December 24, 2009

Hail to the "Naughties"

For so many reasons the Years 2000 will be remembered as a decade as formative as the Sixties were a generation ago and the Twenties before that. But putting aside all the truly important stuff for just a moment, I choose to look at some of the defining moments in tennis post-Y2K.

Of course there was the natural evolution of any sport -- the equipment got better, the players got stronger. But there were plenty of other milestones that made the game even more interesting, on both the men's and women's Tours. And while I can't wait to see what the next decade will bring, there are some aspects of the current "Naughties" I will surely miss.

Tennis Got Pretty...And Primal

Back in the day the women on courts from New York to Wimbledon -- how to put this nicely? -- put athleticism before beauty. Sure there were cute girls like Tracy Austin and Chris Evert, but the entire playing field changed when Anna Kournikova turned pro in the late Nineties. I give her a lot of credit for continuing to play even when the broader audience would have been just as happy seeing her in music videos or in a magazine (see Ashley Harkleroad), but there's no question she brought a fan base that hadn't existed in the sport before.

Since Anna's time there has been no shortage of eye-candy on the tennis courts. Maria Sharapova made even casual fans sit up and take notice, but then there came Ana Ivanovic, Daniela Hantuchova, Maria Kirilenko. And they weren't shying away from the spotlight either -- these PYTs were shilling everything from Gatorade to Canon cameras to Cole Haan boots. Gone were the days of clean dress whites -- suddenly Center Court could be confused with a catwalk, and players were sporting outfits designed by Stella McCartney or ones studded with Swarovski crystals.

But these girls weren't afraid to get ugly when needed.

Monica Seles ushered in a new era of shrieking when she hit, and Sharapova carried it through to the new decade as she grunted her way to three Grand Slams. But it didn't stop there -- young Michelle Larcher de Brito drew criticism for the noises she made during her three rounds of the 2009 French Open, and there's even talk authorities could ban grunting during matches. Opponents complain it's distracting and inappropriate while those of us who are less bothered realize it's just a way to expel energy and harness strength -- hey, it works for karate masters.

In any case we saw the women's game improve both aesthetically and athletically this decade. A couple of hard fought matches proved that smart shot-making combined with sheer strength were not for the men alone. There were shockers like Maria's demolition of Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final and downright battles such as Serena's unlikely nail-biter against Elena Dementieva in this year's semis. But how about Jennifer Capriati's win at the 2002 Australian Open, where she came back from being down a set and 0-4 in the second against Martina Hingis? Or the slugfest in London back in 2005 where the fourteenth-ranked Venus took top-seeded Lindsay Davenport to 9-7 in the third to win her first Major in almost four years? And Justine Henin, who so dominated the clay court -- she hasn't lost a set at the French Open since the fourth round in 2005.

All in all the improved quality of the women's game had an interesting effect -- there really was no one dominant player over the last ten years. The strength shifted from the Americans to the Belgians to the Russians, and now could be swinging right on back. And you can be sure it will be fun to watch.

A Record Was Set...And Broken

For over thirty years Roy Emerson stood atop the tennis world. When he won his eleventh Slam in Australia in 1967, he surpassed Bill Tilden's then-record purse of ten Majors and even went one better to notch number twelve later that year in Paris. A few came close to tying him, but both Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg fell just short. It wasn't until 1999 that Pete Sampras himself reached the illustrious mark, achieving the perfect dozen himself at Wimbledon.

But Sampras wasn't satisfied with merely sharing the top spot. A year later he captured his still-record seventh All England crown to set himself apart, and two years after that he pulled out a fourteenth at his very last U.S. Open where, in an All-American final, he beat long-time rival Andre Agassi in four sets. Not a bad way to end such a long and storied career.

But the thirty-one year old could not have known then that he'd already met the man who would soon bound past him. Pete only played Roger Federer once during their professional careers, losing to him in the tough, five-set 2001 Wimbledon fourth round. Federer was only ranked fifteenth at the time, but he was on his way up. Two years later he won his own title on the grass of London, his first Slam, but he began adding to the pot quickly -- since breaking the seal he made the finals of all but five Majors. Only twice did he lose before the semis.

Roger seemed to stall about a year and a half ago, missing the chance to three-peat in Australia and then losing two heart-breaking finals to Rafael Nadal. But after he won the U.S. Open last September, I knew it was just a matter of time. This year in Paris he not only tied Pete's accomplishment, but also achieved the career Grand Slam. Less than a month later, he had the honor all to himself. It took Roger just seven years to break a record that took thirty-three years to set.

It might take a while for a someone to pass Roger. Among active players the closest contender is, not-surprisingly, Rafael Nadal, who won his sixth Major in Australia this past year. If his injuries subside there's no reason he can't give Federer a run for his money over the next few years -- just as he has for the past five. But it unfortunately seems to me it could be an uphill battle, at least in the short term.

The Comeback Came Back

A lot has been said in recent months about the reemergence of Kim Clijsters this year and the pending return of Justine Henin. But the comebacks in tennis started several years ago, and some of them with big success.

Jennifer Capriati made her first big splash by making the semis in Paris her first year on Tour -- 1990! But a series of personal troubles made it look like her career might take a tragic turn. When she returned a few years after leaving the sport, she had only sproadic success. That is until 2001, when she won her first Grand Slam in Melbourne by beating the #4, #2, and #1 players in a row. She followed it up with a win at Roland Garros and repeated Down Under the next year, reaching the top ranking eleven years after turning pro.

Martina Hingis had something of the opposite story. In the first part of her career she set a slew of "youngest ever" records, winning a doubles title at Wimbledon before her sixteenth birthday and the singles in Australia less than a year later. By the time she retired with injuries in 2002, she'd racked up nine doubles and five singles trophies at the Slams, plus a ton more at other tournaments. But she wasn't happy on the sidelines -- in the latter part of the decade she decided she was still capable of competing against the current crop of stars and got back on the court. Though she won a handful of titles from 2006 to '07 and even cracked the top ten again, a two-year suspension for testing positive for cocaine sealed the deal, and Martina announced earlier this year that she'd leave the sport for good.

The latest tale of the phoenix rising from the ashes is that of Mary Pierce, who left the tour in 2006 after rupturing her ACL in an excruciating fall in the second round of Linz. She spent the last three years in rehab after her surgery, but in August there started to come rumblings that the two-time Grand Slam champion was about to return next year. At thirty-four, she'd certainly be one of the veterans on the Tour -- but I'm hoping she can follow in the footsteps of those who resurged before her.

The Torch Was Passed

Back in the Nineties men's tennis was really dominated by the Americans -- Sampras, Agassi and Jim Courier combined to hold the #1 spot for 385 weeks, almost seven and a half of the ten years. Things changed in the new decade. Since 2004 only two men have claimed the top ranking, and while Federer is quickly closing in on Pete's record of total weeks in that position, it is the other who can boast the honor of being part of one of the best teams of the century so far.

Rafael Nadal burst onto the scene during that year's Davis Cup finals when the then fifty-first ranked Spaniard stunned world #2 Andy Roddick to put his country on solid ground to win its second trophy. They've since claimed two more titles, as well as Olympic Gold in 2008. They've also had two #1-ranked players this decade and twelve currently in the top hundred -- four of which are in the top twenty.

But more than that, the new decade marked the start of a Latin phase in tennis. Marcelo Rios and Caros Moya had both been ranked #1 for a few weeks to end the last century, but in the 2000's we got Gustavo Kuerten and Juan Carlos Ferrero -- even before Nadal, Juan Martin Del Potro, Fernando Verdasco and all the rest made any sort of mark. After years of being dominated by Anglos, the Spanish-speaking world is starting assert its presence in a sport other than fútbol. And here's hoping it continues into the new decade.

