Friday, January 04, 2008

2008 I.O.: The Rest of Europe

The axis of the women's tennis world is most assuredly Europe.

From the one-time dominant (but still mostly formidable... excluding a certain English-speaking state) nations in the West, to the East where the former Soviet satellites are nearly all either seeing their own tennis revolutions blossom and produce a slew of contenders or are presiding over a garden-full of young NextGen stars who are just now beginning to sprout.

All right, enough with the all the gardening imagery. Just imagine the WTA landscape WITHOUT the European stars. It would be fairly well barren.

After all, including the Russians, 17 of the Top 20 ranked players are European. 39 of the Top 50. 74 of the Top 100. 6 of last 8 slam winners have hailed from European nations, and the last seven Fed Cup champions (and 14 of 17) have called the continent home.

If not for Europe, the women's Top 10 would look like this:

1. Serena Williams, USA (7)
2. Venus Williams, USA (8)
3. Shahar Peer, ISR (17)
4. Na Li, CHN (29)
5. Sania Mirza, IND (31)
6. Gisela Dulko, ARG (37)
7. Ai Sugiyama, JPN (38)
8. Shuai Peng, CHN (45)
9. Samantha Stosur, AUS (46)
10. Meilen Tu, USA (47)

Pretty scary, once you get the Top 5 (though once would suspect that Mrs. Davenport is just weeks away from elbowing her way into the inner circle), I'd say. Fortunately, the "Bizarro WTA" is only a figment of a wild Backspin imagination.

For that we should all be happy.

Hmmm... something about this rings oh so familiar.

A small European nation produces two supremely talented female players who simultaneously proceed to rise into the Top 5 in the world singles rankings. It happened at the beginning of this decade with a pair or Belgians, and it's happened yet again with a crowd-pleasing Serbian duo.

The notion of two separate two-headed tennis monster scenarios developing within Europe during the same decade is more than enough to link the careers of Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic with those of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, just as any tennis-playing pair of sisters will invariably be compared in some small way to Venus and Serena.

But do the Serbs really deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the Belgians? After all, Henin and Clijsters are future Hall of Famers, while Jankovic and Ivanovic have so far only reached a single grand slam final between them... and in the ever-crowded WTA field, there is nothing that says they're destined to EVER win one. Are the Serbs really up to being compared to the Belgians?

Well, yes and no... but maybe not in the ways one might think at first blush. For while it is a compliment to be compared to the two Waffles, it's unmistakable that the careers of Henin and Clijsters followed very different paths. Henin has won seven slams (and counting) and will go down as a dominant player in her era, while Clijsters retired with just one and her career bio will always have a certain "what if" quality to it no matter how admirable it may have been on several intangible levels.

The numbers don't lie. One Waffle lived up to her potential. One didn't. The same is likely to occur with Jankovic and Ivanovic.

At this point, it's not clear which Serb will eventually take the lead role... and it's not because both are drawing comparisons to Henin, either. Actually, both have a few traits that would seem to have the potential to lead to a repeat (or the possibility of failing to even live up to) Clijsters' just-missed-it career arc far more than to dutifully follow along with the instructions written in Henin's get-every-last-drop manifesto.


Consider, Jankovic shares the easy smile that made Clijsters a fan favorite. Just like the Belgian, there is a truly fun component to her game and personality. But can a top player be that way, AND be the type of cutthroat competitor willing to run through a wall and/or over an opponent without a second thought to reach her full potential on the court? Is the focus there to become a great champion? At this point, there's little evidence to support the idea (and Jankovic's 0-9 career mark against Henin, similar to Clijsters' 3-8 -- 0-5 in slams -- record once La Petit Taureau reached her stride in mid-2003, doesn't exactly assuage those doubts, either).

Jankovic is an incredible athlete, just like Clijsters... but just as her Belgian counterpart was hounded by injuries and was sometimes reckless with her body, so is the Serb.

