December 31, 2010

What to Watch in 2011

At this time last year I certainly didn't think we'd be where we are today.

I have to admit I would never have guessed that Rafael Nadal would rebound so strongly from injury to capture not one, but three Grand Slam trophies. I never would have thought we'd be hailing young Caroline Wozniacki as the best player in the women's game. And I certainly didn't guess some of the players who'd been such staples on Tour last year would fade into the background while some new stars made their own names stand out in the crowd.

So as we stand at the precipice of the latest New Year, I have to wonder what crazy surprises are in store for us in 2011. But given my terrible track record for making predictions, I've chosen not to make any outright calls just yet, but instead to focus on a couple trends and events I'll be keeping my eyes on.

And it all starts with one big elephant in the room.

Serena's Return

Serena Williams sustained one of the strangest injuries I've heard of this year -- and it wasn't even on a tennis court! While out on the town in Germany, she stepped on a broken beer bottle and severed a couple tendons in her right foot. The injury and subsequent surgery was more serious than anyone realized -- the Australian and Wimbledon champ was forced to pull out of both the U.S. Open and year-end championships and just last month said she wouldn't be defending her Melbourne title. At this rate, it looks like we'll have to wait until at least spring thaw for her return.

It is a shame that the former world #1 has missed so much of the year -- without her something certainly has been lacking from the women's Tour. Yes, Serena is often so dominant at the Majors that it's almost boring to watch her games -- her nine aces and 94% first service win percentage made this year's final at the All England Club a one-hour rout. But when you actually pay attention to her form and her playing style you can see she's not just a power hitter. She's clearly a smart and hard-working athlete -- why else would she be on a practice court with her boot and a roller crutch?

Her opponents might breathe a sigh of relief during Williams' absense -- for many, they may never have as good a chance to win the big title -- but there's a downside to that apparent break too. Anyone who earns a Slam will have to defend against criticism that they didn't do so with Williams in the draw, and remember how poor Caroline Wozniacki had to spend the better part of fall proving that she deserved just the #1 seed in New York last August? When Williams is on the Tour, win or lose, no one can say they didn't earn their trophy.

That said, it might be time to acknowledge that we're entering the next generation of women's tennis. With the younger Williams sister closing in on thirty years of age, we will eventually have to contend with the reality that the family pair will not be around forever. But it would be nice to see the ladies who plan to step in get a few more chances to prove themselves against the vets -- after all, isn't the only way to improve to test yourself against the strongest players?

A Renewed Roger

It feels weird to say that Roger Federer didn't have the greatest year. After all, he won a Grand Slam and the year-end championships, and though he finished 2010 a spot behind long-time rival Rafael Nadal, he did rack up an ever-impressive 65-13 record on the year.

But it's easy to see that his best play really came post-U.S. Open. After a hard-fought loss in the New York semifinals, he got revenge with a straight-set trouncing of Novak Djokovic in Shanghai and followed that up with back-to-back titles in Stockholm and Basel. Since the year's last Major he's compiled an impressive 21-2 record, far superior to anyone else in the top ten -- probably better than anyone in the sport, man or woman.

And with Roger playing at the top of his game again, you have to think fans and analysts alike will be clamoring for more chapters to the Federer/Nadal rivalry. Yes, they met twice this year -- once in Madrid, a kind of kick-off to the great year Rafa would have, and again in London where, even though he dropped a set, I don't think Roger ever was not in control. The matches will get tighter next year, I expect, and take place on some even grander stages. And when both are playing at the top of their game, which they inevitably will be, we know just how exciting it can get.

Murray at the Majors

One man hoping to make his mark on that storied rivalry is Andy Murray. The #4 player in the world has already established a solid 4-9 record against Nadal and an even more impressive 8-6 mark versus Federer. And though he's never beaten Roger at a Slam, he has gotten the better of Rafa in both Australia and New York.

So now it's his chance to prove he can follow up one win with another -- in order to win a Slam you probably have to beat four top ten players in best-of-five matches at one tournament, a feat Federer has implied Murray is not yet capable of pulling off. In fact in his previous two Major final runs, he's beaten the sport's elite three times, most recently at the Australian Open when Nadal retired down two sets and a break. But an irritation inevitably creeps into Murray's game whenever he finds himself down, and until he finds a way to shake that, he won't perform consistently against the big guns, match after match.

Given the results we've seen from Murray in recent months, I have no doubt he's going to hit 2011 swinging hard. There's no reason he shouldn't be able to at least repeat his performance in Melbourne, but there might be some cause for concern if he doesn't come close, there or at subsequent Slams. Not that a Major title would be out of his reach forever -- at twenty-three he's got plenty of premier play left in him -- but he's gonna have to start proving himself soon if he wants to be taken seriously. After all, others have been able to crack the stranglehold Rafa and Roger seem to have on the Majors, so why shouldn't he?

Follow Through

For a woman who only won one somewhat second-tier trophy in 2010, it's kind of amazing that Vera Zvonareva is now ranked #2 in the world. Sure she deserves it -- the girl made five additional finals and beat players like Francesca Schiavone, Caroline Wozniacki and Kim Clijsters along the way. She racked up a solid 49-18 record on Tour, better than her career average and, with runs to the championship matches at both Wimbledon and New York, easily put herself on the radar of all those pundits who didn't bother to know her game before.

The next step, of course, will be to see if her good form carries over to the new year. She's done a lot of hard work to get where she is -- at twenty-six, the ten-year veteran reached her highest rank much later in her career than, say, the Williams sisters or Maria Sharapova. It would be such a shame to lose her grip there so quickly. After all, she has a ton of points to defend -- something that hasn't seemed so important to her in the past -- and I would hate to think she's just now peaked.

On a similar note, Caroline Wozniacki has a whopping six trophies she gets to defend next year. And in her young career, we have yet to see if she has what it takes to be as consistent a force as some of her predecessors. The women's sport has been largely dominated by legends in the field, and though it might be too early to write off a return by players like Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina, I'm sure Wozniacki would much rather her name be remembered alongside the likes of Steffi Graf and Chris Evert.

And speaking of players looking to prove they were no flash in the pan...

Recovery from Injuries

Injuries sidelined three of last year's biggest forces for almost all of 2010. Dinara Safina, who played in three Major finals in '08 and '09 and climbed to #1 in the world last April, was mostly a nonentity this year. Meanwhile previous London winner Nikolay Davydenko didn't rack up enough points to qualify for defense and U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro suffered a precipitous drop out of the top two hundred after wrist surgery kept him out of contention most of the year.

