1. Nadia Petrova
I never doubted the talent, but I was reluctant to believe she had the mental willpower to recover from that serious 12 odd month injury that could have jeopardised her career. Her quick recovery (Aus Open 3r) surprised me, but moreover was that Roland Garros SF and her drastic rise into the top 15.
2. Paola Suarez
I don't know why but I never have been really inspired nor impressed by Suarez's game
, I always thought she was a one-dimensional player. Well that kind of changed in 2003, after that Montreal SF, US Open QF and Wimbledon fourth round, I realised this top 18 player is more than just your average clay courter.
3. Vera Zvonareva
She started the year ranked in the 40's, and as an inexperienced "clay-court puncher," it was beyond my wildest expectations that she would make sure an impression not only at Roland Garros (where she bt Venus), but at Wimbledon, Indian Wells and Toronto as well.
4. Ashley Harkleroad
Out of all players who were deemed a big future, I had little doubt on Ashley. It sounds foolish to say this but this is the perception I've always had of her, big beauty but little substance. But Jesus, how wrong was I. Her Charleston SF was not only amazing but also heart-warming. The fact that such an inexperienced overhyped American could beat Hantuchova, Bovina and Shaughnessy with the loss of only 11 games combined astounded me.
5. Ai Sugiyama
Started the year in the 20's, now on the verge of the top 10. I didn't think she would breakthrough at such a late age of her career (thought 2000 was her peak year), but her run in Scottsdale/Rome SF obviously proved me wrong.
6. Alicia Molik
Started the year ranked around 96, after a year in 2002 where her form had diminished. I did not expect her to enjoy such an improved/properous year, especially with numerous top 20 scalps, and her three set record this year is amazing as compared to last year.
7. Maria Sharapova
Heard about this namesake and "all the hype" for ages, but to be honest I did not see 2003 being a breakthrough for this 16 year old as yet (she started the year ranked 188). Early losses to Matevzic, Callens, Irvin & Koukalova gave my thinking some crediability, it really wasn't until she brought out her power game (and grunting) at Birmingham, which was carried to a spectacular Wimbledon debut (wins over Dokic, Bovina and Harkleroad). Her more mature player ever since has definately raised my eyebrows.
8. Lina Krasnoroutskaya
She was definately surprised me, like Petrova has. I was inspired by her mentality to recuperate after injury, with a very nice QF showing in the Pan Pacific Open, followed by a very good early indoor stretch. Now she is ranked back inside the top 30, following that stunner over Clijsters :yeah: en route to a Toronto RU, which makes her a threat to the world's best.
9. Maria Vento-Kabchi
Never did I realise this Venezulan had so much talent. Having remembered (I was 10 yrs old at the time), her 1997 Gold Coast final loss to Sugiyama, I did take notice of her but her results have been far from impressive ever since. But not in 2003, she has had a star-stripped year with a SF in Bali (def Martinez), SF in Bank of the West (def Dokic and Petrova), QF in Birmingham and a win over Rubin at the US Open.
10. Karolina Sprem
She had a great run with numerous consecuitve challenger wins but it was beyond my wildest expectations for her to make such promising runs in the main draw of events. In only her second event, she beat Dokic, Matevzic and Zvonareva to make the final of Strasbourg. She did the same in Vienna (her next tournament) and a win at Wimbledon (her first GS) shows that she is not a one-dimensional player.
11. Justine Henin-Hardenne
Henin-Hardenne's mental power was surprised me most this year. After 2002 was a year of "lost" opportunites, 2003 was the opposite. She did gain my respect for that 9-7 cramping win over Davenport in the Aus Open 4r, and her strong record in three set matches (ie - back to back wins over Capriati and Seles in Dubai), followed by 2 grand slam titles and 2 wins over Serena Williams, have taken me and the world by notice.
12. Conchita Martinez
Started the year at 34, after being around the 70's at one point in 2002
I really did believe that Conchita was past her prime and would just keep on falling and falling and follow ASV into retirement
and that seemed correct after her Aussie tournaments. However her inspired play on hardcourts (Indian Wells SF), clay courts (Rome SF and RG QF) and even grass (Eastbourne final) have again disrupted my thinkings.
13. Marion Bartoli
The 17 year old started the year outside the top 100 and that was where I thought she woudl remain around come 2004. I did not hold much promise for this talented teenager who won the US Open juniors, and her results week by week were very surprising. Her Miami QF gave evidence that her unorthodox game also could pay dividends on hardcourt. I have now been a fan of this french girl since these results.
14. Shinobue Asagoe
I have always taken a close eye on this Japanese player, as I believed she had a nice solid game. Though it was never in my mindset, that she would occupy such a beautiful year. A win over Elena Dementieva in Acapulco took me by notice, but it wasn't until her wins over Sharapova & Bovina (Birmingham), Maleeva (US Open), Hantuchova (Wimbledon en route to 4r), that impressed me.
15. Petra Mandula
She has been one of the most quietest improvers this year, she has moved up more than 50 spots in the rankings and yes it has put me on notice. After that infamous double bagelling to Clijsters in Melbourne, who would ahev thought that this 'doubles specialist' were to claim a grand slam scalp over Myskina (en route to RG round 4), as well as solid results which now puts her on the verge of the top 40.
16. Maria Sanchez-Lorenzo
This wonderous girl from Spain started the year in the low 100's and now is ranked inside the top 50, her results have surprised me, maybe I thought she was just another 'baranbanschikova to fall by the wayside,' but her Budapest SF, Madrid RU and Roland Garros/US Open 3r have exploited my perceptions. :clap2:
17. Fabiola Zuluaga
Started the year at 75, now ranked in the low 30's, Zuluaga consistent results on all surfaces have indeed surprised me. I took first notice after she took Hantuchova to a near 3 hour match at the Oz Open, but it wasn't until her excellent series of tournaments during the clay court season, which was further cemented in the hard court season.
18. Stephanie Cohen Aloro
This French woman started the year at 169, now she ranked about 100 spots higher, and yes this is another name I had never heard of before. Her early results over Schett, Pistolesi and Panova did capture my attention, and she has continued with some neat performances in her 'rookie' year.
19. Akiko Morigami
Never heard of this player coming into 2003, so her results have indeed been colourful. Her Wimbledon 3r (wins of Tanasugarn & Sprem) and that close loss to Capriati (4 and 4) was intriguing. Then came last week's SF in a tier 2 in Shanghai with scalps including Martinez, Molik and nearly Rubin.
20. Denisa Chladkova
This player was seeded at Wimbledon after starting the year ranked around the 70's and yes I did not believe this Czech veteran had the capability nor capacity to move back up to her best, but her Aus Open 4r as well as a Warsaw SF was eye-catching.
What are yours?