New Rivalries Were Born

The Naughts began with the continued competition between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras -- the two traded the top spot for almost ten years, ending the Nineties at #1 and #3 respectively and then extending their battle into the new century. After thirty-four career meetings, Pete holds the lead with twenty of those match wins, the most recent at the 2002 U.S. Open final.

But since the last generation of tennis greats left the sport, a couple new men have taken the courts by storm. Obviously the biggest rivalry has been between Roger and Rafa -- the two have already met twenty times, sixteen of which had a championship on the line. They haven't faced each other since May, when Federer surprised Nadal on his native clay in Madrid, but with Rafa holding the thirteen-to-seven advantage, you can bet there will be some fireworks between these two in the Teens.

And while Roger and Rafa have certainly dominated the men's Tour, there were a couple other duos that clashed this decade, and you don't have to go far down the rankings to find them.

World #3 Novak Djokovic and #4 Andy Murray have been trading barbs for the last four years. The twenty-two year old Serb took the early lead by winning their first four match-ups, but the Brit, just seven days older than Nole, has won the last three. Murray was ranked #2 for a couple weeks this past summer, but Djokovic boasts the only Grand Slam title between them and two more career titles. It looks like either of these men could be the star of the next decade, and I'm sure their head-to-head record is going to keep piling up.

And then there's Andy Roddick and Juan Martin Del Potro, the former a ten-year veteran and the latter a relative newcomer. Roddick had the unfortunate luck of hitting his peak just before Federer came on the scene and though he has been thrice foiled in his attempts to win another Major, he's remained in the top ten for all but a few weeks since 2002. DelPo burst on the scene last year when he won his first four Tour titles. But despite all his experience and his improved physical prowess, the American can't quite seem to figure out the new U.S. Open champion -- he's lost all three of their match-ups. I wouldn't be surprised to see him seek vengeance in 2010.

On the women's side we saw the end of the Steffi Graf/Monica Seles/Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario era and the beginning of the Martina Hingis/Lindsay Davenport/Jennifer Capriati run. And of course there was the emergence of two sisters from Compton, California who proved to be one of the most enduring rivalries of the Naughties.

When the Williams came on the scene it seemed they would muscle their way through all the competition. The opposite of dainty and fragile, both girls were big-power players who just slammed the ball past their opponents. And while Venus was first out the gate, making the finals at her first U.S. Open in 1997, it was Serena who proved to be the more consistent force. Starting in 2002 the younger sibling captured four straight Grand Slam titles, culminating in Melbourne in 2003. Together, they've combined for eighteen Majors and nearly a hundred weeks at #1; they've also captured more than a few doubles titles together. They both finished the year in the top ten seven times this decade.

But they weren't the only story.

Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters brought Belgium to the forefront of the tennis world early in the decade. Again Clijsters struck first, winning her first Tour title in Hobart in 2000, but Henin became the powerhouse, taking three straight French Opens and seven Slams in total before so abruptly retiring last year. In the eight years their professional careers overlapped, Henin held just a narrow 12-10 lead. This year Clijsters of course has done her part to reassert her spot among the sport's elite, winning her second U.S. Open after a two-plus year absense. Henin is hoping to see similar success when she renews their rivalry next month. My bet is that this contest still has lots of legs left.

And then there are two youngsters who could continue their rivalry well into the next decade. Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki both won three titles apiece this year, and both achieved their highest year-end ranking in 2009. They first met in the third round of last year's U.S. Open, but before you could blink they were facing each other in the finals at Memphis. So far they stand tied at two matches each, but at only twenty and nineteen years of age, there's no reason to believe we won't see them across the court from each other again soon -- and often.

It's hard to fathom that there's just about a week left in this decade -- it seems like only yesterday when we were simultaneously celebrating and fearing the Millennium, and here we are ten years older, and hopefully wiser.

It turned out, at least in tennis, to be a pretty good run -- we saw some great careers launched, a couple great matches fought, and more than a few great stories written. And as players and fans look forward to the 2010s, it looks like we could be in for even more excitement in the next ten years.

Happy Holidays!

December 18, 2009

Year in Review: The Gentlemen

We all know the stories of the top men in tennis this year -- of course Roger Federer regained his year-end number #1 ranking on the heels of earning the career Grand Slam and setting the record for Major titles. And we know of Rafael Nadal's struggles during the latter part of the year.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were a few big movers even among the most elite players -- Juan Martin Del Potro leapt into the top five while both Robin Soderling and Fernando Verdasco made their top-ten debuts. And as they rose, other must fall of course -- unfortunately that group included my dear James Blake, who ended the year at #44.

But those moves are nothing compared to some other players who made a big name for themselves this year, both through success and through failure. I'm going to start with the good news.

Biggest Comebacks

Forget Kim Clijsters and Justin Henin. The world of men's tennis in 2009 was also one of comebacks.

Lleyton Hewitt fell out of the top 100 for a brief time in February -- the first time he'd hit double digits since the turn of the decade. Recovering from a hip injury, the Australian lost in the first round of his hometown Grand Slam, but proved to be a formidable threat to seeded players in tournaments after that. He won his first title in over two years by beating Wayne Odesnik in Houston and narrowly missed the semis at Wimbledon after a nearly four-hour match with Andy Roddick. While he had some trouble cracking the most elite players, he did notch a tough win over James Blake, back when he was ranked #13, and a straight-set victory over DelPo at the All England club. For his efforts, he rose forty-five spots to end the year at #22.

Tommy Haas has had some tough luck recently, but you'd never know it from his performance on the court. First he was allegedly poisoned during Germany's Davis Cup match against Russia a few years back, and then a few weeks ago he was diagnosed with swine flu. Even still the gorgeous German had a stand-out year, winning his first championship since 2007 in Halle by beating Novak Djokovic in the final and taking the first two sets from Roger Federer in the Roland Garros fourth round. He made the semis at Wimbledon, his best-ever performance there and climbed back into the top twenty after starting the year at #82.

Even more impressive was the performance of Juan Carlos Ferrero. The former #1 and one-time French Open champ had languished in the mid tiers of the sport for years and hadn't claimed a trophy since Monte Carlo in 2003. His five-plus year drought ended in Casablanca back in April, but he didn't stop there. He scored key wins over Hewitt, Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils that helped propel him back to #20. A couple of opening round losses to end the year dropped him back a few spots, but Ferrero's thirty-plus spot jump puts the almost-thirty year old Spaniard back amongst the contenders for the big titles.

Biggest Debuts

There was another class of upward movers this year -- those who seemingly came out of nowhere to grab headlines, or at least ranking points, in 2009. Some had made their first appearance years ago while others had ploughed their course at smaller events. Either way, they all saw their rankings jump out of the triple digits and into solid contender territory.

I've already opined on John Isner's phenomenal year, but it's worth repeating one more time. The 6'9" American jumped 110 spots to end 2009 with his highest career ranking thanks, in part to a solid summer and a third-round defeat of Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open. He earned his first seed in a professional tournament in Bangkok and, not so quietly, became the third best player in this country. Isner's got a lot of things going for him, including a rocket serve, and he's been working on his ground game as well, which could make him a force Down Under. Here's hoping he helps usher in the next generation of greats.

Rajeev Ram is also doing his part for American men's tennis. Along with his second Challenger title, the Indiana native won both the singles and doubles trophies in Newport. After a career of playing players mostly ranked in the triple-digits, Rajeev broke through this year, beating Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish among others. His successes allowed him to jump one more position than even Isner as he finished the year #79.

