Reports of tennis' demise
The evidence is pretty irrefutable: the sport's popularity has been declining steadily in the United States. But tennis' great asset -- and perhaps its great liability as well -- is its universal appeal. Earlier this month, 80,000 Spaniards sat in the rain to watch three Davis Cup matches. The 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai is already sold out. Tennis is the hottest thing going in Russia. The sport is doing fine; its nerve center has just moved off-shore.
Her serve, which travels at the speed of a kidney stone, became tennis' great running joke in 2005. But the rest of Dementieva's game is rock solid, as evidenced by her appearance in the Roland Garros and U.S. Open finals. Conventional wisdom: she will never win a Major with that meatball of a serve. An alternative explanation: once she repairs her delivery, look out.
And to think, a year ago many of us were reluctant to mount her bandwagon lest we get burned again by another hyper-marketed blond Russian. Turns out Sharapova is The Truth, a terrific ballstriker who -- just as important -- competes with more fire than any of her peers. If her Wimbledon win weren't coronation enough, her defeating a battery of top players to win the WTA Championships was definitive proof that we oughta believe the hype.
Was there any player who did not get bitten by the injury bug in 2004? In the women's game in particular, it often seemed the top players spent more time in rehab than on the court. And the maladies ran the gamut: Elbows, wrists, knees, backs, tendinitis, a mystery virus, general exhaustion. Instead of taking action -- curbing runaway racket technology, which encourages overhitting; eliminating best-of-five matches that exhaust players and add little value for fans and television; truncate a season which still allows little time for recovery -- tennis' suits have largely chalked the epidemic up to an "unfortunate coincidence." Donald Fehr would be proud.
Known as "Mal's younger sister" -- if she was known at all -- Washington had spent the better part of a decade on living on the WTA's margins. Bopping between qualifying draws and challengers, she was a few bad losses away from finding a second career. In 2004, at the ripe age of 28, Washington had a terrific year, cracking the top 50, beating top guns including Sharapova, taking home more than $150,000 and establishing herself as a credible main draw player. Will she ever win a Major? No. But to the hundreds of players struggling in tennis' minors, Washington's narrative is as much as inspiration as Roger Federer's or Sharapova's.
"Peerless" is a word that probably gets bandied about too much in sports. But Federer literally had no equals in 2004. He won three Majors in a single year (something a fair player named Sampras never managed to accomplish during his gilded career); he won multiple titles on each of the Major surfaces; he never lost in a final; he went undefeated against other top 10 opponents. He did it all without the benefit of a coach. And for good measure, through it all, Federer was never anything less than a gentleman.
Injuries, instant replay
Which -- if any -- ATP player will mount a challenge to Federer? Will the Williams sisters -- Slamless in 2004 for the first time since 1998 -- reverse their decline? Who will fill some high-profile coaching vacancies? Will Andy Roddick recover from a year that failed to meet to meet his standards? How much longer will the S.S. Agassi stay afloat? Will Martina Hingis "unretire"? Will Monica Seles return to the fold? Will the raft of players done in by injury -- Justine Henin-Hardenne, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Guillermo Coria, bachelorette Kim Clijsters, among them -- regain their footing? Will we see instant replay instituted to address the errant line calls and scorekeeping errors that marred several high-stakes matches?