The Decade's Best: Players #11-15
Backspin's "Decade's Best" countdown of the top players of the 2000's continues today, with a look at the five players who just missed out on being in the final Top 10. Hence, for the most part, numbers 11-through-15 include women who accomplished many great things during the past decade, but simply don't have enough "oomph" behind them to be in the mix when the discussion comes around to the "best" individual player (i.e. predominantly-singles champion) from 2000-09.
Save for one, who is likely the most accomplished active singles player to have never won a grand slam, these five women are mostly known for their doubles play. Still, though, a few have more significant singles pasts than many might realize, as time and faulty memories long-ago pushed aside such "forgotten" realities in favor of the "more tangible" championship-level doubles results they consistently put up throughout the last ten seasons (and, in most cases, nearly ten more in the 1990's).
In the end, all of these players will likely be underrated in the eyes of history once their careers have long since been concluded. Over time, they'll be well-known, as their names litter the WTA's history books, but they're fall short of anything approaching the "legendary" status of many of the players in the final Top 10. Of course, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be honored and given their rightful place in the heirarchy of the sport:
So, in an attempt to do so, here are Players #11-15:
#15 - Elena Dementieva, RUS
Though she ranks on the bottom rung of this particular five-player ladder, Dementieva is the one woman who isn't somewhat "anonymous" to semi-casual followers of the sport. And that says a great deal about what she HAS managed to accomplish in her career, even while playing most of it with a serve that at times seemed to be something MORE than a simple liability. Still, that ugly serve, which she's only in recent seasons found a way to improve and turn into a sometimes-weapon, is probably THE reason why she's arguably the best women's player in the world to so far still be missing a grand slam singles championship. Nonethless, the two-time slam finalist ('04 Roland Garros & U.S. Open) and Olympic Gold ('08) and Silver ('04) Medalist with the crisp groundstrokes that have traditionally been the envy of most of the women on tour is without question one of the top players of the decade.
It took Dementieva until age 21 (in 2003) to finally win her first career tour singles title, as I had come to refer to her in this space as "Punch-Drunk" because of her propensity to take the 1st set against lesser-ranked opponents only to stumble around and ultimately squander the match, but she's since become a regular WTA titlist. Morphing into "Punch-Sober," she's now won fourteen titles (second on the all-time Russian list behind Maria Sharapova) and is ending the decade with four consecutive multiple-title seasons, the longest current streak on tour. A Top 20 player since 2000, she's been a year-end Top 10er every year except one ('07) since 2003. After having reached a career-high #4 ranking on the back on her two slam runner-up results in '04, she returned to the spot in '08 before bettering it in '09 (#3). Still in pursuit of that elusive slam championship, her RU's have been joined by an additional four slam SF, three QF and ten 4th Round results over the years. In 2009, she narrowly missed a third slam final appearance when she failed to convert match point in the Wimbledon semis against eventual champion Serena Williams in one of the classic matches of the 2000's.
While not a regular doubles participant, Dementieva has had her share of success outside of singles, as well. She's won six tour titles, including a Season-Ending Championships title in '02 (with Janette Husarova), and slam Doubles RU results at the '02 and '05 U.S. Open. In 2003, she reached a career-high doubles rank of #5.
When Dementieva faced Anastasia Myskina in the Roland Garros final in '04, it was the first time two Russians faced off for a slam crown (Dementieva faced another countrywoman, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in the U.S. Open final that summer, too). It was fitting that Dementieva participated in both historic matches, considering she's appeared in more all-Russian tour finals (11) than any other Hordette. Her six wins in those matches also tops the list. So, that she's missing a slam singles title on her resume will remain a sore point, even if Dementieva forever holds to her initial belief that her Olympic Gold in Beijing last year was as good or better than winning an actual slam title. I'm sure she was sincere when she said it... but, if given the opportunity in the future, it's more than likely that she might reconsider, too.
