Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Decade's Best: Players #16-20

It's time for the second edition of Backspin's "Decade's Best" countdown of the top players of the 2000's. And, truth be told, ranking the group of women between #16-20 was a pretty prickly endeavor.

I mean, how do you rightly measure success with expectation?

All these women arrive on the scene with definitive accomplishments, but most didn't have as much success in the 2000's as many might have wished/expected they would. Some came up the WTA ladder as teen phenoms, only to meet unexpected and/or unforeseen road blocks along the way that came to define their careers. Some of the obstacles were of their own doing, while some came from "outside forces." While the talent of these women has never been questioned, SOMETHING has prevented them from ranking higher on this list. Still, they're here at least partly because of their versatility, as all won slam doubles titles during the decade, though they're mostly (save for one unquestioned doubles specialist) known for their success in singles.

With that, here are Players #16-20:

#20 - Daniela Hantuchova, SVK

Early in the decade, Hantuchova was thought to be the "next big thing" in women's tennis. The talk was so rampant that I, as is often the case it seems, could take it no longer and sarcastically dubbed the Slovak "Wonder Girl" since so many seemed to want to instill her with seemingly superhuman powers. Thing is, she DID have an overabundance of talent. Specifically, a well-working serve, great hands at the net, a desire to be #1 and enough early success to make one think she just might pull it off. In 2002-03, she won her maiden title at the Tier I Indian Wells event, led the Slovak Republic to a Fed Cup title (winning a 3:21 match against Conchita Martinez in the final), advanced to the QF of three consecutive slams and reached the Top 5 in both singles and doubles while still a teenager. Ah, but there was the rub. As happens too often, notably because of the success of mature-beyond-their years players like Chris Evert and Steffi Graf, nobody factored in whether or not such a young player could handle so much pressure so soon. It turned out that Hantuchova couldn't. Entranced by off-court opportunties that left her unfocused, poor coaching decisions that set her game adrift, emotional on-court breakdowns that sent up danger signs, and a string of tabloidy stories about her alarming weight loss (complete with concentration camp-reminiscent photos of her during practice sessions) that caused everyone to fear for her health, Hantuchova "went away" as a major contender almost as quickly as she'd risen to the level. But, unlike so many young players who go through such troubles, she never fell completely off the charts. Instead, she hovered around #20-40 from 2003-06, playing on and achieving (especially in doubles), but not nearly as extravagantly as many had expected her to succeed. As Hantuchova has matured, though, she's managed to reclaim some portion of her "lost" career. A longtime dangerous presence on tour, she claimed Indian Wells again in 2007 (she hadn't won another tournament in the five-year span since her first I.W. title), then won her third career crown later that season and finished in the Top 10 for the first time since 2002. I probably have her a little high on this list based on her overall career accomplishments, but her versatility and numerous unique triumphs (such as a Mixed Doubles career slam that was completed when she won all four slam titles, with four different ATP partners, from 2001-05) inched her up the rankings. At 26, Hantuchova still might have a successful singles return-to-relevance in her, too. She finally reached her first career slam SF at the Australian Open in 2008, and she's always a threat to pull a big upset on a good day.

#19 - Dinara Safina, RUS

As of today, it's easy to define Safina by what she hasn't done -- won a slam, or even been competitive in the latter stages of majors after having often battled through match points in multiple matches to get there. Still, what Safina HAS accomplished is hard to discount, especially over the last two seasons (kicking off when she ended Justine Henin's first career with a defeat in Berlin in the spring of '08) in which she's been a dominant force pretty much everyone EXCEPT in slam finals. As stupid a concept as it might be, if slam titles were to be discounted, Safina has arguably been the most successful Russian in a decade defined by the Hordettes' rise to power. Of all her countrywomen who've won tour titles, she was the youngest when she won her first (just a few months past 16 when she claimed Sopot in '02) and her twelve career titles tie her for third on the all-time Russian list. She reached three slam singles finals in 2008-09, was the U.S. Open Doubles champion in 2007, took the Silver Medal in the Beijing Olympics, was the first player to ever defeat three different reigning #1-ranked players in a single season (2008), won the '08 U.S. Open Series, has ranked in the Top 20 since 2005, spent more weeks at #1 (currently 25) than the likes of top-ranked players named Austin, Clijsters, Capriati, Sharapova, Sanchez-Vicario and V.Williams, and has a good chance to be the year-end #1 for 2009. Still in her prime at 23, Safina has time to remove her big-match mental block and use the famed Safin family anger for good, filling the hole in her resume by capturing that elusive slam crown. Although, with the return of Clijsters and Henin, as well as the coming-of-age of yet another teen brigade, she may ultimately find that '09 might have been her best chance to do so.

