2007 will go down in history as the Year of Controversy. It all began with Nikolay Davydenko being fined by the ATP for maligning the Medibank International Tournament in Sydney. Bet you 50 grand you all forgot about that one. It ended, more or less, with Davydenko being fined for lack of effort in a tennis match, a fine the ATP later rescinded. But the Russian remains at the center of a betting scandal investigation. Then there were Golden Girl's joke of a draw at the US Open, allegations of poisoning, everybody and their cousin claiming they were approached by (anonymous) callers to fix matches, the fall of a smiling assassin for scoring an 8 ball, and the pending nuptials of a teenage would-be It Girl. The Biggest Controversy of them all, the one which affected tennis most directly from where I sit, was the AELTC's shyster scheduling of Wimbledon's men's matches, a controversy that was virtually ignored by the media.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, great and forgettable tennis was produced. In my second annual Gonad Awards, we'll take a look at the best and worst 2007 had to offer on and off the court.
Players of the Year: Roger Federer and Justine Henin
Both picks this year are easy, no? Despite losing nine matches to six different players and back-to-back matches for the first time in more than four years, Federer is still king. He's been No. 1 for more than 200 consecutive weeks, won his fourth Masters Cup title, and picked up another three Grand Slams. Now if only that pesky Spaniard could go missing sometime around the end of May...
The Diminutive One went through a divorce at season's beginning, then came back and made the WTA her own private shooting gallery. Winning another two Grand Slams to put her within one of the Great One and taking out the field in the Sony Ericsson Championships dropping a single set to defend her title, folks have been debating whether her year was better/more dominant than Raja's. Her stats for 2007 were quite impressive. Now if only she didn't have to face any hard hitting Big Babes on the lawns in London....
Greatest Performances: Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal
Serena's run in Melbourne inspired an ode, an "I told you so," and included a Best Match of the Year nod by Mad Professah. The only thing I'll add about it is this: Serena wins in Melbourne no matter who's in the draw, and that includes Justine. Anyone who watched Serena with open eyes would have seen that no one would've denied her that trophy. The motivation of an ancestral sister was too much to turn back. She moved almost as well in January as she moved in the years she dominated the tour, no matter how many pounds people think she needed to shed. She outgutted Nadia Petrova, outran Jelena Jankovic, outfought Shahar Pe'er, let Nicole Vaidisova know that NikkiV wasn't ready yet for her closeup, and made mincemeat out of Maria Sharapova in a championship Slam run for the ages.
Rafa had no business playing Hamburg, some will argue. But having come out in protest to Hamburg's downgraded status from a Masters event, he had to play. His claycourt streak on the line. Fatigued from three-peating in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, with only a week before Paris, he showed up to play in the damp German town for the first time in his career. After fighting off an inspired challenge by Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals he suffered his first loss on clay in nearly three seasons to Raja who snapped his 81-match winning streak on the slow stuff. But Rafa rebounded three weeks later and exacted his revenge, hoisting the Roland Garros trophy for the third time in three tries, making his own piece of tennis history. All on a bum foot. He survived seven straight days of play in London to repeat as Wimbledon finalist and put himself one set away from achieving a dream he has claimed he would die trying to achieve. Much of it on bad knees. No one fights harder than Rafa. This year, no player deserves this award more.
Best ATP Match: Richard Gasquet d Andy Roddick, Wimbledon Quarterfinals
Runner up: Roger Federer d Rafael Nadal, Wimbedon Final
I think most of you know by now that Wimbledon is my favorite event on the calendar. It also features some of the best matches the sport has to offer. This year was no different, as both my picks for best match came on the lawns at SW19. I'm sure many of you are suprised that I didn't chose the epic final where Rafa had his knees wrapped late in the fourth set allowing Raja to recover from a meltdown to go on and win his fifth straight Wimbledon title 7-6(7), 4-6, 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-2. Then again, maybe you aren't. For me, the best match of the event and the year goes to Richie's remarkable comeback from two sets and a break down against Andy 4-6, 4-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(3), 8-6 allowing the French hope to advance to his first career Slam semifinal.
