Jelena Jankovic, SRB: Queen Chaos gets the nod over the likes of Jennifer Capriati, Rennae Stubbs and Cara Black, largely because of all the fun she's brought to the New York stage over the years. Some of it was good for her (her '08 run to the final), while some was bad (blowing a big lead against Henin in the '06 SF). But she's never, ever boring. And in NYC, that should count for something.

1. Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez, ESP/ARG: with three straight championships from 2002-04, they're the only multiple-title winners
2. Lisa Raymond/Rennae Stubbs, USA/AUS: 1 title, 1 runner-up
3. Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA: 1 title & 1 runner-up in 2008-09

1. Lisa Raymond, USA: 2 Doubles titles & 1 Mixed with three different partners
2. Rennae Stubbs, AUS: 1 Doubles title & 1 Mixed
3. Cara Black, ZIM: 1 Doubles title & 1 Mixed, both in 2008
4. Nathalie Dechy, FRA: 2 Doubles titles in 2006-07, with different partners

[Biggest Surprise]
Carly Gullickson, USA: she won the '09 Mixed Doubles crown with Travis Parrott. Wild Cards who didn't decide to team up until days before the start of play (Parrott's scheduled partner was injured and suggested he give Gullickson a call), the two had never played together other than during a set in World Team Tennis years earlier.

[Singles Players in Doubles]
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS: the singles champ in '04 was twice a Doubles runner-up
Elena Dementieva, RUS: the singles RU in '04 was also twice a Doubles runner-up
Dinara Safina, RUS: a SF & QF in singles, the current world #1 won a Doubles title in '07 and was runner-up in '06
Vera Zvonareva, RUS: while the current Top 10er has only gone as far as the 4th Round in singles, she's won both Doubles ('06) and Mixed ('04) Open titles

Americans: '08 Girls champ Coco Vandeweghe was the first American to win the title since '95. Jessica Kirkland ('04) and Alexa Glatch ('05) both reached Girls finals.
A Belgian: Neither eventual two-time Women's champions Henin or Clijsters ever claimed the Girls title at the Open, but Kirsten Flipkens did in 2003.
Russians: Russians named Maria and Anastasia became slam champions during the 2000's, but neither Sharapova nor Myskina was a U.S. Open Girls champion. Hordettes named Maria and Anastasia DID win the title, though. Maria Kirilenko did it in 2002, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova won it all in 2006. Meanwhile, Svetlana Kuznetsova ('01 junior RU) is the only Women's champion who also played in a junior singles final during the decade. Yana Buchina ended the decade with a RU result in '09.
MOST INTERESTING FINAL - 2001 Marion Bartoli def. Svetlana Kuznetsova: This was the only 2000's U.S. Open junior final that included two players who later played in Women's grand slam finals.

Amelie Mauresmo, FRA: not known for her U.S. success, she nonethelessreached 2 SF, 4 QF and a 4th Rd.
Ai Sugiyama, JPN: 1 Doubles titles & 2 singles 4th Rd.
Paola Suarez, ARG: 3 Doubles titles & a singles QF
Elena Likhovtseva, RUS: 2 Doubles RU & 3 singles 4th Rd.
Katarina Srebotnik, SLO: 1 Mixed title, 1 Doubles RU & a singles 4th Rd.
Daniela Hantuchova, SVK: In 2005, she completed a career Mixed Doubles Grand Slam at age 22 by winning the title with Mahesh Bhupathi

Elena Dementieva, RUS: still arguably the best player without a slam singles title
Lindsay Davenport, USA: was never worse than a quarterfinalist from 2000-06, but won no titles after winning in 1998
Jennifer Capriati, USA: her successful early decade comeback never got her into the final of her home nation's slam, ending in the SF three times
Mary Pierce, FRA: only lasted past the 4th Round once, and then was a virtual "no-show" in the '05 final
Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA: the sisters rarely played doubles at the Open during the 2000's, and would have gone the entire decade without a title if they hadn't claimed one in '09
Samantha Stosur, AUS: a Doubles titlist and runner-up, Stosur has been a disaster in singles at the Open, winning just two matches in six appearances

[Mother Time]
2003 - Martina Navratilova, 46, is Doubles runner-up with Svetlana Kuznetsova
2006 - Martina Navartilova, 49 (a month from 50), is the oldest slam champ ever, winning Mixed Doubles with Bob Bryan in her final tournament
[A Mother's Time]
2009 - Kim Clijsters, an unranked wild card in her third tournament back after a two-year retirement, wins the 2009 U.S. Open Women's title in her first appearance in the event since her '05 win. She's the first mother to win a slam crown since 1980.