They'll all be back next year -- Dinara re-emerged with a spectacular post promising her return in Auckland, Del Potro will arrive in Australia with an injury-protected ranking and Davydenko, who got back on a winning track after the U.S. Open, should be able to improve his match play in the lead-up to Melbourne. After middling results in the few tournaments they entered in the latter parts of the year, they all should be in a better position to kick off 2011.

It's never fun to see such strong momentum stopped so abruptly, and all three of these guys know what a long slog it is to get into playing shape again -- something Serena is certainly dealing with herself now. Even though they've all had a couple shots back in the ring, it won't be until the start of the new season when we really see whether they're back in form. I wouldn't expect any big strides by Australia -- which could, of course, result in a bunch of ranking points going away -- but by the time we hit Indian Wells and Miami, we should get an idea of whether these guys can return to the top tier.

"I'm Not the Next Anyone"

In tennis we have a bad habit of taking a player's performance at one tournament, or even in one match, and extrapolating that as a sign of his or her entire career. We're so eager to find "the next Jennifer Capriati" or "the next Boris Becker" that we don't let new players really develop their own games before dubbing them the future of tennis. This year's U.S. Open saw two break-out stars who didn't have quite the success of their predecessors, but who certainly did show a spark of their potential talent -- and, of course, the inevitable comparisons were soon to follow.

Eighteen-year-old Ryan Harrison had played a few Tour events during the year without making much of an impact. He did beat Taylor Dent in Indian Wells and make the quarters in Newport though, but it wasn't until New York that we really began to see this kid's potential. After battling through three qualifying rounds to make the main draw of only his second Major tournament, he stunned Indian Wells champ and fifteenth seed Ivan Ljubicic in his opener and held match points before falling to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round. Thanks to his performance Harrison's ranking jumped a full fifty spots, and he was chosen to represent the U.S. in their Davis Cup rubber the following week, a nice boost to his still blossoming career.

Beatrice Capra, barely a month older than Ryan, had recorded most of her previous wins on the ITF Juniors circuit, winning titles in Brazil and Italy this year. She hadn't qualified for a Tour event yet in her career, but received a wildcard to the U.S. Open where she began her first Major campaign with a win over former top-twenty player Karolina Sprem. She backed it up with a solid three-set defeat of eighteenth seeded Aravane Rezai before getting shut out by Maria Sharapova in the third round. It wasn't quite as deep as Melanie Oudin's showing the previous year, but for a player ranked #371 in the world at the time, it wasn't exactly a disappointment.

Sure these two promising players are just getting their careers started, and their runs in New York certainly could signal good things to come. I expect a few solid wins from both on at the Challengers and on Tour in 2011 and, if not, likely in the few years down the road. But let's be careful not to confuse them with anyone else who's come before them -- keep a watch on these young talents, but don't force them onto center stage too quickly.

Well it's been a long and exciting year, but it sure has left us hungry for more top-notch action in 2011. We've spent the last twelve months laying the groundwork for what can be an even more interesting season, and it's impossible for any of us to know what's going to happen. All we can do is hope that everyone on Tour does their best to entertain and astonish us on the courts.

Of course we may be disappointed in some of our expectations, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost -- tennis is so often a sport of redemption, and it might just be a bit longer for these guys to fulfill their potential.

And in the meantime, I can't wait to see what they -- and everyone else -- have to show us.

December 26, 2010

Year in Review: The Men at the Majors

Well if you thought the women brought it at the Slams this year, you ain't seen nothing yet!

In an environment where the men are forced to go best-of-five, often not getting the relief of a tiebreak, you know only the strong can survive. But in 2010 some of the strongest performances came from a few unlikely players. In fact, only one in the top ten at the time made my final list, and some big stars and bigger matches were relegated to my Honorable Mentions.

So brace yourselves for some real power!

Australian Open, Melbourne, Second Round
Juan Martin Del Potro d. James Blake: 6-4, 6-7(3), 5-7, 6-3, 10-8

My dear James Blake hadn't had the most successful couple of years and had been title-less since August 2008. He'd lost in the first round of two straight Majors the previous year and had fallen out of seeding range for the first time in years. When I saw he'd drawn the reigning U.S. Open champ in the second round of Melbourne, I knew he'd be in for another early exit.

The match was scheduled second in Hisense Arena on the first Wednesday, and given the time difference between Australia and New York, I was sure it would be long over by the time I woke up that morning. Imagine my surprise that, not only was the match still going strong, but that Blake had the lead! Lodged in the fourth set, the American was ahead 2-1, but was eventually forced to a decider after DelPo kept the break advantage and headed to the fifth -- and we all know his record in five setters is less than favorable.

Each man had chances in that last hour-plus of play, each winning on the other's serve a couple times. But Blake saved one break chance after another to keep himself in the match, firing off twenty-six winners in the set. He became more aggressive, too, making twenty-two net approaches and actually out-acing the six-foot-six Argentine. It wasn't enough, though, as the then-#4 player in the world proved his New York run was no fluke and powered through for the win.

Juan Martin eventually made it to the fourth round Down Under, but was sidelined for much of the year after wrist surgery. Shockingly, his inability to defend any points in the latter half of 2010 sent him plummeting to #257 in the world. Blake, who had far fewer points to defend, is actually ranked higher at #135, but with only a couple of lackluster quarterfinal showings peppered throughout the year we may start hearing more definitive news of his retirement soon.

Honorable mention: The quarterfinal between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic was filled with drama both on- and off-court. Tsonga's victory was a great touchpoint in his year, but Nole's rebound after the loss is even more dramatic.

French Open, Paris, Second Round
Fabio Fognini d. Gael Monfils: 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 9-7

When I was in college, my friends and I would take breaks from all-night study sessions and play a couple sets of midnight tennis -- there was something both exciting and calming about chasing around balls you could barely see.

That was not the case at Roland Garros when the second round match between thirteenth-seeded Monfils and world #92 Fabio Fognini. After rain had delayed play on and off all day, the two didn't really get into it until just before seven at night. When they finally began it looked like the Frenchman would run away with the match -- after less than eighty minutes he was up two sets and followed through to gain the lead in third. But this year's French was full of comeback stories, and the Italian broke the favorite when he was serving for the match to take the third and won five straight games in the fourth to even the score at two apiece. Fognini raced off to a 3-0 lead in the decider before Monfils broke back and worked up to four-all.

