2011 Blowout: Eleventh Heaven?
Just how different will the WTA Top 10 landscape appear one year from now? Well, considering how an odd mix of unrealized expectations and unforeseen late-career success helped to shape the 2010 Top 10, it could have both a very different AND familiar look.
Such potential flux could very well make the '11 season, so absent of grand expectations after so many sleep-inducing injury-scuttled "dead zones" populated the '10 campaign, a much more enjoyable production that last year's. The pressure is off. This time we'll get what we get, and learn to go with the flow. Sometimes it's just better that way, anyhow.
At least that's the plan.
Of course, that doesn't mean this season is bereft of intriguing stories as the first tennis ball is set to be struck in conflict in just a few weeks. In fact, they're quite numerous: Amongst them, Caroline Wozniacki's slam quest, Francesca Schiavone's "year after," Maria Sharapova's continuing (or is it hopelessly stalled? I guess we'll find out.) attempt at a Supernovic resurrection, Phase 2 of Justine Henin's comeback, Serena Williams' latest post-injury return, Victoria Azarenka's opportunity to finally join the ranks of the game's elite, Kim Clijsters' chance to fully dissolve her "career underachiever" label and stamp herself as one of the greatest U.S. Open champions ever, as well as a slew of other stories that we won't see coming until they either make us smile or want to wish a plague on everyone associated with whatever it turns out to be.
Now, when it comes to trying to predict 2011's season-ending Top 10, I've once again decided not to tempt Backspin's old "Kuznetsova Curse" by actually attemping to rank the tour's best players from #1 through #10 (last year's "del Potro Debacle" on the ATP side only served to strengthen my resolve to make what was a temporary prediction "sabbatical" a likely permanent one) . Last year's alphabetical-only picks were pretty successful. I got eight of ten correct (with eventual #3 Vera Zvonareva making the "watch list"), including "wild card" pick Samantha Stosur. I only missed on my Henin and Sharapova picks, and give myself a pass on not seeing Francesca Schiavone's rise to the Top 10 coming.
As it turned out, three Top 10 spots changed hands from the end of '09 to the end of '10 (Clijsters, Schiavone and Stosur replacing Kuznetsova, Radwanska and Safina), one more than the previous season (when Azarenka and Wozniacki moved in for Ivanovic and Sharapova). At least one Top 10 spot will be up for grabs in '11, as Elena Dementieva has retired. Meanwhile, Schiavone will have to have quite a season to duplicate a Top 10 campaign that included a Roland Garros title. Likewise for RG runner-up Stosur. Meanwhile, one Williams (Serena, last seen selling her clothing line on the Home Shopping Network while sporting a sparkle-adorned cast on her right foot) is already experiencing a stint on the disabled list.
Here's an early prediction for the ten best players of 2011 ('10 ranks in parenthesis), with Top 10 Repeats & Top 10 Climbers highlighted accordingly:
Victoria Azarenka, BLR (10): Azarenka has seemingly been on the verge of big things for a couple of seasons now, but invariably something has gotten in the way. Often, it's been Azarenka herself. First, it was her anger issues. Then it was her propensity to squander HUGE slam opportunties, either because she literally couldn't endure the heat (of Melbourne, when she was forced to retire after having been dominating eventual champ Serena in '09) or take it (courtesy of Serena, also in Oz last year, when Azarenka lost a 6-4/4-0 lead to the once-again eventual champ). Then, at last season's U.S. Open, a pre-match concussion led to her passing out on court in the 1st Round and being taken to the hospital. Since Azarenka began to climb the WTA ladder, she has seemingly shown a heightened problem with her endurance in hot weather (in the AO, and also in Doha during the '09 Tour Championships), as well as the sort of muscle pulls and strains that one would think that a well-conditioned 21-year old athlete wouldn't constantly be hampered by. Last year, she was forced to retire from nearly a third of the events she entered. That's simply ridiculous for a player who didn't suffer any sort of major injury during the season. The potential is still there, and maybe Azarenka's final piece in putting things together in a truly meaningful way is getting into the sort of physical/cardiovascular shape that she needs to be in. She need only to look at the leap that her friend Wozniacki made after committing fully to her training immediately after Wimbledon last year to see what she should do. Hopefully, the Belarusan has begun to lay the groundwork for such a program this offseason, because there's another opportunity to be had in Melbourne this time around, and if she's ready she might be able to take advantage of it in a Serena-less draw. A career-first slam SF result would be just the ticket. If Azarenka is in the mind for positive omens, she should take note that 2010's slam breakthrough came from Francesca Schiavone after she'd won a late season title in Moscow in '09. Guess who won in Moscow at the end of '10? Yep, the A-Train did. Hey, you look for stepping stones where you can find them.
