December 31, 2011

...And a Happy New Year!

Tomorrow, it will be 2012, and I'm feeling existential. It's a new year, a new beginning, a new opportunity for anything to happen, so they say. And while the top players in tennis hope to continue their domination of the sport, plenty of others will have a whole new chance to add their names to the ranks of the elite.

So in the spirit of the new, I've decided to play a little game -- I'll make my predictions for the players I think could win each of the Grand Slams, just like I did last year, with on catch: each pick will be a first-time Major winner.

With a few hours still left before finalizing their New Year's resolutions, this might give them the extra push they need to really focus on the goal.

Australian Open

I've said this before, but this year I'm even more confident in my choice.

Victoria Azarenka has always had come out of the gate swinging, winning her first Tour title in Brisbane back in 2009. But she's never started a year with as much momentum as she has right now -- she capped of this past season with a title in Luxembourg and a run to the final in Istanbul. Now at a career-high #3 in the world, she could set the stage for a further rise quickly in 2012.

Australia has been the site of some of Vika's best Slam performances too -- she lost three years in a row to Serena Williams, taking a set from her twice, and last year fell to eventual finalist Na Li. But since her foils won't be eligible for the crown in my little game, Azarenka will logistically have the road cleared for her. And, of the top players in the game who've never brought home the big trophy, she seems most ready to make an impact early in the year.

Of course, Andy Murray is by now a real contender at any of the Slams, but the two-time finalist in Melbourne ended 2011 with three straight titles, and though he withdrew from London, he's had a little extra time to rest up. Like Vika, if he's able to re-harnass the momentum that gripped his game since the U.S. Open, then he could start 2012 off on the right foot.

French Open

Oh, how to pick a winner at a tournament which has had five different champions in as many years? Then again, we know anything can happen on the red clay of Paris, and with three of those victors claiming their first -- and, incidentally, so far only -- Major at Roland Garros, this might be the most-realistic setting in which to play my game.

There are a couple contenders for this title -- Flavia Pennetta, who had a nice comeback run at the end of '11 with wins over Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open and Caroline Wozniacki in Beijing and has won seven of her nine titles on the surface, Julia Goerges, who put up some of her best numbers on clay last year, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who should have her confidence raised, now that fellow youngster Petra Kvitova re-made the case for non-veteran talent last year.

But I'm going with another choice -- one even more under the radar. Dominika Cibulkova always seems most comfortable on the dirt, and after her breakthrough title in Moscow last October, she should be able to improve her ranking in the months leading up to the year's second Slam. She was a semifinalist here in 2009, pummeling Sharapova along the way, but was not healthy enough to compete well last year. Look for her to turn that around, and maybe do something really big.

It's kind of funny -- there really are a ton of great clay-court specialists on the men's Tour, but the ones playing at their prime during the last decade have been somewhat unfairly, but quite dominantly, overshadowed by Rafael Nadal since 2005. David Ferrer, currently #5 in the world, made three clay-court finals last year, including a Masters event in Monte Carlo. Nicolas Almagro has won all ten of his titles on the surface. And a slew of lower ranked players patiently mark their time at lower-tier dirt events, racking up points and honing their game.

But if anyone deserves to take home their first Major in Paris this year, it's probably Sweden's Robin Soderling. The twenty-seven year old shocked the world nearly three years ago when he handed Rafa his only loss ever at Roland Garros and made the finals in that and the next year, when he ended the great Slam semifinal streak of Roger Federer. He's dropped a few ranking points the last few months, missing some of the season with a wrist injury and some because of mono. If he's back in form by the spring and gets in a couple matches of practice before the French, he might be the non-Rafa, non-Roger favorite this year.


Over the last few years, a couple players have been able to break the all-Williams stranglehold at the All England Club -- Marion Bartoli made the finals in 2007, Vera Zvonareva had the same run in '10, and Petra Kvitova finally broke the spell entirely last July. But by the same time this year it might be somebody else's turn.

Sabine Lisicki made the semis in 2011 as a wildcard, on the back of a title in Birmingham and a previous-best quarterfinal run. Now healthy again and sure to move a few spots higher up the rankings by the time she travels to London, she has a legitimate shot even if my first-time winner stipulation doesn't apply.

Wimbledon has long been a place where certain names dominate -- Bjorn Borg in the 1970s, Pete Sampras in the nineties, Roger Federer for most of this decade -- so it'll be hard for anyone inexperienced in the big leagues to crack through. Tomas Berdych, in fact, is the only non-Slam winner to make the final since 2003.

Among the top tier of players, Andy Murray would certainly be the one the hometown crowds would want to take the title, but having won my hypothetical Australian Open crown, he's no longer eligible for this one. I would love to see Mardy Fish, who made a career-best quarterfinal run here last year, walk away with it, but I'm not sure he's quite ready yet. And the handful of guys who make surprise runs -- Bernard Tomic last year, Yen-Hsun Lu the year before -- fall a little short of what it takes to go all the way.

The one guy who's been somewhat consistent at the All England Club recently has been Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. After suffering some drawn out matches in 2010 to make the quarters, he went one better last year, beating David Ferrer in the fourth round and then coming back from two sets down to Federer to make the semis. He went 10-13 against top ten players this year, and went on a roll to make the final in London. If he keeps up his game, he might finally make the Big breakthrough we've been waiting for.

U.S. Open

The New York crowds sure do love a show, and over the past couple years we might have gotten the best ones -- at least the best non-tennis ones -- from Andrea Petkovic.

But besides being a great entertainer, the spunky German has tons of fight. Injured for most of the last quarter, she still battled to the quarters at the U.S. Open and barely gave an inch in the Beijing finals. Petko's only titles have come on clay, but she's made nice runs in New York the last two years and she'll only get better from here. With six wins over top ten players in 2011, we know she has the talent to pull off the required wins, and there doesn't seem to be a better place for the fans to get behind her.

It gets tough for the men in New York -- after Federer's domination of the U.S. Open in the mid-2000s, this trophy has traded hands quite a bit the last few years. And with eight months of play to go before the last Grand Slam of the year is played, the door can open for any number of guys. In that vein, let's go with a real underdog for this trophy.

John Isner was way under the radar in 2010, thanks to a lack of any real record-setting matches. But he did add to his trophy case twice, in Winston-Salem and Newport, and grabbed a runner's-up award in Atlanta. He followed up a red-hot summer with a trip to the quarters in New York, his best ever showing at any Major. Clearly the U.S. crowds are good for him, and with a game that now is more refined than being just a serve show, he might just be able to make his way through the super-elite and bring a Slam back to the American men.

Sure, there's a lot of stuff that has to go their way for any of this guys and gals to walk away with that maiden Major in 2012 -- and since, even in my hypothetical game, they'll still potentially have to compete against the Rogers and Serenas of the world, nothing can be taken for granted. You'll notice, of course, some obvious omissions from my picks, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for some surprises.