It was grasscourt tennis of the highest order. Andy dominated Richie for two-and-a-half sets with scintillating all-court tennis that had Richie mentally checked out and seemingly preparing to pack his bags and head to the airport. But Andy got tight serving at 4-3 and a double fault set up two break points. A miffed forehand on an easy volley and the set was level. Richie took full advantage, getting more of Andy's serves in play, and opening up his shoulders to hit one devastating backhand winner after another. Roddick had a near perfect tiebreak record coming into this match—a record 18 in a row to be exact—but Gasquet ended Andy's streak and took two in a row, leaving Andy with a mere five points between them, to force a fifth set. And Richie got to serve first. Which proved critical as Andy wasn't able hold serve at 6-7. The crowd lived and died on every point as though it was match point throughout the final set to help make this the best match of the year.
Best WTA Match: Marion Bartoli d Justine Henin, Wimbledon semifinals
Runner up: Jelena Jankovic d Lucie Safarova, Wimbledon Third Round
Gritty. Gutsy. Gigantic. Make no mistake, Justine played well. She had to have to have won the first set so easily, to have secured and early break in the second. But Maid Marion refused to stay down and rallied to a 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory. Guess she didn't feel like losing to Justine twice in a row in as many weeks on her favorite surface. And then there was her claim that seeing Pierce Brosnan in the stands inspired her to play better. I can't remember how many breaks Marion recovered in the second set, but the tennis from both sides of the net was exactly what I love to see at Wimbledon. Lots of great exchanges at the net. After one exchange that Marion won with a stretch forehand volley that even Justine had to applaud, the crowd gasped. I didn't think they were going to stop clapping. Throughout the match, Marion just kept coming and she finally broke Justine's will. When she raced out to a 5-0 in the second set, Justine looked a bit like Maria in the Melbourne final. Justine was all out of answers for the deceptive game Marion brought to the table. Sure the Frenchwoman can crack the ball flat and hard with two hands off both sides a la Monica Seles. But who knew how effective her serve could be on grass? How deft her volleys? How crafty her strategy? Not only did she run Justine ragged, but she also outsmarted her on the biggest points. And she fought her with all her might, something few players find the mental strength to do in the face of the world No. 1 who likes to intimidate with her barks of "Allez!" on her opponent's unforced errors. Marion was having none of it. She barked right back. Even more loudly. How often does Justine hear her own battle cry belted right back at her in her mother tongue? Not often enough, I tell you. Not often enough. And the Diminutive One couldn't take it. Justine looked to Carlos for help. For the first time in forever, he sat on his hands. No signals to give. It was quite a sight. When it was all over, Marion received an ovation that seemed like it lasted forever. An ovation for her tennis, for her victory, but ultimately for her guts. There was a reason why she won Strongest Ovaries last year. No one, except perhaps Marion herself, expected her to stand up on Centre Court to the world No. 1 and play like it was her garden. It was quite a sight. Worthy of all the applause. And then some. Justine walked off Centre Court with her head down and her tail between her legs. She hasn't lost a match since.
Worst ATP Match: Novak Djokovic d Richard Gasquet, Estoril Open Final
Not sure what it is about these two, but when they play, it's downright ugly. Nothing was uglier than Djoke's bush-league tank of the second set, citing difficulty breathing, only to come back strong and take the third set and the title over a bamboozled Richie who never saw it coming.
Worst WTA Match: Svetlana Kuznetsova d Anna Chakvetadze, US Open Semifinals
For two years running, Sveta shows up in the worst match of the year, and for the second straight year, she defeated a fellow Russian to achieve such infamy. There's only one word needed to describe this encounter: unwatchable.
Biggest Performance Breakdown, ATP: Mardy Fish to Tommy Robredo, US Open Third Round
The less said about this match, the better.
Biggest Performance Breakdown, WTA: Patty Schnyder to Maria Sharapova, Roland Garros Fourth Round
Biggest Upset, ATP: Filippo Volandri d Roger Federer, Rome Third Round
It came out of nowhere. At least that "doper" had defeated Raja in another lifetime. But no one would've picked Pippo to dismiss a lethargic Federer, even on homesoil. Because Raja bounced back and went on to win Hamburg again, ending Rafa's claycourt streak in the process, many forgot about this upset. Not me. It was the most surprising loss of Raja's career since gaining the No. 1 ranking back in 2004.
