The Decade's Best: Players #6-10
Backspin's "Decade's Best" countdown of the top players of the 2000's continues today with the five players ranked #6-10. No discussion about the past decade would be complete without these women, but each of them has one lingering "minus" that prevents them from legitimately challenging for the #1 position.
In the case of these players, future Hall-of-Famers from top-to-bottom, the "deal-breakers" range from a lack of overall singles results (due to a focus on doubles), an injury that prevented the extension of a brilliant second Act to a career from extending an important extra few seasons, early career troubles with breaking through on the big stage, mid-career struggles living up to early success, and late career difficulty maintaining a previous level of grand slam success against increased competition. Sometimes, the difference between a "Hall-of-Famer" and an "All-Time Great" is like a trench... narrow, but deep.
Thus, Players #6-10:
#10 - Cara Black, ZIM
One year from now, Black might be gently nudging aside Martina Navratilova to claim one of the most impressive doubles marks in WTA history, and it's mostly for that reason that she edged out #11 "Decade's Best" finisher Lisa Raymond, whose career numbers are remarkably similar to those of the veteran from Zimbabwe.
Way back at that start of her career, Black was one of the most successful dual-threat juniors of recent vintage. She was the #1-ranked junior in both singles and doubles in 1997, and won Girls titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that season. For Black, tennis was a family affair. Her late father Don, who had played at Wimbledon himself, was her coach, and her brothers Byron and Wayne played on the ATP Tour. Growing up with four grass courts in her back yard, it should come as no surprise that Black's relationship with The Championships has been a special one over the years, with maybe her most unique accomplishment being that she's won four different Wimbledon titles -- Girls Singles, Girls Doubles, Women's Doubles and Mixed Doubles -- in her career.
On the WTA tour, Black's junior singles success didn't totally translate. As a pro, her best slam result was a 4th Round at Roland Garros in '01, and she only advanced to the Wimbledon 3rd Round three times ('98, '03 & '05). Black did reach a high rank of #31 (in '99), won one title ('02 Waikoloa), reached another final ('00 Auckland) and finished in the Top 100 from 1998-03, but her name would most assuredly be made in doubles, as she's pretty much been exclusively a doubles player for most of the last half of the decade (though she did play some singles in '08 in order to qualify for the Olympic draw in Beijing). In the 2000's, Black won all 51 of her career doubles titles (second only to Raymond's 53 during the decade), including five Women's Doubles slams (three at Wimbledon, and one each at the Australian and U.S. Opens), as well as three Mixed slam titles (including the '02 Roland Garros & '04 Wimbledon with brother Wayne). In the Season-Ending Championships, Black won two titles (2007-08 with Liezel Huber) and appeared in the final six other times over the last ten seasons. Entering 2010, Black needs only a Roland Garros Women's Doubles and Australian Open Mixed championship to accomplish a career Slam in both doubles disciplines. Playing almost exclusively with Huber since 2005, Black has won four of her five slams (the other came with Rennae Stubbs) with the South African-turned-American, ranked #17 on the "Decade's Best" list. The pair's best season came in '07, when they went 69-14 and won Australian Open, Wimbledon and SEC titles. In 2008, I named them co-winners of the "Ms.Backspin" tour Player-of-the-Year award for that season. In 2009, Black failed to add a Doubles or Mixed title to her career totals, but she was never far away. She and Huber were runners-up at the U.S. Open and the SEC, and semifinalists at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Black also reached the Mixed finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Ultimately, though, it's Black's current lock on the #1 ranking that truly sets her apart, maybe from even Navratilova when all is said and done. A Top 10er from 2001-04, she first rose to the #1 ranking in 2005, and has yet to relinquish the spot since she last assumed it in July '07. At the end of 2009, Black will have been ranked #1 for thirty-one straight months (the last twenty-seven as co-#1 with Huber), second only to Navratilova's record of forty-one months. If she can maintain the ranking through the end of the '10 season, she'll break's Martina's 1986-90 record, which by then will have stood for nearly twenty-one years.
Interestingly, when Black made her ITF singles debut in 1992 in a challenger event in Harare, Zimbabwe she faced what would eventually become a familiar opponent in the 1st Round... Liezel Horn, who would marry in '00 and change her name to Huber. Black lost, but more than a decade later both realized that they could be more successful together than alone or with others. Ah, if they only knew then what we know now, they'd have had a good laugh when they shook each other's hand at the net.
