December 31, 2019

2020 Vision: The Farewells...and the Comebacks

All right, we've finally come down to it -- the last day of the year and the final part of my "Things to Watch in 2020" series. We've looked at everything from the players set to continue their dominance in the new decade to the ones ready to take over the top ranks, from the breakout stars hoping to build on their success of the past year to the ones who really need to step up to the plate soon.

But there are some other changes coming to the tennis field next year -- some to be excited about, and others a real shame.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. Caroline Wozniacki announced earlier this month that she'd end her storied career after the Australian Open, the same stage on which she won her first and only Grand Slam. It's been a long ride for the 29-year-old, who went nine years between her Major final debut and her big win Down Under. But over that time she racked up a total of thirty singles titles and 71 weeks as the #1 player in the world. She's had some struggles -- she's only managed one win over good friend and clear superior Serena Williams over her career, and an injury dropped her as low as #60 during the 2016 season. But she's always managed to claw her way back, even when we counted her out.

On the personal side, she's endured a terrible break-up square in the public eye and found new love and ultimately decided this is the time for her to focus on her family. Of course she's not done yet -- she'll be teaming up with Serena for doubles in Auckland and she'll try to put up a fight in Melbourne. Win or lose, though, it'll be fun to watch her try.

Of course, even when Woz leaves the game, we can't truly rule out a return down the road. If anyone taught us that it was Kim Clijsters. I've already expressed my excitement that the 36-year-old is coming out of retirement for a second time, and now we have a little more detail. Originally planning to play in Melbourne, she had to put things off a bit when she tore her MCL, but she now promises she'll hit the courts again in March in Monterrey and expects also to make a run for another title in Indian Wells. Will she have the same success she enjoyed in her prior two careers? Let's not forget she actually won more Grand Slams in her encore than she did in her first run, even briefly re-claiming the top ranking. Of course, we're now eight years -- and two more kids! -- removed from that era, but I wouldn't count out another title or two.

My final entry on this list may seem a little misplaced, but over the last few months and years Andy Murray certainly has straddled the line between bidding adieu and bounding back into the spotlight. At the start of last year, it seemed like we were prepping for the Scot's farewell tour -- after a near career-ending second hip surgery last January, he gave an emotional press conference before the 2019 Australian Open saying it could be the last time he played. Now I haven't always been his biggest fan, but even I had to admit the game wouldn't be the same without him.

Murray wasn't able to get a win in Melbourne -- and only played doubles (also with Serena, go figure) at his homeland's Wimbledon -- but he stunned the world by capturing a title in Antwerp this past October, outdoing Stan Wawrinka, himself on the rebound, in the final. Unfortunately his fate for the new year is again in question -- a pelvic injury this time has forced him out of at least the first few tournaments of the year. But if he does get back on court at some point, you know he can never be counted out.

Well that does it for my set of story lines for 2020 (though, tune in -- I may have a little extra coming in tomorrow). As I mentioned, I hope to be back to posting like I used to -- maybe not quite as much, but hopefully I'll be more tuned in to what's going on. So keep on coming back, and let me know what's on your mind as we kick off and party through the new year.

'Til then...

Oh my god, I nearly forgot the biggest looming departure of the year, which is doubly depressing because it involves not one but two champions. After more than twenty years on tour, sixteen Grand Slam and four year-end championships together -- not to mention the hundred plus other titles they've captured with each other or partners -- the Bryan Brothers are hanging up their rackets for good after the U.S. Open. I've always said that doubles is an underrated segment of the game, and to watch truly great players like the twins is a privilege. While they've certainly set the standard for excellence in their specialty and ushered in an era of equally talented athletes, there's going to be something missing when we no longer get to witness their signature chest bump of victory.

December 30, 2019

2020 Vision: Step Up or Sit Down

With just a couple days left to go in the decade, we're at installment #4 of my story lines to watch in 2020.

