So, what have we learned in 2007?
We learned that Pete Sampras can beat Roger Federer -- if Federer lets him. We learned that the Williams sisters can still win a major -- if they don't have to deal with Justine Henin. We learned why Martina Hingis was always smiling -- and perhaps why she always got such good doubles partners. Nikolay Davydenko taught us why that guy might have lost to that guy. We've also learned that there's a place for mothers on tour, and it's not always on the sidelines. (Let's hope Kim realizes that, too.)
Here we go: A look at the season that was:
Hmm. The best player of the year. No one's coming to me. Although there is this guy named Roger Federer. He apparently isn't bad. Federer won the Aussie Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He's really good, but he didn't win the French. And he lost to Fernando Gonzalez and David Nalbandian (x2) at the end of the year. So clearly, he's not as good as any of us thought he was.
Seriously, what is up with the worry over Federer when he loses a match? He's the best player of our generation, hands down. He might become the best ever, if Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf don't have a mutant tennis baby. Federer's still head and shoulders above the rest of the class, and by reputation alone, he certainly wins himself at leat one set per match.
However, there's still something to be seen, I think, in the losses to Gonzalez, Nalbandian and, oh yeah, Novak Djokovic. The competition is getting better, and it's about time. Most of his losses came at the end of a long year for Fed, yes, but I think the shock of his talent is finally starting to wear off. It's hard to see Gonzalez being consistently good enough to beat him regularly, but Nalbandian's done it before. Djokovic is still getting better, too. The road's going to be tougher for Federer, but it's hard not to see him still standing at the end.
Unfortunately, it's also clear who the best female player has been this season. Even I have to admit that Justine Henin has done pretty well, considering the rest of the field had a head start. Henin didn't play the Australian Open because she was having man problems. After washing that man right out of her hair, she got to business. She won the French Open (again) and the U.S. Open (again). The only blip in her season was losing to Marion Bartoli (?) in the Wimbledon semis. Looking forward to Venus in the final? No idea. But she did lay the 6-0, 6-0 beatdown on her at the year-end championships.
As far as her competition, though, there aren't too many who can present a long-standing challenge to Henin. The natural thought this year was that Serena Williams, who did win the Australian Open, would resume her rivalry with Henin and make things interesting. And it was interesting -- interesting just how far Serena is from Henin right now. It's not just the fitness. Henin's got a job. She is a professional tennis player. She, in all likelihood, practices every day, exercises every day, thinks about tennis every stinkin' day. Serena is Serena. That's who she is. She does everything. I'm going with a liberal estimate -- I'll bet Serena practices about three times a week. It's her prerogative, but I won't be expecting anything new in their rivalry next year. I think Venus Williams, though, is a bit more serious about her game. Laugh if you will, but when a female athlete dates a male athlete, have you noticed what it does to her game? I really think Venus seems a bit more focused with her new golfer man Hank Kuehne. She also played Henin pretty close at the Open. But these dizzy spells of hers can't be good. If she's healthy next year (not a given with the Williamses) she could do some damage.
As for my offseason, I'm going to try to appreciate Henin for her pocket-rocket game and I'm going to try to believe her new press about her being a kinder, happier ass-kicker. I might say something nice about her next year.
Another plus for tennis this year has been The Tennis Channel. It's nice to see tennis tournaments you normally wouldn't catch on ESPN. It's also nice to see some doubles (but more on that later). Not to say the The Tennis Channel couldn't use some ... polishing. For example, the player compilation commercials should feature players who are still active, not Anastasia Myskina. Multiple shots of her in one commercial? Kidding?
For another thing, perhaps the channel could invest in commentator school for its beginners. It's amazing how many players I enjoyed watching who I also cannot listen to ever again: Chanda Rubin, Rennae Stubbs, Corina Morariu. Just get Justin Gimelstob to do every event until you guys are big enough to land John McEnroe. Please.
For yet another thing, is it possible to edit matches that are repeated? I think it is, actually. Editing can come in handy, especially when you have an injury timeout in a match that's 8 months old. Did you know, Tennis Channel, that you can cut that out of later airings? I'll do it for you.
I really do like The Tennis Channel. I do. It's got good things, like that Roger Federer special. In fact, I'm going to watch it again tonight, for the hundredth time. Ooh, and squash. Man, I love squash.
The ITF, ATP, WTA, the USTA -- all the tennis acronyms responsible for the following:
I'm so glad the U.S. brought home the Davis Cup again. Really. But the format for Davis Cup is ridiculous. I'm trying to think of something equivalent to its stupidity in sports -- and I can't. There is no other sport that would take an international event and play it in pieces whenever they can fit it into the schedule. Why? Because no one could be so stupid to organize an event so half-assed. Except, that is, the acronyms. Ever hear fans getting all geeked up for Davis Cup? No. Do you know why, conversely, football fans get geeked up for Monday night? Because if it's football season, there's a damn game on Monday night. It's something fans can look forward to. Pop quiz: When does Davis Cup start next year? Who the hell knows? Are you getting it yet, ITF? I can't talk about this any more. I'm getting a freakin' ulcer. You'll just have to read my previous posts (yes, plural) on this subject.
Phew. Now, onto something else that's really pissing me off. Why are powers-that-be shortening tennis? At the year-end championships, the doubles players are playing something called a stupid-tiebreak. Oh, check that. That's a super-tiebreak. In case you don't know, when teams split sets, you're really supposed to play a final set. But in a stroke of supergenius, now they play to best of ten, and that determines who wins. I'm sorry. Is tennis now considered boring? Are professionals not trained to play entire matches? Is that big-ass tennis stadium booked out at 8 p.m. for a polka dance? Listen, ITF, ATP and WTA: you will not attract anyone to tennis by altering the game. If that worked, you could just play baseball on a tennis court, and then you'd have more tennis fans, right? If you'd like to increase the popularity of tennis, then market Maria Sharapova as a tennis player, just like Canon markets her as a photographer with a pooch. Don't get me wrong. Sometimes a sport needs a change. I think player challenges is a great example. (If there's anything good to come from Davis Cup, it's that unlimited challenges actually work. It doesn't drag the match along, and players don't abuse it.) Playing super-tiebreaks is like saying, "All righty. This has gone on long enough. Hey, it's been fun, but would you kids wrap it up? Five more minutes in the pool ...)
