Wow, what a crazy year 2008 has been! Really, I’ve found it overwhelming.
Here are some things I’m remembering, obsessing over and looking forward to at the tail end of this dramatic (and LONG!) 2008 tennis season. (And of course there’s more drama to come as a Nadal-less Spain takes on David Nalbandian, del Potro and some other Argentines down in South America!)
THE TOP TOURNAMENTS OF 2008
The Australian Open: My goodness, was this a fun Major! I think it was the best of the year, even with all the excitement around Wimbledon. The late night matches (remember the epic Hewitt/Baghdatis match that went past 5am?), ESPN‘s non-stop (and sometimes advertisement-free) coverage, the rise of the magnetic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger‘s surprising loss to Djokovic, Sharapova tearing up the women’s side without losing a set (and bageling Henin on the way), and even homegirl-hopeful Casey Dellacqua making it through to the Round of 16 all made for some spectacular story lines. Honestly, this tournament spoiled me for the rest of the year.
Monte Carlo Masters: I will really miss having this tournament on the annual Masters circuit – watching it is like going on my own fabulous Euro vacation. From the beautiful contrast of red clay and blue sea, to the yachts and fresh-legged clay court play, this tournament is one of the last great upper-crust vestiges of a now (thankfully) proletariat sport. But who doesn’t like big hats and champagne every once in a while? Then again, we did have Roger Federer’s Djokovic-family smackdown to shake things up! (see the Top Baller Dramas section, below.)
Wimbledon: This one is always great – it’s like comparing Christmas to any other holidays. Yes, it was a bittersweet tournament for Fed fans, but with Venus Williams beating her sister in a well-fought final and Rafa beating Roger in “the best tennis match of all time,” it’s impossible to be too upset about how it all turned out. Oh, and let’s not forget that the sisters took the doubles title, too. The best part: I had scores of non-tennis-watching friends texting me wildly during the final three sets of the men’s final, which alone made the tournament unforgettable.
US Open: Roger won and that’s all I care about!
Nadal vs. Federer at Roland Garros and at Wimbledon: Rafa showed two very different, but equally devestating ways to rip Roger Federer to shreds. Ouch – it still hurts!
Williams vs. Williams at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open: Two great matches with two different outcomes prove one thing – the Williams sisters reign supreme.
Tsonga vs. Nadal in the Australian Open Semifinal: This was one of the most amazing shows of power in recent years. How often do we see Nadal utterly dismantled? Tsonga’s obvious charms added to the fantastic late-night atmosphere, as the crowd realized that they weren’t only seeing an upset, they were witnessing a future champion’s first steps towards greatness.
Gasquet vs. Murray in the Wimbledon Quarterfinals: There were a lot of great matches at Wimbledon this year, but this one was probably third best, after the two finals. We got three sets of ridiculous Gasquet shotmaking followed by a remarkable come-from-behind win by U.K. hero/whipping boy Andy Murray. Watching the sometimes sour Scot revel in the expectations and exhortations of the crowd, roaring back at it from the sidelines and pumping his biceps in victory, you just knew – this guy’s going to win it someday. As much as I love Tim Henman, you can see how his style and manner doomed his ultimate success. Henman’s the Jesse Jackson to Murray’s Obama, but with the personality profiles reversed.
Sharapova vs. Safina in the Round of 16 at the French Open: Dinara Safina out-gritted Sharapova, who is one of the most mentally tough women on tour. Who can forget Dinara’s comeback from multiple match points down, and the look of disbelief on Maria’s face when she lost the third set 2-6 (and got booed for her efforts)? Dinara repeated her Houdini act in the next round, facing match points before bageling another blonde Russian, Elena Dementieva, in the third. Now that I think about it, Dinara’s had a lot of memorable matches this year, starting in May with her win over then-No. 1 player, Justine Henin, in Berlin, a defeat that seemed to cue Justine’s shocking retirement. (see the Top Baller Dramas section, below)
Sharapova vs. Henin in the Australian Open Quarters: Speaking of Justine’s shocking retirement, I’d say getting bageled by Maria Sharapova in a Major quarterfinal was the big sign that Justine was on her way out. It wasn’t a great match for tennis fans, but it certainly was memorable.
Serena Williams vs. Jelena Jankovic in the U.S. Open Final. This was a lovely little match, given how disappointing the women’s Major finals tend to be. Jelena fought valiantly, almost proving that she deserves to be at the top of the game. She also managed to wrest some affection from a highly partisan crowd – that woman works a stadium like noone since Jimmy Connors! And it was nice to see Serena have to work to pull out the victory.