Remember the wrist injury in Montreal in '06, then the poor decision to play on that resulted in the injury worsening and Clijsters' defense of her '05 US Open title going up in flames? (As it turned out, she retired less than a year later and never played another match in New York.) Well, compare that to Jankovic's ridiculous over-scheduling in '07, her not-likely-coincidental late-season injuries last year, and then her insane decision just this week to play doubles matches at the Hopman Cup after twice retiring from singles matches hours earlier with a hamstring injury... two weeks before the Australian Open!

Even Jankovic herself questioned the intelligence of the decision, talking about "risking her career" because she so wants to win the Hopman Cup for her country. As is her wont, as it was with Clijsters, drama and subtle media manipulation is at play in Jankovic's words in Perth... but the idea that her perilous mindset during a relatively meaningless first-week exhibition is a symptom of potential career suicidal tendencies has as much validity as DNA evidence.

Case by case situations aside (Pete Sampras playing on while throwing up in the corner between points changed his public perception in a good way forever after, as he was never again able to be accused of being "too laid back"), continued recklessness and hard-headedness when it comes to one's body is not exactly a desired trait for a would-be multiple grand slam winner.

While the flighty Jankovic's willingness to please (not yet quite as pathological as Clijsters', but certainly showing signs of heading in that direction) could short change her career, could it be a lack of a killer instinct that does in that of Ivanovic?

When television commentator Tracy Austin wondered aloud if Ivanovic might be "too nice," it was the sort of moment where a sudden shaft of harsh light shines down from the tennis heavens to pinpoint what could be a would-be champion's Achilles heel. Clijsters never seemed to relish the role of conqueror. As noted here time and time again, it's a lovely trait in a friend... but one that tends to be a potential obstacle for a talented athlete who'll have to climb OVER and THROUGH other players to accomplish great things in her sport." The lack of a heart willing and desirous to deny others something that she wants for herself means, quite simply, that others who DO will end up with the majority of the chips at the end of the day.

Will Ivanovic suffer from the same malady as her Belgian counterpart? Her talent would seem to say she'll likely one day win a slam title as, like Clijsters, the odds are that at least once everything will fall into line and she'll flourish on the game's biggest stage. But will it be a one-time moment in the sun, or the first of many?

That's the difference between a "nice" player and an all-time great. It can be a very fine line separating the two, but it often represents a tremendously important distinction that divides the "have's" from the "have-not's."

While Ivanovic did reach the Roland Garros final in '07, the first of the Serbs -- male or female -- to do so (which is a good early sign), her propensity to be dumped out of grand slams in ignominious fashion didn't dissipate in Paris. The average final score of Ivanovic's slam eliminations matches over the past eight slams has been 6-2/6-3. In the RG final, it was by a 6-1/6-2 scoreline... not coincidentally, at the hands of Henin.

Needless to say, AnaIvo's ability to at the very least make herself a "tough out" in the slams needs to turn around soon, or else she could very quickly find herself feeling the pressure of the stars of the current teenage crop who will be looking to succeed where she has so far failed.

Geez... could it be that NEITHER of these two has the "it" quality that will eventually place her in the Henin role in this two-horse race? As disappointing as that would be... well, maybe.

But it's at this point that my mind wanders back to last August, when Ivanovic bested Jankovic in a scintillating SF performance in Los Angeles. At that moment, AnaIvo showed the potential to be a star.... and not just in the smiley, play to the crowd ways of Clijsters and, often times, Jankovic, either. Maybe for the first time in a truly big moment, there was a fire and purpose bubbling under Ivanovic's Serbian Silk personality.

Could it have been our first look at the killer instinct that will one day soon overtake Ivanovic for two weeks and change her career forever? It happened to Henin in 2003, not in a slam final, but in the Australian Open Round of 16. She won a gutsy, cramps-fighting 9-7 3rd set over Lindsay Davenport en route to the Oz SF. She lost there to Venus Williams, but she won three of the next four grand slams.

