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!

October 18, 2009

The Breakthrough

I think it's safe to say that, before today, Australia's Sam Stosur was the best WTA player without a singles title to her name.

But this has been her comeback year, and one of hard-fought re-establishment as part of tennis's elite. Once ranked at the top of the doubles circuit, she missed most of 2007 and a chunk of last year with a viral illness, dropping well into the triple-digits before getting back on course. When 2009 began, she was the best player in her country -- even ranked higher than former #1 Lleyton Hewitt -- and took no time in fighting her way back.

In March Stosur made the quarterfinals in Miami, beating top seed Dinara Safina on the way. But her biggest success came a few months in Paris where she made the semis, her best ever Grand Slam showing. Over the summer she defeated French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in Toronto, Serena Williams in Stanford, and made the finals in Los Angeles. As a result Sam had earned her highest career ranking, breaking into the top twenty for the first time.

Still the ultimate goal of a singles trophy continued to elude her -- at least until today.

As the third seed this week in Osaka, Sam had a relatively easy time in her early rounds. She didn't drop a set in her first three rounds, and was steadfast in the semis against U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, a woman who'd beaten her 6-1 in their last two third sets.

In the championship match today, Stosur faced a feisty Francesca Schiavone. The Italian has had her own struggles this year, beginning 2009 with a handful of early-round losses but also out-lasting her seeding in Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She played one less match in Japan, thanks to a third-round walkover, but earned her second final of the year with a decisive win over Sania Mirza.

But Sam was just too much to handle today. After a tight first set, Stosur rolled over Francesca in the second, 6-1, to claim her first career title -- and if she stays healthy and as strong as she's been all year, it looks like this is just the well-deserved first of many after a very long wait!

Incidentally after a week rife with retirements in Shanghai, Rafael Nadal finally made his way to that championship match to face Nikolay Davydenko. And after a tough two hours in China it was the Russian who walked away with the trophy -- his fourth of the year. While it might have been disappointing for Rafa, who benefitted from two consecutive opponents withdrawing from their matches, making the finals of a Masters event has to give him some confidence going into the last leg of the year. Here's hoping next time he can convert!

October 16, 2009

It Takes a Toll

Earlier this week Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick both criticized the professional tennis season for being too long and greuling. Players have little time to recover after an intense schedule stretching almost eleven months, and top players have it even worse -- with just a few weeks off in December before heading Down Under the next January.

"It’s ridiculous to think that you have a professional sport that doesn’t have a legitimate off-season to rest, get healthy, and then train," Roddick told the AP. “I just feel sooner or later that common sense has to prevail."

It's true -- there are less than two months between the Paris Masters in November this year and next January's Medibank Open. And the top players have it even worse! The Davis Cup finals are held the first week in December, just thirty days before the Doha invitationals. By comparison the baseball season, which will end in a few weeks after the World Series champ is crowned, doesn't even begin spring training until March. And football players get the entire spring and most of summer off before hitting the gridiron again in August.

Though, as a fan, I'm happy to see tennis action nearly year-round, the athletes, of course, could use a bigger break. Seven of the top ten players have played more than twenty tournaments in the past year -- even Nadal, after accounting for his injury-addled absense after the French Open, has played eighteen and a handful of guys in the top hundred have entered more than thirty. Sure that's the kind of dedication that racks up ranking points, but that kind of strenuous activity is bound to eventually take its toll on the body.

And the Shanghai Masters tournament taking place this week seems to be showcasing just how rough that toll can be. As if to prove his point the day after he made his statement, Roddick retired from his second round match with a knee injury. U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, who had an extremely taxing summer hard court season, retired the following day, and Stanislas Wawrinka, who had benefitted from Andy's knee problems on Tuesday, subsequently dropped out of his next match against Radek Stepanek on Thursday. In all seven singles matches in China this week were not played to completion. And that's after both Roger Federer and Andy Murray avoided the tournament altogether due to exhaustion and a wrist injury, respectively.

