Tuesday, January 02, 2007

BV: 2007 Top 10, Pt.II

What's that I hear? Is it the sound of bouncing tennis balls... and is that a linesperson calling a shot wide? The 2007 season is already here, and we've just barely waved goodbye to the year 2006.

As it is, it's time for Part II of "Backspin Volley," and for me and Tennisrulz head honcho Pierre Cantin to confidantly stake out our ground when it comes to who the best players of the new season will REALLY be.

Cover your eyes, this might not be pretty.

TS: Well, it looks like I'm going first here (so I can ultimately have the final word, don't ya know... hey, this IS my column, after all). That all right with you, Monsieur Cantin?

PC: I didn't expect anything else from you, I guess it's the best way you've found to have the final word and since it is indeed your column, not much I can do about it, now can I? But then again, past results have shown you didn't have any more success doing it that way, but hey...

TS: Pierre, Pierre... so fiesty and ready to spar during this Volley, aren't you? Just be prepared to share a plate of crow at the end of the season... I'm fairly sure I won't be eating all alone, my friend who said that Miss Clijsters was going to be the "best player by far" last year. (Editorial note: just wait until you see where Pierre ranks Kim THIS year!) All right then. The past success (or lack thereof) of my #3-5 picks' careers have all been a point of contention at some point, if not on Backspin's part, then someone else's.

3. Nadia Petrova
4. Kim Clijsters
5. Amelie Mauresmo

Mauresmo has a great deal of points to defend in '07, what with her two slam titles... so it's no big leap to think she might slip from her current #3 ranking. Yes, she seemed to still have an eye for more glory at the YEC in Madrid, but it should be noted that '06 was one of her relatively healthier seasons and the odds of her not having to take a major injury break for a second straight year might not be good. This doesn't rule out that she could become a THREE-time career slam champ next season, though, but I'm thinking that Mauresmo just getting back to a single slam final (let alone winning one) would be enough for her year to be considered a triumph after her just-concluded career season.

I juggled my #3-4 picks a few times over the past week, but ultimately went with my heart (and gut) and put Petrova at #3, even if I probably AM reaching just a little bit. You don't have to say that you don't agree with me, Pierre. I know... but I'm sticking with Nadia anyway (and I've already discussed why). Oh, speaking of, I found it interesting that the WTA official site just had a weekly poll that asked people to predict 2007's #1 player, and amongst the five players listed by name was Petrova, but not Clijsters. Is she already out of sight, out of mind as far as the tour is concerned before she's officially walked off into the Belgian sunset? Of course, I'd never argue against the relative "storyline merits" of a Clijsters final-year flameout, but I don't think it'll happen. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see her have her best season ever, which would surely make the wave of "come back, Kim" hymns simply deafening. I couldn't pick her (at least not yet) to go out with a slam win in Melbourne or Flushing Meadows, but I think she'll make the final at at least one of the two on her way through the exit doors... and if she gets that far, who knows? It'd only make her (supposedly) impending retirement all the more dramatic, wouldn't it? (Hmmm, I wonder what would've happened in Clijsters' career if she'd WON one of those early slam finals she appeared in? That's a hint about a future IQ, by the way.)

Looking at your #6-10 picks, Pierre, you have five spots left while I'm thinking of six remaining players who could possibly fill them... so one's going to be left out. It would be quite intriguing, for very different reasons, if that player is either Clijsters or Kuznetsova. So, tell me, who are you going with?

PC: Trying to guess my picks now are you? Ok, first let me start by expressing my great surprise to see Petrova #3 on your list. Sure, you've shown some signs of delusion about her in the past but even by your standards that seems like a huge stretch. Of course, by going this far I know that my words could come back to haunt me if (fingers crossed) a miracle would occur. Now I could go on and on about how your #3 makes no sense and go on and on about various stats... but let's just stick to a simple one -- Nadia has a combined record of 8 wins in 32 matches against my top 5, not sure what makes you think she belongs at #3 with that kind of record.

TS: Okay, okay. Enough Nadia baiting, now. (And you don't have to remind me that she lost her opening '07 season match to Alicia Molik, either.) But, on a final note of defense (gee, this feels like a JHH column), I'd like to point out that since Petrova won her Linz title in October '05 she's notched wins over each of the Top 4-ranked players -- #1 JHH, #2 Sharapova, #3 Mauresmo (twice) and #4 Kuznetsova. She's come quite a ways in the past year.

