December 27, 2008

The Other Type of Team Tennis

Every so often while switching channels I happen across a curious game of tennis.

The basics are there -- but with a few twists. The usual green or, now more common, blue hard courts are replaced with multi-colored turfs, alternating purples and reds with the normal palate. Doubles teams feature unlikely pairings: Lindsay Davenport and Elena Likhovtseva, Martina Hingis and Mark Merklein. Coaches advise players during change-overs and co-ed teammates cheer from the sidelines. The scoreboard is labeled not with players' names but with strange monikers like the Boston Lobsters or the Newport Beach Breakers.

This isn't Davis or Fed Cup, it isn't the Olympics and it certainly isn't a Grand Slam.

World TeamTennis was founded by the great Billie Jean King and her former husband Larry in the 1970s. Billie Jean, who's been such a proponent of equality in tennis and elsewhere, campaigning for prize parity among other causes, envisioned a forum where the best names in the game, men and women, could compete on the same court for a common goal.

She succeeded.

Billie Jean has attracted players like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Tracy Austin, the Williams sisters and Anna Kournikova. WTT has also served as a training ground of sorts -- both Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova started in the Pro League as teenagers.

The WTT format is similar to a lot of things you might have seen, but not entirely like anything. Teams are comprised of four players, two men and two women, who compete in a total of five events in any one meet. There's one set each of men's and women's singles and men's, women's and mixed doubles. Sets are only five games long, there are nine-point tiebreaks to decide 4-4 deadlocks, and possible overtimes and super-tiebreaks. Instant replay -- not just a challenge system -- is the norm, there's no such thing as advantages, players wear jerseys that bear their names.

The 2009 schedule, announced last week, kicks off July 2nd and ends with the Championship weekend July 24th through the 26th. While the players' roster won't be announced until February, we can certainly expect some of the top names to return. And defending champions, Albany's New York Buzz, will be eager to repeat.

Outside the Pro cicuit, one of the most interesting things about WTT is the ability for anyone to play. Like in beach tennis, you can start your own team -- and if you're not quite so ambitious the official website tells you how to join an existing league in your area. You might not be able to play doubles with the Bryan brothers -- at least not right away -- but it's one step closer!

See you out there!

December 22, 2008

Separated at Birth -- Part Two

A few months ago I posted an article comparing tennis stars to their famous (and not-so-famous) doppelgangers. People seemed to find it amusing, so I decided to work on the second edition.

Since last time I focused on the top men in the sport, this time I turn the tables and search for look-alikes in the women's draw.

I've never been a huge fan of the Williams sisters, but if I had to root for one, I suppose it would be Serena. She might be one of the best women's tennis player in the world, but she certainly has her fingers in a variety of pots -- from acting to fashion designing. She's almost as much a staple on the red carpet as her Oscar-nominated counterpart, Queen Latifah.

I just hope Serena doesn't try to take on the music industry too. I'm not sure a rap album would quite fly, no matter how many leather catsuits and go-go boots she wears on the court!

And I'm embarrassed to admit that I can indentify any of the useless characters on MTV's The Hills, but it's hard not to notice the similarities between Jelena Jankovic and one of the reality show's stars.

Sure, Jelena is concentrating on her return and Audrina is probably just -- I don't know, distracted by the sun's reflection off LC's compact? But the intensity in both is obvious.

Moving on...

Ever since the days of Anna Kournikova, tennis players have come to be known as much for their beauty as for their serves-and-volleys. All tall, lithe and blonde, it's easy to think these girls should be strutting the catwalk and not pounding the baseline.

Take for example Daniela Hantuchova, who bears a striking resemblance to Mrs. Project Runway herself, Heidi Klum.

And Dinara Safina who, I'd bet, isn't saving her last dance for anyone.

But let's give these girls credit! They easily could have taken a more glamorous route to fame and fortune. Instead they choose to slog it out on the tennis courts, facing the prospect of injuries, making awkward faces as they fight for points, and (gasp!) appearing in public without makeup!

