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2011: The Year of the Comebacks – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Quick out of the Gates

It’s a new year, it’s a new tennis season, and the men of the ATP World Tour are wasting no time in dusting away any cobwebs that may have formed during the short off season. With the exception of Fernando Verdasco, the Top 10 men who played in the opening week of competition have looked solid as they prepare for the opening Grand Slam of 2011. As an added treat, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal squared off in the final of the Abu Dhabi exhibition event, much to the delight of the crowd and fans around the world. Nadal emerged triumphant in a tight two-set encounter that seemed to promise plenty of fireworks to come in their captivating rivalry.

Slow off the Mark

The exact opposite of the men’s tour at the moment would be the women of the WTA. Tennis superstar Serena Williams isn’t even playing, but some of her main rivals are failing to find their footing and take advantage of the American’s absence. Top players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, Shahar Peer, and even Maria Sharapova (though she was returning from a long injury layoff) have all been bounced early in their warm-up events for the Aussie Open. Then again, the women’s season ended on a relatively topsy-turvy note, so it would appear that 2011 is merely picking up where 2010 left off.

Comebacks

One of the WTA’s top stars who is enjoying some solid play is veteran Justine Henin. The Belgian is representing her home nation in the Hopman Cup mixed team competition, and while she admits that she is not yet 100%, she’s happy to be back and competing. For having not played since last year’s Wimbledon, Henin has looked decent, and with the way the rest of the women’s field is currently performing, don’t count out last year’s Australian Open finalist as a dark horse to go one better in Melbourne. On the men’s side and also competing in the Hopman Cup is Australian Lleyton Hewitt. “Rusty” is raring to go and happy to report that he’s feeling great out on the court once again. He believes he can make it back into the Top 10, and while that’s certainly a tough task, there are few players who can match the determination and intensity of the man who holds the distinction of being the youngest to finish as World No. 1.

Charitable Hearts

While the two charity exhibition matches between Federer and Nadal took place last December, it’s worth taking one more moment to further recognize their willingness to serve others. Theirs is a rivalry that is one of the greatest that the sport has ever seen, and it is extremely polarizing to many of their fans. Yet the two men at the heart of it are able to see well beyond what the annals of the game will say long after their careers are done. As Pat McEnroe pointed out while doing commentary for the match in Switzerland, you never would have seen his brother doing such a thing with the likes of Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl while in the prime of their careers. It speaks volumes for both Federer and Nadal that they are willing to give up a bit of their off season and risk giving away any edge they may have in their games in an effort to raise money, hope and awareness for those less fortunate.

Miscellany

Two other tidbits worth mentioning occurred over the course of the off season. First, a good-bye to the quirky German Nicolas Kiefer. The former World No. 4 has suffered injury problems with his wrist and has decided to call it a day. With a wife and a new baby daughter, one can hardly blame him. He was a joy to watch, and he will be missed. The second item is an early welcome back to Wayne Odesnik. Odesnik was to have still been serving a suspension for importing HGH into Australia, but the ITF reduced his ban, explaining that there had been “substantial assistance provided by Mr. Odesnik in relation to the enforcement of professional rules of conduct.” It will be interesting to see how he is received as he tries to make his way back on tour.

NO LAUREUS LOVE FOR ROGER FEDERER: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

And the Award Goes to… – In the aftermath of the Oscars, one of sports’ most prestigious awards, the Laureus Awards, were announced earlier this week. Tennis twice took top honors, with Serena Williams winning for Sportswoman of the Year, while Kim Clijsters took home the prize for Comeback of the Year. The only head scratcher for me was Federer going away empty handed, especially since he essentially had a better season than Serena Williams. That said, track star Usain Bolt, who won Sportsman of the Year, was a deserving candidate, and overall, it was still another great showing for tennis.

Bit of Joy – After the devastating earthquake that caused the tie between Chile and Israel to be delayed by a day, it was host country Chile that gave their home nation something to smile about in the wake of tragedy. Chile ultimately won the tie 4-1. After the win, Chilean star Fernando Gonzales dedicated the victory to his fellow countryman and announced he was going one step further to assist with relief efforts by pulling out of Indian Wells to tour the areas hit hardest by the quake, as well as leading calls to raise aid.

The Good Goran Returns – Much to the delight of up-and-comer Marin Cilic, Goran Ivanisevic has agreed to continue to serve as his part-time coach. He’ll be with Cilic for both the Miami and Madrid Master 1000 events. This is not a permanent change, as Brett is still Cilic’s full-time coach. Given Ivanisevic’s experience, however, there’s no doubt his influence will further enhance the younger Croat’s game and see him continue his climb up the rankings.

Tennis Channel to the Rescue – After a couple years of multiple complaints from viewers, Indian Wells worked out a deal that will see Tennis Channel become the main cable provider for the tournament. It may not be ESPN2, but I was happy to see the network switch. It’s ridiculous that two of the biggest events in tennis, Indian Wells and Miami, should be on a network like Fox Sports that offers a random and small amount of coverage across the United States. It cheats the fans, and in a way, it cheats the tournament. At least this year, there should be a little less hate mail flying around as fans can tune into Tennis Channel to get the coverage they deserve.

Humiliation for Great Britain – It’s no secret that the nation of Great Britain, once a powerhouse in Davis Cup play, has been struggling to find a foothold in the competition.  Particularly in the wake of the retirements of both Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, as well as a lack of participation from current British No. 1 Andy Murray, the people of Great Britain have collectively had to hold their breath with each nerve-wracking tie.  But this past weekend was more than nerve-wracking for the Brits; it was humiliating, as current British Captain John Lloyd “earned” the distinction of becoming the first British captain in 110 years to lose five successive ties, the latest coming at the hands of Lithuania.  Now just a step away from being relegated to the lowest level of the Davis Cup competition, the LTA is reviewing what went wrong against the tiny Baltic nation.  Sources speculate John Lloyd may get the sack, and many, including Boris Becker, are suggesting that Tim Henman is the ideal candidate to replace Lloyd.  I’m not opposed to Henman taking over the helm (though he’s already stated he’s not interested in the position at this time), but I personally think the LTA is missing the point if that’s all that is done.  Even Henman himself has stated it isn’t fair to blame Lloyd or Annacone for Britain’s poor performance.  If the talent isn’t there (or properly developed as the case may be), it’s hard to win a Davis Cup match, irrespective of who’s guiding the ship.