Kim Clijsters, BEL (3): for seven months last season, Clijsters proved my pre-season thoughts about her to be right -- her comeback title at the U.S. Open in '09 would prove to be enough for her, and she wouldn't be committed enough to win another slam. The Belgian bombed (bageled?) out of Oz, didn't play in Paris and then was disappointing in London after knocking off Justine Henin. Thing is, just as Henin's season unceremoniously ended, Clijsters' finally began, as once the North American hard court season began, Clijsters then proceeded to prove me wrong over the last four months, proving herself to STILL be the tour's best hard court player, defending her Open crown and then closing out her season by winning the Tour Championships in Doha. It says something about the rest of the WTA field that her uneven season resulted in her being named the tour's official "Player of the Year" (a bit of a stretch, I think, though I did have her at #2 in the "Ms.Backspin" rankings for '10). But can she do it again in '11, and can she win a slam somewhere other than New York? Assuming good health -- and Serena's late summer state of mind and body -- Clijsters will surely be the favorite again at Flushing, even if the last three-peat champ at the Open was 1975-78 winner Chris Evert. But winning in Melbourne would be more impressive. With lingering great crowd support born during her "Hewitt interlude," one would think she and Oz would be well-suited for each other. But she's never won there, and only reached one final (2004). I won't be crazy enough (again) to say that Barbie won't win a slam in 2011, but if she does she'll have fully obliterated her pre-retirement label as a big-event choker. Of course, whether she wins slam #4 this season probably will have little effect on whether or not she ends the year in the Top 10 As long as her body holds up, Clijsters will easily do that.
Justine Henin, BEL (12): all right... "take two." La Petit Taureau 2.0 sometimes looked good, and sometimes looked shaky... but only on a few rare occasions did things feel "second nature." To almost add insult to (literal) injury, after Henin said before '10 that she wanted to come back to tennis in order to win a Wimbledon title, she ended up injuring her elbow at the All-England Club and missing the remainder of the season. On the bright side, maybe the absence will prove to be a good thing. It should have allowed her (and Carlos Rodriguez) to re-assess this second career, and either learn a way to make her more attacking 2.0 style seem as second-nature as 1.0's did, or decide to drop the act and simply try to play like she did the first time around -- even if it does leave her more open to injury and cut the number of years this comeback will last. Even with only half a season in '10, Henin still finished #12 and won the tour's "Comeback Player of the Year" award in a year in which there was really no other overwhelming alternate choice. Last year was a successful campaign... for 98% of the other players on tour. But not LPT. But if there's any of the old spit-in-your-eye Justine still inside that small frame, that should prove to be an even bigger inspiration for her in '11 than Clijsters' success in NYC (err, I mean Federer's success in Paris... yeah, THAT's what she said, so...) was a year ago.
