A down year for women's racquets

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just when everyone thought the women's game was more exciting than the men's...2004 rolled around. Unless you're from Russia, it was an off year for the ladies.

The season opened with yet another marquee all-Belgian Grand Slam final, as Justine Henin-Hardenne handled Kim Clijsters (of course) at the Australian Open, giving the ultra-competitive J H-H a third major victory in four tries, with all the wins coming at the expense of the amicable Kimmy.

But '04 seemed to go downhill for the women after that, as Clijsters wound up losing just about the entire season because of wrist problems; Henin-Hardenne played sparingly due to a tough battle with an energy-sapping viral illness; and the once-mighty Williams sisters hardly played any tennis, as Serena eased her way back onto the tour following '03 knee surgery and Venus went without a Grand Slam title for a third straight year, after dominating the tour at the beginning of the decade.

Elena Dementieva
Russian Elena Dementieva was the only woman to reach two Grand Slam finals this year.

Things were so bad on the ladies' side this year that Amelie Mauresmo is currently ranked No. 1, despite failing to reach a major final for a fifth straight year. Her lone Slam final appearance came at the 1999 Aussie Open.

Mauresmo gets my vote for the worst-ever No. 1. I'm not saying she doesn't have the game, she just doesn't have the results to warrant that spot. As a matter of fact, the athletic French star only reached one major semi this year and didn't get past the quarters at the other three Slams. Does that sound like a No. 1?

Oddly enough, the best player this season has been Lindsay Davenport, who's considering retirement at the end of the year. She went on a torrid run by winning four straight tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open, where she lost to tough Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semis, partly because she was slowed by a hip injury suffered just before the match. The 28-year-old Californian leads the WTA with six titles this season.

The Russian women went hog wild this year, winning the last three majors and accounting for five of the last six finalist spots in the Slams. Anastasia Myskina beat Elena Dementieva in the historic all-Russian French Open final; teen sensation Maria Sharapova shocked Serena in the Wimbledon title match; and Kuznetsova upset Dementieva in the historic U.S. Open finale last month.

The serve-challenged Dementieva was the only woman to reach two Grand Slam finals this year.

As we speak, Henin-Hardenne pulled out of this week's Porsche event in Filderstadt, Clijsters is done for the year after suffering another wrist injury, Serena and Venus play less than I do (well, Serena does anyway), and tour officials would just like to forget about this season from a marquee standpoint and get on to 2005.

Sharapova appears to be the next big thing in the women's game, as evidenced by her popular win at Wimby and her burning desire to be No. 1. She recently lost to Kuznetsova in a semifinal showdown in Beijing, but followed that up with a title run in Seoul.

Russians currently hold down four of the top 10, five of the top 11, six of the top 13, and seven of the top 17 spots in the WTA Rankings, so, needless to say, Russia is doing just fine in the world of women's professional tennis right now.

The diminutive Henin-Hardenne entered the year at No. 1, but has since dropped to No. 3 as the result of inactivity. She still captured two events in the year's "Golden Slam," as she added Olympic gold to her trophy case in August to go along with the Aussie Open crown from January. Outside of J H-H in Melbourne, however, it was all Russia at the Slams.

The former world No. 1 Clijsters is currently seventh and won't gain any ground any time soon as she figures out what's going on with her troubled left wrist. She wound up playing in a mere six events this year, but was still a brilliant 18-2 when she actually took to the court.

Henin-Hardenne has been limited to nine tourneys thus far, but she's won five, proving that she's still at or near the top.

The currently world No. 9 Serena has competed in a mere 10 events in '04 and has only won two, including her promising title run in Beijing last month. She failed to win a Grand Slam for the first time in three years this season, so is her best tennis behind her? I doubt it. She is, after all, a fine 36-6 in '04.

As for Venus, I believe her best tennis is behind her. She hasn't won a major since 2001 and failed to even reach a Slam final this year, one in which she's competed in a whopping (for her) 15 events thus far, including some Fed Cup activity.

What about Jennifer Capriati, you say? Nary a Grand Slam final since the '02 Aussie Open, and just when you think she's a threat to hoist another major trophy, in comes the choke, much like the one against Dementieva in the U.S. Open semis last month and the unforgettable one versus J H-H in last year's Open semis.

It looks like the talented Russians are here to stay for a while, but if the other top women can get back to being healthy for 2005, I don't expect the Russians to corner three quarters of the major hardware next year.

FYI, the current women's top 10 features the top-ranked Mauresmo and five former world No. 1s. Throw in Venus at No. 12 and you have seven current or former No. 1s among the top-12 players, so things aren't exactly that bad on the ladies' circuit.

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Scott Riley
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