January 1, 2010

A Glimpse Into the Future

The 2010 tennis season is just a few days away, and already there's a lot to look forward to. I've mentioned some of the things that top my list: the return of Justine Henin, the comeback of a healthy Rafael Nadal, the emergence of a new crop of young men and women all ready to make a name for themselves this year.

But rather than running through the traditional "Things to Watch" stuff, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the potential, fantasy match-ups which could prove to be make-or-break for the players involved. Of course these pairings are wholly ficticious, as draws for even the Australian Open are weeks away from being nailed down, and performance over the coming months could preclude any of these possibilities. But, just for fun, let's see what could happen.

Australian Open, January 18-31

First Round: Dinara Safina vs. Anyone

The Australian Open is a clutch tournament for the former #1. Last year's runner-up practically folded at the hands of Serena Williams in the 2009 finals, and despite holding the #1 ranking for half the year, Dinara Safina really seemed to bow under the pressure of the big stage. She retired from her first Round Robin match in the year-end championships with a back injury and announced last month that she'd skip the warm-up tournament in Brisbane. She might not be in top form when she heads down to Melbourne, but a few solid performances in the early rounds could give her a bit of confidence if she wants to reclaim the top spot. A premature exit, on the other hand, could prove to be more than disheartening -- it could signal a fall out of the sport's elite and confirm some critic's complaints that she never really belonged there in the first place.

She might be able to put up a fight, but I fear if Safina makes it through this round, she won't be able to last much longer.

Semifinals: Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Novak Djokovic

The only two men who've won Grand Slams, besides Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in the back half of the 2000s are playing in top form these days. Del Potro, of course, silenced naysayers who argued he wasn't fit enough to last through a greuling five-set match when he won the U.S. Open. And Novak himself won five titles last year, including a Masters event in Paris, and beat both Roger and Rafa in consecutive weeks. DelPo and Nole have met three times in the past, with Djokovic winning all three head-to-heads -- in fact, winning every set. But now that both can boast some big upsets over the last twelve months, pitting the two youngsters against each other could create some fireworks.

My money would be on the Serb to win, but it'll be tight and might go the distance.

French Open, May 23 - June 6

Third Round: Justine Henin vs. Kim Clijsters

A few years ago it would have been scandalous to suggest these two champions could possibly meet at any point in a tournament before the semifinals -- in their twenty-two match-ups, they've only met before the quarters once. But with both building their careers back up in 2010, the Belgians might face each other earlier than usual -- and that could spark some exciting opening round matches. Watching them spar in Paris, where Justine has ruled for years, would be the most fitting backdrop.

It's really Henin's match to lose -- with twelve clay court titles and four at Roland Garros, she's the technical favorite. And in the exhibitions she's palyed over the last few weeks -- beating Flavia Pennetta in straight sets last month -- she's looked as strong as she had been when she retired. But Clijsters ended 2009 on a high note and has given herself a nice jumpstart on her long-time rival. She's twice lost in the finals at Paris, so she's no slouch on the red surface either. While they could of course meet before France, I kind of hope we get our first taste of this renewed competition on a stage that can do it justice.

This time, I'd go with Justine in a long third set.

Quarterfinals: Rafael Nadal vs. Robin Soderling

In the potential repeat of last year's fourth round match, Rafael Nadal will be out for revenge. Until he faced Soderling in 2009, he'd been undefeated at Roland Garros -- and that fateful meeting had very opposite effects on the rest of their years. Rafa struggled through one injury after another and didn't claim a single title after Paris. Soderling, on the other hand, made his very first Major final that fortnight and followed it up with an impressive showing in London and a career high year-end ranking. Nadal has actually lost their last two meetings, and now that Soderling is in the top ten, they'll face each other later in the tournament than they would have just a few months ago.

Nadal might struggle early in the year, as he's proven to be slightly vulnerable in the last few months. But by the time the clay court season rolls around, he should feel back at home -- he only lost two matches on the surface last year, ending with a couple straight set wins in the Davis Cup finals. And even though Soderling improved his game greatly in 2009, you can't believe lightning will strike twice in France. Combining his prowess on the surface with his quest for redemption, it's going to be hard to beat Rafa at Roland Garros this year.

He might drop a set, but I'd take Nadal in four.

