Sunday, January 04, 2009

BV '09 (#1-4): The Volley Strikes Thrice?

A year ago, the final preseason Backspin Volley set up the battle for #1 that would take place throughout 2008 between Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova.

A month later, as the two were set to face off in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Henin was on a 32-match winning streak. Sharapova ended it, won her first Oz title, then completed her own 18-match streak in a dominant 1st Quarter. All seemed "right" in the tennis world (and with our picks).

Then, well, you know... who knew?

By the end of the year Henin had been retired for more than half a season and Sharapova was the third-highest ranked Russian and dealing with what's swiftly becoming a chronic shoulder problem.

Hey, on the bright side, those camera ads with Dolce just keep getting better, huh?

Could the Volley be about to strike yet again? In 2005, Pierre and I both picked Svetlana Kuznetsova to finish #1. She hasn't been the same since. In 2007, we both picked Sharapova. That was the season her shoulder injuries began to first surface.

If the "Kuznetsova Curse" operates on an odd year schedule, 2009 could bring a whole new heap of trouble.

Todd = gold
Pierre = green

TODD SPIKER: I don't have a very good feeling about what we might be about to do. But just remember, since I agreed to take any blame for Petrova, then you'll be the culprit if we put the hex on another player this time and her season goes up in smoke.

PIERRE CANTIN: Fair enough... but you are scaring me. I hope this time you are not right about my picks! It's very tough to predict if you put Ana at #1, but I'm guessing that you did.

TS: Alllll riiiight, let's get on with this mercy killing. (And someone lock Yuri in a closet, just to be safe.)

3. Serena Williams, USA
4. Jelena Jankovic, SRB

3. Serena Williams, USA
4. Ana Ivanovic, SRB

TS: Hmmm, we both have the same Russian (guess who) and our favorite opposing Serbs left for our Top 2's.

PC: Wow, I'm surprised that you'd put Jelena in your Top 2. But that puts an even more interesting spin on our two remaining players doesn't it? We could not both pick Maria again right?

TS: I thought you'd actually figure I'd put Jankovic at NUMBER ONE, considering she's already there and I've said I think she'll win a slam in '09. I guess you don't follow my thinking as well as I think you follow my thinking. Or something like that.

I guess you didn't learn your lesson after picking Jelena #9 last season, hmm?

PC: Jelena had an amazing 2008 season, finishing at the world #1 ranking, and winning the ITF player of the year award. But I think 2009 will be a bit tougher because of the new ranking system (that does not reward playing as many events as much as it did in 2008) and just because she still does not have much offensive weapons, and will find tournaments a lot tougher to get through against an increased amount of players who can threaten her.

TS: She IS the most consistent player, though, and that'll still work in her favor over the course of a season as long as she stays healthy. Plus, she had a fairly sizeable end-of-season lead over #2, and that was without taking a slam. Do you think she'll get one in '09?

PC: I think she will do somewhat ok in slams and, as said earlier, will do very well at the US Open. I just think she'll have a tough time being as consistent and winning against a better number of talented players than in 2008.

TS: It might be a funny thing to watch (imagine that, with Queen Chaos, huh?) if she doesn't finish #1 again, but DOES win a slam.. After talking last season about how much more important her FULL SEASON #1 ranking was than being the best for TWO WEEKS at a slam (essentially doing a 180-degree flip on Sharapova's I-don't-care-about-#1 take on things), she'd have to talk her way out of the corner she painted herself into if she does bag a slam title.

PC: Yes, that is such a good point, it would certainly be interesting.

TS: I'm sure she'd find a way to try to convince people she didn't really mean it. I mean, except for the part of her that did, which was only kidding, but not really... sort of.

(rolls eyes)

Anyway. Hey, look at that, we both have Serena at #3. "Lucky" her.

PC: I'm guessing that given the names remaining, this will not be a huge surprise for you. I still always think that Serena has the talent to be good on all surfaces. The new rules for the rankings will give her and sister Venus a big boost without any doubt as it does not reward more as much as it did in prior years.

TS: I know you've said that you're already starting to question Serena's '09 prospects for staying healthy.

PC: Serena is still very much handicapped by injuries and while I do keep her at #3, seeing her already drop out of the Hopman Cup is nothing to give me confidence. I guess I'm bidding on solid performances in at least 3 of the 4 slams. We'll see, right?

TS: She did play in Pam Shriver's exhibition in Baltimore after the season, so I'm going to go with the thought that she's just playing it safe to ensure that she's healthy for Melbourne. At least in recent seasons, it's been her best slam and she could start '09 with a thunder clap by winning the second of back-to-back slam titles for the first time since the Serena Slam.

