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Steve Flink: 2010 Flink Awards

12/13/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Reflecting the other day upon the 2010 season in the world of tennis, I swear I could see Frank Sinatra standing prominently in the eye of my mind, singing his trademark ballad, “It Was a Very Good Year.” In our sport across the past year, the game had much to celebrate. It was a year in which the positives defeated the negatives by a substantial margin. It was a time to sit back and appreciate history being made prodigiously by competitors of the highest caliber. Above all else, it was a year that captured our attention from the outset, and kept it all the way to the very end. Welcome to the Flink Awards for 2010.

MAN OF THE YEAR

The greatest players in the workplace of tennis can never rest comfortably. Around every corner, a new challenger looms, a different threat emerges, another rival steps into the limelight. The currency of competition can change swiftly and sometimes irreversibly. The glow of a significant triumph can be replaced by the sobering and disconcerting taste of defeat almost overnight. Tennis can make overwhelming demands on the people who seek to control it, and only the most resilient and unwavering individuals can stand up to the supreme test of character that tennis serves up to them.

Consider the plight of Rafael Nadal, who has in so many ways redefined and reshaped the landscape in which he performs. Nadal had taken over unequivocally from Roger Federer in 2008 at No. 1 in the world after the Swiss had resided masterfully in that post from 2004-2007. In that remarkable 2008 campaign, Nadal toppled Federer in the French Open and Wimbledon finals, and then secured a gold medal at the Olympic Games. He commenced 2009 unhesitatingly, striking down Federer for the Australian Open crown, adding four more titles by May. But the rest of the year was horrendous for Nadal. Weakened by tendinitis in his knees, distracted by the impending divorce of his parents, losing his competitive compass, Nadal bowed in the round of 16 against Robin Soderling at the French Open, and did not defend his Wimbledon title.

When he returned later in the summer, he was not the same player. Nadal finished 2009 decidedly behind a revitalized Federer, the victor at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Heading into April of 2010, Nadal had still not recovered his conviction, and he was losing matches he once would have won; in the crunch, his growing doubts were painfully apparent. But from the moment he captured his first tournament in eleven months—losing a mere 14 games in five matches while ruling on the red clay at Monte Carlo for the sixth year in a row—Nadal was a man reinvigorated, a player back in sync, a champion moving beyond himself and reacquiring the art of triumph. The Spaniard went unbeaten all through the clay court season, won a fifth French Open title, returned to Wimbledon for a second championship run at the All England Club, and then secured his first U.S. Open championship at summer’s end, becoming the first man since Rod Laver won a second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in succession.

Nadal had very little incentive to compete with his usual ferocity and unbridled enthusiasm thereafter, although he won one more tournament in Tokyo and made it to the final at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Long before he lost in London to a top of the line Federer, Nadal had sealed the No. 1 world ranking for the year. He was back where he belonged, an authentic world champion, a dedicated craftsman of a rare breed. Moreover, he had gone to work assiduously over the summer to develop a much bigger first serve, changing his grip, adding considerable velocity to that delivery. The vastly improved serve was the driving force behind his U.S. Open breakthrough victory.

Was he the Sportsman of the Year? Indisputably yes, because he won and lost with equanimity, because he carried himself with such dignity and grace not only when he was winning but when he endured his long and debilitating slump, because he navigates the territory of champions better than anyone in his profession. But more than anything else, this singularly charismatic Spaniard with the immense heart—and a thirst like no one else for success—was his game’s towering Man of the Year. Who else could it be? Rafael Nadal wears that label awfully well.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR

While the selection of Nadal for Man of the Year was essentially simple, finding an appropriate Woman of the Year was a good deal more complicated. A case could be made for Denmark’s poised and enterprising Caroline Wozniacki, the first woman from her nation and only the tenth overall to finish a year at No. 1 in the world. Only one woman won two major singles titles in 2010, and her name was Serena Williams. On that credential alone, Serena had to be a prime candidate for Woman of the Year in the world of tennis for 2010. Others might opt for the beguiling Francesca Schiavone, who by virtue of her French Open triumph became the first female ever from her nation to taste the champagne at a major.

