by Steve Flink
Forgive me for being presumptuous, but with the curtain about to close on 2009, I am ready to present my annual awards for the year. It was a season filled with intrigue and exhilaration, a campaign which had something of value for just about anyone, a time to celebrate our sport’s diversity and appreciate how much it has enriched all of our lives. I leave behind a treasure chest of vivid memories, and hope that in 2010 tennis will capture our imaginations as much as it did in the year gone by. Here are the Flink Awards for 2009.
SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR
The way I define it, a bona fide sportsman is someone who wins with grace and style, and an individual who loses with dignity and without self pity. Champions make or break their reputations on how they handle the two extremes. They don’t allow their egos to get too inflated in victory, and refuse to let losses ruin their self esteem or cut too deeply into their pride. They learn how to balance the scales, find equanimity, and display character under either set of circumstances.
For me, the choice for this award was not difficult. This man was the dominant force in the game across the first five months of 2009, winning five tournaments, residing indisputably at No. 1 in the world, recording one important triumph after another. He got injured during the French Open, lost at Roland Garros for the first time, and could not defend his crown at Wimbledon. When he returned over the summer, his world was an altered place, his confidence diminished, his game never as commanding or imposing.
For the rest of the year, Rafael Nadal did not win another tournament, reaching only one final in his last seven events, struggling mightily against the other leading players. Although Nadal concluded an arduous season on a high note by helping lead Spain past the Czech Republic to win the Davis Cup, it was apparent that he had lost some crucial ground during his time away from the sport. After his comeback, he was beaten three times by Novak Djokovic without winning a set. He was crushed twice by Juan Martin Del Potro, twice by Nikolay Davydenko, and once each by Robin Soderling and Marin Cilic. Those were all straight set setbacks as well.
And yet, Nadal was remarkably gracious in defeat. He made few alibis, gave his opponents full marks, tried to play down his lingering physical problems. To me, the moment he sealed the Sportsman of the Year award was just after he had been blasted comprehensively off the court 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 by a top of the line Del Potro in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. It must have been humiliating to lose that overwhelmingly at the only Grand Slam event he has not yet captured.
Yet Nadal responded admirably. He waved to the crowd as he walked off the court, and stopped for a brief television interview with Pam Shriver. That was the day he affirmed once and for all what a towering sportsman he is. Nadal was humiliated in many ways by the thunderous ground game and excellent serving delivered by Del Potro, but he enlarged himself and his reputation with his post-match response.
Rafael Nadal, Sportsman of the Year. Was there really any other choice?
SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR
She had been gone since May of 2007, and the game had missed her enormously. Kim Clijsters has long been a champion to admire deeply and unreservedly. Her comeback in the summer of 2009 was timely and inspiring. She burst pack into the game’s upper echelons in Cincinnati, played one more tournament, and then secured her second career major championship in only her third tournament back by taking the U.S. Open. Clijsters held back Venus Williams in a spirited and engaging three set confrontation. She defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals, outplaying Serena until the end of a controversial encounter which Williams lost 6-4, 7-5 on a point penalty after delivering a venomous tirade at a lineswoman.
That startling ending could not obscure the fact that Clijsters had been the better player all evening, deserving her triumph by outperforming Williams from the baseline and returning serve with much more consistency and precision. Clijsters then regained the crown she had worn in 2005 by ousting Caroline Wozniacki in the championship match. It was a joy to see her back on one of the preeminent stages in the sport, moving with the alacrity we have always come to expect from her, competing with a quiet yet unmistakable intensity, treating the officials and her opponents with the kind of respect they deserve.
Kim Clijsters demonstrated in New York that it is impossible not to admire her work ethic and the way she goes about her business. She is a mother now, and a married woman who realizes at 26 that she can be a parent, wife, and competitor and play all three roles with an intelligence, determination and fundamental decency that is simply her nature. Clijsters is revitalized, a woman competing because she wants to do it on her own terms, a champion who is bound to make it one day into the International Hall of Fame.
But above and beyond anything else, Clijsters understands the importance of fair play in a workplace that has grown ever more hardened and cutthroat. Kim Clijsters gets my vote for Sportswoman of the Year. She gets it without any hesitation.
MEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR
I gave serious consideration to Del Potro for this honor. He secured his first Grand Slam championship at the last major of the year, became the first player ever to upend both Nadal and Federer in the same Grand Slam event, and turned the U.S. Open into a glittering showcase for his budding talent and growing command of the game. Seldom if ever has anyone combined depth and power so persuasively of the ground. Rarely has a big man moved with such alacrity on a tennis court. The 6’6” Del Potro was an astonishing sight to behold in New York at the end of summer in the late springtime of his career.
