By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Not every sport needs a feel-good story, but they really help bring in fans that might otherwise not be so interested. Unfortunately for tennis, its feel-good story—especially the American ones—have fallen flat recently.
Mardy Fish lost 30 pounds and made fitness more a part of his life instead of just his tennis game a few years ago. He finally began to consistently compete in the deeper rounds of Masters and Slams. Then, just over a year ago, he discovered a heart condition and has barely competed since.
Brian Baker was everyone’s heartwarming story last year. He was a top junior player but missed almost seven years after a long string of injuries that necessitated five surgeries. He came back last year to reach the final in Nice (after coming through the qualifying) and was competitive at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He tore his meniscus in the second round of this year’s Australian Open and hasn’t competed since.
This is why Tommy Haas is such a breath of fresh air. Haas is not a traditional feel-good story. There is no massive life change. There is no adversity that has been overcome in extreme and immediate fashion. Haas is just pure grit, determination, and hard work.
Haas first debuted in the ATP rankings in October 1993, almost 20 years ago. After 10 years of play (the first few on the lower tours, like everyone does), Haas reached a career high of World No. 2 in May of 2002. There is no telling how high he could have gone had tragic circumstances, including his father being in a coma and a severe injury, taken him out of tennis for an extended period of time. During Haas’s leave, Roger Federer arose as the dominant player and Haas lost his next nine matches against the Swiss, until finally beating him in the Halle final last year.
Haas returned to the game in 2004, competing and winning titles before reaching the top 10 again in 2007. 2008, however, was marred by injuries and aside from a great run Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2009, Haas’s career was once again derailed.
This is the story of Tommy Haas’s career. He plays well, works his way into form, competes with just about anyone on tour, and then seems to be knocked off track by injuries at the worst time. If you look at a graph of his career ranking, it almost looks like a repeating curve. His ranking rises to the top of the game and then falls drastically when injury forces him to miss extended periods of time—twice missing more than 12 months and falling out of the rankings completely.
Now, at the age of 35, Haas is back once again. He beat Novak Djokovic in Miami en route to reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal since Paris back in 2006. He is on the verge of the top 10 and has no points to defend from now until Halle. He has all but guaranteed himself a top 16 seed in Roland Garros and will most likely be able to get a favorable draw both there and in Wimbledon. A few wins at Roland Garros could very easily put Haas back in the top 10 for the first time since 2007, which would be an incredible feat.
Haas is competing at a high level past an age where most players have retired. He hasn’t done it with flash or shocking one-time runs. He has been consistently getting better after each return from injury. His feel-good story is not one of fan-rallying epic proportions. It’s the story of a player who has been dealt poor cards in his career and has made the absolute best of them time and time again. It’s the story of a man who has been on the brink of the top of the game but never quite made it—and he has still never let that get him down. Let’s hope that his current stint on tour lasts until he can leave on his own terms this time.
by Maud Watson
Down and Out
You can add two more high profile names to the withdrawal list for the first major of the year. German Andrea Petkovic has been forced to withdrawal with a stress fracture in the back that will likely take a good six to eight weeks to heal properly. After the splash she made last year in Melbourne, this will be a blow to the start of her 2012 campaign. But Petkovic is an upbeat, positive competitor. It would be surprising if she didn’t come back in the spring fresh, hungry, and ready to break out a few new dance moves. The more troubling withdrawal has to be that of Venus Williams, who stated that she still felt unprepared to return to match play. With all due respect to Venus, this is just one more reason to argue against selecting her for Olympic duty. You can call it admirable that she’s striving to get in shape for that event, and it’s more than understandable for her to set that goal. But the last few years, her availability for events has become increasingly suspect as injuries have mounted, and she’s even more of a liability now. Couple that with her frequent lack of commitment to Fed Cup and even the WTA to an extent, and it just doesn’t seem right to select her over another female player who arguably has as likely of a chance to help bring home Olympic Doubles Gold and has put in the time at both the Fed Cup and WTA levels. The powers-at-be are unlikely to see it that way, but it certainly warrants discussion.
Caroline Wozniacki has grown used to the questions as to whether or not the next major will prove to be her breakthrough. But as the Dane heads into the first Slam of 2012, she’s also going to have to contend with injury speculations. In her quarterfinal loss to Aggie Radwanska in Sydney, it was evident she was suffering from a wrist injury. Thankfully, an MRI showed that inflammation is the culprit rather than something more serious. But the wrist is always a potentially serious injury in this sport, and Wozniacki will need to keep an eye on it going forward. If she hasn’t already done so, she may want to consider taking an extended break after the Australian Open. Besides, it’s almost inevitable that she’ll lose her No. 1 ranking to Kvitova, and her play in 2012 has thus far been underwhelming. Choosing to recoup and regroup could pay dividends come spring.
