Wednesday, December 28, 2005

WTA season begins in 5 days!

January 2 marks the beginning of the 2006 WTA season, when competition begins at Mondial (formerly Uncle Toby's) Australian Women's Hardcourts, a Tier III tournament held at Gold Coast, Australia. The defending champion is one of my favorites, Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, but the bigger news from Switzerland is that the great Martina Hingis will be there, making her first appearance on the tour in three years. Hingis retired in 2002 because of recurring foot injuries, and no one knows if her feet will hold up, but she is optimistic.

Many think that Hingis will wipe out early in her first tournaments; she has not played tournament tennis in a long time, with the exception of World Team Tennis. Schnyder reports that Hingis has not lost her feel for the ball and her exceptional technique, and that she seems fitter than she was before. This is good news because fitness was always one of Hingis's weak points, along with her serve. It is hard to predict what will happen; I think it will take a few tournaments for Hingis to get her rhythm going, but after that, I'm inclined to think she can seriously compete. I hope so. It just hasn't been the same since she left the tour. So-called "power tennis" is fine, but nothing beats watching Hingis's point construction. Some think she is the cleverest player in the game's history.

Maria Sharapova, haunted last season by a pectoral injury, has pulled out of the Gold Coast tournament because of a shoulder injury. The 2004 Wimbledon champion did not win a Grand Slam this year, and tennis fans will be watching to see if she can win one in 2006.

And speaking of Grand Slams, it's probably now or never for world number one Lindsay Davenport. Davenport hasn't won a Slam since 1999, and she is obviously edging toward retirement. She was beating Sharapova in the 2004 Wimbledon semifinals, then, after a rain break, her game unraveled. It turned out that she was going through a career crisis right in the middle of the tournament. She dusted herself off, went on an incredible hardcourt tear, and looked like a cinch to win the 2004 U.S. Open, but was injured during her semifinal with Svetlana Kuznetsova, who went on to win the Open.

Her luck was no better at the beginning of the next season. She reached the finals of the Australian Open, and then kind of went to pieces, easily giving Serena Williams the win. I thought it was head stuff until I thought about the incredible Australian heat, and the fact that she had played doubles all the way to the finals, too. She was exhausted. When she got to Wimbledon, she lost one of the great thriller finals of all time to Venus Williams. It was heartbreaking to Davenport and her thousands of fans. At the U.S. Open, she lost her quarterfinal match to Elena Dementieva by simply not being focused throughout the whole thing.

Mary Pierce is also nearing the end of her career. Like Davenport, she reached two Grand Slam finals this year. The two-time Slam winner outplayed defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne all the way through the French Open, then lost miserably in the final, then lost her U.S. Open final to Kim Clijsters. Pierce was also in the final of the WTA Tour Championships, but lost to Amelie Mauresmo.

Clijsters, whose U.S. Open win marked her fifth time to reach a Grand Slam final, looks good for this season, which she says will be her last, but we are hoping she has a change of heart. Having overcome a terrible injury, she is playing extremely well and is quite fit. Henin-Hardenne, who came back after a debilitating illness, is still, in my opinion, the best player on the tour, but her 2005 comeback did not include a good serve, and until she gets her serve back, she will not dominate. I looked for Henin-Hardenne to become a multiple Slam winner of the Navratilova/Graf variety, but now I am stepping back to see if she can regain her former superiority. I hope she does.

The bad news is that Australia's Alicia Molik's attempt to return to the tour following a serious ear infection did not work out. The infection has made her so ill that she has dropped out of tournament play indefinitely. All of her fans--and who could possibly not be her fan?--wish her a full recovery. Molik worked for years to become an elite player, and when she finally reached her goal at the age of 24, she got to enjoy one good season before becoming ill.

We are all hoping to see Jennifer Capriati soon. Capriati was out the entire 2005 season because of a shoulder injury. Chanda Rubin, the Louisianian whose injuries have kept her from having the brilliant career she seemed destined to have, is returning soon, after having suffered yet another serious injury that kept her out most of the season. And former world number four Elena Dokic, whose ranking has fallen off the face of the earth, is back, playing once again for Australia, and hoping to regain her former place on the tour. Dokic is one of many WTA players whose career has suffered because of the crazy tennis father syndrome.

Now that she has won the WTA Tour Championships, Amelie Mauresmo may have gained the confidence she has so badly needed. Mauresmo is a brilliant and graceful player who should have won a Slam by now, and here's hoping this is her year. Nadia Petrova, once the hope of Russia but slow to develop, is also looking better. Anastasia Myskina, feeling better now that her sick mother is better, should also have a good season. Her countrywomen, Kuznetsova and Dementieva, I'm not so sure about.

Who will break through this year? It's hard to predict. Last year, many thought Tatiana Golovin would, but she stalled, partly because of recurring foot injuries. Ana Ivanovich did well, but not as well as some hoped; this may be her year. Jelena Jankovic was also a breakthrough hope last year, but not much came of the prediction. I think that if anyone is going to break through, it is Nicole Vaidisova, whose game has improved a lot lately, and who is champion material, though not on all surfaces. Look, too, for Sania Mirza to possibly break through, and keep an eye on Anna-Lena Groenefeld. Players I hope do well this year (aside from my top favorites--Davenport, Mauresmo, Schnyder, and Hingis) are Anabel Medina-Garrigues, Petrova, Elena Bovina, and Shuai Peng.

Schnyder, by the way, will begin the 2006 season as world number six, her highest career ranking.

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