January 1, 2009

A Toast to 2009!

Despite my "Best of 2008" article published last month, I'm actually not a huge fan of countdowns -- in my opinion the champagne toast that comes after the ball drop is more a matter of ritual than something truly celebration-worthy. But as the clock wound down to 2009, I figured it was only appropriate to enumerate the things I'm looking forward to this tennis season.

Last year was definitely one of ups and downs for many of the world's top players. Injuries sidelined Maria Sharapova, Lleyton Hewitt, even Rafael Nadal for various lengths of time. Roger Federer battled mono for the first half and exhaustion for the second half of the year. The women seemed content to play hot potato with the #1 ranking, while several men did what they could to prove there were more than a few names to keep your eye on.

And while 2008 was full of surprises, there are a few things that I wouldn't mind seeing in 2009.

#5. A comeback for the fallen
Remember Marcos Baghdatis? Jelena Dokic? What about Benjamin Becker? Or Sania Mirza?

2008 wasn't exactly a banner year for any of these players, but it wasn't that long ago when they were all at the top of their games -- and I see no reason why they can't make it back there.

Baghdatis made his mark on tennis at 2006's Australian Open where the #54-ranked Cypriot beat Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian before losing to Federer in the finals. He clawed himself to eighth in the world and gave Andre Agassi quite a run for the money in the American's last professional match at that year's U.S. Open. In 2008, though, Marcos played a paltry twelve tournaments, never advancing past the semis and retiring or withdrawing from four matches. Now ranked #98, he's got to come out swinging in Australia to prove he's not to be forgotten.

Almost ten years ago Jelena Dokic shocked the women's tennis circuit when she downed then-#1 Martina Hingis in straight sets in the first round at Wimbledon. She made it all the way to the quarters before losing to the other surprise entrant, Alexandra Stevenson. By 2002 she'd climbed all the way to a #4 ranking but was known more for her rude and obnoxious outspoken father, who was ejected from not just a few of her matches for inappropriate behavior. Now twenty-five, Jelena is working her way back into the spotlight and is trying to qualify for her first Grand Slam since 2006.

Both Marcos and Jelena had a presence on the court that few other players have, and I look forward to see them back out there!

Becker and Mirza never made it quite as high in the rankings, but they both had their share of success and failure over the last two years. I don't think it's inconceivable that either scores a few more big wins, and maybe even climbs into the top 20 before year-end.

#4. Jelena's first Slam
It's been a long time coming.

Obviously the best player without a major victory, Jelena Jankovic proved she could hit with the big boys in 2008, winning three consecutive titles toward the end of the year, and showing off her grace better than most gymnasts could. But while both her Serbian compatriots, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic, took home Slam titles last year, Jelena had to settle for the runner-up trophy in New York.

Her best chance for glory will come early in 2009, I feel, at this month's Austalian Open. Serena Williams has already pulled out of the Hopman Cup which begins on Saturday due to a persistent hamstring injury, and defending champion Maria Sharapova could be a bit rusty -- she hasn't played a match since August. Venus Williams is less of a threat Down Under, making it to the quarterfinals only once in the last five years, and Dinara Safina has never won more than two matches in Melbourne.

With her heaviest competition less of a threat, it might be a straight shot to Jelena's first Grand Championship -- then again, it could prove to be quite a battle.

In any case, I can't wait to watch!

#3. Satisfaction for the J-Block
While 2008 didn't quite claim my dear James Blake as a victim as much as it did others (see point #5 above), he certainly didn't have his best year.

Of course there were some high points -- his long-awaited defeat of Federer at the Olympics, for example -- but last year was the first since 2004, when incidentally he was battling Zoster, where James did not bring home a single championship trophy. His best results were final appearances at Delray Beach (where he lost to the Japanese phenom Kei Nishikori) and Houston (defeated by first-time Davis Cup competitor Marcel Granollers). In the end, Blake did manage to hold onto his spot among the tennis elite, though he did fall out of the top ten from time to time -- and his ever-loyal fan club was silenced more often than not.

This year I'm hoping for a return to top form -- and something to back up the J-Block's cheers.

It may be too much to ask that James bring home his first Grand Slam, but I don't think a few ATP titles are out of the question. He missed New Haven last year because of the Olympics (a scheduling fact I forgot when I excitedly bought tickets to the finals) and is almost always a favorite to win there. But even West Coast tourneys could hold some opportunities -- San Jose, Indian Wells, even L.A. are within his grasp.

You know I'll be in his corner -- even if only in spirit.

#2. The return of Maria
The women's tennis court was missing one of its most prominent stars for most of the year.

I'm sure a lot of different people missed Maria Sharapova for a lot of different reasons, but mine is simple -- the girl can play.

I once had a friend say Maria was the new Anna Kournikova -- pretty and blonde with no substance. Now I think Anna gets a bad rap, but this isn't the time for that discussion -- regardless, Maria proved she was more than a cute face when she upset Serena for the Wimbledon crown in 2004. She backed that win up with a 2006 U.S. Open title and further solidified her spot at the top when she won in Australia last year. In fact I was surprised Maria had begun 2008 with a #5 ranking. She had been the runner-up at the Sony Ericsson Championships and started out the new year with three titles in four tournaments. By the time Justine Henin retired, though, Sharapova had racked up enough points to regain her spot at the top.

But then disaster -- in the form of a shoulder injury -- struck.

In the latter part of the year, Maria was much less of a force. She lost in the second round of Wimbledon to little-known Alla Kudryavtseva and withdrew from Montreal after playing only one match. She took the rest of the year off to recover but hopes to return to the tour this month. And while I really do love her Canon PowerShot commercials -- and her puppy -- I'm hoping she'll be able to put up a fight in defense of her title in Melbourne.

Whenever she is back in full force, I'm sure I won't be the only one rooting her on!

#1. The match everyone is waiting for
Well, at least the one that I'm waiting for.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have met eighteen times over the last five years, six times in Grand Slam finals. But since August, when Rafa wrested the #1 ranking from the Roger, every potential match-up was foiled. First there was U.S. Open when Andy Murray selfishly kept Nadal from the finals, then Madrid where both were stopped in the semifinals, and finally Paris where neither were well enough to make it past the quarters.

It can only be a matter of time before we see the two meet again with a championship title on the line. As long as they hold onto their respective rankings, or only swap them between each other, there can be no other option. But with Novak Djokovic right on the heels of Federer, we might see the contest before a final -- something that hasn't happened since the semis of the French Open in 2005.

So will Rafa earn his fifth straight French Open and deny Roger his career Grand Slam? Will Federer reclaim his throne at the All England Club? Who knows?

In any case, you can be sure that when the two top dogs do meet again, sparks will be flying.

So raise your glass! There's a lot to look forward to in 2009!


Anonymous said...

I'm sure you saw that Andy Murray b!tchslapped Federer (again) and now Nadal in Abu Dhabi.

One of the strange things is that the "English" always toot their English heroes and disparage the Scots, Welsh and Irish. That is, until no Englishman does well. Then they claim one of the others (like Murray) and toast to the great "British" hero. Makes me sick!

Kavitha said...

I did indeed see the wins, but refuse to acknowledge them.

Incidentally, I do not blame the British for claiming Murray -- I blame Murray for wheedling his way into the country!