Sharapova wins, wails, whines in year in review
Maria Sharapova did it all in 2006: she won, she whined, she was pretty. But she was not ESPN.com's Player of the Year. Bonnie DeSimone recaps the season.
Player of the Year: Amelie Mauresmo gets the nod in a call so close and admittedly subjective that even Hawk-Eye's electronic wizardry might not help. Yes, Justine Henin-Hardenne went to all four Grand Slam finals, won the eight-player year-end championship and finished the year ranked No. 1, and we understand why many pundits put her first. But her accomplishments can't be listed without asterisks for her controversial late-match withdrawals in the Australian Open and Fed Cup finals. Henin-Hardenne had four Slams under her belt coming into this year, whereas Mauresmo was fighting a nearly decadelong rap as a player who lacked the nerve to win them. When her breakthrough championship in Australia was clouded by Henin-Hardenne's premature exit, Mauresmo handled it gracefully and went on to win the Wimbledon final against the same player. She occupied the No. 1 slot for 34 weeks, from March to the first week of November. That's our story and we're sticking to it.
Match of the year: The backstory between Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne gave the Wimbledon final a sustained hold-your-breath quality. Mauresmo lost the first set in 31 minutes but reversed some history by collecting herself and going on to win the next two sets handily. Her victory was the first by a French woman in the grass court classic in 81 years, and a crucial line on Mauresmo's résumé.
Comeback player of the year: Even Martina Hingis' most ardent fans might not have predicted how surely and methodically she made her way back up to the top 10 after three years of tennis inactivity. Does it say more about her or the competition? That's debatable, but no one can dispute that her brand of shot-making is still an effective tool. Hingis scrambled up the rankings week by week, won two tournaments, stayed healthy, went 53-19 and finished at a season-high No. 7. It will be interesting to see if she can improve on this year's 5-12 record against top-10 players.
Player to watch in 2007: The vivacious, assertive 21-year-old Jelena Jankovic of Serbia bogged down early in the season, going winless in nine straight tournaments. She reversed direction and came into her own during summer hard-court play. Jankovic finished 2006 at a career-high No. 12 and beat three top-10 players this year. But she had trouble closing out a number of important winnable matches, and her abrupt mental meltdown in the U.S. Open semifinals against Henin-Hardenne -- along with some postmatch sour grapes comments -- shows she has some maturing to do.
Most intriguing newcomer: Vania King of Long Beach, Calif., who turned pro in July at age 17, won her first tournament in October and finished the season ranked No. 60.
Sophomore slump: India's Sania Mirza, hailed as an It Girl for her play and status as a cultural pioneer during her first full season on the WTA Tour in 2005, battled wrist pain, logged a losing record and sagged from a career-high No. 31 late in 2005 to her current ranking of 65th.
Biggest upset, individual: Russia's Nadia Petrova steamed into the French Open having won three straight clay-court tournaments but was upended in the first round by 69th-ranked Akiko Morigami of Japan.
Biggest upset, team: It's a Fed Cup tie! (Get it?) Zina Garrison's hodgepodge U.S. team shouldn't have had a shot against Germany in the first round. Italy stared down Belgium in the final, and we all know who blinked.
Here-to-stay award: Nadia Petrova followed up her first top-10 finish in 2005 by winning five events (three last spring on clay, as mentioned above). She then suffered through that embarrassing first-round ouster at Roland Garros, injuries and midseason doldrums. But she recovered for a win in Stuttgart in September and appeared in two other finals.
Determined-to-go award: Kim Clijsters, 24, stuck to her guns, saying 2007 will be her last on the tour because of her other priorities, which include starting a family with fiancé and former Villanova basketball player Brian Lynch, getting more education and perhaps working with children.
Most provocative public scolding: Chris Evert penned a letter in Tennis Magazine that called out Serena Williams for recent subpar results that were "hard to fathom."
"I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis," Evert wrote. "I don't see how acting and designing clothes can compare with the pride of being the best tennis player in the world."
Unfortunate irony: It seemed as if the Williams sisters spent almost as much time in a courtroom as they did on the tennis court this year, testifying in a breach-of-contract case brought against them and father Richard Williams in West Palm Beach, Fla., by the would-be promoters of an exhibition event.
Best sporting gesture: Vera Zvonavera reacted quickly and compassionately when Mary Pierce tore up her knee during their match in Linz, Austria in October. Zvonareva rushed over with a bag of ice -- arriving before the trainer -- and stayed on the fringes of the group attending to Pierce until the veteran was carried off on a stretcher. Pierce faces a long rehab of the potentially career-ending injury.
