Ryan Harrison's burning desire

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
2:58
PM ET
video Ryan Harrison may have spent most of his young career thus far knocked out flat on his back, but the 22-year-old who looks like Huck Finn on a weight-training program keeps gazing at the stars.

Wednesday in Acapulco, Harrison punched through with his first win (in 23 attempts) over a player ranked in the top 10. But the gregarious Louisiana native wasn’t thinking prudently or extolling the virtues of taking his career one step at a time.

“I want to be the best tennis player in the world,” Harrison told the press after eliminating No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the second round at Acapulco. If this were anyone other than Harrison, that might sound presumptuous -- or at least deserving of the reply, “Keep dreaming, bub.”
[+] EnlargeRyan Harrison
Francisco Estrada/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesBy beating Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison is showing that he can win at a big-time level.

But this is Ryan “All-In” Harrison. This is the guy who’s so sincere in his desire to be a great player and so intense in his pursuit of success that you may want to grab him, give him a shake and tell him there’s more to life than being a great tennis player. But if you did that he’d probably just look at you as if it was you, not he, who’s got a screw loose.

“It’s one of those things where you care about what you’re doing,” Harrison went on, trying to put his motivation into proper context. “You love what you’re doing, and you want to be the best.”

If anything, that burning desire in Harrison might have been something of an impediment once he hit a wall in his career. The more you want something, the more you may be apt to tie yourself up in knots if you fail to earn it, or if getting it seems to demand more than you can or want to give.

Harrison approached the elite ATP level highly regarded and beaver eager. He was articulate, expressive and seemingly mature beyond his years -- to the point where his U.S. Davis Cup teammates couldn’t quite decide if he were the smartest, or most annoying, teenager any of them had ever met. Harrison earned his first ATP ranking points at age 15 in 2007. In 2010, he became the first American teenager since Andy Roddick to beat a top-20 player.

In 2011, Harrison was the second youngest player in the top 100 (behind No. 42 Bernard Tomic). Harrison reached his career-high ranking of No. 43 in July of 2012, but the wheels began to fall off shortly thereafter. From mid-July on, he won just two singles matches the rest of the year.

Harrison has often played well but lacked the mental strength and/or composure to win, struggling to keep his mind on the task at hand. This year alone, Harrison has pushed three of his four losses (in five events thus far) to three sets. His Grand Slam efforts have produced a fair share of clunkers, as well as an unforgettable loss in the second round of the 2010 US Open (for which Harrison had to qualify). He lost a wildly entertaining five-setter on the Grandstand court -- 7-6 (6) in the fifth -- to No. 36 Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Harrison said in the interim he lost his way, that he listened to too many voices and often worried overly about what others were thinking. “You can’t worry about what everyone is going to say or think,” he said. “You just have to get yourself organized. Hopefully everyone can see how hard I’m working and how much I want to get to the top.”

To that end, Harrison recently re-hired a former coach, Grant Doyle. He’s also been aided considerably by his neighbor in Austin, Texas, Andy Roddick. “When I’m home, Andy hits with me, pretty much every day,” Harrison said. “He advises me. He keeps me organized. And he’s doing it for no money. Nothing.”

Unlike his protégé, Roddick always knew what he had to do to win and he avoided trying to do things that were beyond his reach. Some of his match management skills may have rubbed off on Harrison. When he fell behind love-30 in the first game of the final set against Dimitrov, Harrison recognized the “pivotal” moment. He had surrendered an early break that enabled Dimitrov to win the second set. Harrison knew that another early break would be equally disastrous. He rallied his resources, held, and never lost another game.

This win was especially poignant because Harrison was up against another heavily publicized former prodigy. The 23-year-old Bulgarian has achieved considerably more spotlight than has Harrison, but this is a year in which Dimitrov needs to consolidate his position after starting 2014 ranked outside the top 20. After the match, the defending champ in Acapulco gritted his teeth and admitted, “It was a bad loss for me.”

Both these young men might do well to study the approach of the tournament’s top seed, Kei Nishikori. At 25, Nishikori may seem like the elder statesman among the ATP’s promising youngsters. Already ranked No. 5, Nishikori is within striking distance of both No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 Rafael Nadal. More important, Nishikori, the 2014 US Open finalist, has fully backed up that somewhat unexpected result.

Nishikori is 22-4 since Flushing Meadows, and he’s embraced and mastered the pressure that comes along with status as a top seed. Just two weeks ago in Memphis, Harrison qualified for the main draw, won a match and pushed eventual champ Nishikori to the limit in a three-set loss.

That was the kind of match Harrison will have to win more often if he hopes to realize his ambitions. It’s one thing to keep looking at the stars and quite another to reach them.

video
The old adage warning us that while the cat’s away the mice will play is never more relevant in pro tennis than in February. Most of the top players have fallen silent after dominating the headlines at the Australian Open, but tournaments are still there to be won, and there’s money to be made, plus rankings points to collect.

If Grand Slam tennis is a lavish feast, the events in February and early March constitute a tapas bar. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff to digest, some of it relevant to the big combined events to come along shortly, some of it not. February is, contrary to the common perception, a colorful month. It’s a little wacky, but awfully satisfying if you can appreciate the talents of, say, Daniela Hantuchova (she won at Pattaya) or Ivo Karlovic (the king of Delray) or even Kim Clijsters.

Say what?

Yes, “Aussie Kim” was with us once again, albeit as a last-minute substitute at Antwerp, where Carla Suarez Navarro was unable to play the final a few weeks ago because of a neck injury.
[+] EnlargeKim Clijsters
Dirk Waem/AFP/Getty ImagesKim Clijsters might be retired, but she proved she still has plenty of game.

Clijsters, a much-loved former No. 1, laced them up once again to play an exhibition against the healthy finalist, Andrea Petkovic. It was not a difficult decision: Clijsters is the tournament director of Antwerp, and her first reaction to the news that Suarez Navarro was unable to play was a panic attack. “Before I knew it, I was playing,” she told reporters later.

Clijsters, now 31, won the showcase 5-3. Making light of the result, Petkovic quipped during the trophy presentation ceremony, "I hope you don't take any offense, Kim, but I'm glad you are done playing on tour.”

For the local Clijsters crowd, it went over big, but you have to wonder if a fan who paid full freight for the finals ticket felt satisfied.

That was perhaps the most unusual February moment, but some others also tested our credulity -- chief among them Rafael Nadal’s loss to Fabio Fognini. It was Nadal’s first loss in a clay-court semifinal in 53 matches spanning 12 years, although David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Novak Djokovic might not be all that impressed. All of them have logged clay-court wins over Nadal in the past year. They just didn’t accomplish it in the semis.

Poor Rafa might have known better than to test the waters in February, for the month really does belong to the have-nots -- or have-somes. Ferrer may be the ultimate “have-some,” and true to form, he popped up to end any designs Fognini had on the Rio title after his rousing upset of Nadal. At roughly the same time, west of Rio, 29-year-old Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay was in the process of winning just the third title of his career, at Sao Paolo.

And how about Gilles Simon? The speedy, 30-year-old Frenchman tripped up No. 4 Andy Murray at Rotterdam and followed up his semifinal appearance there with a win over Gael Monfils in Marseilles. That one was a corker, decided in a third-set tiebreaker. February might not be a month that evokes reflections on bitter rivalries, or even intense and desperate set-tos. Yet the French players have remarkable enthusiasm for the indoor events played on home soil in either February or the fall.

Richard Gasquet won his second title at Montpellier this February. Simon has won four of his 12 career titles at Marseilles (two) and another French town, Metz (two). Monfils has two titles at Montpellier and one at Metz.

What happens to these fellas when the French Open comes around is a subject best left for another occasion.

Two Grand Slam contenders did impose a modicum of order on the ATP events. In the most significant February ATP event (until this week in Dubai), ATP No. 7 Stan Wawrinka frustrated No. 8 Tomas Berdych in the Rotterdam final. And Kei Nishikori did a fine job upholding his top seeding in Memphis. All three of these men are legitimate Grand Slam contenders who, unlike the Federers and Djokovics of this world, can’t afford the luxury of taking off the month of February. All of them did due diligence in the past few weeks.

On the WTA side of the fence at Rio, Sara Errani also justified her top seeding. Simona Halep, who’s grown proficient at cleaning up at smaller events, bagged the most prestigious title on offer with a succession of quality wins in Dubai over Ekaterina Makarova, Caroline Wozniacki and, in the final, Karolina Pliskova.