If you thought these guys made big strides in 2009, it's nothing compared to what Horacio Zeballos did. The twenty-four year old Argentine has been pro since 2003 but didn't play on the main Tour until this year. He didn't even qualify for a tournament until Rhode Island, but he won four Challenger events and even his opening round at Flushing Meadows. Then in St. Petersburg he made his very first final by winning only his second through fifth Tour matches and sky-rocketing from #199 last year to #45 today. Sure he hasn't beaten a great player yet, but for someone no one's ever heard of yet, he's not doing too bad.

Biggest Droppers

Of course for every rank gained, one must be lost.

I have to say I'm a bit surprised that Russia's Dmitry Tursunov didn't have a better year. Once ranked #20 he had a slow start to the year, getting upset in more than a few first rounds. Last year's finalist in Indianapolis, Tursunov fought to the title in Eastborne, the sixth of his career. He made the quarters in Indy, but despite a good seeding and a few bye rounds, he proceeded to lose four matches in a row, ending 2009 after a four set loss to Marc Gicquel at the U.S. Open. His recent results caused him to fall farther than anyone else in the top hundred -- from #22 to #89.

Mario Ancic's move was only slightly less dramatic. The former top-ten player is now ranked #95, fifty-nine spots below where he started the year -- though it's not really his fault. Early in the year he didn't lose to anyone he should have beaten, but a recurrence of the mono that sidelined him for part of 2008 took him out of the season in May. The six-foot-five Croat said he'll make his return to the Tour in January, tuning up for the big leagues by playing a few challenger events.

Then there's David Nalbandian who kicked off 2009 by winning his tenth trophy in Sydney and making the semis in Buenos Aires. But hip surgery took him out of commission after Estoril and knocked him down to #64 -- he'd ended 2008 at #11. Nalbandian will be back though, the twenty-seven year old Argentine plans to compete in the next Grand Slam, where he was once a semifinalist. Hopefully he'll be back in good enough shape to get himself back to the top.

By the way, I've limited my commentary here to players still ranked in the double digits, but I'd be remiss if I left out Kei Nishikori. Last year's biggest positive mover and a quarterfinalist in Brisbane, he got off to a slow start in 2009. After that he only won a single match (over Gilles Muller in San Jose). Forced to pull out of the last three Majors with an elbow injury, the Japanese star is now ranked #420. Here's hoping for a quick recovery and return in the new decade.

Biggest Fizzlers

Perhaps more frustrating than falling steadily is when you get so close, but just can't make it. A couple players this year gathered up a ton of momentum, started to look like they could cause some damage, and then sputtered, spewed and ended up not really making much of a mark at all.

David Ferrer is still up there, ranked #17, a mere five positions below where he ended 2008. I'd complained much of last year that the Spaniard had held on to an unnecessarily high rank despite some mediocre performances. He began this year as if out to prove me wrong -- he did well in the early months, making the semis in Johannesburg and the title matches in Dubai and Barcelona. But once the summer came Ferer struggled to put together back-to-back wins. Outside his miraculous win in Barcelona during the Davis Cup finals, he couldn't beat the top players and often lost to those ranked far lower than him. Going into 2010 needs to get his act together if he wants to stay in the top twenty.

It's a little unfair to put 6'10" Croat Ivo Karlovic in this group, since he was part of so many classic matches this year, but for a man who served 890 aces this year -- more than a hundred more than any other player -- he sure lost a lot of matches. That's not to say he didn't put up a fight -- he famously fired off a record fifty-five bombs in his first round in Paris only to lose to Hewitt, and he spent nearly six hours on court with Radek Stepanek in the Davis Cup semis. He's played an inordinate number of five-set matches this year -- and only won one of them. Though he got himself close to the top twenty, he's only had a single match victory since Cincinnati, where he lost in the second round. Now ranked thirty-seventh in the world, Karlovic has to show he's got more than a big serve, as he's already proven that's not enough to win.

Israel's Dudi Sela had the chance to be a real force on the men's Tour this year. After finishing the runner-up in Beijing in 2008, he put in a solid performance as a qualifier in Melbourne, causing two upsets before losing in the third round. He followed that up with a semifinal in Memphis and two big Davis Cup wins against Sweden. He climbed from #112 to start the year all the way to #29 in July. But seven opening round losses in a row, including one to Shao-Xuan Zeng ranked #393 in the world, dropped him back down fourteen spots. Kind of makes you wonder if he can really compete with the big boys.

The Closest Calls

Well, maybe not the closest, but of course there were a ton of players I've missed here. On the positive side Fernando Gonzalez and Taylor Dent both put their names back in the ring while Marco Chiudinelli and Leonardo Mayer made their own names known. On the down side Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri both suffered some precipitous drops while Ernests Gulbis and Dennis Istomin came so close to notching big wins, only to falter again. Though they didn't make my lists this year, I will give them all a year of probation -- hopefully in twelve months they'll be able to either back up their performances or turn them around.

My Predictions

So back in April I made a forecast about what the top five would look like at the end of 2009. Of course I was wrong, but everyone in my top four certainly had their chance to make a run for #1 this year. That being said, here's my call for year-end 2010 -- feel free to heckle:

  1. Roger Federer
  2. Novak Djokovic
  3. Juan Martin Del Potro
  4. Rafael Nadal
  5. Andy Murray
  6. Robin Soderling
  7. Nikolay Davydenko
  8. Marin Cilic
  9. Andy Roddick
  10. Gael Monfils

Be sure to check back next year to see how I do, and tell me who you think will be on top in the new decade!

See you then!

December 12, 2009

Year in Review: The Ladies

Well another year has come and gone and, as usual, we've got plenty to reflect upon. There was a ton of drama both on and off the courts, and while most of the top players held fast to their positions among the tennis elite, we saw quite a few twists and turns along the way.

The top ten players in the world aren't so different from what they were last year. There was a bit of shuffling and a couple ascendants. Notably missing are Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic -- more on them later -- but those that made the cut did so with varying amounts of fanfare:

  1. (2) Serena Williams
  2. (3) Dinara Safina
  3. (8) Svetlana Kuznetsova
  4. (12) Caroline Wozniacki
  5. (4) Elena Dementieva
  6. (6) Venus Williams
  7. (15) Victoria Azarenka
  8. (1) Jelena Jankovic
  9. (7) Vera Zvonareva
  10. (10) Aggie Radwanska

Elena Dementieva reached a career high ranking of #3 in the world back in April and began the year with a solid 15-0 record. She also was half of what was probably the best women's match of the year. Though she dropped a spot in the rankings, her three titles in 2009 show she's still at the top of her game.

Aggie Radwanska didn't quite have the success she did during her breakout year, but despite dropping a couple of spots here and there, she climbed her way back into the top ten thanks to a semifinal appearance in Tokyo and a runner-up trophy in Beijing.

But those performances only scratch the surface of all the action we saw this year -- good, bad and ugly. And in the spirit of the holiday season, let's start with the good:

The Highlights

Oddly -- or maybe not so much -- my two highest points of the year involve players not in the top ten.

I had never been a big fan of Kim Clijsters before her retirement, but even I have to admit that what she pulled off at the U.S. Open was nothing short of spectacular. Just one month and two tournaments back from her maternity leave sabbatical, she defeated both Williams sisters and a spunky Caroline Wozniacki to win her second title in Flushing Meadows, becoming -- as the commentators were quick to point out ad nauseum -- the first mom to win a Grand Slam) since Evonne Goolagong took Wimbledon in 1980. She did so with the grace and excitement fitting of a champion, bringing her eighteen-month-old daughter on court with her for the trophy presentation.