2001 Final - Venus Williams def. Serena Williams 6-2/6-4
...following the emergence of the attention-getting Williams sisters, the tournament decided to begin playing the Women's championship in primetime on the final Saturday. In the first such scheduled match, the roll-of-the-dice worked as the Sisters met to decide the title.
2009 - Melanie Oudin
...the 17-year old mighty mite from Marietta, Georgia with "Believe" on the sides of her shoes was the story of the tournament, turning the U.S. Open into the "Oudin Open" with come-from-behind three-set wins over four straight Russians (Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova & Nadia Petrova). A junior Open semifinalist just a year earlier, Oudin become the youngest American female to reach the main draw QF since a 17-year old Serena Williams won the title in '99.

2005 - Kim Clijsters
...after going 0-4 in career slam singles finals, the pressure was finally starting to bear down on the underachieving Belgian. Then she rode a brilliant North American hard court season all the way to her first slam crown in the '05 U.S. Open. She wouldn't play in the tournament again until '09, when she finally "defended" her previous title with slam win #2.

2004 - "Fashion Week" Begins at the Open

2006 - Sharapova in the title-winning "little black dress"

2009 - Two Belgians Reach the Semifinals
...and neither are named Henin, as unranked wild card Kim Clijsters is joined by world-#50 Yanina Wickmayer.

2001 Final - Venus def. Serena 6-2/6-4 (the first night final)
2002 Final - Serena def. Venus 6-4/6-3 (leg #3 of "SerenaSlam")
2005 4th Rd. - Venus def. Serena 7-6/6-2
2008 QF - Serena def. Venus 7-6/7-6
[Hordette vs. Hordette]
2004 Final - Svetlana Kuznetsova def. Elena Dementieva 6-3/7-5 (a third different Russian slam champ in '04)
[Justine vs. Kim]
2003 Final - Justine Henin def. Kim Clijsters 7-5/6-1 (from 2003-09 at least one Belgian appeared in five of the seven finals, but these two only met once at the Open)

2005: Kim Clijsters wins three pre-Open titles in North America to claim the U.S. Open Series, then becomes the only woman to win both the Series and the Open singles title. She goes 23-1 on hard courts for the summer.
2007: Justine Henin wins the Open singles titles title without dropping a set, making it the second time (Roland Garros) that season in which she claimed a slam crown with a clean-sweep of every set she played.
[back-to-back matches]
2003: Justine Henin, cramping and exhausted, survives a marathon, late-night semifinal match with Jennifer Capriati, then returns the next night to defeat Kim Clijsters for her first U.S. Open title.

Sania Mirza: the original "It Girl" 2005, 18-year Mirza made quite a splash in New York. Sporting a cheeky attitude and armed with a closet-full of t-shirts with "shocking" expressions ("Well-behaved women rarely make history," etc.) printed on them, she became the first Indian woman to reach the 4th Round of a grand slam. Since then, injuries and seemingly endless problems in India because of her willingness to buck social mores (or the perception that she had) have prevented her from ever matching the Round of 16 result at a slam. Without a tour singles title since '05, she has managed to find success in doubles. She won her first slam title in Melbourne in '09, winning the Australian Open Mixed Doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi.
Chaos is Born
2006 SF - Justine Henin-Hardenne def. Jelena Jankovic 4-6/6-4/6-0
...Jankovic has had many highs and lows in NYC, but the moment that sent her down the "Queen Chaos" path occurred in this match. Serving up 6-4/4-2, 40/30 she was five points from the U.S. Open final, then she decided to get into an argument with the chair umpire about a disputed call. She never regained her composure, and Henin seized upon the moment to win the final ten games of the match. A drama queen was thus officially born on the sport's biggest stage. Henin would go on to lose to Maria Sharapova in the final, while Jankovic would finally reach the Open final two years later (losing to Serena Williams).

2007 3rd Rd. - Agnieszka Radwanska def. Maria Sharapova 6-4/1-6/6-2
the defending champ goes down in flames while A-Rad dances around the service line before Sharapova serves.
2008 2nd Rd. - Julie Coin def. Ana Ivanovic 6-3/4-6/6-3
in the earliest exit ever by a #1 seed, Roland Garros champ AnaIvo is taken down by a #188-ranked qualifier who had been contemplating retirement before this match.
2009 3rd Rd. - Melanie Oudin def. Maria Sharapova 3-6/6-4/7-5
in a hail of twenty-one Sharapova double-faults, the fiesty American becomes a star. Sharapova fondly remembers when SHE was the 17-year old who went Supernova by knocking off Serena Williams at Wimbledon in '04.