It can happen that quickly.

One hopes it will happen at some point in the near future for Ivanovic or Jankovic... because if it doesn't, the Serbian rise might end up making only Novak Djokovic's mantle crowded with the types of gold and silver baubles that represent greatness in professional tennis.

And that would truly be a severe disappointment.

...suddenly, though not on the Horde level, Poland is threatening to become a tennis power.

Last season in Stockholm, Agnieszka Radwanska became the first Pole to win a tour title. She upset Maria Sharapova at the US Open with about as blatant a psych-out performance as you'll likely to see on a big stage, and reached #25 in the rankings.

That would be enough to qualify Poland as a nation to keeps tabs on, but the '07 heroics within the Radwanska family weren't limited to A-Rad. Little sister Urszula was the #1-ranked junior in the world, won the Girls Wimbledon title and was Girls RU at the US Open.

The wait for the first all-Radwanska singles final continues, but the odds of it happening seem to go up all the time. In the mean time, though, the sisters DID share a doubles title in Istanbul last season.

But it's not just a family affair. 16-year old junior Katarzyna Piter reached the Girls SF at Wimbledon last year, narrowly missing out on making it an all-Pole final against U-Rad. Olga Brozda, 21, won four ITF titles, while 19-year old Anna Korzeniak won three. And then there's Marta Domachowska, the player most had once expected to be the first Polish tour winner. Her career has stalled just as the Radwanskas have emerged, but she's still just 21 and could rebound yet.

: 1994, Spaniards Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez finished the season as the top two-ranked players in the world.

As 2008 begins, only one Spanish player -- 25-year old Anabel Medina-Garrigues -- is ranked in the singles Top 70. The only player ranked in the Top 296 under the age of 20 is #170 Carla Suarez Navarro, 19. The highest-ranked junior from Spain is a shocking #441.

The Sanchez Casal Academy has gained a reputation for helping to develop young players (and will now try to do so in America), and Spain is where players such as Svetlana Kuznetsova go to train, but where are all the homegrown young female players?

Meanwhile, everywhere you look there's another Spaniard winning big matches on the ATP tour.

A true oddity.

...Martina Hingis is retired, and will now have to fight a two-year suspension if she wants to clear her name. Patty Schnyder is always fun to watch, but her results are getting just a little bit smaller every season. At 29, the White Mile will soon reach a dead end. And Timea Bacsinszky hasn't yet lived up to her early promise (though the 18-year old did win a $100K event in France in '07).

==The NextGen Stars?==
1. Agnes Szavay, 19 / HUN
2. Tamira Paszek, 17 / AUT
3. Nicole Vaidisova, 18 / CZE
4. Victoria Azarenka, 18 / BLR
5. Michaella Krajicek, 18 / NED
6. Agnieszka Radwanska, 18 / POL
7. Tatiana Golovin, 19 / FRA
8. Lucie Safarova, 20 / CZE
9. Kateryna Bondarenko, 21 / UKR
10. Aravane Rezai, 20 / FRA
11. Ioana-Raluca Olaru, 18 / ROU
12. Caroline Wozniacki, 17 / DEN
13. Karin Knapp, 20 / ITA
14. Sara Errani, 20 / ITA
15. Sorana Cirstea, 17 / ROU
16. Dominika Cibulkova, 18 / SVK
17. Tatjana Malek, 20 / GER
18. Angelique Kerber, 19 / GER
19. Julia Goerges, 19 / GER
20. Pauline Parmentier, 21 / FRA (talk about an anonymous '07 champion)
21. Timea Bacsinszky, 18 / SUI
22. Yanina Wickmayer, 18 / BEL
23. Katerina Vankova, 18 / CZE
24. Andrea Petkovic, 20 / GER
25. Olga Govortsova, 19 / BLR
HM- Tsvetana Pironkova, 20 / BUL

