Van Sias

Van Sias is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, and a member of the United States Tennis Writers Association. He is the creator of the long-running blog Tennis Talk, Anyone? and his latest site, The Doubles Alley, which focuses on professional and amateur doubles. He is a regular contributor to Tennis View Magazine and Bleacher Report, as well as the blogs GoToTennis and Down the Line!, where he writes the “Serves and Returns” and “VANtage Point” features, respectively. In other words, if it involves his two biggest passions—tennis and writing—he’s going to do it! He can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter, @ttanyone or @dubsalley.

Will Huber and Raymond Notch a Season for the Ages?

It’s as if winning streaks are a prerequisite if you’re going to be at the top of the rankings. Novak Djokovic won dozens of matches in a row last year, and in 2012, Victoria Azarenka is unbeaten.

In  women’s doubles, the world’s number-one pair of Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond is racking up the victories. The Americans are in the semifinals at this week’s tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., bringing their winning streak in ’12 to 15.

And it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon.
Granted, the veterans’ start to the season didn’t give any indication of where they would be at now. They lost in the finals of their first tournament in Sydney to Katarina Srebotnik and Kveta Peschke. Then, Huber and Raymond went on to the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, and fell in the quarterfinals to Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina in a controversial match.
Since that loss, though, Huber and Raymond have been on a tear: They won the Paris Indoors and the tournaments in Doha and Dubai. Between those three events, they were only pushed to a match tiebreak four times out of 12 matches.
But probably the most impressive result they had over those tournament wins was in the finals in Dubai: There, they won a rematch of sorts against Mirza and Vesnina, 6-2, 6-1.
If Mirza and Vesnina are among their chief rivals and they’re dismissing them so easily, what does that say about the year Huber and Raymond are capable of having in 2012?
After Indian Wells, it’s off to Miami for another tournament on hard courts, the pair’s best surface. Then, the clay-court season gets into full swing. There are teams that will definitely challenge the two with doubles on the dirt relying more on ball-striking than playing the classic serve-and-volley style displayed by Huber and Raymond.
However, neither one of them is strangers to having success on clay: Raymond’s a former French Open champion and Huber has made the finals of the season’s second Slam. Both of them have won numerous titles on the surface with different partners over the years.
Weather that storm then it’s off to the brief grass-court season, which includes what some consider the game’s biggest prize, Wimbledon. Not many players in the field will have the grass-court pedigree of the American pair as both of them have won at the All-England Club in the past, too.
This being an Olympic year, they would have to be considered among the favorites for a Gold medal—provided they’re selected to represent the U.S., which isn’t a given, despite what they’ve accomplished. But if they aren’t chosen for the team, then that gives them the chance to get an early start on the summer hard-court swing. It’s obvious the defending U.S. Open champions are at their best when on the concrete and have proven they can get through the unique challenges the last Major of the year provides.
The fall indoor season sees Huber and Raymond back playing in conditions similar to where their 2012 winning streak first started. And with the year-end championship only requiring two matches won to be named the victor, a title at the season finale would be a proper way to cap off 2012.
While the season is still early, the possibility is there for Huber and Raymond to find their names in the record books among some of the game’s all-time greats. Djokovic and Azarenka have made it look easy at times on the singles front, why can’t two players get it done?

The WTA is on the Verge of a “Big 4” to Rival the ATP’s

Agnieszka Radwanska’s win at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships has brought her to a career-high No. 5 ranking. With the way she’s been playing over the past few months, the young Pole could go even higher in the rankings.

Ahead of her, though, are 2012 Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka; ’11 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova; and Maria Sharapova, who’s made the finals at two of the past three Grand Slams. Caroline Wozniacki is ahead of Radwanska in the standings, too, but has shown to be vulnerable and could cede her place to Radwanska if the latter continues her hot streak.

That could result in a top four of Azarenka, Kvitova, Sharapova and Radwanska. With the way they’re playing and their current ages—all of them are under 25—they could have a lock on those top spots for quite some time.

