s games

CAREERS REJUVENATED: THE FRIDAY FIVE

Careers Rejuvenated – Raise your hand if you had Caroline Wozniaki vs. Jelena Jankovic in the Indian Wells women’s final and Andy Roddick vs. Ivan Ljubicic in the Indian Wells men’s final. While credit has to go to both of the losing finalists for a fine effort in the desert, hearty congratulations are due to the winners, Jankovic and Ljubicic. Jankovic, who has seen her ranking slowly plummet as she struggled to win matches, finally got her act together to bag the big title and put herself back on the map. Even more impressive was Ljubicic. Well into the twilight of his career, it would seem that the big Croat’s best days were behind him. But Ljubicic proved the critics wrong and held his nerve to knock off Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal (“accident” or not), and Roddick to win his first Masters 1000 title. If this is a sign of things to come, the men’s and women’s games just got a little more interesting.

More Rumblings at Roland Garros – Gilbert Ysern has once again reiterated the fact that the French Open may not only have to move away from the Roland Garros site, but from the city of Paris itself. The reason for the move is the current inability of the FFT to enact site upgrades, such as the construction of a retractable roof, due to opposition from the public, primarily environmentalists. Some predict this will all blow over, that there’s little chance of the move. They feel that the public will cave, as they can’t imagine the second major of the year being played anywhere but Roland Garros. I’ve got my fingers crossed that a compromise can be reached so that fans around the world can continue to enjoy springtime in Paris.

A Split Decision – Politics once again has the opportunity to influence an upcoming Davis Cup tie, as Serbia is set to take on host Croatia in the city of Split. The Serbian coach, Bogdan Obradovic had requested that the tie be played in the capital Zagreb, as he felt it would be less nationalistic than Split. I’m with the ITF on denying the request, especially given the significance of Split to Croatian tennis as the hometown of local hero Goran Ivanisevic. That said, I’m not Serbian, nor am I Croatian. I can’t fathom the levels of tension that may exist, but I have seen players from both nations making great strides to get along and set an example. While this could potentially be ugly, this may also be a viewed as a golden opportunity. This is a chance for tennis to set politics aside and perhaps through sport, start mending fences between two nations.

Hewitt Headed to Houston – Aussie Lleyton Hewitt has announced that he will be making his return to the ATP World Tour earlier than expected at the clay court event in Houston.  Bouncing back from a second hip surgery will be difficult, but Houston is the perfect place to test the waters. The soft clay coupled with a middle-of-the-road field should give Hewitt the opportunity to ease back into competition. And with guys such as Ivan Ljubicic and Juan Carlos Ferrero mounting their own comebacks in the latter years of their careers, there’s no reason two-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt shouldn’t expect he can do the same.

Tiger Tim Ready to Return – Well, he wasn’t ready to sit in the captain’s seat of the British Davis Cup team, but Tim Henman, still one of the most popular figures in British sports, has stated that he is ready to consider making a return to competitive tennis. He’ll play his first event at the AEGON Masters in London at the end of the season. Having reached a career high of No. 4 and one of the best serve-and-volleyers in his day, Henman was always a crowd favorite and will undoubtedly be a welcomed presence to the tour. I for one hope everything pans out, and that as Henman said, the AEGON Masters is the “first event of many for me on the ATP Champions Tour.”

ARE QUERREY AND ISNER READY TO TAKE THE TORCH OF AMERICAN TENNIS?

With the opening 2010 tournaments being held on American soil, the spotlight shines on one of the world’s most successful tennis playing nations.

For many years, Americans have dominated the sport. From the days of Bill Tilden to the modern era of Pete Sampras, Americans are never far from your thoughts when it comes to one of the world’s favorite sports.

So many great stories accompany the nation’s participation in tennis. From the crusading careers of Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to Bill Talbert redefining medical thinking on diabetes. From Dick Williams’ terrifying ordeal aboard the Titanic to Andre Agassi’s many battles with personal problems compounded by his recent revelations of crystal meth use. McEnroe, Connors, Courier, they all delighted crowds with their contrasting personalities.

America reads like a grand soap opera of tennis. Its many great champions have left imprints of grandeur and finesse on the minds of those who have seen them play.

As a Brit looking at the role of honors, it makes one quite envious. Yes we have had fine champions too. But not many have come since Fred Perry in the 1930s. It kind of makes you feel like the less-successful younger brother vying for daddy’s love.

Another fine column from Melina Harris touched upon the issue when looking at the rise of Melanie Oudin and John Isner in the men’s and women’s games but, when looking at recent Grand Slams, where will America’s next great champion come from?

Pete Sampras did not compete following his triumph at the 2002 US Open and his official retirement announcement came just before the 2003 showpiece which makes Andy Roddick the sole American Slam winner since the great Pete. Since then, the domination of R-Fed and Rafa Nadal has given American tennis fans food for thought, although Roddick has made a further four finals.

Federer mimics some of the great American Champions in his mastery of opponents. Who better to break Sampras’ impressive Slam total and memories switch back to the “changing of the guard” at the fourth round of the Wimbledon Championships in 2001 when Federer overcame Sampras in five sets. Who knew what would happen next?

The sport has undergone a similar change. Former Eastern Block territories are beginning to taste success and stars from nations previously unheard of in tennis echelons are emerging left, right and centre.

America has noticed the changes in Davis Cup play. Having won more titles (32) than any other nation, they have only lifted the title once (2007) in fifteen years and made the final on only two other occasions (1997, 2004).

Top ranked player Roddick is No. 7 in the latest ATP World Rankings while John Isner (25) and Sam Querrey (31) also hold Top 50 rankings.

James Blake (55), Michael Russell (68), Mardy Fish (71), Taylor Dent (78), Rajeev Ram (82) and Robby Ginepri (100) make it nine players in the Top 100 – an enviable total.

But since Sampras’ retirement in 2003, they have only amassed a total of 35 ATP Tour titles between them and 19 of those were picked up by Roddick. However, the terrible injuries suffered by the likes of Dent and Blake cannot be ignored.

The end of year Championships have also proved quite fruitful. Blake was a losing finalist to Federer in Shanghai in 2006 while Roddick has regularly participated and performed well.

Querrey and Isner are relatively new kids on the block and the USA holds high hopes for the boys. Well-liked on and off the court, they have gained fans worldwide with their playing styles and beaming smiles. Isner reached the fourth round of the 2009 US Open and was seeded at the 2010 Australian Open following the late withdrawal of Gilles Simon. He eventually lost to finalist Andy Murray in round four and his performances were duly noted by the world’s press.

Querrey is another with a growing reputation and his string of finals in the summer of 2009 certainly showed his potential while many know him as much for his rowdy loyal support as for his skills with a racket.

This column is not an attack on American tennis but a debate starter about where the next great Champion could come from. Do Isner or Querrey have what it takes to play their way in to the long and proud history of this great nation?

As an overseas observer I have long been wowed by the long list of great American players and having spent the summer working for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, I have learnt a great deal about the proud history of the sport there.

After Sampras’ induction in 2007 and Roddick’s Grand Slam performances guaranteeing him entry (he also has time to win more let’s not forget) who of the current crop has what it takes to gain their place alongside their illustrious predecessors?

The future looks bright and the hope is America’s relative barren spell may be ended soon. With 2010 Davis Cup play on the horizon, and Querrey and Isner now leading the team, it could be a chance to shine on a truly global stage for the tallest combination to ever pair up in singles for the USA.