Saturday, December 20, 2008

BV '09 (#8-10): Of Warhorses and New Blood

Well, here we go again.

As we so recently were reminded, every season is different. But as Tennisrulz Head Honcho Pierre Cantin and I begin a three-part Volley in which we predict the year-end Top 10 for the upcoming 2009 season, some overly familiar things are sure to come about:

1) Pierre will chide me for adhering to the "half-full" rather than "half-empty" glass theory when it comes to one Nadia Petrova.

2) Pierre will pick another Russian -- not Nadia, but at least one of the other Hordettes -- higher than me, at which point I will see fit to make a sly reference to his "Russian bias" living on, even with Czarina Myskina safely nestled in retirement.

3) and, at some stage, we'll actually agree on something, an occurence which will cause red flags to fly and loud buzzers to go off everywhere around the HQ's of both T-rulz and Backspin, alerting us to the rock-solid fact that whatever we agreed upon will most definitely NOT happen in 2009. In fact, something awful will more than likely befall the player in question. (I mean, Svetlana is still feeling the effects of the original "Kuznetsova Curse" fuse that we accidentally lit back in 2005.)

So, a year after we brilliantly surmised that Jelena Jankovic would finish #10 (Pierre) and Agnes Szavay would surge into the Top 10 (me), we march forward with blinders in place. (Being fair, we did combine to predict all four slam winners and Fed Cup champions for '08 last pre-season, so we do SOMETIMES know what we're talking about.)

Will we end another player's potentially successful season before it even begins? Or should I say, WHICH player will be the unlucky one who garners both our support? I don't know who Pierre is planning on choosing as his 2009 #1, but I've got a little voice in the back of my head telling me that we're going to pick the same person. Of course, maybe I'm just being paranoid and am preparing for the worst.

Well, it's time to begin the process of finding out:

Todd = gold
Pierre = green

TODD SPIKER: Well, we're back to cause havoc and chaos for a few of the best players on the WTA tour once again. (And no, I'm not making an under-the-radar Jankovic reference when I mention "chaos.') Are you already feeling guilty?

PIERRE CANTIN: Hmmm, I'm actually predicting that this time around, you will be alone in giving that "unlucky" touch. I'm feeling very good about my picks and think that you will struggle to match me in 2009... but we'll see, right?

TS: So you're predicting that your predictions will be better. Isn't that a big no-no, like a double negative or something? Oh, well. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Looks like I'm going first.

8. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
9. Elena Dementieva, RUS
10. Nadia Petrova, RUS

TS: I guess I'd call this the "Russian grab bag" portion of my predictions. These are the three I chose to round out the Top 10, but they could just as easily be changed out with countrywomen Anna Chakvetadze or Svetlana Kuznetsova... and, if you wanted to walk way out on the limb, maybe even Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who'll play her first full pro season in '09 after following up the most dominating junior career since that of Martina Hingis with a very impressive back half of the season in '08 (hey, Caroline Wozniacki went from #64 to #12 last season, and Anastasia is only #45... so it COULD happen).

PC: Vera has seen moments of brilliance and will probably see some more in 2009, so you'll soon see that she barely makes my Top 10. Overall I think Vera will have a good year, but the competition is very fierce for the top 10 in 2009.

TS: Of course, Zvonareva could be even higher than #8, but like so many players she could go either way. It'll depend on how much she learned from her career season and whether she might allow any early-season disappointments to derail all the progress she's made over the past year or so. Her expectations will surely be higher than ever, so she could get even more frustrated than in the past should she get off to a bad start. The way she reacted (literally crumbling to the court at strange times) while losing the SEC final to Venus Williams made me worry, if only a little.

I always enter the season thinking that THIS will be the year that Dementieva finally "pulls a Schnyder" and settles in the #11-18 range for the rest of her career. But she always manages to have two or three spectacular weeks spread out over the course of the year that help her maintain a Top 10 ranking. Last year, she won the Olympics and finished way up at #4 as several of her fellow Russians suffered setbacks and slipped behind her. I kept her in the Top 10 this time, but I do wonder if she might have a bit of a letdown after winning Beijing, since it'll probably end up being her career-best moment.