Perhaps fittingly, three of the winners so far in February also won titles a year ago at this time: Halep, Ferrer and Nishikori. Halep is No. 3 in the WTA world rankings, Nishikori is No. 5, and Ferrer is hanging in at No. 9 -- but he’s a Grand Slam finalist who has been ranked as high as No. 3.

Even among mice, quality will tell.

Can’t keep this Donald Young down

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
10:46
AM ET
It wasn’t so long ago that 25-year-old Donald Young appeared to be the prodigy who never would arrive. Now he’s becoming something like the guy who won’t go away.

Young made the final of the Delray Beach ATP 250 on Sunday, earning another opportunity to bag the first title of his career in over 10 years as a pro. He was denied in pre-emptive fashion by Ivo Karlovic, a 6-foot-11, 35-year-old Croatian who set a Delray Beach tournament record by firing a grand total of 91 aces last week.

Somehow, the loss seemed emblematic of Young and the travails he’s known. He gets to a final showing wonderful skills and versatility -- and he meets a guy who won’t let him get the ball in play. But Young is like one of those inflatable punching “bop” bags. Knock it down, it pops back up. In Young’s case, the rebound may take a little longer, that’s all.
[+] EnlargeDonald Young
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDonald Young has had plenty of peaks and valleys, but we're finally seeing a player who will do whatever it takes to win.

A decade ago, Young was the world’s No. 1 junior player. (If that doesn’t seem to compute chronologically, the problem isn’t my math; you can blame it on Young’s extraordinary talent, for he was all of 15 at the time.) He was the youngest man to win a Grand Slam junior singles title (Australian Open, 2005), and at the end of that year he became the youngest-ever year-end No. 1 junior, at 16 years, 4 months.

Young also won the Wimbledon boys’ singles title in 2007, at 17. By then, he’d been a professional for nearly three years, leading a strange double life. By day, he was just another struggling young pro trying -- with no great success -- to crack the ATP code in Futures and Challenger events. By night, so to speak, he was the junior champion of the world, ready to take on all comers.

Has any player more convincingly demonstrated that no talent is large enough to guarantee a successful transition from junior to professional tennis?

In 2007, the native of Chicago finally appeared to hit his stride. At 18, the slightly built 6-foot left-hander shaved nearly 400 points off his year-end ranking, finishing for the first time inside the elite top 100 (at No. 98).

But by the end of the following year, he’d slipped 42 notches, and 2009 was even worse; Young nearly fell out of the top 200 (No. 194). Just when many wrote off his long-term prospects, Young regained nearly 70 places in 2010 -- and so on. The curve of his career has been less arc than roller coaster.

There has always been plenty of room for debate on the “What’s wrong with Donald Young?” front, particularly after his stunning rise to No. 39 by the end of 2011 and the crash that followed (12 months later he was back down to No. 190).

True, Young never did develop serious firepower. He’s well on the small side in today’s game and clearly more “tennis player” than buff, all-around athlete. He has marvelous touch, but his finesse and slice-and-dice mentality leave him vulnerable to first-strike attackers.

Some argue that Young turned pro too early and all the one-sided beatings inflicted on him did permanent damage to his confidence. Still others have criticized the continued, dominant role his parents/coaches, Don Sr. and Illona, have played in his life. They have been alternately accused of sheltering, pampering and controlling their son. The Young family’s conflicts with the USTA player development program also are well-documented.

Mostly, though, it seems Donald marches to the tune of a different drummer. That suspicion was planted early.

As a 14-year-old playing in one of his first big junior finals (the U.S. Clay Court 14-and-under Nationals), Young rebounded from the loss of a set to Jesse Levine to win the second set and lead 5-0, 40-15 in the third -- whereupon Levine ran off 23 consecutive points to win the match. That’s the most dramatic, if by no means singular, example of Young’s tendency to lose his focus and mentally check out of a match. In fact, he appears to check out of matches for months running, and that may help explain those peaks-and-valleys on his résumé.

Young’s first shot at an ATP main-tour title came in 2011 at Bangkok, where he was crushed 6-2, 6-0 by No. 4 Andy Murray. On Sunday, ace-maker Karlovic smacked 13 clean ones against Young in a 6-3, 6-3 victory, fending off all seven break points the younger man earned. Young was philosophical in defeat:

"[Karlovic] kind of tosses [the serve] in the same spot, and he can hit all the spots on the court," he said. "You look and see some tendencies. I was able to pick quite a few, but just not when it actually mattered. He played well. He beat me. I didn’t play the best I wanted to play, but all credit to him."

Donald Young was knocked down again Sunday, but lately he’s been bouncing back nicely. He’s off to a good start in 2015 (10-4, with a final and a semi in his last two outings). He’s back up there in the rankings, at No. 45. It sometimes seems as if that first ATP title is just an agonizing inch away -- in a sport where an inch might as well be a mile.

The Andy Murray problem

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
6:00
AM ET
I posted a tweet about midway through the Australian Open men’s singles final accusing Andy Murray of being “unprofessional.” It was ironic, I later realized, because Murray has a reputation as one of the most diligent and dedicated of ATP pros. But my comment was a gut reaction to the way Murray was behaving during the match.

If you’ve ever been a spectator at a sanctioned junior tournament or even a high-level rec event, you’ve seen similar behavior. The screaming. The self-flagellation. The monologues, quad thumping and acid comments directed at everyone and no one in particular. Can you say “freak-out”?

But here Murray was, playing not in the town championships of Mudville but in the Australian Open final. And we thought Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had made such histrionics seem, well, silly. Childish. Unprofessional.
[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
AP Images/Peter DejongHow much does Andy Murray get in his own way from achieving more success?

Maybe I would see this differently if Murray had drawn energy and courage from his outbursts and gone on to win that final instead of losing 12 of the final 13 games -- a meltdown that happened to coincide with his most flagrant loss of self-control. Maybe I would see this differently if Murray had gone into the news conference after Djokovic knocked him out and admitted he lost control, instead of accusing Djokovic of sandbagging.

Maybe I would see this differently if I could just pass off Murray’s actions as a testament to the glorious individualism of the game -- or even as a doomed, romantic blow struck for what Jimmy Connors might describe as old-fashioned “showmanship.” The stuff that, according to Connors, gets folks juiced about tennis.

But I can’t see this differently.

I do believe that in some ways Murray’s conduct reflects an otherwise admirable determination to remain true to himself. Say what you want about Scots, but they are rarely accused of being “phony” or overly eager to please. And it’s also true that Murray’s game, lethal as it can be, has a do-it-yourself quality. That he’s a multiple Grand Slam champion with a DIY game (a quality evident in both his stroke production and his overall approach to strategy and tactics) is a tribute to his unique talent and desire. Give him some breathing room, let Andy Murray be Andy Murray.

But as seductive as some of these rationalizations and their implications are, the bottom line is that Murray made a hash of his most recent Grand Slam opportunity. An awful, embarrassing mess.

Going into the final, pundits of all stripes were touting his (once again) newly aggressive game. He logged a masterful win over Tomas Berdych in a semifinal that had all the overtones of grudge match. (Imagine, Berdych had the nerve to hire Danny Vallverdu, the coach whom Murray had fired!) Murray also was being hailed as an enlightened kind of guy for having a female coach -- as if he had hired former Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo in that capacity because of his social conscience.

Hardly 48 hours later, all that was left for his boosters to cling to was his loyalty to Mauresmo -- a fealty that will be rigorously tested if Murray, who’s back up to No. 4 in the rankings, can’t make greater inroads against an aging Federer, an increasingly banged-up Nadal or the player who is his natural-born rival, Djokovic. The win in Melbourne put Djokovic ahead 16-8 and 5-2 in their meetings at majors.

Djokovic was born just a week after Murray, and the two have been compadres since their days as junior rivals -- details that made Murray’s suggestion that Djokovic engaged in gamesmanship in their recent meeting particularly biting. That Djokovic chose to take the high road instead of firing back at Murray made the loser’s grapes seem particularly sour.

Murray played in Rotterdam this week but lost to Gilles Simon in straight sets Friday. Before he was ousted, Murray tried to walk back his comments about Djokovic. "Everything has been made out to be much bigger than what it was," Murray told reporters. Implying that the controversy was blown out of proportion, he added, "That happens all the time these days."

Well, the official transcripts are there for all to see. And at the end of the day, Murray’s comments did serve to take attention away from his lack of self-control during the final. John P. McEnroe’s reputation as the only elite player who managed to play better after going ballistic remains safe for now.

