Often our pro tennis Player of the Year is that year's male or female singles
champion. But sometimes a single achievement seems of such lustre and
distinction that it overrides all 12-month achievements. Thus in 2001 we chose a
player of modest ranking, Nicolas Escude, in order to honor his remarkable role in
France's successful quest for the Davis Cup. Last year's winner, Roger
Federer, finished the year second in the official rankings, but his near-perfection
at Wimbledon 2003 seemed a surpassing accomplishment. In 1998 we chose Jacco
Eltingh for his magnificent year-long performance in doubles. Only one
individual is chosen each year whether male or female.
THE WOMEN CANDIDATES
Year 2004 produced plenty of high drama in women's tennis, featuring a
revolutionary change at the top levels of the game. Of the Top Six in the WTA
rankings for 2003, only Davenport and Mauresmo were able to repeat in 2004. The
other four members of that elite group (Serena, Capriati, and the Belgian stars)
lost their places to four rising Russian players. The Russian Revolution
largely took place after mid-May, and was most evident at the later Slams.
A list of the 2004's main results plainly shows the transition:
- The Old Guard began the year well. Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium seemed
ready to preserve her #1 ranking by winning Australian Open in January,
defeating countrywoman Clijsters in a three-set final.
- Six of the year's ten Tier One tournaments then followed, largely dominated
by the 2003 Big Six. Lindsay Davenport won the Pan-Pacific in Tokyo,
Henin-Hardenne took Indian Wells, Serena won at Key Biscayne. Venus won at Charleston
on clay after Serena withdrew with knee trouble, and Amelie Mauresmo won the
German and Italian Opens.
- Garros 2004 signalled the upward break-through of the improving Russians.
With Justine knocked out early amid recurring weakness from a viral ailment and
with Clijsters absent with wrist trouble, Russian star Myskina, 22, was
dazzling in winning the world's leading clay event. Her final-round opponent was
another Russian, Dementieva, 22.
- Kuznetsova, then 18, and Sharapova, 17, next won the grass-court tune-ups
at Birmingham and Eastboune, respectively, accurately foreshadowing Russian
success at Wimbledon. Maria Sharapova then captured that event, tennis's
grandest, behind firm hitting, excellent court mobility, and nerves of steel.
- The Old Guard recovered somewhat the summer. The Acura Classic in San Diego
became a Tier One for the first time, and the event was won by Davenport in a
final-round demolition of Myskina. August brought the Canadian Open in
Montreal, won by Mauresmo, followed by the Olympics in Athens, won by
Henin-Hardenne, who defeated Myskina in a split-set semi and Mauresmo in a straight-set
- But the U.S. Open produced another all-Russian final, Kuznetsova, having
turned 19, defeating Dementieva.
- Two more Tier Ones remained--in Moscow and in Zurich, both indoors. Myskina
defeated Dementieva in the Kremlin final, and Australian star Alicia Molik--age
23 and nearly six feet tall--defeated Sharapova in four sets in Zurich.
- The year-ending championships indoors in Los Angeles went to Sharapova, who
showed severe hitting power throughout the event, beautifully complementing
her excellent court movement. Her final-round victim was Serena, whose serve
was crippled at the end because of an abdominal strain.
- As expected, the host Russians won Fed Cup in late November, indoors in
Moscow. Myskina won two meaningful singles matches in the final-round victory
over the defending champion French team, which lacked both Pierce and Mauresmo.
Finishing first in the WTA points race was Lindsay Davenport, just ahead of
Mauresmo. But as its singles champion for the year, International Tennis
Federation instead picked Myskina, weighing in Anastasia's fine Fed Cup record.
Second on the WTA list after Davenport was Mauresmo, and four Russian stars
followed--Myskina, Kuznetsova, Sharapova, and Dementieva, in that order. The four
newcomers to the Big Six averaged a total of 21 tournaments played during the
year, while the four Old Guard departees, all of them troubled by injuries, on
average played only 10.
Finishing first in the WTA doubles rankings and also named doubles champions
by ITF, was the delightful pair Ruano Pascual and Suarez, winners of three of the
year's four Slams. Several top singles artists also achieved significant
doubles success, including Kuznetsova, who with Likhovsteva finished at #4 in the
final rankings of doubles pairs, and Myskina, who with Zvonareva finished #8.
Our nominee for Player of Year 2004 from the women's side is Sharapova, whose
overriding credential is her superb achievement and astonishing poise in
capturing Wimbledon. Myskina's overall achievements and perhaps Kuznetsova's too
are a shade stronger than Maria's, though all three lost fairly often to
lower-ranked players. I disliked Anastasia's resentful, seemingly petulant public
comments about Maria and her father after Fed Cup. Whether or not Sharapova in
future years fulfills the seeming unlimited promise of her talent, courage,
and power of concentration, her magnificent demonstration of these qualities at
so young an age will remain.