That's when the fun began.

It was nearly 9:30p.m. in Paris, a few minutes before sunset. Play had been suspended on many outer courts, and a tournament official came out on Philippe Chartrier to make a decision, or so it seemed -- apparently he was actually asking the players if they wanted to keep playing. Monfils was hoping to ride his momentum and homefield advantage, Fognini was ready to quit. He spent six minutes arguing with the officials and was penalized a point as the sun continued to subside. Somehow, though, Fabio managed to hold. After three and a half hours of play, both men were looking tired, serving at seventy miles per hour and barely moving for points. The Italian got himself match points on Gael's serve, but was unable to convert. Ultimately, at about ten at night, tied at five all in the fifth, the chair ump called play and the men, understandably angry and frustrated, retired to the lockerrooms.

The next day, of course, was a fight for the break, with Fognini going first. He got down on his serve early but was able to hold on. It took six more games, but finally, when Monfils was serving, Fabio was able to get under his skin and converted on his fourth match point. The win granted Fabulous Fab his first ticket to a Major's third round. Unfortunately for the Italian, that was as far as he would go this time -- Fognini fell in straight sets the very next day to Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka. But the match was clearly an important mark in his career, and after Paris he vaulted up eleven ranking spots to #81 and ended the year near a career-high at #56 in the world.

Monfils, if you can believe it, had an even better end to the year. Though he battled injury for much of the summer and put on a weird and somewhat arrogant show in New York, he rebounded with a title in Montpellier and beat both Andy Murray and Roger Federer on the way to the Paris finals. Playing for France's first Davis Cup championship since 2001 earlier this month, he won his first rubber easily and though he lost to Novak Djokovic two days later, he certainly put up quite a fight for the Cup.

Honorable mentions: Eventual semifinalist Andy Murray was almost knocked out in the first round, down two sets to Richard Gasquet -- even if I’m not his biggest fan, I have to admit the rebound was spectacular. And Robin Soderling's defeat of defending champion Roger Federer in the quarters not only exacted revenge for his loss in the finals last year, but also ended the king's streak of twenty-three straight semis -- you can't ignore the importance of that.

Wimbledon, London, First Round
John Isner d. Nicolas Mahut: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 70-68

What can be said about this match that hasn't been already? And for that reason, I'm taking a different tack in this recap.

Of course the stamina and the mental toughness of these two men was just amazing those summer days. But in spite of how incredibly athletic and heart-pounding the ordeal was, one thing it did was argue in favor of a fifth set tiebreak. Yup, I wish we'd lopped the last digits off that final set score and ended it at 7-6.

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed it as much as everyone else, especially having been an Isner supporter well before most casual fans had heard of him. And I certainly appreciate what the two men did out there for eleven-plus hours over three days. But the toll it took on the players cannot be underestimated -- both were also entered in the doubles draw at Wimbledon, and Mahut actually began his match a few hours after losing in singles. John had a little more rest -- still less than twenty-four hours -- but lost his second round match in just over an hour and withdrew from doubles completely.

Add to that the fact that the actual quality of tennis was not that great. Yes, the stats were staggering -- 215 aces combined and clean error-to-winner ratios. But how much of that was due to sheer exhaustion versus really amazing play? There were only a handful of truly exciting points in those latter stages -- after seven hours on court Wednesday, can you really blame these guys for letting a ball or two sail past them? Few games in that fifth set got to deuce and many rallies were decided after just a couple strokes. Points won on aces went from twenty percent in the first four sets to 22.6% in the fifth, while receiving percentage dropped from over twenty-six to just about twenty.

Matt Cronin wrote a great piece after the conclusion which pointed out that fans won't really want to sit through this kind of match again, where points are decided so quickly and, frankly, sloppily, especially now that it's so unlikely such a match will set any other record. Yes, it was awe-inspiring while it happened, but what's next?

Honorable mention: Alejandro Falla had a two-set and a break lead on defending champion Federer in the first round and must’ve smelled the opportunity to do the unthinkable. Fed’s a champ for a reason, though, and he rallied for one of the best comebacks of his career.

U.S. Open, New York, Second Round
Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Ryan Harrison: 6-3, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(6)

In a tournament which had so many surprising and inspirational matches, it may be a bit controversial to choose this one between two unseeded players -- one a mere qualifier. But there was still a lot to take from this game. Stakhovsky had just come off a title run in New Haven, while eighteen-year-old Harrison had battled through the preliminary rounds before upseting fifteenth seed Ivan Ljubicic in his opener. Given his inexperience and fatigue, it would have been easy to write off the American, even if he had homefield advantage.

But Harrison, playing in only the second Major of his young career, looked more at home than you might have expected. He built himself a two-to-one set lead and found a way to pull even when he found himself trailing in the fifth. Both players stayed agressive, forcing a total of forty break chances and approaching the net more than 170 times. Ryan made significantly more errors than his Ukrainian foe, but also hit more winners. In the eighty-minute third set, he rebounded from 1-3 in the breaker and held set points at 6-3 before Stakhovsky rallied for five straight points.

Not surprisingly, after playing five matches in seven days, Stakhovsky was spent and retired from his third round while trailing Feliciano Lopez by a set and two breaks. Harrison, ranked out of the top two hundred before the match, climbed to #170 in the world and pulled off some nice wins on the challenger tour. But he's a smart and thoughtful player, one I don't doubt will give the Americans hope for their future in the big tournaments.

Honorable mentions: Janko Tipsarevic had one of his bouts of greatness in his defeat of Andy Roddick in the second round and Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer pulled off one of those classic late-night matches that make the U.S. Open so exciting. But the runner-up props for this tournament have to go Novak Djokovic who pulled off the big upset of Roger Federer in the semis.

There you have it -- my picks for the best tennis had to offer in 2010.

It's nice to see it wasn't just the everyday stars who brought their A-games with them to the courts, but that a couple of newer talents began to emerge as well. And though I don't think either Rafa or Roger are willing to concede their positions at the top of the sport just yet, it certainly looks like a few players will be vying hard for their spots in the coming years.

It will be interesting to see if some of the guys and gals who made a big mark in 2010 will continue their momentum in the New Year -- no one wants the hangover year than Juan Martin Del Potro or Melanie Oudin had. But we're only a few weeks away from getting our first glimpse of their follow-through.

And it sure looks like things are going to get interesting!

