Sunday, December 23, 2001

WTA 2002 10 Most Intriguing Questions

I'll see everyone in January, but not before leaving you with one more piece of my mind. Here's what I think will be the 10 Most Intriguing Questions to be answered on the Tour this season (plus a few "for what it's worth" verdicts and predictions). Read, and discuss amongst yourselves:

10.Will 2002's #1 player actually WIN a grand slam title?

...#1 Martina Hingis didn't win a slam in 2000, and #1 Lindsay Davenport didn't even make a slam final in 2001. With criticism coming from all angles, it took the WTA only two weeks to tweak its ranking system in an attempt to avoid another such oddity in 2002. This coming year, more points
will be given for grand slams and other events that offer more than the minimum required prize money for their Tier status. Designed to keep top players healthy (after Top 10ers Davenport, the Williams sisters and Monica Seles all missed significant playing time due to injury last year) by
allowing them to play less often, the new system might end up allowing the likes of Venus and Serena to continue to fail (as they always do) to play as many tournaments as the other top players despite the sisters' vow to play complete schedules in 2002. Since the two play majors and Tier I events almost exclusively, their rankings will likely improve even if their schedules remain as light as they have been in recent years. VERDICT: The anomalies that occurred in 2000 and 2001 won't be repeated in 2002, as the new system will likey push the player with the best overall slam results to #1 (probably the acknowledged "best overall player" Venus Williams if she keeps up her pattern of winning two slam titles a season, no matter how often she's too "injured" to compete elsewhere).

9.Will Amelie Mauresmo finally have a grand slam to be proud of?

...Since bursting onto the scene with a RU performance at the 1999 Australian, Mauresmo has failed to put up a single great performance at another slam. Before 2001's QF at the US Open, she'd never advanced past another 4r at a major. Mauresmo's power game is certainly built to contend in the newly-powerful world of women's tennis, but it's her nerves that are usually her undoing on the big stage. Her hard court results have been disappointing, but Mauresmo's had great success on the clay (winning 4 events on the surface this past Spring). Thus, RG would seem to be her best chance to win a slam, but she's never been able to live up to the pressure of the expectant home French crowd... and generally goes down in flames quite early. She's never advanced past the 4r there, and bowed out in the 1r in '01 after such a great pre-RG run. With a chance to get things into gear in the season-closing Championships in Munich, she again was defeated in her first match (by fellow Frenchwoman Sandrine Testud, no less). VERDICT: Mauresmo will always be preceived as a threat going into most slams, but that talk always comes equipped with a qualifying rider that goes something like "if she can ever get it together and win a big match." The choker label will continue to trail behind her like a homesick puppy, and she won't be able to shake it in 2002.

8.Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin and Jelena Dokic all made the Top 10 for the first time in 2001, so who'll be the next group of teenagers fighting to do the same in 2002?

...Possibly none will do it, but there are a few up-and-comers to keep an eye on. 17-year old Lina Krasnoroutskaya could be ready for the biggest
jump this year. Her' 01 slam results were fairly impressive (QF at RG, then 4r at Wimbledon), and she certainly pushed Jelena to the brink in Moscow (5-7 in the 3rd, after a 4-6,4-6 loss to Dokic in Tokyo a few weeks earlier) late in the season and managed the largest "big-time" rise in the women's rankings on the year by jumping from #133 to #34. Her results were inconsistent and she'll need more big-match experience to challenge for the Top 10 at age 18, but her rise is eerily remiscent of Jelena's (Dokic was Junior #1 in '98, Lina K. in '99... Dokic won the US Open Girls title in '98, Lina K. in '99... and while a 17-year old Dokic cracked the Top 30 in '00, Lina K. was just 48 points from saying the same in '01) and it wouldn't be a shock to see her nipping at the heels of the #10 player (and maybe even Jelena herself?) by the end of the year. Also, look for 18-year old Daja Bedanova, who knocked off Monica Seles at the US Open en route to a QF and finished the year at #28, and #38 Daniela Hantuchova, who defeated Jelena at Leipzig in September, to make big gains, as well. VERDICT: Lina K. will challenge for and claim a Top 10 spot (and might make a slam SF, at least), with Bedanova and Hantuchova not far behind.

7.Will Jelena Dokic's serve improve enough for her to fulfill the great promise she showed in 2001?