Be that as it may, despite his extraordinary breakthrough as a U.S. Open champion, I can’t make Del Potro Player of the Year. That award must go to none other than Roger Federer, who stepped majestically into the highest realm of history by claiming his first French Open title and then capturing his sixth Wimbledon championship for a record breaking 15th major championship. All year long, Federer recorded only four tournament triumphs, precisely the number of events he captured across 2008. But the fact remained that it was Federer who struck gold in the heart of the season, Federer who managed to carry the top honors at the world’s premier clay court event and the single most important tournament in all of tennis, Federer who earned the right to be considered by many authorities as the greatest player ever to step on a tennis court.
Most remarkably of all, Federer achieved those twin successes despite never quite reaching the upper level of his game. At Roland Garros, he was down two sets to love and serving at 3-4 and break point down against Tommy Haas in the round of 16. He produced a clutch, inside-out forehand winner to escape from that dangerous predicament, and went on to win in five sets. In the semifinals, Federer trailed two sets to one against Del Potro, but gamely recouped to take that hard fought contest in another five set struggle. In the final, he dismantled Robin Soderling in straight sets to realize what had been an elusive dream.
At Wimbledon, Federer confronted Andy Roddick in the final. He lost the first set, fell behind 2-6 in the second set tie-break, and seemed likely to lose for the first time to his determined rival at a major championship. But Federer--- fortunate yet obstinate—recovered improbably from quadruple set point down to salvage that second set, and somehow managed to hold back an unwavering Roddick 5-7 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 in an epic final. As Federer said the next day, he triumphed largely on “willpower.”
Prior to the French Open, Federer won only one tournament in 2009. After Wimbledon, he collected only one more title. And yet, 2009 had to be among the most rewarding years of his career. He reached all four Grand Slam tournament finals. He won two of the three biggest tournaments in tennis. His two major tournament wins meant that he had collected no fewer than 15 majors in a stirring seven year span from 2003-009.
Roger Federer, Player of the Year for 2009. Let there be no doubt about that.
WOMEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The 2009 season was not a very good year for women’s tennis. Dinara Safina was beaten in two more major finals, and the Russian was unable to make good on the predictions of many who thought she would surely put her name on the honor roll of champions at the Grand Slam events. 2008 French Open victor Ana Ivanovic had a dismal season in 2009, losing all of conviction, struggling inordinately with her game, seldom playing anywhere near as well as she can all season long.
To be sure, there were some positive developments in the women’s game. Svetlana Kuznetsova took her second career major crown with a well deserved victory at the French Open, upending Serena Williams in a hard fought and well played quarterfinal, stopping Safina in the championship match. Kuznetsova is not one of the game’s charismatic players. She is not a competitor that the public has embraced. She is essentially taken for granted. But her Roland Garros triumph was a credit to her well rounded and underrated game, a tribute to her capacity to compete favorably against anyone in the world.
In any event, the woman who was irrefutably the best player in the world was Serena Williams. Serena took her major championship numbers into the double digits, taking her tenth major by securing the Australian Open in January, coming through in July on the lawns of the All England Club to garner an eleventh Grand Slam tournament championship at Wimbledon. Her low point, of course, was when she utterly lost control of herself at the U.S. Open at the end of her semifinal appointment with Clijsters. To be sure, the circumstances were trying.
Serena was serving at 4-6, 5-6, 15-30. She was foot faulted on her second serve, which put her down double match point. Her profanity laced explosion at the lineswoman who made the controversial call--- delivered by Serena in two doses--- was frightening to observe. Later, Williams only exacerbated the situation by never offering the kind of apology that was called for.
Williams was fortunate after such a reprehensible outburst that she was not suspended from the upcoming Australian Open in January. Be that at it may, she ended 2009 on the highest possible note, winning the Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha to underline her supremacy, ousting her sister and defending champion Venus Williams in the final. For only the second time in her illustrious career, Serena finished a year at No. 1 in the world.
In my book, she was Player of the Year for the women. No one else was better on the biggest stages. Her greatness and supreme grit saved the women’s game in many ways.
MEN'S MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Looking at this category strictly in terms of players who are near the top of their profession, I have selected Sweden’s Robin Soderling. At the end of 2008, Soderling was No. 17 in the world. He had finished 2004 at No. 34 and 2006 at No. 25. But he had always struck me as a mindless player until 2009, a man who could self destruct with alarming regularity, a competitor who never seemed to have a Plan B when his A game was not in full working order. I thought he was too uncompromising, going for far too many non-percentage shots on big points.