December 20, 2010

Year in Review: The Ladies in the Big Leagues

I promised you all that my earlier lists were only half complete -- since something special happens when we hit the courts of the four Grand Slams, I couldn't possibly leave out the performances we saw there.

Though, unlike the men, ladies still face best-of-three set matches at the big events, the heightened excitement causes them to bring a little something extra to the Majors -- just ask Serena Williams. And though she continued to dominate the championships this year, it was some other earlier round matches that caught my eye most. And with others following her lead of raising their games when the stakes were highest, I was forced to include some Honorable Mentions for each of the Slams.

So let's get right to it!

Australian Open, Melbourne, First Round
Maria Kirilenko d. Maria Sharapova: 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-4

Before this match there was only one Maria the tennis world cared about, but when the diminutive Kirilenko left the court a victor after more than three hours of play, fans were abuzz about someone new.

The two had met twice before, with the more decorated Sharapova winning both times, but Kirilenko, ranked fifty-eighth at the time, was not intimidated. Twenty-two, blonde and Russian, just like her opponent, MaKiri pounced on Sharapova early, traded breaks a few times in the first set, but ultimately held on to get the lead. When the three-time Grand Slam winner leveled the match in the second, you might have assumed that momentum and experience would shift to favor her, but Kirilenko stayed strong, ran off to a 4-1 lead and never looked back.

Her win not only dismissed one of the favorites and the 2008 champion, but it also cemented Kirilenko as a real contender the rest of the year. In Melbourne she continued to the quarters, but more impressively followed up with a fourth round showing in Paris, a run to the finals in Moscow, and her best ever year end ranking. Wins over Shahar Peer, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina along the way further proved that her performance in Australia wasn't a fluke, and that we might just see her make a bigger splash in 2011.

Honorable Mention: The final. It sure was great to see Justine Henin make the championship match at her first Major back from retirement, but unlike her compatriot last year, she couldn't quite pull out the win.

French Open, Paris, Second Round
Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Andrea Petkovic: 4-6, 7-5, 6-4

Defending champion Kuznetsova wasn't playing her best tennis in the months heading into Roland Garros. After winning a title and making a final in the lead-up season the prior year, she hadn't made it past the second round for three straight tournaments in 2010. I didn't give her much chance to repeat her title run in Paris.

And when she met a feisty Andrea Petkovic, ranked fortieth at the time, it looked like that prediction would hold. The German took less than forty minutes to secure the first set and got a break lead in the second. She held three match points on her serve at 5-4 and was threatening to hand Sveta her earliest Slam exit since 2005 when she lost her opening match at the U.S. Open. But nerves might have gotten to the youngster, and the veteran -- actually only two years older -- fought back to deuce. Petkovic had another match point, but was unable to close out, instead allowing the Russian to get on serve. Svetlana won the next two games too and, after another fifty minutes of play, had forced the third set.

At that point I was sure Andrea would fold and that Kuznetsova would roll through a bagel set. In fact, it started out looking that way as the Russian got up 3-1 in the third -- suddenly she found herself up match point while Petkovic served at 2-5. But not only did the underdog manage to hold serve, she broke the two-time Major champion again to get back even. Eventually, though, Petkovic was forced to wake up from her dream and, while serving at 4-5, Petkovic conceded on the fourth match point against her.

It was a heart-breaking loss for the German, I'm sure, but a solid win for Kuznetsova. Though she did lose the next round, she displayed a similar resolve several months later in San Diego where she survived a tough draw that pitted her against three seeded players. And Petkovic, ending the year at her highest career ranking and having endeared herself to fans across the world, will certainly be back to fight another day. I'd look for her to make a big imprint on 2011.

Honorable Mentions: The final, of course, and the semi quarter between Sam Stosur and Serena Williams. It's not often you see players -- especially women -- hit so hard and so smart.

Wimbledon, London, Quarterfinal
Tsvetana Pironkova d. Venus Williams: 6-3, 6-2

Five-time champion Williams was clearly the odds-on favorite to, if not win the whole thing, at least make the Wimbledon finals for the ninth time in her career. And if experience and talent weren't enough, commentators suggested she'd have added motivation to beat the twenty-two year old Bulgarian, who'd four years earlier dealt her an opening round loss at the Australian Open.

But eighty-second ranked Pironkova, who had never won more than one match at a Major, had other plans. She'd made the quarters in Warsaw a few weeks earlier and had already beaten 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli in the fourth round here. And she did not allow herself to be intimidated -- she only dropped two points on her first serve in the opening set and won four games in a row to get the early lead. She capitalized on a slew of errors from her opponent and stayed strong after Venus broke early in the second, eventually holding on for a straight-set, eighty-five minute win.

The win took Pironkova to #35 in the world, and though she peaked a few points higher in September, she hasn't quite made the same statement at other tournaments this year. I worry she may suffer a precipitous drop next year if she's unable to defend the points she racked up at the All England Club, but if she can soldier herself up, we might see her make a dent in the sport.

Honorable Mention: The quarterfinal between Vera Zvonareva and Kim Clijsters presaged how great a year the Russian would have -- at that point I don't think anyone pegged her as an eventual finalist. Too bad for her she couldn't beat Kim when it counted a few months later.

U.S. Open, New York, Fourth Round
Dominika Cibulkova d. Svetlana Kuznetsova: 7-5, 7-6(4)

The spunky, tiny Cibulkova had been having an up-and-down year until she arrived in New York. Since reaching a career-high ranking of #12 in the world after her semifinal run in Paris last year, she'd made the semis in Monterrey and Ponte Vedra Beach, but lost in three straight first rounds over the summer hardcourt season, even needing to qualify for New Haven. But during the year she had notched wins over rising stars Aravane Rezai and Lucie Safarova while giving Serena Williams a bit of a scare at Wimbledon. She came to the U.S. Open ranked forty-fifth in the world, but certainly knew she was capable of better. Though she was spared the worst of the draws, she survived a three-plus hour second round against Kateryna Bondarenko, saving more than a few match points, and by the time she made the second week, I admittedly didn't think she had any fight left in her.

Kuznetsova, on the other hand, was just beginning to regain her stride. Since winning the French Open last year, she struggled to repeat the performances that raised her to #3 in the world until the hardcourt season. She avoided two potential meltdowns on the way to a title in San Diego and survived a tough draw to make the semis in Montreal. Dealt some big opponents in New York, she showed that champion spirit in defeats of veteran Kimiko Date Krumm and her own two-time vanquisher Maria Kirilenko. It started to look like she was setting herself up to again be a contender for the crown she won back in 2004.

