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Steve Flink: Hello Goodbye

1/5/2009 6:56:00 AM

by Steve Flink

We have just left behind a remarkably good year in the world of men's professional tennis. Rafael Nadal took his game to an entirely new level across the spring and through the summer, becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to rule on the slow red clay of Roland Garros and on the lawns of Wimbledon in the same year. For good measure, the left-hander from Spain added a gold medal at the Olympic Games on the hard courts in Beijing. Nadal took away Roger Federer's No. 1 world ranking in August, and deservedly closed the year as the best player on the planet. More than anything or anyone else, Nadal made 2008 a year that will remain vivid in our hearts and minds forever.

But others did more than their share to make the year gone by gripping and suspenseful. Although Federer struggled inordinately--- winning only 4 of the 19 tournaments he played--- the Swiss maestro bowed gallantly in his bid for a sixth straight Wimbledon singles championship. Federer rallied magnificently from two sets down against Nadal in the final, and moved within two points of a five set triumph before his Spanish adversary took the crown away from him. That match-arguably the best of all time--- fired the public imagination immeasurably, and put tennis back in the forefront of sports for a good many fans that may have been losing interest. That was no small thing.

Federer fell into a slump over the summer, but still managed to close out his Grand Slam season with a flourish by capturing a fifth United States Open in a row. The victory in New York gave the Swiss his 13th major championship, and now he stands only one title away from a tie for the all time men's record with Pete Sampras. Federer looked wobbly in the middle of the fortnight in New York, going five tumultuous sets with Igor Andreev in the third round. But, in the end, he came through with impressive semifinal and final round wins over Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Across those two weeks at Flushing Meadow, Federer saved his year and restored his pride.

Djokovic and Murray demonstrated over the course of the 2008 season that they are for real. Djokovic took his first career Grand Slam event in Melbourne at the Australian Open in January. He looked as if he might be on his way to the summit of the sport when he came through at Indian Wells on the hard courts and on the clay in Rome. Thereafter, he frequently was his own worst enemy, but the enormously capable Serbian salvaged another esteemed prize in Shanghai at the conclusion of the season, capturing the Tennis Masters Cup. Seldom has Djokovic needed a title more than that one.

As for Murray, he turned his year around at Wimbledon with a quarterfinal showing and then moved with increasing self assurance through the rest of the year. He won Cincinnati in the summer, took Madrid indoors in the autumn, and in between made it to his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open by toppling Nadal for the first time in six career head-to-head meetings. In his brilliant year, Murray beat Djokovic twice, Federer thrice, and had that one big win over Nadal. He demonstrated that when he is anywhere near the top of his game, he has the flexibility and the temerity to compete favorably with anyone in the world.

The sterling top four players in the world---- Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray--- gave close followers of the game all they could want during a terrific season. But honorable mention must be made for a few others. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was stupendous at the Australian Open, toppling Murray in the opening round, taking apart a bewildered Nadal in an immaculate straight set semifinal display, acquitting himself well in a four set, final round loss to Djokovic. The marvelously athletic Frenchman--- bearing a striking physical resemblance to the young Muhammad Ali-was forced off the courts for three months and two Grand Slam events after knee surgery, but returned at the U.S. Open and secured the indoor title in Paris during the autumn. Amazingly, despite his long absence, he finished the year at No. 6 in the world.

No one made a more startling rise in 2008 than Juan Martin Del Potro, who earned himself a top ten ranking after winning four straight events over the summer. Other newcomers who made their presence known in a big way were Marin Cilic and the sparkling Ernests Gulbis. To be sure, it was a banner year for the men across the board. They had three different victors at the four majors. They had variety in terms of playing styles and personalities. They gave us drama and exhilaration all through the season.

As for the women, there were some positives. Four different players took the Grand Slam events, with Maria Sharapova capturing her third career major at the Australian Open, the charismatic Ana Ivanovic claiming her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, Venus Williams winning Wimbledon for the fifth time, and Serena Williams taking her ninth career major with a third U.S. Open triumph. On the face of it, there was much to appreciate in the women's game as the two Williams sisters revisited some of their former glories, as Sharapova elevated her game commandingly in Melbourne, as Ivanovic made good in her third final round appearance at a "Big Four" event.

And yet, there were too many disappointments in an often exasperating season. Sharapova played beautifully into the spring, but by Wimbledon recurring problems with her shoulder cut thoroughly into her efficiency. Sharapova missed the U.S. Open and almost the entire second half of the year. That was fundamentally bad news for women's tennis.