PC: I agree with your statement about Dementieva but I think the step to the Top 10 will just be higher this year so those few great moments of Dementieva will not be enough.

TS: All right, go ahead and make a comment about my #10 pick, then I'll explain.

PC: Todd, you will never learn, will you? Year after year you have been predicting Nadia Petrova's stride to the top of the game, and after finally learning your lesson in 2008, you make the mistake again. The assumptions are just too improbable in my opinion. You are putting her there based on her talent, but with Nadia so much more comes into it.

TS: Yep, Petrova is back in my Top 10, with a bit of a wink. She's the ol' Backspin prediction warhorse, although even I let go last year and didn't pick Nadia to finish so high. She eventually pulled out of her funk in '08, turned around her game and attitude and finished #11, though. So I'm giving her my #10 spot, maybe or maybe not for old times sake, hedging my bets that she'll be able to get through another season relatively injury-free (even if I'm highly doubtful she'll stay off the trainer's table).

[Editor's Note: Petrova has contracted viral meningitis and will miss the start of the season, possibly including the Australian Open]

PC: Hmmm, well she was in a hospital and already withdrew from a first week event, but at least she seems to be recovering well, and I'd certainly never wish her any bad luck even though it makes my predictions more on the spot every time..

TS: Yeah, well, thankfully, she got off to a slow start last year so missing time at the beginning of '09 shouldn't hurt her too much, as long as symtoms don't linger and she's fatigued all season.

We usually only have about six of the Top 10 right, so I figured I'd use one spot as a "personal plea." I'll feel good for having faith if she doesn't pull it off, and elated if she does. It's a no-lose situation. For me, anyway. Ha.

I don' t think you'd pick her in your Top 10 even if you really thought she'd finish there, would you? Be honest, now. :)

PC: It's easy since I don't think she will... but yes, I would have a hard time. Of course, by the time that would happen, you'd probably see her as the next #1... so I could still get on you.

TS: For Nadia, modest success is as good as golden at this point.

All right then, let's see your stabs in the dark... err, I mean your predictions.

PC: Stabs in the dark, hey? Will you let me quote you on that in the next few months? Haha.

TS: Sure, as long as I can "remind" you of your overconfidence. You know, like the kind you displayed with your "Davenport as #3 in the world" prediction last year.

8. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
9. Alize Cornet, FRA
10. Vera Zvonareva, RUS

TS: Ah, some new Top 10 blood.

PC: It's oh so difficult to know what will be happening to Vera and god knows I could easily predict she will be in the Top 5 or even potentially outside of the Top 10. As you mentioned, her SEC performance in Doha was a good example of the best and the worst of Vera. Of course, the worst came in the final, after a very impressive performance, but history has shown that Vera is capable of such breakdowns in any match, making it very difficult for her to get into big winning streaks to win a major for example.

TS: Of course, we both might have said the same thing about Jankovic a year ago.

PC: Yes, absolutely but I think if we had known the injuries and problems of the top players, we could have maybe seen it a bit more coming. She is probably the most consistent top player and plays more than anyone else... not sure I'd consider Vera consistent no matter how you are rating that criteria.

TS: Yeah, if we'd known that Henin would retire two weeks before Roland Garros, a WHOLE LOT of opinions on the season would have been different. Who knows what the "landscape changer" will be in '09?

I see you're looking for a big leap from the Pastry, who showed some real fighting spirit at times last year.

PC: One of my favourite players, Alize Cornet gives her all each time she steps on the court but has been a bit inconsistent. But given her age, it's still possible to blame inexperience for that. Of course, she is small, lacks a bit of power and does not have huge weapons. But I think she will challenge for the top this year and will make 1 or 2 grand slam quarterfinals!

TS: Hmmm... you're sort of taking up my '08 role this season. A year ago, I put some new young players at the bottom of my Top 10, then saw Agnes Szavay and Shahar Peer's rankings take a nosedive. I'm playing it a little safer this season, but you're taking bigger chances. Hope you're not subjecting them to the "you-know-what."

