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The Season That Was
Season 2006 started with a super-hyped comeback and ended with a tense, three-way battle for the No.1 ranking. In between those two events, we witnessed a Grand Slam destiny finally fulfilled (twice), the return of two former No.1s to the very top of the game, a megastar's re-entry into the major winners' circle and the ongoing rise of a future tennis superpower.
With so many headline-grabbers last season, it's difficult to decide who to begin with. For pure interest - from fans, the media and players alike - the comeback of one of the game's all-time greats was arguably the story of 2006. In November 2005, Martina Hingis
announced she would end a three-year layoff due to foot and ankle injuries; not wasting any time at all, she was competing in the Australian Open quarterfinals just two months later, the start of a wonderful year indeed.
From there on, the second coming of the second Martina went from strength to strength. Hingis scored victories over Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova during the season; two singles titles (Rome, Kolkata) brought the Swiss Miss's career tally up to 42, helped her reach No.7 by year's end and qualify for the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid.
While Hingis's return was truly one of the greatest ever in professional tennis, it wasn't the only return to glory in 2006. Belgian stars Justine Henin-Hardenne
and Kim Clijsters
had completed successful rehabilitations from illness and injury in 2005 by winning Grand Slam titles (in Clijsters's case the first of her career), but 2006 saw them both reclaim the No.1 ranking they had both previously held.
These achievements were book-ends on the season. Clijsters, who missed much of 2004 with a left wrist injury, took the top spot at the end of January, becoming the first pro tennis player in history to rise from outside the Top 100 to No.1 in the space of a year. Had another wrist ailment not afflicted her in August, she would undoubtedly have been ranked higher than her eventual year-end No.6.
Belgian fans nonetheless had other reasons to celebrate late in the year with the ascent of Henin-Hardenne to No.1 in the final week of the season. It was a fitting end to 2006 for Henin-Hardenne, who became the first player since Hingis nine years' earlier to reach all four Grand Slam singles finals. Collecting her third Roland Garros crown and adding to the joy by winning the Sony Ericsson Championships (the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1993 to reach the five big finals in one year), Henin-Hardenne's 2004 struggles with the energy-sapping cytomegalovirus are a distant memory.
Henin-Hardenne won the first-ever three-way battle for the year-end No.1 ranking. Heading into the Sony Ericsson Championships, Henin-Hardenne was No.3 behind Amélie Mauresmo
and Maria Sharapova
, but as she didn't compete in the season-ending event in 2005 she had the most points to gain; her title run in Madrid opened up a 466-point lead over the rest of the pack.
Although she didn't end the year on top, Mauresmo will no doubt regard 2006 as her best season yet. A long seven years since reaching her first Grand Slam singles final, the Frenchwoman returned the scene of her big breakthrough; in Melbourne Park's Rod Laver Arena, Mauresmo finally shed the Greatest Player Never To Have Won A Major tag. Although her celebrations were somewhat muted due to the retirement of Henin-Hardenne in the final (stomach illness), Mauresmo had a second moment in the sun in July, again facing the Belgian in the championship match and again walking away with the trophy.
Those graceful one-handed backhands traded blows once again to close out the year as Madrid made an overwhelmingly successful debut as host of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's season-ending extravaganza. This time, however, it was Henin-Hardenne who emerged victorious, claiming her first Championships crown and a Tour-best sixth title of 2006.
Sharapova's 2006 hardcourt prowess was almost enough for the Russian teen to finish No.1. Five titles, won outdoors at Indian Wells, San Diego and New York (ending a five-match losing streak in Grand Slam semifinals) and indoors in Zürich and Linz had the megastar in contention in Madrid, but a semifinal loss to Henin-Hardenne ended her chances.
Nevertheless, Sharapova's US Open title, in which she defeated both Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne, capped another wonderful year for Russian tennis. At one point there were five Russian women ranked in the Top 10 (only the second time this has happened), and eight of the 10 Tier Is were won by them. Miami champion Svetlana Kuznetsova
, two-time winner Elena Dementieva
and clay queen Nadia Petrova
all spent time in the Top 5 alongside Sharapova in 2006.
While the Russians have ruled women's tennis for a few years now, they may well be jostling for the major prizes with the Chinese very soon. In fact, China's trailblazing women made some Grand Slam breakthroughs of their own in 2006. Yan Zi and Zheng Jie
became their country's first ever Grand Slam champions, sweeping to victory at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Yan and Zheng collected an impressive six doubles titles in 2006, second only to the massive 10-title haul of Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur
. The American/Australian duo triumphed at Roland Garros (completing a career doubles Grand Slam for Raymond) and at the Sony Ericsson Championships for a second straight year, finishing as the undisputed Team of the Year.
In addition to Yan and Zheng's Wimbledon success, it was also on The All-England Club's grass courts that Li Na
became China's first major singles quarterfinalist, defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova en route. Shortly after that highlight, Li recorded another one, breaking into the Top 20, the first woman from her country to do so.
On the subject of ranking milestones, the Top 10 welcomed two new members in 2006. Seventeen-year-old Czech Nicole Vaidisova
was the first debutante, breaking into the elite group in August, in part due to her phenomenal run to the Roland Garros semifinals. Russian Dinara Safina
wasn't far behind, reaching No.10 in October after quarterfinal finishes in Paris and New York.
US Open semifinalist Jelena Jankovic, Moscow champion Anna Chakvetadze
, Montréal winner Ana Ivanovic
or three-time Tour titlists Marion Bartoli
and Shahar Peer
could well be the next players to feature in this group.
While it was a banner year for European and Asian players, the same unfortunately could not be said for a traditional powerhouse, the United States. The descent of Lindsay Davenport
(who started 2006 ranked No.1) from No.10 to No.11 on August 21 meant for the first time in computer rankings history there was no American woman in the world's Top 10. A nagging back injury severely hampered the veteran's 2006 campaign and for only the second time since 1993, Davenport didn't win a singles title. Nonetheless, 17-year-old Vania King
gave American fans a glimmer of hope by winning her first Tour title in Bangkok and arriving in the Top 50 late in the season. King will be joined by fellow up-and-comers Michaella Krajicek, Olga Poutchkova, Alona Bondarenko, Aravane Rezai and Agnieszka Radwanska in the quest for breakthrough results in 2007.