There was more. In May, the admirable and indomitable Justine Henin announced her retirement from the game. Henin was not yet 26. She had finished 2006 and 2007 at No. 1 in the world. She remained No. 1 on the WTA computer when she elected to conclude her business as a professional. Her somewhat mysterious departure deeply wounded the women's game, and in many ways the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour for 2008 never fully recovered its equilibrium.

If Sharapova had stayed healthy and taken over as a genuine world champion, the transition would have been ideal. But, of course, she did not. If Ivanovic had built on her French Open triumph and made an authentic bid to become the No. 1 player in the world, it would have been terrific for the sport. But, bothered by injuries, perhaps not as comfortable as she would have liked to be as a leading player, Ivanovic lost her way after making it to the final of the Australian Open and winning the French Open.

Ivanovic's industrious countrywoman Jelena Jankovic finished 2008 at No. 1 in the world. Week in and week out, she was indeed the best in the world. But Jankovic-an outstanding match player with superb court sense-- did not win a Grand Slam title. She made it to the semifinals of the Australian and French Opens, and reached her first major final at the U.S. Open. If she had won in New York, she would have irrefutably deserved her year-end status as the No. 1 player. But without a major, she did not--- at least as I saw it--- belong at the top. Her consistency was admirable, but to be the top ranked player should require winning at least one major. Jankovic finishing the year at the top under those circumstances was not a good thing for the women's game.

So 2008 was a time of greatness for the men's game, and mixed blessings for the women. What is in store for 2009? I believe the struggle for supremacy among the men will be even more ferocious than it was last year. Nadal will be in no mood to allow anyone to usurp his authority. Barring an unexpected injury, he will almost surely capture a fifth French Open in a row. But while Nadal will be the overwhelming favorite for Roland Garros, the other three majors are very much up for grabs. Nadal made it to the semifinals of the Australian and U.S. Opens in 2008, and he is fully capable of winning either of those events. Federer is structuring his entire year around the majors, hoping to peak for those occasions. Djokovic will be fully determined to prove he is not a "one Slam wonder".

But the player who may well take more out of 2009 than anyone else is Murray. His game now matches up well against all of his chief adversaries. He has matured substantially over the past year. His versatility as a shot maker and tactician is immense. Murray will win at least one major this year, and frankly it would not surprise me if he came away with two. He has as good a chance as anyone to win the Australian Open, and there is no reason why he could not win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open as well. If Murray gets on any kind of a roll at the All England Club and the fans support him unabashedly, he will be awfully tough to stop.

In the final analysis, I envision three different men taking majors in 2009. Nadal and Federer will be joined in that exclusive territory by Murray. Murray may well end 2009 as the best tennis player in the world. I expect Djokovic to make it to at least one and possibly two Grand Slam tournament finals, but the extraordinary trio of Nadal, Federer and Murray will all have a slight edge over the Serbian on the biggest stages.
It is much tougher to make a forecast for the women. Sharapova's shoulder problems are clearly not over. Ivanovic has to essentially prove herself again. Jankovic must demonstrate at last that she can get the job done when the stakes are highest. The Williams sisters might well secure more Grand Slam titles this year, but they are always so prone to injuries, and are often the victims of their own apparent indifference.

The guess here is that Jankovic will win at Roland Garros. Serena Williams will take the Wimbledon title away from her sister. The big questions will surround Dinara Safina. She finished 2008 at No. 3 in the world, which was no insignificant achievement. But her best showing at a major was a final round appearance at Roland Garros. She improved significantly in 2008, demonstrating a match playing propensity she previously lacked. But she has not convinced me that she will win a Grand Slam event.

So the picture remains murky in women's tennis. Either Serena Williams or Jankovic could well secure a second major; it is entirely possible that both of them will. But a wide range of other top players will be in the hunt for a major.

In 2008, Elena Dementieva took the Olympic gold medal in Beijing, which was a big step for the Russian. Dementieva had lost two major finals in 2004 at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. She remains a player who virtually advertises her apprehension wherever she goes on the big stages. And yet, Dementieva is as solid a ball striker as anyone in the women's game. At 27, it is not too late for her to move past her inner demons and collect a major prize. Perhaps Ivanovic will recover her old confidence and exuberance and claim another big title.

Others who may well contend seriously at the premier events include Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Alize Cornet of France and Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland. This much is certain: 2009 will be a year of wide open possibilities for an awful lot of capable women players. The time is ripe for these competitors to make their presence known.

As I say goodbye to the 2008 campaign, I look forward to a crackling 2009 season. The hope here is that the men will equal their 2008 heroics, while the women provide us not only with suspense but with a greater sense of stability in the game's upper regions. If that happens, I, for one, would be delighted.

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