By Mark Bodenrader, USTA.com
While the men’s tour has been marked by the domination of Roger Federer, the women’s side experienced a transitional year in which the elite’s membership grew, with several players vying for the spot at the top all year long.
That was never more evident than at the Tour Championships in Madrid where all eight players in the field had realistic shots at winning the tournament and three players entered the event in the running for the year-end No. 1 ranking.
Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Maria Sharapova carried high hopes into Madrid, and up until that point each had made a strong case to be considered the year’s top player. Mauresmo was capping her finest year as a pro on the heels of her first and second career Grand Slam titles, the rock-steady Henin-Hardenne reached the finals of all four major tournaments and Sharapova was virtually unbeatable on hard courts after crushing her opponents en route to her first US Open title.
Ultimately, though, it was Henin-Hardenne who hammered home the final exclamation mark, coming out on top in Madrid, capping one of her best season’s ever.
Kim Clijsters could have easily made it a four-player race for No. 1 had she been healthy, but a nagging wrist injury kept her out of action for nearly three months. On the flip side, a rested and rejuvenated Martina Hingis returned from a three-year layoff with great success, winning a pair of titles and ending the year ranked No. 8.
American stars Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Serena Williams will be hoping for Hingis-like resurgences in 2007, as injuries limited their activity in ‘06. But the U.S. did get boosts from promising young stars like U.S. Fed Cup heroine Jamea Jackson, Shenay Perry and the 17-year-old Vania King, who won her first career title in October.
Lisa Raymond also continued her success in doubles with Aussie partner Samantha Stosur. The top-ranked tandem won a tour-best 10 titles this past year, including the French Open, which allowed Raymond to complete the career doubles Grand Slam.
Raymond and Stosur had their hands full all year, however, because of the breakout season from the team of Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, who put China on the tennis map with a pair of Grand Slam titles (Australian Open, Wimbledon).
Player of the Year – Justine Henin-Hardenne
2006 WOMEN'S SEASON AWARDS
Amelie Mauresmo was the best player during the first half of the year, but the second half clearly belonged to Maria Sharapova. But overall, the most consistently great player for the entirety of 2006 was Henin-Hardenne. Heading into the Tour Championships, Mauresmo was the odds-on choice for Player of the Year because she won two Grand Slam titles and the four majors should be weighted more than anything else. But that was before Henin-Hardenne capped off the year by conquering the field at Madrid. The Belgian had entered the event in a tight three-player race for the year-end No. 1 ranking, and proceeded to beat both Mauresmo and Sharapova. Suddenly, Henin-Hardenne’s extremely well-rounded resume was impossible to overlook. In addition to claiming the Tour Championships and No. 1 ranking, she won a tour-best six tournaments, successfully defended her French Open crown, posted an overall singles record of 60-8, and, most impressively, became the first person since Martina Hingis in 1997 to appear in all four Grand Slam finals. Five years from now, when we’ll be able to gain perspective on 2006, Henin-Hardenne’s achievements will stand out above all others. That’s why she is USTA.com’s Player of the Year.
Breakout Player – Ana Ivanovic
A defeat of Amelie Mauresmo in Sydney – the year’s first tournament -- seemed to be an early indication that 2006 would be a breakout year for Ivanovic. The Serb entered the season just 18 years young with a ranking of No. 16 and only one tournament title to her credit (Canberra in 2005). However, Ivanovic followed up her win over Mauresmo with a stretch in which she struggled against highly ranked opponents, so for a while notions of her taking The Leap were put on the backburner. But that changed with the onset of the US Open Series. After a third-round ouster in San Diego and a quarterfinal finish in Los Angeles, Ivanovic captured her first Tier I event by winning the Rogers Cup in Montreal. She defeated six players on her way to the Canadian crown -- all of which were ranked 27th or higher – capped by a stunningly quick straight sets victory over the more experienced Martina Hingis in the final. The coming-out party secured Ivanovic her first US Open Series crown, for which she edged out household names like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters.