Ana Ivanovic, SRB (17): is 2011 the season that AnaIvo will finally get back on the proverbial horse (and, no, not in any sort of Myskina-esque way), three years after she won a slam title and rose to #1 in '08? She certainly showed signs of a return to form in the late stages of last season, reaching the Cincinnati semis, tying her best ever U.S. Open result (4th Round), winning in Linz and then closing out '10 by claiming the final tour-sanctioned event on the calendar at the Tournament of Champions in Bali. The stretch got her back into the year-end Top 20 singles rankings for the first time since '08. Thing is, those results came after having worked with Heinz Gunthardt, who won't be Ivanovic's full-time coach in '11 because of his unwillingness to travel. Intriguingly, Ivanovic showed a bit of backbone and attitude last season, and she'll need that sort of mental fortitude to get back to the place she was (probably earlier than she should have been) when she inherited the top spot in the game a few weeks after Henin's sudden retirement. She bit back at Jelena Jankovic and her mother Snezana when AnaIvo's absence from Fed Cup become an issue, and then responded with her great season-closing run after initially being denied a wild card by the Montreal tournament organizers (and then refusing to accept it when it was belatedly offered). The Serb has lived the life of unexpected (unwanted?) #1, and then that of fallen wonder girl. At times, it hasn't been pretty. Ernest Hemingway wrote that "the world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Ivanovic may embody Papa's words in '11, but a good start Down Under could still be looked at as an imperative would-be boost. Once a finalist in Melbourne, Ivanovic -- like so many other potentially opportunistic woman -- stands a chance to make some noise in a Serena-less draw in January. A great result would be wonderful news for her psyche in regards to the rest of the season, and would likely mean her late '10 bounce would fully carry over into '11. Without a doubt, Ivanovic is closer to finally finding her way back into the forefront of women's tennis than she has been since she initially found herself there three years ago... but a true "comeback" is hardly assured. Still, being sick and tired of losing can sometimes do wonders for a truly talented athlete. And AnaIvo seems to have reached that point.
Alisa Kleybanova, RUS (25): hey, after successfully pulling off my "Stosur for the Top 10" campaign one year ago, I had to decide to beat the drums for another "outsider" this time out, didn't I? Yeah, maybe not. But I am anyway. It's about time for a new Russian to crash the Top 10 party, and since Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova seems a year or two away from that sort of move, banking on the more ready-to-go Kleybanova, 21, seems like a good investment. Armed with a big game, she's been just short of some huge, early career-defining moments the last two seasons, especially in Melbourne, The last two years in the season's first slam, Kleybanova put up big fights against the "stories of the tournament," losing to both Jelena Dokic ('09) and Henin ('10) in matches they she really should have won. After losing a 6-3/3-1 lead against the Belgian last season, the Russian went on to clock wins over the likes of Clijsters, Jankovic, Dementieva and Ivanovic during the year, winning two titles and ending her season by reaching the Tournament of Champions final in Bali. Having finished '10 at #25, she'd be making a big leap to get into the Top 10 (although a 15-spot jump isn't the largest in these predictions -- see below), but there is recent precedent for such a move. Over the last five years, discounting ranking assaults put together by both newly-healthy Williams Sisters and an unretired Martina Hingis, we've seen two other players finish in the Top 10 after having resided outside the Top 20 the previous season (Zvonareva moved up from #23 and Agnieszka Radwanska from #26, both in '08). Still, just as the Stosur pick was fueled by her run to the Roland Garros final (something which I'm banking on possibly not happening again in '11), this one would likely have to include Kleybanova getting over that grand slam hump and finally pulling off one on those big stage upsets that have eluded her the past two seasons. Who knows, maybe a third chance will prove to be a charm for the Russian in Melbourne, and the race for her Top 10 debut will officially be on.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS (27): Kuznetsova had one of "those years" in 2010, but we've seen her rebound well from such drift in the past. Remember, theorhetically, this is still the same player who won a slam in '09 and finished at #3. With her off-court head (hopefully) in a better place, and her Cee Lo-ish (as in "F--- You"... hey, it's a Grammy-nominated song, and I suspect that Sveta has heard it often) mantra against the world likely outgrown, she's ripe for a comeback in '11. She was once considered to possibly be the most talented of the Russians, and she could be again. Just a normal, consistent campaign could be enough to position her back in the lower part of the Top 10. But, with Kuznetsova, nothing is ever a sure thing on a year to year basis. A good start to the season would probably set her off on an ultimately more rewarding course.
