Wednesday, December 19, 2007

2008 I.O.: North America

Billie Jean. Chrissie. Tracy. And, later, Martina. The WTA tour used to revolve around stars who called the United States home. No longer.

(Well, many of them may still can the U.S. "home"... but they actually REPRESENT other nations on the tennis court.)

Many of the young glamour girls of the tour are surely "Americanized," from Maria Sharapova to Tatiana Golovin and on down the line, and more than ever nationality means less and less when it comes to sports dialogue in the U.S.. But, still, especially when it comes to tennis, having a true American presence is worth its weight in gold as far as media coverage and sponsorship are concerned. Many in the know may look upon a player such as Sharapova as "hardly Russian" despite her family background, but if she and other top players like her WERE native Americans the sport would have a far more secure place in the North American sports landscape than it currently occupies.

World #1 Justine Henin? Only her continued excellence warrants her name EVER being mentioned. It takes a player of Roger Federer's dominating stature to truly break through the all-too-familiar, follow-the-leader coverage headed up by the likes of "the grand slam network (unless we have softball action to show you") ESPN... and he's just as likely to be bumped back in the lineup by the trade of a second-team All-NBA player as he is to be left off the cover of Sports Illustrated in favor of a story on dog fighting or the latest steroids non-story.

Such is the plight of tennis in the U.S., at least until a true American-born heroine rises from the ashes of King, Evert and Austin, and manages to possess the same Tiger Woods-like presence on tour that once seemed the destiny of both Williams sisters until their bodies and off-court interests conspired to turn them into brilliant-but-rarely-seen entertainers who almost always leave everyone disappointingly wanting more even after they notch another grand slam victory following their latest extended absence from the tour.

Meanwhile, play goes on as American women's tennis continues down a murky path toward a future that could become very rocky once the "Big 3" of Venus, Serena and Lindsay ease into the latter stages of and then out of their careers. Apparently, an American tennis star ISN'T a prerequisite for a sport to move forward. Who knew?

Still, things would be a whole lot better for everyone involved is there WAS one.

After some early signs of hope that North American tennis might finally be appearing in Europe's rear view mirror as 2007 began, last season brought a collection of mixed results as no young American or Canadian popped up to grab the reigns as a potential Top 10, or ever Top 20, talent.

18-year old Vania King, a season after becoming the first teenaged American to become a first-time singles champion since 1999, failed to reach a SF in '07. Aleksandra Wozniak, 20, reached the final in Fes (becoming the first Canadian to reach a tour final in nine years), but couldn't win back-to-back main draw matches in any of her other fifteen tour events. After knocking off Maria Sharapova on grass in '06, Georgia Peach Jamea Jackson underwent hip surgery that destroyed her season (she only played thirteen matches, going 0-6 in tour main draws as she fell from #45 to her current #585). Meanwhile, Wozniak's fellow Quebec native, Stephanie Dubois, won fourteen consecutive matches and back-to-back ITF events in '07, but never managed to advance past the 2nd Round of any WTA tournaments.

Both nations are addressing the organizational and geographic deficiencies that may have led to the glaring absence of home-grown tennis prodigies this decade. A year ago, the Evert Academy entered into an agreement with the USTA. Now, the Sanchez-Casal Academy has announced plans to open a Florida branch (managed by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, with brother Emilio as CEO) with 37 clay courts, 7 hard courts and an on-site high school. Meanwhile, Tennis Canada recently hired Bob Brett (ex-coach of Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic) and Louis Borifa (of the French Tennis Federation) to identify young players and plans to operate new full-time training facilities in both Montreal and Toronto.

So, while the foundation may be being built for future success down the road, what about the near future? Well, while there still are no locked-in future slam contenders on the immediate horizon, there at least seems to be a good crop of young players who might be able to populate the field that has been virtually bereft of young North American talent for years on end (only four players from the continent currently ranked in the Top 200 are 21 or younger, and just one -- Vania King -- is a teenager).

In the same year that John Isner and Donald Young began to stir on the ATP tour, the junior and ITF circuit saw several up-and-coming American and Canadian females show that all hope may not be lost.

Sharon Fichman, a former Top 10-ranked junior from Canada, returned to action after previously wavering on whether she even wanted to play tennis. She reached a pair of ITF singles finals in July. American Madison Brengle played in the Girls finals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, while Georgia native Melanie Oudin, 16, reeled off 27 consecutive junior circuit wins (including a victory over Urszula Radwanska) before losing in the prestigious Orange Bowl final this month.

Some of these girls could go on to make names for themselves in time, as the hope is that SOMEONE will emerge and stir up the competitive juices of all those that follow her (the same sort of dynamic that the Russian players point to as a reason for the continued improvement of the Horde as a group since the start of this decade).