Not surprisingly, Kim's quick comeback and immediate success prompted fel low Belgian and another former #1 Justin Henin to return from her premature retirement. She'll make her re-debut on the Tour at some exhibition events next month to gear up for the Austalian Open.

Another star marked her own comeback this year, though her absence was less voluntary. After a nine-month hiatus Maria Sharapova finished this year outside the top ten for the first time since 2003. But that's not to say this was a disappointnig year for her by any means. Since returning from shoulder surgery in May she made at least the quarters of the first three tournaments she played. She played a relentless schedule, battling through weeks where she had a match almost every day, and finally won her first tournament in over a year in Tokyo. After falling to #126 in the world, she climbed her way back up to #14 -- not bad for having missed so much of the year.

Svetlana Kuznetsova was one of the few women who took my suggested New Year's Resolution for them seriously. Going more than a year without a title, she was barely holding on to the top tier before the spring. Then she won in Stuttgart and made the finals in Rome. And in Paris she survived a nearly three hour battle against Serena before routing top-seeded Safina in the finals, claiming only the second Major of her ten-year career. She put in a solid performance the rest of the year, too, winning the premier event in Beijing and making her way back to #3 in the world.

The Lowlights

Without a doubt, the worst part of the 2009 season came during Serena Williams' semifinal at the U.S. Open. Combined with Vera Zvonareva's profanity-laced outburst earlier in the week, the ladies just weren't very ladylike in New York. But I've already expounded on that at length, so there's no need to rehash my feelings here. In any case there were plenty of other meltdowns of a less offensive nature.

Venus Williams moved around quite a bit in the rankings this year, getting within a stone's throw of #2 and then falling to #7. While she had a chance to repeat with a second straight title in Doha, her year was more defined by an early upset in Australia, two consecutive losses to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and a demolition by baby sister when trying to win her sixth Wimbledon title. Of course she has a knack for coming back when you least expect it, but Venus certainly proved that almost anyone can beat her.

Dinara Safina exhibited her vulnerability as well -- though the twenty-three year old Russian spent a good portion of the yeat at #1, she seemed to bow under the pressure of her position. Not only the runner-up at Roland Garros, she was bagelled in the first set of the Australian Open finals, making her oh-for-three in Grand slam title matches. Sure she won a couple of premier events, but continued to prove, time and again, that she couldn't convert on the big stage. After winning the U.S. Open Series last year, she made an early exit in New York and then suffered two losses to players ranked in the triple-digits. Then she pulled out of her first match at the Tour Championships with a lower back injury -- one that's also going to keep her out of Brisbane in January. Not the best way to end a year you began with such promise. While Dinara still holds on to a #2 ranking, that grip seems tenuous at best -- if she doesn't learn how to perform on the big stage quickly, she may see her star tumble soon.

While Safina would choke in the late round of Majors, Ana Ivanovic had trouble from the get-go. She reached her career high last year, not long after she won her only Grand Slam title in Paris. But 2009 was self-admittedly a disappointment for her, as she couldn't get past the round of sixteen in any Slam. Plagued with a series of injuries she suffered some early upsets at the start of the year and only made the fourth round at Roland Garros. Worse, she lost her opening match in New York and withdrew from the China Open before eventually forgoing the rest of the season. With one let down after another, Ana saw her ranking drop to #22 at year end, but despite being so hard on herself she's hoping to make a strong comeback in Australia. It might take something a bit more than time off and new coaching, but I'm hoping for the best.

The Resurgents

While some fell, others climbed.

Sam Stosur has been around for over a decade, but she was never really a force until this year. In her early career she did well on the ITF circuit, winning four titles in 2001, but she was kind of a middling player on the main singles Tour -- she had won a slew of doubles titles, including the French and U.S. Opens. Then 2009 came around and things changed. Just a year after returning from a nagging viral illness, she reached the quarters in Miami and the semis at Roland Garros -- her best ever performance at a Slam. During a year in which she notched wins over Serena, Dinara and Elena Dementieva, she also earned her first championship with a straight-set win over Francesca Schiavone in Osaka. Her year-end ranking of #13 makes her the best Australian player in the world -- not bad for a country that boasts greats like Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis and the Woodies.

Kimiko Date Krumm also had a lot to be happy about this year. The one-time fourth-ranked player in the world came out of a ten-year retirement and had a better year than most. She made it through the qualifying rounds in Melbourne before losing to Kaia Kanepi, 6-8 in the third, and received a wildcard entry to Wimbledon. After winning three ITF titles last year, she followed up with another win in Monzon, Spain and brought her ranking back into the double-digits. Her inspiring run culminated with a trophy in Seoul, where she'd defeated top seed Daniela Hantuchova and a strong Alisa Kleybanova, one day before her thirty-ninth birthday, making her the second oldest woman ever to win a Tour title.

The Newcomers

On the opposite end of the spectrum are a couple of teenagers who made their presense known loud and clear in 2009.

The year started out being all about Victoria Azarenka who took home three trophies all before the end of the first quarter. The nineteen-year-old (she turned twenty in July) began by winning her first title in Brisbane and following it up with trophies in Memphis and Miami, defeating Safina and Serena on the way. She cracked the top ten in March and held on to the position, qualifying for her first year-end Championship in Doha. While she didn't have the best results in the back half of the year, she definitely still has the strength and smarts to get herself back on track.

Sorana Cirstea also began the year on fire. She made the semis at Marbella and the quarters in Estoril. Her power-hitting strokes and good looks caused some commentators to tout her as the new generation's Jennifer Capriati during the French Open, where she upset Alize Cornet and Jelena Jankovic before ultimately falling to Stosur in the Round of Eight. That run earned her a seed for both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and a couple of big wins during the hard-court season showed that she still has potential for next year, even if she fell in a handful of first rounds in the fall.

While both girls began the year strong, a couple others finished it out. Melanie Oudin became the darling of Flushing Meadows when she became the surprise quarterfinalist, notching wins over three seeded players in a row. But her breakout started even earlier in the year than that. She was the surprise heroine in the U.S.'s first round defeat of Argentina in the Fed Cup World Group and she ousted Jankovic in the third round at Wimbledon. Her ascent from #177 in the world at the end of last year to #48 now is clearly an indication that American women's tennis -- outside the Williamses -- should not be written off just yet.

Another teenager Caroline Wozniacki was the spoiler in Melanie's miraculous run at New York. The nineteen-year-old Dane had inched precariously close to the top ten by the end of last year, but didn't really start to shine until 2009. She made the finals in Memphis and the quarters in two consecutive premier events -- Indian Wells and Miami -- before taking the title in Ponte Vedra. She racked up wins over Elena Dementieva and Daniela Hantuchova early off in the year and repeated her championship run in a rain-soaked New Haven before acheiving her highest honor. During the finals of the U.S. Open, she put up quite a fight against the veteran Clijsters before falling in two sets. But for a girl who's only played on the Major tour for three years, she certainly isn't slacking.

The Out-Goers

We said good-bye to a few familiar faces too, this year.

Veteran doubles champion Ai Sugiyama made her last appearance in her hometown of Tokyo back in September where she and long-time partner Daniela Hantucova made the finals. During her nearly seventeen-year career, she's racked up six singles and thirty-eight doubles titles, reaching the quarters in a few Grand Slams and taking home three Major doubles trophies. At the '09 U.S. Open she set the record for most consecutive Slam main draw appearances -- sixty-two. That's a lot of time for someone of such grace and talent to make a lot of friends, and she will surely be missed on Tour.

