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!

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