#9 - Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
Maybe if Kuznetsova hadn't surprised everyone so much with her early slam win at the U.S. Open in 2004, the five years between that triumph and her eventual return to the slam winner's circle at Roland Garros in '09 wouldn't have seemed so disappointing. But after flashing her skills at age 19 in New York, proving what she WAS capable of accomplishing, little leeway was given the Russian as she failed time and time again to live up to her '04 success, from struggling to win regular tour finals to often missing golden grand slam opportunites to defeat players who would go on to win the tournament. Maybe more than any other player this decade, Kuznetsova walked the fine line between being a "great talent" and a "great player," often times falling on the "lesser" side of the equation.
A junior #1 in 2001, Kuznetsova quickly achieved Top 50 WTA seasons in 2002-03. But when she became the third Russian (after Anastasia Myskina & Maria Sharapova) during the spring/summer of '04 to win a slam championship, defeating fellow Hordette Elena Dementieva in the final, for a brief moment she looked as if she might be the most promising of all the surging Russian players. After climbing to #3 in '04, she nearly fell out of the Top 20 in '05 (she was year-end #18) and won no titles. She made slam final runs at Roland Garros in '06 and the U.S. Open in '07, and reached another slam SF and six QF over the next few years, but as the '09 season was in full swing it was easy to believe that the 2004 Open was going to simply be an aberration in a career which more often than not had seen Kuznetsova be consistently unable to put away a top opponent on a big stage. The evidence was certainly there.
In 2004, she held a match point against Myskina in the 4th Round of Roland Garros. She failed to convert it, and Myskina went on to win the title. A year later in Paris, she couldn't win a match point against Justine Henin in the 4th Round, then saw the Belgian become the champion three rounds later. At the 2009 Australian Open, Kuznetsova served for the match against Serena Williams in the QF. She lost the game, then the match. Williams won the title. Early in the '09 season, Kuznetsova found herself in a 1-10 rut in tour singles finals from 2007-08. While her Russian countrywomen were sweeping the Beijing Olympic Medal stand in '08, Kuznetsova was losing in the 1st Round. It just went on and on.
Still, after her '05 dip in results, she'd managed to once again finish seasons in the Top 10 from 2006-08, star on two Fed Cup-winning Russian teams, and was the only women to defeat Henin twice (in '04 & '07) when she was ranked #1. A winner of fourteen doubles titles in the decade, including five with Martina Navratilova in '03 and the Australian Open with Alicia Molik in '05, she never showed any physical or game-related reasons why she shouldn't be winning big tour titles.
A renowned free spirit, Kuznetsova moved back to Russia from her longtime training ground in Spain at the start of the '09 season, then enlisted Larisa Savchenko as her new coach. The changes seemed to work wonders, as for the first time as a pro she seemed settled and finally began to pick up where she'd left off five years earlier. And as far as this list goes, her "eleventh hour" return to form probably bridged the gap between this #9 ranking and one that would have probably been around #15.
After not winning a singles title outright since '06 (her '07 New Haven crown came when Agnes Szavay retired while leading the final), Kuznetsova won three in four final appearances in her final season in the 2000's, including her long-awaited second slam at Roland Garros (where she had much unfinished business) and in Beijing (where she'd missed out on the Russian party a year earlier), running her career total to twelve. After reaching the #3 ranking in '04, she returned there five years after the fact and got a fifth career win over a reigning #1 (with a defeat of then top-ranked Dinara Safina). She even notched a win at the Season-Ending championships, although though she once again failed to advance out of the Round Robin portion of the event for the fifth time in five appearances.
So, at age 24, Kuznetsova still has ground to cover in 2010 and beyond. Hopefully, it won't take her yet another five years to utilize her talent to its fullest. There is more than enough time for her to fully move from "great talent" to "great champion."
#8 - Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
As far as Mauresmo is concerned, it's all about 2006. For if she hadn't have had the grand '06 campaign in which she won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, she would have undoubtably gone down in the history books as an elegant chapter with an ending that left the reader hanging for forever and a day.
In the end, while Mauresmo might not have won as many major titles as her fans and France would have hoped (and one day many years ago maybe even expected), that single six-month timespan in '06 forever transformed her career biography for the good. Blessed with a game that heavily featured a sweeping one-handed backhand, picture-perfect volleys and an athletic fluidity that more than bordered on graceful, Mauresmo often found herself undone by her fragile nerves. In fact, for a while, the situation made her appear to be an epic head case, no matter how eloquent and thoughtful she might have been both before and after matches.