When I started writing this post Amelie Mauresmo hadn't formally announced her retirement yet, but that's just what she did earlier in December. After a disappointing season the two-time Slam winner and former #1 said she no longer felt the desire to train or compete. Though she won her first title since 2007 at the Paris Indoors, Mauresmo didn't have a lot of luck in the Majors this year. She withdrew from tournaments in the fall with an abdominal injury and back in October she wrote on her website:

"Since my return from the U.S. Open, I tried to practice, but I haven't found the thirst to compete. I won't rush into things or force the issue. I'll give myself time to think,in order to make a decision as for the rest of my career."

Always a force on the Tour, the competetive spirit Amelie brought to the game will certainly be missed. But hopefully there are a few other players there ready to pick up where she left off.

So it's certainly been an interesting 2009, an appropriate ending for a very eventful decade. And just in case fans were about to write off women's tennis, this year showcased the very best -- and some of the worst -- of the athletic and emotional ability of these ladies.

And we seem to have set the stage for what could be a very exciting 2010.

December 6, 2009

Spanish Sweep

Spain may have clinched their second straight Davis Cup title on Saturday, but their follow up performance today showed that, London results notwithstanding, they are the tennis force to be reckoned with.

Rafael Nadal kicked off the quest to repeat with a quick and easy win over world #20 Tomas Berdych. After keeping it close in the first set, he only ceded two games in the back half of his straight set victory to give his country the 1-0 lead.

Things got a little tense in the second rubber, though -- I was admittedly surprised that captain Albert Costa chose to play David Ferrer in the second singles spot instead of Fernando Verdasco, and at first it looked as though the choice would cost him. Ferrer fell to a 0-2 set deficit against Radek Stepanek, a man who'd already played a marathon six-hour match against Ivo Karlovic in the semis back in September. But David wasn't ready to succumb quite yet -- he battled back to even things up and took the deciding set to 8-6 before giving Spain the big lead going into the weekend.

When Verdasco teamed with Feliciano Lopez to dismiss the doubles team of Berdych and Stepanek on Saturday, Spain ran off with an insurmountable 3-0 lead. But just to keep things tidy, both Nadal and Ferrer won their last two matches, knocking out the little-known Jan Hajek and doubles ace Lukas Dlouhy, respectively.

The win this weekend gave Spain their fourth Davis Cup title -- all of which were won during this decade. It was also the first time a team has repeated since Sweden did so in 1997-98. But, lest Spain get too sure of itself, the team has drawn Switzerland in the first round of next year's World Group draw. How interesting would it be to see Rafa and Roger Federer face off in a Davis Cup rubber? While you still have to like Spain as the overall favorite in that match-up, it could very well be a short-lived reign for the two-time defending champions.

So, here's hoping they enjoy this victory as long as they can!

December 3, 2009

In Search of Redemption

Tomorrow the Davis Cup finals kick off in Barcelona with the defending champions taking on first-time contenders, the Czech Republic*, and two of Spain's stars are hoping to lead their country to a repeat.

In 2008 they were linchpins -- Rafael Nadal won his two first round matches versus Serbia, and Fernando Verdasco clinched the title with a five-set rubber against Jose Acasuso of Argentina. So as anchors for their team this year, they have a lot to live up to -- and maybe a little to make up for.

Both Rafa and Fernando played at the ATP World Tour Finals in London last week, and both went home with surprising 0-3 records. Verdasco put up the best fight he could, taking a set from each of his opponents, but Nadal dropped each in straights, losing his third consecutive match to Novak Djokovic and his second straight to Robin Soderling.

It's not like either of them to lose so handily -- together they've combined for a 116-39 record and six titles this year. And with David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez rounding out their team, there's a great argument that Spain should take home their fourth Davis Cup.

But they do face stiff competition from the Czechs. That country's top player, Radek Stepanek, has improved his own ranking in recent weeks, making the semis in Paris and Basel. And Tomas Berdych won his own trophy in Munich last May by beating Lleyton Hewitt and Mikhail Youzhny in tough three-setters. Verdasco has lost more matches than he's won against these opponents, and Rafa hasn't faced Stepanek in over four years. And if that's not intimidating enough, doubles whiz Lukas Dlouhy is coming off two Grand Slam championships this year.

So it's shaping up to be a tougher match-up than might be expected. But if Rafa and Fernando are going to redeem themselves -- and I certainly hope that they do -- there's no better stage on which to do it.

* The former Czechoslovakia won the Davis Cup in 1980 when Ivan Lendl helped lead the then-united country to a 4-1 win over Italy.

November 29, 2009

Second Time's the Charm

It took quite an effort for Nikolay Davydenko to claim the biggest title of his career. The twenty-eight year old Russian had to beat not one, but three Grand Slam titleholders plus another runner-up in order to win the ATP World Tour Finals in London this week. But he certainly brought the goods when he needed it most.

Davydenko didn't qualify for the year-end championships until just two weeks ago at the Paris Masters where, ironically, it wasn't his stellar performance, but the mediocre showings from some other contenders that sealed the deal. In France he lost in the third round to Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling -- a man he met again during the last of his round robin matches in London. Had Nikolay repeated the defeat his ride would have ended, but instead the two-hour, three-set rematch on Friday ended in victory and he made the semifinals for the third time.

Davydenko had already defeated a struggling Rafael Nadal in his first match of the week, and his win over Soderling must have given him that extra confidence he needed. In Saturday's semis he hung tough against Grand Slam record-holder Roger Federer, a man he'd never beaten in twelve previous tries, and after another long match made the finals for the second year in a row -- this time to face reigning U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.

I have to admit I was giving DelPo the advantage on Sunday -- he'd beaten Roger again during his round robins and was impressive against a strong Soderling in the prior round. He's also been the golden child of the last half of 2009, making the finals in Montreal and taking the title in Washington before his coup in New York.

Davydenko, himself, has had a great fall. He won two titles in Asia, notching wins over Novak Djokovic and Nadal in Shanghai. But he's never had the best luck at major tournaments -- he's made the final four at the French and U.S. Opens a couple times, but never been able to convert. Last year in the finals against Djokovic, he was routed in the first set and in about a hundred minutes lost the match handily.

Today, however, Nikolay was in rare form. A man never comfortable at the net, he volleyed one shot after another past the six-foot-six Argentine, and seemed to get to everything that was tossed his way. He saved both break chances Del Potro had in the second set, never allowing him into the match, and closed out the championship with a 6-3, 6-4 win.

It was clearly a great moment for Davydenko, but the state of play in London this week may highlight further the shifting state of men's tennis. With only the best players qualifying for London, no match should be considered a walk in the park. Even still, take a look at a few of the results -- Nadal went 0-3 in the round robins! Federer lost for a second straight time to DelPo, and for the first ever time to Nikolay. Djokovic didn't get a chance to repeat his victory of last year and Andy Murray, well, I don't think many gave the hometown-hero too much of a shot here.

With just over a month before the sport's best players head Down Under, the stage has already been set for what could be a very interesting year.

November 25, 2009

Last In, First Out the Gate

Robin Soderling was the last man to qualify for the year-end Barclays ATP World Championships, getting the ticket only after Andy Roddick withdrew with an injury. But the Roland Garros runner-up, having climbed to a career-high #9 ranking, was off to a quick start during the round-robin matches in London this week.