Wimbledon, June 21 - July 4

Third Round: Andy Roddick vs. James Blake

For some reason, American men seem to thrive on the grass courts of Wimbledon. Of course, Pete Sampras ruled over the All England Club in the Nineties, and Roddick has had his share of success this decade, making the finals three times. James hasn't had the best results at this Slam, but he did make the finals at Queen's Club last year, proving he does have some ability on the surface.

Blake actually has won the pair's last three meetings -- most recently due to a retirement when Andy suffered an ankle injury in London last year. But it's been a while since they've played a full match, and Roddick certainly looks to be the more fit player these days. On the other hand, James has a little bit to prove -- it's been more than two years since he claimed his last title. But, he's put up a couple of good fights recently, taking Andy Murray and Nadal to three sets a few times last year. If he can gain just a little bit of traction in 2010, my fears that he's nearing the end of his career would be slightly allayed.

Sadly, Andy in straights -- but I hope at least one would go to a tiebreak.

Fourth Round: Venus Williams vs. Melanie Oudin

Melanie Oudin had her first success last year in her third round in London, when she beat Jelena Jankovic in a tough three-setter, proving that she was more than comfortable on the surface. But now, a whole year older and several years more experienced, the eighteen-year-old from Georgia won't be considered the underdog in her early rounds.

But Venus Williams is always a formidable opponent, especially on grass, no matter how she's done the rest of the year. Though she had some spotty results in 2009, let's not forget that she won in England in '05 when she was ranked sixteenth and again two years later at #31. She's played in the finals eight times, taking five championships.

In her short career, Oudin hasn't played either of the Williams sisters yet, but it's only a matter of time. And what better place to meet her role model than at the All England Club? It won't be a cakewalk by any means, but Melanie has shown time and again that she's able to hit with the big guns. And she's got all sorts of stamina -- she spent just shy of eleven hours on the court in New York. The spunky teenager isn't likely to just roll over.

I'd bet on, or at least hope for, another upset -- Oudin could deal Venus her earliest Wimbledon exit since 2006.

U.S. Open, August 30 - September 12

Quarterfinals: Maria Sharapova vs. Serena Williams

Almost six years ago a teenager named Maria Sharapova stunned a much more experienced Serena Williams at the Wimbledon finals. They've met a few times since then, but not nearly as often as you might expect for two tennis greats -- and they haven't stood on opposite sides of the court since April, 2008. This year could be one in which the two do some serious battle, though, now that Maria seems to be healthy and Serena is once again at the top of the sport.

This match-up could be a good one -- Maria has done well in the seven months since her return, climbing all the way up to #14 after dropping briefly into the triple-digits. She's beaten more than a few top-ten players and even won a title in Tokyo. For her part, of course, Serena won two Grand Slams and the year-end championships -- she was also named the AP Female Athlete of the Year. Both girls are obvious fighters.

My prediction is that Serena would extend her lead over Sharapova, but I think Maria will get a few of her own shots in.

Finals: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal

Roger and Rafa have met in the championship round of every Major except the U.S. Open. It's not the most surprising tidbit -- after all, no one really thought of Nadal as a hard court force until he won the Australian Open last year. But he's been consistent in New York, making the semis on his last two attempts. While I'm not sure Nadal will be up to the task of repeating in Australia, by the time the summer season rolls around, he should be back on solid footing. Then there's Roger, the real King of Queens. After a five-year, uninterrupted rule, he was so unceremoniously dethroned last September, and you know he wants to climb back on top.

A Roger/Rafa showdown in Arthur Ashe would be epic for so many reasons -- first, and I admit I'm a bit biased, it's New York! And secondly, it would mark a whole different kind of Grand Slam -- the potential for one man to beat Federer in every single Major, and for the title, besides. Both men will face ample challenges on their road to the finals in Flushing, but if they play up to the standard we've come to expect from them, they could put on quite a show for us!

As with all their meetings, this one would be a fight. But I have a feeling Roger would bring the title back to Switzerland. Rafa's still young and strong, though -- hopefully 2011 will be his.

We already know there will be plenty of excitement and action in the New Year, and while I realize that the aforementioned matches are just fantasy, it is an indication of just how much fun the next few months of tennis could be. I've already made a few predictions for how 2010 might end, but that says nothing of what I'm hoping for.

For one thing, I'd love to see Nadal make another play for #1. I'd love to see Maria win another Major. I'd love to see Roddick finally defeat Federer. I'd love to see Justine win the career Grand Slam. It's a lot to wish for, I know, but at this dawn of a new era it doesn't hurt to dream big, does it?

Hope you all are doing the same!

Happy New Year, everyone!

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