[The Worst-Officiated Match...ever?]
2004 QF - Jennifer Capriati def. Serena Williams 2-6/6-4/6-4
the series of poor calls/overrules by the umpire, shown to be made in error on television replays, in this match is credited with being the "straw that broke the camel's back" and finally forced the women's and men's tours to institute a replay challenge system. One note: the umpire in this match was Mariana Alves, now widely considered to be one of the best chair umpires in the game, proving that one bad match does not a career make. Speaking of...
2009 SF - Kim Clijsters def. Serena Williams 6-4/7-5
serving at 5-6, 15/30 in the 2nd set, Williams was called for a foot-fault that gave Clijsters two match points. Exploding at the lineswoman who made the call, shaking her racket at her while cursing and saying she wanted to shove the ball down her throat, Williams was given a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct/verbal abuse. It was her second of the match, after having received one after crushing her racket after dropping the 1st set, and precipitated a point penalty. With it being match point, it was game-set-match for a bewildered Clijsters, who had been keeping as far away from the fracas as possible and didn't understand what had just happened. As of today, Williams has been fined $10,500 and faces a potential larger fine and/or suspension from the tour.

[closest finals*]
2000 - Venus Williams def. Lindsay Davenport 6-4/7-5
2008 - Serena Williams def. Jelena Jankovic 6-4/7-5
*-the last three-set final was in 1995
[The Match of the Decade?]
2003 SF - Justine Henin def. Jennifer Capriati 4-6/7-5/7-6
in a 3+ hour match, Capriati came oh-so-close to reaching her first U.S. Open final, but the diminutive Henin held on like a pitbull. The American served at 5-3 in both the 2nd and 3rd sets, and was two points from a win on eleven different occasions. Battling cramps and exhaustion, Henin persevered to reach her first Open final. Not getting to sleep until 2:30am, the tournament could not confirm for most of the next day whether Henin would be physically able to play in the final the following night. She did, of course, taking a close 1st set from countrywoman Kim Clijsters, then coasting to an easy 2nd set victory to take the match 7-5/6-1.

Ten different women lost the ten singles finals held this decade.
Throughout the decade, the championship seemingly went through Venus Williams, as she usually either won the title or lost to the eventual champ:

2000: Venus wins title
2001: Venus wins title
2002: Serena def. Venus in final
2003: DNP
2004: lost to Lindsay Davenport in 4th Rd.
2005: Kim Clijsters def. Venus in QF
2006: DNP
2007: Justine Henin def. Venus in SF
2008: Serena def. Venus in QF
2009: Kim Clijsters def. Venus in 4th Rd.

And it wasn't just a 2000's thing, either:

1997: Martina Hingis def. Venus in final
1998: Lindsay Davenport def. Venus in SF
1999: Martina Hingis def. Venus in SF
Most Women's Doubles titles: Virginia Ruano-Pascual (3), Paola Suarez (3), Nathalie Dechy (2), Lisa Raymond (2)
Lisa Raymond's Title-Winning Partners: Mike Bryan, Samantha Stosur, Rennae Stubbs (most title-winning partners this decade)
Most Doubles Finals (teams): Ruano-Pascual/Suarez (3), Black/Huber (2), Raymond/Stubbs (2)
Most Doubles Finals (player): Cara Black (3), Lisa Raymond (3), Virginia Ruano-Pascual (3), Samantha Stosur (3), Paola Suarez (3), Nathalie Dechy (2), Elena Dementieva (2), Liezel Huber (2), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2), Elena Likhovtseva (2), Dinara Safina (2)
Won Doubles & Mixed titles: Cara Black, Lisa Raymond, Rennae Stubbs, Vera Zvonareva
Players who won both Singles and Doubles titles: Serena Williams (2/1), Venus Williams (2/1)
Players who were in both Singles and Doubles Finals: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva
Michaella Krajicek (2003-04) was the only two-time participant in the junior Girls final
Surprise Quarterfinalists: Shinobu Asagoe, Sybille Bammer, Daja Bedanova, Kateryna Bondarenko, Elena Bovina, Tatiana Golovin, Anke Huber, Melanie Oudin, Agnes Szavay
Surprise Semifinalists: Anna Chakvetadze, Yanina Wickmayer

1. Serena Williams, USA
2. Jennifer Capriati, USA
3. Lindsay Davenport, USA
4. Justine Henin, BEL
5. Maria Sharapova, RUS
6. Martina Hingis, SUI
7. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
8. Kim Clijsters, BEL
9. Venus Williams, USA
10. Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
HM- Rennae Stubbs, AUS
DOUBLES TEAM: Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA

