tennis’ shifting dynamics

Posted on January 29, 2008

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What an exciting start the Australian Open has been for the new tennis season.

New stars were born and some of the established stars faced rude shocks during the past two weeks.

Yet, what a ride it had been for fans, for so many fabulous reasons. Despite all the drama, it’s only the beginning of the year – which means there are lots of reasons for tennis fans to keep their eyes and ears peeled for the months ahead.

1. The women

A. Maria the Assassin

Apologies for the somewhat inappropriate reference but Maria Sharapova is back, baby, and the others had better watch out.

After the full recovery from her shoulder injury and a miserable 2007, Maria has found her mojo once again and is more menacing than ever.

Never mind that she holds only the number five spot in the rankings. With her newfound confidence and renewed aggression, Sharapova is in devastating form and is the one to beat. She has proven her versatility in the sport, having won Wimbledon 2004, the US Open in 2006 and now, the Australian Open. (Does anyone else notice that even years seem to work better for the Russian blonde?) More ominously, she mowed down heavy-weights in her quest for the Australian Open title, without having to drop a single set.

It’s so easy to hate Sharapova – for her glamorous good looks, the on-court shrieking, her psycho dad, and the early successes. But Sharapova looks to have developed a new level of maturity and grace that has boosted her game, making her detractors eat their words while she blows the competition clear out of the water.

Her Kryptonite, like Roger Federer, is the red clay at Roland Garrros, which means that she would not be the favorite to win this year’s French Open. But the girl’s only 20, so there’s probably plenty of time for her before she too, will add the trophy from Paris to her mantel.

B. Justine Henin

What of the women’s world number one?

She remains the odds-on favorite to lift the Roland Garros crown once again, come this summer. But with Sharapova’s renewed hunger and power, Henin would have to fight harder not only to remain the top dog but also to win her first Wimbledon title.

Like a female Federer, Henin is facing a new wave of young and eager talent hungry to dethrone her. However, it is still too early to write the 25-year old Belgian off. Hers might not be the power game favored by today’s younger players but her sharp intelligence and quick thinking, together with an indomitable spirit, still make her a dangerous opponent.

With her devastating loss to Sharapova in the Australian Open quarterfinals, you can bet that Henin would go back to the drawing board and work even harder.

C. The Serbians and the other Eastern Europeans

At this point, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic just do not have the mental edge to take them to the level of tennis occupied by Henin and Sharapova. Both the Serbians have made vast improvements, especially the younger Ivanovic. Somehow, they are not quite ready to take it to the next level of actually winning Grand Slams, even if they might be physically ready – well, Ivanovic at least, while Jankovic seems to be too bogged down by her multiple injuries currently.

Ivanovic has played in two Grand Slam finals but still needs work on her mental game to be up there with the champions. Again, age is on her side and perhaps she will finally break through later this year, or next year.

Daniela Hantuchova – what a waste! The girl’s got the talent but not the mental fortitude nor self-belief to match her game. She is in danger of being written off as yet another “choker” and with every tournament that she throws away, it is getting harder for her fulfil her promise.

Are we ever going to see the other Russians in the women’s circuit stepping up?

The Svetlana Kutznetsovas, the Elena Dementievas and the Anna Chakvetadzes are constantly in the top 20, even the top 10, but one can’t help feeling that they are there to round up the numbers and for the top-rung to pick through on their way to racking up titles.

D. The Williams

This Australian Open truly shattered the aura of their ability to dominate the women’s game as and when they choose to.

Their former victims have ended up beating them convincingly and despite more training and effort put in by the Williams, they can no longer come along and mop up the competition, as the women’s field gains depth.

Would they still slog on? Do they have the interest to keep fighting to win the big events? Who really knows when it comes to the Williams?

2. The men

A. Federer the (temporarily) fallen

Sure, Federer was taken out in straight sets by the eventual Australian Open winner, Novak Djokovic.

