Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2006 WTA Tour season was dominated by Justine Henin-Hardenne and Amelie Mauresmo, with honorable mention going out to U.S. Open champion Maria Sharapova.
Henin-Hardenne finished as a year-end No. 1 for the second time in her strong career thanks in part to her performance at the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships, where, for the first time ever, three women were vying for the year-end top spot. The diminutive Belgian collected the $1 million top prize by going 4-1 in Madrid, including her title match victory over the previous world No. 1 Mauresmo. Henin-Hardenne exacted a bit of revenge against Mauresmo, who topped JH-H in the finals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. But let's not forget that Henin-Hardenne left a sour taste in quite a few mouths at the Aussie Open, where she retired during the second set of her setback against Mauresmo, who was not given a chance to ultimately seal the deal with a match point thanks to Henin-Hardenne's decision to quit with stomach pains.
Stomach pains aside, JH-H had a tremendous season, as she reached all four Grand Slam finals and captured the lucrative season-ending Championships. In the semifinals in Madrid, Henin-Hardenne needed to beat Sharapova, who would have finished the year at No. 1 had she beaten the Belgian in the semis and then topped Mauresmo in the final.
Henin-Hardenne was the first woman to reach all four Grand Slam finals since 1997.
JH-H became the first player to appear in all four major finals in one year since Martina Hingis turned the trick nine years ago
The 24-year-old Henin-Hardenne won the French Open (by beating steady Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the finale), lost to Mauresmo in the Aussie Open and Wimbledon finals and gave way to the big-hitting Sharapova in the U.S. Open title bout. The Belgian star is a five-time Grand Slam champ and an Olympic gold medalist, with only Wimbledon eluding her in a quest for the coveted career "Golden Slam."
JH-H led the tour with six titles in '06 and exceeded $4.2 million in prize money. Her record for the year was an awesome 60-8.
Henin-Hardenne's been a mainstay in the women's top 10 six years running, placing inside the top five on three occasions, and is certainly my pick as the best player on the female circuit.
Mauresmo finally broke through with her first-ever major title this year, which came when she topped Henin-Hardenne in Melbourne. She then became a two- time Grand Slam queen when she bested the Belgian, again, at Wimbledon. Mauresmo entered 2006 as the best player without a Grand Slam title and exited the year as a probable Hall-of-Famer.
The sweet-swinging Mauresmo captured half of the '06 majors.
The 27-year-old Mauresmo, who posted a 51-14 record in '06, sat atop the WTA rankings for a majority of the year and wound up with four titles in her best- ever season on the circuit. The classy French star has finished inside the top five four straight years and has been a member of the top 10 seven of the last eight years.
Sharapova, like Mauresmo, also became a two-time Grand Slam champion this year when she upended Henin-Hardenne in the U.S. Open finale. The Russian teen secured her first major title at Wimbledon two years ago and has been sports' top glamour girl ever since.
The 19-year-old former world No. 1 Sharapova tied for second on the tour this year with five titles (her fellow Russian Nadia Petrova also recorded five championships).
Sharapova was a formidable 59-9 for the year and currently stands at No. 2 in the world, followed closely by Mauresmo in the official rankings. The tall Russian has placed inside the top five the last three years.
The Siberian native Sharapova wasn't the only Russian stalwart this past season, as she was joined by Kuznetsova and Petrova.
The busy Kuznetsova is currently fourth in the world, thanks to a three- title, 60-match-win season (60-20). Her biggest victory came in Miami, where she upset her countrywoman Sharapova in the final of the so-called "Fifth Slam," the NASDAQ-100 Open. The 2004 U.S. Open champ and '06 Roland Garros runner-up Kuznetsova reached at least the semifinals in 13 of her events this year. Talk about consistency.
Meanwhile, Petrova, who didn't title on the tour until late last season, busted through this year with a whopping five crowns and finished a career- high sixth in the rankings.
Sharapova added U.S. Open hardware to her 2004 Wimbledon championship
The other great Belgian star, former No. 1 Kim Clijsters, failed to reach a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002, perhaps due in part to yet some more problems with an ailing left wrist. The 2005 U.S. Open champ was unable to defend her title in Flushing due to the injury and has already said that 2007 will mark her final season on the tour.
The world No. 5 Clijsters won a trio of titles in '06, finished the year with a 43-12 mark and is still clearly one of the top-four players in the game.
How'd the Americans do this year, you ask?
The once-powerful U.S. produced only three titles all year long, and they came from the likes of Meghann Shaughnessy and Vania King. Yes, Meghann Shaughnessy and Vania King. Shaughnessy titled twice, with her first title of the year giving the U.S. its first champion of the season in May, which means there were no Americans champs from January through April.
The Americans failed to produce a Grand Slam finalist and didn't send a player to the season-ending Championships for the first time in the 35-year history of the exclusive tournament. They failed to get a player past the quarterfinals at any of the majors, and didn't even have a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon where their best showing came from Shenay Perry, who bowed out in the fourth round at the All-England (and apparently no American women) Club.
So what happened to former No. 1 Americans like Lindsay Davenport and the oft-injured superstar Williams sisters?
Well, Davenport battled a back injury for a large chunk of the season and wound up playing in only eight events. She managed to reach the quarters at the Aussie and U.S. Opens, but was unable to title anywhere and is now ranked 25th in the world. There have been rumors that the three-time Grand Slam champ may retire from the circuit.
What about Venus and Serena? The 2005 Wimbledon champion Venus was limited to a mere six events this year, while the '05 Aussie Open winner Serena competed even less, showing up at only four tourneys, mostly because of ailments. Combined, the former world No. 1 siblings went titleless and also plummeted in the rankings. Venus, who did manage to reach the quarters at the French Open, is currently 48th on the planet, while Serena is way down there at No. 95.
It wasn't long ago that the David Bowie tune "I'm Afraid of Americans" would have applied on the women's tour. But how 'bout now? Is anyone afraid of Meghann Shaughnessy, Vania King or Shenay Perry? You know the answer.
On a more pleasant note, another former No. 1 returned to the tour this year and, quite frankly, thrived.
The "Swiss Miss," the aforementioned Hingis, returned from a three-year hiatus and promptly went 53-19 with a pair of titles. Her biggest win came at the Italian Masters, where she beat no less than a quintet of top-20 players, including one of her biggest rivals, Venus, in the semis.
The 26-year-old former top-ranked Hingis wound up reaching four finals and ultimately qualified for the prestigious season-ending Championships. She crossed the finish line at No. 7 in the world. Impressive.
I wonder who's going to be named as the Comeback Player of the Year???
And if you want to talk about team tennis (and who doesn't?), Italy secured its first-ever Fed Cup championship when a doubles tandem of Francesca Schiavone and Roberta Vinci prevailed against a Belgian duo of Henin-Hardenne and Kirsten Flipkens when JH-H retired in the third set of the fifth and deciding rubber because of a knee injury. What a way to win, or to lose for that matter. And yes, if you're scoring at home, the great Henin-Hardenne retired from a Grand Slam final and the Fed Cup final in an eight-month span.
Where's the gut check?
Don't worry tennis fans, the ladies will return to the courts soon enough, with the drama resuming on New Year's Day for the start of the 2007 campaign.
See ya next year.