Thursday, July 15, 2010

On Second Thought...

The "good ol' days." Ah, I remember them fondly. Back then, we were all so much younger than today. Our naive visions of the future were glorious. Everything seemed possible, and greatness decidedly probable. The best days were yet to come.

You remember those days, don't you? You should -- they took place about seven months ago.

Back then, with the Williams Sisters fully committed once again, both Belgians back for full seasons for the first time since 2006, Maria Sharapova back from shoulder surgery and a slew of former #1's and new young stars vying for attention, the WTA in 2010 looked as if it might have something "special" on the immediate horizon.

Now, with the season at it's "unofficial" half-way point, give or take a few weeks, rather than be punctuated by a series of classic push-and-pull moments between some of the best players of the past decade all finally in action and in top form for the first time in years, the '10 campaign has instead been something of an undistinguished hodgepodge in which it has been a rare occasion when more than one of those top players have been at the top of their games at the same moment. When the season began with a near-classic all-Belgian encounter in Brisbane in Week 1, then was followed up with the first ever meeting in a slam final between Serena Williams and Justine Henin in Melbourne, the thought was that it was the zippy prelude to what would be the most competitive season in WTA history, if not THE best season ever. The fingerprints for greatness were everywhere.

Oh, well. I guess you can't win 'em all.

Little did we know that that first month would turn out to possibly be the highlight of the entire year. After nearly seven months of action, the season has so far been marked by Serena's continued slam dominance, a few nice surprises (Francesca Schiavone in Paris, unseeded slam semifinalists), major disappointments (most of the Russians, plus Venus and the Belgians in the slams) and the overall lingering inconsistencies of all those future Hall of Fame players who were supposed to come together all at once to produce a brilliant series of dramatic clashes.

With just one slam remaining, and with Henin likely to miss it with an elbow injury, the window is now very small for anything to occur that would mark 2010 as anything resembling the "greatest-ever" season it had the potential to be. After the Open is complete, with the race for the year-end #1 ranking pretty much already over before the heart of summer arrives, the same inner visions that dreamt of so many great moments in '10 will begin to consider 2011 as the new potential battleground for greatness, as the tiny little imaginary director in our collective mind's eye will shout out with lingering hope, "Take Two."

Speaking of Take Two... with such a large chunk of the season now complete, I thought it'd be a good time to take a look back at some of those pre-season predictions I made about 2010 and, with the benefit of hindsight, attempt to make slight adjustments to some of them.

ORIGINAL TOP 10 PICKS: Victoria Azarenka, Belgian Barbie, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova, Samantha Stosur, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki (extras: Svetlana Kuznetsova & Vera Zvonareva)

As it's turned out, going with an alphabetical listing of ten players was a far better idea than actually doing a #1-through-#10 ranking. It avoided another case of the "Kuznetsova Curse" coming down hard on the head of some unsuspecting WTA player (the same can't be said for the ATP, as my out-on-a-limb #1 pick Juan Martin del Potro saw his season dissolve into nothingness with a wrist injury in the early going... ummm, sorry, guy) and, better yet, the picks turned out pretty well, too. Though it's probably not likely, there's still an outside chance that ALL ten players might end up in the year-end Top 10. If one or two slip out, "extra" pick Zvonareva could find her way in. Really, the only "outright miss" there would seem to be Victoria Azarenka, who was the last player in/first player out when I finalized my group of ten picks.

Aside from the likelihood that the surprise Roland Garros champ will end up in the Top 10 in November, I don't have too many changes to make with these picks. Here's how things would seem to stack up at this point:

*MID-SEASON YEAR END TOP 10 PICKS - alphabetical order*
[confidence level: high]
This group of four seem like pretty safe bets.

Jelena Jankovic, SRB: she's currently ranked #2, and the only great results she'll have to defend are her Cincinnati title and Tokyo RU (she lost in the 2nd Round in the Open). Her Wimbledon back injury is something to consider, but as long as her's isn't a Safina-esque situation she should be able to improve upon her #8 ranking in 2009 by possibly returning to the Top 5.
Samantha Stosur, AUS: easily my best pre-season pick. A year-end Top 5 rank is now within her grasp. The last Australian-born woman to finish a season in the Top 10 was Wendy Turnbull in 1984 (Jelena Dokic was representing Yugoslavia in '01-'02 when she achieved her best year-end ranks, while Czech-born Hana Mandlikova briefly played under the Aussie flag in '87 in her final Top 10 year).
Serena Williams, USA: with or without a third '10 slam title in New York, she's poised to become the first woman to hold onto the top ranking for an entire season since Steffi Graf did it in 1994.
Venus Williams, USA: much like Elena Dementieva in '09, Venus has been consistent and sometimes-fabulous over the course of the season, but put up disappointing results in the slams. She can still finish with her best year-end ranking since '02, when she was #2.

