Tuesday, December 26, 2006

BV: 2007 Top 10, Pt.I

To be (in the Top 10), or not to be (in the Top 10). That is the 2007 question that Pierre Cantin and I are prepared to answer to the best of our abilities. Of course, if past history reigns supreme, that means that our selections will succeed, fail... and paint at least one cursed player into a corner that will require a comeback season in '08 to put it behind her.

Rather than release our predictions in the usual separate columns, our pre-season session with the ol' crystal ball is going to be presented a little differently -- in the premiere edition of "Backspin Volley," where we bat around each other's ideas in a recent web conversation.

In Part I, we cover the future #'s 6 through 10:

TS: Hey, this new Backspin feature even has its own set of logos. "Sleek" and "vibrant," huh? Ha. Unfortunately, our picks probably won't end up looking quite as tidy at the end of the season.

PC: Yeah, very neat idea. Not surprising coming from you but indeed, I think this new column format could be a hit. Oh, maybe I'm just kidding myself, the readers are interested in reading your stuff... but then again, most of your predictions are not compared with anyone else which makes it easy to look good. Of course this top 10 predictions is nothing new and we've proved time and time again how wrong we could be. The now famous "Kuznetsova Curse" is the best example.

TS: Hey, now, I correctly predicted Tiantian Sun to win a title in 2006 and no one can take that away from me... nor would they want to, right? But seriously, Pierre, are you ready to inadvertently put a curse on some unsuspecting young woman or two?

PC: Haha, yeah why not. I'm starting to feel like the "lucky" player might want to have this article deleted.

TS: I guess I'll go first and list my picks for the back end of my Top 10 predictions. And here they are:

9. Nicole Vaidisova
10. Dinara Safina

I'm giving a slight bump up for both Nicole and Dinara after they finished #10 and #11, respectively, last season (Vaidisova edged out Safina by a single ranking point!). I think both would have to have a mega-breakthrough (a final or better) in a slam to climb much higher this coming year since they're both a bit inconsistent over the course of the entire season. After claiming none in '06, I think Safina will win a few titles this time (I actually predicted a Tier I), but if I had to pick one of the two to slip a bit in the rankings it would be her, not Vaidisova. Of the two, Vaidisova is more likely to step up in the latter stages of a slam, but that 1-6 SF record in '06 is whispering in my ear when it comes to predicting that she'll pull it off in '07. I think Vaidisova is still on the way up, but it might take an additional year for her to finally get there.

PC: Really, Todd? You really want to start this whole thing by putting Safina in your top 10? I have been up and down over time about her, but I still think she has yet to evolve as I hoped she would. Some things like her consistency and her movement do not seem to be improving over the years. As well, I'm not sure she has a good slam performance in her. Nicole, Nicole, Nicole. I had her high on my list in 2006, and she disapointed me a few times, but I'm putting myself out there again this year... but she'll do better than #9.

My two picks are:

9. Anastasia Myskina
10. Nadia Petrova

How fitting for me to have 2 Russians to start this off. A return by Anastasia Myskina? Yes I know, she's not the one you all expect to bounce back. But Todd, wouldn't you agree on the fact she is a better player when there are low expectations on her? And she decided to come back because she thought she had not accomplished everything she needed to do, so I think she'll make it back in the top 10 this year. Nadia Petrova is tough to figure out, she has a new coach and is certainly full of motivation, but I'm not sure her game matches that well against a few of the top players.

TS: Well, I figured that since Safina nearly finished in the Top 10 without winning anything, she could probably essentially run in place another year, at least... but, then again, she's Marat's sister, so who knows? Yeah, the Czarina's better when she's able to sneak up on players, but she's like so many of the Russians (except for Sharapova), where the opinions on them can differ wildly from season to season. Obviously, Petrova is included in that list. I know we've always been a bit apart when it comes to her prospects, but that makes things fun... you always give Anastasia the benefit of the doubt, while I always go with Nadia. I felt great about Petrova's '06 season, and since you didn't even predict her in your Top 10 last year I'll look at her 10-spot this time around as a victory on my and Nadia's part, okay? (By the way, I have one of those two significantly higher on my list... hmmm, I wonder which one it is?)

PC: All right Todd, I guess we'll find out who does better, but I would truly like you to explain what you see most in Petrova, what match she's won that has made you a "believer"?

