Now that the year-end championships are over, and our annual bout of tennis exhaustion is finally receding somewhat, we can look back and assess the year in tennis and forget we were swearing (not so long ago) that we would never look at a tennis ball again. Ever.

One word comes to mind: LONG. Whatever else we can say about it, the season is way too long. You know it’s a long season when even the tennis writers are crawling across the finish line with their tongues hanging out. You’d think my co-writer Nina Rota and I had played the entire season ourselves. After the U.S. Open concluded, she skulked off to Hawaii for a week, I disappeared into the Sierras. Tennis does that to you.

So that’s the first thing about the year we noticed. It is exhausting and long. If you have doubts, just look at the injured rosters as they piled up. We all hope the Powers That Be shorten the season in some fashion, but we all know that won’t happen. Greed Is Good, and when it comes to tennis, it’s also Great.

Part of what it may mean to be a “great” player is the player’s ability to schedule himself wisely. From this standpoint, I would say Roger Federer probably listened to his body better than anyone and didn’t play himself into the ground. He knew when to take time off, not only when he was injured, but even when he just needed more rest.

Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, seems to specialize in driving himself into the ground. He makes me feel tired and that’s just from watching him BETWEEN points. His schedule was exhausting. His style of playing takes a lot out of him too, and by the year’s end it did catch up to him. I don’t know who his advisors are, but they should think about reining him in a little.

There were other players who did well this year too, but basically it came down to the two leading players, Federer and Nadal. In any other year, Rafael Nadal would have been the leading light of his day. He played incredibly well and racked up a fantastic record too. But Roger Federer had an even better year, eclipsing Nadal’s.

And to think we’re going to get probably a good eight more years of this. Quel horreur!

The problem for the men’s field was to create enough good challengers to Roger’s crown. Several men came out of the gate, notably Marat Safin and Andre Agassi, who stood a chance to beat Federer in the big matches. And there were a few chances for the upcoming players too, such as Richard Gasquet, who beat Federer in the spring at Monte Carlo, one of the smaller lead up tournaments to the French Open.

The men’s championship at year’s end should not be a “smaller” tournament but it proved that way when most of the field pulled out, and suddenly you had guys entering the fray – David Nalbandian, Mariano Puerta and Fernando Gonzalez – who would not have been there otherwise. It should have been a bigger tournament with a stronger field. Fortunately, David Nalbandian helped to rescue things by providing a strong challenge to Federer and delivering only one of his four losses this year.

While the men’s field basically distilled itself down into two leading players, the women’s tour exploded into an array of new configurations of well-matched players, and the results in tournaments reflected that diversity. Every woman seemed to garnish a piece of the pie. I almost forgot that Venus and Serena both won Grand Slams. That’s because a bevy of other players won titles too. Kim Clijsters gave us one of the best moments when she finally won a Slam herself. Justine Henin-Hardenne mounted a fine comeback. Maria Sharapova was all over the place, and so was Lindsay Davenport, although she had more ups than downs overall.

The Russians in general seemed to follow Sharapova’s suit and a number of them went right into the tank this year in matches. I keep saying that the reason all the Russians have had such good technique is that they have to hold those spikey temperaments at bay. Technique helps maintain control. Even so, they may be too anal, too perfectionist to be consistently great players, and they get down and beat themselves when they get mad. So sue me.

And Mary Pierce. Everyone coos about Mary’s comeback this year. I feel strangely above all this feel-goodness. When Mary was good, she was very very good. When she was bad, she was very very bad. She did a variation on Amelie Mauresmo’s usual riff, bulldozing the field up until the final, and then going out meekly like a lamb to the slaughter. She had a great resurgence at age 30, but for some reason I don’t have much faith she can carry it into 2006. Maybe because I have put faith in her before and seen my hopes dashed. Maybe because she can turn on a dime and go from being really good to playing like a piker the next day. I just don’t feel she will cash in next year. I don’t want to invest myself in her as a spectator.