Serena Williams, USA (4): alas, yet another incomplete season awaits after a second foot surgery that will (at least) keep Williams out of the first slam of '11. She still hasn't played since winning Wimbledon in early July. With any other player, that'd mean she wouldn't even be considered for a Top 10 spot. But this is still Serena we're talking about, at least until there's on-court evidence that that doesn't mean so much anymore. Even if Williams doesn't get her game going up to her usual standards until right before the grass court season, one could see her doing enough to get into the Top 10 by year's end. Still, she's at that point in her career where any single injury could spell doom if it's serious enough. A second surgery isn't good, especially when you consider that a player as historic as Monica Seles was ultimately forced into a slow-motion retirement due to a foot injury that limited her ability to train and compete. Right now, though, there's no legit reason to be pessimistic about Serena's near future. Plus, as her agent said back in the summer, she's a "fast healer." Even with her 30th birthday arriving in 2011, she's still the reigning queen of being able to pull off a few remarkable results with very little match play beforehand. SW19 and Flushing Meadows are still six and eight months, respectively, away.
Venus Williams, USA (5): Venus is like a popular long-running television series -- obviously beyond its prime, but still occasionally capable of brilliance and, thus, worth watching on a weekly basis. Even though Williams had an injury-plagued '10 campaign, she still managed to pull off her multi-continent/multi-surface sweep of titles in Dubai and Acapulco for a second straight season (tossing in a two-match MSG exhibition event title as third-continent dessert this time around) and was one of just two players (Wozniacki) to reach at least the Round of 16 at all four slams. She's now finished in the Top 10 eleven of the past thirteen seasons (and was #11 in one of the two years when she didn't), and can almost assuredly be counted on to do so again at age 31 in '11. She even wants to play a little Fed Cup... but we've heard that before, so don't hold your breath. The Wimbledon Olympic tennis event is coming up in 2012, something that Venus has pointed to for a few seasons now, and often when reporters bring up the subject of retirement. So this coming season MIGHT be Venus' last fully-committed-to FULL season schedule, and it'd be nice if she could stay reasonably healthy throughout. If she can, especially on the grass, she's still capable of being a slam champion again.
Caroline Wozniacki, DEN (1): well, is this going to be THE year? Possibly more importantly, though, does it HAVE to be. In short... umm, in order... maybe (but not necessarily) and certainly not (though one might have a hard time remembering that above the din should C-Woz NOT win a slam in '11). Wozniacki's rise in the rankings has been a steady, even-paced one the last couple of seasons, but since Serena Williams missed the final half of 2010 the new #1 was made to appear as if she hadn't done ENOUGH when she concluded last season atop the rankings without having won a slam. Now, as the Dane enjoys the spoils of being #1 this offseason, she has to also prepare well enough to allow herself to continue to improve her game over the course of '11 and stay a step ahead of not only her would-be critics but, far more importantly, the other players rightfully sensing a big opportunity of their own. Throw a rumored racket switch into the already-racheted up expectation game, and this offseason needs to have been treated by the Wozniacki camp as the ultra-important, ultra-busy training ground it is. If she shows up Down Under in fine form, then things should continue to progress at an even (slam-winning or not slam winning) pace. If she doesn't, she might find herself having to re-group come the spring. We'll soon see how well she handled the almost two-month break. Lack of slam titles aside, C-Woz has proven herself to be an accomplished winner in just a few seasons on tour. She's won more singles titles and matches than any other woman over the past three seasons (she's already seventh on the active list for career crowns while just barely out of her teens), and will likely be in the running for similar WTA-leading numbers this season. Top 10... Top 5... #1. In the grand scheme of public opinion, when it comes to her "reign," none of that really matters for Wozniacki in '11. It'll all be about whether or not she wins a slam. She could win fewer titles and lose the #1 ranking this coming season, but be considered to have had a more successful year should she pick up a slam crown. It's probably a good thing that the Dane doesn't likely ascribe to such thinking, for doing so might cause her to put undue pressure on herself to reach too far for something IMMEDIATELY that she's likely progressing toward at her own pace as it is, and possibly derailing (at least temporarily) her so-far-impressive passage. Of course, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be an incredibly good career move to get a slam win on her resume sometime in the next year. Thing is, I'm not really sure that she will. There's a great opportunity for the trek that began in Odense, Denmark to finally reach its desired destination in Oz in January, but if she fails to rise to the occasion in Melbourne she may have missed out on what could be her best slam chance in '11. We might be having this same conversation about Wozniacki one year from now, but that wouldn't be the end of the world... no matter how many people might try to portray it as such.