But the way I look at it, there is really no one else to fit this bill other than a perspicacious Belgian who has somehow balanced the scales magnificently as not only a tennis player but as an exemplary mother. And in the year 2010, Kim Clijsters came through frequently when it mattered a lot. She was victorious at the prestigious Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, she took another important prize in Cincinnati at the Western & Southern Financial Open, and she closed the year in style with a win in Doha at the WTA Tour Championships. Altogether, she won five tournaments in an abbreviated campaign, but most significantly she defended her U.S. Open title in New York, taking her third career major on the Arthur Ashe Stadium. She did it all with a brio no other woman could match.

To me, this is non-negotiable: Kim Clijsters, Woman of the Year.

Men’s Match of the Year

The way I saw it, this was no contest. From beginning to end, across three absorbing sets, on a low bouncing indoor court in London, through three hours and eleven minutes of spellbinding tennis, Andy Murray and Nadal played with verve, intensity, imagination and extraordinary resolve. They were pitted against each other in the semifinals of the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and both men threw their hearts and souls into a battle that was worthy of a final. The rallies were often breathtaking, the speed of the two competitors often staggering, the shot making frequently out of this world. Moreover, the mutual respect between these two steely competitors was evident at each and every stage of a match they both wanted very badly.

Both men were unstoppable on serve in the first set, with not a break point to be found by either Nadal or Murray. Nadal was backing up his delivery with a barrage of mightily struck forehands, using every inch of the court, making Murray run miles. Murray was up to the challenge, serving fantastically, releasing nine aces in that opening set. In a tie-break, Murray rallied from 2-5 to 5-5, only to be throttled by a highly charged Nadal, who simply raised his intensity a crucial notch and took two points in a row to close out the set. Early in the second, Nadal had an opening to break the match wide open. Murray was serving at 0-1, 15-40, and had he been broken there Nadal might have sent him quickly into submission.

Murray steadfastly held on, found another energy surge and it was Nadal who lost some emotional ground. From 3-3 in that set, an increasingly aggressive Murray broke him twice to make it back to one set all. Serving at 0-1, 0-30 in the third set, Nadal was in danger of losing a sixth game in a row. He managed to sneak out of that game and hold on for 1-1, and then reignited his game and his psyche. Murray wasted a 40-15 lead in the third game of that set and suffered from a few brain cramps as Nadal broke him for 2-1. The Spaniard surged to 5-3 and had a match point on Murray’s serve, only to drive a backhand return off a second serve long.

Serving for the match in the following game, Nadal got to 30-30 but missed an inside-in forehand and then Murray passed him brilliantly off the backhand down the line to break back for 5-5. It all came down fittingly to a final set tie-break, and Nadal seemed as good as gone when he fell behind 3-0 and two mini-breaks, and then 4-1. But he struck back boldly to 4-4 with a scintillating forehand winner, and soon it was 5-5. Nadal got to match point for the second time with Murray serving at 5-6 in the tie-break but was rushed into a backhand passing shot error.  Soon Nadal made it to a third match point opportunity, and won a stirring 19 stroke exchange with a trademark, well measured, inside out forehand winner. Nadal got the victory 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (6) with characteristic gumption and indefatigability, but Murray has never been better in defeat.

The semifinal contest between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open was a contender for best match of the year. Djokovic audaciously erased two match points against him at 4-5 in the final set to clip the five time champion in a riveting five set confrontation. But I believe Nadal-Murray surpassed that and every other match I saw in 2010. I don’t make that assessment casually.

Women’s Match of the Year

Over the course of the season, the women did not have their usual number of gripping skirmishes both in and outside the majors. But there were some extraordinary battles fought out between leading players. The meeting between Serena Williams and Justine Henin in the Australian Open final was a beauty, as Henin made her return to the sport, coming out of retirement after 20 months away from the game. Late in the second set and early in the third, she captured an astounding 15 points in a row, but Williams was unswerving and she pulled away confidently for a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 victory The athletic Australian Samantha Stosur was victorious in a highly entertaining encounter against Williams in the quarterfinals of the French Open, saving a match point on her way to a well deserved three set victory. Williams still had a chance then to win a Grand Slam in 2010, and had come into the tournament eager about pursuing that goal.  But she played an uneven match, and squandered too many opportunities in the end.  