[confidence level: moderate]
Assuming that nothing catastrophic happens to this group, even though two are currently ranked outside at #13 and #15, forward progress and/or average results would seem to insist that they'll be able to secure a place in the Top 10.

Justine Henin, BEL: she's out for the rest of the summer, but won't lose any ranking points since she has none to defend. She'll probably move up in the rankings while not playing. Assuming she comes back after the Open and continues to play up to the same "good" (by everyone else's standards) level that she has so far, securing a place in the season-ending championships (she's at #5 in the points race as of now), Henin will easily be a Top 10er again.
Francesca Schiavone, ITA: probably more people thought she might be retired after '10 than end up in the year-end Top 10. She has yet to have a good result since, but her RG title has provided her with enough points that even if she doesn't do much the rest of the season she should at least be able to hold onto a spot from #8-10. Although, with her ranking currently at #8, her results can't completely fall off the board.
Maria Sharapova, RUS: at #15, she has some work to do (starting with re-securing her points from her '09 title in Tokyo and Toronto runner-up), but if her shoulder remains sound she should be able to continue to move up in the rankings. A SF-or-better result at the Open, her first in a slam since she won in Melbourne in '08, would more than tip the odds in her favor.
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN: she's still ranked a solid #4, but has her New Haven title and Open runner-up points to defend. She'll likely continue to play her too-heavy schedule, so she'll likely garner enough points to stay in the Top 10 if she has a frustrating summer run in North America.

[confidence level: umm, what day is this?]
There are good reasons both for and against why these players might qualify for the final two unclaimed spots in the Top 10.

Vera Zvonareva, RUS: currently #9, if Zvonareva can take her Wimbledon final run and use it to continue her climb back to her early '09 level of play, she should do well enough to be safe. But with the possibility of a re-injury of her ankle on the less-forgiving hard courts, not to mention that she might remember her Wimbledon finals losses more than all the wins that got her there, one can never be 100% sure that Zvonareva will prosper the rest of the season.
Belgian Barbie, BEL: at #7, Jada's Mom seems a safe Top 10er. But take away her U.S. Open title points and she's a big question mark. At the moment, she's only #13 in the season's points race. Her '10 slam results don't ensure anything close to a successful title defense, and the last time she won the Open she was injured in a tune-up and didn't play in NY again for years. If she rediscovers the desire to succeed on the courts of North America that she displayed last year when she had no pressure in the opening months of her comeback, she's in. If not, she's out. I'm not betting on the Belgian.
Elena Dementieva, RUS: not unlike many players approaching thirty (Serena excluded, of course) Dementieva has become very hard to figure out. She's just as likely to win a tournament as lose early. She's had success on the hard courts in America before, though, so as long as her calf injury is healed up she should be able to rebound.
Li Na, CHN: she can never be discounted, so I'll include the current world #10 here. But she's so inconsistent and injury-prone, I figure she'll find a way to end the year somewhere between #11-13.

...I'll go with Zvonareva and Dementieva to round out my updated year-end Top 10 picks.

[confidence level: low, but still hopeful]
A great run might get one of these back into the Top 10, but I'm not counting on it.

Victoria Azarenka, BLR: she wants her Top 10 ranking back, but might have to wait for '11 after seeing so much of her '10 season limited by lingering injuries that never allowed her to get any momentum.
Shahar Peer, ISR: a nice rebound season, but she's a long shot to reach the Top 10.
Flavia Pennetta, ITA: she has probably the best chance of anyone in this group.
Agnieszka Radwanska, POL: her days of hanging onto her Top 10 ranking by default (year-end #10 two years running) would seem to be over.
Aravane Rezai, FRA: a wild card, she just climbed back into the Top 20 with her title in Bastad. She's won on clay, and should have a chance to duplicate her success on the hard courts in America this summer, too. One U.S. Open Series title (or maybe two finals) and a second week run in Flushing Meadows could set her up with a chance to steal a Top 10 ranking in the season's final weeks.

...what about those early slam final picks?