PC: But even then, to make #3, she'll need to have a few good runs, not just this Australian one that somehow she always manages to get.

TS: Melbourne. A Tier I (excuse me, what USED to be considered a Tier I). A good run at either Wimbledon or the Open. It's do-able. Actually, I was flip-flopping Serena and Ivanovic up until the last minute, but I went with Serena ahead of her because I think she's more likely to win a slam this season.

PC: Ana had a tough time at the end of the 2008 season with injuries and maybe feeling more pressure as she had reached #1 in the world, but with her work ethic and determination, I have no doubt she will fight back.

TS: Seriously, is there any more perceived "lock" on the board than the notion that Ivanovic isn't going to repeat in Paris? But is that just a case of everyone remembering the few months AFTER Paris and disregarding everything that led up to Roland Garros?

PC: While I do have Ana in my Top 2, yeah I could give you that lock easily. I would be stunned if she did a repeat, but I do expect her to play a lot better on hard courts in 2009.

TS: Hmm, in the Blowout, you actually had Ivanovic repeating in Paris. So, can I mark you down for disavowing that one?

PC: Actually, I think Ana is still probably the best shot at winning RG. Maybe "stunned" was not the right word, but let's say I'd still be surprised if she won it. She is my pick and I stand by it, but to me this one is wide open so I would see anyone winning in Paris as somewhat of a surprise, even if she will be defending her title. Does that make sense at all?

TS: After the chaos of 2008... sure. Ha.

All right. So, we're up to the spot where we could "end" a player's season before it begins. What are you thinking is going to be revealed?

PC: Honestly, as I said, I thought you would have Ana at #1. Just had that strong feeling. So now I'm very uncertain. I'd be a bit surprised if you had Jelena again at #1 because I don't remember you being that positive about her, but I don't know. Maybe the stars are just aligning.

TS: Maybe more like a warning in the sky from the tennis Gods, I'd say.

So we could either both pick a different Serb at #1, hang the ol' "Kuznetsova Curse" anchor around Sharapova's neck or split the picks. I've been thinking all along that the Supernova was going to be getting a stiff neck.

PC: Wouldn't it be very unfair to Maria if we had her at #1? She already has so many elements working against her. But imagine this... the other day I woke up to hear that Maria had dropped out of Hong Kong and might miss the Australian Open. Now I really don't get it. I mean, it looks as if the curse is already on and yet I do not even know that you have Maria at #1... or do you?

TS: As you know, we were in the final staging of compiling this last Volley when the Sharapova-had-arthroscopic-surgery news broke on her website.. Technically, the final predictions had already been set. Needless to say, the tennis Gods know all.

1. Maria Sharapova, RUS
2. Ana Ivanovic, SRB

1. Maria Sharapova, RUS
2. Jelena Jankovic, SRB

TS: Haaaaa! I knew it!

PC: You have got to be kidding.

TS: I think I'm going to have to have a talk with the lovely tennis Goddess Goolagongis again about all this at some point this season..

PC: You know, we will eventually not only start getting sued but also getting some bribes from coaches looking to have their main opponent in trouble.

TS: Considering Sharapova's Russian I say we keep that topic "under wraps." Just so long as she she isn't photographed with Davydenko there'll be no suspicion. Ha.

Let's skip the Maria/Jelena discussion for a minute. So you really think AnaIvo is going to rebound, huh?

PC: I think Ana will have a great season, probably win another slam and will be very consistent. I really think it's going to be a close battle for #1, one that could help the WTA a lot if these two players come out with solid efforts.

TS: ESPN would love it at the U.S. Open. :)

PC: Haha, yes I would agree that it might help TV ratings, just a little.. :)

TS: I "only" have AnaIvo at #4, but I think you may be onto something about her being underestimated. Of the players we have ranked in the Top 4, even though she's been "less dominant," she's generally been the healthiest and/or less-overworked. She's a former #1 and a slam winner, too. She seemed to right herself before the end of '08, and a great tournament in Oz could re-write the script that she seemed to write about herself after she buckled under the pressure last summer.

PC: And the fact that she's been in Australia for already a few weeks, working hard while others are working on their sponsorships might help as well.

TS: Of all the players we DON'T have at #1, I think she might be the one who, with just a slight tweak in mindset, could race ahead of them all. Of course, I'm not picking that to happen.

PC: I guess that would make me more right than you if it did happen.

TS: You take Ivanovic. I'll take Jankovic. I'm all right with that, at least for 2009.

