Tuesday, December 20, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #9

If 2005 was "The Year of the Comeback," what's to be made of 2006? Martina Hingis' is just one of several recovery stories that could provide a slew of remarkable headlines this season and could make the last one look like an unsold TV pilot (not enough drama!). Truly, the plotlines are almost too good to be true. Every one has the potential to rise to the level of "The Greatest Show on Earth." But they can't possibly muster up to a ringmaster's overstatement. Right?


May I direct your attention to the large rings under the big top, where two of the WTA Travelling Circus' main attractions are here to entertain you all.

To your left...

...you'll see a Debutante named Jelena, having escaped the perilous clutches of her domineering dad, only to see her once-bright future turn sorrowfully bleak Will she have the strength to not only go on, but flourish on the highwire of life, love and tennis... all without a net?!

To your right...

...Jennifer, the girl-next-door-turned-bad-seed-turned-destiny's-darling-turned-Petulant-One who managed to belatedly claim unanticipated glory just a short time ago, only to once again find herself on the wrong side of circumstance as she was sidelined by a potentially devastating injury. With the odds stacked against her yet again, are we about to witness the end of her miraculous story, or is she about to perform another death-defying trick?

All the WTA's 2006 circus acts have their compelling ingredients, but Dokic and Capriati deserve the big top spotlight because of their force of personality (with good and bad characteristics for both). Whether or not either gives the tour any good tennis this season is anyone's guess, but watching their travails and triumphs should make for irresistible viewing.

Take the case of Dokic, the lightning rod of all lightning rods for controversy (even the prospect of her getting a wild card into the Australian Open raised the eyebrows of vet Nicole Pratt, who didn't want to be skipped over for the honor in favor of a player who's played under a Serbian flag the last few seasons), and her recent Damir-free return to Melbourne as an old/new Aussie citizen for the first time since her father accused the AO organizers of rigging the draw against her (she faced Lindsay Davenport in the 1st Round, losing gamely in three sets) five years ago. Having lost all sense of herself, her confidence and her game over the intervening seasons (she recently admitted to the ignominy of having even a hard time getting out of bed after having nose and throat surgery while also battling a groin injury), dropping outside the Top 350 by the end of 2005, Dokic has played the part of burned-out former teen star to Oscar-winning perfection of late. Now back amongst the Sheilas, can she find happiness and success in her (once again) adopted homeland? And does "success" entail returning to her former Top 10 haunts, or is a servicable "middling" career trajectory enough for her after the depths to which she's sunk in recent seasons?

Win or lose, Dokic will be a big story. Back with a new coach and all the correct words about having a new attitude, she's currently experiencing an early upturn after winning the Australian Open wild card playoff this past weekend, gaining four wins over "luminaries" such as Shayna McDowell and Monique Adamczak. Of course, we've seen similar spurts and heard similar words from the Debutante at various times over the last few seasons, only to see her soon sink still deeper into one of her funks. After essentially becoming "The Invisible Girl" by the end of last season, she has to prove her worthiness now. Her eventual return to form is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Being a bigger fish in a smaller pond like she was last week is one thing (though she'd even lost that ability at times over the past two seasons), but holding up when the sharks arrive is another. She's not Serena Williams, talented enough to fiddle while Rome burns, but still able to occasionally muster enough moxie to trump the field and grab another dose of heady glory (as Williams did about a year ago in Melbourne). Dokic will have to be truly hungry and ready to make the sacrifices necessary for success in order for her to ever find her own brand of glory again. Whether or not she has that nerve will be the signpost that will determine if her '06 season is a success. Either way, it's going to be a tough road back, and she won't find all the answers she wants over the next eleven months. But for a player once renowned for her ability to fight, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

Jennifer Capriati is no stranger to signposts and bad headlines, either. But unlike Dokic, she's never done anything half-way.

In fact, Capriati was Hingis and Sharapova all rolled into one when she was in her early teens. She the next GREAT one. A WTA finalist at 13. She was the bubbly golden girl of the sport. A Roland Garros semifinalist at 14. She was to be the face of tennis for the next decade. She was the youngest Top 10 player ever. It was much too much pressure far too soon, and she cracked wide open, dropped out of sight for fourteen and fifteen-month stretches from 1993-95 and only re-emerged on the wrong side of a mug shot after a drug arrest and various other unsavory incidents. Suddenly, she was THE great cautionary tale for young athletes. But ever obstinate, Capriati weaved one of the more remarkable comeback tales in the history of this or any other sport, gradually reclimbing the ladder and reaching the top rung with three slam titles in barely over a year in 2001-02.

But Capriati, now 29 (30 in March), hasn't won a title since 2003, and missed all of 2005 after undergoing shoulder surgery. After moving back her return date throughout the course of last season (and again just recently, as she'll skip the Australian Open), it's now 2006 where she'll try to pull off the rare second comeback in a feast-or-famine career. With her late 20's/early 30's contemporaries still creating a stir at the top of the rankings in 2004-05, age isn't really a factor for a player who's now missed out on three full years of action over the last decade or so. But a shoulder injury, and a full year layoff, might be quite a stumbling block for a player as reliant on power and strength as Capriati.

