A Year of Farewells, Returns and Surprises in Tennis

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
It was a sentimental tennis season. Marat Safin, Amélie Mauresmo and Ai Sugiyama retired and actually appeared to mean it. Meanwhile, the unretired Kim Clijsters clutched the United States Open trophy as her 18-month-old daughter, Jada, toddled around the hard court where her mother had played with such strength and composure.

It was a controversial season. Serena Williams failed anger management at the United States Open but somehow avoided suspension. Israeli players generated diplomatic incidents in Dubai, where Shahar Peer was not given a visa for the women’s tournament, and in Sweden, where officials in Malmo cited security concerns in barring fans from a Davis Cup match against Israel.

It was a literary season, as Williams and the retired Andre Agassi produced autobiographies that were more revealing than the usual as-told-to filler that passes for sports literature.

Above all, it was a historic season, with Roger Federer becoming a family man and the career leader in Grand Slam singles titles. Federer finally won the French Open, the only major singles title he was missing. He then rode the wave — with his archrival Rafael Nadal absent — and won his record 15th major title at Wimbledon, the game’s favorite throwback and newly equipped with a translucent, retractable roof that was not closed for any of Federer’s matches. His latest title further bolstered the argument that he is the greatest player of all time.

Though he hardly dominated week in, week out in 2009, he reached the final of all four majors and regained the year-end ranking he had lost to Nadal in 2008. How easy then to forget that until May, this looked like Year 2 of Nadal’s reign, with the Majorcan launching his season by disposing of Federer in a five-set Australian Open final that left the Swiss star muttering, “God, it’s killing me,” through the tears at the awards ceremony.

But public breakdowns apparently do not end eras. Nor do minor tantrums, like the one Federer indulged in by throwing his racket for the first time in years in Miami. Nadal would eventually get derailed by knee problems and by Robin Soderling, the Swede who dealt Nadal his first loss at the French Open.

Federer has now turned into a scrapper in his middle tennis age. He had to claw his way through multiple five-setters to win at last in Paris and then had to keep holding serve in the Wimbledon final before finally prevailing, 16-14, over Andy Roddick in the fifth.

Federer could not hold off Juan Martín del Potro at the United States Open, however, as the towering del Potro gradually settled into his first Grand Slam final. He pounded enough thunderous forehand winners to end Federer’s 40-match winning streak in New York and to become the first Argentine man to win there since Guillermo Vilas in 1977.

Just to remind Federer and Nadal that the new guard will not be the only threat to their status in 2010, Nikolay Davydenko — a member of the establishment — beat Nadal, Federer and del Potro to win the year-end tour championships in London.

SHOTS OF THE YEAR A YouTube poll would surely favor Federer’s no-look, between-the-legs winner off a lob from Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the United States Open. But the shot that really made all the difference for Federer came in the fourth round of the French Open against Tommy Haas. Down two sets to none and facing a break point at 3-4, Federer let fly with an inside-out forehand that caught the line. Federer said he knew then and there that he was going to win the tournament.

On the women’s side, it might not have been pretty, but Serena Williams’s lunging backhand volley against Elena Dementieva in a Wimbledon semifinal saved match point. Even if it clipped the net, it was a winner. Williams went on to win her third Wimbledon.

UPSETS OF THE YEAR No debate necessary for the men: Soderling’s victory over Nadal at Roland Garros. As for the women, Carla Suárez Navarro’s defeat of Venus Williams in the Australian Open certainly made waves. So did Sybille Bammer’s straight-set defeat of Serena Williams in Cincinnati. But it was the combined effect of Melanie Oudin’s run of upsets at the United States Open that made the biggest impression. Oudin, a 17-year-old American, knocked off three imposing Russians: Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. Oudin has yet to win another main-draw match.

COMEBACKS OF THE YEAR Clijsters, the first unranked player to win a major singles title since Evonne Goolagong in 1977, is the obvious choice, but in any other season, the prize would have gone to Kimiko Date Krumm, the Japanese icon who won a tournament in Seoul at 38 after taking a nearly 12-year break from the game between 1996 and 2008.

For the men, Haas might have failed to close the deal against Federer in Paris, but he did get the job done against Marin Cilic and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon in reaching the semifinals at 31. For the year, he improved his ranking 66 spots, finishing No. 18.

FLOPS OF THE YEAR The smooth-moving Ernests Gulbis of Latvia was on nearly everyone’s list of players to watch in 2009. He finished the year at No. 90. Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion and former No. 1, struggled to get it right all season. Still charming, she was no longer as convincing with her serve or forehand, dropping out of the top 20 and failing to advance past the fourth round in a Slam.

MATCHES OF THE YEAR Serena Williams’s victory over Dementieva at Wimbledon was a three-set tussle brimming with athleticism, quality and courage. But Clijsters’ victory over Serena in the United States Open semifinals was more than a match. It was a spectacle wrapped up in a scandal. Clijsters kept her cool, and Williams most certainly did not as she threatened and swore at a lineswoman for calling a foot fault. Clijsters never had to win match point, but her brilliant play certainly brought Williams to the boiling point.

Nadal’s five-set victory over Fernando Verdasco in the Australian Open semifinals was an ode to tireless hitting and hard running. Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic had to play for more than six hours and withstand a record 78 aces before prevailing over Ivo Karlovic of Croatia in the Davis Cup semifinals. But Federer-Roddick gets the nod on the strength and length of the occasion. Even if Federer didn’t play his best, he served brilliantly. And Roddick, who will probably never get so close to another major singles title, was such a class act in defeat.

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