Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Intriguing 100



The new year is nearly here. What better time to look at 100 of the upcoming season's most intriguing questions, region-by-region?

*NORTH AMERICA*
1. If she can stay on the court, is there any question that Serena Williams will be in position to challenge for the #1 ranking again when Wimbledon rolls around? Remember, after missing the first five months of '11, she has zero points to defend from the Dorothy Tour until the start of grasscourt season. Even with just thirteen events counting in her ranking points total, she finished the season at #12. If she would happen to win slam #14 in Oz, then has her usual one or two good-to-great results over the next four months, she'll come to England with big prizes within her grasp. And, this year, she'll be able to essentially play Wimbledon TWICE, since the Olympics (which count in the WTA rankings) will be held there a few weeks after the Ladies champion is crowned on Centre Court.
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2. Heading Down Under, which is more important? Serena's implosion in the U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur, the 18-0 record she'd sported on North American hard courts leading into that match, or the five titles she's won in Melbourne the last seven times she's showed up to play? She hasn't played an "official" match since Flushing Meadows, not that that has ever really meant much when its come to her grand slam fortunes.
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3. Give her some room, Steffi and Andre? If Serena win the singles Gold medal at the Olympics, she'd join Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi as the only players in professional tennis history to have won all six major singles titles -- the four slams, the Olympics and the season-ending championships -- in their careers. Interestingly, this group could conceivably double (or more) in size by the end of 2012. Roger Federer, like Serena, needs just to win the Olympics at Wimbledon to join the select group (he, also like Serena, already owns Olympic Gold... but in doubles). Hmmm, Federer in the Olympics at Wimbledon... I'd say he has a shot. Additionally, Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic both need only to win Roland Garros and the Olympics, while Rafael Nadal has only failed to claim the ATP's season-ending title to complete the six-pack.
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4. Should we be worried? (Part 1) Venus Williams WAS scheduled to begin her '12 season in Auckland, but recently withdrew. She's still expected to arrive in Melbourne, making her usual stop at (nearly) all the grand slams. It's not exactly the everything-is-fine start that Williams and her supporters were looking for after her Sjogren's Syndrome diagnosis last summer, but it is what is it. Without considering the creeping health issue that she's unknowingly dealt with for years, even while she was an often little-seen individual at most regular tour sites, Venus' ability to show up at slams on a like-clockwork schedule has been almost remarkably admirable. With what we know now, that's even more the case. Her absence in Paris last year ended what had been a fourteen-year run of consecutive appearances at Roland Garros, as well as an uninterrupted string of sixteen straight slams in which she'd played. In a slam career that began with her '97 RG debut, she's played in 54 of 59 slams. Quite a feat, considering how often so many (fragile?) younger (or Belgian) players haven't been able to regularly answer the bell.
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5. Although she made her slam breakthrough there at age 17, hasn't it sort of become clear that Serena no longer has the temperament to fully thrive in the swirling fish bowl experience that is the U.S. Open? We all eventually outgrow the things of our youth. Oddly enough, Williams hasn't had the same sort of on-court problems with authority (and losing) in Melbourne and London in recent seasons. Of course, she doesn't lose big matches (i.e. finals or semifinals) as often there, either.
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6. Is this the beginning of something big? 16-year old Madison Keys has the biggest game of the current wave of (seemingly more interesting, competitiveness-wise) Bannerettes flooding the circuit. In winning the recent Australian Open Wild Card Playoff tournament, Keys can now claim to have won the last TWO wild card qualifying events held by the USTA, having also taken the tournament held to win a free trip into last year's U.S. Open main draw. She won a 1st Round match at Flushing Meadows, and pushed Lucie Safarova in the 2nd Round. Next stop: Melbourne.
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7. How long before Sloane Stephens' Twitter proficiency results in at least a little trouble? It's all right to embrace technology, but isn't it also wise to beware it? An 18-year old tennis star with a Twitter account attached to her brain stem is likely to lead to something being said that probably shouldn't, in 140 characters or less. Just ask Donald Young... though his seems to have been the exact lesson he needed to learn to finally bear down and begin to live up to his talents.
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8. Considering the rough go of things that Melanie Oudin had -- and continues to have, Mixed Doubles title or not -- after HER U.S. Open heroics, is there any doubt that Beatrice Capra probably made the right decision about deciding to go the college route? Umm, nope.
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9. A year ago, the argument would have been a quick one, but NOW which Canadian has the brightest future? Rebecca Marino, Gabriela Dabrowski or Eugenie Bouchard? Or maybe even Francoise Abanda?
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10. Is Gigi smiling? Monica Puig, the best Puerto Rican-born player since, well, Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez. (But don't forget Kristina Brandi and Charlie Pasarell, either.)
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11. There timing couldn't have been any better, but will it matter? Although their long (future Hall of Fame) careers have mostly coincided over the past decade, surprisingly, Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber had never teamed up in doubles until last May. With Huber's bitter break-up with long-time teammate Cara Black, and Raymond's seemingly endless search for a reliable partner in her career's final stages, both were searching for a right (or would it be left, depending on their court positioning?)-hand woman. What a fortuitous moment their teaming has turned out to be. They combined to form THE dominant duo on tour over the back half of the '11 season, winning the four biggest second half titles (including the U.S. Open and WTA Championships). The surge pushed Huber back into the #1 doubles ranking, and brought Raymond up to #4, her best season-ending rank since '07. Now, with the Olympics beckoning in '12, both halves of the all-American pair might end up walking into their first trips to a ring-lined medal stand. Well, that is, assuming Raymond, who hasn't played Fed Cup since '08, will be eligible for London. If not, what a lost opportunity for the two of them after such a great "found" one.
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12. She's the highest-ranked, but is she the best... and does it matter? The computer says that Christina McHale is currently the most advanced of the NextGen Bannerettes. Time will tell whether she'll turn out to be the best, but, as with almost all "national revolutions" in the sport, the players at the leading edge of the group's success set the pace for the rest. McHale seems the best prepared to potentially put up some attainable marks for the rest of the young Americans in her generation to take shots at matching, or bettering, in the near future. She's already the first of the group to reach the Top 50. Next up: the Top 20, and/or winning a tour singles title. At least one of those goals might be met in 2012. Only one other American teenager (Vania King in '06) has won a WTA singles title since Serena won at the Open in '99. McHale turns 20 in May. Can she make it in under the birthday wire?