Ironically, when Mauresmo burst onto the WTA scene in 1999 with a run to the Australian Open final at age 19, the classically beautiful nature of her brand of tennis wasn't even in the conversation. Instead, she found herself at the center of a media firestorm when her sexuality was made public just as she was simultaneously the subject of nasty and/or blithely-ignorant-to-the-connotations (depending on how you saw it at the time) comments from players such as Martina Hingis (and even Lindsay Davenport) about the "shocking" nature of Mauresmo's muscular, "manly" shoulders and hard shots. Mauresmo ultimately lost the final in straight sets to Hingis, and finished the season in the Top 10, but for years was never able to duplicate her early slam success, as it took her six years to make an appearance in another major final. No one will ever really know how that early unsettling experience in the spotlight might have effected her over those years, but she'd been the junior #1 in 1996 and won Girls titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and should have been used to some level of pressure to succeed. With her ability apparent, though, her four slam SF and nine QF from 2000-05 were met with more disappointment than admiration, and any time she found herself in a position to seize a moment in one of the season's four biggest tournaments, her eventual wince-inducing collapses were always but a few points point away.
Still, Mauresmo remained remarkably consistent, to a point. From 2001-05, she reached at least the 4th Round in twelve straight slam appearances (and nineteen of twenty into early '07), but by the middle of the decade there was a prevailing sense that her chances of winning an elusive slam title were quickly slipping away. Then, just in the nick of time, Mauresmo found her footing. She won the Season-Ending Championships to end her '05 season, providing her with a nice dose of confidence heading into the offseason. In Melbourne the following January, it paid off. Against an ill Justine Henin in the Australian Open final, Mauresmo claimed her first career slam title when the Belgian retired after completing two games in the 2nd set. The win came in the 26-year old Frenchwoman's 32nd career slam, the second-longest wait for any slam singles champion in WTA history behind Jana Novotna's win in her 45th slam. Still, some felt that Mauresmo's moment in the sun was ruined by Henin's retirement. No matter, she would go on to defeat Henin again in a three-set final later that season at Wimbledon, whose fabled lawns were a perfect compliment to Mauresmo's refined groundstrokes. Oddly enough, Mauresmo finished '06 ranked just #3 on the WTA computer, behind #1-ranked Henin, who'd won just one slam but reached the finals of all four that season (and wrapped up the top ranking at the SEC, where she defeated Mauresmo in the final).
Still, her ranking extended her streak of Top 10 seasons to six (2001-06). By the end of the 2009 season, she'd won over 500 matches and maintained a Top 30 ranking for twelve straight years (since '98). Aside from her two slam wins, Mauresmo has won twenty-three other singles titles (twenty-two in the 2000's), and was a Silver Medalist at the '04 Athens Olympics (Henin won Gold). In September 2004, she became the first Frenchwoman to become #1, a spot which she held for five weeks prior to her Australian Open win (making her the second, after Kim Clijsters, of the now four women who've claimed the top spot without winning a slam) before returning to the position for thirty-five more weeks in 2006.
While her slam wins filled the gaping hole in her resume, Mauresmo never did overcome the pressure of winning on the clay of Roland Garros in front of the French fans. Her best RG has been a pair of QF in 2003-04, which seems a bit paltry even with clay being the surface that probably is the least forgiving to Mauresmo's style of play. After her grand '06 season, she decided to forego any talk of retirement and played on, but has never come close to winning another slam. With various injuries and an appendectomy slowing her down and often taking her out of the game for months at a time, she hasn't advanced past a slam QF over the past three seasons. Of course, that doesn't mean she hasn't had some post-'06 success. In 2007, she won her third straight title in Antwerp and was awarded the tournament's famed diamond-studded racket, and earlier this year she won a single title in Paris... at the yearly indoor tournament held there, not Roland Garros.
Mauresmo ended her 2009 season early, openly talking of possibly retiring at age 30, but not allowing herself to commit to such a decision until she'd had more time to mull it over. Whether or not she returns to the tour in 2010, though, her legacy is secure. Whenever she DOES hang up her rackets she won't have to exit the sport as the unappreciated-by-the-masses, never-was-a-champ, couldn't-win-the-big-one character she might have gone down as if not for 2006.
Thankfully, that's an unfortunate alternate reality no one will have to live with, especially Amelie. Whew! It was soooo close.