And with a little training -- and a bit of luck -- we could be in for quite a few.

December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas...

On this day, when one particular birth is celebrated around the globe, I thought it appropriate to pay tribute to a few others -- a couple new, and likely lasting, rivalries emerged this year in the sport of tennis. Once dominated by Roger vs. Rafa and Venus vs. Serena, the tide shifted in 2011, and we were treated to one rematch after another, sometimes setting the stage for a new guard in the coming year.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Vera Zvonareva

For two players who've been on Tour for what seems like ages, it's kind of funny that these two only met once before this year started -- in Moscow, way back in 2007. Vera was #24 at the time, Aggie #33, but the Russian had already cracked the top ten and had earned a handful of titles, including Cincinnati. Both had career highs since then -- Zvonareva was a two-time Major finalist, and the Pole had become a regular inhabitant of the single- and low double-digits -- but the scales were tipped handily to Vera's side when they faced each other again in Miami.

Zvonareva took their quarterfinal match at the Sony Ericsson Open, but that's about as far as she went. Radwanska pulled off a huge upset of the top seed in the Carlsbad final and repeated a few weeks later in Toronto. After a couple early losses late in the summer, Aggie captured her second title of the year at Vera's expense in Tokyo and was on quite a year-end roll when she scored her fourth win in a row against the former #2 in Istanbul. Zvonareva ends the year a spot ahead in the rankings, but things could change pretty quickly in the new year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Pole make a real move to establish herself as one to beat in 2012.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Roger Federer

These guys met eight times this year -- eight. And when things started, it looked pretty much the way you thought it would. Federer didn't drop a set in the first six they played, beating the Frenchman on his way to the Doha title and again in the Rome second round. He got himself to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the Wimbledon quarters, but then something seemed to go wrong. After pulling off the most unlikely of upsets, Tsonga then repeated in Montreal, beating Roger again in the round of sixteen.

Things went back to normal after that -- Federer notched a straight set victory in New York and captured his first ever Paris title, beating Tsonga in straight sets. At the year-end championships in London, the Swiss giant underscored his success, backing up a round robin victory with a three-set win in the final. He still holds a fairly one-sided 8-3 record over Jo-Wilfried, but as the Frenchman continues to improve his game, that all could change pretty quickly.

Victoria Azarenka vs. Petra Kvitova

Azarenka had the edge over Kvitova before the year began -- a year older and a bit quicker to mature, she was already ranked #26 in the world when she first beat the Czech at Prague in 2008. But things began changing last year at the All England Club, when the eventual semifinalist bagelled the fourteenth seed in the second set of their third round match.

And this year was, clearly, all about Kvitova. The pair met on all three surfaces in 2011, first on clay in the Madrid finals, then the Wimbledon semis and again playing on hard court for the year-end championship. And though the matches were close, they all went in favor of the upstart -- Vika was the on-paper favorite everywhere but Istanbul. Now ranked #2 and #3 in the world, either could take over the top spot after the Australian Open, and if they keep up their level of play, we could see the two of them battling for a bunch more titles in the years to come.

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic

These two were no strangers before 2011 -- but in twenty-three previous meetings, the Spaniard held a large and intimidating 16-7 advantage. He'd won all their battles at Majors and every time a title was on the line. He'd lost just a handful of sets on clay, never more than one a match. When the year began, he'd spent more than eighty weeks as the #1 player in the world and had just managed to capture the career Grand Slam. He was sitting on top of the world, with Djokovic right below him.

Then everything changed.

They first met in the Indian Wells final, where Rafa took the early lead but eventually Nole rebounded to take the crown. A few weeks later in Miami we saw a similar story, though this time the Serb was pushed to a tiebreak in the third set before earning the win. We all figured things would revert once we hit the dirt, but Nole stunned the clay-court King in Madrid and again in Rome, where pundits assured us conditions favored Rafa. Then Djokovic really turned up the heat, taking his game to the Majors and decisively handing losses to the defending champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

It seems only right that Rafa and Nole just met in championship rounds this year. They end the year as the top-ranked men in the sport and they spent the entire year proving it. It's certainly not the way we expected things to play out over the last twelve months, but if they stay in shape, things could get really interesting in the ones that follow.

As we get ready to start a new season, it'll be interesting to see whether these same rivalries will continue in 2012 -- and whether the results will remain the same. Some of these players are clearly carrying the momentum now, but things can change at the drop of a hat. And whoever is going to keep the advantage is going to have to bring it.

December 18, 2011

The 2011 Tennis Spin Awards: The Men

It's not often that the men's Tour brings us many surprises -- for the past eight years the game has been dominated by two guys, and any chink made in the armor was short-lived.

That all changed in 2011, though, as the tide shifted from the old to the new guard. But despite this being the "Year of Nole" there were plenty other stories -- both good and bad -- worthy of note. And so it's time to honor the men with their first maybe-annual Tennis Spin Awards to celebrate their accomplishments on the ATP Tour.

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Least Follow-ThroughGreatest Letdown
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

There were a lot of new stars to emerge on the tennis scene in 2011, and a couple guys really took the task of launching their careers to heart. Some were more successful than others, of course, but all made a real play against the sport's elite.

The Nominees
Ryan Harrison might have had his more impressive year in 2010, when the now-nineteen year old beat Ivan Ljubicic in the first round at the U.S. Open and very nearly took out New Haven champ Sergiy Stakhovsky a few days later. He had a few nice wins this year, most notably Milos Raonic in Indian Wells and Viktor Troicki in Shanghai, but he also had some very close calls against the super-elite -- he scored a set off Robin Soderling at Roland Garros and took David Ferrer to a fifth at Wimbledon. He still has to qualify for a lot of tournaments, but since cutting his ranking from #173 at the start of the year to top-eighty now, he's certainly put himself on the right track.

Australia's Bernard Tomic made his way slightly higher up the rankings, jumping nearly 170 spots to end the year at #42. He scored a couple upsets in Melbourne, but really made a statement at the All England Club where, as a qualifier, he ran straight to the quarters, beating veteran Xavier Malisse, Nikolay Davydenko and Soderling on the way. He just eked out a winning record on the pro Tour, too, and actually won more matches than he lost at the Majors. With his hometown Slam just around the corner -- as long as he keeps his other records clean -- he may be able to harness the crowd's support and make an even bigger statement early next year.