It may be a half a decade (at least) before the fruits of the current organizational changes are apparent, but things would certainly be kicked into a higher gear if one of the current newbies rises from the dust bin of what was once the most populous and vigorous tennis pool of talent on earth.

Until then, though, it's all about Venus, Serena and Lindsay... and how much longer they can hold on, as well as the sport hold their interest in the face of so many changes in their lives.

NATION LOOKING UP: United States least for a few more years, Americans will be in contention for grand slam titles as long as the Williamses and Lindsay Davenport manage to stick around. The trio has combined for 117 singles titles (and occupy three of the top four positions on the list of career titles amongst active players), and in two of the past three seasons, the sisters have grabbed half the available slam crowns even while competing in various degrees of "less than dominate" forms.

But it's not just the "Big 3" veterans who are sticking around. The U.S. contingent might have been lacking in youthful depth in recent seasons, but the glass-is-half-full viewpoint would also say that it's the most experienced crop of players on tour, even if the sometimes creaking/fragile bodies of the slam champions at the top of the heap make it a dicey proposition that they'll be able to play anything resembling full seasons.

Vets Jill Craybas, Julie Ditty, and Meilen Tu all reached tour SF in '07, while Meghann Shaughnessy quietly picked up her third title over the last two seasons. Also, Laura Granville somehow found her way into the US Open 4th Round (the only non-Williams entry in the seven Round-of-16-or-better slam results by Americans last season), and Lilia Osterloh notched QF in Cincinnati and Stanford during the North American hard court season.

Additionally, two the top three ranked players In doubles are American. #3 Lisa Raymond (who has her own opinions about the reasons for the lack of young U.S. stars) was #1 for twenty-four weeks in 2007, while South-African-turned-American Liezel Huber assumed the co-#1 position with partner Cara Black as the season came to a close, becoming the 22nd woman in WTA history to find herself atop the computer rankings.

All this, and the names of 31-year old Jennifer Capriati (her career is seemingly over thanks to her shoulder, though one can't quite say FOR CERTAIN that the final chapter has been written... not yet, anyway) and Monica Seles, 34, haven't even been mentioned. Interestingly, Seles recently talked of plans of returning to the tour (notably, in Miami) with a limited schedule in '08 if her injured foot will allow it.

...of course, the fact remains that while five of the ten oldest WTA singles champions last season were American, only two of the youngest 51 were, as well.

Unless a few of the latest "NextGen" players start to pop over the next two or three seasons, it's not an entirely unfathomable proposition that there might not be a single American ranked in the Top 100 at some point if Venus and Serena found themselves in the middle of an extended injury-related absence. "Unthinkable," yes. "Improbable," for sure. But not impossible, either.

PIVOTAL MOMENTS: There aren't really "intriguing questions" concerning the Williams sisters heading into a new season, only conundrums.

If either of them (Serena, especially) are healthy, focused and in form for any given length of time, it's nearly impossible to beat them. Still. Years after their most dominate seasons. If either of them had been able to stay on the court over the course of their career, they might have twice as many slam titles as the fourteen they DO possess.

Unfortunately, it's a rare moment when one of them, let alone both, are able to pull themselves together long enough to live up to their talent. And when they do, it's almost always in a Phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes drama (see Serena in Melbourne in '05 and '07, as well as Venus at Wimbledon during those same seasons) played out on the sport's biggest stages. There're great moments to witness... but fairly well impossible to predict, unless maybe your name is Richard Williams. The rest of us would practically need a working time machine to pull it off.

So, I'm taking a different tact this season... I'm building my own time machine.

I've been kicking around the thought for a couple of years now that Venus' career is going to far outdistance her younger sister's in terms of longevity, and that she'll continue to add to her career slam total for several seasons after Serena's knee problems finally force her out of the game for good. Serena has always been the flashier of the two, but Venus ability to maintain some sense of serenity and balance in her life (she recently graduated art school) could play in her favor in the long run.

At 27, she's still the best grass court player in the world... and it could be that her two Wimbledon titles over the last three seasons are a sign that there still might be a chance for Venus and SW19 history to be joined in holy matrimony for all eternity.

Of course, the details of that particular trip through time will have to wait for Backspin's 2008 edition of "What If," which is still a few weeks away.