And for proof that the look-alike theory holds from one generation to the next, let's go back a few years and note the similarities between two legends in their respective fields.

Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

December 18, 2008

And Now For the Gentlemen...

There were more than a few surprises in men's tennis this year.

Of course most notable was the end of Roger Federer's 237 weeks as the #1 player in the world and, ultimately related to that, Rafael Nadal's capture of the Wimbledon crown and his own ascendancy to the top.

But what about Andy Murray's near dominance of the post-U.S. Open schedule? Or the rise of not one, but two Frenchmen to the top ten?

At the end of the year, the final standings in the men's draw are as follows:

  1. Rafael Nadal, Spain

  2. Roger Federer, Switzerland

  3. Novak Djokovic, Serbia

  4. Andy Murray, U.K.

  5. Nikolay Davydenko, Russia

  6. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France

  7. Gilles Simon, France

  8. Andy Roddick, U.S.

  9. Juan Martin Del Potro, Argentina

  10. James Blake, U.S.

What I think is most notable about this list is how big a gap there is between the top three and the bottom half. In fact Djokovic is only ten points away from pushing Federer to -- gasp! -- #3, a position he last held in November of 2003. Meanwhile barely a hundred points, less than a tournament win, separate Tsonga from Del Potro. And my poor dear James Blake is languishing way behind even that, in the top ten more, I grudgingly admit, for others' faults than for his own successes.

In any case I've spent a lot of time -- or at least webspace -- over the past few months talking about the highlights of these guy's years. So instead of a run down I've decided to highlight what I feel are the top five moments in men's tennis this year.

#5. Mardy Fish's Groupies
Scene: Pilot Pen, August 23
Okay, it might not be in most people's top five, but it's my blog and I get to play favorites.

Sports fans have an uncanny ability to come up with some truly clever rally cries. This year at the Pilot Pen finals in New Haven, I was sitting next to a group of off-duty ball boys and girls who'd become Mardy's unofficial entourage, now dubbed "The Fish Tank". Their goal, ostensibly, was to rival the J-Block in volume and brashness -- what they accomplished, however, was to make my friend Linda and me cower in the shame of being even proximally associated with them. But the one thing I took from these kids was their admittedly witty cheer: "Can I get an ace? GO FISH!"

Despite the crowd support, Mardy ended up losing the title to Marin Cilic, but he -- and his fans -- had plenty to cheer about this year. He's risen to #23 in the world, and arguably had the best season of any U.S. player. Though he didn't win any titles he scored major wins over Lleyton Hewitt, Nikolay Davydenko, David Nalbandian and Roger Federer -- all at one tournament. He got all the way to the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows where he lost to Nadal sometime around 2:30 in the morning -- it was the only time he'd ever made it past the second round at that tournament. And he got called in to play at the Davis Cup semifinals against Spain, winning his doubles match with Mike Bryan. With his wedding in September, the later part of Mardy's year wasn't devoted to tennis, but I'm hoping he'll be back, better than ever in January.

#4. Blake Reaches a Milestone
Scene: Beijing Olympics, August 14
James Blake didn't have the most successful year -- he didn't win a single title, the first year he's been trophy-free since 2004, losing to Kei Nishikori and Marcel Granollers in the two finals he did reach. He notched some frustrating early-round losses to Fabrice Santoro, Janko Tipsarevic and Ernests Gulbis.

But Blake did have some high points in 2008. He won his second, third and fourth five-set matches, proving that last year's U.S. Open win over Fabrice Santoro wasn't just a fluke, and made it as far as the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.

But easily the high point of the year was Blake's first triumph over then-#1 Roger Federer at the Olympics. The two had met eight times before, and James had only taken one set from him. But at the Beijing quarterfinals, Blake won two straight and earned the chance to play for a medal. Of course a controversial call in the semis sent Blake to the Bronze-medal round, which he lost to Djokovic. But just like winning his first five-setter, this win over Federer could open the door for more success in the future.