I wondered briefly if the players were trying to make some sort of statement this week, banding together in a kind of protest. Maybe, but of course I can't know whether this is true.

It certainly does beg the same questions I had been asking when the new ATP rules were introduced this year. Shanghai is one of the eight Masters 1000 events players are required to play. When counting the mandatory Grand Slams, four ATP 500 tournaments and two other events, that means men have to enter eight more events during a year than the ten the WTA requires. And that creates a lot more opportunities for injuries, exhaustion, and ultimate burnout before the age of thirty.

And as a fan I certainly don't want to see my favorite players retire, not just from individual matches, but from the entire circuit before their time. It's no fun to look for a new favorite every couple of years. And besides, one of the biggest draws of tennis is that it's a life-long love -- I see more than a few seventy and eighty year olds on my local courts every weekend. So why should the pros be pushed out so early? Maybe Andy and Rafa are right to call for a change to the rules -- one that allows players a proper off-season to rest, recoup and ready to bring it even harder the next year.

I'll miss watching them for a few months at a time, but it'd be worth the sacrifice.

October 11, 2009

On, Over, and Somewhat Past the Line

I wonder how I'd feel if I'd read Serena Williams' new book before the U.S. Open.

As it was, though, the current world #2 -- she'll regain the top spot on Monday after her third round showing in Beijing this week bested Dinara Safina's early exit -- released her autobiography just after play in Flushing Meadows began and didn't begin promoting it in earnest until after her meltdown at the New York semifinals. And so as I read it, I couldn't help casting a somewhat cynical eye on her words.

Ironically titled On the Line -- you'll recall Serena's alleged stepping over the line was the root of all that drama a month ago -- the book details her life and career from the first time she stepped on a court ("The regulation racquet was probably bigger than I was!") to her winning her ninth Grand Slam title at the 2008 Open. Along the way she recounts matches that defined her game and her spirit as well as anecdotes from her family life that shaped her character, but she ends on a cautionary note: "everything you've just read is subject to change." It almost makes you wonder...

The first story that sticks out to me tells of a match Serena played in a Domino's Pizza league, a set of recreational matches organized between children in her Southern California community. Serena gives herself a lot of credit for her integrity, saying that while a lot of girls would cheat, she never did. But then she goes on to tell of one match she was losing -- even then she'd regularly dominate her opponents -- where she flat out switched the score, saying the set was 5-2 in her favor rather than her competitor. She even justifies her behavior:

"I was also angry that ... she couldn't take things seriously enough to keep score ... Even in this match I didn't cheat on the lines. If my shot was out, I called it out. If her shout was in, I called it in. I just gave myself a bunch of games when she wasn't looking."

Age and circumstances might have been a factor, sure. Serena was the baby of the Williams family, the youngest of five sisters and as such was used to getting her way. She was a mischief-maker, smashish oranges on her hometown court and blaming her sisters. And she was a bit of a whiner. In the first tournament she entered (without her father's knowledge or permission), she made it to the finals before losing to her older sister. But when Venus saw the disappointed look on Serena's face, she ceded the gold first place trophy with the excuse: "I've always like silver better than gold. You want to trade?"

As she progressed through the professional tournaments, Serena was clearly a talented force. She beat Mary Pierce and Monica Seles in one of her first Tour events in Chicago when she was just sixteen. Two years later in 1999, she truly broke out, winning five titles including the U.S. Open and the Grand Slam Cup. But a couple of the matches she describes as having had huge impacts on her life and career -- and which I found somewhat interesting, given recent events -- came a little later.

First there was Indian Wells in 2001 where -- go figure -- she met Kim Clijsters in the finals. There had been a bit of a controversy in the semis -- Venus had been trying to withdraw as she was in no shape to play that day, but apparently the tournament officials delayed calling the match for hours and allowed a stadium full of fans to wait and wait before finding out they wouldn't see the match they'd been anticipating all afternoon.

