It was a fair to middling year for pro tennis. Pluses: Amelie Mauresmo growing some balls, James Blake playing up to his potential, tennis officials finally owning that the season is too long. Minuses: Andre Agassi retiring, (moo!), Martina Navratilova retiring (yeah right) Justine Henin-Hardenne's crying game, the wading pool that is the depth of women's tennis, Roger Federer hogging all the titles. Sorry, but he's taking the suspense out of every tournament he enters.
As our favorite pros graduate to ... next year, I guess, a look at the yearbook:
Most likely to succeed: Roger Federer
Most likely to succeed, not including Roger Federer: Rafael Nadal? Hmm. He finishes his year struggling with an abdominal injury, and with 2 losses to Fed, and another to Jimmie Blake. But his game gives most players, including Rog, fits. You don't want to take too much from end-of-year stats though, and it seems after Wimbledon, the year caught up with Nadal. Which is what seemed have to happened to Rafa last year. Remember? He won the French, and tumbled in the first week at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow. Certainly, he's made some incredible strides this year. By far, his most impressive feat was making the Wimbledon final. He's going to get better, too, so look for a complete year for Rafa in 2007, and (gasp!) another Grand Slam that is not the French.
Least likely to succeed: This hurts, but I'm going with David Nalbandian. I love his game. At his best, he shows steadiness, variety and is capable of beating down his opponent. At his worst: Whiny. Slumped shoulders. Mental weakness. Those 'worsts' are worst than his 'bests.' He's been on the cusp for a couple of years now, and the closest he's come is taking the year-end championships in 2005. Impressive, yes, but let's be fair. Everyone's thinking "Caribbean vacation" when they get to Shanghai. Anyway, for someone with such a strong game, he possesses a surprising lack of consistency and confidence. Of course, if he can pull Argentina out of its Davis Cup hole this weekend, that could serve as a boon.
Most likely to start the year with a bang, er, Slam: Andy Roddick. He gave Federer a run for his money in Shanghai, and a couple more months with Jimmy Connors in his ear is only going to help.
Most improved player:James Blake. Everyone knows his comeback story. And most would have continued to laud Blake had he pretty much hovered where he was last fall. This year, though, he left mediocrity behind, and managed to fill the American void at the top of men's tennis. While Andy Roddick was coming around to the fact that all the naysayers were right, Blake was still improving. The fact that he can beat Nadal, Roddick, Nalbandian and Safin puts him right up there now with the real contenders, who come to the majors with a swagger. Can he get closer to Federer next year?
Most likely to skip a grade: Looks like the British investment in Andy Murray's gonna pay off real soon. Brad Gilbert led his charge on a summer tear, beating Roddick on his home court and Federer in the summer. Assuming he doesn't suffer from Big-Head Syndrome (BHS), he may break deep into the second week of a major.
OK, there's something else bothering me. Why do all the British players have such bad teeth? What the hell, Henman and Murray (who's really Scottish, but which I suppose is close enough)? And what the hell, Britain (and Scotland)? Why won't these players take full advantage of their dental bennies? Fight Bad Teeth Syndrome (BTS)!
Worst dressed: Nadal. Yes, the capris are cool. But there's not a damn thing sexy about pulling wedges out of your ass after every point.
Valedictorian:Andre Agassi. (Cue the Pomp and
Circumstance music) He started pro tennis school with a bleached mane and denim shorts. He finished a "super-senior" with 8 Grand Slams, no hair whatsoever, and jewelry made by his kids. How geeky. Yeah, right. Agassi graduates with a summa cum laude degree and a permanent place in sports history, as one of the best bad-boys, underdogs, frontrunners and foils to fellow legends of the game. (Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter) Who knows what Andre will do with his advanced degree? Teach children? Check. Mentor up-and-comers? Check. Kick his wife's ass in singles? Well, a man can dream. (Kill "Pomp and Circumstance" music now)
Most likely to succeed: Who the heck knows? The women's game has been unpredictable this year, what with injuries and all. I still ask myself, despite the Vaidisovas, Petrovas and Jankovices out there, what would happen if everyone was fit? Utopia: Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, Mauresmo, the Belgians, the Russians, Hingis, and hell, throw in a Capriati -- all in one tournament, preferably a major. What we have now: Mauresmo, Hingis, Sharapova, and no drama, no rivalries, matches that take 17 minutes to play, and, oh, is that Roger Federer playing Dominic Hrbaty? Hey, let's see that! Yeah. That bad.