But who among us hasn’t had a bad day at the office?

It’s just that when the likes of Federer have a bad day, EVERYONE notices. And the vultures swoop in.

Hold your horses – it’s still too early to write the Swiss maestro’s obituary. No doubt the road to winning more Grand Slams (3 more to beat Pete Sampras’ all-time record) is going to get more arduous for Federer, but he still has time, and more significantly, the game, to crush lesser mortals.

It is proof of the kind of class Federer has when he repeatedly played down the effect of his bout of illness that he suffered just before the Australian Open. Swiss newspapers had shed light on the fact that not only was he hospitalized, he lost something like three kilograms due to that ailment. So Federer was not at his best nor well-prepared enough to face the rigors of a tournament at Grand Slam level.

The ironic thing is, this loss could well spurn Federer on to train harder, soup up his strategy and even find a coach to tighten his game. Expect him to come back hungrier and perhaps more aggressive – he wants to chase down Sampras’ record and he would want to do it sooner rather than later.

B. Nadal is not over the hill either

Poor Rafa.

He had it even worse than Federer.

Critics were quick to dismiss him as nothing more than a clay-court specialist. But they forget to mention that Nadal’s semi-final outing in this Australian Open is his best result ever.

And what a class act the Spaniard was after his defeat by the giant-killer Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. No excuses, no belittling his opponent. In his blog, Nadal gave full credit to Tsonga’s brilliant play.

And Nadal is still improving. At 21, he is already holding three French Open titles, plus a serious shot at winning last year’s Wimbledon. Nadal remains the top contender to be the next world number one. So give him a break.

C. Djokovic stops (d)joking

The ambition. The hunger. The dedication. And now, the Australian Open crown.

Djokovic has proven to be a quick study and is indubitably here to stay as the gate-crasher to Federer’s and Nadal’s dominance.

At this moment, hard courts seem to be his domain and with more hard court matches than other surfaces in the men’s tour, Djokovic will enjoy much success.

But it’s striking how quickly he switched from being everyone’s favorite joker on the circuit when he did spot-on imitations of his peers, to one facing an openly partisan crowd against him in Melbourne.

For the young Serbian who wears his heart on his sleeves, loves attention and adores adulation, the Melbourne crowd’s lukewarm reaction to his moment of greatest triumphs smarted badly.

He has himself to blame for the lacklustre crowd support.

For one, his gamesmanship has annoyed many, especially the sports-mad Aussies and their sense of fairplay. When Djokovic celebrates points won against opponents, his chest-thumping and screams carry too much of an edge that smacks of arrogance. No wonder then that the crowd had not embraced him, giving his wins appreciative applause but saving heartfelt cheers for his opponents.

He might have made history by being the first Serbian man to win a Grand Slam tournament. No doubt he will win a few more. But there’s still some ways to go before he can get the appreciation and support he craves.

D. Tsonga the French sensation

Tsonga is living proof that when the French have it, they have it in bucket-loads.

Only someone with his charisma and talent could overshadow the other fantastic storyline of the tournament despite not hoisting the champion’s trophy – that of Djokovic winning his first Grand Slam title.

The crowds at Melbourne lapped up the Frenchman’s electrifying go-for-broke style, booming serves and astonishing shot-making. And they obligingly roared louder every time Tsonga incites them to bring down the house.

Add to that Tsonga’s compelling personal story of nearly losing the chance to compete at the top-level, as his body let him down again and again in the past three years, first his back, then his shoulder and abdomen.

With his body finally playing ball, he was able to unleash an irresistible brand of tennis, entering the stratosphere of tennis superstardom.

The big risk is that Tsonga will be one of the many shooting stars that fall off just as quickly. But if he keeps up with the exuberance and audacity that he had displayed in Melbourne, he would doubtless be unforgettable, and another serious, and welcome, contender.

Now if only I can get my body clock back to normal hours after having stayed up till the wee hours to catch the matches for the past two weeks…

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