First he pulled off a repeat of the French Open fourth round by downing Rafael Nadal in straight sets. Then he rolled over last year's champion, red-hot Novak Djokovic, 6-1 in the second. That clinched the Swede's spot in the semifinals -- quite an accomplishment for his first World Tour Finals. If he beats Nikolay Davydenko tomorrow, a task he last completed two weeks ago at the Paris Masters, he'll be the only one of the Elite Eight to amass a 3-0 record during the first stage of the tournament.

Soderling's quick run to the top of the tennis world is just another indication of how the sport is changing. Nadal, who ended last year as #1, hasn't yet won a match in London -- he'll get his last chance tomorrow against Djokovic, but I fear his chances are slim. And Juan Martin Del Potro, who beat Roger Federer for the second straight time earlier this evening, earned his own first appearance in the Championship semis. (Roger, of course, also made the semis for the seventh time, returning after a disappointing performance in Shanghai last year.

It might be too soon to say the reign of past champions is over -- after all, I've said that a few times this year only to be proven wrong. But there is a new crop of kids to watch out for, if not at this tournament, then certainly next year. Soderling might not be able to pull out the big win this week -- despite all the success he's had in 2009, he still has a dismal record against Roger -- but I'm sure every other player on Tour is beginning to see him as a real force.

Here's hoping he can keep it up!

November 22, 2009

Open and Shut?

As the ATP World Championships begin in London this week, I can't help but look back at the career of the winner here nearly twenty years ago, one who's been making news of a different kind in recent weeks.

Andre Agassi defeated Stefan Edberg at the Frankfurt tournament in 1990 when he was ranked fourth in the world. It was still pretty early in his career, when he'd only won a single Masters title (in Miami earlier that year), but he had already made the finals at both the French and U.S. Opens. He was still more than four years away from his #1 ranking and seven from his career low which was laced with depression, premature hair loss, an unhappy marriage and more than a few episodes of drug-use -- all detailed thoroughly, if you hadn't heard, in his new autobiography Open.

Now I haven't read the book, but I've read enough of the reviews and seen enough of the reaction. Martina Navratalova likened him to Roger Clemens, Marat Safin said he should return all his trophies. Andy Roddick, though, supported him as one of the great ambassadors of the sport and a few days ago, the ATP said it could not reopen the doping case against him.

All this comes during a year rife with accusations of or injunctions against drug use in the tennis world. Richard Gasquet was punished with what could have been a two-year ban after he tested positive for cocaine in March -- he was allowed to return to play in July after it was determined that a "contaminated kiss" was the actual culprit. Martina Hingis, whose own suspension ended in September, said she would not return to the sport. And now former top-twenty player Xavier Malisse and U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer face the prospect of sitting on the sidelines for twelve months for failing to report their whereabouts when the authorities were looking for them -- I'm still not sure I understand what they did wrong.

So what were the consequences?

Gasquet was ranked in the mid-twenties this past spring -- the once-formidable player has now fallen to #53. Hingis, who was in the middle of her first comeback in 2007, had climbed herself back to #18 in the world before permanently retiring. Wickmayer, after winning her second tour title and qualifying for Bali, had reached a career-high ranking -- one year off the circuit, she fears, could derail all the work she's done this year -- after all, not everyone can pull off a comeback of any significant magnitude.

For Agassi, of course, he presumably "got away with it". Twelve years after the fact, he's now remembered not for the slump of the late-nineties -- even if we didn't know what caused it at the time -- but for his resurrgence since. He won the career Grand Slam two years after hitting rock-bottom, regained his #1 ranking a day before his thirty-third birthday, married a fellow super star and started schools in Las Vegas to help the underprivileged. Drugs and baldness aside, turns out he's not that bad a guy.

Now of course I don't support the use of drugs, performance-enhancing or otherwise -- in or outside of sports. It does seem that officials are trying to retroactively make up for the oversight of Andre by being overly punitive now. Or maybe they're just trying to avoid the mistake they made back then. But what would the sport look like if Agassi hadn't played for those two years? What would he look like?

I don't know what the right answer is, don't know whether these players should be maligned or revered. But maybe you shouldn't be judged at your worst -- but by what you do after it.

November 15, 2009

With the Help of a Master

Back in August Novak Djokovic announced that he had recruited former world #4 Todd Martin to be part of his coaching staff. Today he received further proof of just what a great decision that was.

Martin was one of those great American players in an era dominated by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. In a career that spanned fourteen years, Todd won eight titles and played in the finals at both the U.S. and Australian Opens. He also racked up a handful of doubles championships, most recently with James Blake in the 2002 Cincinnati Masters. While he was never able to break into the top spot of the sport, he's hoping to help Novak do just that.

It wasn't that Djokovic was having a particularly bad year before Martin came on board. He made the finals at three straight Masters events during the spring, defeating Roger Federer twice on the way, and won a couple of titles in Dubai and Belgrade. But the winner of the 2008 title in Melbourne and the year-end championship last year failed to dominate in January. He retired during the quarters in Australia and dropped in straight sets in the third round at Roland Garros. He just couldn't seem to get it done in the big tournaments.

But there's something different in Nole's step in the months since Todd came on. He got to the semis in New York, his best Slam performance all year, and followed up a month later with a title in Beijing where he only lost one set. That helped bring him back up to #3 in the world, a ranking Andy Murray took away from him in May. Then, of course, was his phenomenal victory last week in Basel, where he dethroned three-time defending champion Roger Federer in his homeland.

This week in Paris, the last Masters 1000 event of the year, Djokovic faced a field just as intimidating as at any slam. But after a long quarterfinal match against French Open finalist Robin Soderling, he absolutely dominated Rafael Nadal in the semis.

In today's match Novak faced another hometown favorite in Gael Monfils, another formidable opponent looking to make a name for himself on the big stage. But despite being outserved -- the six-foot-four Frenchman shot off twelve aces to Djokovic's two -- and squandering a 3-0 lead in the second set, Novak kept his cool in a third set tiebreak, claiming his fifth title of the year after nearly three hours on the court.

So how much of Nole's recent performance is due to his innate talent and how much to the watchful eyes of Todd Martin? It's hard to say -- at least so soon. But you can certainly see the improvement in the Serb's groundstrokes and his power, and is ability not to linger on lost opportunities is a testament to a better on-court attitude. When he travels to London next week to defend his year-end title -- and to try for his third championship in a row -- we could see just how much Martin is helping his fitness and strength.

And if he can bring that momentum into next year, well, then we'll really have something to talk about!

November 11, 2009

Who Is This Guy?!

France's Julien Benneteau has had a few big wins in his nearly ten-year career. A couple years ago he beat Andy Roddick and Fernando Gonzalez, and even scored a win over James Blake back when he was in the top ten. Last year he beat countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a handful of times and made the finals of two singles tournaments. And earlier in 2009 he notched a nice victory over fifth-ranked Nikolay Davydenko in Rotterdam before losing in the quarters.

But without a doubt, his biggest win came tonight when he shocked the tennis world by trouncing #1-ranked, top-seeded, Grand Slam record holder Roger Federer in the second round of the Paris Masters.

To be fair, of course, it wasn't exactly a trouncing. After all, Roger did take the first set in less than thirty minutes. But after that, the forty-ninth ranked twenty-seven year old had the champion running -- he won the second set in a tiebreak and then took an early lead in the third and never looked back. In just under two hours he scored the biggest upset of the tournament so far and handed Federer his earliest exit since July, 2008.

So who exactly is this man who came out of nowhere to beat the great Roger?