...Everyone here has a vested interest in this one, of course. Sure, I'm a little biased, but I truly believe that the improvement (or not) in Dokic's serve will be the difference between her remaining simply an excellent Top 10 player... or making the grand slam breakthrough at either RG or Wimbledon next Spring that will put her name on the lips of everyone who follows tennis. Since her Wimbledon upset of Hingis in 1999, Dokic has improved steadily along with the other top teenagers in her age group (Clijsters, Henin and, before her '01 slump, Elena Dementieva). It was assumed by many three years ago that Dokic had the best long-range potential... and she WAS the first of the group to reach a slam SF ('00 Wimbledon, at 17). Since then, she's been just a half-step behind the Waffles as far as career accomplishments. The Waffles won singles titles first, made the Top 10 first... and then advanced to their first slam singles finals in 2001. That last one is Dokic's next step, and she'll need her serve to do it. In picking up her Yugoslavian Sportswoman of the Year award, she said the improvement of her serve has been her #1 offseason training goal... so she and the Team know how important it is. She has the power, the grit and the love of the big stage. Now her game has to catch up with the rest of her. When it does, it could be a (more) magnificent thing to watch. With a slightly bigger, far more consistent, serve Dokic can make the leap past her Belgian counterparts in 2002 and re-assume her position at the top of the heap of this group of young players. VERDICT: Dokic's serve will improve significantly after an offseason of such focus, and she'll climb over the Waffles in the rankings en route to making her first slam singles final before 2002 is over. She may have to wait until 2003 to win one, though.

6.Will either of the Belgian Waffles win a slam title in 2002?

...Almost shockingly, little Belgium produced both the #5 (Kim Clijsters) and #7 (Justine Henin) players in the world last year. Clijsters, after barely escaping a SF against Henin, was just points away from winning the RG crown over Jennifer Capriati (losing the 3rd set 10-12)... then Henin pushed Venus Williams to three sets in the Wimbledon final. After such near misses, it would seem logical that one of the Waffles would make the next step and win a slam title in '02... but don't be so hasty. Henin has a magnificently beautiful game (with her cross-court backhand being the single most graceful shot in women's tennis), but her small stature automatically puts her at a physical disadvantage against nearly every top woman she faces. She's crafty and smart, though (much like Martina Hingis USED to be), and knows how to take advantage of her opponent's mistakes and change her own gameplan in mid-match. It's dangerous to underestimate Henin, but it would seem that Clijsters' chances of a slam title would be far better next year than her's. Clijsters is just as scrappy as Henin, proving her mettle in big matches in '01 (she defeated both Davenport and Hingis, and put up a titanic battle against Davenport again in Munich... while Henin went down 0-6 in the 3rd set in her last two slam matches of the season) and has the groundstroke game that's more suited to consistently hitting with the "Big Babes" of the Tour. In a way, she's a more powerful Arantxa Sanchez Vicario... and a competitor like that will eventually draw her share of big-game blood. VERDICT: Clijsters will be the first Waffle to win a
slam, and will get a shot to claim "the one that got away" at this year's RG final against either Henin or Jelena Dokic.

5.Who will stage a Capriati-esque comeback to win a surprise grand slam

...Probably no one, but there are certainly two women out there whose progress back toward the top could continue on to greater things: Monica
Seles and Iva Majoli. The two Yugoslavian-born women haven't raised a slam singles trophy for years. Seles last took Oz in 1996, while Majoli's one RG crown came in 1997. Seles, still struggling with her committment to getting into true fighting shape, finished '01 at #10 in the rankings... but showed flashes of her early '90s brilliance late in the season (winning 3 titles in the closing months) after being forced off the Tour due to injury earlier in the year. The re-vamped and re-built body that powered Capriati's comeback might be inspiration enough to bring Seles the rest of the way back, something that her overall lack of fitness has prevented since her return from the '93 Hamburg stabbing. If it's going to happen, it must be now. At 27, Seles is the oldest player in the Top 10 and, with the youthful likes of the Williams sisters, the Waffles and Jelena all battling for position, 2002 might be her last shot to return to the top of women's tennis. Meanwhile, Majoli, 24, after virtually dropping off the face of the Tour following her RG upset victory over Hingis, quietly moved from #73 to #42 last year... and nearly took out the Swiss Miss again in the 3r of the US Open in September. Majoli likely has little chance to return to the Top 10, but if she can continue her quiet improvement she might be able to position herself for another run at RG. VERDICT: Seles will advance to her first slam final since 1998, but won't win it. Majoli will finish 2002 in the Top 20.

4.Will the Williams sisters live up to their promises to play full schedules in 2002?