#3. Djokovic Storms Shanghai
Scene: ATP Masters Cup, November 16
The year-end championships were full of surprises, starting with Nadal's withdrawal and Federer's elimination at the hands of Gilles Simon. Then Andy Murray was taken out in staight sets in the semifinals. By the time we saw Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko in the finals, anything could have happened.

But Djokovic was inspiring in his last match of 2008, providing the perfect bookend to a year that started with his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. After winning at Indian Wells and Rome it had looked like Nole was on track for a title-filled year. But June marked the beginning of a very frustrating drought -- he lost at the finals or semis at seven tournaments. His near successes were largely overshadowed by the consistency of Murray and the powerful bursts of "upstarts" like Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

In Shanghai, though, he was a man on a mission. He won his first two round-robin matches and was the first to qualify for the semifinals, and from there there was no looking back, despite a third consecutive loss to Tsonga, who seemed eager to avenge his loss at the Australian Open final.

Novak dominated the first set in his last match of the year and only dropped serve once in the second. He was clearly out to prove he is a champion, not just a second-tier entertainer. As he sets out to defend his first major title, I expect he'll bring with him some of the confidence he gained in China.

#2. Murray's Two-Day Battle
Scene: U.S. Open, September 6-7
Andy Murray had a rough start to the year, falling out of the top twenty after first match exits in Australia, Rotterdam, Miami and Barcelona. But he really hit his stride during the summer hardcourt season, getting to the semis in Montreal and winning in Cincinnati. By the time he got to the U.S. Open, he was ranked a career high #6.

Murray had some hiccups in New York -- losing his first two sets to Jurgen Meltzer in the third round and battling through two tiebreaks with Del Potro in the quarters. But when the weekend rolled around he was in top form.

I admit I didn't think he stood a chance against Rafael Nadal, who was playing in his first tournament since taking over the #1 ranking. When Murray took the first set I figured Rafa was just a bit tired from his match with Fish. When he took the second to a tiebreak, I was confident Rafa would rally. When the third set began with Nadal in a 0-2 deficit, I began to worry.

Then the rain began.

The officials called play with Rafa up a break in the third set. Ever the optimist, I figured when the match resumed on Sunday, it would be easy for Nadal to regroup. He only had to win two and a half sets -- it would be like any other, ordinary match.

Of course Murray didn't give Rafa the opportunity to get that far. He took the fourth and deciding set in just over an hour and steamrolled his way into the top four. He followed that up with wins in Madrid and St. Petersburg and a semifinal appearance in Shanghai. Clearly his match at Flushing Meadows served as a breakout opportunity for him this year.

And finally...

#1. The King is Dethroned
Scene: Wimbledon, July 6
What, you were expecting something else?

When 2008 began it seemed clear that Roger Federer was on a clear path to wipe out a mess of records. He had long ago sailed by Jimmy Connors's mark for consecutive weeks at #1 and was closing in on Pete Sampras's total reign. He had twelve Grand Slam titles, two short of Pete and, even if you wrote him off at the French, it looked like he was well on his way to surpass that number before the year ended.

A bout with mono took him out of contention in Australia, and Rafa predictably soared past him in Paris -- but the real shock came on the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, where he had held court for five straight years.

The epic match with Nadal took four hours and forty-eight minutes, survived two rain delays, and finished just before the sun went down. There were two tiebreaks, five breaks of serve, thirty-one aces, 413 points and a 9-7 final set. At the end of the day evening it was Rafa who stood tall, or more appropriately, collapsed in relief of having unseated the king.

It was a match that will be talked about for years -- the "Where were you when...?" in tennis. I, for one, was riveted to my television, afraid to miss a single point and wasting a perfectly beautiful July Sunday so that I could watch this piece of sports history.

Federer did come back, of course, winning his fifth straigh U.S. Open in grand fashion. Imagine if he didn't -- it would have been the first year since 2002 where Roger didn't take a Slam! Health problems surely weighed on him a majority of the year -- he took some time off after New York and pulled out of Paris with a back strain. Hopefully he'll take the few weeks before Australia to get strong for the 2009 season and come back roaring.