Now as I've mentioned, there are plenty of new faces on the scene since I last posted regularly, and I've missed the rise and fall of a lot of players -- what happened to Sara Errani, and how did Jack Sock qualify for the year-end finals in 2017?! But there are some players who still seem to be right where I left them three-plus years ago -- hitting the scene with a ton of promise, always among the contenders, but never quite closing the deal. And with careers that started long ago, it feels like it's about time we started to see bigger things from them, lest they kind of just muddle along among the crowd for a long time to come.

Let's start with Caroline Garcia, who blasted onto the women's tour in 2011, nearly kicking Maria Sharapova out of Roland Garros in the first round. She climbed as high as #4 in the world last year, when she was defending big points from titles in Wuhan and Beijing. But these days she's back in the mid-forties, lower even than the double-digit ranks she's occupied pretty solidly for the last few years, and she hasn't beaten a top-ten player this season. Now 26 years old, she's had more than enough time to find her legs on court, yet despite that early promise she's only made it past the fourth round of a Major once in 31 tries. It sure feels like if she's going to make a move, she better get to it soon.

Grigor Dimitrov, meanwhile, had been a more consistent staple in the top ranks of the sport over the past few years, but hasn't quite lived up to the hype we all had at the start of his career. Long ago referred to as Baby Fed, the Bulgarian no doubt has the talent to hit with the best in the field -- he climbed to #3 in the world and has won nearly 30 percent of his match-ups against his fellow elite. But he's also had a couple of dry spells, going two and a half years without a title after taking the crown at Queen's Club in 2014 and again for the last two years, since he beat out a frankly unintimidating draw for the 2017 year-end championship (see above note about Jack Sock). Before this past U.S. Open, Dimitrov had fallen to #78 in the world, his lowest rank since 2012, but then stunned Roger Federer to reach his first ever semi in New York. He's now back in seeding territory for Melbourne, but he's clearly no longer a baby by any stretch -- at the same age (28) Roger had already passed Pete Sampras for total Major titles. So if he's going to live up to the moniker, he's running out of time.

Then there's Nick Kyrgios. I mean, where do I even begin. Clearly full of innate talent, the twenty-four year old far outplays his rank almost every time he steps on court. He's beaten more top-ten players than he's lost to this year, including Rafael Nadal on his way to a title in Acapulco, and he grabbed a set from Federer at the Laver Cup. But that attitude, man. He was fined $138,000 for his meltdown in Cincinnati and was handed a 16-month suspension. He's verbally assaulted his opponents, their girlfriends, the crowds, the officials, and openly voiced his distaste for the sport. And for those reasons I, and a lot of others out there, have a hard time rooting for him. To some extent, that fuels him. But he actually has fewer trophies than I thought he'd amass by this point in his career, and he hasn't gotten past the quarters of a Grand Slam since 2015. And at some point, even the best bad boys have a breakthrough. So it feels like it's about time Kyrgios had his -- if not, then what's the point?

Lastly I have to bring up the struggle of world #2 Karolina Pliskova. Of course, I understand the irony of saying someone ranked so highly, so consistently -- she's been in the top ten consistently for more than three years and has won a title or more every year since 2013, four this past season alone. Still, she always seems to struggle on the big stages. She's only made one Major final and two other semis, often getting upset several rounds before her seeding suggests she should. She also has only one Masters-equivalent title under her belt -- a win in Cincinnati in 2016, right before that solid U.S. Open run, where she beat Serena Williams in the semis. And she can be spotty -- she has losses this year to players you may not have heard of: Kateryna Kozlova, ranked 85th at the time, Karolina Muchova, 68th, and even her twin sister Kristyna, all the way down at #112. At the same time, she's had some really impressive wins -- she repeated against Serena at the Australian Open this year, proving that win in New York was no fluke. I'd just like to see her perform more reliably when it really matters. After all, with four different women winning the Majors the last three years running, it feels like the opportunity is her's for the taking.

Of course, there's no real time limit for these guys to pull off the big win. Caroline Wozniacki went eight years between her first Grand Slam final loss and that title in Australia last year -- a feat that, coming 13 years after she turned pro, some said might never happen. Still, it would be nice to see them put up some results to justify all the hype around them. And there's never a better time than the present.