That’s something that has become the norm on the ATP World Tour.

Over the past couple of years, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have had a vice grip on the top. David Ferrer and Robin Soderling have broken through, but only momentarily. Last year, the ATP’s “Big 4” captured every Masters Series 1000 event on the calendar between them. They also took all four semifinal spots at two Majors in 2011 and the first one this year at the Australian Open. They’ve won more than 170 singles titles combined, including 32 Grand Slams.

A “Big 4” of Azarenka, Kvitova, Sharapova and Radwanska, of course, don’t come anywhere close to those numbers at this point. Sharapova, the veteran of the group, is the most accomplished with three Grand Slams to her credit and a former place atop the rankings. Kvitova, the youngster at 21, has shown the ability to win titles in bunches, as has current world No. 1 Azarenka.
As a matter of fact, the Belarussian has already started the Djokovic comparisons with her perfect start to 2012, which included winning her first Major title.

As mentioned earlier, Radwanska hasn’t been too bad herself in ’12. In fact, the only player she’s lost to all year has been Azarenka, who’s come out in their head-to-heads three times already this year, including at this year’s Aussie.

At the Australian Open, all four of them made the quarterfinals, with Radwanska failing to advance further. Kim Clijsters, the ’11 champ, broke up the group. However, that task will get increasingly tougher for the players on the WTA Tour as the potential “Big 4” continues to assert itself.

Maria Sharapova on the Verge of Something Big in ‘12

The period of time when Maria Sharapova was sidelined by a career-threatening shoulder injury seems like an eternity ago.

Next week, the Russian superstar is guaranteed to return to the number-two spot in the WTA rankings. She’s also notched final-round appearances at two out of the past three Grand Slams: last year’s Wimbledon and this season’s Australian Open. Had she won one of those two, odds are that she would be back in the top spot.

As it is, though, her two opponents in those matches—Petra Kvitova and new world number-one Victoria Azarenka—handled Sharapova quite easily. Sharapova’s experience was expected to play a huge role in her match against Kvitova, but she was unable to keep pace with the young Czech. As for Azarenka, she established herself as the tournament favorite early on with the way she romped through her matches.

On the other side of the Melbourne draw, Sharapova was doing some romping and routing of her own: In her first three matches, she only lost five games total. She dropped sets to Sabine Lisicki and Wimbledon conqueror Kvitova in later rounds, but those two going into the event had dark horse and contender status, respectively, and were true tests of where her game is.

After the Australian, Sharapova resurfaced this past weekend for Fed Cup duty against Spain won her opening rubber match. Fed Cup participation sets the stage for one of her major goals for 2012: the summer Olympics.

The tournament venue will be one she’s quite familiar with: the players will be competing at the All-England Club, the site where a young teen shook up the tennis world in 2004 by defeating the legendary Serena Williams in the final.

There are many players on the tour who have a strong grass-court pedigree, and Sharapova is definitely one to them. Realistically, she could walk away with either a Grand Slam or Olympic Gold, or both, all within the span of a few weeks.

This week she’s the top seed at the Open GDF Suez in Paris, which features top 10 stars, such as Marion Bartoli and Li Na, in the mix. Coming through a tough tournament could possibly spur her to solid runs at the U.S.’ two biggest tournaments outside of the U.S. Open: Indian Wells and Miami. Sharapova won Indian Wells in 2006, but hasn’t pulled it off in Miami yet.

Should her good form carry over in the months ahead, Miami could end up being hers—and propel her to major heights over the course of the season.

Del Potro Back in the Top 10—and Poised to Climb Higher

Rafael Nadal’s post-Davis Cup prophecy appears to be on its way to becoming a reality.

After defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the first reverse rubber, Nadal predicted the Argentine would be back in the top four at some point in 2012.

Del Potro has taken a huge step in that direction by hitting the top 10 in this week’s rankings, his first appearance back among the game’s elite in nearly a year and a half. This comes on the heels of the just-concluded Australian Open where he made the quarterfinals—the farthest he’s advanced at a Slam since his title-winning effort at the 2009 U.S. Open.