Serena paid for it on championship day as the crowd turned against her and summarily rooted for Clijsters, even throwing out wholly inappropriate racial slurs throughout the match. But somehow Williams battled through the negativity and, after losing the first set, came away with the title in three. It's a great show of her fighting spirit but sad that, at nineteen years of age, she was more mature than she is at twenty-seven and that then she could rise above the negativity and hold herself together, something she clearly could not do last month. Though, to this day, she and her sister skip Indian Wells on Tour.

Then there was the quarterfinal match at the 2004 U.S. Open -- the match credited with instituting the often-used challenge system on both the WTA and ATP circuits. Serena was playing eighth-ranked Jennifer Capriati who was on her own comeback run and had thus far been advancing with little trouble. But a slew of bad calls -- on both sides of the net -- seemed to be dictating the play more than the two competitors were.

Serena took the first set easily, but Capriati battled to win the second. A confused call, a misreading of the score by the chair ump, in the first game of the third allowed Williams to be broken, and the pair traded breaks back and forth.

"I was so rattled by this latest missed call that I actually said something to the umpire during the changeover. I said, 'I can't believe you would sabotage me like that.' It wasn't like me to mouth off to an official -- but at the same time it wasn't like me to blindly accept an abuse of authority either."

Again, remembering how Serena treated the lines judge this year, I wonder whether she's regressed to a point before all the lessons she's learned during her long and decorated career. She lost that match to Capriati, 4-6 in the third set, but came back to win the 2005 Australian Open. That was her last title for quite some time, though, as she battled depression, a loss of interest in the game, and saw her ranking drop into the triple-digits. It wasn't until late in 2006 that she finally got her head back in the game and refocused her efforts on winning again.

Of course there are a couple of touching points in her story. Williams dedicates an entire chapter to her oldest sister Yetunde, who was killed in a senseless act of violence in Compton, California just after the 2003 U.S. Open. Tunde, as she refers to her was nine years her senior and often more of a mother-figure than a friend. Serena also talks about two trips to Africa where she did some great work, opening schools and holding tennis camps for destitute and sick children. She highlights an afternoon when she was honored to meet Nelson Mandela at his home in Johannesburg.

Also clear throughout the book is Serena's deep respect for and desire to be just like Venus. She would enter the same the tournaments as a child, had begged to turn pro shortly after V, and tried to lock down her own sponsorships after her elder had signed with Reebok. She spends a lot of time in her '08 U.S. Open journal fuming over the fact that they'd have to meet in the quarters instead of in the finals, apparently feeling that they should be the last two standing in almost any tournament.

There's no question that Serena Williams possesses a great amount of talent and perseverance. How many players can climb back from #149 in the world and reclaim the top spot after a five year-plus absense? And as she gets the position back again tomorrow, she'll have a lot to live up to -- yes, she's won two Majors this year, but she also hasn't earned a non-Slam title since Charleston in 2008. This past week right after she secured the spot over Safina, she lost to Nadia Petrova in the China Open.

After reading her autobiography I'm a little torn about my feelings for Serena. I obviously respect the good she does for the under-privileged and the obvious athleticism that's just innate in her. But I hope she gets a chance to re-read her book. I don't care if she's able to regroup and wins every tournament from here to retirement, but I do want her to remember the integrity and honor she claims were instilled in her early on in her career, and remember exactly what it is she's playing for.

As she says herself, "That's what champions do, right?"

October 7, 2009

Quietly Plodding Away

It's easy to have missed Nikolay Davydenko this year. Plagued by a heel injury early in 2009, he was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open -- the first Gran Slam he'd missed in over eight years -- and was unable to defend his title in Miami. He fell out of the top ten for three months during the spring and summer and suffered a first round loss in Rome, as well as defeats at the hands of James Blake, Same Querrey and Fabio Fognini.