The best thing about men’s tennis in 2005: Roger Federer, followed closely by Rafael Nadal’s emergence into superstardom at age 19.

The best thing about women’s tennis: it is now truly competitive. Maybe soon they can shame us into equal pay for the women.

Roger Federer and Marat Safin started the year off with a big bang down under, two artistes going at it in five intense sets. We were all savoring the prospect of Safin emerging as Federer’s main rival. But instead he falters, then becomes injured.

Fortunately for Roger Federer and the rest of us, Rafael Nadal breaks out at the French Open, winning his first slam on nearly the same day he turns 19.

Venus and Lindsay competed in a duel for the ages in the Wimbledon Women’s Final. Venus played remarkably well and deserved to win. On any other day Lindsay would have deserved it. I think this was the match that won it this year for passionate intensity. The number one thriller of the year.

And then Venus went and put her foot in her mouth with her comment about her biggest moment of the year being not the Wimbledon win, but attending her sister’s prom. I feel embarrassed for her when she does stuff like that. It shows a certain disrespect for the tour and the sport that allowed her to HAVE that reality TV show that everyone apparently just LOVED to watch. I try to focus on her play at Wimbledon.

Kim Clijsters not only staged a remarkable comeback, she worked her way easily through the draw at the U.S. Open and finally snagged that elusive first big title. Hopefully now the others will just flow.

Roger Federer continued to cruise along. He lost only three matches going into November, to Safin, Gasquet, abd Nadal. After the Nadal loss, which occurrs in the French Open semis, Federer still carries on his winning streak that extends to the last match of the year – 23 finals won in a row – before losing in the Shanghai year-end final to David Nalbandian. And he loses in a way that is so remarkable that he STILL takes your breath away, even in defeat.

The two young lions meet early in the year, when Federer beats Nadal in five tough sets in April at the Nasdaq Miami. But Nadal beats Federer later in the spring at the French Open on the way to his first Grand Slam. He is a hottie for sure, and will add some genuine fire to compete against Federer’s cool Suisse. But after those encounters, the pair do not meet again.

In Shanghai, Nadal pulls out because of injury and the expected Federer-Nadal showdown final never occurs. The Chinese have every right to be annoyed. They’ll probably be among the first to lobby the Powers That Be to shorten the season so the top players don’t arrive on their doorstep in Shanghai utterly stripped of purpose and energy to play. And worn out from injuries. Of course they dropped like flies. The Chinese are right to feel they kinda got snookered. Andre should have said something first to the Chinese officals. He should have known the etiquette, he’s usually attuned to stuff like that.

And lastly, the Americans were not completely without hope. Andre Agassi held up his end in losing to Roger Federer in the U.S.Open Final, but the standard of tennis was amazingly high. That match could be a turning point for Andre, it could convince him to play for at least three more years, barring injury. It was that good. He still has it.

Robbie Ginepri turned it on consistently through the summer and into the Open, before going down in the semis. A little belief in yourself goes a long way. James Blake had a fine resurgence after a harrowing 2004, filled with injuries and personal loss. His victory over Rafael Nadal at the US Open was one of the great feel-goods of the year.

Andy Roddick is already talking about his plans to be more aggressive with his return game when the season starts. That is good, because this past year should be quickly forgotten from Roddick’s standpoint. Fortunately for him there are now a good handful of guys of whom much is expected this coming year. Maybe the expectations for him will not be as intense.

My personal highpoint of the year:

The third set tiebreak, U.S. Open Final
Roger Federer-Andre Agassi
They had split the first two sets, but clearly the tide had turned against Roger, and the crowd was certainly with Andre at this point.

Federer suddenly shifted into high gear, reached inside somewhere to a place of calm and battened down all the hatches, lost the first tiebreak point, then uncoiled with seven straight points to win the set. And, really, the match. Agassi was crushed, and it went quickly from there on out. It was one of the most ferocious displays in such a concentrated period I have seen in a while on a tennis court.

Welcome to the tennis year of 2005. Yes, you are in the Age of Roger Federer.

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