Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The incomparable Roger Federer, once again, dominated the ATP headlines in 2006, a year that also marked the end of an era with the retirement of the great Andre Agassi.
The 25-year-old Federer does not wish to be disturbed while he's in the midst of rewriting the tennis record book. His career Grand Slam tally is already up to nine after '06 saw him corral the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. The sublime Swiss recorded a runner-up finish at the French Open and became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to reach all four major finals in one season.
Federer became the first player to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in three consecutive years, and his run at the All England Club currently stands at four straight. He'll try to match Bjorn Borg's Open Era record of five straight championships at Wimby next year.
He finished as the year-end No. 1 for a third straight year and piled up double-digit titles for a record third consecutive campaign. Federer nailed down a career-high 12 championships this past season, including a third Tennis Masters Cup win in four years, in 16 finals.
Federer set a record by eclipsing $8 million in prize money in a year that saw him go a remarkable 92-5. Last year, the awe-inspiring Swiss dropped only four matches. Is he slipping? Four of his losses this year came against Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal, while the other loss came at the hands of promising Brit Andy Murray. The "Fed" avenged two of the losses against Nadal by beating the French Open champ in the Wimbledon final and also topping the Spaniard in the Masters Cup semis.
The formidable Federer piled up 92 match wins and 12 titles in 2006.
The maestro that is Federer became the first player in 24 years to put together back-to-back 80-plus-win seasons. Czech (now American) strongman Ivan Lendl performed the feat back in 1981-82.
Federer is already arguably the best European player of the Open Era, with all due respect to Borg, and you could certainly argue the case that he's already the best-ever player, period, with all due respect to Pete Sampras and Laver.
The high-flying Federer ended the year with a 29-match winning streak, which included titles in his last five events.
The next best thing to Federer on the ATP is the 20-year-old Nadal, the reigning two-time Roland Garros champ and the holder of a 6-3 record against the mighty Swiss.
Nadal won his first four matches against Federer this year -- all in finals. One of the wins came at the French Open, where Nadal certainly has proven that he's the current king of clay.
The tenacious Nadal set the men's record for consecutive victories on clay by winning his first-round match at the French Open, giving him 54 straight wins on the surface. The previous record of 53, held by Argentine great Guillermo Vilas, stood for 29 years. Nadal's streak, however, was over a two-season span, while Vilas turned his trick all in one year, back in 1977.
Nadal's clay mark currently stands at 62, as he prepares to extend it in '07.
Nadal won 59 matches and five titles this year and is clearly the biggest threat out there to Federer. Four of the titles came via finals victories over Federer, while the other came in Barcelona against his countryman Tommy Robredo.
Nadal is the reigning two-time French Open champ.
If you want to talk results, another stud in 2006 was gritty Russian Nikolay Davydenko. The quiet star, who helped Russia claim its second Davis Cup title in five years, piled up a whopping 69 wins and five titles -- both career highs.
Davydenko, although not flashy, is a very steady player, much like a former Russian star, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Davydenko doesn't wow you with an arsenal of shots, he just wins matches week-in and week-out. And much like Kafelnikov, Davydenko likes to play, and play often, as evidenced by his 32-tournament output in '06. He reached at least the quarterfinals in 15 events for the year, including seven trips to finals (5-2).
Another big year came for American James Blake, who broke through back in March by reaching a Masters Series final at Indian Wells. It helped Blake become the first African-American since Arthur Ashe in 1980 to move inside the top 10.
Blake, like Nadal and Davydenko, secured five titles this year and soared all the way to the final at the season-ending Masters Cup, where he ultimately succumbed to a superior Federer. The 26-year-old Blake beat Nadal for one of his three wins at the Masters Cup, took out defending champion David Nalbandian in the semis in Shanghai and finished his year with 59 match wins. Davydenko was also one of Blake's victims at the season-ending extravaganza.
Another American who had an interesting season was Andy Roddick. The former world No. 1 struggled during the first six months of the year before deciding to employ the legendary Jimmy Connors as his new coach. Under Connors' tutelage, Roddick promptly reached his first final of the year, in Indianapolis, and about a month after Connors came on board, the hard-hitting American titled for the first time all year, at a Masters Series event in Cincinnati. The former U.S. Open champ then went on to reach the U.S. Open final, only to fall to Federer for an eighth straight time and a 12th time in 13 career matchups.