The Winner
And while both these guys put on a show for us in 2011, I don't think anyone had opponents quaking in their sneakers quite like Milos Raonic. The six-foot-five qualifier stormed to the fourth round in Australia, dismantling twenty-second seed Michael Llodra and tenth seed Mikhail Youzhny. In just four matches he racked up more aces than anyone else that tournament, and he was quick to show it was no fluke. Less than a month later, he beat Fernando Verdasco for the San Jose title, an opponent he bested again on his way to the Memphis final. Unfortunately an injury he suffered at Wimbledon kept him out of the game a for few months and he's still trying to get his game back, but a rise as high as #25 in the world -- from barely in the top three-hundred a year earlier -- tells me he'll be a formidable foe for some time to come.

Most Improved

It's not always easy to make a big statement on Tour when you're not one of the super elite -- especially when the men's game this year was overshadowed by the super-dominance of one player and the late-season surge of another. But outside the top five, plenty others toiled away on courts around the world, and for some of them the efforts more than paid off.

The Nominees
Florian Mayer has been around for about a decade, and though he first cracked the top hundred in 2004, a pesky finger injury took him out of the game for a bit and pushed his ranking as low as #450 in the world. Things turned around for him in 2011, though, as early season wins over Marin Cilic, Viktor Troicki and Nicolas Almagro got him deeper into tournaments than he'd been in some time. He still hasn't made a big dent at the Majors, reaching the third round in just one this year, far from a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon in '04, but he did make the fourth round in Shanghai with wins over David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal and claimed his first ever title in Bucharest -- quite an accomplishment at age twenty-seven. Though he ends the year just inside the top twenty-five, he did make it as high as #18 in the world in June and could push higher if he can stake a claim during the clay court season.

Similarly impressive was the performance of little-known Spaniard Marcel Granollers. Largely overshadowed by his compatriots, the twenty-five year old quietly became the sixth man from his country in the top thirty. He beat Michael Llodra and Stanislas Wawrinka in Miami and took out three higher ranked players to take the title in Gstaad. His upsets continued in Valencia, where he defeated another three seeds to claim his third career trophy and earned enough points to bump him to a year-ending ranking of #27. That could get him seeded at the Australian Open, not bad for a man who was in triple digits at the start of 2010.

The Winner
And while these guys both put themselves on the map in 2011, Janko Tipsarevic discovered himself a whole new world. The Serb had been ranked in the top hundred for five years, and though he'd scored some big wins over top players -- Fernando Gonzalez at Wimbledon in '07, Andy Murray in Dubai last year -- he'd rarely followed up one success with another and often lost to players ranked well below him.

But he made new push this year, running to the finals at both Delray Beach -- a match he should have won -- and Eastbourne -- where he retired in the third set. Things really picked up after Wimbledon, as Tipsarevic made the semis in Montreal and the quarters at the U.S. Open, his best ever appearance at a Slam. He finally made a breakthrough in Kuala Lumpur, winning the first title of his near-decade long career, and claimed another in Moscow later that month. He was a wildcard at the year-end championships and notched his first-ever win over countryman Novak Djokovic in the round robins. Now #9 in the world, he's a full forty spots higher than where he started the year, and -- more importantly -- a whole heck of a lot more confident in his game.

One to Watch

All these guys saw their star rise markedly throughout the year, but others who haven't yet broken through on the pro Tour used 2011 to set themselves up for what could be an even better new year.

The Nominees
Donald Young was long considered one of the next big stars on the ATP. A former #1 Junior and boys' titleist in Melbourne, he was the youngest player at eighteen to finish 2007 in the top hundred, a year in which he made five Challenger finals -- one of which he won. But he wasn't able to make any consistent headway on the main circuit until this year. He took out Andy Murray at Indian Wells, made the semis in Washington, and beat two seeds on his way to the fourth round at the U.S. Open. He still hasn't won a title, but a trip to the final in Bangkok suggests one might not be that far away.

Rui Machado hasn't climbed quite as far up the ranks as Young -- at #68 he finishes the year nearly thirty spots behind the American -- but he some success on the Challenger Tour helped him jump as high as #59. He claimed four titles in total and caused a few upsets on the main circuit, making the quarters in Costa do Sauipe and even taking a set from Roger Federer in Davis Cup play. He claimed the top non-wildcard seed in the inaugural Challenger Tour Finals, and though he was stopped in the round robins, he claimed enough points to bring him to his highest year-end ranking. He still has a losing record on the big boys' Tour, but expect the Portugal native to cause some more damage in the new year.

The Winner
After starting the year ranked outside the top four hundred and having to qualify for even non-Tour events, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe was the ultimate winner of that first Challenger championship in Sao Paulo. He also scored trophies in Shanghai & Bangkok and notched his first wins on the main Tour, beating Nikolay Davydenko in consecuitve weeks in Germany. Now ranked #81 in the world and the youngest among the set here, he might have the best opportunity to make waves in 2012.

Best Comeback

It's always nice to see a once-great player return to glory after time off -- for whatever reason. Some have to deal with injuries, others with a stretch of bad luck, a couple with personal issues. But despite some big obstacles a few players this year were able to turn around some long losing streaks, and a couple ended 2011 in their best shape ever.

The Nominees
Alex Bogomolov isn't technically a come-"back" -- having only barely cracked the top hundred at the turn of the century, he didn't really have much to return to. But a suspension from the game and a messy divorce kept him off the pro Tour for most of the late 2000s, so his comeback is arguably more literal. Ranked #167 at the start of the year, he beat Juan Ignacio Chela at Wimbledon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati and Andy Murray in Miami. Now #34 at twenty-eight years of age, he's probably playing the best tennis of his career -- kinda makes you wonder where he'd be if he hadn't taken those years off.

One-time top-twenty player Dmitry Tursunov won the first title of his career in 2006, and steadily improved the quality of his play and the stature of his statues over the course of the next several years. But an ankle injury in 2009 forced him to retire in three tournaments during the second half, and ultimate surgery took him out of the game after the U.S. Open. By mid-2010 he'd fallen out of the top five hundred and found himself having to qualify for events like Los Angeles and Bangkok. But he got back on track by the end of the year, making the semis in St. Petersburg, winning a couple Challengers in 2011 and finally taking the title in 's-Hertogenbosch, beating three higher-ranked players in the process. He ends the year at #40 in the world, and with a few solid wins in the first quarter, I wouldn't be surprised to see him seeded at the Majors by the spring.

A little more on the radar was the return of the big man, Juan Martin Del Potro. One of the few players able to break the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal stranglehold on the Slams last decade, the six-foot-six Argentine missed most of the 2010 season after wrist surgery and fell from a high of #4 in the world to #485 this February. But he rebounded quickly, making the semis in both San Jose and Memphis, and trounced Janko Tipsarevic in a Delray Beach final he should have lost. One more title and another final, plus a near-defeat of David Ferrer in the Davis Cup championships, helped him rise up to #11 to end the year. And if he stays healthy he could regain the momentum he'd so unceremoniously lost a year ago.