*PRE-SEASON SLAM FINALS PREDICTIONS**
AO: S.Williams d. Henin
RG: Henin d. Zvonareva
WI: Williams d. Williams
US: Henin d. Barbie

...well, I hit Oz right on the nose. Picking Henin for Paris was something that just HAD to be done at the time. It didn't work out, though. I WAS just one slam early when it came to calling Zvonareva's first appearance in a slam final. I'll take that one. Naturally, picking a Williams (any Williams) at Wimbledon was an easy choice. In fact, I can go ahead and make that same pick now for 2011, too, and feel pretty confident that I'll be correct.

Obviously, the Henin/Barbie pick for the Open is probably a no-go, even if Justine is miraculously cured enough in time to play at Flushing Meadows. I'm not against Barbie reaching the final, though. So, I'll amend the pick a little:

US: S.Williams d. Sharapova or Barbie or Jankovic

...well, I feel confident about Serena. Her opponent could literally be almost anyone, though.

*PRE-SEASON FIRST-TIME CHAMPION PREDICTIONS**
NORTH AMERICA: Madison Keys (ITF), Christina McHale (ITF), Sloane Stephens (ITF/Jr.Slam)
SOUTH AMERICA: Rossana de los Rios
EUROPE: Dominika Cibulkova, Olga Govortsova, Kaia Kanepi, Anne Keothavong, Victoriya Kutuzova, Carla Suarez-Navarro
RUSSIA: Daria Gavrilova (Jr.Slam), Ekaterina Makarova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Yulia Putintseva (Jr.Slam)
ASIA/PACIFIC: Casey Dellacqua
AFRICA/MIDDLE EAST: -

...so far, I've gotten hits on tour titles by Pavlyuchenkova and Makarova, as well as a challenger win from Keys. I just missed on a few others: Stephens reached an ITF final (and two junior slam QF), while Govortsova and Suarez-Navarro were in WTA finals. Keothavong was in an early SF, Putintseva in the Wimbledon Girls SF, Gavrilova in the AO junior QF, and Cibulkova has notched two tour SF appearances. Meanwhile, Kanepi had five MP to reach the Wimbledon SF, and has won a $100K ITF challenger crown, the biggest title possible on the lower circuit.

*SECOND HALF FIRST-TIME CHAMPIONS PICKS*
...I'm still keeping hope alive for all those previous picks (some more than others, naturally) that haven't panned out, but I WILL give a shot at picking again. Here are my most likely first-time champs for each continent for what remains of the season.

NA: Sloane Stephens (Jr.Slam and/or ITF)
SA: Camila Silva (ITF)
EUR: Kaia Kanepi
RUS: Elena Vesnina (not much to choose from, really)
A/P: Jarmila Groth
AFR/ME: Nour Abbes/Ons Jabeur (ITF Doubles)

...ahh, fresh chances to be right, or wrong. What more could a Backspinner ask for?

All for now.

9 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Pondikou said...

I'm glad you put Jada's Mom in there. For some strange reason if you say Kim Clisjsters all that comes to mind are her sad choke moments.

But when you say Jada's Mom all those negative results are replaced by her glorious title run(s) in NY city.

Thu Jul 15, 05:08:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zidane said...

Well, I have to admit I was totally wrong in thinking Stosur had no chance to finish in the year-end top 10. I'm glad Jankovic is doing better than expected though :)!

Thu Jul 15, 08:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

todd, i am still frustrated with henin's injury. she definitely hasn't played to her normal best which we would like to see, her performance so far wasn't bad, bad. she is just starting to play better and this happened. on one hand though, good rest of mind and body for her.

sharapova looks good, though she hasn't really won agasint top players yet. i actually like to see how sharapova plays against kim in one of the rounds.

other than that, nothing too interesting to the current top 10 players. for sam, somehow i just don't like her game, big game just not sizzling.

Fri Jul 16, 05:11:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

"she has probably the best chance of anyone in this group."

Absolutely, because it's almost time for her annual U.S. hard court tear.

Fri Jul 16, 03:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger TennisAce said...

Nice write up Todd, but just one correction. Dementieva won Toronto last year beating Sharapova. It was an ugly, ugly match which saw some ugly, ugly tennis, but there you go.

I do not know why I am still not sold on the whole Sharapova comeback. I just do not see it. Her serve has improved and yes she took Serena to a tie break and yes she had set points, but guess what, she still lost. I am still trying to figure out why people are picking her to be a contender at the Open. There is a reason why she has not beaten a top 40 player all season long. Her game is just not as forceful as it used to be.