Vera Zvonareva, RUS (2): even while winning just one title (Pattaya City) in '10, Zvonareva very nearly stole the #1 ranking away from Wozniacki in Doha at the end of the season. Of course. those back-to-back slam finals in London and New York had something to do with that. Since such slam success is far from guaranteed this time around, Zvonareva's going to need to tap her inner C-Woz and find a way to salt away a few more titles if she's going to maintain her position in the Top 5. Barring another bad injury, though, she's now consistent enough in her results to seemingly assure another Top 10 finish. In fact, with fellow Hordette Dementieva retired, Zvonareva now finds her name in the mix of the active players who are in the running for the "best without a slam" title. She's matured a great deal the last few years, and while I'm not predicting that she'll do it, I'd certainly give Zvonareva a better shot to erase her name from consideration for the "honor" than a few others I could mention who are in the running.
...hmmm, that makes four new Top 10ers. There were only three newbies from 2009 to 2010, and two changes one year earlier. There were four changes at the end of 2008, though, and a whopping seven in '07 (of course, two were the Williams Sisters after missing huge chunks of the previous season... so it almost doesn't count). Still, there's enough potential transition in the game right now to see four, and maybe even more, new faces in the tour's upper rankings echelon one year from now. Remember, this is one of those between-season moments that makes it possible. In the current Top 10 are a hugely surprising slam winner and a player who has since retired; while waiting just outside are three former #1's (#12 Henin, #17 Ivanovic & #18 Sharapova) and a multiple-slam winner (Kuznetsova) who would seem poised to make runs at returning to the Top 10 in '11. So, while the Top 10 could look very different a year from now, it might still have a very familiar feel.
*FOUR MORE TO PONDER*
Jelena Jankovic, SRB (8): Hey Stelllllaaaaa!!!!!!! Sorry, I just wanted to get in the first Marlon Brando reference for JJ, considering she recently got a new dog named Stella. At this point, I've sort of found myself migrating into the camp that says that Queen Chaos will never be able to win that elusive slam title (which is actually where I started a few years ago before Jankovic cast her uniquely loopy spell on me). Her window for a championship was small, and she missed it after overtraining one offseason and not being at her best in a season when the Belgians were (mostly) absent, Maria Sharapova was out after shoulder surgery and Serena managed to be a force at all four slams for the first time in ages. Why, she coulda been a contender! (Okay, that gives me two references so far.) Still, with Elena Dementieva retired, someone has to assume the role of the Top 10 player who somehow manages to have enough good weeks over the course of a season to consistently finish in the final ten in the last third of her career while still never being able to get over the grand slam hump. It's a good place for a player to be, just not a great one. I could easily have pushed her into Kleybanova's Top 10 spot for '11, but I wanted to take a flier on at least one pick. Sorry, JJ, you "Wild One,"... I feel like such a "palooka." (That makes three, and four.)
Francesca Schiavone, ITA (7): when a player has a career year at age 30, it's not often that she comes back a year later and tops it at age 31. Of course, Francesca could easily surprise again in '11, but the odds are against it. Surely, at Roland Garros, she'll enter as one of the favorites, and her still-high ranking will allow her to avoid some big upset possibilities in the early rounds (remember, she lost in the 1st Round to Stosur in '09, only to defeat the Aussie in the final in '10). If she were to get on a run, who knows? And that one huge result would probably be enough to keep her in the Top 10 a year from now.