The Winner
While each of these guys certainly were successful in climbing out of their respective holes, Kei Nishikori far exceeded even his best previous performances. After making the biggest ranking jump of 2008, when he ended the year at #63, elbow injury took him out of the game the following year. He was quick to pull his game together, though, and after a few unranked weeks in 2010, spent enough time toiling on the Challengers' Tour to crack double digits at the start of the year. A run to finals in Houston and Basel -- where he became the only non-top ten player to break Novak Djokovic's game in 2011 -- helped push him to #25 in the world, a comeback that should reassure any player who ever gets sidelined.

Least Follow-Through

For every tale of encouragement, of course, there is one of disappointment. While I'm not ready to write off anyone listed here quite yet, the big bang with which they kicked off the year certainly seemed to sputter out.

The Nominees
Ivan Dodig had a bit of a breakthrough early in 2011. Ranked eighty-first at the time, he was the only man to take a set off Novak Djokovic in Australia. He went on to win his first career title a few weeks later in Zagreb and made the semis in Barcelona with a win over Robin Soderling. After a runner-up trophy in 's-Hertogenbosch helped propel him to a career-high ranking of #32 in the world, though, we haven't seen a lot from the Croat -- he managed a win over Rafael Nadal in Montreal, but also notched eight first-round losses in that time. If he doesn't turn around his game quickly, that ranking will fall quickly in the new year.

Jurgen Melzer made most of his move last year, when the 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist really started racking up the points that brought him to #8 in the world this past April. But though he made a couple nice runs during the clay court season -- the semis in Monte Carlo, quarters in Barcelona and Hamburg -- he hasn't won more than two matches at an event since July and actually posted a losing record on the year. Now out of the top thirty, Melzer is really having his most success on the doubles court -- but it doesn't make me stop wishing for the days he rocked at singles too.

The Winner
Strangely though, the recipient of this award is actually at his highest career ranking as the year ends. Alexandr Dolgopolov stormed onto the scene early in the winter, beating Sam Querrey in Brisbane and stunning Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling in Melbourne, where he was ranked #46. He made the final in Costa do Sauipe a few weeks later and, by the time Roland Garros rolled around, had earned the twenty-first seed. He did claim his first title in Umag, but he also had three separate stretches -- one in each the spring, summer and fall -- where he couldn't win a match. Currently #15 in the world, he'll have a bunch of points to defend from the start in 2012 and, if he doesn't, his time near the top could be very short-lived.

Greatest Letdown

From one set of bad news to another, these players didn't necessarily end their year on a bad note, but they might have expected to accomplish a little bit more in 2011.

American stalwart Andy Roddick had finished every year since 2002 in the top ten until this one. Falling for a couple weeks out of the top twenty, he was able to raise his play enough by the end of the year to finish at #14. He pulled off a solid win over David Ferrer at the U.S. Open and upset Nicolas Almagro to reach the Shanghai quarters, but with his only title coming -- just barely -- in Memphis at the start of the year, the era of his headlining U.S. tennis may be over. And I wouldn't be surprised to see his eleven-year title streak come to an end next in 2012.

The Winner
Now I know I've never been a big fan of Andy Murray, but even I have to admit the Brit had one of the best chances of his career to win a Major this year. It's easy to excuse the fact that he was twice before a runner-up to the great Roger Federer, but when he met what should have been an exhausted Novak Djokovic in the Melbourne final this year, he was probably the odds-on favorite. After that loss he didn't get another win until April, and though he ended the year winning three titles in Asia, injury forced him to withdraw during the London championships. He did have his best performances at the Majors, though, so that first trophy shouldn't be far away, but I'm sure many expected that seal would already be broken.

Biggest Surprise

The Winner
I guess I really shouldn't be shocked to realize Roger Federer is not one to lie down quietly. But the dramatic way in which he turned his year around should go a long way to silence those who thought his career was nearly over.

It's not that he had a bad year by any standard, but after his quote-unquote dismal start to the year -- he only won one title from January through September, and lost the only Grand Slam final he played -- he "tumbled" down the rankings to #4 in the world, his lowest in eight years. With no big trophies on his 2011 mantle and only a month left in the season, he was in danger of marking his least prolific year since 2001.

But then autumn rolled around and the tide shifted squarely into his favor. He won his two Davis Cup rubbers and sailed easily to his fifth title in Basel. He followed that up by capturing his first Paris crown, one of the few events he'd never won before, and of course capped off the year with a record-breaking sixth year-end championship. Now riding his own win-streak, seventeen straight matches since the U.S. Open, he'll begin 2012 with the best momentum on Tour and might just achieve the goal of getting back to #1.

Gutsiest Win

The Winner
Commentators called it the shot heard around the world.

Five-time U.S. Open champ Roger Federer was serving at 5-3 in the fifth set of his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic and had built a 40-15 lead -- two match points. After squandering a two-set lead, it finally seemed the Swiss would end the new #1's hope of returning to the New York final. But Djokovic ripped a forehand return of serve so perfectly placed, Fed couldn't even make an attempt to get it -- the slightest change in swing, wind, anything would have sent the winner wide and ended the match there. Of course, Nole went on to win the next point, that and the next three games and the championship two days later.

Coming back from a two-set deficit was gutsy, saving match point against a legend was gutsy, making that particular shot was gutsy. After such a strenuous effort -- both physically and mentally -- I usually wouldn't give a player the advantage in his next match. But Novak Djokovic proved that, when he's in form, he's got everything it takes to face down any opponent.

Doubles Team of the Year

It's hard to give the Bryan brothers, year-end #1's for the fourth time in five years and the winning-est doubles team in history, a second place finish here. Certainly with eight more titles in their trophy case, two of which were Slams, they were one of the most prolific teams on Tour and show little sign of letting up anytime soon. But their opening round loss at the U.S. Open -- the first time they lost so early at a Major since 2001 -- and a relatively under-the-radar year lead me to push them down just a notch and give this award to one of the most surprising teams on the circuit.

The Winners
Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski were the unlikely finalists at the year-end championships, seeded last in London. One of the more loyal teams on the circuit, the Poles have been winning tournaments together since 2003. They were actually Tour trophy-less in 2011, but claimed a Challenger event in Sopot and made their first Grand Slam final in New York, beating both Paes/Bhupathi and Bopanna/Qureshi on the way. And at the Barclays championship, they eked out a nail-biter against Nenad Zimonjic and Michael Llodra and easily handled the Indo-Pak pair to make the semis. Though they couldn't avenge their round robin loss to veterans Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi to claim the title, they at least pronounced to the world there are a couple more teams out there to watch, and so they get this prize just for their "underdog" appeal.

Player of the Year

I don't think there's any surprise here -- though things sure got a little hairy at the end there.