But in abnormally windy conditions, Cibulkova pulled off one of the biggest wins of her career. Having made the fourth round of a Major for only the third time, she didn't want to take the opportunity for granted. Down break points in both sets, the Slovak saved eight other break chances in the first and finally got herself even before eventually winning the set. She battled injuries and fatigue through the second, took advantage of twenty-one unforced errors by her opponent, and forced a tiebreak in which she never ceded the lead.

Dominika lost in the next round to Wozniacki and only won a handful of matches the rest of the year, but she ends 2010 at #31 in the world, in seeding territory for at least the Australian Open. And she's still young -- just twenty-one -- so has plenty of opportunity to really develop her game next year. She's spunky enough to put together a couple wins at the Majors and may just make a run for a big trophy in the coming months.

Honorable Mentions: Elena's fourth round loss to Sam Stosur in the wee hours of a Monday morning might actually rank higher on my list, but I just couldn't include another one of her heartbreaking defeats. And Clijsters' win over Venus in the semis proved she can make it through draws which include the toughest opponents.

Well it sure has been an exciting year for the ladies.

And though Serena's wins in Melbourne and Wimbledon were enough to keep her firmly ranked at the top of the sport, her withdrawal at least from Australia next year sure does open the door for other ladies who've begun to get their footing at the Slams -- if this year's performances are any indication, it looks like we might start seeing some new faces on the winner's stand.

Be sure to check back later this week when I'll bring you my picks for the best men's matches at the Majors -- trust me, we've only just begun!

December 15, 2010

Year in Review: The Best Men's Matches

Last week I brought you my picks for the best ladies' matches outside the Majors -- don't worry, I'll be back with those soon! -- and I have to admit it was just as hard to generate the same list for the men. Not that there was any lack of material to choose from -- quite the contrary. There was so much excitement on the men's Tour that I'm afraid I really had to limit myself.

So please forgive me if your picks didn't make my list -- there was a lot of competition. But here are the non-Slam matches that stood out most in my mind.

Sony Ericsson Open, Miami, Third Round
Rafael Nadal d. David Nalbandian: 6-7(8), 6-2, 6-2

It is of course a bit unfortunate, like in many matches this year, that these two powerhouses had to meet so early in a tournament. Nadal, ranked fourth at the time, was coming off a short injury hiatus while the wildcard Nalbandian was hoping to improve his #161 ranking as he returned to Tour post hip surgery. It was a battle of two elite athletes playing just slightly off their best game and turned out to be one of the best-fought matches of the event. Rafa was first to break his opponent, but the Argentine, who'd actually defeated Nadal in two of their three previous meetings, rebounded to even the score and force a first set tiebreak. He held several set points before taking the lead and looked poised to pull off the upset. But Rafa took control early in the second set and closed it out by breaking Nalbandian's serve for the third time in the match.

Having lost his momentum, it looked as though David might crumble at that point, but he stayed strong to start the deciding set. The two traded long, brilliant, hard-hitting rallies that showed just how well they could not only move but also think. Both covered the court like white on rice, chasing down every apparent winner and getting shots that had no business surviving back into play. But despite spectacular shot-making from either side of the net, Nadal didn't allow Nalbandian another chance in the third, winning every one of his first serves, and finished off his opponent fairly quickly for the win.

Rafa went on to the semis in Miami, losing to eventual champion Andy Roddick in three sets, but his year only got better from that point. Nalbandian enjoyed his best play of the year during the summer hardcourt season, winning a title in Washington and actually being one of my favorites at the U.S. Open. He didn't quite make it that far, but he did manage to end the year in the top thirty, in solid seeding territory for Melbourne, and I don't doubt we'll see him make a bigger dent in 2011.

Rome Masters, Second Round
Ernests Gulbis d. Roger Federer: 2-6, 6-1, 7-5

It had been an interesting year so far for Federer -- after winning the Australian Open quite definitively, he'd failed to make much headway in the early spring, losing to Marcos Baghdatis in the third round at Indian Wells and Tomas Berdych in Miami. Still, when we hit the clay courts, the surface on which he'd launched his historic run last year, I expected he'd bring nothing but the best.

In his first match of the season he faced Ernests Gulbis, a somewhat erratic player who, at twenty-two, had just won his maiden title a few months earlier at Delray Beach. Ranked #40 in the world at the time, the Latvian had once made a nice run in New York but had previously seen his best Grand Slam performance at the 2008 French Open, where he beat James Blake on his way to the quarters. Still with a mediocre 19-21 career record on clay, you wouldn't have given him much of a chance.

But Gulbis was not intimidated, even after losing the the first set so one-sidedly. He took advantage of the then-#1's weak serve and fired off four times as many aces as Federer. He broke the usually solid Swiss four times during the match and won more than forty percent of his return points. After just over two hours, Gulbis had secured the biggest win of his career.

He followed through with a run to the semis in Italy and a quarterfinal showing a few weeks later in Madrid. He was one of my favorites to cause an upset at Roland Garros, but a hamstring injury caused him to retire while trailing Julien Benneteau in the first round. Though he was in and out of contention for the summer and much of the fall, Gulbis ended the year with a career-high #24 ranking and scored himself a legion of new fans . If he's in good health next year, I'd look for him to make a statement early -- after all, he knows he has what it takes to hit with the big guys.

Farmers Classic, Los Angeles, Final
Sam Querrey d. Andy Murray: 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-3

Defending champion Sam Querrey should not have made the finals in Los Angeles this year -- he'd squeaked by a tough Rainer Schuettler in the quarters and saved match point against Janko Tipsarevic in the semis. Not surprisingly, all the commentators had dubbed him Houdini for getting out of so many jams, and I'm not sure many gave him a chance against Andy Murray in the finals. The Brit had won their previous four meetings, never ceding even a set to the world #20. Querrey also hadn't stacked up a very intimidating record against top-ten players, only having beaten Andy Roddick once this year. Admittedly, I was surprised when he got the first break of the match, less so when he gave it back a few games later. Only a few games later, Murray had secured a decisive break and claimed the quick lead.

At that point I figured it was all over -- after surviving three straight three-set matches, how could Querrey endure another? But he managed to stay strong early, maintaining serve and firing off the bombs that had helped him steadily climb the rankings. Serving at 4-5, he faced match point for the second time in the tournament, but a couple solid serves got him out of trouble, and he ran off to a quick lead in the tiebreak before finally taking his first set ever from the then-world #4.