Remember to check out the rest of my 2020 Vision and keep coming back for more Tennis Spin all year long! Speaking of Woz, we'll all be watching her farewell tour in January. And there are a couple other good-byes...and comebacks on the radar.

December 29, 2019

2020 Vision: The Flavors of the Moment

Hey guys, I'm back with some more of my stories to watch in the New Year. I've already talked about some of the players likely to continue their reins for at least a few more years into the decade, as well as those ready to take over

But outside this group of heavyweights and spoilers, a handful of brand new names also came into the forefront in 2019. Okay, fine, they weren't all brand new, but a couple sure seemed to come out of nowhere, and it seemed for a while there was nothing else we could talk about. And their performances in 2020 could shed a lot of light on just how much staying power they'll have.

Let's start with the obvious -- oh-so-young Cori "Coco" Gauff, who captured our hearts with a stunning win over Venus Williams, a woman 24 years her senior, in the first round of Wimbledon. The qualifier proved she was no flash-in-the pan, ultimately reaching the fourth round, where she lost to the eventual champion, Simona Halep. She was front-and-center in New York a few months later, and though this time she only won two matches, she rebounded quickly as a lucky loser in Linz and walked away with the title. She also picked up a couple doubles titles to boot. Now ranked in the top seventy, she's less reined in by qualifying events and more so by play limitations because of her age. Still, she's proven she's got the goods.

The next question is whether she can keep it up under all the pressure. We've seen other talents rise and fall, after all. Some for tragic reasons -- Vicky Duval, a stunner back in 2013, announced a battle with cancer when she was just 19 and is only starting to get back on tour -- others who just didn't live up to the potential -- remember that year Genie Bouchard got to the semis or better at three Grand Slams? Well the positive for Coco is that she appears to handle the spotlight really well -- even when facing defending U.S. Open champ Naomi Osaka on Arthur Ashe in the late August heat, she stayed composed and resilient and showed signs that she's in it for the long haul. The true test, of course, will come when she's at it full time -- whether she can endure the slog and the feeling of being a target rather than just a spoiler. But my money is betting we'll be talking about her for a long time to come.

I probably have less confidence in some of the year's other standouts. Let's start with Matteo Berrettini, who was the surprise semifinalist at this year's U.S. Open. Admittedly I'd never heard the guy's name before that run -- I actually caught a glimpse of his third round match on a (very) outer court in Flushing Meadows and thought he was the underdog to Andrey Rublev -- so imagine my shock when he not only held Rafael Nadal's feet to the fire but, weeks later, also qualified for the ATP Finals! Of course, the Italian is most comfortable on clay, with two of his three titles over the past two years coming on that surface, so it might be a few months until we truly see what he's made of -- and whether the deep runs he's had were just a fluke. If, though, he proves me wrong and shows that he's a real all-surface player, I'd be more than happy to eat my words.

And then there's Ashleigh Barty, who seemed to come out of nowhere this year. Again, I hadn't seen her steady climb up the rankings over the last few years. The 2011 Girls' Wimbledon champ and Fed Cup ingenue, she's been around for a while. She had her breakthrough two years ago in Kuala Lumpur, but really had the spotlight shine on her this year when she not only won the title in Miami but captured her maiden Major at the French Open. And, for good measure she buttoned up her year by taking the year-end championship in Shenzhen.

But the question will be how she follows through after her big break out. Sure she's scored wins over a slew of top-ten players this year -- and her losses have more or less come at the hands of the elite -- but she's also had some good luck. She didn't play a single top ten player on her way to the title at Roland Garros, and she's gone 50-50 against opponents like Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova this year. It feels like it's more likely we'll see her share the top ranking with her peers rather than hold on to it for the long haul. I'd be thrilled for her to prove me wrong, but I imagine there will be some others gunning hard for her ranking in the new year.

Remember to check out the rest of my 2020 Vision and keep coming back for more Tennis Spin all year long! Coming up tomorrow: We can't just wait around forever! My list of players who need to go big in the New Year.