TOP BALLER DRAMAS
Justine Henin’s retirement: I don’t know if calling this a drama is 100% accurate. It’s more like a catastrophe, a shocker or a big, fat WTF!!! The poised and content player announced her retirement in May, when she was still No. 1 in the world and Roland Garros was just weeks away. The tour hasn’t been the same since, and lovers of her beautifully lethal playing style (if not her lemony disposition) are still mourning her absence. I’m still not giving up the hope of a comeback.
Maria Sharapova’s very public public relations campaign against public relations campaigns
And it’s not just the ladies! Most of the top divas played for the ATP this year:
Novak Djokovic and his crazy family: They diss Roger, they throw fits during the Aussie Open final, they drive to their local radio station to complain about pro-Nadal bias. Will someone please get this family a reality show!
Oh, and who could forget Roger Federer telling the Djokovic clan to shut the fu*k up in Monte Carlo! (Done in Roger’s smooth, Swiss style, of course!)
Murray vs. de Potro: Yo’ Mama! (Or should I say, Yo’ Mum!)
Roddick vs. Djokovic at the U.S. Open: The tension built throughout the tournament, starting with some Kid’s Day bullying (always appropriate), some press conference trash talking, a four set battle in the quarterfinals and finally climaxing as Novak preened in front of a booing and hissing New York crowd. Loved it!
Rafa vs. Etienne de Villiers: Ending in yet another victory for the bull(sh*t) fighting Spaniard.
Rafael Nadal, Carlos Moya and the rest of the Spanish Davis Cup squad battle Spanish tennis federation president, Pedro Munoz. Interestingly enough, the players didn’t win this one, and the Davis Cup semi stayed in Madrid where Pedro wanted it.
James Blake goes gonzo on Fernando Gonzalez over a close call at the Olympics.
Let’s review Rafa’s achievements for minute: he wins three Masters singles titles (Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Canada) and one in doubles (Monte Carlo), two Majors (Roland Garros for the fourth time and Wimbledon), a gold medal in singles at the Beijing Olympics, and a spot for his country in Davis Cup finals. Oh and he won titles in Barcelona and Queen’s Club, just for kicks. Think he deserves to end the year on top?
Speaking of ending the year on top, this season saw a number of players make it to the top of the WTA rankings, with the honor finally sticking to non-Major winner Jelena Jankovic. I like her, and she seems to like being number one. If anything, her game’s improved since taking the No. 1 ranking (nudge, nudge, Ana Ivanovic) and one of the most interesting plot lines of 2009 will be watching J.J. try to make good on her position.
The ATP tour also saw a surge of top talent, with a few players threatening to break apart the once vise-like grip Rafa and Roger have enjoyed on the top two positions. The rise started with Novak Djokovic’s win Down Under, beating the instant superstar Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. Then we saw Andy Murray challenging the top players – beating Rafa, Roger and Djokovic decisively in big events and making it to the Wimbledon quarterfinals despite the pressure cooker atmosphere at the All England Club. Two other young guys new to the top ten and the year end Masters Cup were Juan Martin del Potro and Gilles Simon, the latter boasting wins over the Big 3 in big events throughout the year. Along with Tsonga, who bounced back from mid-season knee surgery to win the Paris Masters and earn a place in the year end championships, these young ‘uns have created the new “video game” generation of players – the guys who come up with angles, power, and jaw dropping defensive shots that used to be possible only on X-Box and Playstation (or maybe, from Roger Federer circa 2005.)
THE TOP QUESTIONS
Can Roger return to dominating form and break Pete Sampras’s record next year? At the very least, he says, he plans to get one closer by taking back the Wimbledon trophy. But with the rise of new nemeses like Andy Murray and dare-I-say it, Gilles Simon, this top dog is going to have to learn some new tricks.
Which leads us to the question: who the hell is going to coach Roger Federer? After that puzzling on-again/off-again open relationship with Jose Higueras this year, I’m starting to wonder if Roger will ever commit.
So. . .when are Roger and Mirka going to get married, anyway? This year saw a spate of unfounded pregnancy rumors, and websites dished that the two were shopping for rings big enough to rival the Hope diamond while vacationing in Dubai recently. With Roddick, Fish, and Radek Stepanek all talking tulle and jordan almonds in the locker room lately, maybe Roger’s starting to feel a little left out?
