- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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It was a year of turnover for women's tennis as Stacey Allaster took over the WTA helm from Larry Scott, the No. 1 ranking got passed around like a relay baton and two former stars changed their minds about retirement. Some of the thrills and spills are detailed below.
Player of the Year
This was a murky category in 2008. Not so this year. The younger Williams sister won her 10th and 11th Grand Slam events in Australia and at Wimbledon along with the WTA's season-ending championship, and finished as the year-end No. 1 for only the second time in her career. Williams also gave women's tennis its most dramatically distasteful moment when, on the brink of being eliminated by Kim Clijsters in the U.S. Open semifinal, Williams lost control after a dubious foot-fault call, advanced on the line judge and unleashed a profane tirade. With several highs and one major low, Williams' 2009 season makes it look as if she has no lack of leading-lady turns left in her.
Match of the Year
Kim Clijsters (BEL) def. Serena Williams (USA), 6-4, 7-5, U.S. Open semifinal
Years from now, what other match will anyone remember from 2009? Despite its bizarre ending, with Williams forfeiting match point because of her behavior, this meeting between two worthy adversaries was a triumphant milestone for Clijsters. It confirmed that the Belgian star -- who would go on to win the Open championship -- was back for real, capable of rising to the most meaningful occasions with a stronger, more straightforward game than before.
Most Improved Player
Samantha Stosur (AUS)
Stosur's long fight to come back from illness and injury finally paid off this season as she rose from No. 52 at the end of 2008 to her current career-high perch at No. 13. The French Open semifinalist played capably on all surfaces and won her first-ever WTA singles title late in the year at Osaka. Stosur also played a full schedule in doubles, reaching the Wimbledon final and qualifying for the year-end championships with partner Rennae Stubbs.
Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)
The 19-year-old has played 169 matches in the past two seasons, the heaviest workload of any top player. After some -- including yours truly -- questioned whether she was running out of gas in the second half of 2009, Wozniacki promptly defended her title in New Haven and advanced to her first Grand Slam final in New York. Hopefully there will be no repeats of her odd, ill-advised retirement in Luxembourg, where a hamstring strain prompted her to hand victory to an opponent she was trouncing.
Most Improved American
The pint-sized counterpuncher burst into mass consciousness by defeating Jelena Jankovic en route to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon as a qualifier; then she single-handedly mowed down three top Russians at the U.S. Open, coming from behind in every match, then dealt with difficult questions about her parents' divorce. This will be a critical year for the 18-year-old Georgia native, who also made herself available for Fed Cup duty and is one of the young players U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez hopes to build around.
Young Player to Watch
Sloane Stephens (U.S.)
This 16-year-old's potential is so obvious that she spurred a bidding war among management agencies when she decided to turn pro this fall. She also showed tremendous maturity in her dealings with the media after the death of her father, with whom she had only recently connected, during the U.S. Open. Her transition year should be interesting.
Yes, this may be a relatively obscure late-season match between two players unknown to casual fans, but it's worth recognizing, not for the score, but for the winner. Krumm, 39, married to a German racing driver, had been out of competitive tennis since 1997 before coming back last year, primarily at the urging of her husband. Krumm predictably treaded water in WTA matches for many months before making her run in Seoul, defeating three top-50 players on the way, and ended 2009 ranked No. 71.
One is the loneliest number
Has there ever been a rougher year for former No. 1 players? Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic, linked in mutual misery, actually had very different seasons. Safina lost two more Grand Slam finals to make her 0-for-3, and the loss in Paris to Svetlana Kuznetsova may have hurt more than being routed by Serena Williams in Australia. Yet Safina had decent results elsewhere, winning three events, reaching three other non-Slam finals and advancing to the Wimbledon semis before the wheels came off the wagon late in the season. Ivanovic changed coaches, fought injuries and her own confidence and wasn't able to win back-to-back matches in the second half of the season, becoming so obviously unmoored that she elected to shut down in early October. Jelena Jankovic had a zigzagging year, with disappointing results in Slams, while Maria Sharapova returned to the circuit full-time in May and showed encouraging progress in her efforts to return to vintage form.
Debacle of the year
Israel's Shahar Peer was assured she would get a visa to compete in Dubai if she qualified and wished to play in one of the most lucrative events on the WTA calendar, despite the fact that the country normally does not admit Israeli citizens. But organizers pulled a bait-and-switch on the WTA, waiting until the eve of the event to deny Peer the right to cross the border. Peer's fellow players mounted no formal protest, but international outcry was intense. WTA officials fined the tournament heavily and exacted a pledge that it wouldn't happen again. Although the fallout from the Peer affair probably helped the ATP force Dubai to admit Israeli doubles player Andy Ram the following week, the entire incident exposed flaws in the contention that the sport is about building bridges as well as bank balances.
Victoria Azarenka of Belarus went 23-2 in her first five tournaments, winning titles in Brisbane, Memphis and Miami.
Justine Henin announced she would jump back on the WTA carousel in September, less than four months after declaring no-way in a cameo appearance at the French Open. It seems the seeds for her reversal actually were sown on the red clay, as Henin said Roger Federer's breakthrough victory there -- not Belgian compatriot Clijsters' comeback later in the season -- provided the impetus for her to reconsider her brief retirement.
Three talented women who made headlines for the wrong reasons: Portugal's Michelle Larcher de Brito, whose amplified shrieking at the French Open was a horror movie soundtrack for her opponents; Russia's Vera Zvonareva, whose attempts to rein in her volatility unraveled as she wept with frustration and feverishly unwound the tape on her leg between points during a U.S. Open match; Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer, whose rise has been interrupted by her failure to meet anti-doping paperwork standards. A few New Year's resolutions might be in order here.
"My only regret is that I was not successful in persuading tennis that now was the time for a [WTA-ATP] merger, to go forward and do it.'' -- former WTA chairman and chief executive Larry Scott, who left to become the commissioner of the Pacific-10 Conference last spring.
"If I were able to enter the court, play and shine, of course I could continue, but to achieve this, you need to put in such hard work. And I'm not capable of that. I dreamt of this career, I dreamt of winning a Grand Slam title. I lifted trophies in every city in the world and I lived 10 magical and unbelievable years.'' -- Amelie Mauresmo, at her retirement news conference.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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