PC: Yes, for sure it is a risk and I thought long and hard about putting her name in there. It might be as much that I like her game and a vote of confidence than anything else, but she has such a fighting spirit, I think she can make it happen.

TS: Cornet has to improve her results in non-clay events, while Azarenka needs to figure out a way to win a title. I'm sure both will do just that in 2009, but everyone else is improving, too. I know you've been predicting big things for Azarenka at slams for the last couple of season. It'll surely happen at some point, and maybe even this season.

PC: Azarenka has it all: power, consistency, a solid return. She has a bit of a weakness on her serve, but even more of a problem is her mental inconsistency. Less of a problem than Zvonareva, but it's still a bit similar in that she can almost lose her focus entirely during a match... but she's been improving very very fast and will continue her road towards the top of the game.

TS: Yeah, I think we've all been waiting for a few seasons for both C-Woz and Azarenka to make the big move. Wozniacki learned how to win in '08, and now it's Azarenka's turn. Just because it's sometimes difficult for a young player to get over that hump, I didn't pick her in my Top 10. She was my last player dropped, I'd say.

PC: I think you'll regret making that pick. I can easily imagine someone you could have taken off your list to give her a spot (hint: NP)

TS: Since she still hasn't won a singles title, I found an excuse. Chakvetadze at #10 might have been a "safer" selection on my part (she was right there with Azarenka on my list).

Hmmm, so far there aren't any really BIG surprises in our picks. Although, the way Zvonareva ended the season in such good form, it's sort of interesting that we both put her at or near the bottom of our Top 10's. I actually thought you'd have her higher. You know, with the "bias" and all. Ha.

PC: Haha, I guess we both like to think we see things in such different ways, but maybe not as much as we'd think, hey?

TS: That might end up being bad news for someone, too.

Well, things should begin to get interesting next time when we pick our #5-7 players. Surely some big names will show up there.

PC: And some big surprises, as there have been in most years (remember when I did not include Kim Clijsters in my Top 10?).

TS: Wasn't that the season she ended up retiring and disappearing from the rankings, too? I'm still not sure if that was good prognostication on your part, or pure luck. Ha.

PC: Good prognostication, of course.

TS: Before we go, let's take a quick look at our "Second 10" players who just missed out on our Top 10's, as well as the other players we had under consideration.

=TODD's Second 10=
Victoria Azarenka
Anna Chakvetadze
Dominika Cibulkova
Alize Cornet
Anna-Lena Groenefeld
Daniela Hantuchova
Svetlana Kuznetsova
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Flavia Pennetta
Agnieszka Radwanska

TS: There are all sorts of what if's and maybe's here. A calm offseason might propel Chakvetadze back up the rankings, while Kuznetsova's new coaching setup MUST help her re-learn how to close out tournaments or she's going to go down as the biggest post-slam title disappointment in recent memory. Pennetta will likely become the first Italian Top 10er early in '09, but I doubt if she can maintain it over a long season, even with the new schedule. A-Rad has to be feeling the breath of Wozniacki and others who are hot on the heels of her current #10 ranking, and she's going to need put just a little more punch in her game if she's to keep ahead of ALL of them. I'd like to put Groenefeld in the Top 10, but she still needs to prove her '08 comeback wasn't just a flash and that her serve really IS back to where she can pick up where she left off a few seasons ago. Hantuchova, as always, is an enigma. And I already mentioned Pavlyuchenkova, with whom I'm wondering if I might regret not taking the plunge a few months into the season. Ditto for Cibulkova.

=Also Considered=
Marion Bartoli
Alona Bondarenko
Sara Errani
Petra Kvitova
Li Na
Ekaterina Makarova
Amelie Mauresmo
Anabel Medina-Garrigues
Tamira Paszek
Shahar Peer
Patty Schnyder
Katarina Srebotnik
Carla Suarez-Navarro
Agnes Szavay
Nicole Vaidisova
Zheng Jie

TS: What kind of a season are you looking for from Pavlyuchenkova? She finished 2008 in the Top 50 after a pretty nifty finish.