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13. What have you done for me lately, MJF? After surprising success in her first two seasons as Fed Cup coach for the U.S., resulting in a pair of runner-up results, Mary Joe Fernandez nows finds her team barely avoiding falling off a cliff. After losing both of its 2011 ties, by a combined 9-1 score, Team USA fell out of the World Group for the first time. Ever. The Americans will now have to take part in Group II action in '12, opening up with not-exactly-an-easy-out Belarus (especially so, of course, if Victoria Azarenka is in action). A loss there, and the U.S. could be facing a Group II Playoff tie in the spring where a loss could -- gulp -- sent the team back into Zone play in '13. Needless to say, MJF is counting Williams Sisters in her sleep right about now, hoping they'll make her nights a little less restless.
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14. Is a slight recalculation in order? I somewhat passed off Irina Falconi's fiery U.S. Open run as a case of great heart producing a wonderful result, rather than the result being a sign that better things could be in the offering for the young American. Following her tournament-claiming work at the Pan Am Games, could something quite good be cooking in Falconi's future, after all?
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15. Is a second helping of junior Bannerette coming at the end of the summer? Last season, unseeded Grace Min was the surprise winner of the U.S. Open Girls title. With so many young Americans popping up with good results in the juniors, could a second straight home grown junior champ at the nation's slam become a reality in September? The last time American girls won in New York in back-to-back years was 1994-95.
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16. Scared, anyone? Sure, the Williams Sisters have never been above issuing hardly-veiled "threats" about what they're going to do to the field of doubles teams in any major event in which they enter. Well, at least Serena has something of a history of such a thing. Don't look now, but the gauntlet has already been laid down for the London Olympics. Said Serena about her and Venus' chances for a third Gold (they won in 2000 and '08), "We're the defending champion, and we want to defend our title and I don't see why we wouldn't." Lest such sords seem like an idle warning to the field, remember, before their shocking upset loss at SW19 in '10 (with both coming back from long absenses, they didn't compete as a pair in '11), the Sisters had won thirty-three straight sets as a team at the All-England Club from 2007-10. Overall, they're 32-2 on the grass at Wimbledon, with four titles.
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*SOUTH AMERICA*
17. Umm, then will she be relevant AT ALL in 2012? Gisela Dulko finally won her first slam Doubles crown last year in Melbourne, but saw her singles ranking fall from the Top 50. She was still the highest-ranked South American, but that's sort of damning with faint praise all these years after Gabriela Sabatini and Paola Suarez's careers came to an end. With the Olympics this summer, Dulko won't be teaming regularly with Flavia Pennetta in '12. Unless she finds great success with someone else (maybe not likely, expecially, with London calling, if she joins up with a fellow Argentine), it means the soon-to-be 27-year old's season might just rise and/or fall on her scattershot singles results. It sort of makes you wonder, come November, if we might not even remember that Gisela played at all this coming season.
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18. She got next? All right, moving into the on-deck circle for the maybe, sort of, with luck, if everything falls just right, shot to be a South American singles player of note... Pan-Am Games semifinalist Florencia Molinero?
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19. Caro, Petra, Vika, Maria... Paul Simon, and Valdiron? The Top 3 players in the world -- Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka -- weren't even alive the last time a Brazilian woman won a WTA tour singles title (in 1988). The highest-ranked Brazilian woman in '11 was #282. (Cue up the Simon music.) "Oh, where have you gone, Maria Bueno? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Ooh-oo-ooh." Too bad Brazil can't cobble together something, ala China, for Rio de Janeiro '16. On the bright side, the PBR season starts up in a week or so... and the Brazilians simply rule the bull riding circuit. Go Valdiron! (Seriously, I've really gotten into that sport over the last eighteen months.)
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*EUROPE*
20. Which is more likely? Caroline Wozniacki finishing the season ranked #1 for a third straight year, or her winning a fifth title in a row at the (Wozniacki) Open at Yale? The last woman to end three consecutive seasons in the top spot was Steffi Graf, who completed a four-year stint in the season-ending #1 in 1996. The last woman to win the same tournament five straight times was also Graf, who won in Hamburg for a WTA record-tying six straight years from 1987-92.
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21. #1 vs. 100? As 2012 begins, Wozniacki will have held the #1 position on the computer for 63 weeks. What are the chances, with Petra Kvitova (and possibly others) breathing down her neck over the course of the season, that she can stay on top long enough to hit 100 weeks at #1 by the time 2013 begins? She needs 37 more weeks of the upcoming 52. Well, really, 30 of 45, since the last seven come in the offseason. It might come down to whether or not Kvitova can wrestle away the #1 ranking from Wozniacki sometime in the opening two months of the year.
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22. Come 2013, will these be questions that have definitive answers, or will they simply start whole new arguments? Has the personal good of Wozniacki's relationship with golf champ Rory McIroy balanced out the emotional "distraction" and possibly unwanted attention it's garnered? Was signing up Ricardo Sanchez a brilliant stroke of genius, or just another move that can be criticized and picked-at like a scab? After all, it's already pretty easy to poke fun at the idea of a defensive-minded, over-scheduled #1 who can't seem to find a way to win a slam going through a long, drawn-out process of finding a new set of coaching eyes before settling on a coach whose most famous female charge (Ms. Jankovic) was... a defensive-minded, over-scheduled former #1 who never could seem to find a way to win a slam. See, the story sort of writes itself.
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23. Just how important is the '12 Australian Open to Wozniacki's season, and maybe her career? It was easy to wonder at the end of the '11 season just how different things might have been had Wozniacki managed to convert match point in the Oz SF against Li Na and reached her second career slam final. At least half of the she-can't-do-it-at-the-slams argument would have been neutralized by winning a single point, even if she'd been blitzed by a certain Belgian in the final. Might the same be said about this year's AO? With so many players in flux at this time of year, again, Melbourne might provide the Dane with her best slam opportunity. Additionally, with the addition of Ricardo Sanchez as coach, and all the potentially tense moments he brings along (of course, really, it's hard to tell how taking away Queen Chaos herself from the equation might change what is thought to be "normal" where Sanchez's coaching style is concerned), a poor showing in Melbourne surely wouldn't do a lot for the confidence Wozniacki would have in her new set-up being the right way to go. A great result would probably move things along nicely, but the Spaniad might wear thin very fast for the Dane if that doesn't happen. They only have a one-year agreement to work together, but nothing says that it even HAS to last that long. By the end of '12, Wozniacki could end up back at Square One: without a slam, without a "new" coach, maybe without her #1 ranking... and looking for answers without really even knowing how to pose the questions.
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24. What is going on in this picture, and who was smart enough not to show up for the occasion? Answers: Mirjana Lucic is dancing after her wedding... and Kim Clijsters is no where to be found. A good move, for safety's sake, for all involved, I'd say.
