And I thought these guys would be sick of each other by now. . . Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will play their third exhibition match in two weeks when they face off in tomorrow’s New Year’s Day final at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. Today, Roger and Rafa only had to play one match to make it to the finals, with Rafa beating Tomas Berdych, 6-4, 6-4 and Roger taking out Robin Soderling: 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3 on Friday. On Thursday, Berdych beat Marcos Bagdhatis and Soderling beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (bienvenue!), both in three sets. The two big blondes will play a consolation match on Saturday.
All this exhibition play means that Tennis’s Top Two have had little time away from the public eye during what was supposedly their off-season. Roger and Rafa both mentioned this lack of R&R while playing in Abu Dhabi this week. (Ironic, no?) “I have no rest this year,” Rafa said via Tennis.com.
Roger is showing off his off-season training tan on the U.A.E. courts:
Photo by KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images via Daylife
Something tells me Rafael Nadal isn’t losing his focus in 2011:
Photo by AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili via Daylife
So the first day of 2011 brings us our sport’s defining match-up and the Major story line going into 2011. With dominance de riguer on the ATP tour, can we imagine a Major titlist other than Roger and Rafa in 2011? Or will making it to the Finals continue to be the ultimate consolation prize for the many super-talented pros unlucky enough to be Roger and Rafa’s contemporaries? As in recent seasons, this is the big storyline to watch in 2011.
But before I pop the cork on 2011 and search for Hopman Cup streams, I want to take a quick look back at this past season. I was going to do a list, but at this point, they’ve been done much better than I could manage just an hour or so before I go get drunk. So from a macro, let’s-get-the-party-started point of view, all I can say is. . .whooooa, dude.
Just think of Rafa (and who isn’t, lately?). Going into 2010, the guy was in the midst of a relatively serious title drought. He tried to defend his title in Melbourne but pulled out of the quarters with a knee injury. He continued to struggle through Miami, despite Shakira’s best efforts to raise morale. Things were looking dire. . .was Rafa considering a second career in sport fishing/beef cake music video modeling? But then, after nearly a year without a title, his season did a 180. Rafa played like a man possessed on the European Clay this past spring, sweeping the Masters titles in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid before reclaiming his crown at Roland Garros. His return to dominance verged on tennis totalitarianism. By September, he’d snatched up his career slam and his ninth Major title at the US Open. It didn’t take a Brad Gilbert to predict that the 24 year-old could overtake Federer’s Magic 16 or 17 or 18 before either guy calls it a career. Next up: the “Rafa Slam” campaign in Melbourne. Talk about full circle.
Speaking of GOATs, Roger’s year was less up-and-down, more like the business edge of a broken window. His victorious campaign Down Under was full of interesting anecdotes. Remember the bizarre bathroom break vs. Davydenko? (For that matter: remember Davydenko?) Or how about Prince William showing up? The mind games vs. Murray? The tears – and not from Roger! – during the trophy ceremony. “I can cry like Roger. It’s a pity I can’t play like him.” Andy said. And with that satisfying conclusion, peace reigned in Federer’s Kingdom.
A false peace. Roger was lulled to sleep, woke up, and spent most of the rest of the season rubbing the goo from his eyes. Instead of his game flowing effortlessly from his entire being, he appeared to be chasing it around the court like one of his toddler daughters. “Get over here forehand! Behave, backhand!” Think of it: before this year, Roger hadn’t lost a match when he’d held match point since the 2006 Rome Masters final vs. Nadal (via LATimes). In 2010, he lost four such matches: to Baghdatis in Indian Wells (2 match points), to Berdych in Miami (1 mp), to Djokovic in the US Open semis (2 mps) and to Monfils at Bercy (5 mps!) By the World Tour Finals, Roger would get to match point and I’d say “oh, oh!”
Perhaps the most jagged part of Federer’s season came in the heart of summer, when he lost in the quarterfinals of both Roland Garros (to Soderling) and Wimbedon (to Berdych), failing to defend either of the titles he won so triumphantly the year before. The loss at the French broke his remarkable record of 23 consecutive Major semifinals. It was the first time he had lost before the second weekend of a Major in six years.
It was a bittersweet moment for Fed fans: though it was rough to see him lose, it was also a moment to marvel at one of the most impressive – and underestimated – streaks in sports history. (And one that no subsequent GOAT-contender, including Rafa, will likely ever touch.)
