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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!