==The NextGen Stars? - Junior Edition==
1. Michelle Larcher de Brito, 14 / POR
2. Urszula Radwanska, 17 / POL
3. Alize Cornet, 17 / FRA
4. Katarzyna Piter, 16 / POL
5. Ksenia Milevskaya, 17 / BLR
6. Kristina Kucova, 17 / SVK
7. Nikola Hofmanova, 16 / AUT
8. Bojana Jovanovski, 16 / SRB
9. Polona Hercog, 16 / SLO
10. Simona Halep, 16 / ROU
11. Petra Kvitova, 17 / CZE
12. Oksana Kalashnikova, 17 / GEO
13. Stephanie Vogt, 17 / LIE
14. Tamryn Hendler, 15 /BEL
15. Jade Curtis, 17 / GBR
HM- Tanya Raykova, 16 / BUL

THE FUTURE SENSATION?: Michelle Larcher de Brito

...the gestation period of her breakthrough might take a couple of years, but this Portuguese teenager with as crowd-pleasing a smile and attitude as shotmaking brilliance could turn out to be "The One."

She's been leaving quite a trail of admirers in her wake since arriving in Bradenton, Florida as another of the Bollettieri babies. From her stint in World Team Tennis to her tour debut in Miami last March when she became the youngest winner of a main draw match since the age-eligibility rule went into effect in 1995, and concluding with her major junior triumph at the Orange Bowl event in December (she was the second-youngest champion ever behind Nicole Vaidisova), Larcher de Brito makes new fans every time she takes the court.

The Kid can't help it.

With Larcher de Brito standing just five-feet-five, the serve still needs some work. But the groundstrokes and ability to construct a point (hey, what did you expect from a player who admired Martina Hingis when she was itty bitty?) are there, and she's already shown the ability to give veterans such as Meghann Shaughnessy (who she beat in Miami) headaches.

Larcher de Brito is only 14, but a player with the "it" factor usually is showing signs of possessing star potential in her mid teens... and The Kid is doing that in spades as 2008 opens for business.

FIRST TITLES: Victoria Azarenka, Kateryna Bondarenko, Michelle Larcher de Brito (ITF), Sorana Cristea or Ioana-Raluca Olaru (one of the top Romanians), Aravane Rezai, Julia Vakulenko [ and, yes, Azarenka & Rezai were on this list before their runs to finals this weekend ]

FIRST FINALS: Kateryna Bondarenko, Dominika Cibulkova, Alize Cornet, Sara Errani, Karin Knapp, Michelle Larcher de Brito (jr.slam), Ioana-Raluca Olaru, Caroline Wozniacki

FIRST SEMIFINALS: Alize Cornet, Julia Goerges, Olga Govortsova, Angelique Kerber, Michelle Larcher de Brito (jr.slam), Katerina Vankova, Renata Voracova

FIRST QUARTERFINALS: Michelle Larcher de Brito, Sesil Karatantcheva (since '05), Kristina Kucova, Ksenia Milevskaya, Nika Ozegovic, Andrea Petkovic, Urszula Radwanska, Katerina Vankova

