Tennis predictions for 2011
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have dominated the majors; that should change
The absence of Mary Carillo from the ESPN broadcasting booth will be conspicuous
The WTA's Russian revolution seems to have been a one-generation phenomenon
1. Someone other than Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal will win a major title. Here is tennis' most preposterous stat now that Federer's streak of 23 Grand Slam semifinals is over: Since the 2005 French Open, only two men not named Nadal and Federer have won a major title (Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Australian Open and Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open). Ridiculous. Yet it's about time another player broke through. Whether it's Djokovic, Robin Soderling, a healthy del Potro (remember him?), Andy Murray or a total shocker, the ATP is due for at least one unexpected Slam winner in 2011.
2. Tennis will be rocked by a match-fixing scandal. Every few weeks I get notes from online tennis gamblers informing me of "irregular" betting patterns on certain matches. It's never the top guys and it's never the top events. (Rather, the same events and the same lesser lights appear again and again.) If you know anything about how markets operate and tennis operates, these results strain credulity. We're talking about players who lose the first set, only to have the odds move in their favor. Then they miraculously pull out the match. The Tennis Integrity Unit has been around for two years and while several "courtsiders" have been chased off the grounds -- allegedly for taking advantage of a time delay and wagering on-site from their laptops -- no player has been taken down. Expect that to change in 2011.
3. The Williams sisters saga will take some new twists. This is a bit like predicting the sun will rise in the east. But the most compelling reality TV programming in sports seldom disappoints. Serena will play her first-round match at Wimbledon on crutches -- and then win the tournament. Venus will author a best-seller during changeovers, while designing a neighbor's kitchen during bathroom breaks. They will sell their share of the Miami Dolphins and join the board of a hedge fund -- which, alas, holds its meetings during the weeks of Fed Cup competition. Something ...
4. We will witness at least one high-profile return. The term "tennis retirement" has veered into oxymoron territory. Rare is the player who can call it a career and stick with the decision. It's too tempting to try to (Thomas) Muster another (Kimiko) Date with destiny. Let's be clear: Fhere's nothing wrong with this. There are both psychological and financial motivations encouraging players to return to the one pursuit in life they do best. But there's no reason to believe the trend is stopping anytime soon.
5. Tennis will continue to skew old. Remember the hand-wringing over teenagers and age eligibility rules? Kim Clijsters, 27, a mom, wife and "unretiree," was the youngest Grand Slam winner of 2010. For much of last year, there were zero teenagers in the ATP's top 100. Why? We can debate this. One explanation: It takes a body of full physical maturity to play the sport at the highest level these days.
6. Mary Carillo will be conspicuously missed at ESPN. No sport does conflicts quite like tennis, a culture personified by former agent Donald Dell, known to provide commentary of matches involving players he represented and tournaments his firm owned and managed. Carillo, however, was never compromised. And her bold, I-don't-care-who-might-be-chapped-by-what-I'm-about-to-say approach separated her from too many of her colleagues. Unfortunately, she parted ways with ESPN late last year. If I'm Tennis Channel, I have her agent on speed dial.
7. Look for some electric midweek women's matches at the majors. Neither Justine Henin nor Serena Williams has played since Wimbledon. Maria Sharapova hasn't made a deep run at a major in years. Even after a torrid fall "comeback," Ana Ivanovic is still outside the top 10. What does this mean? Seedings at the Grand Slams will be wacky, and not necessarily reflective of ability. Usually this means great fourth-round and quarterfinal meetings. And underwhelming finals.
8. Didn't you used to be Russia? With the retirement of Elena Dementieva and hapless years of Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, there is only one active Russian in the WTA's top 10. The "Russian Revolution" appears to have been a one-generation phenomenon. And with few promising juniors in the pipeline, don't be surprised if this trend continues.
9. Tennis will be forced to do something about illegal mid-match coaching. This transgression has become tennis' version of surpassing the speed limit on the interstate. Everyone does it; you just have to be flagrant to get caught. The WTA's decision to permit coaching on changeovers is a lame, cynical failure. But when Rafael Nadal bends the rules, too, it's clear that the ATP's hear-no-evil approach doesn't work either. Wire the coach's box for sound? Install video monitoring? Increase fines? Do away with the rule entirely? Something needs to be to done standardize enforcement.
10. Tennis will keep expanding its footprint in emerging markets. The sport's growth may be modest in the United States, Australia and western Europe. But it's going gangbusters in other parts of the world. Like most other industries, it hasn't quite figured out how to maximize penetration in China and India; but there are sources of optimism.
11. No match will end 70-68 in the final set.