Biggest Upset, WTA: Marion Bartoli d Justine Henin, Wimbledon Semifinal
Runner up: Agnieska Radwanska d Maria Sharapova, US Open Third Round
This was almost a dead heat. Radwanska sent the defending US Open champion packing by standing so far inside the baseline on Maria's faulty serves to draw numerous double faults. Still, this upset didn't have quite the sting of the award winner, despite John McEnroe's claim that if Sharapova couldn't make the final with the draw she received, she ought to be ashamed of herself. But with the world No. 1 just two games away from her third Wimbledon final, Bartoli's gutsy comeback-cum-steamroll remains the single biggest upset—on the biggest stage—of the year.
Biggest Disappointment, WTA Match: Svetlana Kuznetsova, US Open Final
It's not like it was her first time in a Slam final. Which is the only reason why Ana Ivanovic doesn't take this award for her Roland Garros final performance. No. It was Sveta's second. The first time was right here and she took it to Elena Dementieva with pinpoint first serves and ferocious forehands to win her first Slam at 19. The haint that appeared on Arthur Ashe stadium this time out to face Justine ought to have stayed in the locker room.
Biggest Disappointment, ATP Match: Andy Roddick, Australian Open Semifinal
Some will argue that Raja played so well, there was nothing Andy could do. I didn't see it that way. Yes, Raja played well, but after breaking back to level the first set at 4-4, Andy lost serve again and seemed to give up. I don't care how well Raja was striking the ball, Andy had no business eating a bagel in the middle set.
Biggest Overall Dispointments: Larry Scott and Etienne de Villiers
Need I say more?
Most Overblown Controversy: Match-Fixing
The betting scandals got on my nerves all year. If not for a Top 5 player being investigated, this entire story would've stayed exactly where it was for the last few years: off the front pages. Remember how quickly the story came and went last year when there was a strange betting pattern in the match between Carlos Berlocq and Richard Bloomfield on some outside court in the first round of Wimbledon? Do you even remember it?
Matches are fixed. And nothing can be done to stop it. Nothing whatsoever. Especially in a sport such as tennis. People who don't accept that have their heads in the sand.
It's not about disrupting a level playing field. How can my tanking a match be an unfair advantage for my opponent? If anything, it's a charitable act for that player and the rest of the draw if I'm expected to win the event as the top player.
It's all about control. Notions of the "integrity of the sport" and other variations of that sentiment are nothing but knickknacks on the mantle. Who has (wants to keep) the power to control the flow of money is primarily what this investigation and the brouhaha is all about. Had Davydenko, a top player with some impact on how the sport is perceived worldwide, not been involved in a match where all bets were voided, this would be but a sidebar, just as it was after Wimbledon last year, even though bets were paid out in that case.
The engine of capitalism cannot run without corruption. And only certain people have a "right" to benefit from it. Intruders need to be punished.
Most Surprising Runs: Fernando Gonzalez and Marion Bartoli
Some might say David Nalbandian winning back-to-back Masters shields in Madrid and Paris, beating Fed and Nadal in both, would take this cake. But Nalbandian's commitment to fitness, a new coach, and his overall European indoor record would suggest this wasn't really all that much of a surprise. Others might say David Ferrer's run in Shanghai would win this prize. But let's be real: nobody in his group was really going to trouble him, save Nadal, and Andy was a virtual no-show in the semifinals after another Raja beating and quick turnover from the night before. So even though the Spanish Dahveed played well, his run was no surprise.
Gonzalez, however, despite all his talent, has never been consistent enough to put together a great run over two weeks at a Slam. And his run to the Melbourne final came out of nowhere. But more than that, the tennis he produced to get there was nothing short of breathtaking. His winners to unforced errors throughout the forthnight was staggering. In his match against Tommy Haas, he commited only three errors! That he was able to produce this kind of tennis only once since January—and it came in a single solitary match all the way in November when he ended Raja's unbeaten record in Masters Cup round-robin play—made this run all the more surprising.
Despite Maid Marion's breakthrough at Roland Garros, reaching the second week of a Slam for the first time in her career, and despite grass being her favorite surface, the Frenchwoman's run in London was still a surprise to most onlookers, not just because of who she beat, but how she beat them. She outran Jelena in the fourth round and outserved Michaella Krajicek in the quarterfinals. But winning 7 straight games and racing to a 5-0 lead in the final set against Justine was the most surprising part of this most surprising run.