The cold truth is that Murray screwed up in a big way. He had a great draw, facing just two top-10 players en route to the final, mentally fragile Berdych (No. 7) and wet-behind-the-ears No. 10 Grigor Dimitrov. (They have exactly one Grand Slam final appearance between them.)

Granted, Djokovic in Melbourne is about as tough an assignment as you can imagine (Nadal in Paris being the only exception), so I can feel for Murray. But I don’t believe Murray is especially interested in earning my sympathy; he’s interested in earning more Grand Slam titles.

Judging by the way Murray handled the Australian Open final, his own emotions may present a formidable obstacle to his realization of that goal.
video
Victor Estrella Burgos of the Dominican Republic was 33 years old when he cracked the ATP top 100 last year. In August he turned 34; his birthday present -- entirely earned -- was the honor of becoming the oldest player ever to make his debut in the US Open main draw. And just last week in Ecuador, Estrella Burgos became the oldest first-time tournament winner in ATP’s Open era.

At the rate he’s going, there’s an outside chance that Estrella Burgos will end up hoisting the Wimbledon singles champion’s trophy in the same year he celebrates his 50th birthday, 2030.

The success of older players on the pro tours has become a regular theme the past few years -- news flash: Francesca Schiavone, 34, qualified for Antwerp just this week -- but does anyone else think this is getting a little ridiculous? The ATP and WTA aren’t just going gray, they’re going snow white.
[+] EnlargeVictor Estrella Burgos
ATP World TourVictor Estrella Burgos became the oldest first-time winner on the ATP Tour this past weekend.

Everywhere you look, there are inspirational stories suggesting that Ponce de Leon might have spent all that time looking for something that not only exists but also has found its way into the water supply of the Floridian cities of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida (headquarters of the ATP) and St. Petersburg (home of the WTA). After all, it was right in that neck of the woods that Ponce de Leon poked around seeking the Fountain of Youth.

Now that 30 is the new 20, players such as Kimiko Date-Krumm, Roger Federer, Tommy Robredo, Schiavone, Venus Williams, Tommy Haas, Serena Williams, Flavia Pennetta (a stripling of 32) and others are having the times of their lives. In another noteworthy ATP final on Sunday, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez took the Zagreb title with a win over Andreas Seppi -- both men are over 30 and playing perhaps the best tennis of their lives.

But none of these stories, perhaps not even that of 44-year-old Date-Krumm, is as compelling as that of Estrella Burgos. Estrella Burgos developed his game in a vacuum, in a nation that has never been delineated on the world tennis map. Blessed with a surfeit of energy that is still striking, Estrella Burgos discovered the game at the urging of his parents. But they didn’t exactly say, “Here’s a racket, go be the next Rod Laver.” It was more like, “Get out of the house. You’re driving us crazy!”

Estrella Burgos turned pro in 2002, but he soon hit a wall and left the tour to focus on coaching. A right-hander, he rolled the dice again in 2006 and slowly worked his way up through Futures and Challenger events until he tore cartilage in his serving elbow. The injury sidelined him for six months, during which he pondered quitting on his dream. After all, he’d won a grand total of three ATP matches between 2008 and 2013.

But Estrella Burgos persevered and made a resonant breakthrough last July at the Bogota ATP 250. He upended ATP No. 14 Richard Gasquet before losing in the semis to Bernard Tomic.

In action, Estrella Burgos is all bounce and ebullience. He’s like one of those inflatable clown punching bags that keep popping back up every time you land a shot. The harder you hit, the faster he pops back up.

His legs seem disproportionately short, but unlike other players, they’re not overly thick. They’re almost wiry, implying that a lot of his power comes from somewhere between his broad shoulders and pinched waist. Estrella Burgos stands only 5-foot-8, but a stick of dynamite stood on end isn’t all that tall, either.

By the time Estrella Burgos made his US Open debut, the friendly and energetic Dominican was fast approaching folk-hero status among tennis aficionados. He lost a hard-fought straight sets match to No. 6 seed Milos Raonic (each set ended in a tiebreaker) in the third round, but the winner expressed his admiration for Estrella Burgos when they shook hands at the net and later told the media:

“I saw [Estrella Burgos] when I was playing through the Challenger circuit. You'd see him playing qualies or getting in as one of the last guys in the main draw. … Now, to see him getting into Grand Slams, directly into quite a few tournaments as well, it's nice to see.”

After Estrella Burgos' win at Quito on Sunday, he said, “I dreamed about not retiring without winning an ATP title. It is very important to every player; for me it is very meaningful. It means a lot to me to be in the book of tennis records. … I’m making history for my country, for me, and for tennis worldwide. I think that age is just a number for me.”

That’s the new rallying cry on the pro tour, so who knows? If Estrella Burgos makes that 2030 Wimbledon final, perhaps he’ll get to cross off another item on his bucket list. Maybe he’ll get to play the final against another age-defying player who’s actually a year younger than Estrella-Burgos, Federer.

It would be fitting. “All my life I’ve admired, and still admire, Roger Federer,” Estrella Burgos said. “For me, he’s the best of the best, and I hope to play against him one day.”

Jared Donaldson was a fourth-grader when he began playing the stock market. He made money right away. By the time the gifted tennis player was a high school freshman, he was dabbling in things like options and commodities -- and in way over his head.

“I eventually realized I was kind of an amateur competing against people who trade stocks for a living. That was unrealistic, so I got out,” Donaldson told ESPN.com the other day, shortly after the 18-year-old Rhode Island native won the Maui Challenger. “I didn’t really get into it because I was that greedy. It was because of my desire to always do things bigger and better. That’s just how I am. Kind of compulsive.”

That compulsive streak has helped make Donaldson the latest American to add his name to the pack of under-21 players who hope to emerge as the long-awaited successor to America’s last male Grand Slam singles champion, Andy Roddick. The player who gets there will be poised for instant honor and stardom -- as well a Powerball-grade payout.

Donaldson’s stock has risen so swiftly that he’s been awarded a wild card into the Memphis ATP 250 this week, where Kei Nishikori is the top seed and hoping to win his third successive title. In an ironic twist, Donaldson’s first-round opponent will be another American teenager toting a wild card, 2014 junior Wimbledon and Australian Open runner-up Stefan Kozlov.

Tennis. It’s a puppy-eat-puppy world.

Donaldson is ranked No. 178 by the ATP. Kozlov, who turned 17 just days ago, is No. 412. The winner could play fellow American Sam Querrey in the second round, followed by a meeting with the highest-ranked U.S. player, No. 3 seed John Isner. Give Donaldson and Kozlov a tour guide and audio units in Memphis and they can enjoy a narrated tour of the American tennis landscape (fellow countrymen Steve Johnson and Donald Young are in the opposite half of the draw).

At Maui, Donaldson became the second-youngest American teenager since 2006 to win a Challenger title. He was 18 years and 3 months. (Donald Young won at Aptos in 2007, a month before turning 18.)

Young is currently No. 64, but he’s been battered in today’s brutal game by bigger players who hit harder. Donaldson seems to have more raw material to work with. At 6-foot-2, he’s 2 inches taller than Young, and his serve is becoming a weapon. Taylor Dent, Donaldson’s co-coach (along with Alejandro Kon) told me, “Jared is lanky, and when you look at him on the court you still see more boy than man. But that will change.”

Growing up in Rhode Island, Donaldson frequently trained indoors. But by the age of 14 his developmental coach, Mario Llano, recognized that the youngster’s easy power and the fast courts conspired to create a false sense of security. “In the pros, guys would be fast enough to track down my flat, hard shots,” Donaldson said. “We knew that. I needed a change.”

Thus, Donaldson went to Argentina for 2½ years to develop greater consistency and movement on red clay. Eschewing the conventional path, Donaldson also remained at arm’s length from the USTA development program. Donaldson didn’t play much junior tennis, so it was surprising to many when he made the finals of the USTA Boys 18 National Championship -- as a 16-year-old wild card.

In July 2014, Donaldson qualified for the Washington ATP 500. (He lost a hard-fought first-round match to veteran Rajeev Ram.) Donaldson also earned a US Open wild card last year, but Gael Monfils proved too hard for him to handle in the first round.

An unreliable serve was one of the contributing factors in that loss to Monfils, so shortly afterward, Donaldson went to visit Dent -- an exceptional server back in his salad years. The two clicked, and Donaldson’s training base now is Dent’s tennis academy in Orange County, California. Dent believes all Donaldson needs is to develop greater confidence in his serve; it’s already accurate enough to guarantee him a good number of aces per match.