Both of those matches were well contested, suspenseful, filled with intrigue. But my choice for best match of the year goes to Clijsters against Henin in the final of the season’s opening event at Brisbane. This was an astounding confrontation, with both women playing all out to win points with aggressive play from the back of the court; neither woman was afraid to lose. The level of play in this one was nothing less than stupendous for three captivating sets. It was a match of numerous mood and momentum swings. Both women were striking the ball cleanly, but maintaining the upper hand was an impossible task. Clijsters got more consistent depth on her shots but Henin was in the process of revamping her style of play, taking second serve returns and going for outright winners, attacking every time she could off midcourt balls. Yet Clijsters was undaunted.

Clijsters built a commanding 6-3, 4-1 lead but completely lost her momentum. Here was Henin in her first tournament since May of 2008 when she was No. 1 in the world, and she looked as if she had never left the sport. Henin collected a stunning eight games in a row to move ahead 3-0 in the third. Clijsters fought back to 3-3, but Henin took two games in a row, and served for the match at 5-3. At 30-40 in that ninth game, she missed a relatively easy overhead. Clijsters had broken back, but soon fell behind 4-5, 15-40, double match point down. Henin got a good look at a second serve return off the forehand, went for it, but sent her shot into the net. Then Clijsters hit a deep first serve down the T, and Henin chipped a difficult return into the net. Clijsters gamely rallied to 5-5.

Almost inevitably, they went to a tie-break, and Clijsters soared to 6-3, triple match point. Henin fearlessly saved all three, drilling a forehand return winner before Clijsters narrowly missed a backhand down the line. Henin spectacularly answered a Clijsters backhand drop shot down the line with an angled forehand winner at an acute angle. At 6-6, the two players changed ends. Henin double faulted to give Clijsters a fourth match point, and Clijsters drove a forehand down the line off a short ball that was unanswerable. Match to Clijsters 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6).

I wish they had played this almost ineffable contest at one of the majors.

Mystery of the Year

After Serena Williams won her fourth Wimbledon singles championship in July, she seemed certain to finish the year No. 1. But Serena never played an official match again after injuring her foot in July. It was bewildering to me that she could not recover in time for the U.S. Open, but downright bizarre that she missed the entire rest of the season, claiming she had attempted to come back too soon in the autumn. Supposedly, a premature return to the practice courts in the autumn set her back. Next thing we knew, Serena had pulled out of the upcoming Australian Open.

Williams is a complicated individual, so admirable in some ways, so confounding in other respects, and too often objectionable in her actions. I don’t know whether to believe she is really injured seriously or not, but I do know this: women’s tennis needs her at these majors, and needs her badly.

Underachiever of the Year

This dubious achievement award goes to Andy Murray, who noses out Djokovic. Ever since Murray reached the 2008 U.S. Open final, he seemed destined to get on the board at the majors. In 2009, he won six tournaments but his best showing at a Grand Slam event was when he reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. In 2010, Murray opened his campaign brightly, rolling into the final of the Australian Open at the cost of only one set in six matches. He had a 6-4 lead in his career series against Federer, and many learned observers figured this was his moment. Federer had other notions, taking Murray apart in straight sets. Murray got to his second straight Wimbledon semifinal before Nadal gave him a lesson in how to play the big points.

At the U.S. Open, Murray went out early against Stanislas Wawrinka, and so he still has yet to take a major tournament. He won two Masters 1000 events in 2010, defeating Federer in straight set finals both times. But he did not win a major. At least Djokovic led Serbia to a Davis Cup triumph. Murray came up empty when it counted, leaving me and countless others wondering if or when his time will come. I still believe he is too good not to become a Grand Slam tournament champion.

Disappointments of the Year

This one goes to Henin and Tomas Berdych. Henin was remarkable at the outset of her comeback, reaching those two finals in Brisbane and at the Australian Open, enjoying a fine if slightly uneven early season. But she fell apart in the latter stages of her three set, round of 16 loss to Stosur at the French Open. At Wimbledon, she was magnificent for a while against Clijsters but fell and injured herself near the end of the first set. Although she won that set, she lost in three sets, and did not compete again in 2010. That was regrettable considering her auspicious start to the campaign. For a variety of reasons, she could not deliver on her early season promise.