#18 - Mary Pierce, FRA

Pierce might be the most difficult player to rank on this list. As she so often was throughout her playing days, she remains an enigma (even today, as she hovers around the "retirement" issue). Based on her advanced billing and early expectations, Pierce's results were many times disappointing, but when she was "on" her powerful groundstrokes could make up for her mediocre court coverage. And when that happened, she was a bear to defeat. You just never knew which Pierce you were going to get. Nonetheless, she still managed to carve out a Hall of Fame-worthy career for herself in the long run. The bulk of Pierce's major accomplishments came in the 1990's. She won the Australian Open when she was barely 20, was a Top 20 player from 1992-99, and a year-end Top 10er five times in that decade. Her health and effectiveness were spotty and inconsistent in the 2000's' but, as usual, she was always capable of making a huge mark. She won five tour titles in the 2000's (completing a career surface slam in '04 by winning on the grass in the Netherlands), was crowned Roland Garros champ in '00 (she's the only French woman to win the tournament in the last forty-one years), and reached the finals of RG, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships in 2005 en route to reaching a career-high rank of #3. In 2000, she won the Roland Garros Doubles title and reached a career-high doubles ranking (also #3), but then proceded to win just one other doubles title the rest of her career. Of course, such enigmatic results probably should have been expected from a player who was born in Canada, raised in the U.S., and played under the French flag, along the way managing to survive one of the early bad cases of "tennis dad syndrome" as her father Jim was banned from all WTA tournaments and the two became estranged after accusations of his abusive behavior became public. In Linz in 2006, the then 31-year old Pierce suffered a knee injury that seemed to mark the end of her career. Still, she's never officially retired, and even recently there was talk of her desire to play once more at Roland Garros in 2010. More than likely, though, Pierce's career will have to stand on its own two feet, as is.

#17 - Liezel Huber, RSA/USA

The player formerly known as Liezel Horn has been one of the most successful doubles specialists this decade, teaming with Cara Black in recent years to form the most dominant regular doubles team in the sport (the pair were Backpsin's "co-Ms. Backspin" winners in '08). Her current reign as the co-#1 doubles player in the world (with Black) stands at twenty-three months, the third-longest consecutive month streak atop the rankings in WTA history (behind Martina Navratilova's forty-one months, and Black's current streak of twenty-seven). A past South African Olympian, Huber switched citizenship and represented the United States in Beijing in 2008. The five titles won so far in '09 by the Black/Huber team give Huber 39 doubles titles this decade, including four slams and the 2007-08 WTA Championships crown, as well as a Mixed championship at the U.S. Open earlier this season. In 2009, as the veteran leader of the American Fed Cup team, Huber has arguably been the leading force in pushing the inexperienced-but-scrappy U.S. contingent to a surprise appearance in the FC final next month. Off the court, Huber has been honored multiple times for her expansive charitable work.

#16 - Martina Hingis, SUI

A smiling-as-she-twisted-the-knife-deeper teenaged Hingis, named for Martina Navratilova, took the WTA by storm in the late 1990's, rising to #1 just one week after her sixteenth birthday in 1996 with a crafty, intelligent game that relied on touch and strategy. From 1997-99, the Swiss Miss won five slam titles and reached four more finals over the course of twelve slam events. We didn't know it at the time, but when the calendar rolled over to 2000, the sport's top female player would never win another slam singles crown, even though she was only 19 years old at the time. Hingis' last of 209 weeks at #1 (4th all-time) didn't come until October '01, though, as she managed to hold onto her top ranking for most of almost three full seasons without winning a slam (just as today, the fretting and squawking was thunderous, and calls to change the ranking system were abundant). But even before she officially "abdicated her throne," Hingis had been passed by the rising (literal) power brokers who came to dominate the sport in the 2000's. The last champion of a different era, Hingis could never find a way around the hard-hitting, physically imposing players that pretty much made her game obsolete. Or did it? Not long after, Justine Henin proved that a lack of stature need not be a limiting characteristic, yet Hingis never could solve the riddle. Just as she'd never learned to lose, and was thunderstruck when she started to do so (specifically, the summer of '99, when she had her emotional meltdown after her Roland Garros final loss to Graf, then was ousted in the 1st Round of Wimbledon by Jelena Dokic), she never really tried to rebound, rebuild or redefine her game in order to compete in the "new world" of WTA tennis, either. It just wasn't her style, and she knew it. Still, while no longer the player of prominance she once was, she was able to remain a factor in the 2000's. She finished '00 at #1 and stayed in the Top 10 from 2001-02, reaching the Australian Open final in 2000-02 (giving her six straight appearances back to '97) and playing in four additional slam SF from 2000-01. Battling injuries (but maybe more frustrated by losing, as much as anything), Hingis announced her retirement in 2003, and remained on the sidelines for three seasons before finally mounting a comeback in 2006. She reached three more slam QF, and finished 2006-07 at #7 and #19, respectively. After winning fourteen singles titles from 2000-02, she won three more in her second tour stint. Her eleven doubles titles in the decade included two slam crowns (with Anna Kournikova and Mary Pierce) and a WTA Championship (Kournikova). In November 2007, Hingis retired once again rather than fight a two-year ban after a positive cocaine test that she vehemently denied (of note, the miniscule amount of drugs in her system were apparently less than the amount of cocaine that Richard Gasquet tested positive for earlier this season, and Gasquet's suspenson was ultimately overturned after his story that he'd kissed a drug-using woman at a Miami night club was accepted as valid). The ban recently came to an end, but there's been no word from Hingis about possibly making yet another comeback. Although, as she was recently a contestant on the British version of "Dancing with the Stars," she IS likely in decent enough shape to consider such an option.

NEXT: #11-15

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 15 players on the countdown list:

Cara Black
Jennifer Capriati
Kim Clijsters
Lindsay Davenport
Elena Dementieva
Justine Henin
Svetlana Kuznetsova
Amelie Mauresmo
Lisa Raymond
Virginia Ruano-Pascual
Maria Sharapova
Rennae Stubbs
Paola Suarez
Serena Williams
Venus Williams

*BACKSPIN'S 2000-09 HONOR ROLL, #27-113*
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, Australian Open 2000-09, Roland Garros 2000-09, Wimbledon 2000-09, U.S. Open 2000-09, Players #21-25


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Justine Henin made a fantastic decade, also Kim Clijsters.

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