I mean, really -- isn't it all so much more fun when there's a real rivalry in the sport?

There were of course some other interesting moments this year that didn't quite make my top five. So here are 2008's Honorable Mentions:

  • Kei Nishikori: Honestly, this should probably have made the list, except that Nishikori's surge this year was less of a "moment" than a "phenomenon". Kei jumped a whopping 218 places in the rankings from #281 at the end of last year to #63 now. Big wins over Blake at the Delray Beach final and then-#4 David Ferrer at the U.S. Open certainly helped -- he even took a set from Nadal at Queen's Club. At nineteen he's the youngest player in the Top 100 and the first Japanese man to win an ATP title in sixteen years. He's become something of an icon in his country and, I imagine, will be eager to follow through in the New Year.

  • Juan Martin Del Potro: I became a DelPot-head over the summer when the 6'6" Argentine stunned Andy Roddick in Los Angeles and continued my support through the fall, even though an oddly partisan crowd insisted on cheering for Murray at the U.S. Open quarters -- now he's one of the top ten players in the world. Del Potro also had the opportunity to represent his country when Argentina faced Spain in the Davis Cup finals. Unfortunately he lost the only match he played in a huge upset that ultimately gave Spain the title. Had things gone another way, maybe Juan Martin wouldn't be just an Honorable Mention. Maybe.

  • Gael Monfils: The other Frenchman to make headlines this year, Gael was one of those players that made the tennis court his stage. His crazy cornrows were reminiscent of James Blake's early-day dreads, and he did handstands, cartwheels and some weird little dances to celebrate big wins, making some wonder if he shouldn't be auditioning for America's Best Dance Crew. He hasn't won a title yet, but his performance this year brought him to a career-high #14 ranking. Surely he'll be one to watch next year.

  • Marat Safin: I've said before that I'm not a huge Marat Safin fan, but even I have to admit I'm surprised he hasn't won a title since 2005's Australian Open. In fact he's only made three finals since then, most recently in Moscow this fall. He does have some spurts of genius, though -- take for example his semifinal appearance at Wimbledon this year. He'd beaten Djokovic in the second round, #9 Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth, and Davis Cup hero Feliciano Lopez in the quarters -- for the first time in years, he looked like he had a chance. Then he lost to Federer, thankfully, otherwise my #1 moment would never have happened. But now there's talk that Marat may retire. After 400 career match wins and nearly three years blanking at titles, maybe it's time.

  • Lleyton Hewitt: Lleyton Who's-it? The former world #1 only played in eleven tournaments this year as an injured hip dogged his prospects. Though he'd been flailing in the low twenties for about a year and a half, this year he fell to #67 in the world. He didn't win a title -- nor did he make a final, the first time that's happened since 1997. He's said he plans to return for January's Hopman Cup and hopes to be in full form for Melbourne, but of course we'll just have to wait and see.

Here's to a great year, and many more to come!

December 13, 2008

The Ladies of 2008

It's been a pretty tumultuous year for the top women's tennis players.

After Justine Henin prematurely retired in May and the door to #1 swung wide open, five different women held the top spot with varying lengths of stay and degrees of success. But at the end of the year, the top ten were comprised of some old stalwarts, a few new faces, and a brand new queen at the head of the rankings.

1. Jelena Jankovic, Serbia
2008 Record: 65-19
Titles: Rome, Beijing, Stuttgart, Moscow
Highlights: Reached first career Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open; Won three straight WTA titles

Jelena was truly inspiring on the court this year. From her gymnast-like splits to her bullet-fast returns, she proved she'd earned her place among the tennis elite. She ended the season with the most match wins, tied with Vera Zvonareva. She'd beaten both Williams sisters, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, among others on her way to gaining the #1 ranking just before the Olympics. While she ceded the position for a few weeks, her year-end surge brought her three consecutive Tour titles, the first woman to do so in three years. Now Jelena just needs to capitalize on her momentum early in 2009 if she wants to hold onto the top spot.

New Year's Resolution: Win a Major!

