Wednesday, December 13, 2006

#10: Who's Looking Forward to 2007?

Of course, all players worth their body weight in salt SHOULD be looking forward to the new year. After all, it'll include an entire season that'll give them the chance to solidify what they accomplished in 2006, or erase past disappointment and start over again with a clean slate after a particularly lackluster campaign.

But history and human nature says that some players -- be it through sheer will or by an expected change in luck -- seem to have the odds in their favor. For a few, the next eleven months will present them with exciting opportunities which could leave them smiling widely by this time next year. Here are a few of those players:


Alicia Molik

...in early 2005, the Aussie Steamer, a fun-lovin' girl-next-door who seemed like "one of the gang," had finally realized her moment in the sun. Coming off winning Olympic Bronze in Athens and defeating Maria Sharapova to win the Zurich Tier I (becoming the first to beat the Russian in a tour final), Molik opened '05 by surging in front of her local legion of supporters. She won Sydney, then raced to the Australian Open QF (the first Aussie-born women to do so since '88), and nearly upset #1 Lindsay Davenport to get within one match of the final. She climbed into the Top 10 for the first time, and looked ready to continue to move forward toward even bigger and better things... only to then be whacked upside the head by the fickle hand of fate. After winning over so many to her cause, it appeared as if she might have nothing tangible, tennis-wise, left to offer in return. At mid-season, Molik was felled by a case of vestibular neuronitis, an inner ear infection that affected her vision and balance and sent her results into a tailspin, ultimately forcing her off the tour for most of the final eight months of the '05 season. As '06 began, she was prepared to be forced to skip the entire season. Quite literally, Molik's career was in jeopardy of being extinguished. As last season wore on, Molik improved. She participated in the Aussie version of "Dancing with the Stars," then tentatively returned to the tour in May. She went 9-16 for the season, registered a win in Fed Cup play, and attained her season's best result with a QF in Guangzhou near the close of a "two steps forward, one step back" attempt at a comeback campaign that left her ranked #164. So, what comes next? In Molik's case, it's not a matter of whether she'll ever be fortunate enough to have athletic lightning strike her for the first time. She has talent galore -- big strokes and power -- and a game built for grass and hard court success (she'd even won 18 of her first 19 doubles matches to start '05), and was finally basking in it before her career's brush with extinction. During Molik's time in the woods, Samantha Stosur became Australia's #1 singles player (and the world's #1 in doubles), and Jelena Dokic returned Down Under before doing her usual disappearing act once again. A healthy Molik, who turns 26 in January, still has the most star potential of any of the Aussies (male or female), and a James Blake-like revival from the brink would be welcomed with open arms from all corners, not just by her mates back home. With the help of new coach Paul Kilderry, she's been working for two months and recently declared herself in her best shape in two years as she prepares to begin play in the Oz Playoff tournament in a few days. If she's up to it, the Steamer could be sitting on the feel good story of 2007.
PREDICTION DART BOARD: Molik will reach the QF at a slam, win two titles and return to the Top 15

Nadia Petrova & Tatiana Golovin

...Petrova and Golovin's games both made strides in 2006, but they're at different stages along their career paths.

After seasons of struggling to break through, Petrova ended '05 with her first career title and carried over the resulting confidence boost into '06. She reached the Oz QF, then dominated the clay season, winning four titles during a 22-1 tear that stretched from the Middle East across the Atlantic to the U.S. and back again to Europe. During the period, she moved past Maria Sharapova to become the highest-ranked Russian (she climbed as high as #3 in the world), and was looking to be a potential favorite at Roland Garros. But a hip injury in practice scuttled it all. She limped into Paris, exited in the 1st Round, then had to skip Wimbledon altogether. Returning to form (especially mentally) proved to be a monumental task, but Petrova worked until she got it right. A 3-8 spiral (she recorded zero wins from RG to the start of the U.S. Open) finally turned in her favor in Stuttgart in October as she added title #5 to her '06 total, setting the stage for two more appearances in finals (Moscow and Linz) and a win over #1 Amelie Mauresmo in the YEC. With her career breakthrough coming in '05, then her career year being banked in '06, 2007 offers Petrova the chance to finally join the list of Russian slam marvels. She's already showed her versatility by reaching the SF at Roland Garros (twice) and the QF at the other three slams... but she's never played in a slam final and, at the age of 24, her window of opportunity could begin to close after about two more seasons. Rarely are "do-overs" awarded, but the European misfortune of late spring could be reversed the next time around. Petrova now knows she CAN do it, and for her that's far more than half the battle.

