Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova: Two reasons why women's tennis is in great hands
'The nagging shoulder injury that hampered Sharapova's play all season seems to have healed and with that, the notorious fighting spirit of the Russian starlet has returned'
The queens of the WTA Tour were superb in Madrid, whilst other highlights of 2007 included the emergence of Serbia's Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic plus little Israel joining the Fed Cup world elite.
If there was ever a question as to which players currently possess the most mental toughness on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova erased all doubt last weekend in Madrid.
Sharapova, who began the 2007 season as the world No.1, and Henin, who ended the year as the world’s top player, engaged in a battle for the ages to see which of the two superstars would claim supremacy at the prestigious season-ending championships.
In the end, it was Henin who came out on top in arguably the match of the year on the women’s side, an affair that lasted more than three hours. With the victory, the 25-year old Belgian caps one of the most impressive seasons in the history of the sport. Despite her petite 5ft 5in stature, Henin proved to be a giant of the game, capturing a Tour-leading 10 titles including two Grand Slam crowns, losing a mere four matches along the way and breaking the record for the most prize money in a single season with an astounding $5million won.
After a disappointing year that saw her off-court ventures prove more fruitful than her on-court triumphs, Sharapova silenced her critics in Madrid, proving that she still has what it takes to be at the upper echelon of the game. The nagging shoulder injury that hampered her play all season seems to have healed and with that, the notorious fighting spirit of the Russian starlet has returned.
Sharapova is probably the only player on Tour who could compete in a battle of wills with the seemingly flawless Henin. And that she did, coming within a few games of flexing the final fist pump and dethroning the queen of women’s tennis. If she can stay healthy and return to the form that won her two Grand Slams, 2008 could prove to be the much-anticipated breakthrough season for Sharapova.
Although she comes with a lot of baggage, what with her constant shrieking, robotic between points routine and diva-like attitude, there is something endearing about the competitive desire of the blonde bombshell. She plays to win and if she is committed to doing so come January, her fans are in for quite a treat and her opponents might be well-advised to master the art of ball retrieval.
In a year that has been marred by drug-use allegations and the ever-present tournament withdrawal syndrome, the Henin-Sharapova showdown is sure to breathe new life into a sport searching for an identity.
While it has become the norm to criticise the Tour for implementing such questionable innovations as on-court coaching and the players for their apparent lack of commitment to their craft, more than a few feelgood stories have arisen from the 2007 season. The emergence of Serbian stars Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic is more than just a pleasant coincidence. Both are supremely talented, charismatic, attractive, personable and more than ready for the attention their success induced.
The return of Lindsay Davenport to professional tennis couldn’t have come at a better time and after winning two of the first three tournaments in her comeback, who knows what’s in store for tennis’s newest mom in 2008.
While it was no surprise that perennial powerhouses Russia took home top honours in Fed Cup by BNP Paribas play this year, perhaps the most inspiring story was Israel cracking the prestigious World Group. Led by upstart Shahar Peer, the Israelis defeated Canada and Austria en route to becoming part of the elite eight.
It is remarkable that a country still affected by political and religious controversy has been able to produce world-class tennis players who have been embraced by fans, showing that sport may have the capacity to affect social change.
It may be that some fans are becoming increasingly discouraged by the state of women’s tennis. But with the arrival of a new generation of stars combined with the revival of some of the game’s best, there is reason to be optimistic and anxious for the start of the new year on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.