What to watch for in 2009: Tennis
Where does the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer passion play go from here?
Who will fill the WTA Tour star vacuum created by Justine Henin's departure?
1. Where does the Nadal-Federer passion play go from here? You'd be hard-pressed to name a more gripping and textured rivalry in professional sports. One versus two. Lefty versus righty. Grit versus polish. Nouveau versus classic. Will versus Grace, as it were. In 2008, Nadal beat Federer all four times they met --including their spellbinding Wimbledon final -- and assumed the No. l ranking in the process. Yet Federer recovered and enter 2009 within a single Major title of tying Pete Sampras' record. So long as both remain healthy, Rafa-Roger the best theater in tennis, no matter what happens.
2. Who will fill the WTA Tour star vacuum? Women's tennis still has much to recommend these days. But stability at the top of the rankings does not rate high on the list. In the wake of Justine Henin's abrupt retirement last spring, four different players won Majors in 2008 (Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams, Serena Williams) and a fifth (Jelena Jankovic) finished the year at No.1. Particularly with Sharapova still nursing an injured right shoulder and the estimable Williams sisters entering their late 20s, one wonders who will assert herself as the tour's much-needed queen.
3. Breakthrough, anyone? Right or wrong, tennis players don't reach full apotheosis until they win a Major event. So Andy Murray can enjoy an exceptional 2008 -- winning big-ticket titles, reaching the U.S. Open final and clocking in a career high No.4 -- but his dossier remains incomplete. Likewise, Jankovic can achieve the WTA's top ranking, but it feels slightly hollow given her failure to win a Grand Slam title. Can either enter the winner's circle for the first time in 2009?
4. Whither Andy Roddick? On the plus side, Roddick finished his seventh year in the top 10, an underrated feat. He beat every top player, including Federer, and won three ATP titles. On the other hand, Roddick came woefully short in the Majors; lost to the likes of Viktor Troicki, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Robin Soderling (twice); and, at age 26, he's well into middle age in tennis years. With a new coach (Larry Stefanki) and a new attitude can fulfill his goal of bagging another Major title?
5. Can injury-o-rama be addressed in a meaningful way? They wear different shoes and play with different rackets and hail from all corners of the globe. But the top tennis stars have this in common: each battled injury in 2008, be it the bum knee that prevented Nadal from playing in the year-end Masters Cup or the sore shoulder that torpedoed Sharapova's year. When it comes to dangerous occupations, tennis ranks up there with asbestos remover. Both the ATP and WTA have pledged to take action with revamped schedules for 2009; but the players insist the preponderance of "mandatory events" will only tax their bodies further. Stay tuned...