The decider was just as hard fought, but you could begin to see frustration creeping into Murray's game. He continued to race after -- and get! -- balls he had no business reaching, but when he made errors he grimaced like a child and wailed his annoyance to the crowd. Querrey meanwhile stayed calm and collected, and though he was actually out-aced in the third set and won only five points on Murray's serve, they were all the right ones. He converted his only break opportunity and saved the one chance he gave the Brit, eventually earning the right to hoist the trophy for the second straight year after almost two and a half hours of play.

It might have been the highlight of Sam's year -- the then twenty-two year old only made it past the second round of an event once after that, losing a long five-setter to Stanislas Wawrinka in the U.S. Open's fourth round. But he did end the year at #18 in the world, and if he uses the off-season to get his game back in order, he could be a real threat in 2011. Murray followed up with two Masters 1000 titles, both won by defeating Roger Federer, and a semifinal run at the World Tour finals -- more on that later. He might still struggle deep in the Majors, but he seems to be getting his nerves under a bit of control.

Davis Cup, Chennai, World Group Play-offs
Thomaz Bellucci d. Rohan Bopanna: 6-7(2), 7-6(7), 7-5, 4-6, 10-8

Bellucci should have been the clear favorite in this match as the Brazilian was ranked twenty-seventh in the world compared to Bopanna with a singles ranking just inside the top five hundred. But the Indian was coming off a historic doubles run at the U.S. Open and had garnered a host of fans applauding his symbolic bridge with Pakistan's Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, and he brought that momentum with him to Chennai for Davis Cup.

The match was close from the start, and Bopanna had break points in the second to get the two-set lead. He was even ahead 5-2 in the fifth before the Brazilian pulled even to force the marathon. After more than an hour of play in the decider, Bellucci broke the Indian at love in the seventeenth game before serving out the first tie of the rubber.

The South Americans' elation wouldn't last long, however, as Bopanna and teammate Somdev Devvarman would rebound from their country's 0-2 deficit and come back -- both won their reverse singles matches later that weekend, sending India into the World Group next year.

More importantly, Rohan sealed off one the best years of his career -- though he ended 2010 a few notches off his best ever doubles ranking, he and partner Qureshi were recognized for their efforts to promote peace between India and Pakistan. They might have come just short of the win at this year's U.S. Open, but something tells me they might become something of a staple at the Slams next year.

World Team Finals, London, Semifinal
Rafael Nadal d. Andy Murray: 7-6(5), 3-6, 7-6(6)

It was a great way to close out 2010 -- the best men in the sport battling out for year-end glory and, appropriately, the four players who'd inhabited the top ranks of the sport most of the year had made the semis. Nadal was the on-paper favorite against Murray, having made it through his round robin group without losing a match, but the Brit had won four of their last five meetings on hard courts and had been near flawless in his two Masters titles on the surface since August.

Both opened strong, never letting the other to make much of a dent on his own serve. The hometown favorite won a staggering 91% of his first serves while the year-end #1 lost only seven points on his own game -- neither allowed a single look to the returner. Nadal got the lead in the breaker, but an amazing thirty-six stroke rally helped Murray draw even. A few points later, though, Nadal converted on set point and took the lead despite nine aces and twice as many winners from his opponent.

The second set only got more exciting. After finding himself in early trouble, Murray used the crowd support to save break points in the second game and eventually converted on his own fourth try in the seventh. Serving from behind at 3-5, Nadal saw a winner float past him as Murray capped off the set after almost another full hour of play.

The third set proved to be no let down either. Rafa built himself an early lead and saved two break points in the sixth game before earning his first match point at 3-5. Murray held, though, and somehow managed to break Nadal while he tried to serve it out. In the ultimate tiebreak, the Brit got off to a quick lead before Rafa drew even and earned his second match point. But it was the third time that was a charm and after an eighty-minute plus set Nadal had advanced to his first World Tour Final championship match.

Nadal, of course, did not win the trophy, kind of a let down after the stellar year he's had, but the fact that he advanced so solidly against the sport's best players on his worst surface bodes well for next year. And Murray, who reclaimed his ranking as #4 in the world thanks to the win, gave himself a reminder of just how much damage he can do against elite. It's got to give him at least the hope that he can go one better than his previous two Grand Slam finals.

So as you can tell, it was a pretty exciting year even at the smaller tournaments. Obviously I had to leave some of the candidates you guys tweeted me off the list, including the Madrid finals -- infamous whiff and all -- and the Nadal/Victor Hanescu third round in Rome.

But it only gets better when we enter the big leagues. Be sure to check back next week when we'll go to the Majors -- it harder to narrow down the field there, and I had so many contenders that came oh-so-close, I had to include Honorable Mentions!

Hopefully I'll be able to produce a more comprehensive list!

December 10, 2010

Year in Review: The Best Ladies' Matches

When you look back at women's tennis in 2010, what do you remember most? Francesca Schiavone hoisting her first Grand Slam trophy at twenty-nine years old? Serena passing Billie Jean on the all-time Major winners' list? Elena retiring from the sport in a tearful ceremony in Doha? Caroline Wozniacki securing the year-end #1 on the back of six titles this season?

Yes, all those events rank highly in my book, but ultimately it's the matches that make tennis, and the ladies all certainly put on a show for us this year. It wasn't just the stars, either -- a couple fresh faces found the moxie to make their own statements too. Some have followed through, others have faded to the background. But all have made us stand up and cheer during their matches, and, perhaps more importantly, they've shown us just how hard girls can hit.

So this year I'm paying tribute to the matches I've found most exciting, memorable, or downright inspiring. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of material I had to draw from, and quickly realized I couldn't possibly limit myself to my originally intended five matches. So I've divided my reviews into two parts -- one for the Majors and another for everything else. And as always, I'll start with the ladies' Tour.

Medibank International, Sydney, Final
Elena Dementieva d. Serena Williams: 6-3, 6-2

The year had just begun and we still had no idea what 2010 would bring us. Still this rematch of what was, hands down, the most exciting three sets of 2009 promised to be a nail-biter. Each woman had lost just a set on the way to the championship match, Serena to then-soaring Aravane Rezai and the defending champ to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round. And, head-to-head, the two had compiled a surprisingly close 7-5 career record, slightly favoring the top seed, but Dementieva had won five of their last eight prior meetings.