Dent compares Donaldson’s two-handed backhand with Andy Murray’s shot, but the player Donaldson -- along with a million other ATP acolytes -- most wants to emulate is top-ranked Novak Djokovic. The Australian Open champion is the gold standard for juniors everywhere. Not every talented junior has a basic skill set comparable to the one Djokovic refined and applied. But Dent believes there is grounds for some comparison in Donaldson’s case.

More important, perhaps, is Donaldson’s apparent willingness to attack every area of his game that shows some weakness. “Jared has a very balanced game, and that’s how modern tennis is going," Dent said. "It’s just too tough to cover up a weakness anymore. And that’s where I’m most excited, emotionally. He has a willingness to work hard, to attack whatever he feels needs to be addressed. I come across a lot of talented kids who can’t muster the energy or desire to do that.”

Jack Sock (No. 51) postponed his planned return to tour play this week (he had hip surgery in the offseason), but the Memphis qualifying draw is loaded with another dozen U.S. players. It’s the start of the early U.S. hard-court swing, and the wild cards will be flying as fast as Powerball lottery tickets as the tour travels from Memphis, Tennessee, to Delray Beach, Florida, to Acapulco, Mexico, to Indian Wells, California, to Miami.

As Jared Donaldson learned, winning the lottery is an even more remote possibility than striking it rich in the stock market. But the next Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi is somewhere out there, and any candidate for the honor has to start with, “Why not me?”
videoSo it turns out that the ability to scorch the court with an atomic first serve may not be Serena Williams’ greatest talent after all. It’s beginning to look as if her ability to handle, learn from and make the best use of her success may be even more impressive than a smoker down the T.

The latest piece of evidence for this is Williams’ announcement (made in a column on Time.com) that she will play at Indian Wells this year after boycotting the event for 14 years.

The fact that she chose to write about her decision, instead of merely reacting to the inevitable questions from the media, in carefully chosen words is telling. Also striking are the words she chose, including this passage in particular:

“There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time. I’m just following my heart on this one.”

Following her heart appears to have led Williams to a very good place. One with a great view.

The controversy leading to the boycott by both Serena and her older sister Venus revolved around the 2001 Indian Wells semifinals and final. The short version is that Venus pulled out of her scheduled semifinal against Serena (the reason: tendinitis) just 20 minutes before start time. The crowd felt cheated and reacted with jeers and boos.

In some quarters, the withdrawal enhanced the appeal of a theory -- supported with a greater measure of suspicion than evidence by some players -- that Richard Williams was a puppeteer, dictating which of his daughters would win specific matches. Thus, things got even more horrid when Richard and Venus showed up to watch Serena in the final. Richard later said that he and Venus were subject to ugly, terrible, racist taunts. We know for certain that Serena was continuously booed and heckled. In her column, she writes that she spent hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after she won the tournament.

It’s imperative in this saga to remember that Serena was 19 years old at the time. And while the Williams sisters certainly faced formidable obstacles to success in tennis, they also were embraced and hailed by legions of tennis insiders and fans. The success of the sisters allowed people to feel good about themselves and to point to the strides the game has taken in becoming more accessible to African-Americans and other minorities. The reality is that many people of all races had stepped forward to help the Williamses make their great leap from Compton to West Palm Beach, often out of the goodness of their hearts.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAs Serena Williams has grown, she's become more confident both on and off the court.
Serena reacted to the events in Indian Wells as if the sky had fallen in, because to her 19-year-old mind and heart it really had. The fantasy of a seamless transition from aspiration to maximal success was shattered. At the same time, the Williamses knew full well that, because of the sisters’ burgeoning careers, the Indian Wells tournament needed them a lot more than they needed the tournament. They chose to punish the tournament and stayed away for 14 years.

In the interim, Serena eclipsed even Venus as a star. For a while, it appeared she might vanish into the black hole of her celebrity. Just as Serena was on the cusp of becoming a figure of historic importance in tennis, in a way that had nothing to do with the color of her skin, she seemed prepared to throw it all away. It seemed she was more interested in becoming a third-rate actress with a big name rather than the greatest female tennis player who ever lived. Over time, though, she chose the latter.

Once she embraced her identity, a new, more thoughtful and secure Serena began to emerge. She earned a platform from which she could say whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, with the guarantee that she would not only be heard but also that many would take her words for gospel truth. That’s a lot of power. She began telling people what she really thinks, rather than what she thought they wanted to hear or what she thought might make her look good.

Serena continued to thank her god, Jehovah, after she won tennis titles. She was pilloried in some quarters as a “victim blamer” for the stand she took in a highly visible rape case -- her position being to wonder where the unfortunate girl’s parents had been in her life. She tweeted her disappointment in the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case but later said she had no firm opinion on the outcome because she wasn’t given all the facts the grand jury examined.

Whether you agree or disagree, give Serena this: She is an independent, and in some ways unpredictable, thinker.

And that is what led to this change of heart regarding Indian Wells. A cynic might scoff at her decision and characterize it as a public relations gambit or spiking the football; after all, she will be returning in triumph. But does anyone really believe that a woman who has been reducing her schedule to accommodate her age (33) and physical state would add the 10-day “fifth Grand Slam” to her calendar out of spite? Or that the 19-time Grand Slam singles champ would do it for rankings points?

Serena is making a statement, but it isn't aggressive, vindictive or self-regarding.

She doesn’t need anyone’s approval. She doesn’t need anyone’s money. (Ten minutes on the Home Shopping Network and, bingo, she can make more than most folks do in a year.) She certainly doesn’t need anyone’s advice on how to interpret race relations in America. Free to think and say whatever she wants, Serena writes:

“I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”

At the end of her column, Serena points out that 2001 in Indian Wells was a “pivotal moment” in her story and notes that she is part of the tournament’s story as well. She concludes, “Together we have a chance to write a different ending.”

I’m pretty sure I know at least one component of that ending: Serena Williams beats the tar out of whomever she meets the final 6-3, 6-1.
videoAll good things come to an end, including the Happy Slam, also known as the Australian Open. Now it’s time to clean up after the party and focus on the major takeaways that are likely to have an impact on events still to come in this brand new year.

So let’s look at five things we can take from this first major tournament of the year:

Faster hard courts equal better tennis: Most players agreed that the courts in Melbourne Park were significantly faster this year than in the past. Depending on who you talked to, this was either a bad thing (Rafael Nadal) or a good thing (Novak Djokovic). Among the disgruntled, Pablo Carreno sniffed after his first-round loss to Gilles Muller: “I didn’t play tennis, because I couldn’t. The court was very quick and the ball really slid through on the surface. Those points that weren’t aces by him, I could hardly play in.”

Notwithstanding, the tournament produced highly competitive, excellent matches (e.g., Tomas Berdych vs. Andy Murray and Serena Williams vs. Madison Keys). And it did not feature an inordinate number of upsets that could be attributed to the advantage fast courts offer to big hitters and, particularly, big servers. Besides, there were plenty of matches, including the men's final, in which the tone was dictated by baseline play.

It seems that the players now are so well-schooled in the return game, so disciplined in their stroke production, and so fit that no court is so quick that it results in the kind of slam-bang, hit-or-miss tennis that traditionally has been associated with the combination of big servers and fast courts.

[+] EnlargeMadison Keys
AP Photo/Lee Jin-manMadison Keys is clearly behind Serena Williams, but still at the forefront of the rising group of American women.
American women are on the move: Let’s look beyond the great accomplishment of Serena Williams (the singles winner, now a 19-time Grand Slam champion). This tournament also may have been a breakthrough event for the 19-year-old Keys, who reached the semifinals before losing to Serena and moved up 35 places to No. 20 in the rankings.

An even dozen women from the U.S. survived the first round, and seven of them made the third round. By contrast, four American men (No. 19 seed John Isner, Tim Smyczek, Donald Young and Steve Johnson) won their first-round matches, but only Isner made the third round (where he took a disappointing loss to Austria’s Andreas Haider-Maurer).

The “changing of the guard” in the ATP never seemed more distant: Andy Murray and Nadal were not at full strength last year, which helps explain how Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori came to play in the U.S. Open final. But Murray is back now. He just may be playing the best tennis of his career, which was good enough to beat anyone, it appeared, but Djokovic.

True, Roger Federer and Nadal faltered, losing in the third round and quarterfinals, respectively. But there’s no indication that their failures will become chronic. The French Open is the next major; do you want to bet the house that Nadal will lose there? Or that Federer has lost his touch? The Big Four has dominated because even if one or two of them falter, a Nishikori or Milos Raonic still has too much to handle against them. Maybe in 2016, fellas.