Looking ahead to 2005 in women's tennis, the largest uncertainties are
whether members of the recent Old Guard can regain full physical health. Even
Davenport and Mauresmo, who stayed in the Top Six, missed some of 2004 with
injuries. Davenport will reach 29 during 2005 and is talking of retirement. A strong
Russian presence at the upper level is a certainty. Indeed, three Russians not
yet mentioned here--Zvonareva, Petrova, and Bovina--finished not far below the
2004 leaders. Finally, Molik of Australia and perhaps hard-hitting Sprem of
Croatia, 20, may be ready to move up. Golovin, who was born in Moscow but played
for France in the 2004 Cup final at age 16, requires watching.
Acknowledging the achievements of Sharapova and the other leading women,
there is really only one possible choice for our 2004 prime honor. Roger Federer
won three of the year's male Slams, an achievement not attained by Sampras or
Agassi or anyone else since Wilander in 1988. The Swiss superstar stumbled only
at Garros, losing in the third round to three-time former champion Kuerten.
Roger also won three Masters Series tournaments during 2004 including the
German Open on clay, and he also won the year-end Masters Cup in Houston. He
performed heroically in Davis Cup, winning all four of his singles matches, all of
them meaningful. The Swiss team was unable to win any other singles matches,
but Federer won the doubles with partner Allegro against the Romanians,
resulting in a 3-2 team win for Switzerland, and lost to the French pair
Escude-Llodra, resulting in a 3-2 win for France and ending Swiss Cup hopes for 2004.
In recording his triumphs Roger brought an on-court game that sometimes
seemed to appproach perfection. He moves over the court swiftly and easily. He is
capable of sustained power, smoothly delivered and, when he is at his best,
irresistable by any other pro. Against perhaps his most dangerous foe, Andy
Roddick, he has repeatedly shown the ability to sap the greatness from the
American's serve, returning safely and consistently, and to neutralize Andy's net
approaches with deceptive and accurate passing shots made possible by his court
mobility. His backhand is a picture to watch, and though he seldom comes
regularly to net, the world saw his ability to do so at Wimbledon 2003. His public
image is sterling, his representation of our sport on-court and off absolutely
Can Roger capture all four Slams in 2005? Probably not, as there are many
strong opponents in his path. But he will certainly be the favorite to win in
Australia, Wimbledon, and New York, and he will probably win one or two of these.
Garros is a different story, where the clay game will offer an additional
group of dangerous opponents. But Roger's mobility, variety in stroke-making, and
intelligence suggests that a Garros championship is possible. In winning the
German last year, for example, Roger defeated in turn Moya, Hewitt, and Coria.
Other male stars merit our mention for achievements in 2004:
- Gaston Gaudio, unseeded, won Garros, recovering from two sets down to
defeat a cramping Coria in the final. Otherwise, the year's top clay-courters were
Coria and Moya, winners at Monte Carlo and Rome, respectively.
- Nicolas Massu won the Olympics singles and, with countryman Gonzalez, also
won the doubles, thereby producing an unexpected Chilean sweep.
- Rafael Nadal, then 17, won the fifth and deciding rubber in Spain's
first-round Davis Cup victory indoors over host team Slovak Republic. Nadal also
contributed a critical win over Andy Roddick in the Cup final round. Moya added
two victories to complete Spain's triumph.
- Andy Roddick finished second to Federer in the year's points standings.
Andy won Key Biscayne, was runner-up at Wimbledon, and showed improved
net-attacking skills throughout the year.
- Marat Safin ended the year strongly, winning the Madrid and Paris indoors
and finishing fourth in the points race, behind third-place Hewitt.
- The champion doubles pair was the veteran combination Knowles-Nestor. The
Bryan twins won four Davis Cup doubles matches for U.S. without loss.
But without reservation, the incomparable Federer stands as our Tennis Server
Player of the Year for 2004.
THE TENNIS NATIONS
The reality of the Russian rise in women's tennis was indisputable,
punctuated by the Fed Cup triumph. Meanwhile on the men's side, the Russians were
behind the U.S. and Spain both in Davis Cup and in the performance of individuals
in tournaments. But despite the retirement of Kafelnikov, the Russian lineup of
male pros, all approaching prime age, showed clear upswing. Safin, still just
24, again flashed his vast promise at #4, and Youzhny, 23, finished the year
at #16, up from #42. Davydenko, 23, also climbed, finishing #28. Igor Andreev,
age 21, broke into the Top Fifty at #49, and he defeated Srichaphan in
Russia's successful bid to avoid Cup relegation in September.
The dominance of the Russians in women's tennis and the rising trend of the
Russian men support our selection of Russia as Pro Tennis Nation of the Year
Best wishes to all for another wonderful tennis year.