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!

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