18 September, 2011

Look Back, Look Ahead

When we left the bright blue courts and sometimes otherworldly heat of Melbourne at the end of January, there were some things we knew about this 2011 tennis season and others we had no clue about.  Now with the year's final major, the US Open, a week in the rear-view mirror, let's take a look back to look ahead.

"He’s a legitimate threat to win at 3 of the 4 majors and his Wimbledon results haven’t exactly disappointed either," 
- Blacklabel Tennis on Novak Djokovic (1/31/11)  

At the time, Novak Djokovic was still ranked third in the world, but he was already riding high.  In the space of five glorious months, he had reached the US Open final, led Serbia to the Davis Cup title and had just captured his second Australian Open.  That second Australian Open title would indeed be the opening stanza to an incredible 2011 that would see Djokovic bag three of the year's four majors, five Masters Series crowns and accordingly, the World No. 1 ranking.  His only real failure this year was missing out on an opportunity to defend his precious Davis Cup, having to pull out of the semifinal with Argentina with back pain just days after seizing the US Open.

What's next?  There is certainly unfinished business for Djokovic (ATP World Tour Finals, Roland Garros), but in his shoes, I'd all but shut it down for the rest of this year.  The fatigue (both mental and physical) that I expected to hit him at the US Open seems to have laid him low a week later at Davis Cup.  Let's be honest, all of the big prizes have been handed out and the vast majority have been inscribed with his name.  Yes, there are some "mandatory" events the rest of the year, but if I'm Djokovic, I beg off until London.

Kim Clijsters, who? 
- Average tennis fan on Kim Clijsters (9/19/11)   

If you can think back that far, the year's first major was actually won by the Belgian (a tournament she kicked off with a 6-0, 6-0 thrashing of troubled former No. 1 Dinara Safina).  Like Djokovic, she had also won the US Open the year prior and seemed poised for big things.  Her career rival, Justine Henin, re-retired after failing to match her countrywoman's success in her own comeback.  Serena Williams was (then) mysteriously absent and none of the young guns seemed able to match either her weight of shot or ability to come through in the clutch.  Then, Clijsters' historically fragile body got in the way.  She went 11-1 on the Australian swing this January (including a final in Sydney); she would go just 12-6 the rest of the year (a mere 1-2 post-Roland Garros).

What's next?  Clijsters has been an admitted part-timer since returning to the WTA tour in late 2009, but she has amassed three majors (more than any other player) in that span.  She has reportedly been playing with an eye toward next year's Olympics, but the opportunity to amass the career grand slam is still a distinct possibility.  I think Clijsters will smartly take a pass on the last month of this season (she's already a distant 12th in the Race to the YEC) and prep for a defense of her "Aussie Kim" moniker and the title with which she earned it.  If her body's not cooperating by January though, I fear, it may hasten Kim's plans to end her sterling career.

"Despite being at different points in their careers from an age perspective, Federer and Nadal’s resumes are equally gilded; their trophy cases gleam with all of the most spectacular hardware on offer; their bank accounts provide them a fair measure of financial security.  What’s there left to hunger after?  Both men need to ask themselves that question, especially the Spaniard."
- Blacklabel Tennis on Rafael Nadal (4/17/11)   

Rafael Nadal had a helluva year.  You realize that, right?  He won the French Open, made the finals at Wimbledon for the fifth time in six years and reached his second consecutive US Open final.  He won two key matches to put Spain back into the Davis Cup final.  He's earned $6 million on court this year and is on track to extend his streak of finishing either No. 1 or No. 2 in the world for the seventh consecutive year.  Of course, you'd rebut..."He's Rafael Nadal.  You realize that, right?"

Nadal has been fairly level headed in his public comments about his season.  He's reached nine finals, but for a man who came into this season 43-13 in finals, this year's 3-6 record on final Sundays has to hurt.  Nadal reasoned that he can't think of making the finals as a bad result, "I don't think I'm that good," he said.  The thing to keep in mind about Nadal this year is that while yes, Djokovic beat him in six straight finals, Nadal kept getting to those finals.  As a player, the part you can control is beating the players in front of you, that's what Nadal has largely done and the only man who's had his number consistently is Djokovic.

What's next?  Nadal has a Davis Cup final to play in December and per his wish, his nemesis Djokovic won't be across the net.  Throw in the fact that it's going to be in Spain (and likely on clay) and Nadal will be even more motivated.  Facing David Nalbandian and Juan Martin del Potro won't be the easiest of tests, but it will be easier than Djokovic...now, he'll just have to lobby not to have the tie hosted at altitude in Madrid.  In the intervening months, Nadal (like Federer did last year) will likely go on a redemption tour barnstorming the indoor hardcourt events.  Unlike Federer, I think Nadal will stick to the biggest events.  I believe the Spaniard will show up on the indoor hardcourts of Shanghai, Paris and London for the first time unsatisfied with this year and REALLY looking to bag those titles.  Djokovic's physical level will be questionable and even on a hardcourt Nadal has to be considered at worst, the 3rd best player in the world.  After some success indoors, my guess is that he'll say "We will see what is really going on when we get to Australia, no?"

"Watching Serena play with as much verve and precision as ever, it's hard to believe the WTA's own grim reaper was literally on death's door this winter.  You watch the matches, you see the blindingly agile and aware tennis, you shake your head and chuckle to yourself, 'Only Serena.'"
- Blacklabel Tennis on Serena Williams (8/4/11) 

You watched this US Open and you couldn't help but think it was going to happen.  As far fetched as it might have seemed a few months prior, you couldn't help but think Serena was going to do it...she was going to win the US Open and, more surprisingly, the adoration of the audience.  Obviously, she failed on both accounts.  Watching the men's final the following day, Mary Carillo ripped into Serena again over her outburst at chair umpire Eva Asderaki during her match the prior day.  I gritted my teeth.  As much as I generally like Carillo, one of the wittiest and most honest commentators on the air, two things were going through my mind.  First of all, the men's final was plenty compelling television in and of itself without reverting to the theater Serena had provided the day prior for material.  Second, what exactly was the big deal? 

I know plenty of people will have something to say about the example set for kids.  "What about the children," they will cry in faux-righteousness (as if most kids don't see worse arguments in their own homes).   Moreover, most kids at some point, throw tantrums, much like Serena did during this match, when they feel as if something is unfair.  Those kids are often lightly punished, as was Serena in this case with the $2,000 fine.  She didn't strike Asderaki, or even threaten violence as she did in her 2009 brush-up, but she did yell and stomp and display a level of petulance that was distasteful, on that we agree.  I'm content to leave it at that.  One thing I appreciate about Serena is her unflinching honesty.  In a world where instead of investigating society's real problems, the media by and large follows celebrities around with recording devices, waits for them to say something impolite or off-color and then screams about it until the PR flack issues the same templated, mealy mouthed apology, I appreciate the fact that Serena has said in essence, it happened, it was intense out there, let's move on.

What's Next - Serena still won't win over the audience.  I have to say, I don't think she cares either.  She knows who she is and won't make apologies for that to sign another endorsement deal.  She's already got more money than she could ever have imagined, even if she jokes about needing more.  In fact, I wonder if she'll show up the rest of this year.  Serena happily played smaller events this summer to shake off the rust before the majors, with no majors til January, no Fed Cup until later and her ranking below the cutoff for the tour championships, I think Serena will cool her heels before making an all-out assault on the Aussie Open next year.  She wants that title, but she's not alone.

It'll be a while until the entire tennis world reconvenes in Melbourne, but I'd venture to guess that the storylines going into 2012 will look a little different and these are four of the players who will teak the script.

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