Least likely to succeed: Kim Clijsters. You don't announce your retirement two years in advance and expect folks to let you roll on them as you pursue your Grand Slam.
Most improved player:Martina Hingis. Let's pay tribute to some hard work. In a time where players get hurt and return with more 'bone density,' (ahem)
here's someone who retired for almost three years. Hingis, let's not forget, started the year ranked outside the top 1000. By the Australian, she was at 349. Now, No. 7 in the world. That, my friends, is what you call a comeback.
Of course, Virginie Razzano taking Hingis to the woodshed at the U.S. Open remains filed in the "UFO Sightings, and the time Agassi beat Baghdatis at the U.S. Open" file.
Least improved player: Not only hasn't she improved, but Elena Dementieva has only managed to stay in the top 10 because of the lack of depth in the game right now. Okay. So what if you can be a steady top-tenner if you have the worst serve in the history of tennis, including the times when old heads were playing with wood racquets? I felt sorry for her a few years back, when she cried during the French Open final, "I hate my serve!" What, does she love it now? Because it's still the same sorry pedestrian serve. If being a professional tennis player is your career, and you're not working to improve your performance at your career, can Dementieva at least stop whining about reaching the next level? Next stop: Myskinaville.
Most likely to start the year with a bang, er Slam: Sharapova. She still hasn't tried to vary her game, but the Australian's on a fast surface, and it's a short break between seasons. Those factors will probably roll in her favor.
Most likely to skip a grade: Jelena Jankovic. She has a great game. Power, finesse, net game, brains, and she has a great time out there. With the exception of her meltdown against Henin-Hardenne at the U.S. Open, she deals with pressure fairly well. I could see her making top 10 next year, especially if most of the contenders keep taking sick days.
Most likely to drop out: Serena Williams. And this isn't a slight, a la Chris Evert. Serena is young, talented and has the world open to her. She can do whatever she wants. As a tennis fan, I wish she had really set her mind to domination. Venus, too. But I think the older sister still feels she's got something left to prove. Serena? Seven slams, including her last, at the Australian, which she practically won tripping out of bed that morning. Former world No. 1. Intimidating former world No.1. She was Federer-imposing. While she was on top, she brought a lot to the game, but it's time to set Serena free from our expectations. Fly away, Serena. Fly away.
Best dressed: Although I maintain the sequins was a big mistake, Sharapova wins for her black evening-dress gear for the U.S. Open. Who would've thought you could even wear a little black dress to a sporting event?
Worst dressed: Sorry, Serena, you've got to play to qualify. Alas, just when you think there's no more tackily-dressed players, allow me to submit Bethanie Mattek. If you missed her Wimbledon get-up, do a Google search.
Valedictorian:Martina Navratilova. Hands down, the best female player ever, better than Steffi Graf. Check out part of her last report card from the USTA:
Martina is a competitive player. She is always working to improve her game, but this persistence makes it difficult to get her to put down her racquet. As a result, she has been able to play quality tennis at fifty years old.
Martina is very good with numbers. For example, she is a former World No. 1 in singles and doubles (and has held both spots at the same time.) For another example, Martina has won 9 Wimbledon titles. She is also very good with double digits. She has 49 Grand Slam titles. Eighteen are singles titles. She was 49 years old when she won her last Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open with Bob Bryan.
Martina's aspirations have enabled her to count very high. To illustrate, she has won 178 career titles, a record among all the boys and girls in her class, past and present. She once went on a 109-match win streak with her doubles partner, Pam Shriver.
Although Martina is not a native American, she has learned to speak out very well. Some of her words have cost her many endorsement dollars, but Martina is undeterred. Her words have never failed to inspire her classmates, and those outside the classroom. Also, her grasp of the language and the measure of her words far exceed younger students whose first language is English.
As a left-handed student, Martina has become very good at creating beautiful (and acute!) angles in class.