Saturday, January 01, 2005

2005 Intriguing Questions #3-4

The Waffles. The Belgians. Queen Justine. FilaKim. Le Petit Taureau. Call them what you will, their lot is to always be bunched together in discussions of all things tennis. Thus, Backspin keeps up the tradition...


These are "high wire times" for Kim Clijsters. After struggling in vain to win her first grand slam title for a few seasons, she's spent most of the last year performing a balancing act centering around wrist injuries that have put her entire tennis future in doubt.

When her '04 season finally ended in October in Hasselt, her third event (of three) over the previous eight months that had ended with either a walkover or retirement, doctors expressed doubts that she'd ever be able to resume her career (and here we'd wondered whether her trademark slides on every court surface might endanger her by one day wrecking her ankles or knees). As it turned out, the wrist didn't require another surgery and Clijsters, for the moment, seemed to get a career reprieve. 2005 will likely tell the tale of whether it was only a temporary deferment from the inevitable. For a two-handed backhander such as Clijsters, chronic wrist injuries, if they don't completely extinguish a career, could forever alter the course of one. Even if she does play again, and she seems ready to try (recently wavering on whether to play the Australian Open, though she'd be smart to wait after trying to return too soon last year), she may never be the same player who rose to #1 in 2003.

2004 had started so encouragingly. Clijsters made the Oz final, losing to JHH, then followed up with titles in Paris and Antwerp. She talked of how excited she was to win a WTA event in Belgium for the first time, saying it gave her "goose pimples on (her) face." Who would have guessed that there'd be a chance that Antwerp could be her LAST title? She'll enter 2005 ranked #22, with her future in question, Lleyton Hewitt in her rearview mirror... and the elusive slam title maybe even a little farther out of reach.

Even if she regains her health, and recaptures a little focus, it'll take a while for FilaKim to be the "old" Clijsters. She won't end her slam drought in '05. She won't even come close. In fact, I'll say she'll play sparingly over the season's first half, taking it easy (possibly even taking another extended break) and pointing toward the summer hardcourt system. If she can't make it through even a cut-back schedule, Clijsters' career moment of truth could arrive over the next twelve months... and everything could be over at that point.

Many have long felt she wouldn't last long in the game. She was "too normal," they said. "Too nice," as well (which may explain the lack of a killer instinct she's shown in her grand slam failures). An injury could prove to be an "easy" way out the door for a player who possibly isn't cut out to be the "cutthroat" champion so many expect her to desire to be.

I don't think she'll ever be that kind of player... but I'm guessing that her playing days won't come to an end in 2005. I've never been a great fan of Clijsters, not so much because of her as because of the stomach-churning praise she got while rising to the top of the rankings. She was so well-liked it was as if people were afraid to point out how many times she'd choked precisely when a true champion should have risen to the occasion. (You know, kind of the opposite reaction that's occurred as the cool-under-pressure, but not beloved, Sharapova has shown her mental metal in big-time matches.) But no one wants to see a player's career end due to an injury. Having Clijsters' close out so early this way would almost be even more sad than how Monica Seles has been robbed of a career victory lap season because of her own health problems.

But at least Seles had her grand slam glory. Clijsters might not get another shot at her's. Even if she's well enough to make the attempt, she might never grasp that moment... but, considering her quest was Backspin's #1 IQ two seasons ago, how could I possibly say here that I don't want to see her give it a try?



Justine Henin-Hardenne presents so much in a small package. She's a "big babe" in "little babe's" clothing. Power, heart, will and nerve pushed her to three slam titles and an Olympic gold in barely a calendar year as she chopped down more physically imposing opponents on a regular basis with a glorious blend of craftiness, orneriness and brilliant shotmaking.

Yet, there JHH was in 2004, brought down by something even smaller than she. A bug, a virus, a "mystery illness." Call if what you will, but it managed to wipe out half of the 2003 #1's season and has left her wondering, at least publicly, whether or not she'll be anywhere close to physically ready to contend for the sport's biggest titles this coming season. Of course, if we've learned anything since JHH became the Belgian player on tour it's that you should never, without question, ever underestimate her.

Consider, in the throes of battling the lingering viral infection last season, she emerged as if from a springtime cocoon (she'd only played two matches in the four months since being stricken with fatigue in April) to go to Athens in August and stun everyone by winning the gold medal there. The overwhelming effort she showed in Greece likely doomed what remained of her season. JHH struggled to the U.S. Open 4th Round soon after, then called off the rest of her schedule. In retrospect, even as remarkable as it seemed at the time, the Athens triumph might now rightly be considered one of the more amazing sports accomplishments in recent memory (there's Lance Armstrong winning six Tour de France's, of course, but JHH's Athens Gold isn't so far behind that the American cyclist can't see her over his shoulder).

Le Petit Taureau's parting shot was so magnificent that, even while missing so much time, she arguably could have still won Player of the Year in 2004. She won the Australian en route to raising trophies in four of her first five events, then took the gold. She was 35-4 overall, and at least two of those defeats were greatly influenced by the virus. After a "career year" in 2003, that was what JHH did for an encore. Imagine if she'd been up to par... the Russian Revolution might never have occurred.