The WTA will be extremely competitive in 2015: Maria Sharapova, seeded No. 2 in Melbourne, played some of the best tennis of her life in the second set of her loss to Williams in the women's final. But the top-seeded Williams managed to keep her at bay, thanks mostly to that exceptional serve.

Serena has said that she will pick and choose her tournaments even more carefully this year (she is, after all, 33 years old and earned a bushel of rankings points by winning Down Under). Sharapova is a very clear -- if distant -- No. 2, but she plays so aggressively and is so reliant on timing that some days the wheels come off. For there on down, you can pretty much throw out the form chart.

With former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka on the comeback trail, Caroline Wozniacki’s appetite for the game replenished, Keys coming on strong and Simona Halep on the rise, the potential contenders are stacked like cordwood below No. 2. When Eugenie Bouchard is ranked No. 7 and Agnieszka Radwanska is No. 8, you know you have a formidable top 10, and only Serena there to impose order.

The Australian Open just may be the best Grand Slam of them all: The Aussie comes at an awkward time of year for many fans outside the island continent. The 16-hour time difference makes it difficult to watch in much of the U.S. and Europe. The event went through a terrible period and lost a great deal of prestige until Tennis Australia hit the reset button and moved the tournament to Melbourne Park in 1988.

Since then, though, the tournament has become the pacesetter among Grand Slams. It took a lot to shame the US Open into changing its mind about the need for a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, but our “Astrayan” friends did it when they announced that they were adding a third stadium (Margaret Court Arena) with a convertible roof.

How often do you hear heartfelt, voluntary testimonials to a tournament director (Craig Tiley) coming from the lips of the players on the trophy presentation podium? They love this event. And lately, the elite players have expressed that loyalty by providing us with riveting finals as well as high-quality storylines. It may never be Wimbledon, but that’s probably a good thing, because the Happy Slam is awesome just as it is.
When it comes to generating news events and stories, Grand Slam tennis has all sports beat to the point of overkill. We already know that every major is really two tournaments: the first week (generally, the first three rounds), and the second week that features the clash of the titans.

By midway through the second week, the events of the first week are as distant a memory as Rod Laver’s topspin backhand. So let’s pause to single out the most surprising developments of that most chaotic period of a Grand Slam event, the first two rounds.

High seeds fall: The first round was a bloodbath for WTA seeds. Eleven of them, including No. 5 Ana Ivanovic, were knocked out. This was the most at the Australian Open since Grand Slams expanded the seedings to 32 at Wimbledon in 2001. It’s only happened twice before in the 32-seed era: at the 2002 French Open tournament and Wimbledon in 2004.

Nadal catches break: When it comes to bragging rights for toughest draw on Day 1, No. 3 Rafael Nadal could make almost as good a case as top-seeded Serena Williams. Nadal potentially was looking at, in order, Mikhail Youzhny, Tim Smyczek, Lukas Rosol (who famously blasted Nadal off Wimbledon’s Centre Court in 2012), mercurial Richard Gasquet or acemaker Kevin Anderson, Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov or Andy Murray, and -- finally! -- Novak Djokovic. The wheels started to fall off his argument when diminutive Dudi Sela upset hard-charging Rosol in the second round, and things would soon look even more promising for Nadal.

Venus bouncing back: What a revelation Venus Williams has been this year, up to and including the first two rounds in Melbourne. She’s 7-0 on the year going into the third round, and she's back up to No. 18 at age 34.

Del Potro's injury: Granted, Juan Martin del Potro softened the blow somewhat when he pulled out of Brisbane a few weeks ago due to lingering pain in his surgically repaired left wrist. But many pundits assumed it was a precautionary move taken to improve his chances at the Australian Open. They were wrong. He scratched from the first major of the year, as well -- as nasty a surprise for fans as his ongoing wrist issues must be for him.

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Paul Crock/AFP/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka got off to an unexpectedly fast start Down Under.
Azarenka opens strong: Sure, Victoria Azarenka is a two-time Australian Open champ, a former WTA No. 1 player and a generally tough cookie. But did anyone really think she would spank Sloane Stephens and No. 8 seed Caroline Wozniacki in back-to-back straight sets wins? She crushed Stephens three and two, and gave former No. 1 Wozniacki just one game more than she allowed Stephens.

Serve-and-volley working: It was surprising enough to see Sam Groth, that mad bombardier, survive two rounds in his native tournament. It was even more shocking to read the stats relevant to Groth’s antediluvian serve-and-volley style. These numbers were provided by the tournament website’s official analyst Craig O’Shannessy:

In two rounds, Groth rushed the net behind his serve 77 times (more than any other player by far), or on 36 percent of his serve points. He won 66 percent of those forays (51-of-77). Of course, many unique factors, including Groth’s monster serv, helped shape -- and qualify -- that impressive stat.

Now here’s the kicker: Serve-and-volley tennis for all men at the Australian Open in the same four-day time period produced a 65.1 percent (325-of-499) winning percentage. And that’s slightly higher than the 64.9 percent conversion rate generated by approach-and-volley tennis. Hold on to your seat, though. It was also loads better than the success rate for baseline play, which lagged far, far behind at a 47.1 percent (6,775 of 14,373) success rate.

Maybe Jack Kramer and all that “percentage tennis” stuff is still relevant.

Colorful new stadium: When I first saw an aerial shot of the Melbourne Park grounds and that new, copper-colored roof of Margaret Court Arena, I thought someone had dropped a Target department store right smack in the middle of the grounds. Then, up to speed, I wondered if the Aussies had gone with that design in order to tempt Duracell, maker of the “coppertop” batteries, to purchase naming rights. Wrong again. The reviews for the new stadium are uniformly raves, so far be it from me to nitpick the color of the roof. But it sure was surprising.

Aussie, American renaissance: One of the more surprising outcomes after the completion of the first round was the rise of the have-nots that were once the greatest haves in the game: the U.S. and Australia. Eleven Aussies made the second round. The same number of American women advanced, along with four men led by No. 19 seed John Isner. Unfortunately, by the time Australia’s Sam Stosur was poised to play her second-round singles match, all her Australian female compatriots were wiped out.

Johnson surprises: Steve Johnson made a modest breakthrough at the U.S. Open in 2012, where he won three rounds (they were his first main-draw Grand Slam victories). Since then, though, he locked down just one win in 10 tries at majors. So it was surprising to see him post back-to-back straight-set wins in Melbourne, the second over No. 30 seed Santiago Giraldo.

Raonic raises eyebrows: Was anyone not surprised by hair-obsessive Milos Raonic’s latest do, perhaps best described as a "Leave it to Beaver" mohawk?

Surprising exits: Who would have guessed that two of the brightest young prospects in the WTA, No. 32 seed Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh, would be gone in the first round?

Culbis goes down: Nick Kyrgios’ win over Federico Delbonis was one thing. But did anyone foresee that the other young Australian hope, 18-year-old wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis, would knock off No. 11 seed Ernests Gulbis in the first round?

Radwanska rebounding: Given the apparent decline in No. 6 seed Agnieszka Radwanska’s game over the course of 2014, did anyone really believe she would get through two rounds having lost just four games? I don’t know what new supercoach Martina Navratilova has done for Radwanska’s game thus far, but she’s certainly been a tonic for her spirits.

And did anyone really think Andreas Seppi ... Oh, nevermind, that was the third round.
video
Two years ago, those rueing the demise of American men’s tennis could take some comfort in the fact that the U.S. women were still a force in the upper reaches of the game.

Serena Williams was queen of all she surveyed, and -- better yet -- it seemed that she would have a worthy, if not exactly comparable, successor. In August 2012, skillful 20-year-old newcomer Christina McHale was knocking on the door of the top 20. By early January 2013, Varvara Lepchenko hit No. 21 in the rankings. A few weeks later, highly touted Sloane Stephens upset Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

Stephens, then 19, would go on to make the Sweet 16 (fourth round) or better at every other Grand Slam event as well that year. And there were other promising players in the top 100, including Jamie Hampton, Coco Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis.

Now, two years later, the closest thing the U.S. has to a legitimate successor to Serena Williams is -- at least going by the Week 1 results on the WTA Tour -- Venus Williams. That’s right. Venus, 34, a winner last week in Auckland. Serena’s older sister. Can your older sibling be your “successor"? I sure hope so, because if it weren’t for that possibility, it appears we would have none at all.