PC: You know, my faith in Nadia is so bleak. Just when I start thinking about your arguments, if they make sense, etc., I hear stats that make your prediction seem a bit crazier. Just today when I read that Nadia's next Hopman Cup opponent Tatiana Golovin (sure you list her as Top 10 but still) has a 3-1 record against Nadia? I mean come on, who are we kidding here? I mean it seems I could look for any kind of number and feel like I'm lost when getting back to this column.

TS: Well, I think you can probably search around and find at least one stat somewhere that'll support whatever you want to say about almost any player, and then find something else that would support the exact opposite assertion (say, Schiavone's proven she can't win a singles title by going 0-8 in finals during her career, but then she DID help Italy win Fed Cup, so...). Thank goodness they actually PLAY the matches. Otherwise, we'd all just be running around chasing out tails trying to boldly predict what's going to happen. Once in a while, we catch the tail... but a lot of times we miss and our head goes right up our a-... well, you know.


Well, so much for that tangent. Aren't you supposed to be revealing your #3-5 picks right around this point in the Volley?

PC: Oh, yeah. By the way, before going any longer... indeed, there is one top player who does NOT appear in my Top 10... And yes it will be very intriguing, that player is Kim Clijsters. Coming from me, I'm sure you are shocked. We can certainly agree that if she plays a full year without any health problems, she'll be in the Top 5. And I wish nothing more than to have that come true. But I fear that injuries have been coming up more and more often. Having her mind on many things like her wedding, etc, might also hurt her. So she's left out. I was considering putting her around 7-8, but then figured she might just not play enough. This is also because I think the margin between the top 5 and the top 10 will be a lot slighter than in the past few years...

Without further wait here are my picks #3-5:

3. Svetlana Kuznetsova
4. Martina Hingis
5. Amelie Mauresmo

Amelie, Amelie, Amelie... She remains solid and will certainly have her few runs. But with the contenders on the tour aging a little more, I think they're gaining a little more knowledge into how they should play against the crafty and tough spins of Mauresmo. As you mentioned Todd, she has quite a few points to defend and I'd be shocked if she won two more slams. One is certainly possible but I see her perhaps becoming a little less consistent with a few (not that many) more early upsets.

Martina, as I have talked in the first part of this column, had a great first year coming back in 2006. I'm sure it wasn't easy for her to know exactly how she would fit in the order on the WTA tour and she did fantastic. Power was again an issue and while she'll never be the one to outserve her opponents, I'm confident and hopeful she will have worked on her weaknesses and improved them more than others in this off-season. I think she can fit in there pretty well and go a little deeper in the slams in general in 2007.

Every year I seem to think Kuznetsova will develop further than she actually does, and she still lacks that consistency that would give her a real shot at #1. But she can certainly play well on any surface (has not been as convincing on grass but that will come in my opinion). I see good things for Svetlana and since I am alone this year, no Curse should occur!

TS: Oh-hoho! How about that. Now someone can accuse ol' Cantin of being mean and hatin' on Kim, huh? Meanwhile, Kim's my gal in '07... no, really, she kinda is (at least compared to you this time around). It's funny how things turn around like that, isn't it? Ha. I think I can actually feel hell freezing over from here.

PC: What can I possibly say, it's more of a lack of faith in Kim playing a lot of tennis than anything else, but there's not much I can really say...

TS: Come on, Pierre... you've always really "hated" Kim, riiiiiight? And you were just preparing to "stab her in the back" when she wasn't looking -- as she was walking out the door, riiiiiight? Ha.

PC: Yes, you are right, of course... wink, wink... I've always had pretty strong opinions against Kim but, needing to bring some controversy to the table, I took the only side left by you.

TS: I know you're just "playing along"... but, still, now I have "evidence" that ol' Backspin isn't really on a one-man "Get Kim" campaign. Thanks. It's nice to have an "accomplice."

PC: My god!! Are you trying to get me to find a flight towards Washington D.C.? I'm as big of a fan of Kim as there is, and still believe she could end 2007 as the world #1, that is if injuries, wedding, and other distractions weren't such a big factor. Trying to rub it in, hey? You're succeeding, I'll give you that.

TS: Well, hopefully Nadia would approve, after all you've said about her here. Well, since I'm going last, let's see your top two players, Pierre... although, I think I can see the writing on the wall for this one, and Yuri's going to be mighty ticked off at the end of this column. Haha.

