From court farce to smash hit – how the women's game recaptured its wow factor

As the glamour of Doha's season finale begins, Paul Newman traces a year when the tour climbed out of its doldrums with new stars – and familiar big-hitters
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The Independent Online

Had they lined up in their glad rags 10 months ago, the reaction of the public would no doubt have been cynical. Great dresses, they would have said, shame about the tennis.

This week, however, as the world's top eight players posed at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha for the official tournament photograph at the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships, there was an unmistakable sense of confidence behind the flowing robes and the glittering jewellery. Serena Williams may have done her best to leave a cloud over women's tennis in 2009 with her foul-mouthed tirade at last month's US Open, but the year is likely to be remembered instead as one in which the sport successfully fought back from one of the lowest points in its history.

If the closing weeks of the season have been highlighted by Kim Clijsters' extraordinary comeback victory at the US Open, the emergence of charismatic teenagers like Caroline Wozniacki and Melanie Oudin, news of Justine Henin's return and, from a British perspective, Heather Watson's achievement in emulating Laura Robson by winning a junior Grand Slam crown, it is all too easy to forget what a sorry state women's tennis was in at the start of the year.

When Williams defeated Dinara Safina in less than an hour to win the Australian Open final at the end of January it was hard to recall a lower point. Sorely missing the recently retired Clijsters, Henin and Martina Hingis and with doubts surrounding the future of the injured Maria Sharapova, the game was desperate for new winners to emerge. Instead Safina, who had already lost one Grand Slam final, performed miserably in her second, leaving the Williams sisters without a realistic challenger to their supremacy at the major events.

The argument which has dogged the sport for most of the year – should Safina, the most consistent player on the tour, or Williams, the best Grand Slam performer, be world No 1 – will still rage this week, but the irony is that the four women likely to arouse most interest in next year's first Grand Slam event at the Australian Open are not in Doha.

Henin, the first player ever to retire when world No 1, will begin her return Down Under, Clijsters and Sharapova have not compiled enough ranking points following their comebacks to make the elite eight-woman field in Doha and Ana Ivanovic – known as "Aussie Ana" for her local connections in Melbourne – has fallen to No 22 in the world rankings after a miserable, injury-troubled year.

Just as their Australian Open final did, so this week's tournament will decide whether Safina or Williams will be world No 1. Safina, who has held the top spot for 26 weeks this year, retook the position by a slender margin yesterday but will lose it if Williams wins just one more match than her in Doha. The American has been drawn in the trickier round-robin group, which includes her sister, Venus. "It would be awesome," Serena said of the prospect of being the year-end No 1 for the first time since 2002. "I'm in a tough part of the draw, so we'll see what happens."

Poor Safina, who went on to play almost as badly in her third Grand Slam final when she lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova at this summer's French Open, has faced the same set of questions at almost every press conference she has attended this year. If the media do not want to talk to her about the impending retirement of her brother, Marat Safin, they want to quiz her about the rankings system.

The Russian, who lost all three of her matches in the year-end championships last year, has grown understandably tired of defending her right to be world No 1. "I don't want to think about this right now," she said. "Last year I was winning every tournament and they were asking me why I'm not No 1. This year I became No 1, but there is no Grand Slam. There are questions every day."

An undefeated singles champion in Doha will win $1.55m (£950,000), while the Williams sisters can boost their earnings in the doubles. Venus is the defending singles champion, having beaten Jelena Jankovic (then world No 1), Safina (No 2) and sister Serena (No 3) in a remarkable run to the title 12 months ago.

"Last year was definitely a monumental moment," Venus said. "I never thought it would feel so good to win the year-end championships. It was definitely a surprised feeling and I would love to feel that again."

Elena Dementieva is the most regular participant in the tournament – this is her ninth appearance – while the two newcomers are Wozniacki, the 19-year-old Dane who was runner-up to Clijsters in New York last month, and Victoria Azarenka, a 20-year-old from Belarus who has won three titles this year.

Wozniacki, who has played more matches on the tour than any other player this year, has suffered illness and injury in the last month, while Azarenka has also been looking jaded, having failed to reach a semi-final anywhere in the last five months. Both, nevertheless, should be strong contenders in what promises to be a memorable 2010. With Clijsters, Henin and Sharapova around, qualifying for the season-ending finale could be tougher than ever.

Super eight: How they line up in Doha

White group

Dinara Safina (Russia)
Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark)
Victoria Azarenka (Belarus)
Jelena Jankovic (Serbia)

Maroon group

Serena Williams (US)
Svetlana Kuznetsova (Russia)
Elena Dementieva (Russia)
Venus Williams (US)

The tournament

Format Top two players in round-robin groups of four progress to knockout semi-finals followed by final

Venue Khalifa Tennis Complex, Doha

Prize-money $4.55m

Defending champion Venus Williams (left)