December 28, 2012

Five Things to Look Forward to in 2013

We're just a few days away from the dawn of a New Year, and there's already a lot on the docket for this coming tennis season. After all the excitement and surprises we witnessed over the last twelve months, we should know there's no telling what 2013 will bring for the favorites or the underdogs. From comebacks to breakthroughs to meltdowns to simple ole' shenanigans, there's plenty of opportunity to see some big headlines this year, and the best ones are likely to be those no one can predict.

But while nothing is certain, of course, there are a couple things high on the radar for tennis fans -- some are set in stone, others are wishful thinking, many have kept us holding our breath for months or longer. And each could have a big impact on the sport in 2013 -- good, bad or completely amazing.

So let's look at the five most anticipated events that could, would, or should transpire over the next four seasons.

#5: Monday Night Tennis

Are you ready for some racquetball?!

This year, for the first time, the U.S. Open schedulers have decided to put the men's final on a Monday night -- 5 p.m., to be exact, right during the evening rush hour. It's not that it hasn't happened before -- in fact, rain delays have forced a fifteenth day of play for the last five years -- but this time organizers are making the change at the outset, and feelings are decidedly mixed.

On the positive side, there will finally be a day of rest between the semis and championship match for both men and women -- New York had been the only Major that required back-to-back days of play. Stars like Serena Williams and Andy Murray have both applauded the decision, commending the much-maligned USTA for considering players' concerns. Combining that with the increased prize money at the event -- the total purse will be upped by over fifteen percent to a record $29.5 million -- and it looks like the tournament is making some big changes for the better.

But what's it mean for fans? Once treated to the promise of a Super Saturday, featuring two men's semis and the women's final, the last weekend of play will feature much less action than in years past. The ladies' championship, previously slotted for prime time, will now move to the gridiron, facing off against football's season-opening games on Sunday. And assuming the men's contest outlasts the evening commute -- the last five finals have lasted an average of three hours and forty five minutes -- it could cut in to CBS's Monday-night line-up in the U.S., sparking another wave of irate "How I Met Your Mother" (re-run!) fans to voice their disappointment over Twitter. Outside what it will mean for ratings in an already second-tier (to many) sport, I wonder what the shift means for ticket sales -- ardent fans may happily shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend a weekend evening at Flushing Meadows, but can and will they do it on a workday?

While I'm all for giving athletes sufficient time to recover from what are often long, grueling matches, there might be other ways to accomplish the same thing. Roland Garros, for example, kicks off its fortnight on Sunday instead of beginning first round action Monday morning, and Wimbledon -- even with its Middle Sunday of rest -- manages to space out the championship weekend, albeit with the help of a recently-added retractable roof. The USTA has said it will decide on whether to keep the new schedule in future years once the 2013 Open is over, so at least we'll get to see how much players and fans are affected before anything more permanent is decided. I just hope the changes don't result in tennis being pushed so far out of the spotlight that fans are left in the dark.

#4: The Youngsters Grow Up

Last year was a good one for teenage talent on Tour, but in 2013 we could see how much they'll bring to the table against the big boys.

Some have already done a little to show their worth -- 2010 U.S. Open Juniors champion Jack Sock won the mixed doubles title in New York a year later with fellow phenom Melanie Oudin, and this year the then-nineteen year old made the third round in singles, lasting four sets -- three tiebreaks -- before falling to eleventh seed Nicolas Almagro. Meanwhile Laura Robson, who won the 2008 girls' title at Wimbledon when she was just fourteen, beat Kim Clijsters and Na Li to make the sweet sixteen in the ladies' draw at Flushing Meadows. She's climbed a little higher up the rankings than Sock, who's still hanging out in the mid-hundreds, but both have heightened their expectations for the coming season.