The Winner
Year-end #1 Novak Djokovic was barely beatable for the first eight months of the year. He tromped to the title at the Australian Open, stunned Rafael Nadal on his "home" turf in both Madrid and Rome, and compiled a formidable 42-0 record before finally succumbing to Roger Federer in the French Open semis. Before the year was done he'd claimed ten titles in total, three Grand Slams and five Masters 1000 events, and ripped a hole through the Roger/Rafa stranglehold on the top rank.

The last quarter of the year was a different story, however. A nagging shoulder injury and what must have been a year's worth of exhaustion finally caught up with him -- he retired during a Davis Cup rubber, fell in the Basel semis to Kei Nishikori and withdrew form Paris before the quarters. At the year-end championships, which he'd qualified for back in May, he survived a scare in his first round robin against Tomas Berdych, but lost to both David Ferrer and countryman Janko Tipsarevic after that, ending his stellar season on a slightly sour note.

There's no questioning that Djokovic deserves all the accolades he got this year. But compare him to his contemporaries -- Rafael Nadal who scored eleven trophies in his breakout 2005 year, Roger Federer who claimed twelve in '06 -- and to legends -- Guillermo Vilas held a forty-six match win streak in 1977, and Martina Navratilova once went seventy-six straight -- and we start to come back to earth a little. Hopefully it won't be a quick fall to reality -- with thousands of points coming off his ranking from the get-go, there is the good chance he won't be able to defend all, or even the majority, of them. It would be a shame to see Nole fizzle out after climbing so high. But if he uses the next few weeks off to rest up and get better, he could very well make 2012 "Year Two of Nole".

So there you have it -- my picks for the best and worst of tennis in 2011. Who knows whether players' good luck will continue into the new year, or if the laggards will turn everything around. But one thing's for sure -- they all did their part to make this year a pretty stunning one for the sport.

And if we get action half as good next season, I'll consider us all pretty lucky.

December 11, 2011

The 2011 Tennis Spin Awards: The Ladies

Welcome to the inaugural Tennis Spin awards!

This year I've decided to acknowledge some of the year's best -- and worst -- performances on both the men's and women's Tour and present them with the not-quite-yet esteemed honors.

There were both winners and losers in 2011. Clearly all the players endure hectic schedules, unparalleled physical demands and emotional strain I cannot begin to imagine, and not all can come out on top. Of course success and failure in this sport can be fleeting, so there's no telling how things will shake out in the future. And hopefully those on losing end of things this time around will be able to stage a comeback when the season starts again in just a few weeks. So let's not take this as some kind of indictment on the players who take home the less flattering awards -- let's just hope they come back stronger in 2012!

So, as always, I'll begin with the ladies.

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Least Follow-ThroughGreatest Letdown
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

"Newcomer" is a relative term. Some were accomplished Juniors players who're just making their first strides on the pro Tour, others have been journeywomen on the ITF circuit who only began getting any traction in WTA events. Some had bursts of greatness, others made runs deep into draws, and a few were able to pull off monstrous upsets. But not many were able to accomplish all those things.

Irina-Camelia Begu was one exception to the rule. Outside the top two-hundred at the start of the year, she kicked off 2011 with her seventh ITF title in Cali. She immediately followed it up by making the final in Marbella, notching wins over Klara Zakopalova and Svetlana Kuznetsova on the way. She cracked the double digits a few weeks later, and then scored her second runner-up trophy in Budapest. Now firmly in the top fifty, she should be a more consistent fixture on Tour in 2011, and might even be able to capture that maiden crown.

The Winner
Christina McHale ended the year a little lower in the rankings, but arguably made a bigger impact. Officially pro since 2007, the nineteen-year-old has been touted as the "Next Great Thing" in American women's tennis for most of that time. But, maybe to her advantage, she was overshadowed early by Melanie Oudin on her homecourt, and so got to work her game without much pressure.

That all changed in 2011. Though she continues to plug away on the ITF circuit -- she won her first title of any kind in Rome -- she achieved greater success when playing with the big girls. It began with a second round victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova at Indian Wells, a win she repeated in New Haven, and manifested throughout the season with defeats of Marion Bartoli in New York and world #1 Caroline Wozniacki in Cincinnati. Having started the year out of the top hundred, she's now #43 in the world -- #2 in the U.S., behind only Serena Williams. Of course that alone will increase the focus on her in the coming months, but something tells me the Jersey girl will be able to handle it.

Most Improved

Sure McHale's halving of her ranking is pretty impressive, but a couple other players made major strides in really establishing themselves among the elite -- seemingly from out of nowhere.

The Nominees
German Andrea Petkovic made herself as a fan favorite in 2010 thanks to her quirky alter-ego, her endearing post-victory dances, and her engaging tweets. But she spent this year proving she should be taken much more seriously on the tennis court. After a strong finish last season, she kicked off the new year with a run to the final in Brisbane, a quarterfinal showing in Melbourne and a title in Strasbourg, her first since 2009. Though she battled a knee injury toward the end of the year -- she was forced to withdraw from Luxembourg and Linz -- she made at least the quarters of every event since Wimbledon and put up a heck of a fight in the Beijing championship match. Now a top ten player -- she began the year #32 -- if she's healthy, she has the potential to make an even bigger statement in 2012.

Petkovic's move up the rankings, though, pales in comparison to that of current #17, China's Shuai Peng, who began the year at #72 in the world. She came out swinging in 2011, taking out Svetlana Kuznetsova in Auckland and Jelena Jankovic in Melbourne. And unlike many of her contemporaries, she never suffered any sustained stretches of weakness -- she rebounded from two first-round losses in the spring to make the final in Brussels and pulled off career-best runs at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Though she didn't win any titles, she received a wildcard to Bali where she sadly lost in the first round -- still, she got in some post-season match play that should help her in year to come.

The Winner
Despite these ladies' successes, you can't ignore the powerhouse that Roberta Vinci suddenly became. Her move as high as #18 is less impressive than her improved play -- after marking a stretch of five first-round losses in six tournaments during the early spring, she really turned things around in late April. She took titles in Barcelona, 's-Hertogenbosch and Budapest -- her most prolific year yet -- and notched wins over Yanina Wickmayer, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki along the way. She ended the year slightly lower down the rankings, but by qualifying for a shot in Bali, the twenty-eight year old proved it's never too late to make a stand in this sport.

One to Watch

With so much going on in the women's Tour this year -- a very fickle top ten, several bursts and flame-outs, a new crop of young stars -- it's no surprise that so many ladies took the opportunity to make a name for themselves. They may not have broken through the most elite ranks, but their performances could set them up for some promising results next year.