...Not bloody likely. Venus played in only 12 tournaments in 2001, while Serena managed to make it to just 10. Venus couldn't even finish out her season in the WTA Championships in Munich, claiming a wrist injury (one that was "confirmed" by WTA officials, but only after an investigation into the validity of her story was called for to see if she would have her year-end prize money bonus withheld); and Serena again was dogged at times by on-court illnesses that made some question her honesty since she only made an issue of it whenever she lost (making it easy to accuse her of being an excuse-maker). It's hard to argue with the sisters being the most purely talented players on Tour, but stamina and healthy (and not JUST a handful of great results in a few events) SHOULD play some part in determining who's ranked #1... and, despite their oft-brilliant and generally physically-dominant play, both Venus and Serena have proven to have very fragile bodies that aren't up to the rigors of a full season. With Davenport's rise to #1 for 2001 without a single slam final appearance, the WTA ranking system has been tweaked once again to put more emphasis on slam and Tier I results (allowing top players to play fewer tournaments without taking ranking hits, and to stay healthier as the long season goes on). The change might end up allowing the Williamses to continue with their light schedules without suffering any consequences ranking-wise. Serena has vowed that she'll play so much in 2002 that everyone will "be sick of" her, but I'll believe it when I see it. VERDICT: Neither sister will play more than 15 events, but both will end up in the Top 5 and, with the slightly different system, Venus will end up #1 for 2002.

3.Will Martina Hingis break through what has become a glass ceiling and dominate the women's Tour again?

...The Swiss Miss will never legitimately hold the #1 spot in women's tennis again, but there's no reason for her to continue the fall from grace that really started with her 1999 Wimbledon loss to Jelena Dokic. After fairly dominating the Tour before that 1r match, she hasn't won a slam title since as her petulant side has surfaced and she's been forced to experience losing for the very first time. She hasn't handled it well, and patience has ceased to be her strong suit. Now, with so many players able to out-muscle her off the court, her style of deft, crafty play has almost become a dinosaur as she's reached her 21st birthday. On her good days, she's still capable of knocking off the "Big Babes"... but it's nearly impossible for her to go through two or three of them late in a slam to take the title. But Justine Henin, a smart player at a similar physical disadvantage, showed in 2001 at RG and Wimbledon that there are still opportunities to be had at the majors for their smallish lot. Hingis' October ankle injury ended her season prematurely, causing her year-end rank to fall to #4, her lowest finish since 1996. VERDICT: Hingis will never dominate again, but she won't go away, either. The injury may have provided her a chance to step back, resassess her game, and make a more determined effort to improve her notoriously weak first serve. She'll have to pick her spots (and hope for good draws) in grand slams for the rest of her career, but she will win more than one more (probably at RG, the one title that eluded her when she was on top of the world at age 16-17).

2.What will "the year after" be like for Jennifer Capriati?

...Capriati was the "Can't-Miss Kid" back in 1990 when she was barely a teenager. At 14, she made the SF in just her first slam appearance (at RG), and became the youngest-ever player to reach the Top 10. At 15, she made the Wimbledon and US Open SF. At 16, she was the Olypmic Gold Medalist. At 17, she lost in the US Open 1r... then didn't play another slam match for two and a half years as her personal life collapsed into behavioral problems, a drug arrest and the mug shot shown 'round the world. Slowly, but surely, her long climb back started to show some progress in 1999, then continued into 2000 thanks to an intense training regimen that allowed her to reach her peak last January with a victory in Oz, then a follow-up slam win in Paris. Late in the year, she finally surpassed Hingis for #1 at age 25... then seemed to begin to once again feel a little of th pressure that had sent her down the wrong path so many years ago. The closing months of Capriati's '01 season were far less successful than it's first half, and her crabby press conferences and poor moods were starting to become commonplace by the time she lost the #1 ranking for the year to Davenport. Now comes another hard part. Physically, Capriati would seem to be well-prepared to defend her new place at (or near) the top of the rankings... but is her mind ready to be the favorite instead of the underdog putting together the greatest comeback story in years? Will the cracks that started to become visible late last season become more pronounced in 2002? VERDICT: Capriati will hold herself together, but she won't be as successful in 2002, and when she's not able to defend both titles at Oz and RG her ranking will slip. She'll finish the year in the Top 10 and maybe even win another slam, but she won't come close to replicating her dream season.

1.Will the injury-marred season that caused her rank to plummet to #74 finally awaken Anna Kournikova's athletic desire to become a champion?

