sportsman of the year

Novak Djokovic: My Sportsman of the Year

I was thrilled when James LaRosa of Tennis Channel informed his Twitter followers back in May that Novak Djokovic would appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Djokovic was in the midst of a remarkable 37-0 run and was on top of the tennis world.

What would the cover photo be? Perhaps it would be a beaming Djokovic, pointing to the skies after his emphatic victory over Andy Murray at the Australian Open. Or maybe a snapshot of his primal screams during one of his four wins over Rafael Nadal at Masters 1000 finals.

But it wasn’t to be. A tennis fan can only dream.

When LaRosa tweeted a picture of the cover I thought I had clicked on the wrong link. “This can’t be right,” I told myself, “I don’t see Djokovic anywhere!” It was only upon further inspection that I saw the tiny photo, accompanied with the tagline, “Novak Djokovic is the most dominant athlete in the world right now.”

Djokovic continued to dominate and finished the season as the No. 1 player in the world with an astounding 70-6 win-loss record. Djokovic performed his best when the stakes were the highest, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Tennis.com has recently named Djokovic’s 2011 season as the No. 3 best men’s tennis season ever.

While tennis is a niche sport in the United States and Sports Illustrated caters to an American audience, Djokovic deserved to win Sportsman of the Year.

In addition to his on-court talents, the charismatic Serb has reached rock star status in his home country and has become the face of the once war-torn nation.

Brad Gilbert, former coach of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, is not a man of few words. When Sports Illustrated named college basketball coaches Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as the Sportswoman and Sportsman of 2011, Gilbert took to Twitter to voice his displeasure. 

He also points out that the mighty Roger Federer, who has 16 Grand Slam titles, has never been named Sportsman of the Year either. In fact, no tennis player has won since Chris Evert did in 1976.

While foreign athletes with weird last names may be a hard sell to American sports fans, Djokovic’s historic season should have been honored. Maybe tennis is not ready for the spotlight. But when it is, I hope to see Novak Djokovic on the cover – front and center.

Rafael Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki Top Seed at Australian Open – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Answering the Call

As it has so often done in the past, the sport of tennis will once again be rallying to the call to aid victims of another natural disaster, this time the devastating floods in Queensland, Australia where the city of Brisbane has been particularly hard hit. Andy Roddick and Sam Stosur donated money for each ace they hit last week during the Brisbane event, and Stosur and Matthew Ebden will be continuing this trend through the Australian Open. The ATP and WTA have also pledged to follow their example. But the charity won’t stop there. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Kim Clijsters, Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Stosur plan to participate in another exhibition event similar to last year’s “Hit for Haiti.” It’s sad that with so many tragedies in recent years, organizing these events has practically become second nature, but it’s always something special to see these star athletes coming together for a common cause.

And the Nominees Are

It’s that time of year again, when the sports world looks to who will win one of the prestigious Laureus Awards, and once more, tennis is well represented. Up for Sportsman of the Year is Rafael Nadal. Finishing No. 1 in the world and winning three of the four majors last year (and completing the career Grand Slam in the process), the Spaniard has a glittering résumé but is up against some tough competition with Sebastian Vettel, Manny Pacquiao, Kobe Bryant Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi also in the running. On the women’s side, tennis is heavily represented, with Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniaki vying for the honor, while Lindsey Vonn, Jessica Ennis, and Blanka Vlasic round out the other half of the nominees. Stay tuned to find out who will take home top honors.

Top Men’s Seed

The seeds for the Australian Open are out, and no surprise that the powers-at-be at Tennis Australia have essentially stuck by the rankings, naming Rafael Nadal as the No. 1 seed in the men’s draw. There’s no issue with Nadal being named No. 1 given his performances over the course of the 2010 season, though between his recent bout of the flu and Federer’s phenomenal form in Doha (and nod to Davydenko’s performance is also in order), it’s hard to see him as an overwhelming favorite. Throw Soderling’s Brisbane title run and the strong starts of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick into the mix, and Nadal will have his work cut out for him to make it four straight majors.

Top Women’s Seed

As with the men’s field, Tennis Australia also stuck to the women’s No. 1 ranking and named Caroline Wozniaki as the top seed in the 2011 staging of the Aussie Open. As the most consistent performer on the WTA last year, no one should begrudge the Dane her top ranking, but being named the top seed is a bit questionable. Clijsters certainly had the better 2010, winning a major and getting the better of Wozniaki in the year-end championships. Their most recent performances in Sydney would also seem to suggest that Clijsters is quicker off the blocks. But the women’s tour is generally full of surprises, so perhaps Wozniaki will live up to her seed and win her maiden major, quieting the critics who question the legitimacy of her No. 1 ranking.

Laver Speaks

When Rod Laver speaks, people listen, and in an interview that came out earlier this week, the “Rocket” was quick to say that while Nadal winning the Australian Open would be an amazing achievement, it would not be a Grand Slam. With Laver being the last male to achieve the Grand Slam over 40 years ago (and Graf the last player to do so in 1988), fans and sports pundits are itching to see the feat repeated. But to even consider looking at Nadal’s achievement as a Grand Slam should he go on to take the title in Melbourne would be a disservice to the sport. However short the off season is, it is still an off season – a time to recuperate and allow any niggling injuries to heal. Playing straight through the season and fighting one’s way to the winner’s circle of every major in a calendar year is what makes the true Grand Slam so rare and so special. To his credit, Nadal has not suggested that should he go on to win the title, it be given the same recognition as a calendar-year Grand Slam. It would be the “Nadal Slam,” similar to the “Serena Slam,” that Serena Williams completed with her 2003 Australian Open win. So all power to Nadal if he’s able to achieve a phenomenal feat by simultaneously holding all four majors, but fans will have to wait a little longer to see something as special as that which was achieved by only Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Laver, Margaret Court, and Steffi Graf.

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.