1. Justine Henin, BEL
2. Virginia Ruano-Pascual, ESP
3. Mary Pierce, FRA
4. Jennifer Capriati, USA
5. Serena Williams, USA
6. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
7. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
8. Kim Clijsters, BEL
9. Anastasia Myskina, RUS
10. Paola Suarez, ARG
HM- Lisa Raymond, USA
DOUBLES TEAM: Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez, ESP/ARG

1. Venus Williams, USA
2. Serena Williams, USA
3. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
4. Maria Sharapova, RUS
5. Cara Black, ZIM
6. Lindsay Davenport, USA
7. Justine Henin, BEL
8. Ai Sugiyama, JPN
9. Kim Clijsters, BEL
10. Elena Dementieva, RUS
HM- Jennifer Capriati, USA
DOUBLES TEAM: Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA

It's almost "go-time" for the countdown of the "Top 25 Players of the Decade," as the first installment of the countdown will be coming soon. But, first, a little bit of housekeeping to get things up to date.

1) Caroline Wozniacki (slam finalist), Carly Gullickson (Mixed title), Melanie Oudin (slam quarterfinalist) and Yanina Wickmayer (slam semifinalist) qualified for the 2000's Honor Roll, running the list to a total of 113 players (see below)

2) After her poor summer and early U.S. Open exit, I dropped Victoria Azarenka from the Top 25 list and back to the Honor Roll. She was just sticking around as a precaution, in case she had a great Open run. Obviously, that didn't happen.

3) In her place, I've elevated Ai Sugiyama from the Honor Roll to the Top 25 list. The Japanese veteran recently announced that she'll retire before the end of the season.

HONORABLE MENTION- Martina Navratilova, USA

Here are the remaining 25 players on the countdown list:

Cara Black
Jennifer Capriati
Kim Clijsters
Lindsay Davenport
Elena Dementieva
Daniela Hantuchova
Justine Henin
Martina Hingis
Liezel Huber
Ana Ivanovic
Jelena Jankovic
Svetlana Kuznetsova
Amelie Mauresmo
Anastasia Myskina
Mary Pierce
Lisa Raymond
Virginia Ruano-Pascual
Dinara Safina
Patty Schnyder
Maria Sharapova
Rennae Stubbs
Paola Suarez
Ai Sugiyama
Serena Williams
Venus Williams

*BACKSPIN'S 2000-09 HONOR ROLL, #27-113, as of September 2009*
Nicole Arendt
Shinobu Asagoe
Victoria Azarenka
Sybille Bammer
Marion Bartoli
Daja Bedanova
Alona Bondarenko
Kateryna Bondarenko
Kristie Boogert
Elena Bovina
Severine Bremond
Els Callens
Anna Chakvetadze
Chan Yung-Jan
Chuang Chia-Jung
Dominika Cibulkova
Sorana Cirstea
Amanda Coetzer
Eleni Daniilidou
Nathalie Dechy
Casey Dellacqua
Mariaan de Swardt
Jelena Dokic
Silvia Farina Elia
Clarisa Fernandez
Tatiana Golovin
Anna-Lena Groenefeld
Carly Gullickson
Julie Halard-Decugis
Anke Huber
Janette Husarova
Kaia Kanepi
Sesil Karatantcheva
Vania King
Anna Kournikova
Michaella Krajicek
Lina Krasnoroutskaya
Li Na
Li Ting
Elena Likhovtseva
Sabine Lisicki
Petra Mandula
Marta Marrero
Conchita Martinez
Anabel Medina-Garrigues
Sania Mirza
Alicia Molik
Corina Morariu
Miriam Oremans
Melanie Oudin
Shahar Peer
Flavia Pennetta
Tatiana Perebiynis
Kveta Peschke
Nadia Petrova
Kimberly Po-Messerli
Agnieszka Radwanska
Anastasia Rodionova
Chanda Rubin
Lucie Safarova
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario
Mara Santangelo
Barbara Schett
Francesca Schiavone
Monica Seles
Magui Serna
Antonella Serra-Zanetti
Meghann Shaughnessy
Anna Smashnova
Karolina Sprem
Katarina Srebnotnik
Samantha Stosur
Carla Suarez-Navarro
Sun Tiantian
Agnes Szavay
Tamarine Tanasugarn
Patricia Tarabini
Nathalie Tauziat
Nicole Vaidisova
Dominique van Roost
Elena Vesnina
Yanina Wickmayer
Caroline Wozniacki
Yan Zi
Zheng Jie
Fabiola Zuluaga
Vera Zvonareva

All for now.

...Players of the 2000's: Nomination List, Decade's Best: Australian Open 2000-09, Decade's Best: Roland Garros 2000-09, Decade's Best: Wimbledon 2000-09


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