Maria Sharapova, RUS (18): the Russian might be otherwise engaged off the court, but the more interesting aspect of Sharapova's coming season will revolve around whether or not she'll be more fully engaged ON it. She managed to mostly play a full season in '10, but she only occasionally resembled the player who won titles at three of the four slams before shoulder surgery. Back-to-back years without season-ending Top 10 ranks, plus a handful of the sort of choking/mental collapse losses over the past year, have made any lingering aftereffects of her shoulder difficulties almost a secondary story. When she was Supernovic, Sharapova was a mentally tough obstacle who thrived under pressure. She's not anymore, probably because she doesn't believe she still has a consistently big and accurate serve to turn to when times get tough. Sharapova is a great frontrunner, cruising through two weeks en route to her slam titles, but if she can't return her serve/confidence to past levels, can she handle being an "average" contender rather than an "exquisite" one?
Samantha Stosur, AUS (6): the Aussie had a career year in 2010, particularly running roughshod over opponents during the clay court season. Still, she couldn't get past Schiavone in the Roland Garros final, then pretty much saw her results turn barely mediocre the rest of the season. She made an encouraging comeback in the WTA Championships to end her season, but now she'll be expected to repeat or improve upon her '10 exploits this year (even countrywoman Anastasia Rodionova is pushing her as a contender to win a slam in '11 -- preferably in Oz in January). Stosur has learned to handle her nerves over the past two seasons, but it's hard to escape the notion that she might take a half-step backward this season.
...of course, there ARE others who are potential Top 10ers if they can get their games together. Dinara Safina, of course, being the most talented of that bunch. But is her body going to let her compete at her former #1 level? Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (#21) has made steady upward progress, but she's probably going to need to fully commit to getting into somewhat better condition if she's to make her next logical leap. Shahar Peer might be the most intriguing prospect, though. After a tough and controversial '09 season, she rebounded well in '10. She attained a career ranking high and finished #13 while reaching seven semifinals, but only advanced to one final (she lost) and posted two Round of 16 results at the slams. A handful more wins and she might be able to inch her way into the Top 10 for the first time in her career.
*10 for '11*
Who's the player under 21 ranked outside the Top 25 who's most likely to finish there in 2011? Alexandra Dulgheru
Who are three slam "contenders" who definitely won't win a slam title in '11? Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova & Samantha Stosur
Who'll win a junior Girls slam championship? Daria Gavrilova, Ons Jabeur, and two Americans
Which nation will win the Fed Cup? Russia
Who'll be the Most Surprising Player? Bojana Jovanovski (veteran: Mirjana Lucic)
Who'll be the Most Improved Players? Urszula Radwanska & Coco Vandeweghe (veteran: Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova)
Who'll be the Comeback Player of the Year contenders? Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova & Kateryna Bondarenko
Who'll be the highest-ranked players without a career tour singles title? Melanie Oudin & Dominika Cibulkova
Who'll be the two youngest players in the Top 100? Zarina Diyas & Laura Robson
In what 5-position range will Maria Sharapova's year-end ranking fall? #8-12
=EARLY SLAM OUTLOOKS=
AO: Henin d. Wozniacki (SF's???: Azarenka, Clijsters, Ivanovic & Kleybanova)
...opportunity resides for SOMEONE now that Serena has announced that another surgery on her foot will prevent her from going for a three-peat in Melbourne. Clijsters will likely enter as the favorite, but she's only reached one final in Melbourne (and was nearly double-bageled on her way out the door a season ago). I'm thinking of an Henin/Clijsters matchup in the QF or SF, with an invigorated LPT 3.0 being able to find those final few points that eluded her in her '10 match-ups with her countrywoman. With so many of the top stars sporting Riddler-like outfits filled with question marks, though, all eyes HAVE to shift to #1 Wozniacki. Is this where she'll put the she-doesn't-have-a-slam discussion on the shelf forever? This is where her offseason preparation is so important, because if she's enjoyed the spoils of her labors TOO much she might miss out on what could be her very best chance to win a slam in '11.
