Saturday, December 24, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #7

A wintry wind had blown across the German tennis landscape since 1999, ever since the Golden child-turned-woman made her last grand stand on the stained earth of Paris. For nearly six years, the throne from which the legend once scrutinized her kingdom had been vacant. In the years that followed her exit, German women performed nary a solitary act that qualified any single one as her suitable successor.

The German tennis establishment searched high and low for a worthy substitute, seemingly to no avail. Individuals were collected from the far reaches (I don't think anyone traversed the Tibetan mountainside during the quest, but you never know). Many were discarded, while a few were passed through to "the next phase" of identification. But no one was sure of what had been found in the quest until a sage elder from a far off land -- herself a former queen -- helped to focus German eyes in the direction of a single candidate. Soon it was confirmed that the girl in question was indeed "the one" -- the heir to the treasure of all German tennis treasures.

"Call off the search," said the Bavarian gentleman with the half-smoked stogie balanced perfectly on his lower lip. "We've found her. Bring her here. She must be introduced to her subjects."

Then, out of the mist of Nordhorn, the charge appeared like a vision of days gone by (well, either that or as the image of an odd Dokic/Bovina amalgam). Immediately, it was apparent that she was not an apparition at all, but was made of real flesh and bone.

"What's your name, fraulein?," the Bavarian asked.

"Anna-Lena," the young woman replied in a low, but clear voice that revealed her youth... but also her promise.

"Then let it be known that you have arrived. Go forth and receive your public. Allow them to embrace you as they did our dearly-departed queen," he said, nudging the girl toward the curtain stretched in front of a balcony overlooking the packed city square.

Tentatively, Anna-Lena stepped forward, striding past the curtain with a new purpose... toward her destiny. She was the successor to Steffi the Great. The long search was over.

But was it?


If Sania Mirza, the subject of yesterday's IQ is renowned for being "the first," then 20-year old Anna-Lena Groenefeld is hereby christened as "the next." And she has quite an act to follow.

German tennis great Steffi Graf, Frau Agassi to the uninitiated among us, is rivaled by only Martina Navratilova for the title of the "best ever" in women's tennis history. At the time of her dominance (at least both before and after the too-short Seles Era), it was sometimes monotonous to watch Graf thrash one opponent after another en route to 107 career titles (3rd all-time) and 377 weeks at #1 (the most ever). Since then, the stature of the player who was dubbed "Fraulein Forehand" by the inimitable Bud Collins has grown to almost mythic proportions. In an age when it's a legitimate question whether any female player will ever win as many as 10 slam titles in her career, the 12-year period during which Graf won 22 (2nd all-time to Margaret Court's 24) now seems an unfathomable fantasy.

The time during which a wiry 13-year old Graf's slam career began in 1983, then ended at age 30 just months after winning the '99 Roland Garros title over a not-long-for-the-tennis-world Martina Hingis (until now, that is) went by in a flash. And when Graf was gone, all of German women's tennis seemed to virtually go dark, as well.

You'd think a nation of 82 million people would have produced a certifiable contender by the end of Graf's WTA run (not to mention the concurrent career of one-time ATP #1 Boris Becker), but it didn't happen. The closest anyone came was Anke Huber, who won 12 career titles and reached a slam final (losing in Oz 6-4/6-1 to Seles in '96), but was never a a reliable player of significance over the course of her career. At this time last season, half a decade had passed without an authentic German girl appearing on the horizon with enough talent to resurrect all the old images of a 17-year old Graf raising her first slam trophy at Roland Garros in '87. It was a remarkable thing, really... and during last year's IQ's I joked about when was the last time anyone had seen a German with #1 potential who wasn't named Graf.

But little did Backspin know that Groenefeld was lurking in the weeds, ready to slowly begin to stand up to her full 5-feet, 11-inch (1.80m) height as the 2005 season progressed. The five-year old Anna-Lena was first introduced to tennis by her father and brother at an athletic club around the corner from their home, and fifteen years later she's ready to step up to the WTA mike and belt out a tune with her racket. By the end of 2006, everyone will be standing up to take notice.

Hints of the promise were there all along, I suppose. Groenefeld rose to #1 as a junior in 2003, and that year made her tour debut in Bol, where she held a match point against Vera Zvonareva. But going into 2005, ALG's biggest career win had only come against then world-#66 Lubomira Kurhajcova in 2004.

Last season's success happened on a low trajectory, as Groenefeld showed promise without necessarily garnering great wins, but "earned her wings" in Fed Cup action, steadily gaining consistency as the season grew older. She advanced to her first WTA singles final in Pattaya in February, and in July got her first #1 "win" over Lindsay Davenport when the American retired with an injury with ALG up 5-0. By mid-season, she'd become Backspin's "Girl Friday," showing signs that she may be able to perform the task of connecting a direct line from the present-day WTA world to that of twenty years ago, with an appropriately German twist. And, boy, did Groenefeld ever live up to the hype.