To be truthful, I'm really not completely sure why I didn't stick with Jankovic over Sharapova for #1. My one explanation is that, without Henin around last season, I did the unthinkable -- I fully embraced the idea of Jankovic as a champion and it screwed with my head. Because of that, in an odd way, I think I'm being protective of her potential. I could have picked her #1, but just couldn't do such an awful thing to her. Ha ha.

PC: Oh so that's how these picks are being made now? Out of courtesy for one player? Already getting bribes, sir Todd?

TS: Just trying to not rattle the tennis Gods, and maybe outsmart them. Though I suspect that's a losing battle. Hmmm, backing Jelena, but picking Sharapova. The ultimate C.Y.A. prediction. Ha.

PC: Haha, you'll congratulate me soon enough Todd.

TS: If Jankovic gets a slam title this year, she might not need to replicate her all-season consistency to stay on top. Even so, with a slam title she could finish at #2 and still be able to declare '09 her "best" season. (It's not like contradicting her previous statement would be a reputation-buster.)

PC: Somehow, I don't think that Jelena minds contracting herself that much. Of course who will go out and confront her?

TS: Well, based on all the lack of respect she got from the tennis media when she was challenging for #1, I'd say probably a lot of people. Ha.

PC: I think that was unfair to be honest. For some reason, #1 is not deserved without a slam, a view I don't agree with. It's another story if one girl has a couple of slams at the same time but recently we've seen slams being divided equally.

TS: Considering I railed a bit against a certain Belgian (condolences on the passing of her dad, by the way)...

PC: Yes, Leo Clijsters' death is very sad.

TS: well as raised an eyebrow about one stylish Frenchwoman after they both reached #1 without winning a slam, I can at least understand that argument. I just thought the subtle (and sometimes quite blatant) bashing of the sport's overall talent level/quality simply because Jankovic had a shot to be #1 was a bit over the top.

Speaking of that, let me get on a soapbox and just rant for a moment again about this topic. Recently, I saw another article bemoaning the lack of "star power" in women's tennis in '08... the same year that Sharapova and both Williams sisters won slams, and the television directors got their wish with someone as photogenic as Ivanovic taking the other. So, is this lack of "star power" somehow a belated bow to Henin? Funny, what I remember most about Henin's reign at #1 was how often she was ignored by the major media, unless she was being criticized for her lack of sportsmanship. But now her absence means women's tennis isn't interesting? After a period where a player was dominant was declared "boring," now it's "uninteresting" because there ISN'T a dominant player? I think someone's trying to create a new reality to fit their current needs, and doing so by re-writing the past. Very Orwellian. All right, end of rant. :)

PC: Haha, well said. Actually I think with Ivanovic, Sharapova and the Williams sisters, things are looking promising for the WTA.

TS: Yeah, there's no Nadal-Federer dynamic on the WTA tour, but the personalities who ARE competing for major titles are all interesting in their own way, which I think makes for compelling drama... just not Nadal-Federer drama. And that's okay.

People are just hard-wired to complain, I think (or should I say, "he complained?").

So back on topic. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Who knows if picking a "reasonable" #1 pick is the right way to go. A (mostly) healthy season from Sharapova could make it a good way to go, for what it's worth (which, admittedly, isn't too much, as history has shown... and might be already proving once again). You obviously don't think it's a risk to go with a potentially bum-shouldered player as #1, though.

PC: Wow… risky? I don't know, I think Maria had such an amazing start to her 2008 season and were it not for the shoulder injury that pretty much was with her for almost the entire year we might not be talking about Jankovic as the year-end #1.

TS: (Clears throat.) You know, Sharapova first had shoulder problems in '07... the last time we both predicted her to finish at #1.

PC: True, but until last year, I don't think anyone really expected it to have as much impact in 2008.

TS: I think everything will be okay with Sharapova, but another problem in '09 and the whispers about how a bad shoulder ended Capriati's career will only get louder and louder.

PC: I think we're very far from that point right now.

TS: Yeah, but if it becomes an issue again this season... well, I just down want to have to change her nickname from the Supernova to the Red Dwarf. (Uneasy chuckle.)

PC: A lot of this, of course, relies on a complete recovery and a much better 2nd serve (hoping that the cause was the shoulder injury). I put my faith in Maria and if we are going to put a curse on her than so be it. If one player is strong enough mentally to overcome such a curse, it should be Maria.

TS: To be fair to Sharapova, I actually DO think she'll have a great season. It's not just a "safe" pick-by-default. I've got both she and Jankovic winning slam titles, then the #1 ranking coming down to the Season-Ending Championships... with Maria (who didn't compete in the tournament in '08) outdistancing Jelena in the end.