==The NextGen Stars?==
1. Madison Brengle, 16 / USA

2. Melanie Oudin, 16 / USA
3. Vania King, 18 / USA
4. Aleksandra Wozniak, 20 / CAN
5. Alexa Glatch, 18 / USA
6. Varvara Lepchenko, 21 / USA (ex-UZB)
7. Stephanie Dubois, 21 / CAN
8. Sharon Fichman, 17 / CAN
9. Julia Cohen, 18 / USA
10. Lauren Albanese, 18 / USA
11. Asia Muhammad, 16 / USA
12. Nicole Gibbs, 14 / USA
13. Coco Vandeweghe, 16 / USA
14. Chelsey Gullickson, 17 / USA
15. Ashley Weingold, 18 / USA
16. Reka Zsilinszka, 18 / USA
17. Heidi El Tabakh, 21 / CAN
18. Mallory Cecil, 17 / USA
19. Allie Will, 16 / USA
20. Kimberly Couts, 18 / USA
HM- Gail Brodsky, 16 / USA

FIRST TITLES: Meilen Tu, USA Fed Cup team (since 2000)
FIRST FINAL: Ashley Harkleroad (since 2004), Bethanie Mattek
FIRST SEMIFINALS: Madison Brengle, Melanie Oudin (Jr. slam)
FIRST QUARTERFINALS: Madison Brengle, Varvara Lepchenko

1. Serena Williams, USA: quite simply, Serena is the most enigmatic athlete of her generation. Male or female. In any sport. She can be unbeatable, or unable to last a single match. Surely, she has vengeance on her mind after going 0-3 against Henin in slams last season, but the condition of her body will forever control her results from now until the end of her career. Even if she only plays an extremely limited schedule, she'll win either a slam or Tier I level title next season... but probably no more than two titles in all by the time '08 comes to a close.
2. Venus Williams, USA: sure, she can hurt herself getting out of bed to be on "Live with Regis & Kelly," but if she's anywhere close to being able to stand come late June she'll be the favorite at the All-England Club.
3. Lindsay Davenport USA:

If the sisters have follow-up campaigns in '08 much like the did in '06 after claiming two slams in '05, then new mom Davenport will be the USA MVP this season after returning to action after the US Open and putting together a 13-1, two-title run. She realizes the gift of being able to continue her tennis career, so don't be surprised if she pulls off something big before she says her proper final goodbyes.
4. USA Fed Cup team: Davenport is scheduled to play in February against Germany, and if at least one of the Williams sisters is healthy enough to join her later in the season, the chances for an improvement on 2007's SF result looks realistic for co-coaches Zina Garrison and Mary Joe Fernandez.
5. Melanie Oudin, USA:

Is Marietta Melanie the next to be touted as the "future American star?" Her late-year splash pushed her to #4 in the junior rankings, behind recent Girls slam winners U.Radwanska, Pavlyuchenkova and Kucova.
6. Bethanie Mattek, USA:

Sure, she's always good for some fashion do's and don'ts (sometimes in the same outfit), but she actually won an $50K title on clay last season, too.
7. Jamea Jackson, USA: she was once a young player on the rise after knocking off Sharapova on grass in '06, but can she regain her form a year after hip surgery?
8. Madison Brengle, USA: BrengeFly reached two Girls slam finals in '07 and is #10 in the junior rankings. Just the other day, for the second consecutive year, she managed to win the playoff (over Alexa Glatch in the final) for the U.S.'s wild card entry into the Australian Open.
9. Vania King, USA: she proved she can win in '06, but her game isn't big enough for her to become a big name. Still, her two best tour results in '07 came in her final two events (both QF), so maybe there ARE still more non-singing related headlines in her future.
10. Sharon Fichman, USA: after reconsidering her tennis career, she's back. But can she catch Wozniak and Dubois to become Canada's top female player?
11. Meghann Shaughnessy, USA: quietly resilient after all these years.
12. Ashley Harkleroad, USA: American Splendor made a strong comeback bid last season by claiming three ITF titles.
13. Aleksandra Wozniak, CAN: Was Fes only a tease?
14. Coco Vandeweghe, USA: come on, how can you not root for a player with a name like this? Plus, she's 5-feet-11, her mom was an Olympian, and grandfather and uncle professional basketball players. The genes are certainly there.
15. Asia Muhammad, USA: the Vegas girl hits with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Enough said.
HM- Melissa Torres Sandoval, MEX & Kristina Brandi, PUR: Yes, there are other countries in North America (or close enough, in the case of Puerto Rico) other than the U.S. and Canada.

All for now.

NEXT UP: Russia


Blogger Zidane said...

Hmm, to answer your question about Wozniak, the answer is yes. Fes was weird, cuz Wozniak sucks on clay. And she wasn't able to manage anything on other surfaces.

For Canada, I'd bet on Dubois. She managed a strong end of season, got her direct entry in Oz, and her coaching with Simon Larose seems to give her some confidence. Wozniak needs some focusing. I think Dubois can be a top 60 player by the end of 2008.

For North America in general, my bet is on my favourite player: Davenport. She'll be the best ranked player in 2008. I even predict her the fourth Slam she has been looking for a while. Probably at Wimbledon...

Thu Dec 20, 02:22:00 PM EST  

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