PC: What, it's not like our writings have any impact, right? Or do they? I keep trying to believe otherwise but the last few days have been yet another sign.

TS: Poor, Anastasia.

PC: Ok, Todd, here are my top two picks:

2. Justine Henin-Hardenne

I talked about how I think there will be less of a difference in 2007 between ranks 5-10... but I do however see no real battle for #2 in the world. I think Justine will continue to improve. She had a fantastic season last year and will certainly build on that and do as well in my opinion. Wimbledon will be the biggest challenge as she could get outserved but she has shown year after year that she is capable of playing with every girl on tour. I think Justine's determination will be matched only by one person and given her incredible talent, she will be a solid pick to make it in the final of almost every tournament she enters... so then, how could she not make it to #1?

1. Maria Sharapova

The girl from Siberia has shown many signs of greatness over the years, since that surprise title in Wimbledon. And while she had seen some moments of greatness since then, she was still very much a work in progress. Despite all of her off-court activities, few have ever questionned her resolve in being the best in the game. She has all the weapons needed, the confidance and she is now consistent... what happens when all of those are united? Think of a girl who won two of 3 hard court events last summer (including the US Open) and then after a slip in Moscow, she went on to win Linz and Zurich while being stopped by Henin-Hardenne in a match for the year-end #1 ranking.

No doubt it will be a great battle between the two but I think in the end, Maria's serve will be that little extra weapon that can take her to the top of tennis, and in her case, of the world perhaps.

TS: (shaking head) Poor, Maria. I was afraid of this. We've duplicated our top picks once again, and it's on the Supernova's back that we've painted this year's target... err, I mean we both think that Sharapova will end 2007 as the #1-ranked player.

Just to make things official, here are my top two picks:

1. Maria Sharapova
2. Justine Henin-Hardenne

Hire some extra bodyguards, Yuri! Consult a witch doctor! Check Maria's star charts! Do something to ensure that the "Kuznetsova Curse" doesn't curtail the prelude and start of the Sharapova Scenario that's "scheduled" to kick-off sometime in '07 (you knew I had to get that in somewhere, right?). Really, though... somehow, I think Maria will survive. Justine, too. Expectations haven't exactly held them back in the past.

You know, I kind of figured we'd both put Sharapova at #1 (that's why I wanted to go last... I was anticipating that Maria would have the Curse to contend with this season). Really, as things stand at the beginning of January, Sharapova at #1 seems such an obvious forecast (maybe a little TOO obvious, hmm?). I'd think most realistic predictions would have these two as the top-ranked players, in whatever order that someone would prefer to place them. Their prospective '07 slam face-offs could be akin to the head-to-head Mauresmo/JHH matches of '06, but without all the post-match carping... in other words, real nose-to-nose battles that could turn out to be instant classics. To quote Natalie Gulbis in her recent Golf Channel reality show, "Should be fun."

Thing is, JHH has previously had the advantage versus Sharapova (she leads 5-2 in career meetings), so she might actually have the edge if it comes down to the two of them battling it out for #1 (as occurred at the YEC).

PC: No doubt about it, I think the Top 2 are kind of "givens", but I think it would be easy to argue for JHH being on top of tennis once more. She's a lot better on clay, and competes better than anyone it seems.

TS: Plus, while Henin-Hardenne is a force at all four slams, Sharapova has so far only been a contender at three.

PC: We both picked the girl from Siberia, but I think we could very well be wrong. Now I'm hoping the Curse won't happen once more. Oh, who am I kidding? It already has.

TS: So, you're "drinking the Kool-Aid" and admitting that maybe Maria WILL fall prey to the dreaded...um, maybe we should call it the "Cantin Curse" this time around, considering the Czarina's plight in Auckland after playing just one match? Just kidding, of course. But how do you feel about your role in this potentially familiar mess, Pierre?

PC: I know where you're going Todd, pushing me in the corner slowly, making me talk about the latest Curse. You know, I've always believed that you were the one responsible for what happened to Svetlana Kuznetsova and I had just happened to pick the same girl. I was letting you believe it was a "dual curse" to help you sleep better at night. But after our discussions about Anastasia Myskina...and her not only losing her opening match in Auckland but a lot worse -- her dropping out of the Australian Open -- it's hard for me to ignore my "role" in this disaster. Do you think we might start getting bribes from player agents trying to get us NOT to choose their players here?

