With the first major of the '11 tennis season mere hours away, we the fans know there are certain inalienable, business-as-usual elements that'll be thrown into play under the Melbourne sun and lights. We know at least three of Roger Federer's outrageous shots, along with a couple genteel quotes from a press conference, will be featured on ev-uh-ry daily highlight reel in existence. We know we're going to be treated to a top player thoroughly whooping up on a hapless journeyman when there's a gripping 11-all in the fifth marathon going on two courts over. We know we're still going to want to reach through the screen and strangle Cliffy Drysdale whenever he opens his mouth to announce the score. Really, Cliff? It's 3-2, 30-15? Because I could swear that very same thing is up in the left-hand corner of my screen, easily available for my eyes to wander over to whenever they damn well please.
But what about the fiction that's also dredged up as we embark upon yet another voyeuristic tennis quest? The stuff that commentators just like Mr. Drysdale himself will try to pump up, only to see their predictions bite the dust a couple days later. About how Andy Roddick has a shot at leapfrogging Roger Federer in their potential quarterfinal match, or how, now with Serena out of the picture, this is going to be Vika Azarenka's trophy to win.
With that, I bring you five myths just aching to be exposed during the next two weeks of tennis Down Under.
I won’t deny it: A-Rod’s had a dream career, one that 99.9% of all tennis players fantasize about. He's finished in the Top 10 of the ATP rankings for nine straight seasons, peaking at No. 1 in 2003. He's amassed almost $20 mil in prize money and is creeping up on the 30 tour titles mark. He has a coveted Davis Cup trophy in the bag, leading the American team to victory in 2007.
But the truth remains: Roddick is a one-Slam wonder. And he will be for the rest of his playing days. Last year was the beginning of the end as far as challenging for major titles goes – I’m not letting the mono excuse to get him off the hook. Look for him to make make just one or two more deep pushes in the majors in the next couple of years; even then, he’s going to need some comfortable draws.
I'm actually in the mindset that the American has overachieved in his career – take away the massive serve, and you’ve got a solid Top 25, Top 20 player. And if Andy didn’t have Brad Gilbert in his corner during the’03 summer hot streak, he may not have even had the chops or the mindset to nab himself that lone U.S. Open title. Also, don’t give me all that crap about if Federer wasn’t around how Roddick would have 9,000 Wimbledons. If Federer wasn’t around... nah, there’s no use even going there.
So Melanie Oudin makes an unexpected run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals, upending Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova in tough consecutive three-setters. Suddenly every casual tennis fan in America is like: OMG someone new to replace Venus and Serena!!! WE LUV U MEL!
Then 2010 comes along and everyone realizes Melanie’s Open run was kinda just a big fluke (DARN U MEL!!). I actually can’t believe Oudin is still ranked in the top 70 – Fed Cup doesn’t award you ranking points, right?
Bottom line: things are still looking dire for the future of American tennis. Coco Vandeweghe – who played the Fed Cup final largely because captain Mary Joe Fernandez has ties to the youngster’s managment team – is overrated in the same vein as Oudin. Coco made it through three rounds of qualifying, so at least you know she's trying. But I wouldn't expect much here. Up-and-coming New Jersey-ite Christina McHale has a solid game, one that could make her a solid top 50 player. Beatrice Capra made waves in Flushing Meadows last year, and 17-year-old Lauren Davis is poised to take on Sam Stosur in an exciting first round encounter at this year’s Aussie – but both are going to need a few years to fully develop into contenders.
There’s potential for success, but not for stardom – at least not immediately.
When Sharapova finished off last season in bleak fashion, falling in a tame two-setter to Caroline Wozniacki at the U.S. Open before going down to 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm and inconsistent compatriot Elena Vesnina in the indoor season, you’d figure she’d really step up her training during the winter break and start 2011 rejuvenated.
Instead, the Russian got engaged (to Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic) – and the distraction showed. She looked sloppy and unfocused in her Auckland warm-up tournament, winning a couple gimme matches before falling in straights to unheralded journeywoman Greta Arn. Plus, word's just gotten out that she split with longtime coach and mentor Michael Joyce. Perhaps not the best move to make on the eve of the Aussie.