Since that time, it’s been a series of lows and highs for the 23-year-old: His ranking plummeted to the 400s after a serious wrist injury. That was then followed by a triumphant 2011, when he won two titles and worked his way back to the top 15.

Now, del Potro has made another huge step, and there’s a strong possibility that he can go even higher.

For one, there are a few players ranked above him that you would have to like his chances against. He has a winning head-to-head record against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic. Plus, based on current form, del Potro more than likely would be favored if he had to play Mardy Fish—whom he actually has a losing record against.

While potential wins against those players could give del Potro a ranking boost, facing members of the top five would be a different story. Against Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and David Ferrer, del Potro has a combined 9-27 record.

Still, though, he has beaten all of the top five at least once—and he’s well-equipped to do so again. Del Potro possesses one of the biggest forehands in the game, as well as a punishing serve. He’s had success on all surfaces, ranging from reaching the semis at the French Open to the round of 16 at Wimbledon. And, of course, there is that U.S. Open win.

Winning another Grand Slam title might not happen this year, given the way Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have made a habit of locking down the spots in the final four in the Majors. But there’s still plenty of ways del Potro can make his move back into the top four: mainly by posting consistent results at the game’s biggest events, such as the ATP Masters Series 1000 tournaments.

If he does that, del Potro will have made a true fortune teller of Nadal after all.

There Will Always Be Room for a Lleyton Hewitt Type in Men’s Tennis

Lleyton Hewitt put on one of the most impressive performances of the 2012 Australian Open by making it to the fourth round and actually taking a set off defending champ Novak Djokovic.

And while he might be far removed from his glory days, one thing’s for sure: You can never count Hewitt out.

But why is that the case?

Surely with his game—built around court coverage and flawless groundstrokes—would lead to him getting blasted off the court by bigger and more powerful opponents. But as has been the case throughout the former number 1’s career, he’s been able to prove that line of thinking wrong. Hewitt has won 28 singles titles, including two Grand Slams: the ’01 U.S. Open and ’02 Wimbledon—all while suffering a significant size and weight disadvantage most of the time.

That’s something Australian Open quarterfinalists David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori can relate to. When those two take the court against 95 percent of the bigger boys on the ATP World Tour, they have to rely on their foot speed and baseline play to enable them to stay in the point, as well as pop off a carefully constructed winner.

And the old phrase “defense wins championships” is exemplified by Ferrer and Nishikori, as well as Hewitt. It’s nearly impossible to hit through or past any of the three as they’re all willing to chase everything down: forehand blasts, overhead smashes, drop shots—whatever it takes to get the point won.

Ferrer has been the best practitioner of this over the years: His career-high ranking is 4 and he’s won tournaments on clay, grass and hard courts. He’s No. 5 right now, and while it may be extremely difficult for him to crack the “Big 4” considering the way they’ve dominated. But Ferrer is so entrenched in his position right now, it would be hard to imagine how the players ranked below him can knock him out of that spot.

With what he’s shown at the Australian this year, Nishikori appears to be ready to take on that challenge. He made his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, knocking off one of the hottest players—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—in five sets. And it’s not too far-fetched to like his chances against Andy Murray as both play with a similar style.

That “style” is reminiscent of what Hewitt brought—or rather “brings”—to the table. It’s how Michael Chang before him ended up with a place in Newport, RI, at the Tennis Hall of Fame. Hewitt will find himself there after his career is over, and perhaps when it’s all said and done, the same will be said of Ferrer and Nishikori.

Federer Under the Radar: Who Saw That Coming?

Roger Federer got things off to a fairly easy start at this year’s Australian Open, winning his first-round match in straight sets over Alexander Kudryavtsev, 7-5-, 6-2, 6-2.

It was the four-time champion’s 60th match win in Melbourne, and was to be expected, considering the form he’s displayed over the past few months. He won 17 matches in a row to end 2011 and added three more this year in Doha before having to drop out of the tournament due to injury.