It was a huge win for Dementieva who not only avenged that Wimbledon loss, but also put herself back on the map for Australia. Of course, she was famously handed a ridiculous draw in Melbourne, but a subsequent title in Paris somewhat made up for it. We wouldn't know until much later in the year just how important the win was.

Sony Ericsson Open, Miami, Fourth Round
Venus Williams d. Daniela Hantuchova: 1-6, 7-5, 6-4

Commentators didn't give twenty-fifth ranked Daniela Hantuchova a chance in this match. After all her opponent was riding a twelve-match win streak and had beaten her in their last nine meetings, ceding only one set at the 2002 Australian Open. But the pretty Slovakian came out swinging, smacking angles and holding Venus to thirty percent on her first serve in the opening set. She got off to a 4-0 lead before Williams got on the board, converting all three of her break opportunities, and even got a lead in the second set.

But then Venus found her serve -- she won eighty-six percent of her first attempts and four games in a row. It looked like, as so often happens, she was about to run away with the match. But Daniela didn't give up -- she got back on serve and almost forced a tiebreak. And when she failed to close it out, again I feared Venus would trounce her in the third. But I was surprised. Daniela rallied after getting down a break early and saved a couple match points when serving at 4-5 before Venus eventually sealed the win. The seven-time Grand Slam champion demonstrated exactly what has made her a staple among the elite for over a decade, finding her best shots when facing adversity.

While the result was as expected -- though it took a little longer to get there -- what made this match so great was the wherewithal of both players. Hantuchova walking on court like she knew she could win and Venus surviving a monstrous first set to pull out the ultimate victory. Neither woman gave up, neither showed signs of defeat as some of their counterparts so often do, and, when they needed to, they both pulled off some amazing shots. I was encouraged to see Daniela show she can at least keep up with the top players, and though she only posted middling results for the rest of the year, she did notch wins over Marion Bartoli, Yanina Wickmayer and Jelena Jankovic, before making the semis in Bali.

Venus, of course, reached the finals in Miami, losing quickly to Kim Clijsters in straight sets, though a nagging injury kept her out of any non-Major tournaments the rest of the year. But that was just enough time to make another mark on my list -- it's coming soon, I promise.

Bank of the West Classic, Stanford, California, Final
Victoria Azarenka d. Maria Sharapova: 6-4, 6-1

This year had been a tale of resurrection for both Vika and Maria. A handful of injuries had caused the Belarusian to pull out of matches all spring, and Sharapova was steadily working her way back to top-ten status. Both had staged a series of upsets -- and a series of comebacks -- to make the finals in Stanford, and both started the match going all out for the title.

Maria was the favorite, clearly -- the former #1 and three-time Grand Slam winner had won two of their three previous meetings and already claimed two titles this year. Azarenka, on the other hand, had gone more than fifteen months since her last big win, and her roller coaster year put her chances in question. But she'd pulled off a stunning comeback against defending champion Marion Bartoli in the quarters and absolutely demolished a tough Sam Stosur in the semis. And she'd had a bit more rest than Maria, who finished off her semifinal match against Aggie Radwanska late Saturday night.

The final began with some strong -- and loud -- hitting on both sides of the net, as should be expected. Azarenka broke Maria early but gave it back a few games later. They continued to trade off service games throughout that opener, with amazingly powerful shots expertly executed by both ladies. It took about an hour, but ultimately it was Azarenka, who'd turned twenty-one just the day before, who ran off with an early lead.

The second set wasn't nearly so close. Apparently the fatigue of two late-night, three-set matches finally caught up with Maria, and after putting up more than a valiant fight early, she couldn't handle any more. She held serve on her first game, but eventually Sharapova succumbed to a slew of winners by her opponent that never allowed her to get back in the match. Within thirty minutes Vika's hard-hitting eventually earned her a solid win and reminded us all how much of a force she is on the hard court.

Sharapova rebounded well to make the finals in Cincinnati a few weeks later, but injury kept her from making much of a dent later in the season. Azarenka, meanwhile, made the semis in Montreal and rebounded from that scare in New York to take the title in Moscow and qualify for the Tour Championships in Doha. Though her 2-1 record there wasn't enough to advance to the semis, she ended the year on a positive note I think she should be able to carry with her to the 2011 Slam season.

Pilot Pen Tennis, New Haven, Connecticut, Semifinal
Caroline Wozniacki d. Elena Dementieva: 1-6, 6-3, 7-6(5)

With the U.S. Open a weekend away, the action in New Haven was a little more exciting than it had been the last couple of years. Four players technically ranked in the top ten had entered the draw either outright or as wildcards as they tried to get in just a bit more match play before the year's last Major.

For two-time defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, there was a lot riding on her performance at the Pilot Pen. The runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2009, she had earned the top seed in New York this year when then-#1 Serena Williams pulled out with a nagging foot injury. There had been a lot of criticism around that choice, with plenty of pundits claiming the twenty-year-old should not have been granted the position. But already having won titles in Copenhagen and Montreal earlier in the month, the Dane had done all she could to prove her worth.

In the New Haven semis she was pitted against my personal favorite, Elena Dementieva, a consistent baseliner with an intimidating return game. The Russian had missed a few months of play over the summer after a leg injury forced her to retire from the French Open, and had recently dropped out of the top ten for the first time in years. But she survived two tough rounds at Yale before running into sweet Caroline, and when she rolled through the first set, I thought she had it in the bag.

Caro evened the score by taking the second, but it was the third which really made things interesting. Dementieva got ahead early and had a chance in the fifth game to take a two-break advantage. She came within two points of the win and even had the match on her racquet before Wozniacki rallied for her only break of the final set. Then when Caroline found herself with three match points at 6-5, it was the Russian who came up with the big serves. After two-plus hours of aggressive, thoughtful, no-holds-barred counterpunching -- this ain't your mama's tennis, kids -- neither showed signs of letting up. In the tiebreak Elena got off to a fast start, but Caro got it even and kept it close until the end, finally winning by a score of 109 total points to 108.

Wozniacki did go on to three-peat in New Haven, and though she didn't win the U.S. Open, two trophies in the fall did eventually seal in the year-end #1 for her. Dementieva, on the other hand, suffered a couple more close defeats before qualifying for the Tour championships for the tenth time in her career. But it sure was nice to see she went out swinging her hardest, just as she had done for the better part of the decade.

Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions, Bali, Final
Ana Ivanovic d. Alisa Kleybanova: 6-2, 7-6(5)

It's no big news that Ivanovic had been using this as a rebuilding year -- having dropped out of the top fifty, she'd staged a couple mini-rallies throughout the year, making the semis in Rome and Cincinnati before finally ending a two-year title drought in Linz. After working her way back up to #24 in the world, she didn't deliver quite enough to qualify for Doha, but managed entry into Bali, where she was just out of seeding territory. The girl who won only three matches in the second half of last year seemed decidedly determined to reverse that trend in 2010. She crushed teen queen Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round, ceding only a game, and survived a squeaker against fan favorite Kimiko Date Krumm in the semis.

Against Alisa Kleybanova in the finals, things were close to start, but Ana eventually ran away with the first set. Though she lost serve to begin the second, she was able to fight back to even and saved break points several games later. Solid serving and powerful groundstrokes got Ivanovic to a tiebreak, one in which she never gave up the lead. Under quite unlikely circumstances, she walked away with her second title of the year and climbed back into the top twenty.

Of course, the win is great for Ana's momentum as we approach 2011, but it also illustrates just how fickle this sport can be. Given the right training, a renewed dedication, and clearly some talent, you really never can count a player out. Kind of makes you wonder who else could launch a comeback next year, doesn't it?

And that's less than half of it! You guys tweeted me some great contenders which just missed the list, including Jelena Jankovic's defeat of Serena Williams in the Rome semis and Venus beating Vika in the Dubai finals way back in February. Trust me, it was hard to leave any of them off the list!

I have to hand it to the ladies -- they really brought it in 2010, whether or not the big trophies were on the line. And that sure gives me hope for the quality of play we'll see in the coming months.

Be sure to check back next week when I'll bring you my top non-Slam men's matches of the year. And the Majors are coming too -- believe me, there was a lot to get through!

December 5, 2010

Down to the Wire

I love it when the final rubber of a Davis Cup tie actually means something -- it wasn't since Russia defeated Argentina in 2006 that the last match was played to completion. And this year, after four hard-fought rubbers, we were finally given the chance to see two countries fight their hearts out for their honor.

Play began Friday and, admittedly, I thought Serbia would run away with it. Armed with a U.S. Open finalist in Novak Djokovic and a World Tour Final champion in Nenad Zimonjic, as well as homefield advantage, it looked like the team should have had the cards stacked in its favor. And when France made the first dent in the scoreboard -- Gael Monfils beat Janko Tipsarevic hardly breaking a sweat -- I wasn't worried their lead would last. Not surprisingly, Nole evened the score with a routine win over Gilles Simon later that day and Zimonjic teamed with Viktor Troicki to build a two-set lead on the pairing of Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement.

But that's when things got interesting. All four players took a break after the second set, and France got off to a quick lead to start the third by winning Troicki's first service game. The Serbs had a few shots to pull even in the eighth game, but some masterful play by Llodra, ranked a respectable #29 in doubles, got them out of trouble and kept them in the lead -- two games later they had forced another set.

Both teams raised their play then -- there were six aces in the fourth set and another five service winners as players held their games rather easily on both sides of the net. It wasn't until several games later that the French rattled off three games in a row to tie up the match. They then broke the ever-solid Zimonjic to start the fifth and never looked back -- after four and a half hours of play, the French had secured a surprising 2-1 lead.

Djokovic was again able to draw things even on Sunday when he kept his record against Monfils unblemished. The world #3 broke the Frenchman's serve seven times to win in straight sets, making the final match so much more important. Originally expected to pit Simon against Tipsarevic, both teams subbed in the alternates and Troicki was forced to face Llodra a second day in a row.

And this time, the Serb was not intimidated. After losing serve several times on Saturday, he was able to keep his own games in check. He out-aced the Frenchman and won more than half of his return points. He made more errors than his opponent, but that was more a symptom of his aggressive play -- he also shot nearly twice as many winners -- and after about two hours and much less drama than the previous day, he had sealed in the Serbs' very first Davis Cup.

In doing so, Serbia became the thirteenth nation to claim the championship, and they certainly put themselves on the map as a force to beat in the sport. If we didn't already know the force and potential contained within the teeny country, we certainly do now.

And that could give others reason to stop and take notice next year.

December 2, 2010

It's Not Over Yet

Sure, most of the action on the men's Tour is over for the year, but we've still got the Davis Cup finals this weekend, and this year things could get pretty interesting.

First-time finalist Serbia takes on France, making its first appearance at the championship tie since 2002, and both teams boast players who've made quite a statement in recent months.

France has actually won the Cup nine times, third on the all-time champions' list, but six of those wins came before World War II. They put in a nice showing earlier in the decade, led by the likes of Nicolas Escude and Sebastien Grosjean, but these days they have a fighting chance to reclaim the title. They began their 2010 run by blanking two-time defending champion Spain in the quarters and doing the same to 2008 second-place finishers Argentina a few months later.

Though one of their top players is sitting out this weekend, Gael Monfils, a winner in Montpellier and a runner-up in Paris, is riding high on the momentum of six wins over top-twenty players -- including Andy Murray and Roger Federer -- in about a month. And Michael Llodra, who had his own miracle run in Bercy, has fought his way to #23 in the world, his highest career ranking. Adding Metz champ Gilles Simon and Arnaud Clement to the list, and you might see some big wins this weekend.

But Serbia is making its first appearance in the finals, and given their roster of players, you might wonder what's taken them so long. Helmed by world #3 and London semifinalist Novak Djokovic, they have a Grade-A team. Viktor Troicki, who nearly stopped Nole's New York run in the first round, and Janko Tipsarevic, who vanquished Andy Roddick in the U.S. Open's second round round out the singles field. And World Tour Finals doubles champ Nenad Zimonjic promises to bring the power that's kept him in that discipline's top five for two and a half years.

Play kicks of Friday with Tipsarevic taking on Monfils, the man who pushed him out at Flushing Meadows. Still, they've split wins in their four previous meetings, so it could be Janko's turn to get ahead. Djokovic follows with a rubber against former top-ten Simon, a man he's beaten in five of their six match-ups. I don't expect him to cede that advantage on his homecourt.

In my view, it seems like Serbia is the favorite to win their first Davis Cup this weekend, but if we've learned anything this year, it's that nothing is for certain. But I have a feeling this championship won't be quite as one-sided as they've been in the past few years.

And the result might just usher in a new era of regional domination in men's tennis.