Julien Benneteau hasn't had a terribly notable career, having acheived a middling record of 115-140 and losing all three of the ATP finals he's played. He's probably a better doubles player, having won five titles in that discipline, but he did reach a high singles ranking of #33 this past October. He's never had the best of luck in the Majors -- he lost in the first round of the first three this year, but did make the third round in New York, his best performance there. The only surface on which he's won more matches than he's lost is carpet.

A few more wins in Paris would give Benneteau his best showing at a Masters event, but he has a long ways to go. Next up he'll face another Frenchman, Gael Monfils -- who's beaten him in three of their last four meetings. But with the favorite already taken care of, there's no reason to believe he can't pull off another win -- and any future opponent has to feel much less intimidating now.

After all, no matter who Benneteau is any other day of the year, today he is the man who beat Roger Federer.

Incidentally, the other three top seeds must be breathing their own sighs of relief. Both Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray endured long three-setters today, and Novak Djokovic, who beat Roger in Basel last week, was down 2-5 in the second set to Juan Monaco before rallying for the win. Any one of them could see a nice little jump in their ranking if they last much longer in France.

As long as they don't run into their own Julien Benneteau first!

November 8, 2009

A French Revolution

It was a battle of the French this week in Bali, where the first ever Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Championships took place. The new tournament showcased the talent of new and established stars of the sport, inviting the ten highest-ranked women who'd won an international tournament this year -- and who didn't qualify for the season-ending championships in Doha -- plus two wild cards to compete for as much as a million dollars in prize money.

The headliners for the inaugural tournament didn't disappoint. Marion Bartoli and Sam Stosur claimed the top seeds while Sabine Lisicki, a finalist in Luxembourg and winner in Charleston, and veteran Kimiko Date Krumm accepted the final two spots. And right from the get-go there was quite a bit of drama to speak of. Two-time titlist Yanina Wickmayer voluntarily withdrew after word spread of her twelve-month suspension from the Tour (for not showing up for drug tests -- and in the week after Andre Agassi's confessions, it seems the authorities are just trying to make a point). Both Lisicki and Stosur were upset in their groups, and Bartoli was the only top seed to advance to the semis and ultimately to the finals.

There she met Aravane Rezai, the twenty-two year old who captured her first championship trophy when she beat Lucie Hradecka in Stasbourg last May. The rest of the year has been filled with ups and downs for her, though, as she lost a couple of tournaments in the early rounds and only barely qualified for Linz and Luxembourg to end the year. She'd lost her last two meetings with Bartoli, most recently in Tokyo this past September.

On Sunday afternoon in Bali, though, she fought her way back from being down set point at 3-5 to take the first 7-5. When Bartoli had to retire with a quadricep injury, Aravane held up the biggest trophy of her career thus far.

It's not quite enough to shoot Rezai into the top-most rankings, but it does make a case for French tennis on the women's Tour. The men already have Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they have Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils. The women are struggling a bit with Amelie Mauresmo speaking of retirement and Virginie Razzano losing most of her matches against the top players.

But maybe with a little less than three months left before the first Grand Slam of next year, it might be time to start looking at another country to be a force on the courts.

By the way, the country you think is most likely to dominate in 2010, according to my admittedly unscientific poll, is Russia. Only one person voted for Belgium, something that shocked me. But even though the polls are closed, I still want to know what you think! Leave your comments below!

November 6, 2009

The Most Underrated Man in Tennis

Okay, of course that statement is a bit of an exaggeration -- but still, it's easy enough to have never heard of Marin Cilic.

The twenty-one year old Croat first started grabbing attention last year when, after a rough spring, he finally started putting together back-to-back wins during the grass court season. His win in New Haven at the expense of Mardy Fish capped off a great 2008.

This year he bested himself, quietly plugging away this year to reach a career high #13 ranking. But even though he began 2009 by capturing two tiles in Chennai and Zagreb, he didn't really make a splash until September when he shocked Andy Murray at the U.S. Open. Since then, he's put together a string of impressive wins, even beating red-hot Nikolay Davydenko and Rafael Nadal in Beijing.

This week Cilic hopes to follow up two straight second place finishes with the big prize at the Swiss Indoors in Basel. With the tournament attracting some top talent, though, he hasn't faced an easy field so far. In the first round he drew a feisty Philipp Petzschner who reached a career-high ranking of #35 just two months ago, and next suffered a battle royal against Viktor Troicki which lasted over three hours and three tiebreaks.

He doesn't have much time to rest -- today Marin faces Davis Cup opponent, Czech Radek Stepanek. They've split their previous two meetings, with Marin last winning in straight sets at Roland Garros earlier this year. But Radek has improved his own play over the last several months and is himself ranked #14, just behind Cilic. And while he was also tested in his second round match, he's had that all-important extra day of rest.

It might be too much to hope for a win this afternoon for Cilic, and even if he does advance there's a long road ahead with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer both potential opponents. In any case, though, Marin has proven he's someone to pay attention to -- if not yet as a title-contender, at least as a dark horse.

And if he can pull the momentum he's accumulated this year into 2010, there's no reason we won't see him atop a few more winner's podiums soon!

November 3, 2009

The Jury's Still Out

This week I'm doing my civic duty and serving on a jury -- or at least sitting around waiting to see if I'll be selected to serve on a jury -- to decide another's fate. Meanwhile the fates of a couple men playing on a different kind of court are similarly undecided.

For all that's been said about how open the women's field is this year, there's been plenty of movement on the men's side too. Rafael Nadal started 2009 at #1 and dropped unceremoniously to #3 for a couple weeks in August. Roger Federer reclaimed his top spot and set a mass of records, but then fell in the finals of the one tournament he hasn't lost since 2003. Andy Murray himself got within one Grand Slam win of a #1 ranking but, due to a persistent wrist injury, is now fourth. And a strong back half of the year has brought Novak Djokovic back securely into the third spot.

And while the Majors might be over, there are still a chunk of points up for grabs -- sure, not everyone can hope to end the year as #1, but a couple of wins in the next few tournaments can bring with them a lot of momentum into 2010.

This week marks the return of Roger and Andy, neither of whom have played since the U.S. Open, both facing some tough fields in Europe.

In Basel Roger Federer had an easy time with Stockholm runner-up Olivier Rochus, but with Djokovic, who's already beaten him twice this year, Fernando Gonzalez and Marin Cilic all in the mix, a title in his homeland is not exactly a given. He may be a bit rusty after his time off, but even still, you have to believe the case for Roger to end the year with some big wins is strongest.

A little further west and south in Valencia, Murray could face Fernando Verdasco, Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, all of whom have impressive wins in their head-to-heads. And he's probably the most in need of some irrefutable evidence to prove his case as a Slam contender -- everyone likes to point out how Dinara Safina folds under the pressure of the Majors, but Andy Murray doesn't have a terribly solid history himself.

As for Rafa, well, I'm still waiting for him to bring the force I know he can. It's not that he's done badly since returning from the knee injury that forced him to skip Wimbledon -- he's made at least the quarters of every tournament he's played, and the finals in Shanghai. But a couple of doubters seems to fear his best is behind him.

I don't believe them. I think Nadal has clearly shown his prowess on all court surfaces. Maybe he hasn't played his best in recent months, but he certainly hasn't lost to no-name players, and his injuries haven't seemed to plague him too badly. He'll have had almost a month off by the time he gets to Paris next week, and with everyone in the hunt for that title, we'll know beyond a reasonable doubt whether Rafa's back on top of his game soon enough. The motive for him to do well is certainly there -- he's probably the only one with a chance to take #1 from Roger.