Obviously, Federer is playing quite well and with a tremendous amount of confidence. But it’s been a little while now since he’s had the ultimate success on the Grand Slam stage with Melbourne 2010 being his last major title. And this year, talk seems to be centering more on his younger opponents: Will Novak Djokovic repeat? Is Rafael Nadal healthy? Will Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl win a Slam together off the bat? Is it time for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to break through?

That doesn’t leave much room in the discussion for Federer, especially as how all the talk of any tournament he entered in the past used to start and end with him.

You can’t exactly classify Federer as an “underdog”; he is still, after all, one of the greatest to ever pick up a racquet. With his playing style, he can continue to notch impressive results for a couple of years to come, at least, and be considered one of the favorites to win any major he competes in.

As some of the attention slips away, Federer appears well suited to take advantage of it. The French Open last year could be a prime example as everyone was waiting to see if Nadal could reverse his losing streak against Djokovic in the finals of the year’s second Slam. Federer had something to say about that, though, stopping Djokovic in the semis in finger-wagging fashion.

Federer’s next two Grand Slams didn’t go as planned, losing wrenching five-setters to Tsonga and Djokovic at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, respectively. He took a bit of time off after that Open loss and came back physically and mentally refreshed.

And aside from a balky back, nothing seems to be bothering Federer at this early point in the season. His draw in Melbourne offers a few possible matchups early on that could be intriguing: big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the third round; then perhaps Bernard Tomic, Sam Querrey or Alexandr Dolgopolov in the round of 16. Federer could be tested in any of those, but experience—if anything—should carry him through.

From the quarters on, things could get to be a little more difficult as Juan Martin del Potro or Mardy Fish loom, plus he’s drawn to face Nadal in the semifinals.

At that point of the tournament, odds are that the spotlight will still be on Nadal, Murray and Djokovic as Federer continues to sneak in under the radar. Perhaps he’ll emerge from it with a 17th Slam in tow.

Five ‘Encore Performers’ Djokovic Could Try to Emulate in ‘12

They say one of the hardest things to do in sports is repeat—a task Novak Djokovic will try to accomplish 10 times in 2012. Coming off one of the best tennis seasons of all time, questions abound on whether the Serbian will be able to go “back-to-back” performance-wise. He’s not the first player to have to prove their career year was a fluke. Here’s a look at five stars that pulled off some of the best repeat performances in the Open Era.

Steffi Graf

Great Year: 1988. Graf became the only player—male or female—in the game’s history to win the “Golden Slam”; that being all four Majors plus an Olympic title.

The Follow-Up: In 1989, “Fraulein Forehand” won the Australian Open to start off the year in Grand Slam play, and then advanced to the finals at the French Open. She shockingly fell to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, but rebounded to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, bringing her two-year Slam record to 55-1.

Jimmy Connors

Great Year: 1974. Connors only happened to go 99-4 during his breakout season, winning three Grand Slam singles titles that year: Wimbledon and the Australian and U.S. opens. He missed out on the French, mainly due to the fact that he didn’t even play the event.

The Follow-Up: Connors repeated his final-round efforts at the three Majors he won the year prior. However, he lost in all three of them. Still, he won nine titles over the course of the season and made three other finals besides the second-place finishes at the Slams.

Roger Federer

Great Year: 2004. This is the season when Federer first reached number one in the rankings, and it was years before he ever looked back. He won three Majors in a year for the first time and 11 titles overall.

The Follow-Up: While he “only” won two Slams in 2005, Federer fell one match shy of equaling John McEnroe’s record for winning percentage set in ’84. Federer won 11 titles again and of his four losses on the year, none came before the quarterfinals.

Pete Sampras

Great Year: 1993. It had been some time since Sampras’ breakthrough win at the 1990 U.S. Open. He only made one other Slam final—at the 1992 U.S. Open—before ’93. That loss to Stefan Edberg in the finals lit a fire under the American and he went on to win his first Wimbledon crown, as well as the U.S. Open.