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25. Is Petra Kvitova destined to begin her '12 season on the right foot? A year ago, she won a title in Brisbane in Week 1. This year, she's in Perth playing the Hopman Cup with fellow Czech Tomas Berdych (is Lucie jealous?). The event is held indoors, so...
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26. Are the members of AnaIvo's constantly-evolving (and sometimes revolving) team of coaches and trainers forced to wear name tags and punch a time clock every day they show up for work? Just wondering. I mean, it'd make the yearly cutting-of-the-checks easier, you know, if she -- down to the minute -- knew exactly how long each of her oh-so-many on-again, off-again employees worked for her over the course of the season.
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27. Umm, now what? I'm talking to you, JJ. Go ahead and scream if it makes you feel better. Or, better yet, maybe stick little pins in your new Caro & Ricardo voodoo dolls.
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28. Close, but no cigar? If Victoria Azarenka ate her Wheaties last offseason, it showed. Well, occasionally... but only for a while. On the bright side, the Belarusian reached her first slam semi in 2011, rising to #3 (she had a shot at #1 in the closing week of the season) and reaching the WTA Championships final. But she still had to retire or withdraw in the middle of five different events over the course of the year. Percentage-wise, she was healthier and better able to stay on the court last year than in 2010. But, still.
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29. Will Esther Vergeer lose a match? Yeah, I know. Dumb question.
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30. Wasn't it great that Francesca had no desire to have a "Hollywood" ending? After not walking away from the game on a puffy, silver-lined cloud after her career year of '10, it was hard to know what we'd get from Schiavone last year. As it turned out, she didn't have ANOTHER career year. But she DID put together a collection of dramatic matches (both wins and losses) at all four grand slam stops, including the longest-ever women's slam match (4:44) last January in Melbourne. Thank goodness she didn't go away a year too soon. But what will she do in '12 as an encore to her encore?
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31. What is Justine thinking? (Part 1) "Awwwwl, I want to be just like Kim when I grow up."
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32. If the whole slam thing doesn't work out, will an Olympic medal -- any color will do -- suffice? For Caroline, maybe. At least it would give her something tangible -- really, she could literally give her accomplishment to someone to hold -- to put up to show that she's more than just an "on top , but only on paper" Dane.
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33. What's the definition of "disappointing?" That, apparently, Marion Bartoli will not be eligible to be a part of France's Olympic team, and won't be sporting the Pastry colors at the All-England Club this August.
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34. Are you restless yet? I'm talking to you, Nicole Vaidisova. Until you're about Kimiko Date-Krumm's age, I have to ask that every year, I guess. And the season after so many of the Czech's countrywomen were so successful, it seems even more appropriate. Wouldn't it be nice to celebrate in November as Petra, the Lucies and Kveta did this past season?
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35. Does the Olympic doubles teaming of Flavia Pennetta & Francesca Schiavone mean they'll also go back to being the heart-and-soul of the Italian Fed Cup team? Crossing fingers.
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36. I probably don't even need to change this, do I? Here's what I said about Petra Kvitova in last year's "Intriguing 100" edition: "No player's results swung as wildly as Kvitova's did last year (2010), as she showed slam semifinalist talent one moment, then can't-overcome-her-own-head deficiencies for long stretches afterward. We don't have a Czech case of 'Novotna II' here, do we?" You know, sometimes it's funny how things work out.
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37. There's no reason to worry, right? Petra Kvitova, after a few minor hiccups over the late summer and early fall, served notice that she wasn't your "typical" recent high-ranking European women's tennis player. In other words, she seems to prefer to focus almost-solely on the actual tennis aspect of the job, and has the goods to live up to the high expectations that she manages to create for herself. Her destruction of the field down the stretch in her "Player of the Year"-clinching finish to '11 surely made disappear nearly all of those lingering questions that arose after her post-Wimbledon title dip in results. After adding her name to the list of Czech slam winners and Fed Cup team-leading champions, now the hard part begins. Or the fun part, if she handles it right. Next for the taking by the reigning "Ms. Backspin" is the #1 ranking, another slam and maybe the first-ever singles Gold for a Czech woman (Jana Novotna claimed two Silvers and a Bronze in past Olympics, while Miloslav Mecir won the only tennis Gold for Czechslovakia in the men's singles in '88). Oh, and, of course, managing to do all that when everyone can see her coming from many miles away. Winning tennis honors in even a semi-"shocking" manner is great, but is it even more satisfying when the opponent and the world knows what the player is capable of, and yet are unable to prevent it from happening. Fellow Czech, and Kvitova idol, Martina Navratilova got to experience how dealing with such pressure and triumphing over it felt. Many times during her career, in fact. Petra will get the chance to learn about it firsthand in 2012. Fresh from her training trip to the High Tatras mountain range, look out WTA, here she comes again. Try to stop her (while some of us hope she doesn't find a way to accentially stop herself).
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38. What is Justine thinking? (Part 2) "Smile and act like you're listening to her. Smile and act like you're listening to her. Smile and act like you're listening to her."
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39. Was it just what she needed? Dominika Cibulkova finally won her first tour singles title last season, and road the momentum to her best-ever year-end rank (#18). Was such a boost just what the former slam semifinalist, and another of the tour's many when-she-gets-on-a-run-she-can-challenge-almost-anyone players, needed to shoot herself toward the Top 10 in 2012?
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40. Will I continue to crack open the old Backspin chestnut...? ...at every slam about how Anabel Medina-Garrigues and Anna Smashnova are the ony players in WTA history with double-digit singles titles, but zero QF-or-better slam results in their careers? Umm, I think I just answered my own question. Of note, if Roberta Vinci does her '11 season one better in '12 and wins four singles titles, while not reaching a slam QF, she'd make this group a trio. But the Italian vet would stand alone as the ONLY of the three to have never even reached a slam Round of 16, with her best result a series of 3rd Round finishes. Come on, Roberta, win four titles and give birth to a whole new Backspin chestnut that I can roast on an open fire.
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41. Maybe CSN should confer with AMG, and vice versa? While her countrywoman Medina-Garrigues has those ten titles but no slam QF, Carla Suarez-Navarro has two career slam QF but no tour singles titles. Hmmm, too bad some mad scientist couldn't take these two's various parts and make a COMPLETE champion. We could call her Carla-Anabel Medina Suarez Navarro-Garrigues, aka "The Spanish Human Centipede."
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42. You're not going to let a little dinner throw you off course -- off "course," get it? -- are you? Sabine Lisicki's grand comeback season sort of ran off the road down the stretch after her bout with food poisoning. Hopefully, it wasn't a case of a laboriously-built house of cards starting its crash back to earth because of one misplaced card... or, poorly-prepared entree.