I can't do anything about Davis Cup, but be on the lookout from me regarding these travesties. It's time for tennis hacks to unite.
A bit disappointing ...
Rafael Nadal. I've been on the edge of my seat now for two years, waiting for more. Not that winning the French isn't a huge undertaking and that taking Federer to the edge of defeat at Wimbledon isn't a big deal. But why does Nadal always peter out by the end of the season? It's strange, because he has been able to have success on other surfaces than clay, but hard courts seem to be insurmountable to him. Then there are the constant injuries. For all his talent, the fact remains that endurance also counts as a player. If his body can't take the beating, you have to really question his status as the true No. 2 player in the world. Although right below him at No. 3 is Novak Djokovic, who himself could take up two seasons of "House."
While I'm bashing Serbians, how about Jelena Jankovic? She's evidence that there's another sort of weakness that can handcuff success in tennis. I swear, a leaf blows on the court and she's lost all concentration. A bad call, and she's ready to pack it in. (Here's a question: Why do players insist on arguing with a ref over a call for any longer than a minute? I have never seen one of these five-minute whine-fests produce anything but the umpire calmly repeating the score into the mike.) Jankovic has a very solid all-court game, but a weak serve. Even if she continues to improve technically, she will have to do something about that mental game.
I've gotta put Hingis testing positive for cocaine above Davydenko (but I'm getting to him). Hingis was the dominant player of the 1990s, and will go down as one of the best strategists on the court. Now, if that's me, and I take a blood test that comes up positive for an illegal substance, and I face the humiliation of being known as a drug user, I'd try to protect my career and my reputation. Why would you prefer to retire, and besmirch your name instead of fighting this charge? There's one reason I can think of (sniff, sniff).
Even so, Hingis gave her comeback the old university try, and she acquitted herself pretty well. There's not a lot she could have done about the fact that the game got stronger and faster while she was gone. She did the best she could with what she had, and it took her far. There are people -- never mind tennis players -- who can't say that about themselves. Fare thee well, Chuckie.
It was probably a bit naive to think there's no dark underbelly to tennis, that everyone who plays is on the up-and-up and does it for love of the game. So thanks, Nikolay Davydenko, for killing that illusion. It's been a tough year for Davydenko, and the buzz never really died down, because of a couple of really dumb officials. One, Cedric Mourier, should have given himself a coaching violation for trying to tell Davydenko how to serve. "Just get it in," he says. That would be why he's a ref and not someone's coach. The other, Jean-Philippe Dercq, was probably a little trigger-happy in warning Davydenko for not trying hard enough. Come on. How many times have you watched a match, and wondered why a player stopped going for a ball that appeared in his reach?
The verdict's still out on Davydenko. I also find it hard to believe that a guy who plays almost every week on tour would resort to gambling. That said, what is taking officials so long to get to the bottom of this? If there's a indication that a player's dirty, they need to solve the problem, not leave the elephant in the room. In the absence of these resolutions, you have officials trying to hand down some for of vigilante justice from the chair. Really, do they think he'd throw a match now, that all eyes are on him? And do they think that if they encourage him to get his serves in, he might say, "Ref, you're right. Screw that million bucks I was going to get for throwing this match. I'm going to win!"
Unfortunately, with all the investigation into this case, it doesn't seem likely that there'll be a resolution one way or another. No Matlock moments, when a witness or a piece of evidence clinches it one way or another at the end. That's too bad, especially if it turns out Davydenko's clean, because it'll dog him for the rest of his career.
That was a downer. So, how about that Lindsay Davenport? I've said it before: Women's tennis needs some depth, and even with a newborn hanging off her hip, Davenport's helping to deliver. It'd be really nice to see a dark horse come into the Australian Open and knock out some pretenders and even some contenders. She looked all right in her tournaments back, managing a win against Jankovic. I just wonder how long she'll really hang around. She certainly didn't seem too excited about the tour when she took her maternity leave. It's nice to see her back, but I can just see her not staying for long.
Packing it in
Tim Henman: Finally. Nothing against Their Tim, but watching him for the last couple of years was like watching Rocky II through infinity. Sometimes, it's just time to stop. Henman's a fine example of being graceful in defeat. Unlike his "countryman" Greg Rude-eski, Henman let his racquet do the talking. Although he never conquered All-England, he managed to pull his Davis Cup team into the World Group on the same court. Nice way to go out.
Kim Clijsters, on the other hand, didn't go out very nicely. Her career gave in to a long line of injuries so that even her retirement tour was derailed. Given that she's now married with a child on the way, I don't imagine she's missing tennis much. Hopefully, she's find a way back, like Davenport, and fill out that Grand Slam collection. She was way too good for just one major win.
Pete Sampras: Yes, he retired some time ago. And, yes, beating Federer in a meaningless exhibition is somewhat respectable. But Pete's found his place in tennis. It's on the Old Man's Outback Tour, hamming it up with the Jim Couriers, John McEnroes and the Todd Martins of the world. There's definitely no shame in that, and if there was ever a format for someone in need of a personality transplant, it'd be the Outback Tour. They joke around with each other and do interviews between sets, for crikey's sake. I think I saw Sampras smile in one of his matches. Nah. It was probably a grimace.