Golovin, too, is looking for a second chance. The Frussian Pastry was the "Vaidisova of '04," the teen looking for all the world like the next young player who'd put together a Top 10 push. After holding steady in '05 (and reaching her second career final), Golovin was turning up the pressure in 2006's opening months. Her early season results inclued a SF in Paris, then her run in Miami made her look like a star. In her adopted hometown, she upset Elena Dementieva and had backed Sharapova into a corner in the QF (overcoming a 5-1 deficit and four match points in the 2nd set) before nastily turning her ankle after chasing a ball to the court's margins in the 3rd set. Two months were lost, as was precious ground. The 18-year old returned at Roland Garros (where Vaidisova coincidentally zoomed to the SF) and soon began to pick up where she'd left off. A SF in Stanford led to a QF at the U.S. Open (her best ever slam result), then a RU in Stuttgart (she lost to Petrova). It all brought back memories of the stepping stones that Golovin had started to set down in Miami before she was so rudely interrupted. After being eclipsed by Vaidisova on the "It Girl" list during the layoff, Golovin easily handled the Czech teen in her season-closing event in Zurich. Now, 2007 offers Golovin the chance to officially reclaim her position as "the teenager most likely"... if she can just manage to stay on the court.
PREDICTION DART BOARD: Petrova will reach her first slam final (probably RG), and Golovin will claim at least the first two tour singles titles of her career

The Young Romanians
...we're always on the lookout for a new revolution, aren't we? After the Russians came the Chinese, and now the deep ex-Soviet Republic/Eastern Bloc waters of Europe are producing talent emanating from Prague and Kiev to Warsaw and Minsk. How about adding Bucharest to that list of starting points? Yes, a Romanian Revolution could be lurking on the horizon. There's yet to be an Anna or Maria (or even a Jie, for that matter) to lead the army of Romanian girls into battle, but there is some past evidence that proves the women's game can indeed attract the girls not swept up in the latest search to find another Gold Medal-winning gymnast. Romanian woman have won twenty singles title in the Open Era, from the twelve by Virginia Ruzici in the '70s/'80s to the four apiece during the '80s/'90s by Ruxandra Dragomir and '97 U.S. Open semifinalist Irina Spirlea (people complain about JHH, but what would they say now about a player like Spirlea, who had to be ironically admired for being willing to be outright mean and boorish at times, something of a female version of Romanian bad boy/slam champ Ilie Nastase? Needless to say, I kind of liked her.). The names don't exactly overflow with grandeur, but we're not talking Kazakhstan here (sorry Amina Rakhim). The Horde needn't likely worry, but a Romanian regiment is indeed being assembled... even if it might be a bit early to expect titles and Maria-esque endorsements to soon begin to flow. As of now, 17-year old Raluca-Ioana Olaru is really the only Romanian girl to leave much of an actual footprint, reaching the '05 Roland Garros Girls final (and the '06 Oz Girls SF). Meanwhile, Alexandra Dulgheru made the '06 Wimbledon Girls QF, Monica Niculescu the '05 Oz Girls QF, and Miheala Buzarnescu the '05 U.S. Girls SF. The Junior Top 20 recently simultaneously included Buzarnescu, Sorana Cirstea, Dulgheru and Olaru, while nearly twenty different Romanian women managed to grab ITF singles titles in 2006.


*TOP 10 ROMANIAN TEENS*
#201 Madalina Gojnea, 19
#223 Monica Niculescu, 19
#261 Mihaela Buzarnescu, 18
#262 Raluca-Ioana Olaru, 17
#319 Agnes Szatmari, 19
#356 Sorana Cirstea, 16
#371 Corina Corduneanu, 18
#515 Diana Enache, 19
#545 Alexandra Dulgheru, 17
#562 Anamaria Sere, 18


Keep a close eye on the group as a whole in '07. By the end of the new year, a few should be a bit more familiar if things go according to plan.
PREDICTION DART BOARD: One of the Romanians will win a junior slam singles crown, and Olaru will reach a tour SF

The Sisters (but not THOSE sisters)
...the WTA tour is increasingly becoming a family affair (and Jaz Agassi is still a decade away from puberty). Sister acts like Venus & Serena are hardly an anomaly these days, proving that either familial athletic genes are extremely strong these days, or that one sibling is especially prone to imitating the other. Ukraine's trio of Bondarenkos, while not rivaling the troika of Maleevas, did see Alona win her first WTA title and Kateryna claim an ITF event, as both have already bested the career accomplishments of older sister Valeria. America has the Gullicksons (or "The Naturals," considering their dad was a former Major League Baseball pitcher), Top 60 doubles player Carly and rising junior Chelsey, who seems destined to trump her big sis in singles play in a few years. And, then, of course there are the siblings of men's stars Marat Safin (#11 Dinara Safina), Richard Krajicek (Michaella won two tour titles in '06) and Mario Ancic (Sanja is set to team with big bro in Hopman Cup play in a few weeks). But the two who might be poised to eventually inherit the title of "best sisters" could be Poland's Radwanskas.