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43. Let's just say we give you a "mulligan" for 2011? Kaia Kanepi's season was injury-troubled before it even began last year, but she still managed to get close to being back in form by year's end, notching wins over Caroline Wozniacki, Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. Of course, then she went and played a $25K in Helsinki in late November and pulled out of the SF with a back injury. Oh, good grief. Here we go again?
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44. But is that knee sound? Andrea Petkovic's on-court results more than held their own with her creative off-court hobbies. Not only was she the first German to finish in the Top 10 since Steffi Graf in '98, but, in many ways, she was also the most consistent slam performer on the entire WTA tour. She was the only player to reach three slam QF in 2011. But a knee injury, shadows of a more serious one a few years ago, slowed her down and messed a bit with her mind down the stretch, preventing her season-long improvement from allowing her to end '11 on a high and spring into '12 with a head of steam. Petkovic's inclusion into the WTA mix has been great fun the last two years. Hopefully, her presence -- and success -- will continue to grow.
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45. Should I dare her to do it again? Tsvetana Pironkova at Wimbledon...Part III? It's just too bad that, apparently, NONE of the editions of the Bulgarian's would-be trilogy would ever be shown at any theater other than the one at the All-England Club.
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46. Is this the year? Laura Robson, who finally turns 18 in January, still leads in media attention when it comes to the British women, even if she's not the highest-ranked, and has somewhat been passed over by another player from her generation, Heather Watson. The youngest player in the Top 200 last season, is '12 the year Robson reaches the Top 100 and catches her fellow teenaged countrywoman where it counts the most, on the court?
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47. How long is it going to be before Kvitova says something that doesn't make me nod in appreciation and smile "on the inside?" "I must say that the role of tennis players I like more than the role of models," said Petra, after having gone through a long, tiring photoshoot. Your soon-to-be #1-ranked player in the world, ladies and gentlemen.
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48. Should I begin to compose my "Dear Kim" letter now? If this IS Clijsters' farewell season, I suppose some sort of "fitful" goodbye should be in the works in this space down the line, huh? Yeah, I guess. Well, it won't be anything like when you-know-who left (either time), but, contrary to what my little "thought bubble" quotes when it comes to Kim & Justine in this post might imply, a farewell letter to THIS Kim Clijsters (KC 2.0) certainly won't have the same tone as one that might have been written by a certain Backspinner when she retired the first time, either.
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49. Be mindful, Aga, all right? Sometimes, family ties, be they linked to coaching or not, are hard to sever and/or manage. (See Jelena Dokic.) That said, after seeing her career suddenly sprout new prospects after her break with her verbally abusive father, perhaps Agnieszka Radwanska can use that clever brain of her's to figure out a way to keep her father and her tennis career seperate if and when some sort of reconciliation begins. Maybe even more than Dokic or Wozniacki, A-Rad is the "high-wire act" to keep an anxious eye on in 2012.
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50. Will no one ever again get to speak in the latter stages of a slam, with a distinctly Romanian accent, of "Venus f---ing Williams?" The swarm of tennis-playing Romanians is growing in size and WTA stature (just ask Petra and Na in NYC), but, aside from Sorana Cirstea's QF result in Paris in '09, none have really been able to yet put together a sustained run at a slam, although Monica Niculescu came close last year at Flushing Meadows, reaching the Round of 16 before losing to surprising Angelique Kerber. The last Romanian slam semifinalist was Irina Spirlea at the Open in '97, who lost to, as she memorably referred to the then Open-debuting American, "V.F.W." (only without using the initials)... but not until after she "accidentally" bumped into Venus during a changeover. And, of course, we all knew it was an "accident" because of the knowing smirk on Spirlea's face after the incident. Ah, what "fun" the Romanians have brought to us in the slams in the past. And I didn't even get around to Ilie Nastase.
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51. So, after the likes of Schiavone, Li and Stosur became late-twentysomething first-time slam champs in recent seasons, who might be next to belatedly put her name on the list? Hmmm, Mademoiselle Marion Bartoli, maybe?
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52. Would three Germans in the Top 20 be better than the one or fewer that we had for the decade or so before 2011? Why, of course. But, I suspect that Julia Goerges' sometimes-upside down, sometimes-rightside up game, Petkovic's knee and Lisicki's entire body will have something to say about all that.
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53. Is Germany a threat to Europe? Hey, hold on! No wartime allusions allowed! What? Oh, I see. I'm sorry. So ahead with what you were saying then. Geez, give me a break, "imaginary editor in the sky." As I was saying, don't look now, but the tour's collection of Germans might actually have a chance to put up a better overall season in '12 than the two nations who currently reside atop the heap, Russia and the Czech Republic. First, the leading '11 numbers (excluding the one-woman gang from Denmark's stats): in total SF appearances, Russia led with 32, followed by the Czechs with 22 and Germany with 21. Finals: Russia-14, Czechs-13, Germany-7. Titles: Russia-7, Czechs-7, Germany-4. With Russia coming off a season in which the Hordettes combined for their lowest total numbers of titles since 2002, and Germany (hopefully) getting a full season from a highly-ranked Lisicki, and maybe a little improvement from Goerges, the '12 race's numbers could really tighten up. Hey, speaking of Germany and the Czech Republic, is anyone else looking forward to the 1st Round Fed Cup match-up between the two nations in February? Should be a good one.
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54. What is Justine thinking? (Part 3) (Raises hand, closes one eye, and positions her fingers between herself and Kim) "I'm squishing your head."
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*AFRICA/MIDDLE EAST*
55. Can Shahar Peer become relevant again? In 2010, the Israeli rebounded from a controversy-filled '09 campaign (remember the Dubai Debacle?) to put together the best season of her career, finishing at #13. Early last year, she was one singles match win in Charleston away from becoming the first woman from her country to ever reach the WTA Top 10. She lost that match to Julia Goerges, then immediately saw the bottom drop out of her season. She lost six of her next eight matches. Within a few months, she'd dropped entirely out of the Top 20, was the First Seed Out at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and, excluding a runner-up finish in College Park, won just seven of her other twenty post-one-win-from-the Top 10 matches and very nearly abdicated her position as the highest-ranked player in the Africa/Middle East region.
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56. Was Chanelle Scheepers a one-year wonder, or is she a late-bloomer? Finishing at #38, Scheepers was the player who nearly surpassed #37 Peer as the region's top-ranked woman. By every standard, 2011 was a career year for the 27-year old South African who'd never previously ended a season ranked higher than #107. She notched nice wins over Maria Kirilenko (two,actually), Monica Niculescu and Magdalena Rybarikova, pressed Francesca Schiavone in a dramatic match at the U.S. Open and won her first tour singles title in Guangzhou, becoming the first woman from her nation to take a WTA tournament crown since Amanda Coetzer in 2003.