PC: Switch Ana for Jelena in there and you'll be just about right..

TS: I won't take the bait. Hmmm, did you realize that you've now picked Sharapova to finish #1 three years in a row?

PC: That is truly concerning... no wonder she's been struggling.

TS: All right! I finally get to bring up your "Russian bias." After I'd been picking Hordettes higher than you this entire Top 10, I was starting to worry that I wasn't going to get to legitimately bring that up. Ha ha. Are you sure you don't want to pick Myskina at #10 just for old time's sake?

PC: Almost did, but given her baby and all, it'd be a tough case, even for me. ;)

TS: Sorry, I just couldn't resist. Although they WILL be able to put on a pretty big-named junior tournament in a few years, with all the offspring of past players being welcomed into the world of late. Ha.

PC: Haha, and I'll be the first to back the juniors on here. :)

TS: Of course, even with all the "thought" put into these Top 10 picks, we could be itching to change our minds after the Australian Open, huh? I mean, so many questions might be answered, or new ones posed, based on what happens in a few weeks: Is Sharapova healthy? Is Ivanovic's head screwed-on straight? Is Jankovic ready? Is Serena back? And there's Dinara, and Venus and... well, you get the idea.

PC: And then, as mentioned, not knowing if Maria Sharapova will even be playing... how can the curse be THIS effective. It's not supposed to start before this is actually published is it?

TS: Maybe that'll be the thing that finally breaks it.

PC: I would be hoping so. If not, we'll have to get some lawyers quickly.

TS: Either that or an exorcist.

Of course, there's always the pick-them-out-of-a-hat approach I mentioned last time. As you'll see in a moment, that one was a near-miss of EPIC proportions. Maybe it'll make the tennis Gods dizzy and this Curse thing will finally be broken.

PC: I don't think anyone would cry over that.

TS: Carry on and prosper, Maria. (And Jelena, too.)

Here's a re-cap of our Top 10 picks for 2009, plus the promised picked-from-a-hat list involving the twelve different players we picked in our individual Top 10's, literally picked in order out of a hat:


1. Maria Sharapova, RUS
2. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
3. Serena Williams, USA
4. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
5. Dinara Safina, RUS
6. Venus Williams, USA
7. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
8. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
9. Elena Dementieva, RUS*
10. Nadia Petrova, RUS*

1. Maria Sharapova, RUS
2. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
3. Serena Williams, USA
4. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
5. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
6. Dinara Safina, RUS
7. Venus Williams, USA
8. Victoria Azarenka, BLR*
9. Alize Cornet, FRA*
10. Vera Zvonareva, RUS

*-unique to list

1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR
2. Maria Sharapova, RUS
3. Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
4. Dinara Safina, RUS
5. Elena Dementieva, RUS
6. Serena Williams, USA
7. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
8. Venus Williams, USA
9. Alize Cornet, FRA
10. Nadia Petrova, RUS
11. Vera Zvonareva, RUS
12. Jelena Jankovic, SRB

TS: Yep, for a moment it looked as if Sharapova might be #1 on THIS list, as well. But that would have just been WEIRD.

PC: Well you know, I don't want to dismiss these picks too quickly.. They just could end up beating our picks, which would be embarrassing let's just say. So let's keep our fingers crossed. If Azarenka ends up #1, I can be safe and say that we won't be the only ones to have missed it. The rest looks possible, although Jankovic at #12 is also quite a stretch. Anyway, it should be very interesting to check out.

TS: Hey, at least "The Hat" agreed with me on Nadia finishing at #10. :)

My pre-Volley #1 picks were actually quite reasonable at the time (aha, another thing to blame Pierre for!):

2001: Venus Williams (finished #3)
2002: Venus Williams (#2)
2003: Kim Clijsters (#2)
2004: Serena Williams (#7)

Since we teamed up with these Volley picks, it's been a virtual trails of tears for everyone involved:

*PAST VOLLEY #1 PICKS - w/ year-end rank*
2005: Svetlana Kuznetsova (#18)
2006: Lindsay Davenport, USA (#25)
2007: Maria Sharapova, RUS (#5)
2008: Justine Henin, BEL (retired)
2005: Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (#18)
2006: Kim Clijsters, BEL (#5)
2007: Maria Sharapova, RUS (#5)
2008: Maria Sharapova, RUS (#9)

Sorry, Maria. All for now.

...All-Decade Nominations
...Most Intriguing Question
...ATP Top 10 Picks
...Prediction Blowout
...Volley #8-10
...Volley #5-7
...Intriguing 100
...Volley #1-4
...1st Qtr. Preview
...What If?


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