December 28, 2019

2020 Vision: Serena Eyes #24...But There Are Roadblocks

Welcome back to my look at what's to come for tennis in the new year. In my last post I talked about the Big Three's dominance in the sport for the past decade-plus and a couple of the guys who might be ready to take the mantle when they're ready to cede it.

And speaking of passing the torch, it's coming up on Serena Williams' time to do that too, though some might argue she's further along in the process than the guys. While still the perennial favorite at any tournament she enters -- she was, after all, just named AP's Female Athlete of the Decade -- the elder statesman of the WTA has fallen short of that record-tying 24th Major title in her last seven appearances. Four times she's gotten within one match from the Promised Land but has been foiled in turn by Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, and most recently Bianca Andreescu -- who, you'll remember, was ranked in the triple digits at the start of the year. It's now been nearly three years since Williams has won a Major, the longest dry spell she's ever had at those events. She actually hasn't won a single title -- singles or doubles -- since returning from maternity leave.

I do believe, eventually, she'll have that breakthrough though, and maybe even do better than "just" tying Margaret Court's lead. After all, she's reaching finals, not flaming out in early rounds. And as Osaka so astutely points out, the fact that she ended the year in the top ten while playing as few tournaments as she did shows she's more than holding her own out there. Still, she is running out of time. I'm not willing to say 2020 is Serena's last chance to close the deal, but you have to think it's gotta happen quick if it's gonna happen at all. I mean, look at all the talent waiting in the wings.

There is, of course, the crop of players who've gotten the best of Williams as she went for #24 -- Kerber has actually won two of their last three Major championship showdowns, though has struggled with injuries this year and fallen to #20 in the world -- as well as a couple who knocked her out earlier in the rounds -- Sofia Kenin, impressively backed up her French Open stunner with titles in Mallorca and Guangzhou. There are also a slew of youngsters who shocked the world this year with their deep runs at the Slams -- Amanda Anisimova (a semifinalist in Paris) and Marketa Vondrousova (the runner-up!), Danielle Collins (final four in Melbourne), Karolina Muchova (quarters at Wimbledon).

But there are some other names looking to break the seal for themselves that might be able to take advantage of any holes in the draw, whether or not they have to go through Serena to do it.

Top of my list is Elina Svitolina, who came just short of her second WTA Final crown this fall, but pulled off wins over Halep, Kenin, and Karolina Pliskova to make the final match. She also got to the semis at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and the quarters in Melbourne. She is a bit off her career high ranking and didn't win a title in 2019, but this workhorse seems to have solidly broken into the top tiers and seems ready to make something of it.

More of a long shot, but someone I've been watching for a while, is American Alison Riske. Long a mid to low double-digits player, she won her first title since 2014 in Den Bosch and stunned Ashleigh Barty and Belinda Bencic at Wimbledon. Ranked 18th in the world now and closing in on her 30th birthday, she seems to be playing the best tennis of her career. There may be no better opportunity for her to show the world what she's really got.

Remember to check out the rest of my 2020 Vision and keep coming back for more Tennis Spin all year long! Coming up tomorrow: There are a couple players who made big splashes in 2019, but will they keep it going in the New Year?

December 27, 2019

2020 Vision: It's Going to Be a Big Year!

It's been a long time since I've written regularly here, but as one of my New Year's resolutions, I've decided to re-dedicate myself to the sport I love and the craft that has at times been a second career for me(1).

There are a couple reasons I'm coming back home, but maybe the main one is that I was truly inspired by a collection of essays I recently read by David Foster Wallace. Even if you're not a fan of tennis, I highly recommend you get yourself a copy. As a one-time ranked juniors player and an exceptional writer, Wallace's knowledge of and take on the players, the tour, and even the science(2) of our sport is deeply incisive and, frankly, humbling. Not only did it make the prospect of reading his seminal, thousand-plus-page Infinite Jest no longer seem so daunting, but it made me rethink my entire life trajectory. Why didn't I join the Juniors circuit as a child and at least attempt to go pro? Why don't I quit my job now, fly immediately to Melbourne, and spend the rest of my days following the tour?

