Tennis off-season is essentially an oxymoron. But now that most players are idle for a few weeks before their Australian Open preparation begins, we can officially declare 2004 the Year of Gender Role Reversal. For so long a singular dominant player--Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, a Williams--ruled the WTA's roost, while the ATP was a study in Any Given Sunday parity. Not so in 2004. A different woman won each of the four major singles titles; and the players who finished one and two in the year-end rankings, the evergreen Lindsay Davenport and France's Amelie Mauresmo, failed to so much as reach the final of a Grand Slam event. Meanwhile, Switzerland's Roger Federer simply played another sport than the rest of the men's field. The Swiss stylist won three majors, went 69--6 and garnished his sterling year on Sunday when he defended his title at the Masters Cup.
The flip-flopping doesn't end there. Remember when the tennis Cassandras predicted that ballistic ball-striking would doom the men's game? Now many of the top players--Federer among them--can go an entire set without hitting an unreturnable serve. On the other hand, power has all but become a prereq for success in the women's game. Maria Sharapova, the 17year-old Wimbledon champ, might move awkwardly and volley inexpertly, but so long as she pastes the ball the way she did when she won the WTA Championships last week in L.A., her status as a star is secure. Men's tennis even had an Anna Kournikova analogue in 2004. Mark Philippoussis, a hunky Australian, won only 11 matches all year but became a tabloid fixture when he was linked to--yes, you knew it--Paris Hilton.
There were other tectonic shifts as well. Owing to both injury and indifference, the Williams sisters relinquished their grip on the game, Serena finishing at No. 7 and Venus at No. 9. After years of underachieving, the U.S. team reached the Davis Cup final. The Russian Revolution was consecrated when Soviettes won three Grand Slam titles and represented four of the top six WTA players. Say this: If form holds and tennis tours keep swapping identities, 2005 ought to be a hell of a year for Russia's Marat Safin.
--L. Jon Wertheim