1. Justine Henin, BEL:

....still the class of the bunch, and the only player in the world outside of Roger Federer (and maybe Serena, if she were to stay healthy ALL YEAR, which isn't likely) who heads into every slam with a shot to win it. She'll win at least one in '08, and defend her Olympic Gold, as well.
2. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA: Amelie's "year after" was run into a ditch by an appendectomy, a too-soon comeback and an injury-related early end to her season. Time sometimes seems to move at warp speed in tennis, and at age 28 one has to wonder if she'll be able to recapture her '06 magic. If she can, it wouldn't be a shock to see her beautiful style propel her to a second SW19 crown that could split the four slams between four different players. Of course, considering how long it's been, there's an equal chance that she could revert back to her underachieving pre-2006 form, as well, since all the momentum and mental fortitude she showed two seasons ago seem to have happened in another lifetime now.
3. Agnes Szavay, HUN: a most intriguing prospect, I'd say. And don't get too hung up over her 1st Round loss at Gold Coast... it's a long season, and her opening match was against a player with three matches already under her belt. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
4. The Serbian Sirens: will the calls of the collective talent of Jankovic & Ivanovic lead opponents into the rocks, or will the "victims" instead be everyone who's been predicting so many great things for these two over the past year?
5. Nicole Vaidisova, CZE: we're still waiting, Nicole. And now Radek appears to have jumped ahead in the line, too.
6. Tatiana Golovin, FRA: Wilander helped Good Tatiana see the light of day, but will Glen Schaap be able to keep Bad Tatiana at bay with as much success?
7. The Sisters Radwanska & Bondarenko:

...there's a shot that along with the Williams sisters claiming titles for themselves in '08, two more European sibling duos could pull off the same feat. It might not be quite as unique as the trio of Maleevas rising in the rankings at the same time a few years ago, but a six-for-six sisterly title grab would be something to behold.
8. Tamira Paszek & Sybille Bammer, AUT:

...Bammer reached the Top 20 in '07, and Paszek might follow suit in '08. The 17-year old that Henin said last year was a future Top 5 player has already notched an opening week SF result in Auckland, with a QF win over Maria Kirilenko.
9. Sesil Karatantcheva, BUL:

......she's baaaack! Well, almost. Judging from her inability to gain a wild card into her chosen challenger comeback event (hey, I guess someone CAN resist her, after all), Sesil's going to have to back up her words about playing anywhere and everywhere -- hey, get your mind out of the gutter -- in order to get her career back on track. As 2008 begins, she's still holding to her story about her just completed 2-year drug ban resulting from a teenage pregnancy, and maintains that she was made an example of (Martina could probably sympathize). Taller since her last match, and coming off two years of practicing with male players (don't even THINK about it, dirty minds!), she could be a dangerous qualifier/floater once she regains some match toughness. No matter what, she'll be interesting.
10. Marion Bartoli, FRA: she might need to hire a stadium full of Pierce Brosnan look-a-likes to come close to repeating her Wimbledon RU result.
11. Julia Vakulenko, UKR: the new Petrova? Talented, but fragile. It wasn't exactly a shocker that her pre-1st Round withdrawal from Gold Coast made her the first player struck down by injury during the '08 season.
12. Michelle Larcher de Brito, POR: words a few minutes after seeing Larcher de Brito play for the first time in WTT action last year? "Who is this girl?" It might not take long before EVERYONE knows. There is some real excitement potential here, and her Orange Bowl triumph put some "official" oomph behind it, too. But she's only 14. She'll do well to continue to use her WTT participation as a nice, pressure-free training ground on which to work on her serve. Come 2009 or '10, she could blossom into a bona fide star.
13. The Romanians: of them will win their first tour singles title in '08.
14. Mary Pierce, FRA: will she return from her knee injury to be another Davenport, or drift away into the mist like Capriati and Seles?
15. Katarina Srebotnik, SLO & Virginie Razzano, FRA: Srebotnik is probably the most overlooked player on tour... unless two-time '07 title winner Razzano is instead.
HM- Anna-Lena Groenefeld, GER: Girl Friday notched just six wins in '07, picked up weight like an enlarging snowball rolling down Mt.Everest and was dogged by a "horrendous relationship" with a former coach. Just a bit of sanity in '08 would make it a successful one for ALG.

All for now.

NEXT UP: Volley, Pt.II & Prediction Blowout '08


Blogger Eric said...

all i have to say is the player of the week better be li na

i'm tired of hearing about hingis and the drug scandal and davenport winning a tier IV is not news

nice post todd! hope your new year started off well!

Sat Jan 05, 08:31:00 AM EST  

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