The Nominees
Galina Voskoboeva has been around for nearly a decade, but only barely cracked the top hundred a few years ago. She seemed to hit her stride in 2011, though, cutting her ranking from outside the top five hundred to #58 at year-end. She spent a lot of time on the ITF circuit, but also scored some big Tour wins -- Maria Kirilenko in Pattaya City, Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova in Toronto -- and even made the final in Seoul. She wasn't able to do any damage at the Majors, losing the only match she played in a main draw, but reaching her prime during her twenty-seventh year, she might just be able to change that next season.

Petra Cetkovska seemingly came out of nowhere early in the summer. The Czech started the year ranked well out of the top hundred -- nearly out of the top 150 -- but started racking up points quickly on the ITF circuit. She made the finals in Johannesburg and Nottingham and claimed a trophy in Monzon. It took a while for her to gain traction on the main Tour, but a fourth-round run at Wimbledon -- which included upsets of Aggie Radwanska and Andrea Petkovic -- a semi in Palermo and a shocking ride to the final in New Haven -- she beat Radwanska, Marion Bartoli and French Open champ Na Li to get there -- tell me her rise may have even further to go.

Romanian Simona Halep has been on my radar for a while -- an accomplished Juniors champion, she started making strides on Tour last year, reaching the final in Fes with wins over Lucie Hradecka and Patty Shnyder. She repeated that Morocco run in 2011, but also began making an impact in the Majors -- she reached the third round in Australia, grabbed a set off Serena Williams at Wimbledon, and took out Na Li in New York. She might still be waiting for that first title, but the twenty-year-old can't be that far away.

The Winner
And while these ladies were able to steal the spotlight at times during the year, Georgia's (the country, not the state) Anna Tatishvili flew a bit more under the radar. Ranked #90 in the world now, she had to qualify for most main draws on Tour -- her best result was the quarterfinals in Baku -- but the twenty-one year old dig manage an ITF title in Cuneo. A winner over Cetkovska in the Acapulco qualies, she also took sets from Marion Bartoli and Vera Zvonareva in 2011. She's only just getting her feet wet, but could be primed to make her biggest move in the year to come

Best Comeback

I know you want me to say Serena. Of course you do.

After almost a year off Tour, the younger Williams sister stormed to the fourth round at Wimbledon, her second tournament back. She didn't repeat, of course, and her lack of points sent her way out of the top hundred. But no one expected her recovery would take long, and with titles in Stanford and Toronto, she was the odds-on favorite to win the U.S. Open. We haven't seen her since that drama-filled final, but she racked up enough points to climb back to #12 now -- certainly not bad for a girl who played just six events all year.

Still, did anyone think Serena wouldn't be a dominant force within moments of her return? So I'm saving my accolades for someone just a bit lower down the rankings, but certainly way more under the radar.

The Winner
Sabine Lisicki barely had a chance to establish herself before an ankle injury put an abrupt stop to the momentum she'd gained in 2009. Coming off a title in Charleston that year and a run to the quarters at Wimbledon, she climbed to then-career high of #22. But she missed five months of 2010 and fell to #175 in the world to start this year. Spending some time on the ITF circuit, it took a little while to gain traction, but once she did she was quick to make big strides.

The young German got clay-court wins over Marion Bartoli and eventual French Open champion Na Li, then beat four seeded players to take the title in Birmingham. She made the semis at Wimbledon, picked up another trophy in Dallas and drew the third seed in Bali. Though a back injury forced her to withdraw from the semis, Lisicki not only pulled herself out of a triple-digit ranking, but ended the year ranked a career-best #15 -- she didn't just come back, she came forward.

Least Follow-Through

Of course, while some players spent the year proving they were no flash in the pan, others couldn't quite keep up the momentum with which they began 2011. And sadly on the ladies' Tour, there was no shortage of contenders for this category.

The Nominees
Young Serb Bojana Jovanovski came out of the gate swinging in 2011. The nineteen year old played a handful of ITF finals at the end of last year and pounced on the main Tour in January with a run to the semis in Sydney -- she beat three top-thirty players to get there. But she couldn't win more than one match at any event from March through early June and only notched one Grand Slam match victory all year. She's young, of course, so it's premature to write off her prospects for the coming season. Still, I would've loved to see her make some bigger dents throughout the season.

I'm a little less blasé about Anastasija Sevastova. A winner in Estoril last year, she also notched wins over Nadia Petrova, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova during the season. She came into 2011 ranked #45 and improved on even that with a run to the fourth round at the Australian Open. But then she hit a wall -- from April to August she lost seven straight first round matches, and though she scored a big win over a resurgent Flavia Pennetta in her last tournament of the year, she failed to win more than two matches at any event after Melbourne. She could still turn things around, but it's going to be a tough ship to steer.

The Winner
Sadly though, the biggest disappointment on the scene might have been Bethanie Mattek-Sands. After kicking off 2011 by winning the Hopman Cup with John Isner and running to the final in Hobart and the semis in Paris, she rose to a career-high #30 in the world. She pulled off a couple more upsets in the spring and sported her first ever Grand Slam seeding at Wimbledon. But she lost her first round there and struggled with a shoulder injury the rest of the year. She only played a few matches after that, losing to Polona Hercog at the U.S. Open, but got in a few more rounds of doubles action. Now #55 in singles, she's still the third-best ranked American in the sport, so hopefully she'll be able to recover and turn around in the new year.

Greatest Letdown

The Winner
I hate to say this, since I'm one in the minority who thinks Caroline Wozniacki deserves the #1 ranking. The twenty-one year old increased her trophy count to eighteen this year, adding six crowns from Charleston to Dubai. She notched her best ever performance at the Australian Open, defeated five seeds in a row at Indian Wells, and only lost before the third round in four events during the regular season -- impressive, considering she entered twenty-three.

But, of course, there is one trophy missing from her mantle -- one, actually, of any four we'd like to see.

Wozniacki has now held the #1 ranking for sixty-one weeks. That's more than '08 Roland Garros champ Ana Ivanovic, three-time Major winner Maria Sharapova, and even Kim Clijsters, with four Slams to her name -- combined. It's actually the ninth longest run of the twenty women who've claimed the top spot during the Open Era, and, of course, the longest without a Big One.

The young Dane was the top seed at all four Majors this year, and though she completely dominates her early round opponents, she always seems to struggle in the second week. She only scored one victory over top ten players -- against Francesca Schiavone in Australia -- and the number doesn't increase much when you count non-Majors. At some point you can't ignore the detractors who argue a top-ranked player has to consistently beat top-tier opponents at the top-level tournaments.

I don't think the situation is completely bleak -- Wozniacki is still perfecting her game and developing the weapons she needs. But it would've been nice if she'd gotten there this year. Instead we -- fans and critics alike -- will just have to wait it out.

