Friday, October 20, 2006

2006 Intriguing Answers: A Swiss Miss, a Near-Miss & a Big Hit

As the season winds down, it's time to look at the flip side of January's "Intriguing Questions," so here are some answers gleaned from a nearly complete season of tour action:


The Smiling Assassin has indeed made a very successful comeback. If someone had said in January that Hingis would end the season in the Top 10, reach the YEC, and win a Tier I (plus be RU in another), who wouldn't have been flabbergasted at such success?

==HINGIS IN 2006==

Ten months into the season, though, it's almost commonplace to casually take what Hingis has accomplished in stride. The novelty of her return having worn off, it's now fair to view Hingis in light of what she IS, rather than what she WAS or HOPES TO BE. Her 48-7 record against players ranked outside the Top 10 shows her to still be the steady, heady player who rarely loses to players she shouldn't... but her 4-10 record vs. Top 10ers reveals her to also be very similar to the power deficient player she was when she retreated from the game with her one-time dominance a thing of the past.

Hingis can win a match here and there against a fellow top player, but her game has a hard time standing up to the rigors of stringing together multiple wins against the game's best opponents. It's no surprise that in the one Tier I she won this year, in Rome, she was only required to defeat one Top 10 player (Venus Williams, though hardly the Venus that helped chase Martina from the game four years ago). After reaching the QF at both the Australian and Roland Garros, her later slam results wilted at Wimbledon (3rd Round) and the U.S. (2nd Round, her worst ever) as the long season appeared to finally be taking its toll on her. She won a small event in India in September. But this week, in her first competition in Zurich in six years, she reached the QF, only to fall to, you guessed it, Top 10er Svetlana Kuznetsova.

It's not as if Hingis' stylish and smart game isn't capable of producing great results. Anna Chakvetadze's game, which almost qualifies her to be dubbed "Martina Hingis, version 2.0," helped her knock off three Top 10 players en route to the title in Moscow this month. But the Russian is still only 19 and seemingly in wonder of it all. Maybe it's just that time has naturally eroded a bit of the formerly-haughty on-court nature of the teen Hingis that allowed her to persevere in multiple high-pressure matches in a single event, for with maturity comes the realization that failure is possible... but not fatal.

Hingis' presence on tour is good for everyone, including Martina. While some things might not have changed between Swiss Miss I and Swiss Miss II, one thing HAS... Hingis knows that she wants to be around the sport more than she wants to get away from it. With that realization comes ANOTHER difference... this Martina isn't likely to quit because she isn't #1 anymore.

Hingis is no longer the mighty mite making everything look way too easy. That Martina is exiled to the history books, but THIS ONE is still one of the best, most entertaining players in the world. And that's not so bad, is it?

Hopefully, 2006 was just the beginning of a long Second Act in Hingis' career.


The fortunes of American women's tennis took an even more serious dip in '06 as Jennifer Capriati again couldn't rehab her injured shoulder enough to return to the court, while sightings of Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters were few and far between (and when they did play, they didn't do it all that well). There seems to be no Vaidisova-like prodigy waiting in the wins at the moment, and until recently it appeared that the drought of ANY young American singles champions on tour was going to be extended through the end of this season.

Thank goodness for Vania King. Because of her, the potential body blow of the lack of a single solitary new Americana standing up to be counted as a champion was narrowly avoided with just a few weeks to spare.

Before the teenager won her first singles title last weekend, the only American woman who'd won a WTA title this year had been veteran Meghann Shaughnessy (and she reached her career-high five years ago). King stepped into the spotlight in Bangkok, becoming the first American 17-year old to win a singles crown since Serena Williams at the '99 U.S. Open. She only turned pro three months ago, too, so this title won't likely be her last.

But while King has marked herself as a player to watch, is she the first in a wave of new American youngsters on the rise, or the only one?

Well, the Williams sisters still have America's best shot at a slam title this decade, so it looks like the dearth of Americans at the top of the rankings they used to dominate will continue for a good while longer. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the cupboard is bare. Besides King, 20-year old Jamea Jackson strung together a series of upsets during the spring in Europe (leading the U.S. to a Fed Cup 1st Round upset win over Germany, then knocking off Maria Sharapova on the grass at Eastbourne and reaching her first career final), Shenay Perry was a surprise Round of 16er at Wimbledon, and maiden ITF singles crowns were won by 17-year olds Lauren Albanese (a 1st Round winner at the U.S. Open) and "Cali Girl" Alexa Glatch (probably the most celebrated of the American juniors, including King, who was never really a factor on the junior circuit). And, of course, there was the case of Bethanie Mattek, who did actually reach the QF in Los Angeles in between making headlines for displaying her unfortunate (or is it really "brilliant"?) sense of style at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Additionally, on the same weekend that King won her title, now 21-year old Ashley Harkleroad, probably the poster child for the "lost generation" of hoped-for teen stars that never panned out 3-4 years ago, won a $50K title in San Francisco... so maybe respectability isn't as far out of reach as it appeared a short while ago.

