Best Innovation: Instant Replay Matches need to be decided by the tennis, not the linecalls. The US Open was the first Grand Slam to incorporate electronic line calling into competition and the Australian Open will follow suit
It's that time of year. Time to review the best and the worst tennis had to offer in 2006 and hand out the First Annual Gonad Awards. In a year that I like to characterize as a season of chokes, I had the hardest time narrowing down the biggest chokes of the year. Choking can happen when a player fails to close out a set, wastes a huge match lead or match point or two (or three), or simply doesn't show up to play from the beginning of the match. I'm sure you all have your definitions of chokes as strict or liberal as any of these. But rest assured: even if we can't agree on a clear definition, we all know one when we see it. Despite the choking pandemic, 2006 offered up a few parts sublime tennis, a few parts excitement, and a whole lot of controversy.
Players of the Year: Amélie Mauresmo and Roger Federer
First, the easy pick: Roger Federer. Is there anymore to say, really? From his three Grand Slams to his third career Tennis Masters Cup title, his 12th of the season, no one came close. Federer's 2006 numbers were awe-inspiring, even if many began to publicly criticize his competition as lacking. But no matter: the facts speak for themselves.
The harder pick came on the women's side. Surely, Justine Henin-Hardenne's run to all the Grand Slam finals, winning her first WTA Championships title, and leading Belgium to the Fed Cup finals, as well as ending the year ranked No. 1 in the world, would make her the overwhelming favorite to receive this award. But not from where I sit. (By the by, the International Tennis Writers Association agrees.)
After years of being regarded as a choker and one of the best players on the WTA never to have won a Slam, Amélie Mauresmo overcame her personal demons and captured not one, but two Grand Slam titles. In two tries. Defeating Justine both times. In fact, she was beating Justine so badly in the Australian Open final that she forced Justine to retire a mere four games from the finish line.
And just in case you thought that win was a fluke, she got to savor match point at Wimbledon, the Crown Jewel of tennis, in a gritty and gutsy three-set affair that featured a beautiful display of classic serve-and-volley tennis, proving once and for all that Amélie Mauresmo was a real champion. It doesn't get much better than that. Yet, she contested the two best women's matches of the year (see below), won two other titles, sat atop the rankings for most of the year, and battled through a shoulder impingement and some inspired opponents to make the WTA Championships final in a valiant attempt to defend the title that gave her the belief she could finally win the Big One.
Best ATP Match:
Rafael Nadal d. Roger Federer, Rome final
Runners up: Andre Agassi d. Marcos Baghdatis, US Open; Roger Federer d. Andy Roddick, TMC
For the second year running, the Rome Final at the Foro Italico takes top honors for match of the year. And in both years, Rafael Nadal reigned victorious after a come-from-behind, fifth-set tiebreak win. I thoroughly enjoyed writing a play-by-play for a message board because most of the posters had no television coverage of the spring's penultimate clay court final. But this was the ultimate match, full of drama, unpredictability, exhilarating shotmaking, two chokes, and a catty accusation of cheating. Rafa outlasted Roger, 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5).
Best WTA Match:
Amélie Mauresmo d. Justine Henin-Hardenne, Wimbledon
Runner up: Amélie Mauresmo d. Kim Clijsters, YEC
This match featured a battle of one-handed backhands belonging to the most versatile players on the tour. Neither had won the sport's oldest and most coveted prize, though Justine had been to a final five years ago only to see her dream shattered by a Venus Williams determined to defend her title. Amélie had contested three semifinals, but in her latest attempt against Serena, she'd fallen away from a set and a break lead to lose her chance. After this match, Justine could complete the career slam; Amélie could complete a Slam final against Justine and enjoy match point. In the year's best match, Amelie showed the resolve of a champion, rallied from behind and held her nerve, outlasting Justine 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Worst ATP Match: Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Cincinnati
Worst WTA Match: Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Elena Dementieva, YEC
Best Brawl: Alex Bogomolov d. Fernando Gonazalez, Oz Open
Best Catfight: Jelena Jankovic d. Serena Williams, LA
Biggest Choke, ATP: James Blake to Fernando Gonzalez, Davis Cup
Runners up: Sebastien Grosjean to Tommy Robredo, Paris Indoors; Dmitry Tursunov to David Nalbandian, Roland Garros; Andrei Pavel to Andre Agassi, US Open; Robbi Ginepri to nearly everybody he played
Two points away from a straight-set victory and he loses the match. How did James do it? I have no words.
Biggest Choke, WTA: Maria Sharapova to Dinara Safina, Roland Garros
Runners up: Jelena Jankovic to Justine Henin-Hardenne, US Open; Justine Henin-Hardenne to Elena Dementieva, Indian Wells; Martina Hingis to Ai Sugiyama, Wimbledon
Somehow, I saw Maria's choke coming as early as her first-round match when she escaped an inspired Mashona Washington. But her utter collapse was still a bit shocking. Dinara, in turn, smelled blood and went in for the kill.