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57. Is "Chanelle/Chanel" the new "Petra?" After the Czech Republic cornered the market on success by players named Petra (Kvitova & Cetkovska), South Africa is the Land of Chanelle/Chanel. While Scheepers was doing things that a woman from her nation hadn't done in nearly a decade, teenager Chanel Simmonds claimed three ITF circuit singles titles.
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58. Did Cara take note? One of the key issues that broke up the Cara Black/Liezel Huber doubles team in '10 was the American's belief that her playing partner from Zimbabwe was too wrapped up in her ranking and that she was closing in on Martina Navratilova's all-time record for longest uninterrupted span as the doubles #1 (Black held all or part of #1 for 33 straight months, behind Navratilova's record 41). With Anastasia Rodionova her most regular partner (teaming in four of CB's seven '11 events) in an injury-marred season, Black slipped from #13 to #77 in the rankings (prior to the break with Huber, she's been #1 four of the previous five seasons), while Huber rode a brilliant second half run back to the #1 position. Because she ended the season in the top spot, as the '12 season begins, in a slightly ironic twist of fate, Huber will pass Black (at 163) on the career weeks-at-doubles-#1 list, moving into the second place behind Navratilova (237).
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59. Shouldn't Cara have known all along? Huber's rise back to the top of the doubles rankings -- while Black fell down them -- coincided with her regular teaming with fellow American Lisa Raymond. Quite possibly, Cara should have recognized that Raymond would eventually play a part in the latter, not exactly winning, stage of her eventual Hall of Fame career. Call it something of a balancing out of the fates. After all, the one career tour singles title that Black won in her career (in Hawaii in 2002) came when she defeated, you guessed it, Raymond in the final. Additonally, as of now, the last doubles titles that Black won came when she TEAMED with Raymond to take the Birmingham title in 2010. Who did they beat in the final, you ask? Why, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and... yep, Huber. Oh, brother (though Wayne Black, with which Cara won two Mixed Doubles slams, had nothing to do with it).
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*ASIA/PACIFIC*
60. Is Anastasia Rodionova a modern day Nostradamus? Before the '11 season began, Samantha Stosur's countrywoman essentially predicted that she'd win a grand slam before the year was over. Things didn't look good for a while, but then Sammy arrived in NYC.
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61. Just how much did the U.S. Open change Samantha Stosur? A year ago, I really didn't think that Stosur had the nerve to actually win a slam. And, outside of Paris, where she'd managed to build up a great deal of pressure-blocking-out confidence in 2009-10, I figured she wouldn't even be able to contend. For sure, the Aussie's biggest liability in big matches had always been the six inches of space between her ears. Her lack of confidence and focus seemed to have doomed her chances of ever winning a slam, and three-quarters of the way into 2011 her career window for winning one looked like it might have closed. But then she burst through it with ungodly force with a dream run -- mostly played out, it should probably be noted, on the less-pressurized outside courts, usually under the cover of darkness, and with another big match on a show court -- in New York City. The way she handled Serena Williams in the final, though, put to rest all lingering doubts about whether she had "it." Thing is, it might have accomplished the same, more difficult, feat within her own mind. She's now -- glory be! -- talking like a confident grand slam champion. Maybe even one looking to star in her nation's biggest event in January. In the past, the pressure of such a moment seemed certain to get the best of her. But after she stared down, and ran over, Serena in NYC, who's to say she can't do it? Hmmm, I wonder what Rodionova thinks?
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62. Could the timing be any more perfect? (Part 1) Timing is everything, after all. And that this year's Australian Open is the 100th edition of the event puts intense pressure on a player like Stosur to succeed on a championship level... or it sets things up rather nicely for a feel-good run to a (gulp) second consecutive grand slam title. The last Aussie woman to go back-to-back in slams was Margaret Smith-Court in 1973.
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63. Could the timing be any more perfect? (Part 2) As with Stosur, Ashleigh Barty seems in a uniquely good position to ride the wave of the AO's 100th anniversary celebration. The 15-year old won the junior Wimbledon crown a year ago (becoming the first Aussie girl to win a slam since Jelena Dokic in '98), then reached the U.S. Open's Girls SF, as well. Additionally, she just climbed over multiple older players -- getting wins over Casey Dellacqua, Anastasia Rodionova & Olivia Rogowska -- to win Tennis Australia's Wild Card Playoff tournament to get into the AO women's main draw (without question, she'll be the youngest player of the 164). But, naturally, her best chance in Melbourne will still be in the junior competition. The last Australian girl to win the AO junior event was Siobhan Drake-Brockman in 1995.
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64. How nice is it to not have to "sweat it out," for once? For only the second time in the last eleven years, Jelena Dokic's ranking (year-end #66) and desire to play in the Australian Open have joined hands in a way that will allow her to gain automatic entry into the main draw of her adopted nation's grand slam. In five of the previous ten seasons, Dokic skipped the event entirely (for far too many reasons to recount... this is the "Intriguing 100," not "Intriguing 1000"), twice she had to win Tennis Australia's Wild Card tournament ('06 & '09) to get in, once she lost in qualifying ('08), and one year ago she lost in the WC tournament before receiving the discretionary wild card into the main draw from TA. 2010, after finishing #57 in '09 (the only other year since '03 in which she's finished in the Top 100), was the only other season in which she automatically qualified for the AO since she was a Top 10 player a decade ago.
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65. When will the clock tick down to 00:00? Since, you know, everyone is sort of wondering when Dokic's recent reconnection with "crazy tennis dad" Damir will once again go haywire, as it has oh so many times in the past (it led to her exit from Australian ten years ago, leading to her absence from the AO between 2002-05 after her father made claims of "draw rigging" after Jelena had drawn Lindsay Davenport in the 1st Round in '01). Hopefully, the expected meltdown won't happen this time... but no one with any real sense would ever put any money on it.
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66. So, is Rennae Stubbs REALLY retired now? Really? Just wondering. Not that an occasional on-court appearance would be frowned upon, of course.
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67. Maybe she knew it wasn't "official?" After her loss in the U.S. Open last year, Casey Dellacqua fell into an epic addiction to winning. Putting together an ITF circuit record 30-match winning streak, she ended her season by claiming six events in a row. She didn't lose a singles match until she was taken out in Tennis Australia's Wild Card Playoff tournament by eventual winner Ashleigh Barty. But, technicially, that loss "doesn't count," so in the eyes of the Tennis Stat Gods, she STILL hasn't REALLY lost since Flushing Meadows.
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68. Who'll cross the finish line first? Last year in Seoul, Galina Voskoboeva reached the final in one of the best results of her monsterous-climb-up-the-rankings 2011 season. But the wait continues for the first woman representing Kazakhstan to win a WTA tour singles title. Much like her countrywoman before her, Yaroslava Shvedova saw her ranking plummet (#39 to #206) last year. So, will she be the next Kazakh to ride a resurgence into a final... but win it? She's won a tour title before (2007), but was representing Russia at the time.