#7 - Lindsay Davenport, USA
Davenport will be remembered as one of the best and most respected players in the women's game, both on and off court, but after winning three slam crowns over a sixteen-month period from September '98 to January '00, she spent much of the past decade being an "alternate choice" at most of the other twenty-four slams she played from 2000-08. If Andy Roddick's career was forever altered by the birth of a certain fellow in Switzerland, the same can be said about Davenport and a pair of siblings who grew up on Compton, California.
After having early success playing the type of big serve and heavy groundstroke game that was hardly the dominant style in the sport in the mid-to-late 1990's, it took the emerging challenge of equally powerful players for Davenport to finally get into the tip-top shape necessary to eliminate her on-court movement limitations as a major liability in maintaining her position as a contender in the big-hitting era of tennis that she helped usher in. Problem was, by the time she did, it was too late. She'd been surpassed, and she could never fully catch up. While the game was stoked by the arrival of such players as the Williamses, Davenport's unique power position in it was usurped as the sisters dominated the grand slam finals during the opening years of the decade. While she finished seasons at #1 three times during the decade (tying Henin for the most in the 2000's), Davenport never won another slam after beginning '00 by winning the Australian Open at just age 23.
Not that Davenport didn't come close. Sometimes achingly so. While she was still a dangerous top player after 2000, there always seemed to be at least one player who was positioned above Davenport on the ladder. And she was never able to end up a slam on the top rung.
In slams during the past decade, Davenport lost to Venus Williams five times (four times at Wimbledon), Henin four times (three coming at the Australian) and Serena Williams three tiems (twice at the U.S. Open). Ten times this decade she lost to the eventual slam champ (three Australian, four Wimbledon and three U.S. Opens). In the '05 Australian Open final, she led Serena 6-2/3-3, then dropped the final nine games of the match. Later that year, she held a match point against Venus in the Wimbledon final, then went on to lose a 9-7 3rd set in the longest women's championship match at the All-England Club. In the sixteen slams she entered after that loss, she never reached another SF. After winning in Melbourne in '00, Davenport put up very good results in the slams -- four finals, six SF, seven QF -- but was never able to carve out one final, late-career slam moment in the sun.
Injuries were always a struggle for Davenport, but she still had over 700 wins (6th all-time, and nearly 200 more than any current active player) in 947 matches (7th) and finished three years at #1 in the decade ('01, '04 & '05, following her initial #1 year in '98) even while never winning a slam in any of them. Her 55 career titles (29 this decade) are tied for 7th in WTA history, and she added 37 additional doubles titles (eight in the 2000's) to her totals, as well. Rising to the top ranking eight different times in her career, she held the spot for a total of 98 weeks (70 this decade), the last coming in January '06. Her four #1 seasons rank behind only Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's career numbers, and are the most year-end top rankings by any woman since Graf's final #1 campaign (her eighth) back in 1996. Additionally, Davenport is one of only five players (Navratilova, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Martina Hingis & Kim Clijsters) to simultaneously hold the #1 spot in both singles and doubles, which she did for three weeks in 2000.
After having her first child in June '07, Davenport made a successful return to the sport later that year after an eleven-month absence, winning four titles in 2007-08 at age 31/32. At the end of '08, she announced her second pregnancy and left the tour again. She's yet to return to action, and probably won't.
Even without another Act to her career, Davenport is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, but one about whom it's impossible not to ponder a series of "What If?" scenarios. Without the emergence of the Williams Sisters, she might have doubled (at least) her career slam total and be considered the best player of her generation. As it is, she's not even in the Top 2 Americans. When she played her last match, no woman in WTA history had won more prize money than Davenport. One year later, she's been surpassed by both Serena AND Venus. Talk about emblematic. Rather than one of the "all-time" greats, Davenport will be viewed as the first name on the list of the "second tier" of top champions from her era.
So near, but oh so far.
#6 - Jennifer Capriati, USA
Capriati's career can almost be viewed as an archetype for the sport... times two.