[+] EnlargeRiske
Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesAlison Riske has showed she isn't afraid of the big moment since arriving on the WTA Tour.
While Venus was busy winning Auckland, Stephens was losing in the same event to Davis, who then lost to ... Venus. It was fitting to the point of symbolism. If you’re from the U.S., you’d better hope the Williams sisters can play singles into their 40s or 50s. Maybe beyond.

Right now, Serena is ranked No. 1 and Venus is No. 18. Lepchenko, one of the few bright spots last week (she made the semis in Brisbane), is next at No. 30. Stephens is down to No. 34, and McHale is languishing at No. 53. OK, it’s time to bring in some new, potential inheritors -- this time a trio that is moving in the right direction: Madison Keys, Vandeweghe and Alison Riske.

Keys is just a few ticks behind Lepchenko, a 28-year-old naturalized citizen (native of Uzbekistan) at No. 33. That’s already one ranking place better than Stephens, while Vandeweghe is breathing down Stephens’ neck at No. 37, and Riske also is in striking distance at 42.

Among these women, Keys appears to have the most upside. Just 19 years old, she’s now working with a Hall of Fame player (and fellow countrywoman) with whom she has much in common as an athlete: Lindsay Davenport.

Davenport may be 4 inches taller, but Keys is no shrimp at 5-foot-10. She’s also built on a similar, large frame. According to Keys, she and Davenport have already done some valuable work on an issue of major concern for almost every big player: movement. As if to punctuate their success, Keys upset Dominika Cibulkova -- one of the best movers on the tour -- last week in the first round of Brisbane.

Keys is also trying to master that champion’s knack for winning when she isn’t playing her A-game. As she said after her win over Cibulkova: “So I think just having a more consistent game, and when I'm not playing my best, having a B-game or C-game -- that isn't terrible. [Whether] I'm playing really well or I'm playing badly, [I’m] trying to find a middle ground for the days where it's not working."

Like Keys, Vandeweghe won her first WTA title on grass last year. (Keys won at Eastbourne, Vandeweghe at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.) Just 23 and a gifted athlete, Vandeweghe was outside the direct-acceptance ranking at the end of 2013 (No. 110), but she quietly vaulted all the way to No. 38 through the course of last year.

At 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds, Vandeweghe is even closer to the Davenport model than Keys. She’s explosive and armed with a dangerous serve, eventual strengths that may have held her back while she was still growing and struggling to make all those moving parts act in concert. But Vandeweghe has matured and become more consistent. It seems her game and body are in greater sync now.

Riske, 24, more or less came out of nowhere -- deciding at the last moment to pass up a college scholarship in 2009 in favor of trying her hand on the WTA Tour. A hardworking, independent-minded player of 5-foot-9, Riske made her breakthrough in 2013. She bolted from No. 179 to No. 57. This is a player who will wring every drop of useful information out of her experience, and she isn’t afraid of big occasions. She made the third round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open last year.

Heading into the Australian Open, one of these three women seems most likely to join Venus and Serena at the helm of U.S. women’s tennis for 2015 -- unless Stephens can pull herself out of what has become a long, nightmarish slump (compounded by a wrist injury that ended her 2014 campaign in mid-September). McHale lost the only match she’s played this year and has trouble with her shoulder.

In real monarchies, queens do not retire. They are the national figureheads for life. If you’re an American, you probably wish it were that way in tennis, too.
video
Judging from the first week of play in the new year, 2015 is less likely to be a year of sweeping change than one of business as usual. Sure, top-ranked and top-seeded Novak Djokovic was upset at Qatar. But isn’t that what Ivo Karlovic does for a living -- record the occasional resounding win, mostly at lower-tier events?

The reality is that Roger Federer winning his 1,000th match (the Brisbane final) was a more fitting comment on the state of the game. So let’s take a look at the evidence:

Juan Martin del Potro pulled out of Brisbane to kick off the new year, still experiencing pain in his left wrist despite having had surgery on the joint nine months ago. It just goes from bad to worse for the poor guy. The 2009 US Open champ, Delpo is a right-hander (but he uses his left on that two-handed backhand). He missed almost all of 2010 with a bad right wrist, and pulled the plug on 2014 in February of last year (this time because of his left wrist). Now the he’s down to No. 137.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Chris Hyde/Getty ImagesRoger Federer started 2015 in a very familiar fashion -- with a championship trophy.
The bulletin-board quote lives on in tennis. Borna Coric, a gifted 18-year-old eager beaver who has yet to win his 10th ATP main tour match, said something he may have trouble backing up. "I think my game is quite similar to Djokovic's,” the Croatian said at the Chennai tournament. “I move well, I don't miss many balls; I'm a fighter and my backhand is my best shot. Currently, I'm the best of my generation.” I’m not sure how he defines a generation, but I like his enthusiasm.

Once again Rafael Nadal declared that he’s on a mission to recapture his best form -- a refrain oft repeated in the past few injury-marred years. After he was upset in Qatar by No. 127 Michael Berrer, Nadal tried to reassure his fans and the media, saying “I am sure I’m gonna come back to my best.” Let’s hope he’s right. It’s easy to forget that a healthy Nadal is still the most electrifying player in the game.

Grigor Dimitrov, the player long touted as the game’s next big star (complete with that “Baby Federer” nickname), survived two match points in his opener in Brisbane and made it all the way to the semis, where he lost to Roger “Grown Up” Federer. The important thing, though, is that the 23-year-old Bulgarian has picked up where he left off following a very consistent 2014.

Denis Kudla and Irina Falconi landed the Australian Open wild cards reserved for U.S. players. You have to hand it to these two American pluggers -- they keep plugging away despite all the obstacles and frustrations. Each of them was the top performer in a designated suite of tournaments in the U.S.

Simona Halep continues to consolidate her position as a strong No. 3 despite having failed thus far to win a major. She handled the pressure of a No. 1 seeding well in Shenzhen, where she clobbered Timea Bacsinszky in the final.

Once again, Maria Sharapova fought her way through some ragged play to win a tournament (Brisbane). If you thought her slump to No. 9 last year was a harbinger, forget about it. Alert for Serena fans: Sharapova has crept to within 681 points of Williams.

Stan Wawrinka was 15-4 in Chennai, with two previous wins. He won the title again, this time over qualifier Aljaz Bedene.

David Ferrer won at Qatar, so anyone who feared that the Spanish dynamo, who’s 32 years old and down to No. 10, is going to go away can relax -- for now.

Williams won again. OK, so it wasn’t Serena but Venus who ran the table at Auckland (WTA), culminating with a hard-fought win over top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki. During that same time, Serena was in the process of losing two out of three singles matches at the Hopman Cup mixed exhibition. I’m not reading too much into that, having been burned enough times in the past to know better than to underestimate Serena.

Hats off to Roger Federer for his great accomplishment in Brisbane; he now trails only Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl in career wins. That’s great news for Federer and friends, not so great news for those clamoring to see a changing of the guard.

David Ferrer, John Isner and Gael Monfils all withdrew from Auckland (this week). Ferrer, who won at Qatar, cited a bad back. Isner said he was tired after the Hopman Cup. Monfils pulled out for “personal reasons.” The taboo against skipping tournament commitments for all but the most grave of reasons continues to break down. Prize money on the ATP Tour may be taking a big jump, but promoters are more at risk than ever before.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Imagine a life without the Big Four

January, 9, 2015
Jan 9
11:01
AM ET
video
At Qatar this week, top-seeded and top-ranked Novak Djokovic lost to ATP No. 27 Ivo Karlovic, the 35-year-old Croatian ace machine (is there any other kind of Croatian?). Also at Qatar, No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal was upset in his first-round match by No. 127 qualifier Michael Berrer. Roger Federer lost the first set of his opener in Brisbane to a wild card, No. 153-ranked Aussie John Millman, but survived in three tough sets. Andy Murray says his shoulder still hurts.

All this again raises a question asked at intervals over the past six or seven years. What if the Big Four didn’t dominate tennis? Would it be a more exciting game? The answer is a familiar one: Be careful what you wish for.

So let’s imagine that this quartet of elite players stepped out of the way. What would men’s tennis look like? Odds are that it would be highly unpredictable, with a flood of players taking turns on the trophy presentation podiums of the Grand Slam nations. In fact, we might already be heading in that direction.

Take 2014. It was the first year when two men not part of the Big Four won Grand Slam events since the dawn of the Federer era in 2003. The previous year produced four different Grand Slam champions: Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa, Lleyton Hewitt and Pete Sampras. Would anyone at the start of the Australian Open have picked Johansson as the champion? And in France, Costa surely would have been a stab in the dark.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Karim Jaafar/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal, playing for the first time since his appendectomy in November, lost in three sets to German qualifier Michael Berrer at the Qatar Open.
It was much the same last year. In the two Grand Slam events not won by members of the Big Four (Nadal won the French Open and Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon), the winners were not the most likely candidates. They were Stan Wawrinka (Australian Open) and Marin Cilic (US Open). You would be rich today if you bet heavily on those two outliers.