...We'll find out a lot about Kournikova in 2002. She's always said that the criticism levied against her inability to win a singles title was unfair, choosing to take pride in her consistently high rank (#8 in 2000). In a sense, her detractors weren't being fair... but a case can certainly be made that her glamourous off-court career has gone so well that she hasn't felt the NEED to win. She definitely hasn't shown the fire-in-the-gut desire that is the cornerstone of the games of a Dokic or Clijsters. That being said, the injuries that devastated her 2001 season might have been just what Kournikova needed. There's something to be said for having to prove yourself... and that's what she will have to do all over again in 2002. After taking the game for granted, the time away from the court may have caused her to realize how important it is to her. She'll certainly have to show more intensity to have a realistic shot to get back to where she was one year ago. She won't get the 1r byes this year, or the easier opening match opponents (at the Australian, she might get a horrific draw since she won't be able to take advantage of a Top 32 seed), and she'll have to beat players ranked ahead of her rather than feasting on lower-rankeds and then falling in the QF or SF as soon as a top player steps into her path. In 2002, she'll decide which she wants more -- to be a tennis champion now, or the next Bond girl tomorrow. If she chooses to set her mind on the former, her comeback at ago 20 would be a bigger story than Capriati's at 25... simply, if for no other reason, because she's "Anna," whose every move is chronicled to no end without regard to how well she actually plays. Kournikova IS a great athlete, and I've always felt she thought she was being sincere when she said that she took pride in her ranking rather than dwell on her lack of a singles title. But I don't think that in her heart the words were true. Remember, Kournikova has been a champion before. She knows what it feels like. She was the Junior #1 in 1995 (and won the US Open Girls title), made the Wimbledon SF in 1997 and then knocked off Steffi Graf on grass before the '98 Wimbledon. But a thumb injury took her out of the Big W that year (and off Tour for two months), robbing her of her best chance to make slam mark. She's never seemed to have the same desire to win since, being content with the status her ranking gave Anna the Tennis Player, while reveling in the spotlight provided by Anna the Star. She hasn't advanced past the 4r of a slam since, and still hasn't won a WTA singles crown despite routinely holding her seed at events (she had 16 QF or better results in 2000, with 9 SF or better)... and has always turned her back on participating in the less-publicized, lower Tier-ed ("below her") events where she could have easily wiped that "0 career titles" stain off her resume by now. Out of necessity, that changes next season because she'll need as many good results as possible to claw her way back up the rankings. She needs points, and she's not going to be quite as picky about where she gets them... and she might just win a title along the way and realize how much fun it is (and how much pride she takes in it). After suffering through a series of 1r losses at the end of last season as she struggled to get herself match-ready again, there have been some encouraging signs for Kournikova. She nearly upset Clijsters in Luxembourg in October, then defeated Capriati in an exhibition in December. She'll be on the early Aussie circuit in January, and will have a golden opportunity to kick-start her comeback with her first-ever title. If she does it, her 2002 could turn to be a very big story... but, for the first time in ages, it would be about her on-court accomplishments. VERDICT: Kournikova won't be the Capriati of 2002 but, being Anna, her comeback will get even more headlines than the American's did. As long as injuries don't take her out again, Kournikova will fight her way back... starting with getting her first singles title (maybe just before Oz). By October, she still won't be the top Russian-born player in the WTA rankings, but she will be within spitting distance of the Top 10 again.

**10 "For What It's Worth Predictions**

1.Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won't give enough credit to the young players that defeat her, preferring to believe it's 1992 and she's still a Top 10 player.

2.Jennifer Capriati's increasingly crabby press conference performances will make everyone wonder why they rooted so hard for her in 2001.

3.The Williams sisters will be involved in at least two more withdrawl/"injury"/"fix"/Richard controversies.

4.Amelie Mauresmo will choke in at least one 1r match at a grand slam.

5.The London taboid writers will do backflips when they realize they won't have to work so hard next June -- Anna will be back.

6.Headline writers will rue the day they ever had to learn how to spell "Krasnoroutskaya," let alone being forced to figure out how to fit it on the page.

7.Monica Seles will elbow out Capriati as this year's "favorite" underdog.

8.Soon, Elena Dementieva will be the most well-known Russian without a singles title to her name.

9.TV directors will get tired of showing Kim Clijsters or Lleyton Hewitt watching the other play from the stands (ok, maybe that's more of a "wish" than a prediction).

10.Jelena Dokic will have even more reasons to smile after matches than she did last year.

** ** **

1.Venus Williams, USA
2.Lindsay Davenport, USA
3.Serena Williams, USA
4.Martina Hingis, Switzerland
5.Jelena Dokic, Yugoslavia
6.Kim Clijsters, Belgium
7.Justine Henin, Belgium
8.Monica Seles, USA
9.Jennifer Capriati, USA
10.Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Russia
11.Amelie Mauresmo, France
12.Elena Dementieva, Russia
13.Anna Kournikova, Russia
14.Daja Bedanova, Czech Republic
15.Meghann Shaughnessy, USA
16.Sandrine Testud, France
17.Maggie Maleeva, Bulgaria
18.Daniela Hantuchova, Slovakia
19.Iroda Tulyaganova, Uzbekistan
20.Iva Majoli, Croatia
21.Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Spain
22.Nadia Petrova, Russia
23.Mary Pierce, France
24.Conchita Martinez, Spain
25.Francesca Schiavone, Italy

** ** **

WTA 2002 - WEEK 1
Dec.29-Jan.5... Hopman Cup (Perth)
Dec.31-Jan.6... Gold Coast, Australia
Dec.31-Jan.6... Auckland, New Zealand


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