2. Serena Williams, U.S.
2008 Record: 44-8
Titles: Banglore, Miami, Charleston, Olympics (doubles), U.S. Open
Highlights: Regained #1 ranking for first time since 2003

2008 marked the return of the Williams sisters, and more accurately, the return of Serena. An injury two years ago had dropped her to #139 in the world, but she was well on her way back in 2007. Serena wasn't able to defend her Australian Open title, but she took three tournaments in a row after that. She followed up a final appearance at Wimbledon, where she lost to Venus, with a sweeping victory at the U.S. Open, where she didn't drop a single set and a brand new #1 ranking. Though she won her first round-robin match at the Sony-Ericsson Championships, she pulled out with a stomach muscle injury. If she wants to continue her success next year, she'll need to stay healthy and strong, but I'm sure she's still got it in her.

New Year's Resolution: Beat my sister at Wimbledon!

3. Dinara Safina, Russia
2008 Record: 55-20
Titles: Berlin, Los Angeles, Montreal, Tokyo
Highlights: Won U.S. Open Series; Olympic Silver medalist; Qualified for first year-end Sony-Ericsson Championships

Dinara Safina started the year ranked #15 in the world, but was quick to prove she had her sights set on the top five. She followed up a win in Berlin with a trip to the finals at the French Open -- her first Grand Slam championship match. She scored impressive wins over Lindsay Davenport, Henin, Elena Dementieva and the younger Williams. Dinara saw the greatest success this year over the summer when she took titles at two U.S. Open Series tournaments and made it to the semis at Flushing Meadows. And while her brother Marat angrily and loudly declared his presence on the court, Dinara quietly slogged away quietly on her own and made her own mark on the sport.

New Year's Resolution: Show up my brother! Win a Slam!

4. Elena Dementieva, Russia
2008 Record: 56-17
Titles: Dubai, Olympic Gold, Luxembourg
Highlights: Led All-Rusian medal sweep in Beijing; Finished year with career high ranking

Elena has long been one of my favorite players, and I'm glad to see her make it into the top five for the first time. With wins over Jelena, Serena, Dinara and Ana Ivanovic, she showed that she had some real power despite her tiny frame. Even still some frustrating losses along the way kept me nervous every time she took the court. But a semifinal appearance in Doha could give her the confidence she needs to start the 2009 season on the right foot.

New Year's Resolution: Stop losing to players I should beat!

5. Ana Ivanovic, Serbia
2008 Record: 38-15
Titles: Indian Wells, French Open, Linz
Highlights: Rose to #1 for first time; Reached second Grand Slam final (Australia) and won first major title (French)

Ana Ivanovic had a magnificent start to the year, reaching the finals in Australia and winning at Indian Wells. When Henin retired just weeks before the French Open, the road was cleared for Ana to take her first Grand Slam title, which she did by losing only one set. The win gave her the #1 ranking, a spot she held for twelve (non-consecutive) weeks. The latter part of the year was slightly more difficult. After Wimbledon, Ana lost in her first or second match at five straight tournaments -- including a second round loss to Julie Coin at Flushing Meadows. Though she did win at Linz, a viral illness caused her to withdraw from the Sony-Ericsson Championships after her two round-robin matches. In 2009 she's gonna want to make an impression early if she doesn't want to be forgotten as the other Serbian player.

New Year's Resolution: Successfully defend my French Open crown!

6. Venus Williams, U.S.
2008 Record: 40-11
Titles: Wimbledon, Olympics (doubles), Zurich, Sony-Ericsson Championships
Highlights: Won third Wimbledon title in four years; First WTA year-end title

It's a funny thing about Venus Williams -- every time you count her out, she comes roaring back. I've never been one to discount either of the Williams sisters, no matter what their ranking was, and even though she was often the official underdog to players like Jankovic, Safina and Ivanovic for most of the year, it was never really a surprise when she pulled out the win. And when she beat her sister at the All England Club in straight sets, she clearly told the world that she was the only real force on grass. And though she held the seventh seed at the eight-player year-end tournament, once she got to the semis, I'm sure her opponents were shaking in their tennis shoes. Her victory got her inches from the top five, a place she hasn't been since 2003.