Most Improved Player – Jelena Jankovic
Granted, the selection of Jankovic as the year’s Most Improved Player might seem odd considering she failed to win a singles title in ’06. But remember that she struggled through a downright dismal stretch at the beginning of the year in which she lost 10 matches in a row. After opening ‘06 with a win in the first round of the Australian Open, Jankovic didn’t taste victory again until Rome in late May. By then, Jankovic had her mojo back, but it wasn’t until her finals appearance in Los Angeles that she started to be recognized as a budding threat to the tour’s elite. That was soon confirmed by an outstanding showing at the US Open in which she was a surprise semifinalist, defeating three players ranked in the top 10 in three consecutive rounds (Vaidisova, Kuznetsova, Dementieva). Ultimately, Jankovic lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the semis, despite jumping out to a one-set-to-Love lead in a match that she should have won. Following Flushing, Jankovic continued to play deep into tournaments and on October 23 reached a career-high ranking of 12th, where she stands heading into 2007.
Top Newcomer – Shahar Peer
In her second tournament of the year, Peer advanced to the semifinals for the first time since joining the tour. By her fourth tournament of 2006, Peer had her first career title, winning at Pattaya City. Not too shabby for someone who turned 19 on May 1. But Peer wasn’t done there. She went on to win titles No. 2 and 3 in Prague and Istanbul, and turned in career-best result at Paris and New York. A run to the round of 16 at Roland Garros featured a victory over Elena Dementieva, while a similar finish at the US Open included a gritty triumph over Francesca Schiavone. At the close of the season, Peer’s efforts were rewarded with a career-high ranking of No.20, up 25 positions from her 2005 year-end ranking of 45. On top of her singles success in ‘06, the electric Israeli also won a pair of doubles titles, teaming with Marion Bartoli to win in Prague and partnering with Anna-Lena Groenefeld to rule in Stanford.
Doubles Team of the Year – Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur
Raymond and Stosur manage to repeat in this category after another year full of accolades, but it was by no means a cakewalk. A new power duo, Jie Zheng and Zi Yan of China, was a force from the start, defeating all challengers at the first major -- the Australian Open – and captured another Grand Slam title by winning at Wimbledon. Overall, Zheng and Yan collected an impressive six tournament victories. However, that mark was four shy of the tour-best 10 totaled by Raymond and Stosur, who won one less Grand Slam title (French Open), but managed to repeat at the year-end Championships in Madrid. Raymond and Stosur also finished 2006 on fire, winning four of their 10 tournament titles after September. As a result, the U.S.-Aussie tandem distanced themselves enough from the Chinese to share the top spot in the year-end rankings.
Comeback Player of the Year – Martina Hingis
The easiest call of all the women's year-end awards, Hingis shook off the rust of a three-year layoff brought about by foot and ankle injuries to approach the form that made her one of the sport’s top players in her prime. And Hingis was competitive from the start, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and pushing Kim Clijsters to three sets before bowing out. The former world No. 1 followed that up with a run to the finals in Tokyo that included a victory over Maria Sharapova in the semis. In subsequent tournaments Hingis continued to topple the elite, posting impressive victories over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lindsay Davenport, Nadia Petrova and Elena Dementieva. By May, the Swiss Miss had her first title since 2002 after winning at Rome and collected a second championship at Kolkata in September, erasing doubts of her ability to handle the tour's heavy-hitters. In fact, Hingis was so successful in her comeback that she ended up qualifying for the year-ending Championships, earning the eighth seed, finished the year ranked No. 7, and plans to follow up her success by returning in 2007.
Match of the Year – Henin-Hardenne vs. Mauresmo, Wimbledon Final
Prior to 2006, Mauresmo didn’t have a Grand Slam title to her credit, but suddenly she was just one match victory away from owning two. Meanwhile, the only major title that had eluded Henin-Hardenne to that point was Wimbledon. Her best previous showing at the All England Club was runner-up to Venus Williams in 2001. Mauresmo was already in the midst of her best Wimbledon performance, having only gotten as far as the semis on three prior occasions. But the storyline that garnered the most attention was that these two giants of the sport were once again facing each other in a Grand Slam final just six months after a contentious meeting at the Australian Open. Mauresmo won that affair after Henin-Hardenne retired with an injury, but some questioned the Belgian’s motives and that drama followed them to London. This time around, Henin-Hardenne was playing at the top of her game and eyeing her second straight major tournament win after claiming the French Open. After Henin-Hardenne breezed to a first-set victory, it appeared it would be Mauresmo bowing out early. However, the Frenchwoman rebounded in a big way, taking the next set and then the decisive one for her first-ever Wimbledon crown, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. It marked a rare instance in 2006 in which a match between heavyweights lived up to the hype on the women’s side, and it also added fuel to arguably the most intense rivalry on the tour.
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