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69. Meanwhile, from the womb of Chelyabinsk, Russia, is that yet another Kazakh savior I hear arriving on horseback? Well, yes, in a way, since Ksenia Pervak has become the latest Hordette-born player to leave the crowded Russian tennis landscape (and the hard-to-come-by spots on the nation's Fed Cup & Olympic teams) behind for the "holy land" of Kazakhstan. Pervak won her first career title in '11, and is one of the best up-and-coming young stars in the WTA. Galina and Yaroslava just got some REAL competition to be the first woman with "KAZ" by her name to win a tour singles title. But, throw in Zarina Diyas and you've got the makings of a pretty fine Fed Cup team here.
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70. But if neither Pervak, Voskoboeva or Shvedova win a title in '12, what would be a nice Kazakh consolation prize? Well, how about two... err, or maybe THREE, players in the Top 50? A nice comeback singles season from Shvedova, and there's a decent chance of the latter happening. By comparison, there was only ONE Pastry (Bartoli) in the Top 50 at the end of '11.
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71. Does Mother Time's clock have an unending battery? If Martina Navratilova's tour record for oldest singles match winner is still in jeopardy, it would mean that we've got at around six more years of Kimiko Date-Krumm to look forward to. She maintained a Top 100 ranking at age 41 last year, winning a tour doubles title (her first in fifteen years) and a $100K challenger crown in singles.
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72. Is it wise to underestimate Li Na? It never has been. But, then again, it's never been wise to expect great things from her, either. Now, after reaching the AO final and winning RG, both the high and low end of her results spectrum in this year's slams are even more outlandish. Just last season, she was a first-time slam champ AND a 1st Round slam loser. Yeah, so was Petra Kvitova... but it's somehow "different," and only partially because the Czech is nearly a decade younger than the Chinese vet. That said, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Li catch a wave in "the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific" and have another fun-loving ride in a few weeks. Of course, she could lose in the 1st Round, too. Such is the tennis life of Li.
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73. China's tennis future knows no boundaries... or does it? Li Na won Roland Garros and all, putting all sorts of new tennis dreams into the minds of billions of little girls, but it didn't stop this year's long-time Week 1 exhibition in Hong Kong from being cancelled due to a lack of sponsorship.
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74. Has anyone seen China's Fed Cup team? Just wondering. After the astounding neglect of recent years had relegated Team China, a World Group semifinalist in 2008 right before the Beijing Olympics, all the way down into Zone play in '11, one would think that the powers-that-be had taken on a very Clijstersian "we won't play in Asia" stance on the matter.
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75. Ah, but why do we KNOW that China is still building a potential women's tennis empire? Why, because the nation has its very own pair of racket-wielding, title-winning twins: the Lu Sisters -- Jia-Jing & Jia-Xiang, both 22. Jia-Jing won two of her four career ITF singles titles in '11, while Jia-Xiang reached a final of her own (she hasn't won a title since '07, though). Together, they were even better, claiming four challenger titles as a duo last season. They've yet to face off with each other in a singles final (they've met in a QF). But, hey, give 'em time.
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76. Will imitation be the most sincere form of flattery? So, Peng Shuai saw Li Na become the first Asian to win a grand slam title. Then, later in the year, saw Dominika Cibulkova erase her name from the highest-ranked-player-without-a-tour-title list. Hint, hint. The current #17-ranked singles player, Peng is still waiting for HER first time in the winner's circle.
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*RUSSIA*
77. Should we be worried? (Part 2) Although she put on a valiant run on the clay, winning in Rome and reaching the Roland Garros SF, then reached her first Wimbledon final in seven years and put herself in position to challenge for the #1 ranking last season, Maria Sharapova still wasn't able to hold the tantalizing combination of her serve, game and nerve together in one piece consistently enough to win seven straight matches over a two-week span in '11. Like Venus Williams, another former slam champ who doesn't seem capable of winning those same seven consecutive contests, maybe we DID see the last of the "real" her in 2008.
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78. Should we be worried? (Part 3) Sharapova's chances to finish '11 at #1 were thwarted largely because of an ankle injury. With her ankle still "not 100%" nearly two months after the end of the season, Sharapova has already pulled out of her only Australian Open tune-up event (hmmm, again, much like Venus), though insists she'll be ready for Melbourne (ditto, V). This 100th edition of the Aussie Open will mark the four-year anniversary of Sharapova's third, and most recent, slam title run. Maybe there'll never be a fourth.
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79. You think Elena Dementieva has ever regretted the (maybe one year too early) timing of her retirement after seeing all the first-time slam champs that were born in '11? Yeah, me neither.
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80. Has the time finally come? No new Russian woman has climbed into the Top 10 since Anna Chakvetadze in 2007. Is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who climbed into the Top 20 in '11, finally ready to become the next "Hordette of note?" Every few months, AP seems to have improved just a little bit more, but unless she can pull a big slam run out of her nesting doll, her steady-but-sure progress might mean '13 will end up being the site of her long-awaited awakening.
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81. Is it time to give up and declare that all the good chapters have already been written? I'm talking to you, Sveta.
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82. And if no more big wins are in store for the future, is the Hall of Fame REALLY a given? Future "Hall of Famer Svetlana Kuznetsova." It just doesn't "sound" right, even if the chances of it NOT happening for a multiple slam and multiple Fed Cup winner are pretty much nil.
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83. From a sweep to a shutout? Four years after the Russians swept the medal stand in singles at the Beijing Olympics, they might struggle to win even a single disc of honor in London this summer. 2008 medalists Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina are retired, or nearly so, and Vera Zvonareva seemed to slip ever so slightly last season. Maria Sharapova should be a contender, but, well, she's hardly dependable these days. On the grass, the medal stand advantage goes to the Williams Sisters (one, at least, and maybe two if things go right over the first six months of '12) and Kvitova, not the Hordettes.
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84. We all know Marat was likely just repeating what he heard you say, right, Dinara? Unfortunately, the career probably IS over, save for an aborted comeback attempt to two.
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85. Who's more likely to play a match in 2012? Safina or Alisa Kleybanova? Hopefully, both will. It's probably more likely that only one, or neither, actually will.
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86. The beginning, or the end? Team Russia's surge back into the Fed Cup final in '11 was a great rebound for the four-time champs after disappointing results in the two previous years. But, even with the inevitable decline of the aging Italian team removing one top team from constant contention, will the Hordettes ever be able to dominate the ever-more-competitive event like they did a few years ago? Probably not.
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87. Will Anna Chakvetadze earn as many rankings points in '12 as votes in her run for Russian state parliament? Ending '11 ranked all the way down at #230, Chakvetadze clocked in with just 248 qualifying ranking points last season.