TS: Well, excluding the time when she was recovering from her injury layoff, I think Petrova's full '06 season showed that she's now capable of the consistency that previously eluded her. Since she won her first career title in Linz in October '05, no player has won more titles than Nadia's 6 over that span (and only JHH and Mauresmo have won as many). She doesn't have a slam, of course, but two Tier I's (plus a RU in Moscow) and four Tier II's aren't exactly a case of patrolling under the table for scraps. But if I'm forced to pick out one "signature" match for Petrova... hmmm, how about her Berlin final victory over JHH, where she won 7-5 in the 3rd set to defeat Le Petit Taureau in an event she'd won three of the previous four seasons? It's probably the reason why I was touting her in Paris before her injury. Petrova might not be someone who can/will be #1 in the world (on a day-to-day basis, I'd take Sharapova every time), but it should be noted that she's more of an all-surface player than even the Supernova, who's never even reached a clay final. In some ways, Petrova's a lot like Myskina, but with more weapons. Obviously, the Roland Garros title is Anastasia's one big catch that separates her... but, otherwise, I'd remain in Petrova's corner for '07 and beyond.

PC: Ok fair enough, I guess we will find out soon enough anyway, right? So it seems like it's now my turn to go first with my next picks, so without any further wait:

6. Nicole Vaidisova
7. Jelena Jankovic
8. Ana Ivanovic

Ok, so #8 is Ana Ivanovic. I'd be surprised if she wasn't also in your 6-8, but we'll see. I think she's been improving steadily, probably a bit faster than I had anticipated/hoped. She especially has learned to play within her limits and strengths in my opinion. Movement is still a big problem for her and I feel she still needs to have a more offensive return game just to make sure she's the one dominating the rallies. As well, she needs to improve her counterpunching. But she made great strides in 2006, in all aspects of her game, mental included.

Jelena Jankovic is surely one of those mysterious players isn't she? When Myskina said she wasn't sure if her opponent was more worried about winning the match or about her hair, she summed up what many people think. But behind that is big talent and when her heart is in it, she can hit amazing shots. I think her attitude has been gradually improving and she will be a force to be reckoned with.

Nicole, Nicole, Nicole... Now that we know Todd put you at #9 I'm hoping Nicole will prove her many bright spots were only a peak at what's next for her. The one worrying thing for me is how Nicole can play some awful matches at times and lacks consistency. When things are going wrong, she seems to have trouble fighting through it... but her game leaves no doubt, she has everything that's required to make a run for #1, the question is when... and I'm betting 2007 will be a big step closer. How about you, Todd?

TS: Well, while we're agreeing to disagree, I'll say that you'll be surprised to see neither Ivanovic or Jankovic on my #6-8 list, nor in my Top 10. It was a close call, though. I considered Chakvetadze for #10, but the two Serbs ended up being my top two non-listed players, as a I chose Safina & my #8 pick (below) in their places. I like the very "Mind of Myskina" quote you had from Anastasia, but I'll steal from my own words in IQ #9 for my decision:

"Jankovic looks like a slam contender at times, then at others melts like a sand castle at high tide (see U.S. Open SF). Is that the makings of a consistent Top 10 player?... Ivanovic won the U.S. Open Series with her title in Montreal, but that was the only event in which AnaIvo reached a SF all season."

I think both will spend some time in the Top 10 in '07, but neither will finish the season there.

6. Martina Hingis
7. Svetlana Kuznetsova
8. Tatiana Golovin

As opposed to last season, Hingis has points to defend this time around, but aside from her Oz QF she had no great slam result. I think she'll be more prepared this season at the four big events, and we'll see her in a SF in at least one, and into the second week in all four. Her ranking ceiling seems to be around #5 since she's had so much difficulty against the Top 10 (5-12 last season), so I'm picking her just below that.

Meanwhile, Kuznetsova was great at times in '06. Once upon a time, I called her the "most talented" of all the Russians (and you didn't exactly disagree with the assertion with Petrova-esque gusto, either), but she drifted in and out of that dominant form, then was just bad at the YEC in Madrid. I would pick her higher, but her late slip and all that "Curse" baggage (we both picked her #1 for '05, and the finished #18... then we left her off our Top 10's for '06, and she ended up #4) are probably coloring the #7 pick. Svetlana is a bit radioactive, and I feel like an ex-Soviet spy.

I liked what I saw of Golovin when she was healthy in '06. Thinking that the Golovin of Miami will be physically sound enough to show up on the court more often in '07, I'm prepared to prop up the Frussian Pastry... even above Vaidisova, for one season. Two years ago, Tatiana was the one generating all the buzz, remember. I think she'll get her first title this season and make a good run in a slam. She reached the QF at Flushing Meadows in the fall, so I'm looking at that as a sign of good times ahead.