But very quietly he has already added three new trophies to his mantle, and this week in Beijing he's attempting to win back-to-back titles for the second time this year. After winning in Hamburg and Umag back in July, he beat three top-fifteen players in a row last week in Kuala Lumpur. So far in China he's squeaked past Igor Kunitsyn after dropping a tight second set and trounced Philipp Kohlschreiber in straights in the second round, taking less than an hour to advance.

A win in Beijing would make 2009 Davydenko's most prolific year since 2006, when he also achieved a career-high ranking at #3, but there's still a lot of work to be done. The China Open marks Rafael Nadal's return to competition after a nagging stomach strain made New York a taxing effort and second-seeded Novak Djokovic has also been playing in top form.

More immediately, though, he'll face eighth seed Marin Cilic, a player he hold a 2-0 record over. Then again, they haven't met in two years, when the twenty-one year old Croat was ranked seventy-first in the world -- now he's fifteen -- and he's notched a big win already this year against Andy Murray. Though Cilic has remained quiet for most of the year, he does have two smallish titles under his belt -- Chennai and Zagreb. He's not exactly a foe to take lightly.

Incidentally, the match I'm most looking forward to is tomorrow's second round face-off between James Blake and Nadal. We all know the tough time Blake's been having this year, with two opening round losses in back-to-back Majors, but he is one of the few players with a winning 3-2 record over Rafa. If the reigning #2 is even a bit off his game, this could be an opportunity for Blake to get back on track.

The draw might be smaller than other tournaments, but there are certainly enough big names in the mix for some to make a splash at the China Open. And for those that have been quietly making their way through the tournaments this year, there could be a nice payoff at the end.

October 5, 2009

Are We in For a Repeat?

The early action at last week's Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo turned out to be pretty interesting. Though the top eight seeds received byes in the first round an unprecedented six of them suffered some big losses in their opening matches.

Current world #1 Dinara Safina was shocked by qualifier Kai-Chen Chang while French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova made an early exit at the hands of Andrea Petkovic.

But it didn't stop there. Third seed Elena Dementieva fell to a strong Kateryna Bondarenko, U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki notched her first loss to similarly-named Aleksandra Wozniak in a first-set retirement, and Vera Zvonareva dropped a tough three-setter to Alisa Kleybanova. And second-seeded Venus Williams traded a ton of breaks, but eventually lost to Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.


With numbers one through six all eliminated by Tuesday, the way was paved for seventh-seeded Jelena Jankovic and 2005 champ, an unseeded Maria Sharapova, to reach the Saturday finals. And when Jankovic was forced to retire with a wrist injury in the first set -- a disheartening result, especially in a final -- Maria was able to capture the trophy at the Premier event, her first since returning from a nine-month long injury absense.

So far at the China Open in Beijing, though, things seem to be off to just as rocky a start for the seeds. While only a few people got first-round byes -- those that made the semis in Tokyo -- we've already seen some surprises.

Wozniacki split two sets in tiebreaks with Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her first round before getting bageled in the third. Safina, her Number One ranking hanging by a thread, dropped her second round match to wildcard Shuai Zhang, a player positioned somewhere around #225. And Venus fell for a second straight time to Pavlyuchenko, even after starting off with a one-set lead. So far only Kuznetsova has earned the third round.

If it hasn't been clear thus far in the year, the last ten days have surely shown just how open the women's draw is -- like at the Majors, top seeds seldom make it as far as they should, and everyone's spot is vulnerable. For example if Serena makes it a few matches deep, she'll take the #1 ranking back from Dinara. Elena could get back in the top three with a strong showing, and Maria -- now at fifteen -- is just a stone's throw from the top ten.

With the year's Slams behind us, it might be easy to get complacent, to forget that there's still a lot of season left. The race for Doha is in full swing and there are still a few spots left to fill. With the way Kim Clijsters is playing post-retirement and the imminent return of former Justine Henin -- both year-end champions themselves -- this is not a time to slack!