RG: Kuznetsova d. Ivanovic (SF???: Henin, Schiavone, Stosur & Zvonareva)
...since I picked Henin in Melbourne, I won't pre-pick her here. (If she doesn't win in Oz, though, I'd think differently.) Expect all the "usual suspects" to come to the fore here, even past champions like Kuznetsova and Ivanovic who haven't looked much like the same players they were in Paris since they lifted the Coupe de Suzanne Lenglen. Even a confident and comfortable Schiavone has to be considered. In fact, the only top players who'd probably be out of the running on the clay (other than Clijsters, who'll probably find a way to miss this event again, either literally or psychologically) are Venus and Serena, no matter their health at the time.
W: Williams d. Williams (SF???: Clijsters, Henin, Kanepi & Wozniacki)
...finally, the Sisters make their slam presence felt. Venus' place on the All-England Club stage has somewhat been usurped by Serena of late, but one year away from the Olympic tennis competition being held at SW19, expect the older Williams sibling to get herself reacquainted with things. Of course, that doesn't mean that she'll win title #6. If for some reason the Williamses aren't the factors they normally are, Wozniacki could manage to slip through if she's managed to improve her volley over the season's first half. She IS a former Wimbledon junior champ, and has a grass court title on her resume.
US: S.Williams d. Clijsters (SF???: Henin, Kleybanova, V.Williams & Wozniacki)
...Clijsters' impressive Open run could very well continue in the fall, but three-peats are TOUGH. Just ask Serena. Speaking of, this would mark a (hopefully) healthy Serena's first action in New York since her "F-bombs Heard 'round the World" exit in the '09 semis against Clijsters. Venus has reached at least the QF in ten of her twelve Open appearances, and can't be discounted to be a factor again. Meanwhile, I guess I'm holding off on Wozniacki going slammin' until 2012... though I DO hope she proves me wrong at some point in '11.
Of course, I could be way off on all these long-range slam predictions, but I've often found in recent seasons that it's almost easier to be more accurate picking the slams in December than after having been "brainwashed" by actual tour results during the season. Last year, I picked four of seven finalists correctly in the preseason, excluding the by-then-injured Henin at the U.S. Open, (and had Zvonareva reaching her first slam final, too, even though I'd gone with her doing so in Paris).
**Looking for a Third: ATP Top 10 Predictions**
...as the ATP tour prepares to kick-off its 2011 season, the leading story is pretty much the same one that has shaped the last few: Rafa vs. Roger.
The two have swapped the #1 ranking multiple times the last three seasons and, even though the Spaniard has opened up a bit of a gap between them over the past year, the same situation could very well arise again this coming season. Rafael Nadal had the superior overall season in '10, winning three straight slams (he's going for a non-calendar "RafaSlam" in Melbourne); but after dealing with new fatherhood, a rare spate of injuries and a few very unFedereresque losses for much of the season, Federer ended the year on a 21-2 run after the U.S. Open, winning three titles, defeating Nadal in the ATP World Tour Finals by aggressively taking the initiative like he hadn't in a couple of years, and moving into position to make his recent naysayers eat their words yet again.
The pair have now won four straight slams, but their big event dominance goes far deeper than that. Of the past twenty-three slams, they've won twenty-one. Of the last twenty-six, they've claimed twenty-three. From this pre-season vantage point, little looks to change in '11.
For brief moments the last few seasons, the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro have occasionally risen to challenge the Big Two (the Serb and Argentine even won a single slam title each), but none has been able to solidify themselves as anything other than a minor barnacle attached to the Rafa/Roger leviathan. Robin Soderling has promisingly reached multiple slam finals, even beating Nadal and Federer along the way, but has yet to put everything together on a final Sunday in one of the season's four biggest events. Last year, Tomas Berdych added his name to the list of "others" and "almosts" battling to be the best player ranked #3 or lower.