At the Masters Cup, Roddick actually held three match points against the amazing Federer, only to see the mind-blowing Swiss fight back to win that marquee round-robin affair.
The Americans failed to produce a Grand Slam champion for a third straight year, and were particularly miserable at Wimbledon, where they failed to get even one player beyond the third round. Blake, Roddick, Mardy Fish and a 36-year-old Agassi all bowed out in the round of 32 at the venerable AEC.
Other top players in 2006 included Ivan Ljubicic, Robredo, Nalbandian and Tommy Haas. Ljubicic was a three-time titlist, reached the semis at the French Open and landed in the quarters at the Aussie Open; Robredo captured a pair of titles and qualified for the Masters Cup; Nalbandian solidified his place as the top South American performer; and Haas, although he failed to qualify for Shanghai, had his best season in years, as he won 49 matches and delivered three titles to finish just outside the top 10 (11th).
Ljubicic's fellow big Croat, Mario Ancic, also enjoyed a fine season. The 6- foot-5 Ancic compiled 55 wins, titled twice and made his first-ever appearance inside the top 10 (currently ninth).
How 'bout the emergence of Cyprus' Marcos Baghdatis, the surprise Aussie Open runner-up and Wimbledon semifinalist. He actually took a set off Federer in the Aussie finale. The excitable star also went down in heroic fashion against Agassi in an epic second-round bout at the U.S. Open, where he battled through painful leg cramps before falling to the American icon in five sets in a certifiable Open classic.
Agassi finally called it a career after starring on the circuit for 20 years. The Las Vegas native ultimately succumbed to a failing back, and after sneaking past Baghdatis in New York, the charismatic star lost to little-known German Benjamin Becker in four sets in a third-rounder in Flushing. A tearful Agassi then bid farewell to the fans in the Big Apple and rode off into the sunset as a former world No. 1, an eight-time Grand Slam champ and one of the game's greatest ambassadors.
Agassi captured eight Grand Slam titles in his 20 years on tour.
His brilliant career produced an even 60 titles, including a record 17 Masters Series shields, and over $31 million in prize money. Only his former long-time rival Sampras has won more money on the grueling ATP, for now, as the machine- like Federer (at $28.576 million) is rocketing up the cash charts.
Agassi was one of only five men to win the career Grand Slam, and actually wound up with a career Golden Slam, as the result of his Olympic gold medal performance in Atlanta in 1996.
Some other 2006 retirees were Spaniards Albert Costa and Alex Corretja and Swede Thomas Enqvist. All three men were once prominent players on the tour and resided inside the top 10 at some point during their careers. Costa captured the French Open in 2002; Corretja was a two-time Roland Garros runner-up (1998 and 2001) and won the season-ending ATP World Championship (now Tennis Masters Cup) in 1998; and Enqvist reached the Aussie Open final in 1999. Both Corretja and Enqvist each earned more than $10 million on ATP courts.
Oft-injured Frenchman Nicolas Escude also hung up his racquet in '06. Nick...we hardly knew ye.
Russia capped the year by capturing the Davis Cup on home soil. The Russians, led by Davydenko and Marat Safin, held off an Argentine squad, spearheaded by Nalbandian, 3-2, as Safin bested Jose Acasuso in an exciting fifth and deciding rubber at Olympic Stadium in Moscow. Nalbandian was the top singles player there, as he went 2-0 by handling the two-time Grand Slam champion Safin and the world No. 3 Davydenko.
The year also saw the emergence of young stars such as Novak Djokovic, the aforementioned Murray, Richard Gasquet and Dmitry Tursunov. The Scottish Murray caught fire after hiring American Brad Gilbert as his coach during the summer. Gilbert once coached Agassi and Roddick, as those two players both rose to the No. 1 ranking under his guidance. Tursunov posted a win for the ages by propelling the Russians into the Davis Cup final with a marathon victory over Roddick in Moscow, which included a monster 32-game fifth and deciding set in a semifinal showdown with the U.S.
One other headline from 2006 was the use of instant replay, which made its Grand Slam debut at the U.S. Open. Is anyone else as bored by this particular piece information as I am?
The 2007 ATP season will commence in less than a month. See you then!