Once again, the failure of dominant, multi-Slam stars did not yield a predictable result, although Wawrinka certainly deserves credit for taking out Djokovic and Nadal, and Cilic did yeoman’s work in dispatching Federer. You can speculate that with a bit of luck, Ferrer might have bagged that elusive first major, or Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga finally might have closed the deal. After all, each member of that trio had been to Grand Slam finals. But when the top guys are out, the next in line don’t necessarily move up into their slots. What they do is unleash the dogs of war, and long-suffering contenders are just as likely to die of their bites as rule the kennel.

Take the case of Ferrer, the most consistent of the Grand Slam have-nots. Although he’s down to No. 10, the Spanish dynamo is a good touchstone when it comes to this issue. Ferrer’s best major tournament is the French Open. He’s four years older than Nadal and had at least three chances to win in Paris when Nadal was absent. In the first two, Ferrer lost to Wayne Ferreira and Julian Benneteau, respectively, in 2003 and 2005. In 2009, the year Nadal was beaten by Robin Soderling in the fourth round, Ferrer lost one round earlier to the hulking Swede.

The opportunity was there for Ferrer in 2009, but the result was not. Instead, Federer pulled himself back from the brink against Tommy Haas and completed his career Grand Slam.

Or take Wawrinka. The Australian champion won the Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo last year, but he lost in the first round of the French Open to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Wawrinka put up a good fight against Federer in the quarters of Wimbledon, but then lost a tough five-setter in the quarters of the US Open to eventual finalist Kei Nishikori, then ranked No. 11. It was Nishikori’s first win over Wawrinka in three tries.

Nishikori himself went into the US Open final 5-2 against his opponent, Cilic, but lost the match. Cilic, incidentally, was 2-7 against Wawrinka going into the US Open and hadn’t beaten him since 2010. I don’t think we even need to get into the head-to-head results of these men with reliable contenders like Tomas Berdych or Tsonga, never mind volatile upset makers such as Gael Monfils, Ernests Gulbis or a dozen other players. You can just pitch them out the window.

All this isn’t meant to trash the likes of Wawrinka et al. It just suggests that without the Big Four (and really, it’s mostly the Big Three now), the Grand Slam game would be a crapshoot. Something strange and unpredictable happens when a Grand Slam title is up for grabs. The pressures and challenges are such that what we think of as handicapping becomes a fool’s errand. If you think the only thing standing in the way of Ferrer or Tsonga or Berdych winning a Grand Slam title is the bogeyman collectively known as the Big Four, you might want to think again.

Perhaps we should be content with what we have. Craps is better left to Las Vegas.
video On Monday, we evaluated some of the top ATP stars in terms of what -- if anything -- they had at stake going into the new year. Now we’ll look at the women in the same three categories.

The Champions

No. 1 Serena Williams ended the frustrating Grand Slam season of 2014 with a flourish -- a win at her native US Open. With 18 major singles titles to her name, it’s hard to say anything at all is riding on 2015 for La Serena. She’s 33 years old now, and her most reasonable goal is breaking a three-way tie in the major title count with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

No. 2 Maria Sharapova is in a somewhat unusual situation. At 27, she has a career Grand Slam. That puts her in the history books, even though she’s won just five Grand Slam titles (most recently at the French Open) -- not nearly good enough to put her on the short list of great champions. What she can do, however, is add at least a win or two over Serena to her dismal 2-16 head-to-head record. Don’t ever forget that people always forget: Should Sharapova beat Williams on a big stage, it will do wonders overnight for her status.

[+] EnlargePetra Kvitova
CARL COURT/AFP/Getty ImagesThe question is: Can Petra Kvitova build off her Wimbledon title from last season?
No. 4 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic played a dream final to win the second Wimbledon title of her career in 2014 and played with consistency not seen since 2011. Did she hit a career reset button in 2014 -- that’s the big question hovering over the tall and rangy left-hander.

No. 7 Ana Ivanovic hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the one she bagged at the French Open in 2008. She’s had few resurgences since then. Give the diligent Serb credit for persistence and fidelity. It’s imperative for her to avoid backsliding once again. Her critical assignment: Find a way to win a big match or two at the most crucial of times.

No. 42 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champ, is hoping to recapture her form after an injury-plagued (knee and foot) 2014 that caused her ranking to plummet because of inactivity. To put it bluntly, her career is at stake given her history of frailty. If she can play pain-free, the rest will take care of itself.

The Contenders

No. 3 Simona Halep played an outstanding French Open final (losing to Sharapova) in 2014 and backed up the enormous strides she took in 2013. She’s nimble, swift and an excellent counter-puncher, but she let a few opportunities slip away after that performance at Roland Garros. The Romanian homebody also changed coaches despite her success last year. The question surrounding her now is: Can she close the deal and win a big one?

No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, a Wimbledon finalist in 2012, has been compared with a magician owing to her creative shot selection and general feel for the ball. But a number of players have figured out how she gets that rabbit out of the hat. With new coach Martina Navratilova at her side, Radwanska will try to add a little more aggression to her game. The best female player ever produced by Poland, Radwanska’s main job this year is to find more offense -- or perhaps accept that she doesn’t have enough ooomph to win a major.

No. 6 Eugenie Bouchard made the semifinals or better at three Grand Slam events in 2014, yet she’s won only one title in her entire career (Nurnberg). The 20-year-old Montreal native was the “it” girl in tennis in 2014. She’s so media-friendly and marketable that she’s already created a backlash, which also suggests that what Bouchard most needs to do this year is back up those results. No player will have as much pressure on her shoulders.

No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki’s A-game went AWOL during her relationship with Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, but it returned with a fury after their breakup in May 2014. Now the only woman ever to hold the year-end No. 1 ranking for two consecutive years without having won a single Grand Slam event has worked herself back into position to pick up where she left off. She’s older and wiser but needs to show she can be better as well.

Players of Interest

No. 13 Andrea Petkovic of Germany is not merely a fun-loving and charming personality (who can forget the “Petko dance”?) -- she’s an excellent athlete whose progress was derailed by injuries. (She clawed her way back from No. 149 to 39 in 2013.) She’s strong and blessed with a good competitive temperament; it’s time she laid all her cards on the table.

[+] EnlargeGarbine Muguruza
AP Photo/Aaron FavilaGarbine Muguruza showed some serious chops last season and is primed to be one of the game's top stars.
No. 20 Garbine Muguruza of Venezuela was outside the top 50 at the start of 2014, then she made headlines with a stunning second-round upset of French Open top seed Serena Williams. She’s just 21, so time is on her side; she can afford to slip up and make mistakes. But if she wants to establish herself a leader among the wave of young players, she needs to build on her present position and make a run at the top 10.

No. 30 Madison Keys spent the better part of 2014 becoming accustomed to her status as a top-30 player after a breakout 2013.The 5-foot-10 native of Rock Island, Illinois, has a potent serve and heavy forehand. She’s just 19, but that’s not too early to display the consistency of a contender at big tournaments.

No. 31 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland has people thinking that the nation isn’t too small to produce a female star to rival Roger Federer. At 17, she could still be competing in the juniors. Instead, this poised, clever youngster who started last year ranked No. 212 seems ready to contend for major titles thanks to a silken game and a cool Chris Evert-esque temperament. She’s one of those players who focuses on the fact that she has everything to gain rather than on the reality that she’s just a kid and has nothing to lose.

No. 35 Sloane Stephens, once the great American female hope, had a terrible year that started with her loss of status as a woman designed to shine on the biggest stages and ended with a nagging wrist injury and an uncertain coaching situation. Early this year, she hired Nick Saviano, who developed and brought Bouchard into the first-class car. Stephens needs to win -- it’s a simple as that.
video
Not every year has equal significance in the career of a tennis player; it’s obvious as a young pro struggles to break through, but it’s also true later -- after he or she has cracked the code. January is not merely a month brimming with hope. For some, it also ushers in daunting challenges.

So let’s take a look at players who have something to prove in 2015 in three categories: champions, contenders and players of interest. We’ll go through the ATP on Monday and the WTA on Wednesday.