Biggest Upset, ATP: Andy Murray d. Andy Roddick, Wimbledon
Runner up: Igor Andreev d. Andy Roddick, Indian Wells
Biggest upset, WTA: Jelena Jankovic d. Venus Williams, Wimbledon
Runner up: Jamea Jackson d. Maria Sharapova, Birmingham
Biggest disappointment, ATP Match: Andy Roddick fails to close out Roger Federer, TMC Runner Up: Andy Roddick fails to serve out Dmitry Tursunov, Davis Cup
Three match points. That's what he had. Three match points. So near; how far. I've said enough already about that match (did I mention he had three match points?), but I'll add that it was nice to hear that Andy broke a bag of racquets in the locker room before waxing philosophical in his press conference. And most importantly, he did worship Rajah afterwards. Baby steps.
Biggest disappointment, WTA Match: Justine Henin-Hardenne retires, AO final
Runner Up: Tatiana Golovin wrenches ankle against Maria Sharapova, Miami
The runner up almost won. Down and out, Tatiana played some of her best tennis to get back into the match, forcing Potty Pova to take one of her infamous bathroom breaks just before losing the second set. That Tatiana wasn't able to complete the match made me disqualify it for best match of the year consideration. And Pova's shadow boxing while Tatiana was writhing in pain elicited vociferous criticism across the board. But speaking of down (under) and out, Justine's retirement, due to a bellyache of all things, in the Australian Open final while receiving a brutal beatdown stole the show for the shadiest retirement in a Slam final—rare as they’ve been—ever.
Biggest overall disappointment, ATP: Marat Safin
Runners up: Marcos Baghdatis and David Nalbandian
Biggest overall disappointment, WTA: Larry Scott
Runners up: Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Myskina, and Serena Williams
Yeah, I know. Marat was the hero for Russia in Davis Cup, clenching the decisive rubber and leading Russia to victory. But quite frankly, any year he doesn't win a Slam, or at least contest a final, is a disappointment. Marcos came close with his fall off after the Oz final choke. And he had the audacity to say he had a good year. And DaVEED needs to stop choking, plain and simple. He might also consider broccoli instead of doughnuts.
Kirilenko had me believing she'd make waves this year after winning her first title late last year, but she stunk up the joint wherever she performed in 2006. Anastasia is right: if she can't contend for big titles, she oughtta quit. And Serena, Serena, Serena. No tennis after the US Open? I'm sure you had good reason, but I needed to see you on court. But hats off to Larry Scott, the biggest... well, this blog boasts irreverent musings, but if I uttter a single word about what I really think/feel about Larry and his disgusting pandering to cheating Maria Sharapova (yeah, let's make coaching from the stands legal, why don't we?), he'd surely come for me. And speaking of Potty Pova...
Biggest Controversy: Bananagate
Most Improved Gonads, WTA: Nadia Petrova
Runner up: Anna Chakvetadze
Most Improved Gonads, ATP: James Blake
Runner up: Nikolay Davydenko
Honorable mention: Benjamin Becker
The two most improved players won five titles on their respective tours this year, even though they'd won all of three titles between them before 2006 began. Both achieved career high rankings: Nadia reached No. 3 back in May after winning three big clay-court titles, and James reached No. 4 after his recent run to the Tennis Masters Cup final, supplanting Andy Roddick as the year-end No. 1 American for the first time.
Biggest Surprises: Ivan Ljubicic reaches semifinals at Roland Garros and Severine Bremond reaches quarterfinals at Wimbledon
If you never heard of Severine Bremond before this year's Wimbledon, I'm sure you're in good company. This late-start, late-blooming journeywoman advanced to the last eight at the All England Club with victories over Patty Schnyder and Ai Sugiyama before the occasion and the diminutive Belgian overwhelmed her in the quarters. Too bad she wasn't able to follow up her run with anything anywhere else, making it all the more surprising.
And who woulda predicted that Ivan Ljubicic would make the semifinals on the slow clay of Roland Garros? Ivan claims he likes clay, but his results on the surface make me wonder if he's not just posturing to gain some of the respect that eludes him. Of course, if he wasn't Roger's waterboy...nevermind. It helped that he didn't have to play an opponent ranked inside the top 75 during his shocking run. With his huge serve, potent one-handed backhand, and mediocre movement, it remains a mystery why his best Slam finish to date is this one.
Best Comebacks: Martina Hingis and Jimmy Connors
I didn't think she could do it. But with injuries and apathy running rampant on the WTA tour, the five-time Grand Slam champion was able to comeback from a three-year absence and win a Tier 1 title (Rome), make the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam (Australia), and qualify for the Season-Ending Championships, finishing the year ranked No. 7.