PC: You know, it's so tough. I've seen her play live a few times and honestly been impressed in juniors but have been very disapointed in WTA matches, so I'm having a hard time getting why that is. Inconsistency would be normal and losing some strange matches as well, but the way she loses? I'd hope she can improve in all aspects, especially movement to get closer to 20-25.

TS: Yeah, I think her tour results for most of last year were pretty discouraging. But she turned things up late and had some pretty good results. I guess whether she continues to ride that momentum in '09 or, as occurs with some young players, has to take a step back before moving forward again will give a good indication whether or not she's going to have a "special" career.

=PIERRE's "Second 10"=
11-Nadia Petrova
12-Agnieszka Radwanska
13-Marion Bartoli
14-Elena Dementieva
15-Svetlana Kuznetsova
16-Jie Zheng
17-Flavia Pennetta
18-Anna Chakvetadze
19-Daniela Hantuchova
20-Dominika Cibulkova

PC: Among the players that I though about putting in the Top 10 but ended up not were talents like Nadia Petrova (you won't be surprised -- I just don't think she can play Top 10 tennis enough). Agnieszka Radwanska, who is very solid and could continue to improve, but lacks those weapons as well. Elena Dementieva, one of the big talents, but who has been getting fewer and fewer big performances every year. Jie Zheng and Flavia Pennetta have shown great things but I don't see them getting to the Top 10, either.

TS: It looks like you don't think that Chakvetadze and Kuznetsova will be able to fight their way back, either. Is the "bias" over? Of course, you can still pick a Russian #1 and the Hordettes to win another Fed Cup. :)

PC: Haha, yeah Kuznetsova had such a tough 2008 season and did not have much postive come out of it. Chakvetadze had a nightmare year and will rebound, but just not enough to make the Top 10.

TS: Olga Morozova has her work cut out for her with Kuznetsova, but the talent is surely there to work with.

=Also Considered=
Na Li
Agnes Szavay
Sorana Cirstea
Katarina Srebotnik
Anabel Medina-Guarrigues
Nicole Vaidisova
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Tamira Paszek
Mathilde Johansson
Amelie Mauresmo

TS: Hmmm, Mathilde Johansson. That's a different one. I'm wondering if we might both be sleeping on Paszek, too, after her step back a season ago.

PC: Yeah, I'd think that Paszek has the most upside in all of those players with Mauresmo and Vaidisova for 2009... but it's a tough call, and while she had some great performances, I don't see her becomming consistent overnight for sure.

TS: Okay, I think I see a red light flashing. Guilt-free or not, that mean it's time to go. All for now.

...All-Decade Nominations
...Most Intriguing Question
...ATP Top 10 Picks
...Prediction Blowout
...Volley #8-10
...Intriguing 75: Region-by-Region
...Volley #5-7
...Volley #1-4
...What If?
...1st Qtr. Preview
...Week 1 Picks


Blogger Diane said...

Interesting, gentlemen. I had Nadia picked to go back to the top 10 until the meningitis hit. Of course, viral meningitis is sometimes not that serious, but knowing Nadia...still, she has a shot.

I do think Chak will be back in the top 10 next year. She has nowhere to go but up after her disaster of a year. But...if she doesn't go to the top 10 again, I think she will simply slide off the charts--way down.

Azarenka is a head case, but is nevertheless top 10 material(sounds like Schnyder, I know). I see a better future for Radwanska than you do. She is still very young, and she has exceptional court sense.

Having said all that, I must say that I am generally mystified about what is going to happen next year. The thing I would like most is for Patty to win a couple of those big tournaments in which she is always the finalist (Patty wears me out). But I'd also like to see Amelie have another good year.

Sat Dec 27, 10:45:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Everytime I see Radwanska I'm always impressed by how much she's improved since the last time I saw her, but I just wonder how long she'll be able to keep that up... especially if the likes of Wozniacki and/or Azarenka and/or any number of other young players all make their own strides up the rankings.

We actually started putting this together before the Petrova illness story... so, of course, I feel somewhat "responsible" for the whole thing. :)

Your comments about Chakvetadze worry me, though I suspect you could be right about her fortunes should she not rebound sufficiently in '09. :(

Tue Dec 30, 03:01:00 AM EST  

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