The champions

No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the Serbian Wimbledon champion, finished three of the past four years ranked No. 1. He could coast into 2015 in cruise control -- but for one looming and by now familiar mission: triumph at the French Open. He needs that to complete a career Grand Slam. Don’t think he doesn’t think of it that way with his peers and rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal already having accomplished that.

No. 2 Federer is a man without worries. He’s the all-time Grand Slam champion, and every match he wins is icing on the cake. Federer could join Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl in the exclusive 1,000 wins club by the end of the week, but in any event, the Swiss is sure to nail down the honor sooner rather than later -- so there’s no pressure on him.

No. 3 Nadal, the French Open champion, may be facing a pivotal year. With 14 Grand Slam titles in hand, the Spaniard trails Federer by just three. But his fitness issues seem to get more unpredictable and threatening every year. Should his knees or back flare up, the likelihood of Nadal catching Federer will seem remote -- even if he does bag the French Open again.

No. 4 Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland is about to discover what most great players know: The only thing tougher than winning a Grand Slam title is defending one. On the other hand, let’s be realistic. Wawrinka went through a remarkable, late-career transformation at age 28 from a solid top-20-level player into a Grand Slam champion and Davis Cup hero. He’s done his heavy lifting, one way or the other.

No. 6 Andy Murray must show that he’s still worthy of inclusion in what until very recently had been called the “Big Four.” The Scot had a challenging year in 2014, but that great push late in the year demonstrated that he’s still got the drive. His coaching/training situation seemed pretty complicated, and to some degree remains unresolved. It might help Murray to simplify -- or at least get fully organized by the time the Australian Open rolls around.

No. 9 Marin Cilic is probably still shell-shocked from having won the US Open, but the bigger concern for the Croatian disciple of Goran Ivanisevic probably is his chronically sore shoulder. (It has already caused him to pull out of the Brisbane tournament this week.) Cilic, 26, has always been a puzzling player. Did he just catch a good wave last September, or did he take a critical step to the next level? He has to show us, one way or the other.

The contenders

No. 5 Kei Nishikori of Japan is the highest-ranked player who hasn’t won a Grand Slam, although he was the US Open runner-up in 2014. He will try to make that final push to elite status this year, but he doesn’t need to feel too stressed. He’s already the most successful male player in Asian tennis history. In addition, he’s always been regarded as someone who punches above his weight class (understandably so, since he’s just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, and his serve is relatively weak). He will enjoy the benefits of his underdog status.

No. 7 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic is a former Wimbledon finalist. But in spite of his power-based meat-and-potatoes game, he’s always found ways to miss a critical shot here or make a mental error there. Now he’s replaced his longtime coach Thomas Krupa with Dani Vallverdu, who had been working with Murray. He also hired a new trainer. At 29, Berdych knows he’s been spinning his wheels. It’s now or never.

No. 8 Milos Raonic has dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in his evolution as a player. He’s been consistent -- and consistently dangerous. But he could really use a big win on a big stage or people will start to think of this promising 24-year-old Canadian as the next Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- a talented guy whose chromosomes just don’t carry the champion gene.

No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria made a strong, long-awaited breakthrough in 2014. Because of the hype that has long surrounded this 23-year-old (some call him “Baby Federer”), Dimitrov will be under a microscope. Dimitrov needs to demonstrate that he can handle the pressure. He doesn’t need to win a major, but he needs to back up his outstanding 2014 with some big wins and an improved ranking.

No. 12 Tsonga has the game to beat anyone on a given day, but the athletic Frenchman has yet to show the stamina -- physical, mental or emotional -- to win a Grand Slam. Like Berdych, he’s a fine player with just one thing left to prove: that he can win the big one.

Players of interest

No. 13 Ernests Gulbis of Latvia made a big jump in 2014, right to the doorstep of the top 10. Given his up-and-down history, he has to show he’s in the hunt for the long term.

No. 20 Gael Monfils may not be top-five material (albeit not for lack of talent). He’s expertly carved out a niche as the game’s ultimate showman, but we’ve waited a long time for “Lamonf” to develop a little more competitive heft. Does he have it?

No. 42 Jack Sock started the year ranked No. 100. The Nebraska native is just 22 and plays a punishing, physical game that’s well suited to the times. Although hip surgery has him sidelined until February, Sock is a bright spot on an otherwise benighted U.S. landscape. He has a great opportunity to capitalize on the sad state of American tennis and make a name for himself.

No. 43 Jerzy Janowicz has fallen more than 20 places in the rankings over the course of 2014, but the 6-foot-6 Pole is still just 24 and armed with a devastating serve, a big forehand and excellent touch. He can become an impact player -- or more.
I met the guy, a tennis fan, at a holiday party. Within two minutes, he told me he had a serious beef about the game. “Oh no,” I thought. “Another Rafael Nadal fan who hates Roger Federer, or a Novak Djokovic fan who hates Nadal, or a Jimmy Connors fan who hates everyone because the game isn’t exciting for him anymore.” He was just about the right age for that last one.

But the thing that bugged this guy is that during television broadcasts, the image of a player is often accompanied by his or her relevant national flag. He told me he lives near Kim Clijsters in New Jersey, so why do they always put a Belgian flag up there?

[+] EnlargeAgnieszka Radwanska
Joe Scarnici/Getty ImagesAgnieszka Radwanska is one star player who actually resides in the country she was born in.
It was a curious, seemingly petty complaint. I more or less dismissed it as holiday party chitchat. But later, when I got thinking about it, I could see the fan’s point -- at least insofar as he was saying that national affiliation in tennis has become something of a joke. Sure it enhances tennis’ image as a colorful, exciting, international game, and the flags are pretty window dressing. But the era when you actually lived in the country you played for, or played for the country you were from, is long gone.

Maria Sharapova basically lives in the U.S., but she was the flag-bearer for Russia in the past Olympics. Yet she plays Fed Cup for Russia infrequently, partly to meet the rules for Olympic Games qualifying. Tommy Haas has dual passports (German and American), lives in Los Angeles and Bradenton, Florida, and plays (in fits and starts) for Germany. All four members of the French Davis Cup team that lost to Switzerland a few weeks ago live in Switzerland, and it isn’t because they want to place votive candles on the doorstep of Federer’s home. They’re living in tax exile.

If you had to play for the nation where you reside, Monaco would be a Davis Cup powerhouse led by Djokovic. Instead, Monaco’s top player is Benjamin Balleret, who has an ATP singles ranking of No. 497. There is something wrong with this picture, even if the players aren’t doing anything illegal. It’s evidence of how the world is changing, and of how it’s a world full of loopholes and double standards. Doesn’t that increase your respect for someone like Agnieszka Radwanska, who continues to live in the tennis outpost of Krakow and represents Poland in the Fed Cup?

On the tour, it doesn’t make much difference where a player lives. But in Davis Cup and Fed Cup, the impact can be huge. Take Kazakhstan, whose Davis Cup team has been in the elite World Group since early 2011. The team that led champion Switzerland by two matches to one in this year’s quarterfinals had no native Kazak on the team. Three of the members were Russian, the fourth Ukrainian.

Nikolay Davydenko flipped the equation. Born in the Ukraine, he moved to Russia. He prospered and eventually earned a place on the Russian Davis Cup team.

And who can forget the criticism Montreal-born Greg Rusedski took in some corners for abandoning Canada to take advantage of his maternal birthright to play for Britain? “One day, the guy is Canadian,” Pete Sampras said, “the next he’s running around saying ‘telly’ instead of ‘television’ and ‘petrol’ instead of ‘gas.’” That Rusedski took to wearing a Union Jack headband didn’t help his cause.

Some of these switcheroos are understandable if not exactly admirable, but others seem opportunistic in a way that violates the spirit if not the letter of the rules. It’s gotten so embarrassing that the ITF recently changed the Davis Cup eligibility rules. Call the new protocol for 2015 the “Bedene rule.”

Aljaz Bedene is a 25-year-old Slovenian who has lived in the United Kingdom since 2008 and earlier this year began the process of applying for British citizenship. Once ranked as high as No. 71 in singles, he was a potential Davis Cup asset, given that Andy Murray is the only Brit in the top 100.

Aware of the situation, the ITF took another look at its rulebook, which up to now allowed otherwise qualified players to play for a new country after a waiting period of just 36 months. Now, having played for one country disqualifies you from representing a new one. That’s in line with the rules governing the most popular world sport, soccer.

That seems like a reasonable rule now that the era that produced the freedom-seeking political refugee (such as Martina Navratilova) is in the past. It’s better if national affiliation remains a pleasant, almost meaningless ruse that enhances the game instead of calling its credibility into question.

SPONSORED HEADLINES