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88. Has the unstoppable drift begun? Vera Zvonareva won two titles last season, twice what she did in '10, but saw her ranking drop from #2 to #7. She'll turn 28 in 2012, placing her right smack in the middle of the "fork in the road" age bracket where (as we've seen recently) players either get a second wind and put together a couple of slam-contending (or winning) runs, or (as we saw for most of the years before recent events) their career decline begins and just staying healthy and consistent enough to manage to stay in the Top 15 or 20 is a major accomplishment.
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89. Is she forever fated to be underappreciated? I guess it goes with the territory when you're Russian, blond, once appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (but with two of your fellow WTA stars, not solely on your own level of fame), and are named Maria... but not Sharapova. "Second-fiddle," thy name is Kirilenko. Although, for quite some time, its name was "Chakvetadze." So maybe Maria can run for political office someday, just like a certain "less famous" Russian Anna.
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90. Is the next wave of Hordette contenders washing up on shore? In the closing weeks of 2011, the three big season-ending Grade A junior events -- the Yucatan Cup, Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl -- saw three different Russian teenagers fill four of the six spots in singles finals. Yulia Putintseva went 1-1, while Irina Khromacheva won, and Victoria Kan lost, in their sole deciding match attempts.
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91. She was the newest, but did you know that she wasn't the youngest? There was just one grand slam Round of 16 newcomer representing Russia in 2011 -- Ksenia Pervak (at Wimbledon). But the 20-year old wasn't the youngest Hordette who reached a slam 4th Round last season. That'd STILL be the aforementioned Pavlyuchenkova, who is five weeks her former countrywoman's junior.
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92. As she learned before, "perfect" isn't everything? Kudos to Anna Kournikova for at least having the guts to wade back into the television waters quite a few years after her disasterous turn as a tennis coverage interviewer/reporter a few years ago. But after her stint as the on-air trainer on "The Biggest Loser" came and went with mostly universally poor reviews, and she won't be back for a second season stint, maybe she should just stick with goodwill tours, the WTT, and being the subject of the paparazzi and professional photographers, while leaving alone anything that involves a microphone and TV cameras. As Andre Agassi once famously said, "Image is everything."
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*NO REGION REQUIRED*
93. Are three servings of home cooking possible this year? Consider this: defending U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur wins in Melbourne, '11 semifinalist Marion Bartoli steps up and wins Roland Garros this time around, while Serena Williams overcomes her many NYC demons and takes the Open. That's make three of the four WTA slam champs winning their crowns on home soil. The only time such a thing has happened in the Open era was 1977, when Virginia Wade (GBR) won Wimbledon, Chris Evert (USA) the U.S. Open and Evonne Goolagong (AUS) in Oz (actually, Aussie Kerry Reid won the AO that year, too, as the tournament was held in both January and December).
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94. Will the WTA's game of "#1 Hot Potato" start up again? Don't look now, but it's also not out of the question that we could see more different women at #1 in '12 than in any other season, or at least get close to it. Since 1975, the most different players in the top spot in a calendar year was five in 2008. Four have held the spot during two seasons, while three have passed around the #1 rankings six times. Caroline Wozniacki begins the year at #1, just 115 points ahead of Petra Kvitova. Some exchange(s) there seems probable during the course of '12, but it's not that difficult to map out scenarios where players such as Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova (that makes six!) turn the top spot into a Sisterhood of the Traveling Rankings Pants over the run of the upcoming season.
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95. #1 vs. #2 would be nice, right? With more potential #1's, the chances for a few #1-vs.-#2 matchups would seem to go up (maybe not if someone ACTUALLY crunched the theoretical numbers, but still). There were zero official (tour level or Fed Cup) meetings of the two top-ranked players in '11, and there has only been a single such match over a span of nearly four years. Since #1 Justine Henin faced off with #2 Svetlana Kuznetsova in Sydney in Week 2 of 2008, the only #1-vs.-#2 matchup we've seen was Caroline Wozniacki's meeting with Vera Zvonareva in the 2010 WTA Championships. In Week 1 of this season, #1 Wozniacki and #2 Kvitova are slated to meet on the seventh day of round robin action at the Hopman Cup. But, again, that would be an "unofficial" meeting of the top two players.
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96. Will the active double-digit title winners list balloon this year? Counting the on-the-shelf Dinara Safina, there are currently twelve active players who have won ten or more career tour singles titles. The "exclusive" group might not be so exclusive for much longer. Amongst the players who should/could get their tenth titles: Flavia Pennetta (needs 1 title), Victoria Azarenka (2), Petra Kvitova (3), Marion Bartoli (3) and Agnieszka Radwanska (3). Go a little out on the edge, and Roberta Vinci (4, after winning 3 in '11) and Jelena Dokic (4) are true longshots, while a confident Sam Stosur stands seven titles away from ten.
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97. Doubles drama, aside, am I crazy to think it'd be even better? Once again, I'll question why the Fed Cup has never adopted the Davis Cup's format of playing the doubles match in the middle of the tie rather than at the end, thereby virtually assuring that every roster player will take part in a meaningful match. Plus, it'd set up the possibility of some super-intense Match #5 singles battles that would decide things. Deciding doubles battles are nice -- and 2011's final DID come down to the doubles match -- but imagine how crazed things would get in a head-to-head, singles battle for a title. Hey, I complained for years about the WTA announcing official season awards in the spring of the FOLLOWING year, and in 2010 the Powers-that-Be did eventually see the logic of the idea (or at least the illogic of the former setup) and begin announcing awards at the END of the year rather than a quarter of the way into the next one. So, I'll continue to wish for this one to happen, too. At the very least, the home team should be able to choose which format to use.
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98. Will anyone really notice, or care? The Washington Kastles, the WTT's first-ever undefeated champions a season ago, will be looking to extend their summertime dominance in 2012. Technically, they're Backspin's "local team"... but I'd have to almost be forced to take notice.
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99. With so many players scrambling for position, is it even remotely possible for one woman to win ten singles titles, or nine? While both went through "soft spots" in their '11 schedules when it came to lifting titles, the world's #1 and #2 players, Wozniacki and Kvitova, tied for the tour title lead last year with six each. Kvitova's ability to get on a good run makes one think she might be able to run off a string of titles on multiple occasions in '12, but could she win enough to get to double-digits? The last woman to win ten or more titles in a single season was Justine Henin in '07, and she's the ONLY woman to have done it in the last fourteen years. The last to win nine was Kim Clijsters in '05, and before that, Clijsters again in '03.
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100. Will anyone miss NBC's presence at Wimbledon? Hahaha. That's a good one, I know. I just wanted to end this year's "Intriguing 100" with a laugh. Mission accomplished, I'd say.
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All for now.