As for Berdych, he was one of the game’s most improved players across the first half of the year. At long last, this 6’5”, 25-year-old from the Czech Republic assembled the pieces of his game commandingly. After finishing the previous four years always among the top 20 in the world, this big hitter and immensely pure ball striker had his best year yet in 2010, and his top ten finish was richly deserved. But the fact remains that his level of play deteriorated significantly over the second half of the season. Berdych beat Federer on his way to the final of Miami in the spring, made it to the French Open semifinals, upended Federer again in the quarters of Wimbledon before losing the final to Nadal, and then inexplicably ceased his winning ways. Perhaps an agonizing loss to Federer in Toronto—he served for the match but fell in a final set tie-break—was the primary reason for his decline, but he hardly won matches over the second half of the season. After that jarring defeat against Federer in Canada, Berdych finished the year with a dismal 5-12 match record. He did beat Roddick in London and played reasonably well against Nadal, but Berdych largely went away during the latter stages of 2010, and that was not a good thing for him or the game.

Most Enduring Player of the Year

Who else but Federer? The man captured the Australian Open at the start of 2010, and ended the campaign with his finest tennis of the year in winning the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals for the fifth time. He won three of his last five tournaments after taking only two titles up until late October. In fact, he went all the way from his sparkling victory in Australia until Cincinnati in August without winning another title. Meanwhile, Federer’s streak of reaching at least the semifinals in 23 consecutive Grand Slam events came to an end at Roland Garros, when Robin Soderling ushered him out of the tournament in the quarterfinals. Berdych stopped him in the quarters of Wimbledon and then Djokovic surprised him in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Yet Federer ended the year on a spirited run. And by winning the Australian Open, he tied a record set by Bjorn Borg (1974-81) and matched by Pete Sampras (1993-2000) by securing at least one major title for eight consecutive years. Federer knows that Nadal has at least an outside chance to surpass him one day as the all time leader for men’s Grand Slam championships, although the Spaniard trails his rival 16 to 9 in that category. Nadal’s growing body of work may be precisely what is driving Federer to keep adding luster to his record. They did not meet at a Grand Slam event in 2010 after crossing paths at the majors the previous five years, but the feeling grows that they will confront each other at least once next year on the big occasions. Federer may be more unpredictable these days, but at 29 he remains exuberant about competing in the upper reaches of the sport, and determined to add to his legacy.

Most Unfortunate Man of the Year

Pete Sampras has always cherished the history of the game, and his place in it. As he amassed his 14 Grand Slam Championships and his 64 total ATP World Tour titles and six year-end No. 1 rankings, Sampras was immensely proud of what he accomplished, as well he should be. So when the news broke a week ago that he had much of his memorabilia and trophies stolen from a storage facility in Los Angeles, I read about it with much sorrow. I believe it was a smart move on his part to release the news of the theft. Reputable tennis collectors can be on the lookout for anything that belongs in the Sampras private collection, and perhaps someone will come forth who now knows about the stolen material.

Fortunately, 13 of his 14 Grand Slam trophies were not in the storage facility, but his Davis Cup championships from 1992 and 1995 were taken, as were his six No. 1 year end prized possessions. The ITF has already agreed to replace his Davis Cup stuff, and the hope here is that the ATP will make a similar offer to replace whatever they can so that Sampras can have these treasures for his children. I have a feeling that some reprehensible people out there are going to make amends for what they did so that Pete Sampras will not have to remember 2010 forever as the year he had a sizeable chunk of his historical possessions taken shockingly away from him. This must be remedied.

Most Poignant Moment of the Year

When the eight leading players in the world of women’s tennis assembled for the WTA Championships in Doha, the Russian stylist Elena Dementieva was unsurprisingly among them. Dementieva had another solid year in 2010. It was not her best season by any means, but her standards of consistency were still apparent, her commitment to playing top level tennis seemingly undiminished, and her ground strokes remained among the finest in the sport. For the seventh time in a remarkable eight year span, Dementieva was among the ten best in her profession.

To be sure, she had some aggravating injuries, and that disrupted her activities in 2010. Nonetheless, her peers were astonished and visibly saddened. When she walked on court for a ceremony after her last match in Doha, Dementieva was surrounded by an emotional cast of players who were clearly sorry to see her go. While Dementieva spoke, most of the players stood there unashamedly crying. Dementieva was never less than a great professional, and she always competed with honor, and conducted herself with extraordinary class. In her time, she made it to two Grand Slam tournament finals, rose to No. 3 in the world, and was universally admired for her integrity. At 29, Dementieva unexpectedly said goodbye, and tennis lost one of its most distinguished citizens.

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