2006 saw 17-year old Agnieszka and 16-year old Urszula both rank in the Top 10 in juniors at the same time. Agnieszka won the Roland Garros Girls title, then reached the Wimbledon main draw Round of 16 (as a wild card in her slam MD debut) just as Urszula battled into the SW19 Girls SF (a year after her big sis had won the Girls title at the All-England Club). Agnieszka made her mark with big upsets in '06, knocking off Anastasia Myskina in Warsaw in her first match against a Top 100 player, and then the likes of Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Anna-Lena Groenefeld later in the season. For her part, Urszula also pushed Myskina (7-6/6-3) in Stockholm, making the Czarina likely hope there isn't a third Radwanska out their with a score to settle. If last season was but a taste of what these sisters have in store for the tour, then Poland might just have it's first honest to goodness tennis stars who'll succeed where still title-less Marta Domachowska hasn't. That is, becoming the first Polish woman to win a WTA singles title. Who knows, maybe the 1-2 Radwanska family punch could provide half (or maybe all?) of the first all-Pole WTA final by the time the calendar is turned over to the 2010's.
PREDICTION DART BOARD: Agnieszka will become the first Polish woman to win a tour singles title, while Urszula will claim a Junior Girls crown. (Oh, and Safina will become the latest Russian to win a Tier I championship, too.)

Sania Mirza

...in 2005, the Indian Princess was the toast of the tour. A fresh face with an equally fresh mouth. A winning attitude with a stinging two-handed backhand down the line that helped her win the tour's "Newcomer of the Year" award. Sania Mirza spent the season putting her name on a series of "first to" lists, reaching the Australian Open 3rd Round and U.S. Open Round of 16, and winning a tour singles title (no Indian woman had ever accomplished as much). She began her '06 season having worked a bit in the offseason with Tony Roche, and her future looked bright. So, what happened? Last season, Mirza didn't win a singles title (she only made a single SF), saw her won/lost record go from 33-20 in '05 to 20-24 and her ranking from #31 to #66, her best slam results were a pair of 2nd Rounds, and her reverberation factor in the media fell by, to be conservative, at least half. 2007 offers Mirza the opportunity to recapture the spotlight, without having to be burned in effigy in the process. She still has many positives working in her favor: beauty, personality, the novelty of being an opinionated and visible woman of the Muslim faith, and an oft-exciting brand of tennis. Young players usually go through growing pains, following up breakout seasons with a period of quiet before finally regaining their footing due to their familiarity with their new life under the microscope. Even with her past tendency to shoot off with every opinion that drifted through her mind, Mirza seemed to have a good head on her shoulders to go along with the promise that caught Roche's eye. She went 7-4 in her final '06 swing through Asia (getting a win over Martina Hingis in Seoul), notching two QF and a SF for three of her four best results of the season. Will closing on such an uptick carry over? 2007 will be her chance to prove all the attention and optimism of '05 wasn't based on a mirage.
PREDICTION DART BOARD: Mirza will win another tour singles title back home in India, and her ranking will click up at least 20 slots before the end of the season


*10 OTHERS TO WATCH IN 2007*

1. Victoria Azarenka (BLR): she's been on the cusp of a breakthrough for about a year now
2. Olga Poutchkova (RUS): showed late '06 signs of possibly being something special
3. Vania King (USA): it only took her three months as a pro to win her first WTA singles title
4. Jamea Jackson (USA): she proved capable of flattening giants (can you say, "Sharapova on grass?") in '06
5. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS): her junior resume is loaded for (Russian) bear
6. Aleksandra Wozniak (CAN): the best Canadian since 1980's star Carling Bassett, a two-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros.
7. Tszvetana Pironkova (BUL): in Sesil's absence, the Bulgarian will be looking to transport her ability to generate big-time slam wins to the rest of her schedule.
8. Aravane Rezai (FRA): another youngster with a dad who makes unfortunate headlines
9. Yung-Jan Chan (TPE): in 2006, her results progressed from RG Junior SF to Wimbledon & U.S. Open qualifier to Tokyo Japan Open SF.
10. Shuai Zhang (CHN): could be this year's Zi Yan (in other words, the next Cookie to win her first tour title after warming up on the ITF circuit)
HM- Anna Tatishvili (GEO): it's never too early to keep an eye on a fast-rising Anna



All for now.

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UP NEXT: Who might end up dreading 2007? Well, under the right circumstances, just about anyone... unless you're a currently non-glowing opponent of Vladimir Putin, of course. In that case, you'd be best content with simply enjoying your next few minutes, if you know what's good for you.

Take a look at things from a pessimist's point of view in "Intriguing Question #9."

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