The first week of the ATP regular season came to a conclusion last weekend, and some familiar names did well to argue for the label of contender in Melbourne. Murray impressed fans and his new coach, Ivan Lendl, en route to the title in Brisbane. Tsonga also continued the fine form that he ended with in 2011, defeating compatriot Gael Monfils for the title in Doha. But perhaps in many ways the most impressive victory was that of young Canadian Milos Raonic, who held his nerve to edge out Janko Tipsarevic in a match composed of three tiebreak sets. For a guy who had his momentum severely interrupted by injury last year, he’s come back with a vengeance. He’s more of a long shot than either Murray or Tsonga, but be sure to keep this young gun on your radar in Melbourne.
Where the ATP’s first week didn’t produce too many surprises, the WTA continued its trend of unlikely winners, as Jie Zheng won in Auckland and Kaia Kanepi triumphed in Brisbane. No offense to either woman. Kanepi has a big game, and Zheng is a feisty competitor who’s no stranger to picking off the game’s top stars to post some impressive tournament runs. But neither is a household name, and neither is truly a strong candidate to be named a dark horse. Still, in the topsy-turvy world that is the WTA, a little confidence can go a long way. Don’t be surprised to see either one of these players make some noise at the Aussie Open.
He’s had a colorful past, so say what you want about the guy, but hats off to Alex Bogomolov Jr. who took the high road with minimal fuss and paid the USTA the $75,000 it was seeking for his decision to now represent Russia. Fans seemed split on the USTA’s demands, and with good reason. Bogomolov has given back to the USTA in a variety of ways, and it’s not as though he was ever going to be selected for American Davis Cup duty. Factor in that there are certain other players that have also received a heap of assistance from the USTA with little return for the investment, and the USTA’s demand did seem a little high. But Bogomolov’s decision to pay them the money now should ultimately prove the best thing for his future. He’s rid himself of this latest demon and ensured that there are no hard feelings on either side. Here’s to hoping he can continue to enjoy success in the second half of his tumultuous career.
by Maud Watson
One of the biggest stories going into the 2012 season was that Andy Murray has finally ended his search for a coach. In his decision to hire tennis great Ivan Lendl, Murray may have just found the missing piece to his success at the majors. Lendl has a personality that should jive well with Murray’s. He also is less likely to put up with the Scot’s on-court tirades, which will hopefully help Murray do a quicker job of righting the ship when things aren’t going well during a match. But perhaps most importantly, Lendl himself fell at the final hurdle of a major on multiple occasions before finally claiming that elusive first Slam title. That’s invaluable experience he can pass along to his new charge, which might assist Murray in becoming mentally tougher at the biggest moments. For sure, Murray is still facing an uphill battle given the quality of the top three players, but he’s shown he has the game to beat each of them. With hard work and a little luck, Lendl might make 2012 Murray’s year.
Not surprisingly, Serena Williams is making headlines straight out of the gates with her controversial comments. Before Brisbane even got underway, the younger Williams stated again, lest there be any doubters, that she saw no reason to feel bad about her behavior at the US Open. Was anyone really expecting an admission of guilt or an apology? Then a few days later, she says she doesn’t love tennis – in fact, never loved sports and is unsure how she became an athlete in the first place – hates working out, and is planning on scaling back her schedule. Many people excel at jobs that they don’t love, so on the one hand, it’s hard to fault Serena for that particular sentiment. On the other hand, she does have a high profile job that puts her in the unique position of a supposed role model, so it’s also understandable that many fans and pundits would find her comments both disappointing and frustrating. The comments also represent a complete 180 from the woman who was crying after her first-round win at Wimbledon, talking about how much it meant to be out there on the court. But the biggest eye roll has to go to the laughable statement about scaling back her schedule. Scale it back to what? In recent years (and many would argue even when she first came on the tour), she’s never bothered to put forth the effort to play a truly full schedule, even when healthy. It’s just one more example of how Serena views this as her world, and we’re all living in it. Sadly, whether you love her or hate her for it, it’s that very attitude that unfortunately more often than not makes her good for the game.
All for Naught?