As to Jada's Mom, I think I posited sometime ago that I think that the motivation is just not there. She is not as driven as in her first career and already she has begun to talk family etc. If she has less than stellar results during the USO Series, look for her to possibly call it quits or play a very limited schedule going forward.

Jankovic, everything depends on where she is injury wise. She is scheduled to play in Portoroz in the coming week so it would be good to see where her game and mind is at right now.

I think we should perhaps think of revisiting the women's Tour after the first of the USO Series, i.e. Bank of the West Classic.

Someone that I am keeping my eye on is Kanepi. Somehow I see her doing very well at the USO Series. I hope she is able to get this title in Palermo. She played a fantastic match against Errani yesterday. I dont know but there is something about Kanepi's game that I just love. Maybe it is the aggressiveness. Just love it.

I had no idea that Hdraceka hit 2 hands off both sides.

Sat Jul 17, 10:00:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Kevin-

Hmmm, maybe I should call her KC more often then. :)

Zidane-

Even so with Stosur, if she doesn't do better at the Open than she has in the past it'll be yet another disappointing slam result that failed to capitalize on her momentum/high seed following RG.

Jo-

Whether it's true or not, I'm sure that when Justine returns she'll at least attempt to spin things in a way that makes it seem like the time off was the best thing for her at this point in her comeback.


Diane-

She might have to do even a little bit better this time around in order to move up in the rankings, though, since the Belgians and Sharapova are back in the Top 10 race for '10.

T.Ace-

Thanks for the Toronto correction. I read the WTA Guide wrong (Toronto was at the start of a separate line in Sharapova's section and I wrote it down as a title rather than final).

And, yes, I agree with a lot about what you said about Sharapova. She hasn't yet really returned to anything near her previous self when it comes to big wins. There's a reason why I haven't returned to calling her the "Supernova." I've been waiting for a huge win/moment to happen, but it just hasn't yet. I think people give her a shot at the Open for a few reasons:

1) it's generally been her best slam over the years
2) she at least seems healthy now
3) she HAS shown progress, especially with how well she played Serena at Wimbledon, even though she didn't win. She got closer than anyone else did.
4) there aren't too many other REAL options beside Serena. Venus has had a poor slam year. Henin won't be there. The Russians are hurt and/or sliding. JJ is always a question mark. KC? Who knows whether she wants it at this point.

Plus, I think so many people HOPE that she can get back close to the top (it'd be good for the sport), they look for anything positive and then HOPE more good will happen. The wait continues.

Sharapova has had bad slam draws this year, though, and hasn't been able to get on a run there. She needs to get her ranking up to #8 to provide a little protection.

As far as the defending champ, it wasn't a good sign for her tennis future when Shriver noted during Wimbledon that she'd mentioned having a second child. I know I wondered at the start of the year whether BOTH Henin and KC would be playing in 2011, and I'd say it's a legit possibility that (at least???) one's comeback might end by the close of 2010.

Sat Jul 17, 03:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kevin Pondikou said...

Serena Williams will not be playing the US Open series.But she should be able to compete in the US Open.

No one doubts that Serena is able to take time off competitive tennis and return a force to be reckonned with.

Jada's mom cannot compete at a high level with several tournaments prior.

As for Sharapova, there will come a time when people realise that these players play for the love of the sport&for the glory. They have sufficient funds to finance retirement at any given time.

BJK should be applauded for her efforts to propel tennis into a financially satisfying sport.

For a time, she was playing simply to pay debtors, in this new era, players can retire on a whim, and still live contentedly.

Women's tennis is in a great era, being led by Serena Williams, who is showing that tennis is a sport to be enjoyed and played at one's own pace.

At the end of the day, its our own conscience we have to live with.

Jennifer Capriati,a case in point.

Sat Jul 17, 11:03:00 PM EDT  
Blogger jo shum said...

funny isn't it. back in jan or late last year, everything seemed possible and rosy with a lot of expectation. more than half way through, we got all the surprised packages but not in what we wanted so far. is that just our imaginary expectation way over realistic projection of how the game is really like. miracles don't happen i guess, we are all humans.

Sun Jul 18, 11:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Kevin Pondikou said...

Jelena Dokic won the $50 000 ITF in Cotrexeville, France.

Mon Jul 19, 06:32:00 AM EDT  

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