New Year's Resolution: Four-pete at the All England Club...and get back in the top five!

7. Vera Zvonareva, Russia
2008 Record: 65-22
Titles: Prague, Guangzhou
Highlights: Olympic Bronze medalist; Sony-Ericsson runner-up

Where did Vera Zvonareva come from this year? She went from being a Tier II contender to a real giant killer. She made it to the finals at Doha and Charleston before winning in Prague, but then pulled out a medal in Beijing and wins over four of the top five women this year -- not to mention a 3-0 record in the Doha round-robins on her way to the finals. She also tied with Jankovic for the most match wins this season which, for someone who played 25 tournaments, is pretty impressive. Going into 2009 I want to see Vera advancing further in some of the bigger tournaments, and maybe avenge her Sony-Ericsson loss to Venus to prove she's a real force.

New Year's Resolution: Win a Tier I title or make a Grand Slam final!

8. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Russia
2008 Record: 44-21
Highlights: Part of Fed Cup Championship team; Finalist in Sydney, Dubai, Indian Wells, Tokyo & Beijing

After spending nearly three years solidly in the top five and starting 2008 as #2, Kuznetsova was one of the few healthy players to fall in the rankings this year. That's not to say she was unsuccessful -- her five final appearances prove she's still got spunk. But losses to players like Alize Cornet, Katarina Srebotnik and Caroline Wozniacki didn't exactly help her case. And she wasn't able to repeat her success at last year's U.S. Open, where she made it to the finals against Justine Henin. If Svetlana wants to get back in the top five, she's got to make her case early in the year and win a tournament or two. Otherwise there are some talented teens in the top fifteen that will be eager to take her place.

New Year's Resolution: Remind 'em there are other Russian players to watch!

9. Maria Sharapova, Russia
2008 Record: 32-4
Titles: Australian Open, Doha, Amelia Island
Highlights: Regained #1 ranking after Henin's retirement in May

Maria won her third Grand Slam title in January when she beat Ivanovic in the finals and saw a wave of success in the first part of the year, winning three of the first four tournaments she played. But a nagging shoulder injury began to weigh on her performance in the early summer. She lost in the fourth round at Roland Garros to Safina and was upset in her second match at Wimbledon by Alla Kudryavtseva, ranked #154 at the time. Sharapova only played one more tournament for the remainder of the year, and by late September said she wouldn't return to the circuit until 2009. So far there's been no news of exactly when Maria will be back, but I'm hoping to see her strong Down Under.

New Year's Resolution: Get healthy and get back out there!

10. Aggie Radwanska, Poland
2008 Record: 54-20
Titles: Pattaya City, Istanbul, Eastbourne
Highlights: Alternate at Sony-Ericsson Championships

Aggie Radwanska had a break-out year in 2008. The nineteen-year-old made it to the quarters at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and scored impressive victories over Ivanovic, Dementieva and Kuznetsova. When Ivanovic withdrew from Doha, alternate Radwanska came in and won the only match she got to play at the year-end championships. She may be young, but she's proven she's got some mettle this year -- now she just needs to follow through in 2009.

New Year's Resolution: I'm not a teen anymore...Win an adult's tournament!

These ten women certainly gave us something to watch this year, but there are plenty of girls vying to replace them -- Nadia Petrova and Caroline Wozniacki are just one tournament win or two away from the top ten.

So good luck next year, and keep up the good work!

I'll be watching you!

December 8, 2008

There's Something About Marat

Marat Safin is not my favorite tennis player.

I might have mentioned that I'm not one to forgive easily, and his defeat of Pete Sampras at the 2000 U.S. Open is one I'll never quite accept. The fact that he also turned out to be something of a hot-head didn't exactly argue in his favor either. One of the louder men on the tour, he routinely grunts his frustrations, argues with chair umpires and cheers his victories.

