Biggest tennis stories of 2011
Novak Djokovic has a year for the ages with 10 titles, three majors, a 70-6 record
Petra Kvitova arrived, while Li Na and Sam Stosur had major breakthroughs
Injuries and grunting dominated a lot of the discussion throughout the year
1. The Djoker got away ... from the rest of the field. We're a spoiled bunch, us tennis fans. First we get the unsurpassed play of Roger Federer. Then comes Rafael Nadal. And in 2011, a Third King arrives. In a thoroughly dominating year, Novak Djokovic won three Grand Slams, 10 titles overall, 70 matches (against six losses) and a record $12.6 million in prize money. The Serb also prevailed in 10 of 11 matches against the other two members of the Big Three, maybe his most impressive accomplishment. And he did it all while comporting himself like a pro. Adje, indeed.
(By the way, you thought Djokovic had a year without parallel? Check out the stats on Esther Vergeer: The Dutch wheelchair tennis star extended her winning streak to 434 matches, taking THE Grand Slam once again. Oh, yeah, she hasn't lost a match since January 2003. Most dominant athlete alive today?)
2. Li's major breakthrough. Innumerable industries are trying to penetrate China and tap into the world's largest market. Sports are no exception. Tennis established a promising beachhead when Li Na won the French Open, the sport's first Chinese Grand Slam winner. Her tennis is complemented by a dynamic personality: Here is a tattooed, sharp-tongued maverick who, tired of waiting, proposed to her husband. And then fired him as her coach. And complained about his snoring. Sure, it would have been nice if she had been able to sustain her excellent play in the second half of the year. But if 1 percent of China's population is exposed to tennis on account of her success, that's more than 13 million new fans and players.
3. The power trio. Maybe if we keep trotting this out, the most remarkable statistic in contemporary sports will get the attention it deserves: Since February 2005 -- almost seven years ago -- the Big Three has won all but one of the Grand Slam men's singles titles. That's 26 out of 27 tournaments, won by three men. (Check out the PGA Tour majors winners in recent years for some perspective.) Only Juan Martin del Potro's 2009 U.S. Open victory interrupted the streak compiled by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. For all of tennis' challenges, this is just an exceptional, top-heavy era, three champions playing at an unprecedented level. We should celebrate this and enjoy it while it lasts.
4. New WTA star arrives. Much (too much?) was made of the power vacuum (black hole?) in women's tennis. But talk subsided in the second half of the year, thanks largely to Petra Kvitova, who does a convincing impersonation of a champion. The powerfully built Czech won Wimbledon, coldly dispatching Maria Sharapova in the final. After slumping during the hard-court season, she recovered and tore through the fall. She was particularly impressive during her debut at the WTA Championships in Istanbul, where the 21-year-old went unbeaten in five matches to seal the year-ending No. 2 ranking. (A week later, she led the Czech Republic to the Fed Cup title, extending her winning streak to 12 and finishing the year 21-0 indoors.) With a strong showing in Australia, she likely will wrest the top ranking from Caroline Wozniacki.
5. Stosur flips the script. For much of her career, Sam Stosur has been known as a player whose physical gifts have been offset by what might euphemistically be called mental liabilities. Her play during the U.S. Open, however, was a profile in courage. She showed great poise winning six matches, including a three-set instaclassic against Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round. Then in the final, the biggest occasion of her career, the 27-year-old Aussie pounded Serena Williams and kept her head while her opponent lost hers. The result: the first major of her career. And a rewrite of her reputation.
6. Serena being Serena. Say this about Serena Williams: It's never boring. The best player of her generation missed the first half of the year with a variety of injuries and a potentially life-threatening embolism. Williams returned at Wimbledon, but unable to shake the rust, she lost in the fourth round. She then played lights-out tennis on the hardcourts. (Though, typical Serena, she withdrew from the Cincinnati event with a toe injury, but made it to the Kardashian wedding a few days later.) She looked inviolate for the first six rounds of the U.S. Open. Then she lost her head in the final. And she didn't play another match in 2011. So it goes.
7. Missing you ... and you ... and you ... It's become as much a part of the game as white shorts, calluses and erratic television coverage. But tennis' injury-o-rama was worse than ever in 2011. Djokovic's bid for the Best Season Ever was undone by fatigue. Nadal was injured the first month of the season and seldom 100 percent physically throughout the year. Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open, but missed the last two Slams with injuries. Neither Serena nor Venus played after September. Newcomer Milos Raonic did a significant stretch on the IR list. Same for Robin Soderling. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Various tournaments were marred by withdrawals and canceled sessions on account of players unable to compete. Eventually we'll reach a tipping point and administrators will have to address the causes -- the length of the season? Runaway technology? -- in a meaningful way. Until then, it's calls to the trainer for everyone!
8. Reign in Spain. Spain's fifth Davis Cup triumph since 2000 and third in four years is an achievement grande, especially in these days of relentless globalization. In the final against Argentina, played in front of a massive crowd in Seville, Nadal was heroic, capping what was otherwise a disappointing year and reminding all that he remains the King of Clay. Nadal then promptly announced that he would not be participating in 2012, the latest indication that the ITF (Intransigent, er, International Tennis Federation) needs to rethink the format.
9. Change at the top. With the players (labor) and the tournaments (management) increasingly at odds, the job of serving both constituents at the same time is impractical. So it's no surprise that the ATP changes its chief executive as often as some players change coaches. In the spring, Adam Helfant -- on the job for barely two years -- announced he would be leaving the post. After a taxing six-month search -- fraught with the typical infighting -- the ATP went with insider candidate Brad Drewett. A former player and well-regarded voice of reason, Drewett is well-suited to the job. Whether he can overcome the Tour's inherently flawed structure and appease constituents whose interests are often at odds, well, that's another matter altogether.
10. HUGGHHHEEEAAHHH. This was the year the issue of grunting, well, reached a fever pitch. Players making unpleasant noises as they swing is hardly a new development. But at a time of a) social media that can distribute video and audio in real time and b) a paucity of reliable stars, this annoying/amusing quirk morphed into an issue that has, well, resonated with fans. The WTA's response was, well, tin-eared and clumsily dismissive. The result? It lost control of the message and soon grunting was being spoofed on The Office, mocked by other players and, worse still, cited by fans as a reason for tuning out. This should be a cautionary case study for PR classes everywhere. UGGGGGH_HEEEEE!
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