Commentary

Top women's matches of the decade

Originally Published: December 22, 2009
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

The past decade of women's tennis saw two sisters ascend to the top of the game and go head-to-head in the grandest of moments. Serena and Venus Williams transcended the sport with their raw power and determination.

Although the siblings have been part of many memorable moments, the 2000s were rife with extraordinary and indelible matches. Here are our top 5:

1. 2005 Wimbledon: American Idols

Two American titans were on the warpath. For Venus Williams, the Wimbledon champion in '00 and '01, it had been nearly four years since she'd won a Grand Slam singles title. For Davenport, the winner in '99, the Slam drought had lasted more than five years.

With genuine mutual respect and the desire to smack each other into every possible corner, these two pounded one groundstroke after another with concussive force and depth. Davenport won the first set 6-4. In the second, Davenport served for the match at 6-5, but Williams took it in a tiebreaker. In the third, with Williams serving at 4-5, Davenport held a championship point. A hard-fought rally concluded with a thundering Williams backhand. In the end, 14 minutes shy of the three-hour mark, Williams was the winner, 9-7.

Said Davenport: "I feel like I gave it everything I had out there, and every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievable. I mean, you know, I thought I played really well. I thought I had a lot of chances. And I felt like she never allowed me to take advantage of those chances. She just played great whenever she was down."

Davenport would never reach another Slam final. But Williams would win two more Wimbledons -- and could well earn more.

Venus Williams def. Lindsay Davenport, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4

2. 2003 Roland Garros: The Changing of the Guard

Having taken the past four Slams on the trot to notch the distinctive and impressive "Serena Slam," Williams was at the height of her powers.

Justine Henin-Hardenne
FrancoisGuillot/Getty ImagesOn her way to the first of seven Grand Slam titles, Justine Henin had to fend off Serena Williams in what became one of the more controversial matches of the past decade.

As recently as the end of '02, Henin had confessed to her mental shortcomings, most notably a problem closing out big matches. She'd lost a lead in the semis of the French Open in '01 to her compatriot Kim Clijsters and the next month had been bageled in the third set of the Wimbledon final by Venus Williams. But Henin was also extremely diligent, tenacious and willing to deploy her wide range of weapons. Coming into this match, she'd also gained confidence from beating Williams on clay earlier in the spring in Charleston.

Henin's always sparkling backhand and beefed-up forehand helped her sprint through the first set 6-2. But when Williams took the second and went up in the third, all seemed in order.

At which point the match took an odd flavor. With Williams serving at 4-2, 30-love, Henin raised her hand, indicating she wasn't ready to return serve. Williams served into the net but then protested to the umpire, requesting two serves. Not noticing Henin's gesture, the umpire refused. Williams double-faulted.

Make no mistake: Henin had cheated. But at this point, the score was still 4-2, 30-15 -- at which point Williams continued to unravel. Henin snatched the match, ending Williams' 33-match winning streak. Two days later, she took the first of her seven Grand Slam titles, including four at Roland Garros. Williams has never since gone past the Roland Garros quarterfinals.

Justine Henin def. Serena Williams, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5

3. 2002 Australian Open: Comeback Kid Adult

Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis had each been prodigies, turning pro at 14 and instantly competing well with the very best. But their careers had taken odd twists.

Injuries and burnout had compelled Capriati to leave the game for much of her late teens and early 20s. Not until age 24 -- beating Hingis in the '01 Australian Open final -- did she at last earn a Grand Slam singles title.

Hingis had rocketed to the top, becoming No. 1 at 16, taking five Grand Slam singles titles by the time she was 18. But in 2002, she was 21. Over the last three years, she'd failed to win a major, a drought highlighted by a meltdown versus Steffi Graf in the finals of the '99 French.

But on his warm Melbourne day, Hingis dashed off to a 6-4, 4-0 lead. At times, she looked as though she was toying with Capriati. As the second set advanced, Hingis held four championship points. Capriati fought brilliantly. On two of those points, Hingis had the chance to attack, but in a pattern that defined the latter half of her career, the supreme tactician backed off, playing not to lose rather than to win. In time, Capriati took the second set into a tiebreaker -- which she won. Though each player was affected by the excessive heat, Capriati was clearly more fit. The third set was a formality, with Capriati routing Hingis 6-2 -- likely the sweetest triumph of Capriati's remarkable up, down and up career.

Neither player would ever again play a Grand Slam singles final.

Jennifer Capriati def. Martina Hingis, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2

4. 2004 Wimbledon: A Star is Born

Eager to become the first woman to win three straight Wimbledon titles since Steffi Graf more than a decade earlier, the 22-year-old Serena Williams walked on to Centre Court with all the confidence that's made her one of the finest competitors in tennis history.

Across the net stood a gangly 17-year-old Russian. A year earlier, Maria Sharapova had been the belle of the ball at Wimbledon, reaching the round of 16 in her debut. Twelve months later, she was in the finals. But did she have the goods to knock off Williams?

Treating Williams' shots with contempt and confidence, Sharapova lit up the court, rocking Williams on her heels with power; placement; and, most of all, the same level of belief in herself that had brought Williams to the top. Sharapova snapped up the first set, 6-1. Down 4-1 in the second, she tore through the next five games to become the third-youngest Wimbledon champion in history -- at which point she whipped out her cell phone and called her mother to announce the news. "I'm absolutely speechless," Sharapova said. "I never, never in my life expected this to happen so fast. And it's always been my dream to come here and to win. But it was never in my mind that I would do it this year."

Said Williams afterward: "When I play people, they normally play their best tennis -- not normally, they always play their best tennis against me and my sister. So today I knew she was going to be playing really well."

Maria Sharapova def. Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4

5. 2001 U.S. Open: The Greatest Story in Sports History

An early pinnacle in a remarkable journey. Take the rough-and-tumble streets of Compton, Calif. Imagine not just one, but two young girls hitting tennis balls. Imagine the idea of their reaching the top of the tennis world. Say what you will about Richard Williams, but his vision and persistence, aided even more by his daughters' work ethic and skill, took them to incredible heights.

Coming into the 2001 U.S. Open, Venus had earned two Grand Slam singles titles, Serena one. But they'd never met in a Grand Slam singles final. In fact, it had been 117 years since there'd been an all-sisters Slam final. (Surely you remember the Watson sisters of 1884.)

But on this Saturday evening, in front of a filled Arthur Ashe Stadium and a prime-time audience watching on CBS, Venus and Serena made their biggest splash to date. No question, the tennis was awkward, with the two siblings fighting off conflicting emotions and the crowd uncertain who to root for. In the end, though, the bigger story was the ascent of these incredible athletes.

Venus Williams def. Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4

Honorable Mention

• 2001 Roland Garros final: Jennifer Capriati def. Kim Clijsters, 1-6, 6-4, 12-10

Smackdown overtime battle

• 2003 U.S. Open semifinal: Justine Henin def. Jennifer Capriati, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6

Great comebacks and rallies from each, won by Henin past midnight

• 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal: Jennifer Capriati def. Serena Williams, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4

Crackling firepower, but most of all, outrageous overrules inspire creation of "Hawk-Eye" replay technology

• 2008 U.S. Open quarterfinal: Serena Williams def. Venus Williams, 7-6, 7-6

Best quality of all their matches

• 2009 Wimbledon semifinal: Serena Williams def. Elena Dementieva, 6-7, 7-5, 8-6

Superb all-court play, Williams fighting off match point

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