Worst sporting gesture: Maria Sharapova literally turned her back on former Bollettieri Academy classmate Tatiana Golovin as the Russian-born French player writhed in pain on her end of the court after injuring her ankle late in their match in Miami. Golovin had come back from a set down to win a tiebreaker and was making the third set a barn burner until she hurt herself. No one expects a player fighting for her competitive life to be Mother Teresa, but Sharapova's willful obliviousness, bouncing a ball and jogging beyond the baseline with nary a glance toward or inquiry about the condition of her opponent seems the height of cold, not cool.
Best commercial campaign: With apologies to Leonard Bernstein, Natalie Wood and all "West Side Story" purists, "I Feel Pretty" got a whole new twist with Sharapova's Nike-choreographed urban runway walk. Now if only the U.S. Open champion, who won her first Grand Slam event in two-plus years, could turn her soprano shrieks into something more melodic.
Unsung heroines: The world No. 1 doubles team of Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur won the year-end championships for the second year in a row. Special kudos to Stosur, the Aussie who also finished ranked 29th in singles and is one of an increasingly rare breed who try to excel at both.
Biggest ongoing challenge: The WTA responded to 11th-hour player withdrawals from tournaments by altering the calendar and playing requirements. One of the less-heralded parts of the WTA's treatment plan is important to the players: making the surface and ball consistent during the fall indoor season.
Most controversial innovation: The tour's TV-driven experiment with on-court coaching and delayed audio of the exchanges was criticized by some as sheer gimmickry and accepted by others as part of a campaign to make the game more viewer-friendly. Even players who said they welcome it -- or at least don't object -- say they doubt it will change the outcome of matches.
Shot of the year: An otherwise unremarkable forehand struck by Jamea Jackson against Ashley Harkleroad in their first-round match in Miami proved historic. Jackson challenged the "out" call and became the first player ever to use instant replay in a WTA Tour event.
Fashion bashin': Bethanie Mattek's angel-winged toga and lace getup at the U.S. Open would have been great in "Stars on Ice." But we're pretty sure Mattek enjoys the attention she attracts with her consistently outlandish outfits. Her choice of knee-high tube socks at Wimbledon inspired one of the headlines of the year, in England's Daily Telegraph: "Socks and the Singles Girl on Centre Court."
Testiest exchange with reporters: This was Sharapova's post-U.S. Open championship press conference, which she initiated with a schoolmarmish: "Let's make this a positive session tonight -- please, por favor." Things deteriorated from there. Sharapova tried to shut down talk of her posse's obvious signaling from the stands -- "I just won a Grand Slam. The last thing I'm going to talk about is some fingers or a banana, all right?" -- but spent much of the session verbally chopping fruit salad. WTA officials are considering scrapping the prohibition on remote coaching. If that would spare us similar unpleasantness, all we can say is, muchas gracias.
Absent without formal leave: Monica Seles hasn't played for two full seasons but also has made no statement about her intentions.
Absent, continuing medical leave: Jennifer Capriati has been sidelined for almost two years with a shoulder injury but is unwilling to give up on a second comeback.
Absent, maternity leave: Three-time Grand Slam winner and former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, expecting her first child next spring, said she "has no plans" to resume her tennis career.
Off the radar: Four years removed from breaking into the top 20, Alexandra Stevenson, ranked 398th, lost all four of her matches in the main draw of WTA-level events.
Russians up front: Five Russian players were ranked in the top 10 simultaneously at one juncture this season, and they won eight of the 10 Tier I events on the WTA Tour.
Most dubious milestone: For the first time since a women's year-end championship was established in 1972, no U.S. player qualified for the draw.
Jaw-dropper of the year: Former teen sensation and world No. 2 Andrea Jaeger entered a convent to begin her apprenticeship as a Dominican nun in the Episcopal Church. Jaeger, long lauded for her charitable work for children, admitted in several interviews that she tanked important matches because she was conflicted about winning and hurting her opponents.
She's come a long way, baby: Martina Navratilova, fresh off the court after winning the U.S. Open mixed doubles title in her final match at age 49, reminisced about her first singles victory more than 30 years ago. "After I won the match, I was so happy and there was nobody to hug because I didn't know anybody," she said. "So I hugged a pole, a light pole next to the umpire's chair. There was a picture in the paper the next day. I won $10,000 and had to give it back to the Czech federation. Yeah, so I was playing on $17 a day per diem. Those were the days."
Parting words: "Whatever your limitations might be, don't let them define you. I didn't let it define me." -- Navratilova, at the same press conference.
Bonnie DeSimone is frequent contributor to ESPN.com.