Monday, January 03, 2005

2005 Intriguing Questions #1-2

Well, we're finally here. The sun is shining on the early moments of the 2005 season... and it's time to talk about the top two most intriguing questions for the next twelve months. If you're familiar with what happened in 2004, it should come as no surprise that they deal with, what else... the Russians.


Here was 2004 in a nutshell: Davenport was #1, the Belgians went out, the Williamses fell down, Mauresmo was... well, Mauresmo, and into the void came the remarkable ladies from Russia. They not only filled the breach, they caused it to overflow.

The group known affectionately at Backspin as "The Horde," suddenly now breaking down into the "Spartak" and "Supernova" camps, didn't just turn potential into trophies last season, they practically hijacked the tour from June until the end of the year, feeding off each other's accomplishments like voracious piranha. First Roland Garros fell, then Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. Finally, and fittingly, even the Fed Cup was overthrown by way of Russian rackets.

3.Anastasia Myskina
4.Maria Sharapova
5.Svetlana Kuznetsova
6.Elena Dementieva
11.Vera Zvonareva
12.Nadia Petrova
15.Elena Bovina

Overall last year, the Horde claimed 15 titles (up from 11 in '03, 6 in '02), placed four players in the Top 10, seven in the Top 20 and nine in the Top 50. The average age of the top ten-ranked Russians is just 21.9 (and that's counting the anomalous #24 Elena Likhovtseva, 29), so they're not going away anytime soon. Actually, the ranks are threatening to get even deeper and younger as teens such as Maria Kirilenko, Vera Douchevina, Anna Chakvetadze and others are on the way up. Things are close to getting so crowded that "veterans" such as Zvonareva, Petrova, Bovina and Dinara Safina (just 18 herself) risk getting lost in the "middle child" shuffle if they don't soon break through with major titles of their own. After such a saber-rattling season, the question is obvious for the Czarina & Her Court: Now what?

Well, the first task will be to take the Australian Open and complete not only an "Ex-Soviet Slam" (or, to shamelessly latch onto's Jon Wertheim's "Soviettes" nickname for the Russian women -- a "Soviette Slam") with a fourth straight slam title, but, for Backspin purposes... (drumroll, please)... a "Horde Hexad" (look it up -- it'd stand for six straight major championships, including the Tour Championships and Fed Cup). I think it'll happen, possibly with the help of one of the Russians who was left out of the slam trophy haul of last season.

As for the balance of the year, the return of a healthy JHH, a hopefully fully-engaged Williams clan and a Mauresmo focused on winning a slam of her own will make for a wonderful 11-month back-and-forth battle for supremacy. But with so many entrants in the race, the safe money will still be on the Horde.

Czarina Myskina currently holds a tenuous grip on the #1 Russian ranking. If she manages to hold off the rest of her countrywomen (namely, two) all season, it'll count as one of the more remarkable sports accomplishments of the year. I think she'll reach her goal of becoming the first Russian ranked #1 on the computer sometime during the clay season (possibly heading to Paris as the #1 seed), but she won't defend her RG title and will lose the ranking for good as the tour turns to the grass. At season's end, she'll have been passed by (at least temporarily) by the Contessova Kuznetsova, as well as the Supernova.

Ultimately, the Horde might not end up having quite as much overall success in '04 (as far as winning titles), but their presence across the board will only increase in stature. In fact, the Australian won't be the only slam claimed for Mother Russian in 2005. Two of 2004's Russian slam winners will win major titles again this season, but neither will do it by defending their championship from a year ago. Also, one or both of Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva will find themselves in a slam final... but neither will win (and one will choke away a "sure" title badly).

But, it won't matter. When the season comes to a close, all will be well, for a Russian will sit atop the WTA singles rankings.


Ah, but it won't be who you might be thinking... but that doesn't prevent her from being #1 somewhere else. So, with its subject claiming the highest-ranking IQ slot for the second straight preseason, the #1 Most Intriguing Question for 2005 is...


A year ago, the top IQ wondered how far Maria's world would expand. Well, it expanded exponentially far and wide in 2004. Now, she has to contend with the "year after."