Unlike the rest of the players ranked #11-15, whose careers are either over or in their twilight, Punch-Sober still has some unfinished business. And with her ground strokes still amongst the best in the game, and her serve no longer the worst, she might just get that opportunity yet. Having surpassed 500 career match wins in '09, reached the Australian Open and Wimbledon semifinals, and won the U.S. Open Series, Dementieva's game is still more than slam-worthy. At times, she's played the best tennis of her life over the past year-plus, and even though the closing of her "viable" championship window is within sight at age 28, she still has time to put a grand slam topper on her just-one-win-away-from Hall of Fame-worthy career. It won't be easy... but such challenges haven't prevented Dementieva from great achievements in the past, so why should such a thing stop her now?
#14 - Rennae Stubbs, AUS
Over the course of her now twenty three-year career (she played doubles in her first pro event in 1986), Stubbs has managed to copy a player archetype rarely seen on the women's tour these days. While super-successful doubles-only players have been common on the ATP circuit for ages, in the current day and age, the Aussie's nearly decade-long status as such makes her a rare bird on the WTA tour. A doubles-exclusive player since 2001, Stubbs has put together one of the most consistently successful doubles careers in WTA history.
A Top 10er since 1998, Stubbs briefly held the #1 ranking along with longtime partner Lisa Raymond for three weeks in 2000. She never returned to the top spot, but she never stopped winning, either. In all, she's claimed 59 career doubles titles (12th all-time), 39 coming in the 2000's. A six-time slam champ (four Doubles titles from 2000-04, and two Mixed crowns in 2000-01), she became the first woman in the Open era to win both the Australian Open Doubles and Mixed titles in the same same year when she did so in Melbourne in '00. In 2001, she added a Season-Ending Championship win, and has been a part of the Doubles runner-up team four other times over the five-year stretch from 2004-08. Teaming with some of the other best doubles players of her era (Raymond, Cara Black, Kveta Peschke & Samantha Stosur), Stubbs has been -- and still is -- in the mix for titles nearly every time she's taken the court for more than a decade.
Stubbs DID dabble in singles early in her career. She won two ITF singles titles and reached the WTA-level Quebec City SF in 1995. But her 5-19 slam singles record made it apparent that she was never going to become a great individual star in the sport. She knew where her talent lied, and she intelligently played to it. Her last slam main draw match was in 1998, and it's hard to describe her chosen career path as anything but a brilliant decision. Right now, even without a tour title thus far in '09 (for the first time since 1991), Stubbs is still a Top 5-ranked doubles player at age 38, with a runner-up result at Wimbledon and U.S. Open SF (both with Stosur) under her belt this season, as well as a World Team Tennis title as a member of the Washington Kastles.
No matter how much longer she sticks on tour, the Aussie is poised to be around the sport in one capacity for quite a bit longer. Not one to be without an opinion over the years, Stubbs is already moonlighting as a television tennis commentator and it looks as if she's once again making a picture-perfect career decision.
#12 (tie) - Virginia Ruano Pascual, ESP & Paola Suarez, ARG
Make no mistake, if not for Ruano Pascual and Suarez's doubles results with each other, neither would be making an appearance on this list. But as the most accomplished, "regular" doubles team (in other words, not named Williams) of the decade, they more than earned their way here.
Together, the pair won eight slam titles (all from 2001-05), fourth on the all-time Open era list for a duo, behind the pairings of Navratilova/Shriver, G.Fernandez/Zverera and Williams/Williams. VRP/Suarez won four Roland Garros titles over a five-year stretch, three straight U.S. Open titles (2002-04) and one Australian Open ('04). In 2004, they won all three. They never claimed a Wimbledon crown, but they finished as runners-up on three occasions. In 2003, they won the Season-Ending Championship, and were named Doubles Team of the Year by the WTA tour from 2002-04. In all, they teamed for 32 titles. Suarez won 44 in her career, 34 in the 2000's; while Ruano Pascual has so far won 42, with 38 coming this decade.
Argentine Suarez held the #1 doubles ranking for a total of nineteen months from 2002-04, sharing the spot with VRP for three weeks. Spain's Ruano Pascual ended up holding the top spot for sixteen consecutive months from 2004-05, the fifth-longest streak since the WTA first began computing doubles rankings in 1984. While Suarez never won a slam with another partner, VRP has done so three times. She won the '01 Roland Garros Mixed with Tomas Carbonell, and has claimed the last two Roland Garros Doubles championships with Anabel Medina-Garrigues.