The Follow-Up: Among a lot of dominant years in his career, this one might be the most complete. Sampras captured his first Australian Open, making it three Slams in a row won, then repeated at Wimbledon. Overall, he won 10 titles, which included the year-end championship and three Masters crowns—the most impressive and unexpected of them being the Italian Open, the second-biggest clay-court event in the game.

Venus Williams

Great Year: 2000. Younger sister Serena beat her to the punch as far as winning a Grand Slam singles title. When Venus finally did win one at Wimbledon in 2000, it was as if a great weight had been lifted and she went on to win the U.S. Open, too, keeping the New York-based Major in the family after Serena won in ’99. Big sis also captured Olympic Gold, too.

The Follow-Up: Venus started off 2001 by reaching her first Australian Open semifinal. And aside from an opening-round loss at the French, the Majors were good to her as she successfully defended her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. She also wrapped her career Slam in doubles by winning the Australian with Serena.

Teenagers Tomic, Harrison Facing Great — Perhaps Too Many — Expectations

First things first: Win a singles title.

For teenagers and top 100 ATP World Tour players Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison, that should be the top priority going into 2012. But with the way both of them have shot up the rankings over the past couple of years, much more is expected from the 19-year-olds.

That’s what happens when you make the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, like Tomic did last year—becoming the youngest player since the legendary Boris Becker to do so. Or when you make back-to-back semifinals during the 2011 summer hard-court swing, like Harrison did. Those results helped solidify the hype over the two, which has been essentially building since before they hit their teens.

But is that hype too much?

The two have both openly about being future Grand Slam champions, and with some of the wins they’ve notched early on, there could be reason to believe. However, the ATP rankings have had more than its fill junior-championship winners who haven’t seen that success translate to the pros in recent years.

The fact that Tomic and Harrison come from two of the nations with the deepest tradition in the game—Australia and the U.S., respectively—doesn’t exactly ease the pressure the two are facing. Questions have been around for years about the state of the game for both countries, and Tomic and Harrison have been hailed as keepers of the flame. That can be an enormous burden for anyone, tasked to follow in the footsteps of Lleyton Hewitt or Andy Roddick—not to mention the all-time greats that came before them, such as Rafter, Agassi or Sampras.

And despite the highlights of their 2011 campaigns, Tomic and Harrison both had some growing pains off the court: Harrison was criticized for offering his opinion on how Roger Federer could hold on to the number-one ranking and Tomic’s “hooning” incident made headlines around the world.

Plus, neither one of the teens would ever be considered a genteel type when things don’t go their way between the lines! Maturity could go a long way in deciding their future paths.

The 2012 season kicked off with mixed results for the pair in Brisbane, Australia, this week: Number-eight seed Tomic defeated Julien Benneteau in three sets, while Harrison fell to veteran Marcos Baghdatis in straights.

Those two scorelines probably won’t do too much to slow or speed up the hype machine for either player. Still, eyes should be kept on Tomic and Harrison over the next 12 months—but perhaps the expectations should be tempered.

Ivanovic, Jankovic Within Striking Distance of the Top 10

Battling each other in Grand Slam semis, making finals at the Majors, holding the No. 1 ranking—that all used to be status quo for Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.

The past couple of years for both of the Serbian superstars make that all seem like a distant memory. Both of them finished 2011 outside of the top 10—the first time neither one has been ranked among the WTA’s elite since 2006. Since 2009, there’s only been one Grand Slam semifinal appearance between the two of them. And at one point in 2010, Ivanovic found herself ranked outside the top 60.

Despite that, 2012 has the potential to mark a return to form for both of them.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to believe they could find themselves back in the top 10 is the unpredictability of the women’s tour right now. Last year, three players won the first Grand Slam titles of their careers: Li Na at the French Open, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon and Samantha Stosur at the U.S. Open. Those three definitely weren’t considered clear-cut favorites going into those Majors, but there they were at the end of the two weeks lifting the big trophies.

In other words, it’s anyone’s ball game out there, a fact that should serve two veterans that have found themselves in winning positions on the biggest stages quite well.