Can lightning strike Capriati twice in the same decade? She's already proven she's bullheaded enough to believe it can. So why not?

And those two aren't the end of the potential soap opera theatrics in store for still more players on the comeback trail in 2006, as one of the most successful, as well as the most publicized player of the last dozen years could be heard from once again this season:

Monica Seles: The 32-year old nine-time slam winner, out of action with a foot injury since 2003, has been in the news lately. After trying and failing to get herself into position for a comeback attempt during the past two seasons, Seles recently conceded that she may be fighting a losing battle, saying that if she can't return to the tour in '06 she'll retire by season's end, officially calling it a Hall of Fame (but still hard-luck) career. Just think what might have happened had it not been for April 30, 1993 in Hamburg. It'll forever be one of the unanswered questions in tennis history.

Anna Kournikova: Hingis' comeback aspirations seem to have awakened at least a bit of the imagination inside the head of a certain 24-year old Original Anna. One half of the "Spice Girls" doubles combo that won the '99 and '02 Aussie Open titles, and a fellow WTT competitor last season, recently exited an exhibition with Hingis on the Copacabana Beach in Rio (where else could they have played, I ask?) by saying that she wasn't "ruling out" a return of her own to the tour after being M.I.A. since 2003. Either that, or she saw an opportunity to get a few extra headlines (it worked). Anna might have just been nonchalantly (or maybe it was shrewdly) tossing out an off-hand comment that was greedily seized upon by a press eager to find a little story to fill in the blanks spots on a slow sports news day, but for the first time since she left the tour the possibility of returning in some fashion might be a realistic prospect. The reason is Hingis. I mean, just think of the photo opportunities inherent in teaming up with Martina in a slam doubles draw. Anna loves the attention, and that bright spotlight might just be too tempting to ignore.

Of course, there's also the continued climb back to respectability of Ashley Harkleroad (looks good), Chanda Rubin (30 in February) hoping to be the next veteran to find some late-career magic before leaving the game with a better taste in her mouth (umm...this one might end up going by the wayside), and the long lonely wait for the return of Alicia Molik, who's decided to take a twelve-month sabbatical -- good luck on lowering your golf handicap, Steamer -- before beginning a full-fledged comeback from her bout with vestibular neuronitis (hmmm... sounds like a good candidate for a 2007 Intriguing Question, doesn't it?).

Ah, so many comebacks... so little Backspin Blogtown time. As was the case with the multi-pronged attempts to rise like a Phoenix last season (can you say, "Alexandra Stevenson?" Who? Exactly.), not all will be judged a success over the course of next season. Many will probably be met with modest, but inconsistent, accomplishments. And still others will be abject disasters. But at least one will likely provide a moment of triumph to behold for years to come.

Still, none of the ladies' quests for a "Second Act" (or in Capriati's case, a third) will have the same immediate impact on the upper echelon of the game's stars as 2005's comebacks... but they could collectively provide a script for the '06 season that'll be even more entertaining than last year's.

Every circus needs its sideshows, and the WTA has more than enough to keep the fans from getting bored.

1.Dokic will ride her current run to at least a QF result at one of the pre-Australian Open tuneups, then get at least one match win in Melbourne (her first slam victory since the '03 U.S. Open 1st Round). But her current #349 ranking won't quite rise above #50 in 2006.
2.Capriati will hover in the #16-#25 range in the back half of the season after winning her first singles title since '03 and getting a couple hardcourt victories over Top 5 players in North America, where she'll regain some of her luster during the U.S. Open Series.
3.The WTA's "Spice Girls" (or is it "Spice Women" now?) will share a tour-level doubles court again, probably at SW19.
4.Harkleroad will reach her first career WTA singles final, but won't win it.
5.Seles will retire (next stop: joining her one-time rival Steffi Graf at her own HOF induction in Newport), as will Rubin (who'll go on to be an ever bigger force for good after her playing days than she has been during them).

All for now.


Next: "Movers & Shakers '06"


Blogger thesupernova said...

I'm salivating at the thought of the Spice Girls back in action. I'm also excited to see who your movers and shakers will be next year. I'm thinking Nicole Vaidisova will definately be on the list and hoping you have good predictions for her. I think she'll have a better overall year than The Supernova.

Tue Dec 20, 03:18:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

"Movers & Shakers" is essentially a lists column about players who should make strides in the rankings in 2006, broken down by their current rankings and regions of the world.

Vaidisova will certainly be mentioned, but I won't say too much now since she'll be playing a bigger part in the IQ's as things move along up the list.

Tue Dec 20, 07:44:00 PM EST  

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