In September, she advanced to back-to-back Tier II finals in Beijing and Luxembourg, where she'd also upset Top 10er Nadia Petrova. In Moscow in October, Groenefeld was throttling then-#1 Maria Sharapova 6-1/4-2 before turning her ankle and being forced to retire from the match on the doorstep of her career's first "bright lights, big city" moment (she would have been the only player last season with wins over two different #1-ranked players). By season's end, she'd raised her ranking from #75 to #21, and was in and out of the doubles Top 10, as well.

Which brings us to the "elder" I talked about earlier.

Ironically, it had been Navratilova, the player Graf dethroned on her way to the top ranking in '87, who managed to earmark Groenefeld for success early last season, causing Backspin's and others' eyes to turn her way. After having shown that she had quite the eye for talent by handpicking doubles partner Svetlana Kuznetsova and teaming with her for the year prior to the Contessova's 2004 U.S. Open title run, Martina tied her ongoing '05 doubles career to Groenefeld, another teenager with a complimentary game powered by strong and aggressive groundstrokes. Their pairing paid dividends for Navratilova as the two teamed to win the Tier I Toronto crown, but the experience of playing side-by-side with a legend might end up helping Groenefeld even more, just as was the case with Kuznetsova. Three inches taller than the Russian, and armed with a bigger serve, Groenefeld seems to only need to garner more experience and seasoning before she'll be capable of, dare I say it, success not seen from a German tennis star since... well, Steffi Graf.

There's still work to be done before that can happen, but the tools are there for Groenefeld to become the next German grand slam champion. Kuznetsova thanked Navratilova when lifting her first slam trophy, and ALG might very well be doing the same one day... maybe a great deal sooner than anyone thinks. Graf used her forehand to climb to great heights, but Groenefeld will use her serve. It could develop into the best point-starting (and ending) shot in the women's game, and that's enough to lead to great things even without the additional "unofficial" coaching/mentoring of Navratilova. With it, who knows what'll happen. Remember, the equally-rangy, but less-athletic Davenport won three slam titles at roughly the same age (22-23) mainly because of the sometimes-lethal nature of her serve. As things stand now, Groenefeld is still looking for a breakthrough moment, be it winning her first WTA singles title (she was 0-3 in finals in '05) or a major upset at a grand slam. Whenever it comes, though, her career could change markedly soon after as her confidence spikes. If it comes early in '06... look out, this could be a monster season for Backspin's (and Germany's) Girl Friday.

So, yes, the search is over for Steffi's successor, and the best is yet to come in this story. Groenefeld's WTA bio says that she admires Graf. Hmmm, maybe Fraulein Forehand will soon reflect a little of that praise back in the direction of her heir. Imagine it... one day Graf and Navratilova's eyes may meet in the stands as they both watch with pride the new champion that they both played at least some part in building. Ah... I think that'd be what would be referred to as the tennis world truly coming full circle. It'll be a great day.

1.Groenefeld will win her first three WTA singles titles, one of which will be a Tier I level event
2.She'll advance to at least a slam QF (and might even play on one of the four biggest Saturday's of the WTA season)
3.Along the way, she'll finally claim that overdue win over Sharapova, too...
4. she rises into the Top 10 in singles...
5. ...and Top 5 in doubles, where she'll help Navratilova win yet another slam crown

All for now.


NEXT: "2006 Over/Under," as well as "2006 Dumpers & Slumpers." Yes, two Backspin presents for the price of one on Christmas day. Now don't say I didn't give you anything.


Anonymous Ian said...

Forgive me if I'm mistaken, but didn't ALG and Navratilova have a falling-out this season and since split? Or have they kissed and made up?

Sun Dec 25, 03:55:00 AM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I haven't seen anything about that happening, but I guess I could have missed it.

Maybe you're thinking about that they didn't play together the last few months of last season? But Navratilova didn't play at all towards the end of the season, so...

Also, pushing 50 as she is, Navtratilova likely won't play a full schedule in '06, so ALG would end up playing more with other players, such as possibly Nadia Petrova. Petrova stated as much late last season in an interview here:

As I said, unless I missed it -- and I couldn't find anything tonight -- I suppose it's a wait-and-see situation with Navratilova, her health, etc. Hopefully, they'll play quite a few tournaments together... I think it'd be good for ALG at this stage in her career. :)

If you find some article that talks about, I'd appreciate it if you'd put the link in here. Thanks. :)

Sun Dec 25, 04:49:00 AM EST  

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