==2012 PREVIEW SERIES==
* - Grand Slam Master List
* - 'Twas the Backspin Before Christmas: The Search for Caroline's 'Roo
* - The Intriguing 100 (you are here)
* - Prediction Blowout
* - 2012 Week 1 Picks & AO Power Rankings.

4 Comments:

Blogger Diane said...

Number 95 is a really interesting--and unexpected--piece of information. Who knew (besides you, of course)?

A great read, as always.

I'm not very happy about the Dulko-Pennetta split. I understand it, but in a case like this, the Olympic Games always feel like an intrusion to me.

Thu Dec 29, 01:49:00 PM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

I love how the first 5 items in North America are still about the Williams Sisters...(Taylor Townsend and Madison Keys hurry up and beat Ashleigh Barty or anyone in the top 20!!)

Also, I think women's doubles at the 2012 Olympics is going to be really interesting...even if Venus is 100%, I'm not sure it's going to be a total cakewalk for the sisters...i mean Italy, Russia, China, Czechs, Ukraine, Belgium, and even the other US teams could be challenging opponents and some have even beaten the Sisters before.

And not to mention the drama for the US squad...i mean who will Liezel team up with? Raymond, who she has the better partnership but might need special pardoning to get on the squad...or partnerless, but doubles-proficient Vania...

And singles too...wonder who all will get the nod...

Thu Dec 29, 07:41:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Diane-

Ha! That's why I love to have a physical copy of the WTA Media Guide handy. I didn't make a prediction in the "Prediction Blowout," but I'm thinking (hoping?) for at least three or four #1 vs. #2 matches this year. That'd be the most since the five in the '00 season.


Eric-

Well, until another North American actually wins a tournament, there's really no other order to take things. Even with all the up-and-comers, I'm still not sure that'll happen in' 12.

Hey, you didn't note how Wozniacki still got the first four items for Europe, though. :D

I'm not sure how many rounds the Olympic event will have. Anything less than seven would surely help a few players... say, Sharapova, Wozniacki and maybe even Venus.

Fri Dec 30, 12:36:00 AM EST  
Blogger web dagger said...

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Thanks a lot for sharing a good article....

By the way checkout the total information about the Australian Open Tennis 2012 like players, prize money, Australian Open 2012 dates , Australian Open Tennis 2012 Schedule and many more latest information from Australian Open 2012

Thu Jan 05, 01:20:00 PM EST  

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