We'll also get a look at a couple other juniors, each of whom has the potential to shine in 2013. Australian Luke Saville and Canada's Filip Peliwo have both won a pair of little Majors, but with each having his nineteenth birthday early in the New Year, expect them to spend most of their time on the adult Tour. Peliwo, champion at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year, ends outside the top five-hundred, but did manage a solid 15-12 record in ITF events, while Saville, also yet to play on the ATP, added a pair of Futures trophies to his collection, ending the season at #348 in the world. They're likely to graduate first into the Challenger events, but if they can pick up a few second-tier titles during the season, it won't be long before they're making strides against the elite.

But perhaps eyes will be most focused on Taylor Townsend, who ended 2012 as the top Junior girl in the world. The sixteen-year-old American kicked off the year with a trophy in Melbourne, but really started making headlines during the fall in New York. Though holding the #1 ranking just before the U.S. Open, she was asked by the USTA to sit out the tournament entirely, with General Manager Patrick McEnroe expressing concern over health, fitness and -- ahem -- weight. The player-development organization refused to pay Townsend's way into the event and didn't grant her wildcards into either the main draw or the qualifying rounds, forcing the young star to bare the expense herself. The ensuing outrage was loud and understandable, but Taylor handled the stress in the best possible way -- she kept on winning. She made the quarterfinals in singles and took home the championship trophy in doubles with partner Gabrielle Andrews, often playing two matches a day to do it. Officially pro as of early this month, the pressure will be on to continue to deliver. But if her performance on the WTA is anything like it's been on and off court to date, she could just take over the mantle U.S. tennis fans have been waiting so long to pass down.

#3: The Rivalries Continue...and Heat Up

Every year as the tennis world evolves and new players start to come into their games, we start seeing a couple of the same names face off time and time again, deep into tournaments, often with trophies, hefty prize money and more than a little pride on the line. We've seen great rivalries come and go -- McEnroe vs. Connors, Graf vs. Seles, Sampras vs. Agassi -- and even a few good ones emerge more recently. But this year might have given rise to a couple that transcended to new heights -- and they weren't always among the sport's elite.

Roger Federer and Andy Murray had battled fourteen times before the year began and the lower-ranked Scot actually held the 8-6 advantage. But the pair raised the stakes in 2012, with Murray getting his first set at a Slam off the recent #1 at Wimbledon and ultimately riding his confidence to Olympic Gold and a U.S. Open title. Roger still is undefeated against Murray at the Majors, though, and turned the tables on his rival with a semifinal win at the London championships. But with both players still going strong as we head into the new season, we could see even better matches in the coming months.

Victoria Azarenka certainly took her rivalry with Serena Williams to a new level this year, finally putting on the show we'd been expecting these two big-hitters to give us. But it was her clashes with one-time bestie Agnieszka Radwanska that took on a more high-intensity tone in 2012. The two, always on the outskirts of the top-tier, had been pretty close -- on the court and off -- before the year began, with the Belorussian holding a slight 5-3 advantage in their head-to-heads. Aggie, though, had won their most recent contest on her way to the Tokyo title in 2011 and took sets off her contemporary both in Sydney and at the Australian Open to start this season. It's been all Vika since then, though -- after getting just two more games in that Melbourne quarterfinal, she didn't win another set. The Pole took offense at Azarenka's apparent gamesmanship in their Doha semi and lost a total of six matches to her former friend through May -- in fact, the only person who could defeat her during the first four-plus months of the year. It's a bit of a shame that two women playing some of the best ball of their careers, reaching #1 and #2 in the world respectively, were so unevenly matched against each other this year -- but when they inevitably take the court against each other in 2013, I'm hoping we see some real fight. Knowing what these two are capable of, there's potential for some big fireworks when they meet.

These weren't the only rivalries that gained steam in 2012, of course -- Murray vs. Nole, Maria vs. Serena, Tomic vs. safe driving, Tipsy vs. women, they all made some headlines this season. But lesser known names caused just as much excitement too. Young Italian Camila Giorgi ends the year at a career-high of just #75 in the world, but that didn't stop her from handing losses to recently-resurgent veteran Nadia Petrova both times they met this year. Meanwhile Martin Klizan, whose breakout in St. Petersburg helped him rise to #30 in the world, nevertheless failed to make any headway against under-appreciated Marin Cilic in any of their three meetings this year. Whether these underdogs are able to keep up their runs, turn their luck around, or broaden out the swath they cut in the new year, could put them on track to really break through in 2013.