Across the last year, a lot changed for Soderling, and most of it was for the better. He produced the biggest upset of 2009--- and one of the most significant upsets of modern times--- when he struck down Nadal in the fourth round of the French Open. Nadal was way out of sorts that day as he lost for the first time in five appearances at Roland Garros, and his knees must have bothered him considerably. The fact remains that Soderling was excellent on the dirt, and he brought down Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez to reach his first Grand Slam final before losing to Federer.
Soderling acquitted himself exceedingly well for the rest of the year, made it to London for the ATP Tour World Championships when Andy Roddick withdrew from the event, and reached the semifinals before losing to Del Potro in a close contest. No longer is he a hit or miss player. He has learned to attend to the basics of the game and to rally patiently and probingly until he gets the right opening.
Soderling concluded 2009 at No. 8, and deservedly so. In 2010, he will surely confirm that he belongs in that territory, and perhaps make a strong bid to reach the top 5.
WOMEN’S MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Almost unnoticed, Caroline Wozniacki moved from No. 64 at the end of 2007 to No. 12 at the end of the following year. In 2009, however, she made immense strides, moving up among the elite. Wozniacki reached her first major final at the U.S. Open. She was consistent all season long. She competed with a self assuredness she had never displayed before. When 2009 was over, Wozniacki stood at No. 4 in the world, and with good reason. Week in and week out, she did her job remarkably well, turning in fine performances on every surface, winning tough matches against the best of her opposition, gaining ground across the board by applying herself diligently.
This 19-year-old from Denmark reached the final of Memphis early in the season. She won at Ponte Vedra, Florida on the clay, and made it to the final on the same surface in Madrid. At Eastbourne on the grass, she won the tournament. Back on clay in Bastad over the summer, she made it to the final. On hard courts in August, she was victorious in New Haven, setting the stage for her run to the U.S. Open final. In Doha, she wrapped up her year with a semifinal showing.
Wozniacki does not have extraordinary firepower in her game, but her ball control is first rate, her court craft is admirable, and her disposition in the tight corners of tense contests is remarkable. Wozniacki’s journey from just outside the top ten into the top five in 2009 was no mean feat.
MEN'S MATCH OF THE YEAR
Three of the four finals at the Grand Slam events went the full five sets in 2009. That had never happened before in the Open Era. The first of those contests was a gem between Federer and Nadal, with Nadal overcoming the Swiss 6-2 in the final set. The tennis in that match was sublime, right up until the middle of the final set. Federer then lost his range off the ground and Nadal ran out the match. At the U.S. Open, Federer and Del Potro had a riveting skirmish, with Del Potro twice coming within two points of defeat in the fourth set before powering his way to victory at 6-2 in the fifth set.
But the best Grand Slam final of 2009--- and the finest match of the year--- was Federer’s five set victory over Roddick. For the second year in a row, an epic unfolded on the Centre Court in the championship match. Roddick gave his best ever performance in defeat. He held serve 37 times in a row until he was broken at 14-15 in the fifth set. He was extraordinarily composed, strategically sound, and played an inspired, gutsy, brilliant match. And yet, it was not enough to prevent the American from suffering a 19th defeat in 21 career appointments with the redoubtable Federer. It was not enough to enable Roddick to win for the first time in three Wimbledon finals against his obstinate adversary.
What made this the match of the year was the high standard of play that transpired on both sides of the net through five searching sets. Roddick broke Federer at 5-6 in the opening set after saving four break points in the previous game. There were no breaks in the second set, and Federer somehow escaped from 2-6 down in the tie-break to reach one set all. The pattern was the same in the third as neither player broke, and Federer moved ahead by claiming the tie-break 7-5.
In the fourth set, Roddick got one service break and held throughout for a 6-3 verdict. And then, of course, both men shined in an astonishing fifth set, the longest ever contested in a men’s championship match at Wimbledon. It all came down to the one break against a highly unfortunate Roddick in the 30th game of that final set. This was grass court tennis of a high order, not as lofty a standard as Nadal and Federer set the previous year, but indisputably the best tennis match played in 2009.
WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR
In the semifinals of Wimbledon, across three bruising sets, through a long afternoon of first class tennis, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva battled gallantly on the Centre Court. Dementieva was striking the ball more cleanly and purposefully, keeping Serena off balance in a good many rallies, keeping a more consistent length on her shots. The Russian was playing the game about as well as she possibly could, holding her nerves in check, competing as if she was not intimidated by confronting the best big occasion player in the women’s game on the largest stage of all.
With Dementieva serving at 3-4, 0-30 in the opening set, I had the feeling Williams was going to make her move and seize control of the match unhesitatingly. But Dementieva gathered herself impressively at that stage, held on, and reached a tie-break. In that sequence, Dementieva was too solid and resourceful. The Russian took it 7-4, and had a set in hand.
Dementieva was beating Serena to the punch, lacing her ground strokes immaculately over and over again, taking control from the back of the court with unrelenting shot making. Williams was serving at 3-4, 30-40 in the second set, five points away from a straight set departure. Serena hit a forehand down the line that was called in. Dementieva challenged the call, but the replay went in favor of her opponent. Serena got back to 4-4. At 5-5, Dementieva was broken, and then Serena served four aces in a long service game at 6-5, holding on gamely for one set all.
Both women were playing beautifully now. Dementieva took a 3-1 lead in the third set before Williams willed her way back to 3-3. At 4-4, Dementieva held at love with one of her best service games of the match. In the tenth game, Williams drifted to 30-40, match point down. She missed her first serve, took her time, and produced a reasonably deep second serve. Typically devoid of fear, full of her customary brio, playing this point as if her life depended on it, Williams found a way to get to the net, approaching on the Dementieva two-handed backhand. Dementieva went crosscourt, and Serena was there, closing in tight on the net. Her backhand volley grazed the net cord, but it was hit soundly and Dementieva could not answer it.
Williams held on courageously for 5-5, but Dementieva remained as resolute as I have ever seen her. She held for 6-5, and was two points away from her first Wimbledon final when Serena served at 0-30 in the twelfth game. Serena released a huge first serve to the backhand that Dementieva could not handle. On the next point, Williams hit an ace. She held on for 6-6, and went on to win 6-7 (4), 7-5, 8-6. The scores reflect the high standards that were set that day.
In some ways, this match reminded me of the Roddick-Federer Centre Court final. Like Roddick, Dementieva had given herself every chance to win, playing a stupendous match, outperforming her renowned rival in all kinds of ways. But Williams shared Federer’s insatiable appetite to succeed no matter what it took. She, too, won more than anything else on willpower. No women’s match in 2009 combined drama and content like this one.
MOST POIGNANT MOMENT OF THE YEAR
At the end of the U.S. Open, the news travelled rapidly across the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Center that the incomparable Jack Kramer had passed away at 88, and there was no escaping the deep sense of sadness felt by all of us who knew how indispensable he was to the game. Kramer did it all, becoming one of the all time great players, winning three majors as an amateur, ruling pro tennis for a sterling five year stretch, then becoming an excellent promoter for the pro game. He would later establish himself as the first Executive Director of the ATP after devising the concept for the Grand Prix circuit.
Kramer--- the Man of the Twentieth Century in tennis-- was the mastermind of our universe. I knew him well. I miss him terribly. He altered the course of tennis history irrevocably, and tennis will probably never have an enduring champion of his multi-dimensions again.
BIGGEST DISSAPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR
Neither Novak Djokovic nor Andy Murray came through when it counted in 2009, which was a shame for them and the game. No one won more matches than Djokovic, who posted 78 victories. No one secured more titles than the guileful Murray, who was victorious at six events. Yet neither of these formidable young men stepped forward to win a Grand Slam event during the year, and that is the barometer by which the great must be judged. Djokovic had captured his first major in 2008 at the Australian Open, but did not back that up in 2009. Murray seemed certain to place his name among the elite this past year, but he did not make that happen. Both players succeeded frequently on many levels across 2009, but failed the ultimate test. I hope that changes in 2010.
BEST SURPRISE OF THE YEAR
After announcing her retirement from tennis in the spring of 2008, Justine Henin told us in the fall of 2009 that she would be back in 2010. Henin is the ultimate professional, a player everyone admires for her tenacity and temerity, and a woman with a heart that could only belong to an extraordinary champion. She already owns seven major titles, including four French Open crowns, two U.S. Opens, and one victory run at the Australian Open. She will be going full force after Wimbledon this coming year, and it would be fitting if she steps out onto the lawns at the All England Club and rewards herself by completing a career Grand Slam. Having Henin back in her trade will make women’s tennis decidedly more interesting in the year ahead.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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