videoWhen 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.
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.
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
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.
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.

Surviving the Haas of pain

December, 29, 2014
There is more than one kind of iron man in sports. The names of the most familiar kind roll off the tongue with ease: Cal Ripken Jr., Brett Favre, A.C. Green. Then there is Roger Federer, who is often said to be made of silk, not iron. Yet, starting in July 2004, Federer made at least the semifinals of 23 consecutive Grand Slam events.

Now meet another type of iron man: Tommy Haas.

[+] EnlargeTommy Haas
Mark Wieland/Getty ImagesThe fact that Tommy Haas can walk and lift his arm above his shoulder at all makes him an ironman.
Haas is 36 years old, and by the time he turns 37, he expects to be playing again at the highest ATP level. Haas hopes to return to the fray starting at Indian Wells, after enduring yet another surgery in a career that has featured, among other human frailties, two broken ankles (1995, 1996), a bum hip, and two bad shoulder injuries. And those are just the ailments that required surgery. We won’t even get into the “minor” stuff in this Haas of pain, like the bulging disc or tennis elbow or any of the other hurts that once sidelined Haas.

The fact that Tommy Haas can walk and lift his arm above his shoulder at all makes him an iron man. He’s the opposite number to the one that doesn’t get hurt. He gets hurt -- “wrecked” might be more like it -- but he always comes back to play some of the prettiest -- and most explosive -- tennis you will ever see.

Haas never won a Grand Slam event; you almost have to wonder how he avoided it. At the majors, he was a four-time semifinalist as well as a four-time quarterfinal loser. He bolted to a career-high ranking of No. 2 nearly 13 years ago, in May 2002. Then Haas’ parents were involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that left Peter Haas in a coma. Tommy quit the tour, and when he returned, he blew out his shoulder.

The rest is a history of fits and starts and an unlikely late career revival that culminated with Haas ranked as high as No. 12 in 2014 -- before a second severe shoulder injury ended his year. The peaks for Haas are higher than the valleys are deep. He has plenty of big wins even if he hasn’t recorded the big win. Before he blew out his shoulder the first time, Haas was 14-7 combined against Pete Sampras, Federer, Andy Roddick, Jim Courier and Marat Safin. Sampras fared best against Haas, at 5-5.

Now Tommy Haas is No. 77, mainly because of all the tennis he’s missed over the past months. And he will be the first one to tell you that he has no idea what to expect when he returns.

“Sure, I think about the consequences all the time,” he told me the other day over the phone. “But I have a lot of experience stopping and coming back. You wonder, ‘Am I going to be a step too slow? Can I still hit that that 120 mph ace?’ I wasn’t sure I could come back from that hip injury I had at my age, but that was ages ago, when I was 32.”

Actually, “iron man” may not be the most accurate way to describe Haas. It’s more like he’s made from a high grade of tensile steel, like EN19T.

That Haas has been able to play through that pain and all the uncertainty that accompanies those long, postsurgical layoffs and rehab sessions is astonishing. He ought to donate his body to science, although the great secret to Haas’s longevity, and recuperative abilities, may have much less to do with his muscle fiber and bone than with his attitude.

“I’m living my dream,” Haas said. “I was aware of that one thing all of the time. The thing is to be flexible. At every stage I wanted to see where my desire takes me. And I never went through one of those periods when you lose so many matches that it kills your confidence. Also, I’ve always wanted to quit tennis on my own terms.”

Like many great players, Haas also knows how to milk motivation out of every source. His daughter, Valentina, is 4 years old now. Haas has conceded that it’s “kind of cheesy” to drag infants and toddlers into the spotlight, but what he wants is a little more complicated. He said, “I will probably continue to play tennis as long as I can. Senior tour and stuff like that. But I want Valentina to see her dad at his best, and at an age when she’s old enough to actually remember it.”

That is, Haas would like his daughter see him play like he did in the Halle final of 2012 against Federer. Haas worried that he might be finished after hip surgery in 2010; the Halle final, which he won 7-6 (5), 6-4, was the crowning touch of that comeback (was it comeback No. 3, 5, or 7?).

“I wasn’t sure I could make it back,” he said. “But to accomplish that, in Germany, and on Father’s Day? It’s one of the top highlights for me.”

