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.

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