And besides his semi-impending nuptials, what does the future hold for Andy Roddick? He’s had such a strange year – taking two steps back, as they say, after every promising move forward. BUT! I’d say he just made one gigantic step in the right direction by hiring Larry Stefanki as his coach (maybe getting some revenge for his friend, James Blake, after the trouble Gonzo caused him at the Olympics?) This is the move of a focused, motivated player, and it could be just what Andy needs to stay in the top 10 (take note, Roger!)
Nikolay Davydenko is another guy who should worry about sliding down the rankings, despite a decent showing in Shanghai. Performing decently isn’t going to be good enough, with all these hungry young guys eating up the ranking points. Sorry, Kolya, I was just starting to appreciate you!
One of the meta-questions on the men’s side is: who’s running the show? With Etienne de Villiers booted out by the players, they’re still looking to fill the spot of top punching bag to the ATP tour. The buzz around Larry Scott overseeing both tours is starting to get louder. Perhaps Ana Ivanovic and Fernando Verdasco are going to be the new spokespeople for the combined WTA/ATP organization? I vote yes!
In the meantime, Larry Scott and the WTA are rolling out their Roadmap next season, which hopes to solve the injury epidemic on tour by reducing the number of required tournaments and shortening the never ending season by one whole week. The players are supportive, although controversy is imminent when it comes to the fines and suspensions players may recive for missing required tournaments (especially since Venus and Serena still refuse to play Indian Wells.) And then there’s the dreaded figuring of “marquee” values, a.k.a. the swimsuit competition of women’s tennis. It will be interesting to see how this all works out, and if it leads to a more robust showing at the year end championships and other top tournaments.
I really missed Maria Sharapova at the end of the year, and I wonder if she’ll be able to compete at top form ever again. This shoulder injury is so serious that it kept her out for almost half of the year, and it worries me to think that one of the game’s biggest stars might be going the way of Anna Kournikova.
Rafael Nadal managed to hold on much longer before his body gave out (though, like Maria, he seems to be rehabbing through water sports.) Missing the Davis Cup final has to be painful to him, especially since the outcome is so effected by his non-participation. But he’s been in this position before, and I have no doubt that he’ll bounce back in time for the upcoming clay court season. The question is will he ever be able to pull off another season like 2008?
Who’s headed for the retirement home? Fabrice Santoro has indicated that he’s starting to pack up the rackets, although he continues to play tennis, winning a Challenger in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine last week (I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks!) Fellow country-person, Amelie Mauresmo, had another crappy season, never finding a way to put a few good wins together. I don’t think she cares anymore. Marat Safin has started mouthing off again about leaving the game, although his semifinal run at Wimbledon should give him some hope going forward. His buddy Tommy Haas can’t be looking forward to another year of freakish injuries and dashed hopes. Word has it that the always fly Paradorn Srichraphan may be looking at a career shift to auto racing. Oooohkaaay. Nicole Vaidisova is at boyfriend Radek Stepanek’s matches more than she’s at her own – injury or no, is love a risk to her game? And the biggest WTF! APB goes out to Marcos Baghdatis, who is now ranked 100 in the world after sitting out almost the entire year with injuries and “personal problems.” Oh Marcos, I hardly knew ye!
THE TOP PROSPECTS
Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, and the spunky Alize Cornet all made big strides in 2008. The Big Hype machine has already started for Laura Robson, who’s breaking into the pro circuit after wining the junior title at Wimbledon. One of my favorite stories was Bethanie Mattek’s unexpected success. She’s gone from laughingstock to contender – playing Serena Williams in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon, making the semis at Los Angeles and the final in Quebec City. She’s scrappy, real, and I think she’s even honest about her weight on the WTA’s player profile. (Also, check out what kind of shoes it says she wears!) I like her and wish her well, with or without the animal prints and tube socks.
On the ATP-side, Marin Cilic, Ernests Gulbis and Kei Nishikori are all on my “must-watch” list. I’m also sparing a thought for Donald Young, who showed off some new-found maturity in that great five-setter he played against James Blake in the first round of the U.S. Open. I like his game and would love to see him do well – too bad he’s been so over-hyped that he’s considered a has-been before he’s been anywhere.
So did I manage to overwhelm you, too, with my musings on the 2008 season? What are your top-tennis moments of the year? And please, if I forgot anything or am being hopelessly Fed-centric, Venus-biased or anti-Nicole Viadisova, please share!