Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The great Roger Federer and Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal basically dominated men's tennis in 2005, while some big wins also came for talented Russian Marat Safin, gritty Argentine David Nalbandian and a couple of Croats.
Safin got the exciting season off with a bang by capturing the Aussie Open, which he did by beating heavy crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the final at Rod Laver Arena. But his eye-popping win in Melbourne came when he stunned the mighty Federer in an incredible five-set semifinal, including a 9-7 fifth. The Fed was the reigning Aussie champ at the time and in the midst of a 26-match winning streak, which dated back to last year's U.S. Open.
Unfortunately for the two-time Grand Slam champion Safin, the oft-injured star was basically a non-factor following his Aussie success, as he battled knee problems and appeared in only one other final the rest of the year, losing to Federer on grass in Halle.
At the French Open, the 19-year-old Nadal, playing the best clay-court tennis of anyone in the world at the time, prevailed in Paris, with his key victory coming over Federer in the semis. Federer's loss to Nadal guaranteed that the Swiss would not duplicate his three-major-title season from 2004. Nadal went on to defeat Argentine and fellow lefthander Mariano Puerta in the Roland Garros finale to secure his first-ever piece of Grand Slam hardware.
The world No. 2 Nadal, who entered 2005 ranked 51st, was a brilliant 79-10 this season, including an ATP-co-leading 11 titles (along with Federer). The powerful southpaw from Mallorca was a sizzling 50-2 on clay, notching eight of his titles on the slowest of surfaces.
Clad in those clam diggers, Nadal also tied Federer this year by piling up four Masters Series shields, three of which came on his beloved clay, and split a pair of matches with Federer in '05, improving his career record against the sublime Swiss to 2-1. Federer overcame a two-sets-to-none deficit before charging back to top the raging bull in five sets in the final at the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami, the so-called "fifth slam."
The French Open champion Nadal was second only to Federer in ATP success in 2005.
In one of several memorable matches this year, the electric Nadal outlasted Argentine speedster Guillermo Coria in a 5-hour, 14-minute epic five-setter at the Italian Masters in Rome.
Nadal and Federer combined to win three of the four majors and eight of the nine Masters Series events this season.
The six-time Grand Slam titlist Federer finally picked up the major pace at his favorite event, Wimbledon. He corralled the coveted championship in overwhelming fashion for a third straight year and is currently riding a 21- match winning streak at the famed All England Club, including back-to-back victories over American Andy Roddick in the last two finals at SW19.
The two-time year-end No. 1 Federer also repeated at the U.S. Open, where he ended a Cinderella run by legendary American Andre Agassi with a four-set victory in a dream finale.
The 24-year-old Federer was an astounding 81-4, with his 11 titles, in 2005 and pocketed over $6 million just in prize money. He was going for a third straight Tennis Masters Cup championship last month when he got derailed by his nemesis Nalbandian, who shocked the supreme Swiss in five sets in the final in Shanghai after Federer ran out to a two-sets-to-none lead. In all fairness to Federer, he headed to Shanghai after being idle for six weeks, mostly due to an ankle injury that had him on crutches at one point.
Had Federer beaten Nalbandian in the Masters Cup final, he would have equaled John McEnroe's record 1984 campaign of 82-3. Federer's four '05 setbacks came at the hands of Safin, Nadal, Nalbandian and young Frenchman Richard Gasquet, who stunned the Swiss on red clay in a quarterfinal at the prestigious Monte- Carlo Masters.
Nalbandian still has to be credited with pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the year, however, as he fought back to dethrone the Swiss, halting Federer's finals winning streak at an amazing 24. Federer was also riding a career-best 35-match overall winning streak and had won his previous 14 Masters Cup tilts.
Oddly enough, Nalbandian wasn't even supposed to be on hand for his Shanghai surprise, but he joined the field following a rash of withdrawals, specifically one by an ailing Roddick.
Nalbandian is currently a surprising 6-4 lifetime against his former junior rival Federer, but had dropped his last four meetings with the elegant Swiss, including a round-robin match against him earlier in the week in Shanghai.
The incomparable Federer finished atop the world rankings for a second straight year.