Of course, in contemplating the question posed above, we have to decide whether Maria Sharapova, 17-year old cover girl and product endorser, is indeed the same person as the force of nature known as "The Supernova," the talented, preternaturally collected oncourt presence who battled Serena Williams toe-to-toe on the grass at Wimbledon, then overcame her yet again in the Tour Championships as the former #1, like a wounded bear backed into a corner, was swinging wildly with lethal precision from the baseline as she ran up a 4-0 3rd set lead. The former can be intimidating in a (some would say) haughty, beautiful-and-she-knows-it, above it all sort of way; while the latter can instinctively intimidate between the white lines in a "watch your back or she'll cut you" kind of circumstance. If they're one in the same, Sharapova the Player will continue to cut a wide swath through the tour for seasons to come. If not, she'll have a lot of self-imposed obstacles to clear before long as she deals with the mounting pressures in her life.

So, are they harmoniously one in the same? Is that even possible? Well, the Russian Spartaks certainly think Sharapova is different. She's not "Russian" enough. She's too "Americanized," they say. The Czarina & Her Court are right about Sharapova. She is different, for she alone has the ability to lift the sport to another level of popularity if she continues along on her current championship-grabbing path.

In the Associated Press' list of 2004's Top Female Athletes, Sharapova placed third behind Annika Sorenstam and Diana Taurasi, but it's revealing to note that both Myskina and Kuznetsova finished below the Spartak they beat -- Dementieva -- in their grand slam final matches. When it comes to public consciousness, there's something else -- an "excitement factor," so to speak -- at play. Dementieva trumps the other Spartaks in this category, but she doesn't put the entire package together and tie it off with a nice bow quite like Sharapova can. The Tour Championships event was promoted by picturing a leggy Sharapova reclining on the court, with the caption "the closer you get, the hotter she gets." Crowds increased tremendously in L.A. over past years... and Sharapova won the tournament, too. There you have it. She can whip up the crowd off the court, then give them just what they asked for on it, too. With one victory at Wimbledon, Sharapova is destined to have more impact than the rest of the Spartaks even if she doesn't win another slam title in her career.

So many other issues go along with a teenaged girl winning tennis titles, and keeping them all in order and continuing to win will be quite a task to pull off. Sharapova experienced a post-Wimbledon wobble after her worldwide promotional tour, looking unphenomenal and uncharacteristically shaky. But she set her mind on righting herself in the season's final quarter, entering and winning two small tournaments. Many criticized her decision to play in those lower-tiered events at the time, rather than enter bigger events such as the Moscow Tier I. Surely, the poster girl shouldn't have been playing outside the main spotlight, it was theorized. The wins are "cheap," they insinuated. But this is where Sharapova is different. She could have gone for the money and played the larger tournaments, but she'd been unprepared and likely would have lost early. Instead, she got her game together, rode the momentum to a Tier I final (Zurich, losing to Alicia Molik), got revenge on Molik a week later in a Philadelphia QF, then came into L.A. and took the biggest late-season title of them all at the Tour Championships. She gets it.

At this point, she could take the Kournikova route and coast on her looks and outside opportunities for the rest of the decade... but there she was in a Tier III and IV, working on her game and getting better. She gets it, and she'll get even more as a result of that. Because of the comments from the Spartaks about her father Yuri's rude and/or boorish behavior, Sharapova's potential participation in Fed Cup play in 2005 will be an interesting sideshow. But that's all it'll be, if it's even that. What happens on that front won't affect Sharapova's play elsewhere. She won't let it.

There is one way the Supernova and the Spartaks are the same. As Sharapova recently said, the Russians have an "eagerness to be the best. We're all very hungry and want to do our best." After such success in 2004, though, is Sharapova still hungry? "Starving," she told the Baltimore Sun newspaper in December. So, for all intents and purposes, Sharapova and the Supernova are indeed one in the same. At the moment, even as Sharapova checks off on bottle designs for her very own perfume in 2005, she's still single-minded about what the Supernova wants to accomplish in the sport. Her image looks to be in no danger of overwhelming the reality of what she's come to tennis to do. Namely, to win.