PC: In a way, I see what you mean. The Golovin of Miami was truly impressive and showed signs she could make a run for the Top 5. But I do have one question for you, Todd, where else did you see signs of that last year? She is certainly a great fighter but to me, she has a similar game to Anna Chakvetadze but with less weapons, honestly as much as I'd like to see you right, I don't think you have much of a shot with this one. Who could argue about Kuznetsova's and Hingis' spot in the Top 10... but I might see them a bit higher up than you do. I'm mostly betting on the fact (and hope) that Martina had a full off-season to review what went wrong in her matches against the Top 10 and correct many of those. It didn't seem like she was as overwhelmed against those top players as she was when she stopped, at least to me. It was more about winning a few more points here and there, better conditioning, etc.

TS: Well, as is always the case, the Golovin prediction is somewhat speculative (and she's only #8, so I'm not going out too far on the limb). Much like Petrova, it took her a while to get back into gear after her injury. When she did, around U.S. Open time, she defeated Petrova and Chakvetadze in Flushing Meadows, then pushed Sharapova to two tie-breaks in the QF. A few weeks later, she upset Top 10er Schnyder to advance to the Stuttgart final, then later crushed Vaidisova 6-2/6-0 in Zurich. Once she was fully healthy, her results started to look similar to Miami... so I'm hoping she'll carry that momentum into '07.

I agree about Hingis being closer to beating the top players this time around, partly because of her improved attitude, but how much of that has to do with the fact that those players weren't Davenport, Venus, Serena or Capriati as they were a few years ago? As I'll discuss in IQ #6, the founding "big babes" aren't as dominant or as healthy as they used to be, opening up the door for "little babes" to flourish like they couldn't during Hingis I (in fact, that's probably one of the reasons Martina decided to make a comeback in the first place, don't you think?).

Oh, and since I've had to defend two of my picks so far without challenging any of yours, I feel it's my duty to press you a little bit on that Myskina pick. Other than maybe her play in Eastbourne, what did she do in '06 that makes you think she'll be able to climb back up the rankings (I mean, other than the fact that you're admittedly a little biased when when it comes to the Czarina)? I mean, she did end the '06 season on a five-match losing streak.

PC: Two quick stabs back (ok maybe not stabs but!)... true a big part of Martina's success is because those big babes were not there last year. But they won't be there a lot more in 2007. I think in those years when Hingis was struggling, power tennis was pushed to an extreme limit, perhaps too much so even. It went on for a while but then those players all started dropping to injuries (or other reasons)... it might just be that at least right now, players cannot play with such power without risking injury at some point or another. So Martina escaped that and is back to a different game, one that has power, but also has a lot of other aspects, which no doubt is helpful to her.

And Myskina... well, it's more belief than anything else. As you'll see in a few days when the 2006 Tennisrulz Awards results come out, a lot of other believers in the Czarina are out there, as well. I think her game is still as good as it was a couple of years ago when she was fighting for world #1. But a lot of off-court problems occured since (health, personal, etc.) that have made it difficult to give herself all out for the game she loves. But I think that will change in 2007.


TS: We'll see... but I really just wanted you to point out that all these picks are essentially shots in the dark.

Just ask Kuznetsova, right? Haha. Hmmm, I notice you're still yet to list her in your Top 10. Uh-oh... I'm not sure if that's good -- or bad -- news for the Contessova.

Either way, it seems we're at the half-way point in our Top 10 predictions, so this is a good time to take a break (I'd say we've put ourselves on the line quite enough for one time out, thank you very much). Looking at what we've predicted so far, only Vaidisova managed to appear in both our #6-10 lists. Somehow, though, I feel we'll probably have a bit more uniformity in our Top 5's... but, then again, who knows?

...stay tuned for Part II of "Backspin Volley," where we'll reveal our picks for 2007's #1-ranked player... and maybe saddle a player with having to carry that "Curse" target on her back for the next eleven months. At least we DO know one thing, though -- that person will most definitely NOT be either Petrova or Myskina.

All for now.


Blogger mjgrace22 said...

I can't believe you left out Dementieva on your 6-10 list and I doubt that I'll see her on your 1-5 list.

Bias aside, Elena has been very consistent over the years. She has been top 10 since 2003 despite her wobbly serve. Anyway, you guys labeled her as Punch-Sober and I think she'll remain sober in 2007 and finish the year at #8 or 9.:)

Kudos to backspin volley by the way. I liked the new format.:)

Wed Dec 27, 08:28:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Dementieva always seems to be left out. I think she was missing from the Top 10's last year, too. But she still managed to finish #8... so she might end up doing it again. Truthfully, I have a hard time figuring her out. :)

I guess someone has to be left out, though. I know I can't wait to find out which player out of a group of six prominant remaining players (Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne, Mauresmo, Clijsters, Kuznetsova and Hingis) that Pierre left out of his Top 10. He doesn't have room left for all of them. Truthfully, I think any one of those being missing might be an even bigger eyebrow-raising prediction than Dementieva not being there. :)

Thu Dec 28, 01:22:00 AM EST  

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