She burst onto the scene with unprecedented hoopla, garnering a Sports Illustrated cover after her debut week on tour in March 1990 as a 13-year old with an exuberant personality and popping groundstrokes that were said to make her the can't-miss "Next Big Thing" in the sport. And, oh, she did burn white hot for a while. She reached the final of that debut tournament in Boca Raton (she lost to Gabriela Sabatini, but the tournament was jokingly dubbed "The Boca Raton of Capriati") to become the youngest-ever tour finalist, and would soon debut in the rankings at #25. Her title in Puerto Rico that season made her the fourth-youngest WTA champion ever, and that October she reached the Top 10 at 14 years, 7 months of age. In 1991, she defeated nine-time champ Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon and reached the SF at 15. In 1992, she won the Olympic singles Gold in Barcelona. From 1990-93, she reached three SF, six QF and three 4th Rounds at slams, finishing in the Top 10 all four seasons.
But by the mid-1990's, the bottom had fallen out of the Capriati fairy tale. Burned out and rebelling against anything she could find, she was out of the game entirely, save for one single match, in 1994-95 and was arrested for drug possession (having her America's-Sweetheart-Turned-America's-Most-Wanted mug shot plastered worldwide). From 1996-99, she had only a part-time presence on tour. It might have been the sorry, though hardly unique, end to what had been the story of an American child star. But Capriati didn't allow that to happen, for before the likes of Hingis, Clijsters and Henin made WTA comebacks, Jennifer laid down her own comeback path out of the darkness, adding "resilience" to her list of career characteristics.
As it was, her return was one of the most successful comebacks in all of sports history.
In 1999, she started slowly, winning two titles, her first in six years. In 2000, at age 23, having matured emotionally on court, as well as physically (she presented as solid an athletic specimen as any woman in the game), she rode her still-powerful groundstrokes all the way back. She reached the Australian Open SF in '00, her first such slam result in nine years, and led the USA to a Fed Cup title. In 2001, she returned to Melbourne and won the Australian title, defeating the game's top two ranked players (Davenport and Hingis) in straight sets to become the first woman to do so at a slam since 1979. With her confidence reaching new heights, she won Roland Garros, too. Eleven years after her debut there, Capriati returned to the Top 10 (her seven-year absence was a WTA record) and climbed into the #1 spot in October. And she wasn't finished, either. She went back to Melbourne the following January and defended her Oz title, saving four match points against Hingis in a rematch of the '01 final.
Aside from possibly the Williams Sisters, but arguably even more than them, Capriati might have been involved in more important moments during the decade than any other woman. Playing a role in quite possibly the three most significant matches of the 2000's, Capriati is forever linked to maybe the span's most historic, most dramatic, as well as most sport-changing matches.
In the 2001 Roland Garros final against Kim Clijsters, Capriati won a 12-10 final set in the longest deciding RG set in Open era history, a match in which she was two points from defeat four times. Before Federer/Nadal in the '08 Wimbledon final, there was Capriati/Clijsters. Then, in the 2003 U.S. Open SF against Justine Henin, Capriati found herself within two points of victory on eleven different occasions against the cramping Belgian in the 3:00 match. Henin won, then pulled maybe the most remarkable back-to-back two-fer of the decade when she returned the next night and defeated Clijsters in the final. A year later, the poor officiating in Capriati's U.S. Open QF match with Serena Williams is "unofficially" credited with being the straw that broke the camel's back and finally forced the sport to institute an instant replay challenge system. Add to that, the sport's installment of a so-dubbed "Capriati Rule," designed to protect young players and prevent a fall from grace similar to her's, that limits the number of tour events that young players can participate in during a given season, and one can legitimately say that Capriati's career continues and will continue to effect the sport for generations.
Capriati's time at #1 lasted seventeen weeks in 2001-02, and she was a year-end Top 10 player from 2001-04 (finishing a year-end best #2 in '01). After having such incredible early success in slams, from 2000-04 she added three slam wins, seven SF, four QF and three 4th Rounds in nineteen events. Alas, there would be no Third Act to her WTA career. Shoulder problems ultimately did her in. Despite multiple surgeries designed to help her return to action, she was never able to do so. Her final tour title came in New Haven in 2003, and she last played in 2004. In all, she won fourteen singles titles (six in the 2000's).
At this point, Capriati has been gone so long that it seems as if her comeback took place a lifetime ago. If only she'd been able to extend her glorious return into the mid-2000's, her legacy would feel more "current" and longstanding, and she'd have been in the Top 5 on this list. Still, her's is and will continue to be one of the most enduring redemption stories of this or any other decade.
NEXT: #1-5 & Decade's Honors
6. Jennifer Capriati, USA
7. Lindsay Davenport, USA
8. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
9. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
10. Cara Black, ZIM
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 5 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, Players #11-15