Roger’s quotable quip from Paris: “It was a great run. Now I’ve got the quarterfinal streak going, I guess.” (via NBC Sports)
Despite Roger’s myriad struggles and head-scratching results (losing to Montanes in the Estoril semis?) he’s still going into 2011 as The Man to Beat. He played vintage, full flight tennis at the World Tour Finals in London, beating Rafa in a three set final and dismantling Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the early rounds. He won titles in Stockholm and Basel and the Ciny Masters, becoming the first player to win 250, 500, Masters and Major level tournaments in the same year. And so ends Roger’s bitterly disappointing season.
Only slightly more improbable than the 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9-7), 6-7 (7-3), 70-68 scoreline: a Wimbledon first round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut became the mainstream media’s tennis story of the year. (A nice turnaround from the Serena-gate fiasco of 2009.) Like the 2008 Nadal vs. Federer Wimbledon final, it seems like everyone remembers exactly where they were while they were watching this match. (I was on a plane to my Grandpa’s memorial service in the U.P., watching Direct TV and assuming the match would be over by the time I picked up the Rent-A-Wreck.) Then again, the match lasted over eleven hours and spanned three days, so you were bound to catch it at some point.
2010 wasn’t without controversies. Doping and gambling were the standout stories, and both Wayne Odesnick’s growth hormone smuggling and revelations of IMG head Ted Forstmann’s $40,000 bet on Federer could, or at least should, have repercussions in the new year. Odesnick recently had a year chopped off his two year ban, due to his “cooperation” with the ITF’s investigation. To earn such generosity, let’s hope Odesnick named names. And if nothing more comes of the fact that the billionaire head of a mega agency that owns tennis tournaments and a share of Tennis Channel, runs the careers of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and has a Sr. VP on the ATP’s Board of Directors is betting big on the game – while Italian journeymen are fined and suspended for piddly wagers – well how can we trust the ATP to do more than “Berdych Uncovered” videos? Read Greg Couch’s righteous piece: IMG Shows Strength as ATP Puppet board Refuses to Self-Investigate and then tell me if you think this issue should be swept under the rug.
Yes, the WTA tour is in chaos. We have yet another Major-less No. 1 in the lovely Caroline Wozniacki, while last year’s model has disappeared off the tennis scene (I’ll give you a hint, she’s Safin’s sister.) But for all the Zvonareva vs. Serena duds, the WTA has served up a lot of gems this season.
Justine Henin’s return to tour, meant to be 2010’s big development, did provide plenty of drama during the first half of the season. Remember that great final between Clijsters and Henin in Brisbane, just a couple week’s into the JuJu’s comeback? And that thrilling, intense three setter she and Serena played for the Australian Open title? Or that dramatic win over Sharapova at Wimbledon? It was one of the season’s great disappointments when she seriously injured her elbow during Wimbledon and dropped out of the rest of the season. She’s reportedly still nursing the injury going into Australia.
A girl walks into a bar. . .Okay, Serena Williams was walking out of a Munich restaurant, but you catch my drift. Though she didn’t play much in the first half of the season – six tournaments to be exact – she still managed to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon and get a GOAT nod on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine. But she had some serious bad luck just after winning her 13th Major when she cut her foot on some broken glass during a night out. She hasn’t played since and is now out of the upcoming Australian Open. Is Serena capable of another comeback? Does she have the desire? Forget making a year-end list, this incident could end up changing the course of tennis history.
If chaos helped Francesca Schiavone win the French Open, then I say burn, baby burn! Many assumed that a diminutive woman with a flashy one-handed backhand would win the French Open this year, just not this one. Francesca Schiavone, almost thirty years old, scrappy and passionate, entertained and enchanted during her run to the 2010 Roland Garros title. She played one of the matches of the year vs. Sam Stosur in the final (another wonderful player who stood out in 2010) and her clay caked chin at the end gave us some of the year’s best sports snapshots. Francesca’s generally terrific season, including a quarterfinal run at the US Open and another Fed Cup title, also inspired one of my favorite pieces of tennis writing this year – Steve Tignor’s “Sportsman of the Year” appreciation at SI.com: “Just like an Italian, to paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables, she brings a knife to a gun fight.”
And with that: Cheers! Get wild kids! (Razors optional.)