Injuries are no joking matter, so I won’t go as far as some have to call it karma for her pre-Brisbane comments. But whatever you believe the cause, the fact is that Serena Williams sprained her ankle in her second round match in Brisbane, leaving her Aussie Open participation in doubt. Williams normally sports an ankle brace, which she admitted she absent-mindedly neglected to wear. She did, however, still manage to finish the match and has only said that she probably shouldn’t be playing on it, meaning there’s no way to know just how serious the injury really is. But majors are one of the few events that Serena bothers to get up for, and it’s doubtful she’ll want that long trip to the Land Down Under to go to waste. Expect her to actually put 100% effort into being ready to go in another week.
Injury Saga Continues
Another high profile player who announced he’s dealing with an injury is Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard says he’s still suffering from the shoulder issues that plagued him in London, and the heavier racquet he’s switched to probably isn’t helping the cause, at least in the short run. It’s a bit of a head scratcher that he wouldn’t modify his schedule to allow more recuperation time by skipping Abu Dhabi, or even getting his 2012 campaign started a week later by entering Auckland or Sydney, but he is a creature of habit. The good news for his fans is that even though he plans to take February off to rest the shoulder, he historically plays little tennis then anyway, so the post-Aussie hiatus shouldn’t negatively impact him. Additionally, he appears to be finding his groove in Doha. Don’t be surprised if he posts a deep run in Melbourne and expect him to be firing on all cylinders come March.
Business as Usual
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in an exhibition, even if it’s one of the exhibitions in which the players are more apt put forth a greater effort. But after pulling through a dicey match against Gael Monfils in his opening round, Novak Djokovic looked back to his winning form, absolutely demolishing Federer and Ferrer en route to the title in Abu Dhabi. Those wins should assist the Serb in burying some of the bad memories that came at the end of last season, as he prepares to back up his phenomenal 2011 and see where he stacks up against his two fiercest rivals in 2012.
The Mubadala World Tennis Championship (an exhibition) in Abu Dhabi last week and now regular events in Brisbane, Chennai and Doha, have provided an alphabetically-related quartet of venues whose results may or may not mean anything by the end of the year.
Players who struggle initially and suffer early round losses will attempt to quickly put those disappointments behind them, while winners will try to keep an even keel moving forward. Still, we should not be so quick to discount these early results when looking at the big picture.
The mental consequences of victory versus defeat in the early stages will certainly impact a players progress in the first few weeks on tour. Banking some points in January provides a confidence boost along with either a jump in ranking points or at the very least the ability not to drop in the standings.
Losing yesterday in Doha to Roger Federer means that Nikolay Davydenko can kiss about 150 ranking points goodbye that he had accumulated in the same tournament a year ago. His current ranking of 41st in the world is about to take a big hit and he can clearly forget about any hopes of being seeded at the Australian Open in two weeks.
A player like American Sam Querrey will also be distraught about his opening round loss to Victor Hanescu in Chennai in the opening round. After missing three months midway through 2011 to elbow surgery, Querrey was no-doubt optimistic about starting on the right foot this season. On the plus side for Querrey, he suffered three opening round losses in-a-row a year ago, and thus has no ranking points to defend. There’s only one way for Sam to go in the rankings in January and that is up. Still, he must now regroup and move on to the next tournament hoping his luck will change.
For the top-four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray, these first couple of week’s will be used to jostle for the available confidence and swagger required to conquer the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia. Putting the seed of doubt in an opponent’s head is of equal value to owning that self-confidence. We all know how Djokovic was able to get into Nadal’s head last season and reel-off six consecutive victories in ATP finals on three different surfaces. That kind of dominance goes a long way into determining the final outcome of a match between two foes and getting an edge early-on is what all of these guys are hoping for.
Djokovic has already sent that opening message to his opponents with a strong result in Abu Dhabi. After needing three sets to defeat Gael Monfils, he thrashed Federer 6-2, 6-1 and then beat David Ferrer in the finals by the exact same dominating score. Lookout everybody, because Novak came ready to play.
Federer will hope to shake-off the loss to Djokovic and then Nadal in Abu Dhabi and instead look back to his impressive 17-0 finish to the 2011 season where he won three consecutive tournaments. Still, his early defeats to Djokovic and Nadal can’t make him feel great.
With Federer and Nadal playing in Doha and Murray in Brisbane this week, we’ll see who is ready to join Djokovic as an early front-runner prior to the January 16th start date in Melbourne. Regardless of what players of any ranking say to the press, the importance of week one is something we cannot deny.