Over the years Safin has certainly proven he's someone to watch. Despite my (internal) protests, the then-twenty year old Russian rode the momentum from his first Grand Slam win eight years ago and climbed to a #1 ranking in 2001. It turned out, though, that his success was short-lived. In a particularly startling fall from grace, he ended the year at #11 despite two late-season titles.

Marat has had a bit of a roller coaster ride in his career since then. He climbed back to #2 the next year but fell to #77 in 2003, up to #4, down to #104, twenty-two to ninety-one, and is now ranked twenty-ninth, surprisingly high considering he ended the year with two early-round exits.

The thing is, Marat always has a way of surprising you -- seemingly doing his best just when you start to forget about him. He hadn't had the most successful start to this year, only making it to the third round in two tournaments before Wimbledon. But at the All England Club, he took out Novak Djokovic and then-#9 Stanislas Wawrinka on his way to the semis. Though he lost in straight sets to Roger Federer, he cut his ranking from #75 to #40.

His success didn't last long -- in subsequent tournaments he suffered losses to Italians Potito Starace and Fabio Fognini and Germans Denis Gremelmayr and Philipp Petzschner, none of whom were ranked in the top fifty.

Marat saw his best chance for redemption in years when he went home to Moscow in October. It wasn't the toughest tournament of the year -- Nikolay Davydenko was the top seed, followed by Igor Andreev. Even Marat drew the seventh place. But Safin did pull out a win over the eventual runner-up in Shanghai and made it to his first final since 2006.

He lost to Igor Kunitsyn, who took home his first title that day.

Even given his struggles it's hard to believe that Marat hasn't won a single title since 2005's Australian Open, especialy given that he won seven championships in 2000. Yet he continues to plug away at the tour.

Is it time to give up? Perhaps. He's won 400 matches in his career -- seventh highest among active players. But after a first round loss in Paris in October, Marat started to discuss retirement, saying at the very least he needs a long break before deciding whether to return.

Maybe well see him again in 2009 -- maybe, at twenty-eight, he's headed for the old folks' home.

Whatever he decides, you can be sure he'll make you hear about it.

December 3, 2008

A Battle of (Former) Champions

Let the smack-talking begin.

This week some of the top names in tennis history are taking the court at Royal Albert Hall for the annual BlackRock Masters tournament -- and it didn't take long for the more vocal participants to lay down the gauntlet.

Onetime bad boy John McEnroe, posted a (presumably) facetious message on the tournament's website, warning opponents Stefan Edberg and the great (and my all-time favorite) Pete Sampras, that he was going to London to bring back a trophy and that he would go easy on no one.

Today McEnroe takes on Sampras, a first-time Masters atendee, in the headline match. Joining them in this week's battles are former stars like Henri Leconte and Tom Gullikson as well as hometown favorites like Greg Rusedski and Jamie Murray.

The BlackRock Masters are played in a similar fashion to the ATP Masters Cup, with two four-person round-robin draws each yielding one winner that will play in the finals on Sunday. Qualifying for the tournament, however, is a little different: players can no longer be active on the circuit and must have had at least one of three other qualifications:

  • Held a #1 world ranking
  • Played in at least one Grand Slam singles final
  • Been a singles player on a Davis Cup Champion team

It's a great way to showcase the sport, bring some fan favorites back into the spotlight, and see some exciting matches that could never have existed on the regular tour. For some, like McEnroe, it's a chance to show-off a bit. For others, like Pete, it's an opportunity for redemption -- he hasn't been back to London since his 2002 second round defeat at Wimbledon, once the court over which King Sampras ruled.

But even though these champions have little to prove -- the field of 18 contestants has over 250 singles titles between them -- you can bet they'll come out with thier guns blazing. It's a shame we can't see McEnroe and Sampras in the finals, but wouldn't it be great to see a rematch between John and Edberg? Heck, I'd be thrilled to even see Pete and Stefan who've actually met a surprising fourteen times in the first half of the last decade.

In any case it'll be quite a show in London -- I'm already cheering for an encore!