And these coming weeks are just the grounds for these girls to prove themselves!

October 1, 2009

The Farewell Tour

This year we will have to say good-bye to a few familiar and (mostly) friendly faces on the ATP & WTA tours. And in this week's action, many made some earlier exits than they might have wanted.

Fabrice "the Magician" Santoro is one of the most popular players out there, and for the last twenty years he's been entertaining us with more than just his athletic prowess -- he's got a comic flair of which few others can boast. On top of that the Frenchman has won an impressive six titles during his career, most recently back-to-back trophies in Newport in 2007 and '08 -- he lost in the semis this year to Sam Querrey. He's had some bad luck with draws this year, but has nevertheless maintained a ranking in the thirties, now just slightly higher (thirty-nine) than his age (thirty-six).

In this week's PTT Thailand Open Santoro was awarded the seventh seed, but he faced a tough first-round match against a young Evgeny Korolev. Though he out-aced his opponent, thirteen to five, and hung tight through three tight sets, after almost three hours he was sent home. Not the best result at one of your last tournaments, but certainly a good showing.

Another soon-to-be retiree had a slightly better result this week, but not by much.

I've never been the biggest fan of former world #1 Marat Safin, but even I have to admit that when he announced that this would be his last year on the circuit I realized we'd be losing a big personality on the court. He certainly wore his temper on his sleeve, and without a title since 2005's Australian Open over four years ago, Marat's certainly had plenty to be frustrated about. This year alone he's dropped from the top twenty to the high fifties; he's lost ten times in the first round of tournaments, and his best Grand Slam was a third round exit in Melbourne.

In Bangkok this week Safin started off with a bang -- defeating fifth seed Philipp Petzschner in the opening battle. But today he had a tougher test against qualifier Marco Chiudinelli. The slightly younger Swiss (Marco is twenty-eight to Marat's twenty-nine) was able to stave off the Russian's advances, successfully defending three break chances and winning the second set in a tiebreak to advance in straights.

While Safin probably would have liked to play a little more this week, he might have some other things to keep him busy. In a teleconference during July's LA Tennis Open, he had this to say about his post-professional plans:
"Well, of course I'm gonna take it easy at the end of the season after I retire, because I need a couple months just to relax and just to realize that [I] really retired ... There's plenty of things to do. I'm gonna stay active and do something different, definitely not gonna retire and then sit on my -- sit on the beach and do nothing ... I have a few projects, I'm gonna be working."

He declined to say what he'd be working on, but my money's on an acting career -- maybe playing Eric Dane's long-lost brother on Grey's Anatomy?

A little further north in Japan, home-grown Ai Sugiyama was playing her last tournament in her native land. The thirty-four year old has been a #8 singles and a #1 doubles player during her career and hasn't finished out of the top forty in at least ten years. Ai's had her share of first-round losses in 2009, but she's also beaten Patty Schnyder and Anabel Medina Garrigues. She also made the semis in Sydney and the third round both in Australia and Wimbledon.

At the Pan Pacific Open she was treated to a touching good-bye ceremony, with long-time doubles partner Daniela Hantuchova embracing her on court. "To be honest it's really tough to find someone like Sugi. She's just an incredible person. So friendly, so sweet!" the Slovakian wrote in her blog last week. Their friendship is apparent in their game too -- while Ai was forced to retire from her opening singles match against Nadia Petrova when she was already down a set, she and Hantuchova did team up to win their first round against Vania King and Jie Zheng. Here's hoping there's at least a little more steam in that engine!

It will certainly be sad to see all these players go -- no matter what you think of them, they always brought something special to the game. And though we know that few retirements in the sport are permanent, I can't help but already feel a little nostalgic about what will soon be missing.

Of course I wish them all the best, but if Fabrice, Marat and Ai should find themselves back on a court soon, I'm sure a lot of people would be celebrating!