Most Improved Gonads: Juan Mónaco and Anna Chakvetadze
Honorable Mentions: Agnieszka Radwanska, Shahar Pe'er and Ivo Karlovic
Other than improving his ranking from 69 to 20, Mónaco won his first 3 career titles this year and made the second week at both Roland Garros and the US Open. He also notched victories over Nadal, Robredo, and Davydenko (3 top 10 wins!), took a set off Raja in Hamburg, and a set off Novak at the US Open. This is who he beat to win Kitzbuhel: Mariano Zabaleta, Phillip Kohlschreiber, Robredo, Fernando Verdasco, and Potito Starace. In Acapulco, he took out Carlos Moya, Starace, Luis Horna, Nicolas Almagro, and Alessio di Mauro. In Poertschach he beat Jurgen Melzer, Michael Russell, Davydenko, Horna, and Gael Monfils. Some decent scalps in there, no? The upside for him is that like others from South America he's adapted his game to hardcourts quite nicely which bodes well for more success on all seasons of the calendar.
For her part, AnnaC has put the game behind the glint in her eye. Last year's honorable mention in this category takes the award on the strength of her summer run on US hardcourts where she won back-to-back titles, defeated Venus, and even performed well in doubles. She made her first Slam semifinal at the US Open, and despite her ugly play in that match, she showed the world that when she's on and when she can keep her emotions in check, she can be a force to be reckoned with.
Outstanding Newcomers: Agnes Szavay and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Honorable Mentions: Ernests Gulbis and Tamira Paszek
Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 22, returned from an injury-riddled 2006 season, to climb 169 spots from No. 212 to No. 43. Tsonga made the biggest jump of any player in the Top 50, highlighted by 14 ATP level match wins and his first ATP semifinal in Lyon. He also was a service game away from taking a two-set-to-love lead against Roddick at the Australian Open and he advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon and third round at the US Open. He needs to work on his stamina in best-of-five matches for 2008.
AggieS made her mark late in the year by making the New Haven final, the US Open quarterfinals, and winning the China Open against Jankovic, who served for the match in the second set. Here's hoping her recurrent back injuries don't make a nightmare out of her 2008 campaign.
Best Comebacks: Guillermo Cañas and Serena Williams
Honorable Mentions: Lindsay Davenport and Nicolas Kiefer
Nothing more to say about Serena, but despite her injury-laden post-Miami year, her Melbourne run and Miami title clench this award for her. As for the "doper" (I put this word in quotations because it needs to be reiterated that Cañas was busted for a substance given him by an ATP trainer, the same substance Greg Rusedski tested positive for by the same means and who was encouraged to keep his results secret by Todd Martin and others but refused and after he told on himself, he was given nothing more than a slap on the wrist...), if this award was titled Most Welcome Comebacks, Cañas definitely wouldn't have made the cut. Not only did Cañas beat the invincible Raja not once but twice, back-to-back, in the spring Masters events, ending the World No. 1's hardcourt winning streak, but he also made the biggest jump into the Top 20, moving 128 positions from No. 143 to No. 15. The 30-year-old won his seventh career ATP title in Costa do Sauipe and was runner-up at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami and Barcelona. All this after serving a 15-month suspension which began when he was No. 8 in the world and on a comeback from wrist surgery. Speaking of which, he's suffering yet again from wrist tendonitis and might not be able to return till April 2008. If it wasn't for bad luck, no luck at all...
Best Farewell: Tim Henman
He went out in front of his beloved fans on his favorite surface on homesoil behind a doubles win in a Davis Cup match that put Great Britain into the 2008 World Group. And his beautiful family got to experience it with him. It doesn't get any better than that.
Worst Farewell: Martina Hingis
"I did not have sex with that woman." Whoops. Wrong lie. "I have never done drugs. And by the way, I quit." I'm not one for shaming, but....
Martina, it was cocaine, not HGH. Two of your urine samples came back positive. Who are you kidding? Well, most of the tennis establishment and a whole host of fans who simply refuse to believe the "cerebral" you would snort coke, that's who. I know it's illegal, but it's cocaine. Athletes party. We all know it. Sometimes they do more than alcohol. And it's not like Martina isn't known in certain circles as a party girl.