In all likelihood, it'll be age, physical/mental wear-and-tear and injuries that will eventually remove the Spanish and Swiss stars from atop the ATP roost (in ranking mathematics, even if not public perception) rather than the culprit being a TRUE "third" who manages to outhit, outhustle and outthink the two best players in the world. Right now, that "inheritor" of the top spot might exist on the tour landscape, but he's currently an "anonymous" face who seems fated to continue to play a supporting role in the ATP drama for at least a few more seasons.
Here's an early prediction for the year-end 2011 Top 10ers (with '10 rank in parenthesis), listed alphabetically:
Marin Cilic, CRO (14): he's been inching toward a big breakout campaign for a couple of seasons now. Last year's semifinal in Melbourne needs to just be the beginning.
Juan Martin del Potro, ARG (259): I'm still feeling guilty for inadvertantly putting a "curse" on him by picking him to finish at #1 a season ago. He finished '09 at #5 after winning the U.S. Open, then missed almost all of 2010 with a wrist injury (playing just six total matches). If he can get fully healthy -- he says his wrist is now "perfect" -- and in full form by mid-season, he could still put up enough good results to sneak back into the Top 10.
Novak Djokovic, SRB (3): he wins his fair share of titles, and gets his fair share of big wins, too. But it's looking more and more like that '08 Australian Open title was an anomaly rather than a sign of things to come.
Roger Federer, SUI (2): the big question is whether the "renewed" Federer we saw at the end of '10 will be the one we'll see throughout the entire '11 campaign. If so, all those past reports of his slam-winning demise were (once again) greatly exaggerated.
David Ferrer, ESP (7): he had a largely overlooked great season in '10 (his five finals were bested by only Nadal and Federer), but one wonders if he can continue to be such a consistent force as he approaches his 30th birthday (he'll turn 29 in April).
Rafael Nadal, ESP (1): could he ever top his '10 season? Back-to-back-to-back slams wil be difficult to replicate, but getting a fourth straight in Oz would make him the first man to do so since 1969, calendar or non-calendar.
Andy Murray, GBR (4): he's proven he can beat Federer and Nadal, but not that he's EVER going to be a grand slam champion.
Sam Querrey, USA (18): you'd think a player with four titles in five appearances in finals in '10 wouldn't have just barely managed to finish the season in the Top 20, but that's what happened to Querrey last year. A little more big event consistency (he managed just two Round of 16 results in the slams in '10) could move him up.
Andy Roddick, USA (8): he's not really a slam contender anymore (though a good draw in London could give him one final chance before it's over), but he'll likely put up enough good results to hold onto a spot in the bottom of the Top 10.
Robin Soderling, SWE (5): he's been the best non-Big 2 player in Paris the last two years, but still went 0-2 in Roland Garros finals against Roger and Rafa.
*3 MORE TO CONSIDER*
Tomas Berdych, CZE (6): he's got the talent to win a slam, but that was the case before he finally reached his first career slam final at Wimbledon last season, too. He could rise still higher, or completely fall out of the running in '11. A clue to what might be about to come could possibly be found in his overall 9-14 record in '10 AFTER having reached the SW19 final.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, FRA (13): if he could stay healthy, he'd be a virtual Top 10 lock. Thing is, he's had a hard time doing that of late.
Fernando Verdasco, ESP (9): it'd be easy to simply flip him with another Top 10 Spaniard -- Ferrer -- on this list and feel totally fine about it.
*EARLY SLAM OUTLOOKS*
Federer d. Nadal (Alternates: Djokovic, Murray & Soderling)
Nadal d. Soderling (Alt: Djokovic, Federer & a player no one predicts)
Nadal d. Federer (Alt.: Berdych, Cilic & Murray)
Federer d. del Potro (Alt.: Djokovic, Murray & Nadal)
All for now.
2011 Preview Series Links: 'Twas the Backspin Before Christmas.
STILL TO COME: The Final Seduction of Miss Caroline Wozniacki, The Intriguing 100 (with '10 first-timer predictions) & 1Q Preview/Week 1 Picks