Nothing gets an iron man more juiced up than a win over one of his own kind.

IPTL a blueprint for future events?

December, 26, 2014
If you were to judge tournaments by the number of "shiny-happy-people” selfies they generate, the International Professional Tennis League matches would be right up there with the Indian Wells Masters 1000, perhaps even the French Open.

I am assuming that during those three fateful weeks in November and December you were among the millions of tennis fans who were not glued to their laptops or smartphones, desperately searching for live streaming of the Singapore Slammer versus the Manila Envelopes. No, wait. It’s the Manila Mavericks … or is it the Manila Maulers?

Anyway, for the uninitiated, the IPTL was the four-team, three-week exhibition series that finally dropped the curtain on the tennis season.

[+] EnlargeIPTL
AP Photo /Manish SwarupFun, competitive and lucrative. What's not to like about the IPTL?
I know, the WTA Championships and the ATP World Tour Finals are called year-end championships for a reason. Well, it seems nobody told the International Tennis Federation, which decided that the season-ending grand finale ought to be the Davis Cup and Fed Cup finals. That brought the “season” perilously close to the edge of December, then the IPTL shoved it over.

Suddenly, we had the spectacle of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Roger Federer still going at it, hammer and tong, well into December (the last day of IPTL play was Dec. 13). Given that an entire year is reputed to last 52 weeks, and that this tennis “season” consumed roughly 50 of those weeks, the only logical conclusion is that lords of tennis are consulting something other than the Gregorian calendar when they create the schedule.

Want to hear something funny? Tennis may have the longest season in the history of sports, but now it can also boast of having the shortest of any league. The IPTL started Nov. 28 and ended Dec. 13.

The major takeaway from this initial experiment is somewhat counterintuitive. Clearly, the pros like to play this thing because they don’t have to, well, play. At least not that much. The format features no-ad scoring, and the top singles stars play one “match,” which is no longer than 12 games. Why should a guy like Novak Djokovic labor through three tedious sets of tennis in a conventional exhibition when he can be part of a team and obliged to do nothing more than sit on the bench for four of the five abbreviated matches?

No wonder the players are posting all those selfies and tweets about how much fun they’re having. They’re making Wall Street money for spending a lot of time sitting on a bench and cheering on teammates.

The IPTL essentially borrowed the World Team Tennis concept -- so much so that I’m surprised that Billie Jean King, the godmother of WTT, hasn’t threatened to sue.

Perhaps Ms. King takes the long view, which is that sooner or later the game is destined to “evolve” into a team sport with streamlined scoring, and this is just one more step on the course she first set.

King always felt that team tennis is a more appealing product than conventional tour-based tennis, and over time the ever-increasing physical demands of the profession would make team tennis more attractive to players. Entrepreneurs and promoters, who stuck with cumbersome single-elimination tournaments in which one or more of the top names can be knocked out early, also understand the value of the team-tennis concept.

The trouble for any dewy-eyed fan or entrepreneurial dreamer is that the players don’t really buy it. They take part in WTT-style exhibitions because it’s easy work for great money. They don’t want to abandon the tour approach. And in the end, the economics of team tennis has never really worked. A franchise may be a fun bauble for a deep-pocketed owner, but the current business model stinks, and after a while, even the most starstruck billionaire owner is bound to think: “I’m taking a bath. To heck with it.”

But the idea of team tennis just won’t go away -- and it shouldn’t. After all, Davis Cup is team tennis. So is college tennis. So are USTA tennis leagues. As the IPTL and WTT have demonstrated, team tennis for the pros is an idea whose time has come, and gone, and come back again -- albeit never with enough credibility to really threaten the establishment.

But who knows? They do this often enough and one day maybe they get it right. Or a top player throws his or her weight behind the idea. Perhaps one day the team concept gains enough traction to offer a viable alternative to a tennis “season” that lasts 11½ months and takes a heavy toll on the bodies of the players (especially the top players, who play the highest number of matches). Not to mention one that is comprised of hundreds of single-elimination tournaments.

