Ten Things I think I think* at start of 2010 season
*A nod to the almighty Peter King
1. If there's not outright parity in the men's game, we're a long way from the days when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were combining to win 17 of 18 majors titles. Federer's flame, understandably, has lost some intensity; and Nadal has suffered in both body and spirit. It was Juan Martin del Potro who won the 2009 U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic who was the MVP of the fall, and Nikolay Davydenko who won the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Look for the democratization of the men's game to continue in 2010.
2. Like Weimar currency, the concept of "retirement" has lost all value and credibility in the Tennis Republic. Particularly as it pertains to the WTA, the term has come to mean "temporary leave of absence. Hold the parting gifts, the maudlin speeches, and Costco sheetcake, please." Kimiko Date called off her retirement from the mid-'90s and is now, at age 39, the highest-ranked Japanese player. Kim Clijsters returned to the fore in 2009 and won the first major she entered, the U.S. Open. The Australian Open will mark the "unretirement" of Justine Henin, the former No. 1 who called it quit -- temporarily -- in 2008. Who's next? Don't be surprised when Mary Pierce or Jennifer Capriati or even -- don't laugh -- Anna Kournikova announces the passion is back. This trend is not altogether a bad thing. Tennis has never been more grueling. If a year or two (or 14) break is required to recharge the proverbial battery, so be it.
3. Last time most of the tennis world saw Serena Williams, she was doing a convincing Bob Knight impression. Sadly, this indefensible act not only cast a cloud over the entire 2009 U.S. Open, it obscured still another banner year from the best female athlete of the past decade. Love her or hate her -- and no athlete alive today eclipses her knack for polarizing fans -- Serena comes to Australia at the WTA's No. 1-ranked player and defending champion. Injuries notwithstanding, there's little reason she won't add to her haul of Slams, taking another step toward the Graf/Evert/Navratilova corridor in 2010, endearing and infuriating in the process.
4. Rafael Nadal needs to re-establish himself. After dominating the first five months of 2009 -- winning the Australian Open, daggering Federer, building his lead as the No. 1 player -- Nadal tanked like the Sun Belt housing market. Injuries, doubts and the break-up of his folks' marriage conspired to bring on the worst stretch of his professional career. By his own admission, Nadal "didn't have the confidence" during a thoroughly forgettable summer and fall. He did salvage his season by helping Spain win another Davis Cup. And he acquitted himself well at the New Year's Eve exhibition (simultaneously undercutting his frequent complaints about the length of the season). His singularly violent tennis doesn't bode well for longevity, but it says here he'll rebound in 2010.
5. Maria Sharapova needs to re-establish herself. You remember Sharapova, right? Tall. Russian. Given recent events, she may well make more in endorsement than Tiger Woods. Apart from being a one-woman economic stimulus package, not long ago, Sharapova was the obvious choice to become the reigning monarch in the women's game. Then, she was hit hard by the injury bug. Though she returned in 2009, she was a shard of the player who could blaze through the draw of a major. For a variety of reasons -- not least, crass commercial ones -- tennis is better off when Sharaopva is at her best. We look forward to that in 2010.
6. Speaking of returning to where she once belonged, 2010 is a big year for Ana Ivanovic. On the cover of her recent Christmas card, Ivanovic included a photo of herself next to the caption "Oops." It was an endearing bit of self-deprecation, an admission that 2009 was one big pratfall. She may never reclaim the top ranking she held briefly in 2008. But she is too good a player and too potent a ballstriker to reside outside the top 20, as she currently does.
7. "Make or break" is overstating the case, but it's a crucial year for U.S. tennis. Andy Roddick's knees are currently giving him trouble but his lats ought to hurt as well, as he's been shouldering the weight of a nation for the better part of a decade now. Will Sam Querrey help with the load? Can James Blake resurrect his career at age 30? John Isner? McFly? Anyone? And on the women's side, take the Williams sisters out of the equation and there is only one American woman in the top 75: Melanie Oudin. Can anyone -- Alexa Glatch? Newly minted Varvara Lepchenko? -- help the cause? And if not, can American sports fans, parochial by nature, learn to appreciate players without paying attention to the country code after their names?
8. Big is back. A decade ago, there were predictions that tennis would be ruled by Philippoussian giants who lacked anything resembling nuance, but would win by the sheer force emanating from their powerful physiques. While that, fortunately, never came to pass, tennis is going through another evolutionary phase. Walk around the locker room (or simply look at the rankings) and you'll notice an abundance of ceiling scrapers: Del Potro, Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey, Ivo Karlovic, Isner are each closer to seven feet than to six. The women's game is already ruled by so-called "big babes"; will the men's, too, become like an amusement park ride with a height requirement?
9. Behold, mixed doubles! It was Mary Carillo who once termed mixed doubles the "crazy, funny cars" of tennis. You know, the sideshow event that killed time between the demolition derby sessions. No more. The gatekeepers at the IOC have anointed mixed doubles an Olympic sport starting with the 2012 London Games. Particularly for smaller countries -- Serbia, Belgium, Switzerland -- there's a real chance for a rare gold medal. In anticipation, look for some star pairings (Djokovic and Ivanovic? Henin and Oliver Rochus? Venus and Bob Bryan?) to start entering the mixed draws at majors starting this year.
10. Politics, economics and in-fighting seldom lurk far from the surface in tennis. As usual, some of the real intrigue and grudge matches will play out at this subcutaneous level. The ATP will continue its fools errand of trying to appease overextended players and trying to appease overextended sponsors -- all the while hoping the legal fees from the unending Hamburg lawsuit don't submarine the tour's finances. The WTA will continue to seek a sponsor as it fights the perception the product has seen better days. The tours will agitate for more revenues from the Slams. The ITF needs to address the WADA anti-doping protocol that has yielded three successful appeals in recent months. Larry Ellison, the new BNP Paribas Indian Wells event owner, will likely have some buyers' remorse. And then he'll realize that the circus atmosphere is what makes tennis so darn irresistible!