That segues into the experience factor being crucial to further success. Ivanovic is a former French Open champion and has been runner-up in two other Grand Slam finals. In addition to making the finals of the U.S. Open in ’08, Jankovic has made five other Major semis in her career.

Their playing style also translates well to any surface, each having had success on grass, hard and clay courts. While neither Jankovic or Ivanovic have been considered the biggest hitters in the game, they are each athletic enough to get themselves in position to generate more pace on their groundstrokes than most players and are capable of playing solid defense.

Plus, there are some signs that they’re heading in the right direction. After going exactly two years between winning singles titles, Ivanovic has won three in the past year. Jankovic still managed to make two finals in 2011, despite it being a down season for her.

The two have been making news this offseason with changes on their teams, as well, bringing in new trainers and in the case of Jankovic, a new coach.

Sitting within striking distance of the top 10, Ivanovic and Jankovic have the games and the experience to get them back near the upper reaches of the standings. It boils down to a matter of putting it all together now, still in the prime of their careers.

Raonic, Haase Could Get Company From Compatriots in Top 100 in ‘12

It can be lonely in the top 100, especially if you’re Andy Murray, Ernests Gulbis or Jurgen Melzer.

They’re just three of the 21 players that are their nation’s sole representative among that ranking benchmark. But while some of them, such as Robin Soderling and Marcos Baghdatis, might not be getting any company from their compatriots any time soon, there are some national number-twos who could be backing up or surpassing their higher-ranked countrymen in 2012. Here’s a look at five of them.

Izak van der Merwe

Second-ranked player from South Africa behind Kevin Anderson

Over the course of the past four years, van der Merwe’s year-end ranking has improved—from 302 to at the end of 2008 to his current, and career-high, 113. In 2011, the 27-year-old South African won two Challenger titles on hard courts, and made the finals of another. He also advanced to the quarterfinals at the ATP World Tour 250 event in Johannesburg, where his countryman Anderson won their “home” tournament. Solid results at the start of 2012 could land van der Merwe alongside Anderson in the top 100.

Vasek Pospisil

Second-ranked player from Canada behind Milos Raonic

If it seems like Raonic appeared out of nowhere in 2011, the opposite should be expected of Pospisil in the year ahead. Big things are expected from the 21-year-old, who improved his ranking by nearly 200 points over the year. His most impressive feat in the past year was lifting his country into World Group play for the 2012 Davis Cup. Improving his place in the standings could be his next big accomplishment.

Go Soeda

Second-ranked player from Japan behind Kei Nishikori

The veteran reached his career-high ranking in 2011—90—with his best ATP Tour-level result coming in Thailand, where he reached the quarterfinals out of qualifying. He played in the main draw of three of the four Grand Slams during the year, and also won two Challenger events. Soeda had a solid finish to the year with quarterfinal finishes in two of his last three tournaments, giving him something to build upon in 2012.

Thomas Schoorel

Second-ranked player from the Netherlands behind Robin Haase

It’s been quite some time since the days of Richard Krajicek, Jan Siemerink and Paul Haarhuis. But a Dutch renaissance appears to be in effect based on the play of Haase and Schoorel behind him. The 22-year-old Schoorel cracked the top 100 in 2011, before finishing at 133, based on strong Challenger results, winning two tournaments in a row on clay. He also picked up wins over perennial top-100 players Jarkko Nieminen and Jeremy Chardy during the year, and made the second round of the French Open.

Andrey Golubev

Second-ranked player from Kazakhstan behind Mikhail Kukushkin

Things didn’t exactly go as planned for Kazakhstan’s former number one in 2011. After winning his first career title at the ATP World Tour 500 stop in Hamburg and making the finals in Kuala Lumpur in 2010, Golubev—whose career-high ranking is 33—notched a 6-26 record in the just-concluded season. Most of those wins came during the summer on outdoor hard courts, a sign that he began to rediscover some of his form after a rough start. A good run in the beginning of ’12 could help him fully put the memories of ’11, and that lower ranking, behind him.