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.

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