Despite reaching a second straight Wimbledon final, you would almost have to consider '05 an off year for the former No. 1 Roddick. Wouldn't you? Yes, he finished an impressive third in the ATP Race and won a lot of matches (59) and five titles, but none of the titles came at Grand Slams or Masters Series events and he bowed out in the second round or worse in half of the majors. He landed in the semis at the Aussie Open and the final at Wimbledon, but he dropped his second-rounder at the French and suffered an embarrassing opening- round loss against Luxembourg's Gilles Muller (who?) at his favorite tourney, the U.S. Open.
And let's face it, the 23-year-old American can't beat Federer, who's 10-1 in their lopsided lifetime series, including wins in the last six meetings, two of which came in 2005.
On the bright side, Roddick might not be the only quality under-35 American anymore, as the aforementioned Blake and Robby Ginepri turned in strong seasons by seemingly coming out of nowhere. The 25-year-old Blake compiled 35 match wins and a pair of titles in rebounding from a nightmarish 2004, while the 23-year-old Ginepri recorded 37 wins and a title and reached his first career Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open, where he succumbed to the ageless Agassi in five entertaining sets at Ashe Stadium.
Another former No. 1, Hewitt, appeared in only 10 events in 2005, winning one in Sydney way back in January. He also lost to Federer in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open semis in a season that saw him slowed by some injuries. The fiery star also married fellow Aussie Bec Cartwright and the couple welcomed their first child, a daughter, into the world just last month.
Hewitt appeared to have recaptured his top form, but, unfortunately for him, a guy named Federer, and perhaps Nadal, will probably keep the Aussie from reaching the top of the rankings again.
By the way, Hewitt has lost his last nine meetings with the awesome Fed, after the Aussie had won seven of their first nine career clashes.
We can't forget to talk some more about the tennis ambassador that is Agassi, who suffered through back problems all year to go 38-12 with one title and the unlikely run in Flushing. Agassi required several cortisone shots just in order to compete off-and-on in '05.
The 35-year-old Agassi wowed the fans with his effort in the Big Apple, including an epic five-set quarterfinal victory over his previously red-hot fellow American James Blake. Agassi overcame Blake despite dropping the first two sets 6-3, 6-3 and ultimately came out on top by winning a frenetic fifth- set tiebreak.
The 20-year pro and eight-time Grand Slam champ will return for another season in 2006.
Ivan Ljubicic went 11-1 in Davis Cup play and reached eight ATP finals this year.
And in the quietest 56-match-win category, Russian Nikolay Davydenko wound up fifth in the ATP Race and played in the Masters Cup semis. He also reached the French Open semis and Aussie Open quarters.
Plenty of other young ATP stars appear to be on the rise, such as Gasquet, his fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils, Serbian Novak Djokovic and Czech Tomas Berdych, to name a few. The 20-year-old Berdych was the only player aside from Federer and Nadal to win a Masters Series tourney in '05, as the promising Czech landed the top prize at the at the Paris Masters last month. He upset hot Croat Ivan Ljubicic in the final there.
Just a reminder, Berdych was the guy who shocked Federer at last year's Olympic Games in Athens.
And last but not least, the year in men's tennis officially came to a close when Croatia captured its first-ever Davis Cup title by beating the host Slovak Republic 3-2 in the World Group final. The tie came down to a deciding fifth rubber, which saw instant hero Mario Ancic straight-set Michal Mertinak to prompt a national celebration in Croatia, which was once part of the former Yugoslavia. The tough Ljubicic wound up going an almost-immortal 11-1 in Davis Cup action this year (7-1 singles; 4-0 doubles), one win shy of McEnroe's record 12-0 mark back in 1982.
Croatia also became the first unseeded nation to win the Cup.
On the circuit, Ljubicic won 57 matches, including two titles, and appeared in eight finals for the year. Only Federer and Nadal reached more title matches in '05 and three of Ljubicic's finals setbacks came against, who else, Federer.
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of my favorite matches of the year, that marathon U.S. Open third-rounder between Italian journeyman Davide Sanguinetti and popular Thai Paradorn Srichaphan. The knockdown-dragout affair lasted for 4 hours, 24 minutes, with a severely-cramping Sanguinetti miraculously coming out on top under the lights in a fifth-set tiebreak.
The '06 season will get underway January 2 in Doha, Chennai and Adelaide.