It'll be a few weeks before the final verdict on this year's ATP season is in, but I have a feeling these closing arguments could get very interesting!

October 31, 2009

Looking to Defend -- and For Revenge

I have to admit, I'm not terribly excited about this year's final at the WTA Championships. To me it seems like yet another all-Williams final, with the two sisters' twenty-third professional meeting -- and second this week -- taking place amid the sands of Doha.

It's not terribly surprising that the two finalists came out of the same half -- the much less stacked White Group not only contained two of the last women to qualify, but it also suffered a couple of withdrawals. Dinara Safina only lasted two games before a back injury caused her to retire against Jelena Jankovic. Her replacement, 2008 runner-up Vera Zvonareva, lost her first match to Caroline Wozniacki and subsequently pulled out herself because of ankle problems. Her spot was filled by Aggie Radwanska who incidentally won her only match when Victoria Azarenka, the last girl in the group, also retired during their third set.

The Maroon Group clearly had the more powerful contenders -- Serena and Venus, of course, as well as the French Open champ and another player who had herself won three titles this year.

When the tournament began on Tuesday, it didn't look as though last year's champ had much of a chance. She started off falling to Elena Dementieva after holding a one-set lead and then notched her third straight loss to her baby sister during the Round Robins. While Serena advanced easily to the semis, Venus had to wait to see what Svetlana Kuznetsova would do before claiming the unlikely last spot in the final four. Wins by both sisters today -- Venus this time coming from behind to take out Jankovic and Serena benefiting from yet another withdrawal by Wozniacki -- set up the once impossibly inevitable match-up.

It seems clear that the younger Williams is the favorite in tomorrow's final -- she regains the #1 ranking next week regardless of the result. Besides, Venus has fallen to a #7 ranking after a couple of early-round exits in Asia and the loss of a slew of points from a year ago, and she hasn't claimed a title since Acapulco in February. And she's dropped six sets this week, more than anyone else in Doha.

But for some reason I'm pulling for Venus this time. After all she was similarly the underdog in Doha in 2008, seeded eighth there, and she didn't lose a match during that tournament. And one of my Twitter followers points out that she might be out to prove a point -- the Times of London earlier this week suggested she wasn't quite in form to handle the younger, hotter crowd. Nothing sparks the competetive fight in an athlete than someone counting you down and out. And, after falling to a 10-12 career record against Serena, Venus has some ground to regain.

It'll be a battle, of course -- it almost always is. And while I can't bring myself to care too much about the result, I can't help but root just a bit for the elder statesman of the group.

And that we see some new faces in the mix next year!

October 26, 2009

Back on Top

As the 2009 tennis season winds down, most of the players in action these last couple of weeks don't harbor any delusions of making the cut to enter London. Nevertheless a couple of wins this past week certainly did their part to boost the spirits of a few names who've been out of the mix for some time.

Despite a pretty strong field at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, the top two seeds -- red-hot Nikolay Davydenko and Victor Hanescu -- both lost early. And that allowed more than a few unknown names make it to later rounds. But eventually it was Mikhail Youzhny defeating Janko Tipsarevic in the finals, earning the Russian his fifth career title.

It hasn't been that long since Mikhail won a tournament -- he took home the trophy in Chennai last year -- but recently he's been more known for his on-court outbursts than his actual skills. He had some success during the spring's clay season, but then suffered six straight losses before hitting the hard courts. But earlier this month he made the finals in Tokyo, beating Gilles Simon and Lleyton Hewitt on the way, before heading to his homeland. And his title in Moscow lifted Youzhny to his best ranking in a year.

Marcos Baghdatis has had a similarly frustating stretch since he finished runner up to Roger Federer at the 2006 Australian Open. While I began the year with high hopes for the Cypriot, a series of first-round losses and a month-long absence due to a left knee injury dropped him to a #151 ranking. He didn't have a great summer, but he was able to capture three challenger events with wins over veteran Xavier Malisse and up-and-comer Denis Ostomin.

Baghdatis opened the If Stockholm Open with a win over third seed Juan Carlos Ferrero and benefited when favorite Robin Soderling withdrew with an elbow injury. His ultimate win over Olivier Rochus in the finals gave him his third championship, and his first in over two years, getting him back into the top fifty.

Youzhny will be back on the courts this week in St. Petersburg as the top seed, while Marcos seems to have ended his season on a high note. Whatever the results the remainder of the year, though, both players must be proud of their performances last week -- there's no better way to end the year than with a big win!

October 22, 2009

The Fields Get Narrowed

The year-end championships for both the WTA and ATP are drawing near, and there are just a few spots left as players make their final sprints to the finish line.

Current world #2 Rafael Nadal was the first to qualify for the Barclays World Tour Finals way back in May, and after Andy Roddick secured his spot on Tuesday, there are now only two openings left for London.

Given his recent performances you have to think Nikolay Davydenko is a front-runner for the seventh entry. His win in Shanghai last week brought him to his highest ranking since March. His first round loss to compatriot Marat Safin in Moscow Wednesday must have been slightly deflating, but even still Nikolay is in a strong position.

The eighth man in might be harder to call, however. Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga holds that spot in the rankings, and winning his third title of the year in Tokyo certainly helps make his case, but he's a lowly number eleven in the ATP race. Ahead of him is New Haven titlist Fernando Verdasco, though he's not getting back into action until Valencia next month.

Fernando Gonzalez also has an outside chance of making the final eight. The most experienced of the possibilities, he qualified for the championships in 2007, but it seems like ages since he acheived his career-high ranking of #5 that year. Fernando has had a couple of big wins this year, though, putting up a hard fight in the Washington semis and repeating his championship performance in Chile. But he's got a little time too before his next tournament -- he'll next take the court in Basel.

Most likely, at least at this point, is Roland Garros finalist and Nadal vanquisher Robin Soderling, who's had his own spate of success during this fall's Asia tour. He's got an opportunity to rack up even more points this week in Stockholm, where he's already reached the quarterfinals. It would be Robin's first appearance at the year-end tourney, an acheivement that would, no doubt, be a highlight in an already banner year.

There's less time to wait before the women's championships -- round-robin action there starts on Tuesday! Dinara Safina, who spent the majority of the year as the #1 ladies' player, earned her berth in May -- lucky for her she did, as she's had a slew of disappointments since then. The last two spots were pretty closely decided.

Though Victoria Azarenka secured her first ticket to Doha earlier this month, she must have been biting her nails. After starting the year with her maiden title in Brisbane and scoring some serious wins over Dinara, Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova on her way to capture two more, she kind of seemed to sputter. She didn't pass the third round of any tournament after Wimbledon and put together two straight losses to Maria Sharapova. But happily her early success was all she needed to put the cap on a very solid year.

Jelena Jankovic didn't find out she'd made the cut until earlier this morning when Vera Zvonareva didn't advance past the second round at the Kremlin Cup. Aggie Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta, who also lost earlier this week, gave up their chances with their opening match losses. Last year's #1, Jankovic, has had an up-and-down path in 2009. But a solid win in Cincinnati over the summer and a runner-up trophy in Tokyo put her back on a strong course going into Doha.

Notably missing from the action are two women who've made a quick climb back up the rankings -- but both Sharapova and U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters were absent for too much of the year. (Anyone remember the last time a reigning Grand Slam winner didn't make the championships?) They currently stand at #14 and #16 in the race, respectively.

But there are a host of new faces in the mix this year, on both the men's and women's side, which should make for an exciting end to the year. And with just a few weeks left before it's all wrapped up, the stage is already being set for a fun 2010!