A Decade Worth Celebrating

Williamses, Belgians, Russians and more... the first decade of the 21st century had it all.

Published December 24, 2009 07:25

A Decade Worth Celebrating
The field at Tokyo, 2008.

So many great players, so many great matches, so much achieved off court. It would take volumes to chronicle everything that happened on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour between 2000 and 2009, but consider this subjective list of the key personalities, trends and developments (in no particular order) that made the noughties memorable.

Maybe it's because they have been so good for so long, but it is too easy to take the achievements of Venus Williams and Serena Williams for granted. For two sisters to cut it as tennis professionals is impressive enough - Bondarenkos, Radwanskas, take a bow - but for both to make it to No.1 and win Grand Slam titles is among the most amazing feats in sports. Serena now boasts 11 singles majors to her name, while Venus has seven, and after winning three of the four doubles majors during 2009 their joint haul stands at 10. In the process they brought a new kind of explosive power and athleticism to the game, and a fearsome never-say-die attitude. With interests ranging from fashion lines to acting to funding schools in Africa, they are glamorous and multi-faceted… and yet somehow still enigmatic. As opponents, they haven't always brought out the best in each other - and that's understandable - but their names light up any draw. They are stars.

From Olga Morozova to Anna Kournikova, Russian players made a mark in the 20th century - but the real revolution was to come. At the start of 2000 there were four in the Top 100; as 2009 draws to a close there are 15 (and four in the Top 10 alone). The watershed was 2004, when Anastasia Myskina beat Elena Dementieva in the first all-Russian Grand Slam final, at Roland Garros; a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon a month later, and then Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Dementieva for the US Open. In 2005 Sharapova, who has also won the US and Australian Opens, became the first woman from her country to rank No.1, while in 2008 Dementieva led a sweep of the medals at the Beijing Olympics, ahead of Dinara Safina (who duly became the second Russian No.1) and Vera Zvonareva. And did we mention four Fed Cup wins in six years?

In the noughties Belgium gave the world two No.1s, who scooped up nine Grand Slam titles between them (more than the Russians, in fact). Kim Clijsters, hailing from the Flemish-speaking part of the country, proved it was possible to be successful and sunny - yes, nice girls do win - while French-speaking Justine Henin, more reserved and outwardly intense, drew admirers for her iron will and divine single-handed backhand. Both left a void with early retirements, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, but that just makes the story better. Clijsters was back in a major way in 2009, her dazzling run at the US Open making her the first mother to capture a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980. The return in 2010 of Henin, who ruled supreme until she suddenly ran out of steam, is an equally fascinating prospect.

Belgium wasn't the only country that punched above its weight: Serbia also produced two dazzling talents in Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. And from Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan to Zheng Jie of China, the circuit became ever more international. In 2009, the Tour visited 31 countries - attended by around 5 million spectators - with additions such as Morocco, Dubai and Indonesia. Early in the decade the season-ending championships left US shores, heading first to Munich, then Madrid and Doha, with Istanbul to come in 2011; more recently the Tour set up an office in Beijing and made the China Open one of its biggest tournaments. And if, in the past, talk of depth in women's tennis contained an element of wishful thinking, it truly became the case in the noughties: In 2009 the 53 trophies were lifted by 34 different women and the surprises kept coming: Romania's Alexandra Dulgheru hadn't won a Tour match before her title run at the Warsaw Open last May.

Early sponsors of the Tour were trailblazers, risking money and reputation for a new concept, and over the years companies such as Virginia Slims, Kraft, Corel and Sanex have been vital to its evolution. But the biggest corporate commitment to date was forged in 2005, when then-CEO Larry Scott presided over a six-year, $88 million sponsorship deal with Sony Ericsson, the biggest in the history of women's sports. Significant support has also come from Whirlpool and Dubai Duty Free, as well as the many tournament-specific sponsors that keep the Tour on the road. (Indeed, during Scott's tenure overall sponsorship revenues leapt 500 percent.) In 2009, the players battled for a total prize pool 34 percent larger than the previous year - not bad considering the global economic environment - and Serena set a new single-season prize-money record of $6,545,586. None of this would be possible without sponsors.

Sports need stars to keep fans and media engaged, and during the noughties the opportunities for tennis players boomed. In 2006 a new television contract with Eurosport brought unprecedented levels of coverage. The Tour's highly-stylized 'Looking For a Hero?' campaign, launched in 2008, was the biggest ever marketing push. And as individuals, players capitalized on their on-court exploits with endorsements and activities that extended way beyond the courts and pushed preconceptions about female athletes. Maria Sharapova hooked up with Tiffany & Co., Daniela Hantuchova posed for Italian Vogue, Jankovic flashed her pearly whites for Wrigley's. The world of professional tennis was even given the Hollywood treatment in the form of feature film Wimbledon, with Tour legend Chris Evert making a cameo as herself as a TV commentator.

It's not practical to list a decade's worth of notable retirees, but the singles Grand Slam winners who drew a veil over their careers during the last 10 years included Aranxta Sánchez-Vicario, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, Iva Majoli, Conchita Martínez, doubles specialist Paola Suárez and Martina Navratilova - who finally ended her age-defying doubles encore in 2006. More recently, Amélie Mauresmo, who played with rare panache and became a fabulous icon off court as well, bid the Tour adieu. Special mention is also due to the ever-smiling Ai Sugiyama, who contested an incredible 62 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments - a record among both women and men - before calling it quits this year. When 33-year-old Sugiyama was given an on-court send-off by her peers in front of her home crowd at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Comebacks capture the imagination like little else and happily, several retirements proved false alarms. Like Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport struck a blow for working moms: after missing 11 months while having her first child, she added four titles to her haul after returning late in the 2007 season. Having undergone ankle surgery in 2002, Martina Hingis made a full-scale comeback in 2006, applying her much-missed craftiness to win at Tokyo, Rome and Kolkata and graft her way back to No.6. On the eve of her 39th birthday Kimiko Date Krumm, who initially retired in 1996, lifted the trophy at Seoul in 2009, becoming the oldest player to win a Tour title since Billie Jean King in 1983. But the award for mother of all comebacks should probably go to Jennifer Capriati, who found a way back from rock bottom to win three Grand Slam titles and reach the No.1 ranking in 2001-02.

Chief protagonist in the creation of the women's Tour, King is obviously a tennis treasure. But the sport has been just one aspect of her quest for equality, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. In 2009 the Tour again bathed in King's glory when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, but what really matters is the way she continues to inspire the current generation of players to engage in the world. The Tour's partnership with UNESCO is a key example: Venus Williams, Zheng, Zvonareva and Tatiana Golovin have become ambassadors for gender equality, as has King herself. Ivanovic and Jankovic are involved with UNICEF, Nadia Petrova and Agnieszka Radwanska promote official Tour charity Habitat for Humanity while the spirit of good works extends to private initiatives such as Liezel Huber's efforts to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina. 

The Roadmap reforms were designed to give fans a more cohesive, reliable Tour to follow while also improving conditions for players. So far, so good, reports new Tour CEO Stacy Allaster: Top player commitment reached 90 percent in 2009, the highest it's ever been and up from 78 percent in 2008. Player withdrawals were down by more than a third, while fan attendance at the top four Premier events was up 11 percent. With prize money parity having finally been achieved at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2007, one product of the Roadmap is that men and women now play for equal pay at the 10 biggest events on the calendar. All this serves as a great platform for the next generation: 13 players won their first Tour title in 2009, several of them as teenagers. Indeed, the qualification of Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka for Doha hinted at a changing of the guard. If the Roadmap works, they may still be making headlines 10 years from now.

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