But what about 2005? Can she possibly contend for #1 against Davenport, Mauresmo and the Russians while regaining her fitness? Probably not, since Queen Justine will likely take the "slow and steady" approach as she makes sure she isn't leveled once more by the re-born virus. She won't attempt to play a schedule chocked full to the brim. Still, the right combination of big-event success (she's won 26 straight Tier I matches) could keep her near the top, giving her a shot to reclaim #1, say, by winning her second U.S. Open come the fall. Of course, JHH isn't talking about that. Taking the "anti-Mauresmo" approach and making sure not to put too much pressure on herself in Melbourne, she's emerged from her recent exhibition matches openly questioning her ability to defend her Aussie title. In a way, it's sort of the same thing she did in the days leading up to Athens.

Now, Queen Justine wouldn't be pulling the wool over our eyes, would she? She wouldn't be the type to "wave" everyone in another direction, then make a run to occupy the space they so absent-mindedly left, right? JHH... practicing the art of gamesmanship? Shocking. Wouldn't it be great?

At least as far as the Australian is concerned, though, I doubt if it's a ruse. It's probably too early for a two-week title run, but don't think she'll go down and out easily, either. If she somehow finds her way into the final, bet on her to win it... it'd be too perfect a moment for Le Petit Taureau to pass up. I don't think JHH will actually win Oz, but I do think she'll take one of the remaining three slams, maybe even completing a "career slam" by taking Wimbledon (which would join her with Graf and Agassi as the only players to win all four slams, plus Olympic gold), where she was RU in 2001.

Just don't underestimate or overlook Queen Justine... you'll live to regret it. Of course, if you do, you'd just be joining a long and illustrious list of those who have. And, yes, that list could get even longer in 2005.



And now, something special. Here are some of Tennisrulz Head Honcho Pierre Cantin's predictions for 2005:

Player of the Year: Maria Sharapova
Riser: Nicole Vaidisova
Surprise: Tatiana Golovin
Veteran: Lindsay Davenport
Fresh Face: Sesil Karatancheva
Down: Jennifer Capriati


1.Russia will extend its domination even further. Do you think four Russians in the Top 10 is a lot? How about if in twelve months that Top 10 included a majority of Russians? I've put five on my list, but players like Petrova and Bovina have without a doubt the potential.

2.Kuznetsova will be the best all-around player. I think she can play well on every surface. Her confidence is on the rise. Her game is clearly good, and getting better.

3.Again, no slams for Americans in '05.

4.JHH will dominate...when she plays! I just don't think Justine will be able/willing to compete in as many events as the other top players and thus will not be able to hold onto a Top 1-2 ranking.

5.An eastern European country other than Russia will see a player emerge as a grand slam threat. I think either Slovakia, Ukraine or the Czech Republic will have a player advance very far in one of the grand slams. Those countries have so many players coming up!

6.Vera Zvonareva will become the fourth Russian to win a grand slam. I just don't see how she couldn't. Her game is very, very solid.

7.Jelena Dokic will get her game back together in some way. She'll be like Daniela Hantuchova -- on the way back.

8.Speaking of Hantuchova, she will gain more and more confidence and, while she will be a real threat to top players for at least a few more months, when the green grass will come along, she'll be ready to take on anyone!

9.Russia will easily defend its first Fed Cup thanks to not only having the best players out there, but also being able to actually get them to play.

10.I'm really hoping I'm wrong on this one: Kim Clijsters will retire after trying a few times to make a comeback, because of an inability to prepare properly for tournaments.

(Pierre's picks for the WTA Top 10 -- as well as mine -- will be in the next Backspin)



==WEEK 1==

The draws are out, so the game is on...

04 F: Daniilidou d. Harkleroad 05 TOP: Frazier/Jankovic =============================
(Dark Horse: Jidkova)
SF: #1 Frazier d. Brandi; #3 Daniilidou d. #2 Jankovic
FINAL: #1 Frazier d. #3 Daniilidou

...Daniilidou is the two-time defending champ. Three in a row is so rare.

04 F: Sugiyama d. Petrova
05 TOP: Petrova/Schnyder ==============================
(Dark Horses: Golovin, Karatancheva)
SF: N.Li d. Stosur; Dechy d. #2 Schnyder
FINAL: N.Li d. Dechy

...I'm simply not going to overlook Na Li here, then regret it later.

04 F: USA d. Slovakia ============================
FINAL: Russia (Myskina/Safin) d. Australia (Molik/Philippoussis)

...the Aussies had to pull out of last year's final due to injury. Russia? Why not? It's a trend.

HONG KONG, CHINA (Exhibition)
04 F: V.Williams d. Sharapova =============================
FINAL: V.Williams d. Mauresmo a loaded draw that dwarfs the actual tour events for Week 1, Venus makes a statement. Of course, winning here last year didn't mean much, did it? All for now.


Next Backspin:

IQ's #1 & #2, Quick Pick Predictions and Top 10 forecasts


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