#2: Serena Reclaims #1

It's not in the bank, of course, but given her performance since the French Open, it's hard to imagine Serena Williams won't climb back to the top of the sport sometime this season.

After a long absence since winning Wimbledon in 2010, the veteran American fell briefly out of the top one hundred last year. But after some shaky results to start, she stormed back to take the title in Toronto and worked her way to the dramatic final in New York. She began the 2012 season just out of the top ten, and though she didn't win a title through the first three months of the season, once she hit the clay she was on a roll. Yes there was that bizarre outcome at Roland Garros, but Serena was nevertheless 48-2 since losing in the Miami quarters. That run included seven singles titles, two of which came at Grand Slams, Olympic Gold, and my award for "Player of the Year".

Still, even with all that success, Williams ended 2012 at just #3 in the rankings, a little more than 600 points behind long-time rival Maria Sharapova and about one Premier title from overtaking current top dog Victoria Azarenka. There's plenty of opportunity for her to recoup that ground, too -- with so many of her points safe until after the first quarter, and Vika defending so many of her own right off the bat, Serena could easily grab the #1 spot before the month is over. And, unlike with others in a similar position, it's hard to get nervous when she goes out to retain points in the back half of the year -- as long as she's healthy Williams is still the player to beat at pretty much any event she enters. And at thirty-one years of age, she's showing no sign that she's ready to pass that torch onto another player just yet.

Can she win Australia? Most definitely. Could she make a play for her only French Open title since 2002? With the prospect of a Serena Golden Slam on the line, absolutely. Might she end the year at #1? I wouldn't bet against it.

And, the way she's playing, no one else should, either.

#1: Rafa's Return

I don't know when it will happen, but sometime this year, sometime soon I hope, Rafael Nadal will be back on a competitive tennis court.

It's only been seven months since the world saw him -- shockingly, inexplicably -- leave the lawns of the All England Club in defeat, but it seems like so much longer than that. Thanks to his latest knee injury, the former #1 was forced to skip the Olympics, unable to defend the Gold he'd won in Beijing four years earlier, to pass by the entire summer hardcourt season and withdraw from the U.S. Open, where he'd played in the last two finals, and to miss the year-end championship for the first time since 2008, when he was also out of commission. We'd been given hope he'd recover in time to get in a few more shots here and there, but were thwarted over and over again, and a highly-anticipated planned comeback this week at an Abu Dhabi exhibition proved to be another red herring -- the beleaguered Spaniard pulled out on Tuesday because of a stomach bug.

Earlier today Rafa also withdrew from Doha and Melbourne, but even if he's back within a month it might be some time longer before last year's runner-up is really back in top form. Though he has certainly won during this stretch before, the Australian Open is far from his best Major, and he's only made it out of the quarters three times. More likely, he won't hit his stride until the spring when he'll defend all four titles he won in 2012 on the European clay. A couple long win streaks could be on the line, but if anyone can find a way to win on dirt even when playing at less than a hundred percent, it's this guy. And if he can pick up a couple titles during that stretch of the season, Nadal might be able to garner the momentum, confidence and match-play he needs to thrive the rest of the year. With a little less success, he's bound to see a precipitous drop in the rankings come June -- but Rafa's the kind of player that never gives up, and I'd expect him to launch quite the comeback in the second half of the year.

And once he's back, there might be no stopping him.

With the start of the 2013 season oh-so-close there's, of course, no telling what's in store. But with a couple balls teed up for us already, we can certainly anticipate this year's going to be rife with excitement, surprises, and a whole lot of drama. Whoever comes out on top, whoever takes a bit of a stumble, whoever finds a way to completely wow us, there's going to be a lot to talk about over the next twelve months.

And I, for one, certainly can't wait for it all to start.

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