In singles, Suarez was the better player. Reaching a career-high of #9 in 2004, she finished in the year-end Top 20 twice during the decade (2003-04). Three of her four career singles titles came during the 2000's, as did a Roland Garros SF result in '04 and three other slam QF from 2002-04. Ruano Pascual's career high singles rank has been #28 (in 1999), but she managed to maintain a Top 100 ranking for all but one season from 1995-07. She won one tour singles title in Tashkent in '03 (she had two other RU results in the 1990's), and had a slam QF at the Australian Open in '03 (she was also a RG quarterfinalist in '95).
Both Suarez and Ruano Pascual are Olympic Medalists. Suarez won the 2004 Doubles Bronze with Patricia Tarabini, while VRP is a two-time Silver Medalist, having finished on the medal stand with both Conchita Martinez ('04) and Medina-Garrigues ('08).
Suarez underwent hip surgery in 2005, then returned a season later. She won five Doubles titles the next two seasons before retiring in '07. None of the title were won with Ruano Pascual. Meanwhile, VRP is still around. At age 36, she's a Top 10 doubles player and added Wimbledon Doubles and Mixed SF results this season to go along with the title at Roland Garros that awarded her with her eleventh career slam championship.
#11 - Lisa Raymond, USA
Raymond, in my humble opinion, is the most underrated women's player of the past fifteen years.
While her serve-and-volley style making her a legitimate singles threat earlier in her career, history will note the American for her doubles success. A Top 20 doubles player since 1994, she was a year-end Top 10er from 1998-08. Her 68 career tour doubles titles (53 of which came during the 2000's) put her in a tie for eighth place on the all-time list. Raymond's longtime partnerships with Rennae Stubbs and Samantha Stosur produced six slam titles, three Season-Ending Championship crowns and seven other slam runner-up results from 2000-08. She's won four additional Mixed Doubles slam titles, two coming this decade ('02 U.S. Open & '03 RG). First reaching the doubles #1 ranking in 2000, Raymond grabbed the spot four times in her career and held the position for a total of 117 weeks, the third-longest time at the top in WTA history.
Before she turned pro, Raymond was a singles star in college at the University of Florida. As a Gator, she became the first woman to win three collegiate grand slams in a single season in 1991-92, and was the NCAA women's champion in 1992 and 1993. During her WTA career, she won four singles titles (three in the 2000's, along with three more RU) and reached a career-high of #15 in 1997. Her two slam QF results came at Wimbledon ('00) and the Australian Open (in 2004, when she upset Venus Williams), and she reached six additional 4th Rounds in her career. Not surprisingly, her serve-and-volley style worked best on the grass of the All-England Club, as she sported a 24-14 career mark, though may be best remembered for her failure to complete another slam upset of Venus despite leading their '06 2nd Round match 7-6/5-2. Raymond ended her singles career following the 2007 season.
Just this month, Raymond teamed with Chuang Chia-Jung for a WTA title in Osaka, making the Taiwanese player the ninth different woman with which she's claimed a tour championship. It was the first title of the season for the 36-year old American, making her the oldest doubles champ of '09 and running her consecutive seasons with a title streak to seventeen. The win moved her back into the Top 20, as well, making it possible that she could end the season there for a sixteenth straight year.
11. Lisa Raymond, USA
12t. Virginia Ruano Pascual, ESP
12t. Paola Suarez, ARG
14. Rennae Stubbs, AUS
15. Elena Dementieva, RUS
16. Martina Hingis, SUI
17. Liezel Huber, RSA/USA
18. Mary Pierce, FRA
19. Dinara Safina, RUS
20. Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
21. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
22. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
23. Ai Sugiyama, JPN
24. Anastasia Myskina, RUS
25. Patty Schnyder, SUI
HONORABLE MENTION- Martina Navratilova, USA
Here are the remaining 10 players on the countdown list:
*BACKSPIN'S 2000-09 HONOR ROLL, #27-113*
Mariaan de Swardt
Silvia Farina Elia
Dominique van Roost
All for now.
"DECADE'S BEST" SERIES:
...Players of the 2000's: Nomination List, Australian Open 2000-09, Roland Garros 2000-09, Wimbledon 2000-09, U.S. Open 2000-09, Players #21-25, Players #16-20