#12 Lindsay Davenport
#37 Meghann Shaughnessy
#46 Shenay Perry
#47 Jamea Jackson
#53 Venus Williams
#54 Vania King
#66 Amy Frazier
#67 Jill Craybas
#76 Laura Granville
#91 Ashley Harkleroad
#95 Serena Williams
#97 Meilen Tu

The biggest news for American tennis, though, recently occurred off the court with the announcement of the move of the USTA headquarters from Key Biscayne to the Evert Academy in Boca Raton, with the plan to provide dormitory-style housing for twenty of the top juniors aged 14-18, fourteen clay courts and nine hard courts (and with the hope that recent/current stars like Andy Roddick, Jim Courier, etc. will occasionally come around to provide encouragement). It's an effort to help foster the development of top talent somewhere other than at the Bollettieri Academy, where so many teenagers (Sharapova, Vaidisova, etc.) from around the world have benefitted from a similar set up. It's a big step in the right direction as the nation's tennis establishment tries to fight back (ala the American team sports) against the tide of the 2000's that has seen the rest of the world catch up to and surpass American efforts on the world's various athletic stages.

It shouldn't have taken so long... but better late than never, I suppose.


Well, that might be overstating it a bit... but not much. As far as fan and TV-friendly innovations go, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more successful venture than this season's foray into the land of the instant replay challenge system.

Contrary to the notion that replay would slow down play, it actually managed to speed things up. Disputed calls that would have been argued and grumbled about for the rest of the game and beyond were settled in a flawlessly quick method that didn't effect a player's momentum... plus, that cool moment of anticipation as everyone waits for the ball's shadow to appear on the video screen's court is a wonderfully natural moment of suspense that no one anticipated would be so entertaining when the technology was introduced.

There IS the minor quibble that the top players benefit more from replay since it's generally employed only on a tournament's major courts rather than the small ones populated by the vast majority of the draw. But, hey, nothing's absolutely 100% perfect... yet (and the top players often get 1st Round byes, too -- it's something for everyone else to work harder for). It's a "problem" that can be lived with, and hopefully alleviated a bit over time as the use of replay expands from season to season. Replay was used late in the year in Russia and China, and it will only grow more prevalent in the seasons to come.

Hmmm, what else...?

Oh, yeah. There's also that "minor" fact that the system actually WORKS. It's uncannily accurate... so it's good for the players, too. The likelihood of a bad call turning a match is greatly reduced in an event backed up by replay (it'd be eliminated entirely if the player challenges weren't limited, since a bad call late in a set shouldn't be given less importance simply because a player was wrong about a few calls earlier and used up all her challenges), and who can argue with that? The accuracy of the replay system is too high for the sport to turn its back on it now that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle.

Of course, not everything thrown at the wall in '06 stuck like glue. For instance, the occasional allowance of on-court coaching during the U.S. Open Series debuted to mixed results. The idea may not be extinct in 2007, but it SHOULD be on the endangered list. For one, player complaints that it further assists the top players because of their ability to pay and travel with full-time coaches does indeed have some legs, considering the additional competitive advantage it creates (as opposed to how replay could be said to "level the playing field"). Even Roger Federer was against the idea, citing how the practice took away from the invididual, one-on-one battle aspect of the sport that rewards the mentally strong while forcing the rest to struggle to find their way. As usual, Federer's right... but maybe the most damning aspect of on-court coaching was that the expected TV interest was ultimately minimal. For the most part, the coaching was pretty boring to watch.

(Next year, don't be surprised if we're debating Round Robin formats being used during the regular tour season. The ATP tour will test out the practice in '07, and if it works out the WTA could employ the use of RR's at some events in '08. In the battle to confront the rising number of withdrawals of top players from events -- or the type of end-around that Sharapova pulled in Moscow, when she showed up and then pulled out after one match, technically meeting her tour requirement but hurting the tournament nonetheless -- the use of RR's would generally assure fans of seeing top players multiple times during a tournament.)

Replay, though, is here to stay. It's the best thing to happen to tennis on TV since the fuzzy yellow ball. (And, on second thought, I really DON'T think that's an understatement.) There is no stopping the march of technology... especially not the "good" stuff.

All for now.


...Revolving Doors

...More Intriguing Answers: starring Amelie, Justine & Maria
...How Smart We Were/How Dumb We Were
...2006 Backspin Awards
...2006 Miss Backspin
...2006 WTA Yearbook


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