Well, Wallace's writing certainly disabused me of any belief that I could come close to holding my own on court against the pros, even on my best day(3). But perhaps there's still an opportunity to realize that second goal and emulate him just a bit(4).

And there couldn't be a better time to get back into tennis. At the dawn of a new decade there are so many great stories to follow: from the continued dominance of the Big Three in the men's game, to Serena's chasing history; from the rise of a new generation of greats, to perhaps a comeback from the last one.

So as we get ready to ring in what's sure to be a very eventful New Year, I'm going to look at some of the stories that could capture our collective attention in 2020. I was originally going to lay them all out in one big post, but there's so much to get to and more things will likely come up as we go. So I've decided instead to lay things out over the next few days. And if some of it seeps into January, well, so be it.

And because I've already teased a couple thoughts, might as well start with those.

The Big Three...and Their Successors

There seems to be no question that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic will hit the ground running in 2020 and could very well keep up the pace well into the new decade. After all, they combined to win the last twelve Majors. And as a testament to their longevity, here's the shocker -- we could've said almost the same thing ten years ago: between 2005 and 2009, there were only two Slams that didn't go to the trio! (To be fair, Nole only accounted for one of those in the last decade. He's got fifteen this past one, and as the youngest of the three seems most likely to last longest into the '20s.)

Sure there were moments when a couple others showed signs of promise. Andy Murray for a while threatened to infiltrate the group -- for a while I was irked by the fact that he was consistently included in the Big Four while Juan Martin Del Potro was never given a shot -- and Stan Wawrinka managed to stake his claim to three Majors himself. Even Marin Cilic, who managed a couple finals after his breakthrough in New York, has held his own. All have struggled with injury, Murray even coming to the brink of retirement, but they certainly remain relevant in the latter half of draws -- Murray even pulled off a stunning title run in Antwerp in October.

But if we're looking for the next generation of power players -- after all, the reign of Rafa, Roger, and Nole cannot last forever -- we may have to look elsewhere. And this year may have given us the best opportunity yet to find those contenders. The average age of the top ten, minus the Big Three, is the youngest it's been since 2009, and some of them have already made strides. Dominic Thiem has reached two Major finals, and Daniil Medvedev looked for a moment like he could have been the spoiler at this past U.S. Open. Meanwhile Alexander Zverev may have had a quiet start to the year, but he bounced back in London with a run to the semis. And Stefanos Tsitsipas, who rocketed up the rankings in the last 18 months, has wins over all of the Big Three this year -- and a shiny new ATP Finals trophy to boot.

There are real hopefuls outside the top ten too. I've held my breath more than a few times watching Karen Khachanov face off against Nadal over the years. And young Felix Auger-Aliassime, the surprise semifinalist in Miami this year, has a handful of wins over the elite players this year. It may be a couple years before their breakouts, but at the very least, I'm going to have to learn how to pronounce more than a couple of names. And of course, there are the surprise stand-outs that seemingly come out of nowhere.

Of course, I don't expect the Three Kings to leave the door too wide open for these guys. I imagine they've still got at least a handful of big titles left in them, but we're certainly facing a regime change soon. Will the game be the same when they hang up their hats? Of course not. But there seems to be some hope for what's to come.

Well, I think that's good for now. Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on Serena in 2020. And be sure to keep coming back to Tennis Spin all year long!

(1) My other career -- thankfully -- is no longer so all-consuming and now affords me the luxury of spending more time here. My other resolution -- recurring -- is to improve my posture, but I've failed at keeping that up past Day One some six years running. Hopefully I'll be more successful with this.

(2) Exactly how tall do you have to be, and how high should you toss the ball, and at what angle should you hold your racket, to hit a 125 mph serve wide into the deuce court when you're in Cincinnati and there's a tornado brewing in Toledo?

(3) No matter now get-able those shots seem on TV.

(4) I promise, though, that I have no intention of mimicking Wallace's prolific use of footnotes. This is my last one, I swear.