TS: Ha. If only... I could certainly use the little infusion of cash. But, hey, I wasn't the one who picked Myskina in the Top 10. I've got nothing to do with that one... that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.

I'm sure I've put the hex on someone else, though, and considering I mentioned in Volley #1 that the Curse certainly WASN'T going to touch either Myskina or Petrova because our notions are so far apart on their fortunes for '07... well, let's just say I'll be holding my breath every time Nadia hits the court until Melbourne.

Speaking of slams, I'm thinking Sharapova and JHH will divvy up the slam titles this year and shut everyone else out. 2/2 or 3/1. In the Prediction Blowout, you had Sharapova winning two, and JHH taking one. Did you want to name a player who'll take the fourth slam? Last chance. Don't tell me... let me guess. Is it Myskina at Roland Garros? I'm "sort of" kidding, but then again...

PC: Why not, Todd? You know I'll take the opportunity, pick Myskina and make you eat your words like you never had to do so far... no, I won't let you make me lose my focus. I'm picking actually JHH to win RG, Maria in Australia and Wimbledon and I'll take Vaidisova (yes, the girl with the flashy temper) in NY.

TS: Oh, wow. Nicole in NYC. That's my favorite prediction of your's for this season (like that pick that there'd be eight different slam finalists was last season... too bad you didn't get a hit on that one). I think I'd sacrifice one of my slam picks for that one of yours to come true (also, it'd certainly be good news for my "Intriguing Questions #'s 3 & 4" column, which will be posted on Wednesday, by the way).

PC: Why thank you. I'll take that.

TS: Hmmm, that's just about it for the Volley. Oh, yeah... you know I like giving out pseudo-awards, so here are my picks for a few:

SLEEPER TOP 10er?: Alicia Molik
SHOCKER TOP 10er?: Shahar Peer
ODDLY ABSENT TOP 10er: Elena Dementieva
JUST MISSED MY TOP 10: Ana Ivanovic & Anna Chakvetadze

Who would you bestow your awards on in these categories? (Psst... and, yes, this IS indeed a way to cover our butts for any bad picks we might have made.)

PC: Ah, I'm more than happy to take the opportunity.

SLEEPER TOP 10er?: Maria Kirilenko
SHOCKER TOP 10er?: Tatiana Golovin
ODDLY ABSENT TOP 10er: Kim Clijsters (obviously)
JUST MISSED MY TOP 10: Anna Chakvetadze

TS: Well, the Top 10 picks are in the book. Now it's up to the players and fate to prove us right or wrong. So now I guess we can consider absolutely ALL of 2007's "Who's the Best?" questions comprehensively answered.

Yeah, right.

Have a good time in Melbourne, by the way. Hope that "Merry World Traveler" book you're writing is going well. Oh, and have a few Tim Tams in my honor (I love those things), and wish Vegemite on all your worst enemies. Ha.

PC: Hahaha, yeah, thanks for the good wishes. Be sure I'll be at Petrova's matches making sure everything is under control.... haha.

TS: Okay, just so long as you don't bring along a black cat to let loose in front of her as she walks onto a match court or off a practice one.

PC: You have my word.

TS: (Hmmm, he'd better now be crossing his fingers.) Well, since you're the "guest" here, I'll let you have the "last word" by surrending the honor of sounding the official Backspin sign-off for this inaugural edition of Volley.

PC: Honestly Todd, what a great idea you had for this column. Hopefully your readers had as much fun reading this as I did, and we'll do this more often! Thanks for the opportunity to once more prove you wrong. :)

All for now.


Sharapova vs. Vaidisova... only in the WTA's dreams?


Blogger Zidane said...

Just a few thoughts about both of your Top 10...
I agree with Pierre than Clijsters will not make top 10, I already had that thought a few weeks ago.
Even if Kuznet has not shown consistency to be at the top of her game every match, she had consistency to go far in almost every tournament last year, so she should be high in the rankings (even if she lost to Schnyder, will lead me to...)
Schnyder and Dementieva have proven to be consistent in the last few years, so I believe Demen will stay in the top 10 (she doesn't have much points to defend) and Schnyder could too, if she doesn't injury herself.
Also, I believe Maumo will do better than you both expect, especially at the US Open (I think she will win it) though I also (unfortunately)believe that Sharapova and Henin will finish #1 and #2, but in what order, I cannot say.
Have a good tennis year!

Thu Jan 04, 12:21:00 AM EST  

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