There's a lot of (wishful) speculation about what happened here. But Martina told on herself in order to influence public opinion and protect her Hall of Fame induction. It appears to be working. I guess you could say the smiling assassin is a smart Chucky afterall.
I say she's a coward.
(Look at the ice on that finger. That was back in October. And some say Radek moved on too fast. Uh huh.)
Buh-bye, Martina. Good luck with your multi-millionaire mogul.
Best Tribute: USTA Honors Althea Gibson
One of the best shows in a long time. Too bad the sport's greatest ambassador, as some say, and a man who touts his own love of tennis history, had no idea who the show was for. Relive it right here.
Coach of the Year: Oracene Price
She doesn't get the credit she deserves. Against all odds, she coached each of her tennis star daughters to Slam titles in 2007, making it only the second time in history that siblings have won Grand Slam singles titles in the same year. The first time was in 2005. Same siblings; same Slam titles. And no one - and I mean no one - wrote a single word about the historic feat.
Biggest Country on the Rise: Serbia
Hard to overlook Ana, Jelena and Novak, no? Moose told us all about when he got hooked on the Serb and Volleys. I'm still waiting to see if any of them has what it takes to win big. Whatever the future holds, 2007 was a great year for a small—and brand new—country in the world of tennis.
Best Tournament Atmospheres: Montreal, Bercy and Shanghai
Crowds that cheer enthusiastically for both sides of the net, no matter what country they hail from, crowds that live and die on every point, no matter the score, bring out the best tennis has to offer. You may find these crowds in Montreal and Bercy for the Masters events and in Shanghai for the Cup.
Worst Tournament Atmosphere: Madrid
I have one word for the atmosphere in Madrid: yawn. The second court looks like a prison. And to think this is a venue where Ion Tiriac has enough clout to campaign loudly for an upgrade into a joint event, a Slam even. I'm so excited, I just can't hide it, I'm about to lose control...
Strongest Ovaries: Venus Williams
I wanted to give this to Serena who showed perhaps her greatest courage in her losing efforts this year, refusing when injured and/or unprepared to withdraw or retire on the sport's biggest stages, even in the face of her nemesis. But that would be overkill. So her sister, who is equally deserving, gets the nod instead.
Venus won her first tournament back in convincing fashion after being sidelined with a wrist injury for months. She got a monkey off her back by finally defeating Jankovic in a dramatic third-set tiebreak in the quarterfinals of the US Open. She was practically drafted to play the entire post-USO Asian swing when Raja pulled out of Tokyo to prepare for the Madrid/Paris double and collect his gargantuan $1.5 million bonus. She ran out of steam, due primarily to the anemia she battled since spring, withdrawing from the Season Ending Championships, but even that didn't stop her from showing up in Madrid to support the UNESCO women's leadership and gender equality ad campaign at city hall. She launched EleVen, her new sports fashion line at Steve & Barry's; graduated cum laude from the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale to receive an associate's degree in fashion design; and, oh, yeah: she found time to fit in her fourth Wimbledon title, despite the kitchen sink being thrown at her, despite being on the brink of defeat twice—both times on the Graveyard of Champions—in the first three rounds. Venus did it her way this year. And that always takes courage.
Biggest Balls: James Blake
James graduates from Most Improved Gonads to Biggest Balls in a single season. Just like last year, the winner of this award got the nod on the strength of his effort in the Davis Cup final. Whatever mojo Andy and Patrick worked on James, it worked. No matter where he goes in 2008, his courageous performance in the second rubber, only his second live rubber Davis Cup victory in his comeback, was arguably the pivotal match of the final. No matter how you all voted.
Quote of the Year
"I'll probably wake up tomorrow with a better sense of perspective. I'm sitting here feeling pretty crappy right now. But I promise you I'm aware in the grand scheme of things I'm still pretty blessed and very lucky and very fortunate. That being said, you know, when you put your blood, sweat and tears, everything you have into something, and you can almost taste it, you envision something and it doesn't work out, it's not easy. But that's what makes you addicted to the competition, you know, is the feeling when you do win. That's what gets you back on the horse." - Andy Roddick after his Wimbledon loss
Photo of the Year
Photo: Job Blom/CHTB