One media outlet during the India leg of the IPTL exos got a little carried away in describing the one-set, no-ad match between Djokovic and Federer. “It was a match worthy of a Grand Slam final,” the reporter enthused, demonstrating that, if nothing else, there’s great value in taking the game to an audience so starved for tennis that it can confuse those two experiences.

Why Goran is the super coach of the year

December, 22, 2014
This year, super coach Stefan Edberg helped set a course that enabled his protégé Roger Federer to reclaim the world No. 2 ranking. But Federer failed in his primary annual mission to win at least one Grand Slam event.

Boris Becker, Edberg’s career rival at Wimbledon, joined Novak Djokovic’s entourage this year as resident guru, charged with helping Djokovic recapture his mojo after a succession of Grand Slam failures. Becker guided Djokovic through a year in which he reclaimed the top ranking from Rafael Nadal, but the German icon was unable to help Djokovic realize his main ambition for 2014, which was to complete a career Grand Slam with a win at the French Open.

[+] EnlargeGoran Ivanisevic
Rex Features/AP ImagesGoran Ivanisevic wasn't the most stable player on tour, but he's found a way to settle down Marin Cilic.
Michael Chang, who bagged just one Grand Slam title as a player -- and that one at age 17, in Paris -- was one of the most consistent top-10 players of his time. This year, some of his doggedness rubbed off on his protégé Kei Nishikori, who improved his career high year-end ranking of No. 17 in 2013 to No. 5. At Flushing Meadows in September, Nishikori also became the first Asian man to play a Grand Slam final.

Goran Ivanisevic also won only one Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2001. At the time, the Croatian was 29 and down on his luck -- as well as his health. He went out with a bang, the only wild card (awarded on the strength of his three runner-up finishes as a younger man) ever to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon. This year, he made a spectacular return to the game as a coach, helping countryman Marin Cilic vault into the top 10 -- and win the US Open singles title.

Before 2014, Cilic had been written off by many pundits as a legitimate Grand Slam contender. He started the year ranked No. 37, and he was coming off a suspension for a doping violation. If anything, his career seemed to be heading south. Cilic was such a massive reclamation project that Ivanisevic is my choice as the super coach of the year.

Goran? Who woulda thunk it?

In 16 years as a pro, Ivanisevic was known just as much for his flaky nature as that wicked, left-handed serve -- the delivery that propelled him into four Wimbledon finals. Despite that illustrious grass-court record, Ivanisevic was in many ways the anti-Chang. He was the kind of player who drove his fans to distraction, the chief refrain emanating from his camp followers at innumerable tournaments was, “How could Goran lose to that guy?”

Ivanisevic also was a huge personality who had no filter when it came to expressing his feelings or opinions. He was perfectly happy to turn a news conference into a one-man group therapy session. The best example is his ruminations in 2001 on the “two Gorans,” in which he freely described the inner tension between the “good Goran” who wanted to toe the line and win major titles, and the racket-smashing, umpire-bashing “bad Goran,” who was churlish, self-defeating and “very negative.”

Ivanisevic, ever volatile, moody and unpredictable -- was not his Wimbledon triumph entirely unexpected? -- just was not the kind of guy who immediately popped to mind when you went hunting in the rankings for coaching fodder. Level-headed Stefan Edberg? Sure. Diligent Michael Chang? Of course. Inspirational Boris Becker? You bet.

But Goran Ivanisevic?

When Ivanisevic was a player, you could never count on him to keep six consecutive shots inside the lines, no matter who the opponent. He had the rotten luck to meet Wimbledon icon Pete Sampras in the late stages of Wimbledon on three occasions, including two finals (the other champ who beat him in a final was Andre Agassi). But Ivanisevic also lost in London to mere mortals, including Jason Stoltenberg and British wild card Nick Brown (ATP No. 591).

Ivanisevic won 22 titles, one major and just two Masters 1000 titles in his career. Yet there he was, in Cilic’s guest box in Flushing Meadows on a cool September afternoon, watching his protégé earn his first major title at the expense of stable and unimpeachable Chang’s own understudy, Nishikori. You have to wonder, was it a fluke?

The answer to that tends to transcend the X’s and O’s that comprise the nuts and bolts of coaching. As Cilic remarked after winning the US Open, “The most important thing [Ivanisevic] was bringing to me was joy -- having fun in my tennis.”