Biggest Surprise

On a women's Tour where so few things are consistent or reliable, there's always room for some kind of surprise, and this year was no exception. Some are good -- Petra Kvitova storming through the draw at Wimbledon -- some are tragic -- rising star Alisa Kleybanova's departure from the sport after she announced her battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma. And all threw us for a loop at some point during the year.

The Winner
But maybe the most unexpected achievement this year was Na Li's shocking run to a title at Roland Garros. The veteran had kicked off the year with a bang, taking a title in Sydney and nearly winning in Melbourne. But then she fell off a cliff, notching just one victory in her next six matches.

Things turned around on the clay when she made the semis in both Rome and Madrid, but still few expected her to make so big an impact in Paris. Seeded sixth, she was dealt a pretty tough draw and had to face four top-ten players in a row the second week. Kvitova was the only one who gave her any trouble, but by the time she met last year's champion Francesca Schiavone in the final -- a surprise, in and of itself -- she was running a six-set win streak. At twenty-nine, she was one of the oldest first-time winners of a Major, and maybe one of the least likely -- sure we've had five different champions here in as many years, but for someone who'd never made it past the fourth round at the French Open and had zero clay court titles to her name, you can't help but marvel at her accomplishment.

Gutsiest Win

It's clearly not easy to win a Grand Slam. With seven matches in a fortnight, sometimes on consecutive days, and the need to beat three or four top players in a row, those up to the task have to have more than just talent -- they need to show real moxie. And, again, with four different women taking home Major titles in 2011 -- three of them for the first time -- there was no shortage of that on the court this year.

The Winner
But of the three maiden titleists over the last twelve months, none had to don quite so brave a face as U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur. Having failed to follow up on most of her successes from the previous year, the Australian had fallen a bit off the radar coming to New York. Though she'd made finals in both Rome and Toronto, she hadn't defended points from the French Open or captured a title since Charleston in 2010. So she was a few notches off a career high ranking and was just barely seeded in the top ten.

She had to put up some big fights in Flushing Meadows, too, starting with a three-plus hour slugfest against Nadia Petrova in the third round. Two days later she was back on court in a much-delayed match with Maria Kirilenko, one she should have dominated, but which instead produced the longest tiebreak in Grand Slam history and nearly took another three hours to complete. Stosur ironically had a bit of a breather against '10 runner-up Vera Zvonareva in the quarters, but endured yet another three-setter against surprise semifinalist Angelique Kerber in the the semis.

And while it took plenty of courage to get through all of that, none of it tops what it took Stosur to ultimately take the title. Facing thirteen-time Major winner Serena Williams, widely considered the favorite for the crown despite her #28 seeding, she was the much less experienced underdog that Sunday afternoon -- and playing on her opponent's home turf. Add to that the fact she had to witness and overcome another epic meltdown by Williams and still came out on top, you have to give her credit for one of the most heroic victories of the year.

Doubles Team of the Year

It's tough to be a doubles players -- the prize money is relatively minimal, you're often relegated to the back courts at major tournaments, and you rarely get any television time. And there's the ever-present task of finding a partner with whom you play well -- some teams stay together forever, others are just a flash in the pan. But when two complement each other perfectly, they can do a lot of damage on Tour.

It really is a close call that gives Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond the second place trophy. Having only teamed up this year after Huber split with long-time partner Cara Black, they struggled at the start, losing their first couple matches together. But the team finally started gaining traction mid-year, making the semis at Roland Garros. They came in second at both Eastbourne and Stanford, and finally earned their first Major together as the third seed at the U.S. Open. In total they won four titles together in 2011, including the year-end championship, but something tells me the veteran team players have a lot more left in them.

The Winners
Kveta Peschke and Katarina Srebotnik had a little more time to get used to each other, but made good quickly on their still-budding partnership. The pair came together in 2010 and lost early in their first event, but they stormed back in Dubai to make the final, beating the first and third seeds along the way. A month later they won the title in Indian Wells and made another trip to the top of the podium in New Haven.

But 2011 was when they really found their groove. The first year as exclusive teammates -- other than Peschke's Fed Cup rubbers -- they captured six titles including Wimbledon, and fell just short of taking the year-end championships. They finish the year tied for second in points, mostly because Huber racked up a couple independent of Raymond, but they scored some of the biggest wins of the season. It's too soon to tell just how fruitful the partnership will be, but so far it looks pretty promising.

Player of the Year

A few months ago when considering the possibilities for this category, there was no shortage of contenders. With four different ladies each getting their chance to shine at the Majors -- only one made two different finals -- and none of whom ended the year at #1, the leader in this race changed month-to month. Ultimately, though, this was a contest of consistency and wherewithal versus power and headlines -- and the winner eventually became clear.

The Winner
Petra Kvitova was barely on the radar at the start of the year, but boy did she change that quickly. Unseeded at Brisbane, she powered through four higher-ranked players to claim just the second trophy of her career. She caused a couple more upsets on her way to the Australian Open quarters and then stunned Kim Clijsters to capture a title in Paris.

Her luck didn't stop there, of course. After a couple early round losses in the spring, she resumed her winning ways with a title in Madrid, a runner's-up trophy in Eastbourne, and -- of course -- a career-making trip to her first Grand Slam trophy at Wimbledon. She's currently riding a twelve-match win streak, one which included a year-end championship and Fed Cup gold.

Now ranked #2 in the world, she racked up a field-leading six WTA titles on the year -- the same number as Caroline Wozniacki, but more than a million dollars more in prize money. She has thirteen wins against top ten players, seven versus top five, a perfect indoor record and a near-84% win rate on all surfaces. Her play can be spotty at times, sure, but at just twenty-one she's still honing her game. And with all eyes sure to be on her from the get-go next season, she's set the bar high for what a successful year can be.

So there you have it, the best and worst of women's tennis in 2011. Hopefully the biggest success stories will be able to keep their momentum going strong in the new year, and the rest are able to turn their luck around.

Be sure to check back next week when I bring you the winners of the men's Tennis Spin Awards. You might think you know what's coming, but trust me, there should be more than a few surprises in store for you!

December 4, 2011

Hail the Conquering Heroes

What a ride it's been for the Spanish Davis Cup team.

After two years atop the world, they were unceremoniously ousted from the 2010 draw in the quarters, losing all five of their rubbers to France. But this year they reasserted their dominance and came out in front again.

Rafael Nadal, though not unsuccessful by any means this year, hasn't been quite the force he was in previous years. Though he ends the year at #2, he hasn't won a title since Roland Garros, and with only three trophies in total he's marked his least prolific season since 2004. After failing to get out of the round robins at the year-end championships, he might have lost a bit of his spunk. But he came out firing in Seville on Friday, dropping just four games to Argentina's Juan Monaco in the first singles rubber of the weekend.