That tournament in Auckland told me a lot about the world No. 16’s chances of winning Melbourne: less likely than Andy Murray snagging a contract as a tooth model. While I do think Sharapova has, at most, a couple more majors in her – she’s still so damn young – it’s going to take a lot more work to get back to top shape. Is she willing to put in the effort?
Barring any major injuries, Fed and Rafa will definitely still be setting the standard by the time 2011 wraps. Djokovic should be up there too.
But there are guys just salivating at the chance to break up that big quartet. Robin Soderling, who actually is techinically part of the Four right now after swapping ranking spots with Murray, is the main contender to do just that. Prior to 2009, the Swede was known for having a big game and even bigger potential, but never capitalizing on it. How that mercurial Roland Garros run changed things for Sod. He’s now striking the ball more beautifully than ever, and I’m expecting a big breakthrough at the Australian this year.
Then there are a couple of Argentines, more than capable of breaking the Fed-Rafa-Djoker-Murray stranglehold. Juan Martin Del Potro, thankfully back in action after a wrist injury virtually sidelined him all of last season, was poised to rise even higher than his peak No. 4 after the incredible fashion in which he seized his maiden Slam title. Now that he’s got no points to defend (and seems to be back to full health with the wrist), the sky’s the limit in 2011. David Nalbandian just capped off a great week in Auckland – reaching the finals without the drop of a set – and has until the summer to build up his ranking. Nalbandian’s reached the semis or better at all four majors and has tackled Fed and Nadal numerous times in his career. If he keeps his fitness up and avoids any injuries, the Top 10 – and, most likely, Top 5 – beckons.
Of course, recent young guns who have done well cementing their rankings in the upper echelons of the sport – Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic, Marcos Baghdatis – all share an outside chance of wreaking havoc at the top of the rankings. David Ferrer, who I had written off in the middle of last season, is experiencing a fantastic renaissance – just capping off a great week in New Zealand with a 63 62 championship victory over Nalbandian. And a couple young Americans – Sam Querrey and John Isner of Wimbledon first round fame – also have their eyes set on the Top 10.
Five years ago, if anyone had predicted that Vera Zvonareva would someday reach two consecutive Grand Slam finals, you would’ve been thrown in a mental hospital, crammed into in a 4’x4’ windowless chamber and forced to watch endless footage of the Russian mutilating her rackets.
Since her breakthrough in 2003, Zvonareva’s career has been one full of peaks and valleys. Despite a history of terrible injuries, a vicious temper and a fragile mindset not adept to handling pressure well, Zvonareva has worked incredibly hard to bypass a deck stacked against her – finishing the 2010 season, as we all know, perched at No. 2 in the year-end rankings. Samantha Stosur’s career has been just as fluctuating – bursting onto the scene as a doubles star before, in the past couple years, suddenly breaking through on the singles stage. Victoria Azarenka, the youngest of these three, has also come into her own the past couple years – beating an injured Serena to win the 2009 Miami title and introducing herself to tennis’ more casual fans.
Each woman has made great strides to cement themselves in the Top 10 – and each has a great shot at taking the wide-open Australian Open women’s title. But despite excellent campaigns last year, they still aren’t mentally tough enough to be able to walk away from Melbourne with a maiden Slam trophy. Zvonareva’s temper and listlessness under pressure were evident on some of the sport’s largest stages last season, and she’s never come into a major with the No. 2 billing before. Stosur still lacks confidence to hang with the big girls – if she had shown any guts at all in her matches versus Clijsters at both the U.S. Open and Year End Championships, the Australian could have had a much more impressive title haul entering the new tennis season. And Azarenka, despite possessing a brilliant ground game, can’t string together enough crucial wins with those potent groundstrokes to merit the seven-match tear one needs to grab a Grand Slam. If only she could replicate the splendid form she showed in Stanford last summer on a regular basis.
I think the flaws in each of these players’ games will be put on full display on the scorching Australian sun. Let’s hope, for the sake of tennis’ future, that they all prove me wrong.