And what can we say about Mr. James Scott Connors? A virtual recluse from the sport over the last few years, showing up at the US Open from time to time or commentating for BBC during Wimbledon, Connors returned to a more central role, joining Team Roddick and trying to get the American back to the top of the rankings. But for all of the scene-stealing personality he exhibited in his heyday, the most refreshing part of this comeback is that he wants to remain out of the spotlight, insisting that none of this is about him, but it's all about Andy Roddick.
Best Farewell, ATP: Andre Agassi (video)
Best Farewell, WTA: Martina Navratilova
Best Tribute: USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center
Before Andre Agassi took the court in what might have been his last night match at the US Open, the glorious ceremony honoring Billie Jean King's contributions to tennis lit up Arthur Ashe Stadium. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, and Venus Williams paid tribute; Diana Ross sang; and the president of the USTA presented Billie Jean a magnificent plaque to commemorate the naming of the USTA National Tennis Center in honor of this living legend.
Most Interesting Tribute: Justine Henin-Hardenne Appointed UNESCO Champion for Sport
According to Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, Justine will be entrusted with fighting doping in sport. He cited “her strength of character and her commitment to excellence, fair-play and integrity.” Well, alrighty then. If you say so.
Worst Innovation: Courtside Coaching on the WTA
Biggest Recurring Theme: Injuries, Injuries, and More Injuries
Best Innovation: Instant Replay
Matches need to be decided by the tennis, not the linecalls. The US Open was the first Grand Slam to incorporate electronic line calling into competition and the Australian Open will follow suitin January. Now if they could just get rid of the challenge system and let the players review any close call of their choosing, just like on clay.
Biggest Country on the Rise: China
The men haven't shown up yet, but the Chinese women have announced their arrival on the WTA tour. Yan Zi and Zheng Jie became China's first ever Grand Slam champions, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Overall, Yan and Zheng collected an eyebrow-raising six doubles titles this year, second only to Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur's jaw-dropping 10 titles.
Best Tournament Atmosphere:
Cincinnati and Shanghai - Enthusiastic fans come from all corners of the US to attend the Western and Southern Financial Group Masters in Mason, Ohio. The oldest tournament in the US in its original location hosts some of the best fans in the sport and all the matches, especially night matches, feature fair and excited crowds. These crowds are rivaled by those who attend the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. There, sighs and moans and groans can be heard during most points and fans sit suspended on the edges of their seats while savoring every single shot. Win or lose, you'll want to give them their props before leaving the court.
Worst Tournament Atmosphere:
Madrid and Flushing Meadows - And then there are the brutes who show up at the Madrid Arena for the AMS Madrid event and at Flushing Meadows for the US Open. I can't say which crowd is worse, but if you play against a hometown and/or sentimental favorite, forget about receiving any kind of fair treatment. Your double faults will be cheered, your injuries jeered, your timing compromised by the boos that erupt right before you hit your shots. If your name is Tomas Berdych and you're playing Rafa Nadal in Spain, be prepared to be verbally lynched for signaling the crowd to shush after the match. And if your name is Roger Federer, be prepared to be verbally hazed by the drunken members of the J-Block, many of whom were reportedly paid to root James Blake in his efforts to bring glory back to American tennis on home soil.
Strongest Ovaries: Marion Bartoli
As Savannah, a future contributor to this site, recommended, kudos to Marion "for representing the zaftig wing of sports competition." The Frenchwoman, who modeled her inside-the-baseline game after Monica Seles with two hands on both sides, finished the year inside the top 20 at No. 17, a career high. Throughout much of her 2006 campaign, Marion appeared on court with some body part taped: a thigh, a knee, a wrist, an elbow. But no matter. This year's gutsiest performer outside the top 10 fought through injury upon injury and won three titles serving up fourteen bagel sets—that's right: fourteen—along the way, including a double in her final final of the season in Quebec.
Biggest Balls: Jose Acasuso
Never had he played a match so big, so important. But against the beloved, crowd-favorite Marat Safin in the decisive fifth rubber of this year's Davis Cup final, José showed he didn't need a toke to put his gonads on the line. He channeled something deep within and, in the midst of enemy territory, made a match of it. So good was he, José had Marat, whose knees ached and ached, afraid that had he not been able to close out the match in the fourth-set tiebreak, he'd have lost the match and the opportunity to underline his disappointing year in silver. José poured everything he had into a battle that, had we won, woud've given Argentina its first Davis Cup crown in history. But his tight forehand into the net on Russia's second championship point ended that dream. Lost Argentina the war.
Nearly inconsolable, with his captain seemingly keeping him from falling, José ambled, teary and resigned, to the center of the court to thank his compatriots—the empathetic fans who did everything they could to will him—and Argentina—to victory.
There you have it. Here's looking forward to 2007!
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