It'd be easy to say Sharapova will fall back a little this season, act her age and come down to earth a bit. It won't happen, though. Not yet. She's earned her position on the court (and off it). A second slam title this season, and the maintaining of her Top 5 ranking, will only solidify Sharapova's standing on both fronts. As 2006 begins, she'll be setting her sights on reaching #1 before she turns 20.

It could happen even earlier, possibly sometime this season. I certainly wouldn't put it past the Supernova... or Maria, for that matter. After all, they are one in the same. And it's quite a potent alliance.



1.First-time WTA singles champions in '05:
Nadia Petrova
Tatiana Golovin
Alina Jidkova
Zi Yan
Ana Ivanovic
Vera Douchevina (def. Maria Kirilenko)

2.No titles in '05:
Jennifer Capriati
Chanda Rubin
Karolina Sprem
Ashley Harkleroad
Eleni Daniilidou

3.Monica Seles will retire during 2005. Lindsay Davenport will do the same after the season. 48-year old Martina Navratilova will not, as she angles to become the first 50-year old to win a WTA doubles title in 2007.

4.Martina Hingis will make more than a few cameo early-season appearances, will win a doubles title, and will enter an event with Navratilova as her partner. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario will add to her list of career doubles titles, too.

5.One current or former Top 100 WTA player will willingly pose nude (it'll be no Myskina-esque "gotcha" situation, either) for a magazine, following in the footsteps of Aussie athletes such as Lauren Jackson (the WNBA MVP posed in Australia's B+W last year), or "star" in a widely-distributed internet sex video. Okay, I KNOW who you're thinking... but it could be someone else, right?

6.Venus Williams will reach a slam final. Serena will not.

7.Veteran late-career resurgence: Kveta Peschke

8.Navratilova will prime new doubles partner Daniela Hantuchova for success in '06. They'll join together to win a slam title in '05. Then, next year, Wonder Girl will follow in Svetlana Kuznetsova's footsteps by thanking Navratilova when she raises her first slam singles trophy at Wimbledon.

9.Myskina will become the first Russian female ranked #1, but the second Russian woman to get there will finish the season in the spot.

10.Your four 2005 slam winners: Kuznetsova, Sharapova and JHH (with none of them repeating their '04 slam wins). Plus, a first-timer from the Mauresmo/Dementieva/Zvonareva trio (right now, I'm thinking January's Melbourne "gambit" might work better in July) will round out the group.




1.Kuznetsova...she was 0-3 in her first three '04 finals, then 3-1 in her last 4
---------------------------- long as she avoids a relapse
3.Mauresmo...'04 is her last chance to win a slam
4.Sharapova...won't repeat at SW19, but might just win in NYC
5.Myskina...oddly enough, she'll win more titles than she did in '04 (3), but no slam #2
---------------------------- great slam and she could scale a couple more Russians
7.Davenport...if she starts poorly, will she last to November?
8.S.Williams...she's good for three near-brilliant weeks a season, but none consecutively
9.Dementieva...she'll make a third slam final, but lose once again
10.Golovin...the lastest teen Top 10er, until Vaidisova arrives
+1: Zvonareva/Bovina/Molik...if someone falters, any (or all) could make the leap


1.Kuznetsova...all around game is excellent. She is improving faster than anyone, and plays well under pressure.
2.Sharapova...just has such a big game, but clay is not her best
3.Mauresmo...she'll play well in several big events, but not get to the end
--------------------------- she ready physically to play 20 tournaments to keep up with the Russians?
5.S.Williams...will be very motivated, but can the body hold up?
6.Myskina...lacks that big weapon
7.Zvonareva...I'm tempted to put her even higher. She has the game of a Top 3, in my opinion, and just needs a breakthrough.
8.Dementieva...if only she can get that serve fixed
9.Davenport...she could do better, if I expected her to play 12 months or a full schedule
10.Hantuchova...this would be a huge comeback. I think she's up to it.
LEFT OUT: Clijsters (wish I was confident she would play soon) & Capriati (decline is coming)


...hmmm. Both Pierre & I picked Kuznetsova to be #1? One is a prediction. Two is a jinx. So, it probably won't happen now. Sorry, Contessova. (Psst... blame Pierre!)

All for now.


"Act 1, Scene 1" of 2005


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