It turns out that what Cilic most needed was a mandate to lighten up and to have faith in his own game. As he said of his past, after he overwhelmed Nishikori, “I was dealing too much with the tactics against players and not focusing on my game. It wasn't easy to change my perspective and to change completely my mindset.”

Ivanisevic changed Cilic’s outlook when the two men began to work together near the end of 2013. He convinced the cerebral, introspective Cilic to simplify and enjoy. He got him to turn 180 degrees in his view of the game and how he ought to approach it. Ivanisevic made Cilic move the dial that always pointed at “them” (his opponents) to “me.”

If that all sounds a little too touchy-feely, look also at the damage Cilic did with his serve at the US Open and the way he delivered it -- with preparation and a quick action that is so much like the serve of Ivanisevic that Cilic could be accused of copyright infringement.

No super coach had as dramatic and tangible an impact on his protégé in 2014 as Ivanisevic. He turned a baffling example of unrealized talent into a Grand Slam champion. As it turns out, there are more than just those two Gorans of yore. There’s a third one: Goran the teacher. Goran the super coach.

Tennis' version of Santas and superstars

December, 18, 2014
It has been a terrific year for the tennis coaching industry. It isn’t just that so many coaches found gainful employment; it's also because the dignity of the profession -- never a guaranteed thing -- was greatly enhanced by the dramatic increase in what is now being called the “supercoach” category.

The presence of former greats -- among others, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic, Amelie Mauresmo and newest addition Martina Navratilova -- in the player guest boxes of the world has brought increased attention not just to the profession but to the game itself. Supercoaches have created a thousand new storylines because their names are so resonant -- and irresistible.

With that in mind, and with this being the holiday season, let’s imagine what the celebrity coaches and their players might produce when it comes time to exchange gifts.

ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic has had a terrific year, marred only by his failure to achieve his main ambition for 2014, a win at Roland Garros. The French Open remains the only Grand Slam title Djokovic hasn’t won. It’s important: In recent years, completing a career Grand Slam has become almost a requisite entry on the résumé of any player who hopes to be called “great.” Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal each has a career Slam. Why not Nole?

With that in mind, Boris Becker presents Djokovic with an official FFT-endorsed Roland Garros dartboard, featuring the face of Rafael Nadal on a corkboard the color of terre battue. It comes with three darts, but Becker also gives Djokovic the special five-dart “party pack” -- in case Djokovic wants to invite a few of the contenders who might sweep Nadal out of the way to join in the game.

Djokovic, fearing that the stress of having to sit watching and feeling unaccustomedly helpless may be causing Becker to overeat, gives his coach a treadmill.

Stefan Edberg has always been famous for his phlegmatic nature and reticence. Never one to make a big to-do about holidays -- or anything else for that matter -- he gives his protégé Roger Federer a gray scarf and a $10 bottle of Chilean red wine.

Federer gives Edberg a framed, 8 1/2-by-12-inch black-and-white head shot of himself, signed with permanent marker, “Best Wishes, Roger Federer.”

WTA No. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska barely knows her new coach, Navratilova. Unsure of her taste, Radwanska decides to play it safe and give nine-time Wimbledon champ Navratilova a complete, nine-DVD collection of her Wimbledon triumphs.

Convinced that Radwanska needs a little more oooomph and aggression in her game, Navratilova gives the Polish Popgun the complete, nine-DVD collection of Navratilova’s Wimbledon triumphs.

Kei Nishikori has risen all the way to No. 5 under the tutelage of former French Open champion Michael Chang. Nishikori pulls out all the stops and gives Chang a Porsche that the player got for a sweet price off Maria Sharapova (who keeps winning the vehicles in Stuttgart).

Chang, legendary in his playing days for his frugality, gives Nishikori a coffee-table book filled with photos of cute kittens.

Former No. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport has agreed to coach Madison Keys in 2015. However, as the mother of four young children, Davenport will do most of her coaching via telephone. It’s not much of a surprise, but Keys will certainly get good use out of her Christmas present -- a $500 phone card.

Keys is just 19 and knows little about motherhood. She gives Davenport a really cool Nirvana T-shirt.

