Commentary

King Rafa's 2008 season rife with majestic efforts

With his unyielding nature and sublime championship at the hallowed Wimbledon grounds, Rafael Nadal is Joel Drucker's unequivocal choice as the best player of the year.

Originally Published: December 15, 2008
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

Novak DjokovicAP Photo/Rick StevensNovak Djokovic entrenched himself into tennis' elite circle after his Australian Open championship.

Editor's note: The 2008 tennis season left us with indelible memories. ESPN.com recounts the top 10 highs and lows from Monday through Friday this week.

Here's my list of the top 10 players of 2008 (both men and women):

1. Rafael Nadal
Who else? Amazingly, he did not win his first title until the end of April -- and then went on a staggering four-month, 48-2, eight-title run. He's the first man to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year since Bjorn Borg in 1980. He won the French without losing a set (not done in Paris since Borg in '80), including the finals pummeling of Roger Federer. Nadal took out his Swiss rival in a supreme Wimbledon final and then earned Tennis Masters Series titles in Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Toronto, plus Olympic gold -- all the while maintaining his warrior mentality on the court and affable manner off it.

2. Roger Federer
Reaching the finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and winning the U.S. Open would be a dream come true for just about any tennis player. But such is the reality of sports that grading is done on a curve. Federer has set the bar tremendously high, and so indeed, 2008 was less productive than other years. Nonetheless, the results are stellar. Most interesting of all will be to see how he tackles the quest to regain his No. 1 ranking in 2009.

3. Novak Djokovic
He kicked off the year nicely by winning his first Grand Slam at the Australian Open, highlighted by a semifinal win over Federer. By mid-May, additional wins at Tennis Masters events in Indian Wells and Rome put him atop the point standings. Though he stumbled below his own curve at the other Slams, the Serb bookended his year on an upbeat note with a win at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

4. Serena Williams
Once again, she proved her ability to raise her game and snag the big fish. Williams built early momentum in 2008 with wins on the hard courts of Miami and the clay of Charleston. Despite a limited playing schedule, she brought it big when it counted to reach the finals of Wimbledon and, most impressive, won her third U.S. Open, a victory that brought her back to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in five years -- a record gap.

5. Venus Williams
Mesh her year with Serena's and you've got the kind of dominance of a single Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf. The elder Williams earned half her points at two events: Wimbledon and the year-end championships. Despite lackluster efforts in the first half of the year, Venus won a sparkling Wimbledon final over sister Serena. She scarcely played in the summer, and she lost a superb quarterfinal encounter to Serena at the U.S. Open. But to Venus' credit, she crusaded hard in the autumn to earn a spot in the season-ending championships. She won one of three European events -- then cashed in big with a victory to close out the year.

6. Andy Murray
His tactical skills were clear from the minute he hit the pro tour, but there were times when Murray would get suspiciously negative. But as with the likes of Navratilova, Ivan Lendl and Roy Emerson, physical fitness translates into mental fitness. An increased and refined fitness regimen paid major dividends for Murray this year, earning him multiple wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, a trip to his first Grand Slam singles final and a career-high ranking of No. 4 in the world. Having lost in the first round of the '08 Australian Open, he's got no points to defend and even brighter possibilities.

7. Ana Ivanovic
While the last half of her year was horrific -- early losses at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, a so-so 11-9 match record -- in the first half of 2008 she showed exceptional power, grace and style. Highlights included a run to the final at the Australian, a victory at Indian Wells and the grand culmination, her first Slam title at the French Open and attainment of the No. 1 ranking. Surely she hopes to forget the injury-laden, tepid tennis she played in the back half of the year and resume her winning ways in '09.

[+] EnlargeDinara Safina
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Jacques BoissinotDinara Safina evolved from a sporadic performer to one of the most consistent players in 2008.

8. Jelena Jankovic
Wall-to-wall consistency and diligent playing style took her to the No. 1 ranking. Think of it like leading the league in batting average. Through the U.S. Open, she'd won only one title in '08 and had semifinal efforts at the Australian Open and Roland Garros. In New York, though, she reached the final and showcased fitness, movement and, surprising these days for a top women's player, relentless desire to compete. She torched the fall circuit, winning three tournaments. Peaking for the Slams is her next priority.

9. Dinara Safina
Though her year-end ranking was two spots behind Jankovic, to Safina's credit she won her four singles titles across a wider time spectrum and at bigger events. Most pleasing of all was to see her compete with newfound composure, a function of an increased physical fitness regimen.

10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Every once in a while a player bursts out of the pack with a thoroughly captivating playing style and manner. Such was the case when Tsonga tore his way to the Australian Open final. Most staggering of all was the way he utterly manhandled Nadal in the semis, showing off ample doses of power, touch, movement and creativity. The Frenchman's historic penchant for injuries derailed much of his subsequent 2008 campaign, but at year's end he surfaced again to win two titles, most notably the Tennis Masters Paris, to earn a spot in the Tennis Masters Cup. He finish the year ranked sixth in the world -- 37 spots higher than his '07 year-end ranking.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.