Next up London semifinalist David Ferrer was forced to endure a grueling battle against 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, getting a break early, but suddenly finding himself down two sets to one. The pair traded breaks in the fourth and the fifth, but the Spaniard was finally able to convert in both and, after nearly five hours, gave his team the two-rubber lead.

Saturday's match, which pitted Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez against veteran David Nalbandian and doubles specialist Eduardo Schwank, proved to be Spain's only hiccup this weekend. The usually strong Lopez was broken four times that day and the Argentines capitalized on the twenty-six errors made by their opponents to win the match in straight sets, taking just under two hours to do so.

But the Spaniards were back firing on Sunday, when Nadal met with Del Potro in the reverse singles match. Though DelPo had notched three straight wins against the former world #1 in 2009, since returning from injury this year, he's only taken a single set from his rival. Despite his long battle on Friday, the Argentine was able to take advantage of some weak serving by Nadal in the first set -- he won all games on return and took the early lead. But Rafa came back in the second, took the lead into the fourth, and survived a set which included eight breaks before dominating the tiebreak. Another four hours on court and Nadal had closed out the match and the championship with a four-set win over the big guy.

The win secured for Spain its fifth Davis Cup crown -- all earned in this new century. It seems only appropriate the country should be so dominant, with six players in the top thirty and another seven in the top hundred. With the depth of talent on the team, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few more trophies come their way in the near future. And this particular win could spark some even more dominance from these players throughout the rest of the season.

November 30, 2011

Davis Cup Championship Preview: Clash of Two Titans

It'll be a battle of powerhouses vying for Davis Cup glory this weekend, as two teams we've become accustomed to seeing in the final try once more to stake their claim on the trophy. One's done it a couple times in recent years, while the other has a real shot at making its first trip to the top of the podium.

Home-team Spain, twice a champion in the last three years, makes its way to this weekend's final after a thrashing of last year's runner-up France in the September semis. Led by world #2 Rafael Nadal and Barclays Championship semifinalist David Ferrer, they've got higher-profile names on their side, but their star power may extend deeper than than.

Feliciano Lopez has clawed his way back to a career-high ranking at #20, thanks to some solid play since the spring. He made his first championship match in over a year in Belgrade and stunned Andy Roddick to make the quarters at Wimbledon. He beat Mardy Fish in a long first rubber back in July and notched a win over Juan Martin Del Potro in the 2008 final. He'll probably get relegated to the doubles rubber, but might be able to score some key wins in the reverse singles matches.

And former top-ten player Fernando Verdasco has been a bit out of the spotlight recently, but still ranks in the top twenty-five. He's won both singles rubbers he's played at Davis Cup this year and has scored victories over higher-ranked players like Marin Cilic, Jurgen Melzer and Nicolas Almagro this year. He's had a less successful year in the doubles circuit, but with the crowd on his side and playing for country, he could still do some damage.

The Spaniards will have to face a pretty stacked Argentine team though. The three-time second place finishers secured their spot in the final after top-ranked Juan Martin Del Potro benefited from a retirement by Novak Djokovic back in September -- that gave the South Americans an insurmountable 3-1 lead over defending champs Serbia. DelPo, spitting distance from returning to the top ten, leads the team in the finals, coming off a semifinal run in Valencia and a runner-up placing in Vienna. He has an impressing 9-2 record in Davis Cup play, and though he has lost two matches to Rafael Nadal this year, he had a nice streak going before that, and soundly defeated David Ferrer in their last two meetings.

Veteran David Nalbandian could also feature highly in this weekend's rubbers. He's fallen a bit in the rankings, but won both his singles matches this year, including one over then-#16 Viktor Troicki. Never one that should be taken lightly, he has fairly solid records against the likely singles representatives. And with top-thirty players like Juan Monaco and Juan Ignacio Chela both in the mix, there's a lot of talent in the pool for captain Tito Vazquez to choose from.

Spain has won all of the teams' previous ties, and soundly defeated the Argentinians in the 2008 final. But some new blood could help ignite a fire in the underdogs. If Del Potro, still really developing his game, is in top form, it might be a closer fight than we think. And with the pride of their nations resting on their shoulders, the motivation to win has never been greater.

November 27, 2011

Mean Reversion

It's a common phenomenon of statistics -- day-to-day events can deviate from a trend, sometimes very drastically, but eventually, over time things go back to normal, and the trend is resumed, almost as if nothing changed.

The past two years have felt a bit like an aberration in men's tennis, as the man we've come to expect to dominate the sport has taken a spot on the sidelines as younger upstarts stole the show. But this week's action in London brought us all back down to earth, and put Roger Federer back on top.

The long-time world #1 came to the year-end championships with his lowest ranking since 2003, but he was riding a solid streak during the fall that brought with it titles in Basel and Paris. He dominated his round robin matches earlier in the week, dropping sets here and there but handing Rafael Nadal, last year's runner-up, a one-sided defeat in which the Spaniard only won three games. Against David Ferrer in the semis, he needed less than ninety minutes to take out the 2007 Masters Cup finalist.

In Sunday's final he took on the man who's come to be his new nemesis this year. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga staged one of the biggest upsets of the year, when he came back from two sets down to take out Federer in the Wimbledon quarters and repeated the win a few weeks later in Montreal. He'd lost their most recent meetings, but made a valiant stand post-U.S. Open with two titles and a Master's final of his own. In the round robins the Frenchman was able to make up for a three-set loss to Roger with wins over Mardy Fish and Rafael Nadal and exacted revenge over Tomas Berdych in the semis for his Beijing loss. The win gave him entry to his first World Tour Final championship match -- not bad for what was just his second appearance at the year-ending event.

In Sunday's final both men came out on fire, but for the first half of the opening set at least, it seemed Tsonga was the stronger one, dropping just a handful of points on his serve. But in the eighth game, Federer built up a 0-40 lead and converted the only break chance of the set. The Swiss built up a 4-2 lead in the second and had a few chances to get an insurance break, when things turned around -- Tsonga denied Fed the chance to serve out the championship and forced a tiebreak. He came back from a 2-5 deficit and saved match point, finally winning the set and forcing a decider.

Things stayed close in the third to start, but the stats favored the sixteen-time Grand Slam champion. Federer lost just one point on his first serve, three on serve in total. He made a bigger dent on return, too, converting his third break chance of the set and finally closing out the match in just under two-and-a-half hours.

The win brought Roger his record sixth year-end championship, sending him ahead of both Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras in total titles. And maybe more importantly, it reminded us all he's still a real contender for the big titles in 2012 -- despite what we may have been taught the last few years. It's clear Roger Federer's career is far from over, as his run over the last several months proves, and with the year culminating in his biggest trophy of the season, it might mean his trend is on course for quite some time.