Being French, Mauresmo has a nice sense of the marriage between good taste and style. The sight of Andy Murray in his scruffy jeans, running shoes and ratty hoody drives her crazy. With help from Judy Murray and Kim Sears, Mauresmo gets Murray’s measurements and has a Bond Street tailor make up a smart fitted suit complete with pipe-stem slacks.

Murray, while he gets on great with Mauresmo and has decided to continue working with her for 2015, doesn’t get her anything. Christmas makes him grumpy.

Marin Cilic won the U.S. Open in 2014, surpassing his wildest ambitions, thanks partly to the coaching acumen of former Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic. Feeling deeply grateful and flush from his newfound wealth, Cilic reserves a seat for Ivanisevic on a Virgin Galactic commercial flight into space.

If Ivanisevic gets lucky (or not), he might get to sit alongside fellow ticket holders Lady Gaga, scientist James Lovelock or Justin Bieber. The Christmas card with the ticket inside contains the handwritten message: Goran, I hope you enjoy this. People said you were always out there anyway.

Ivanisevic knows that Cilic is a deep thinker (sometimes to his own detriment when it comes to his profession) and wants to give him an intellectually stimulating gift. He chooses the game Boggle.

Jimmy Connors more or less launched the supercoach trend when he signed on with Andy Roddick in 2006. More recently, Connors coached WTA No. 2 Maria Sharapova for exactly one match in the summer of 2013. He’s out of the picture now, but Connors and Sharapova still exchange Christmas cards.

Happy holidays to all!
So you rose from No. 11 in the world in January to No. 3 in the WTA rankings by the end of the year, and along the way, you made a Grand Slam final in Paris. What do you do?

If you’re Simona Halep, you fire your coach.

So you made the semifinals (at least) of three Grand Slam events and rocket from No. 32 to No. 7. Incidentally, you also break out as a star and marketing sensation. What do you do?

[+] EnlargeNavratilova
Larry Marano/Getty ImagesCan Martina Navratilova help catapult Agnieszka Radwanska to her first Grand Slam title?
If you’re Eugenie Bouchard, you fire your coach. Although in her case, the official statement said that she and Nick Saviano agreed to part by mutual agreement. Translation: They fired each other.

So you’ve been ranked as high as No. 2 and made it to the Wimbledon final, thanks to your exceptional defense, wily tactics and remarkably deft “feel” and hands. What do you do?

If you’re Agnieszka Radwanska, you hire a woman known for her exceptional offense, straight-ahead serve-and-volley game, and all court aggression in Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova.

So you won the junior Wimbledon singles title at 15 and, according to some in-the-trenches coaches, you were the best prospect in Australia in the past two decades. You quit the game, abruptly and with no plans to return, at age 18. What do you do?

If you’re Ashleigh Barty, you become a tennis coach, hoping to find or help the next … Ashleigh Barty.

The proverbial “coaching carousel” has been spinning wildly these past few weeks. In fact, it’s spinning so quickly that anyone who hops aboard for a ride is likely to get flung off, or end up staggering away when the brief ride is over to go and hurl in the hedges. It’s fair to ask, “What on earth is going on here?”

The activity in the annual late-year coaching bazaar has been brisk as well as bizarre. What had once been a relatively straightforward and often long-lasting relationship between famous (or even not so famous) player and his coach (think Pete Sampras and Paul Annacone or even the more recently, Victoria Azarenka and Sam Sumyk) seems to have become a partnership built upon -- and often swiftly ruined by -- mystifying and insufficiently clear factors and conflicts.

For more and more players, having just one coach is as insufficient as having just one car in the family. Furthermore, the once comprehensive role that defined the coach has been shattered into splinters. There are coaches who wouldn’t touch a player’s forehand grip or ball toss if you paid him -- that’s because they’re more psychologist than tutor. Others have a purpose that could not be any narrower. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic hired Boris Becker last year because he thought the German icon might help him win the most critical of points in the biggest of matches.

At least one coach claims he was fired partly because he just isn’t a life-of-the-party kind of guy. Wim Fissette, recently let go by Halep, explained: “She is a girl who needs a lot of variation. That's why, for example, every tournament there were some family members to ‘entertain’ her.”

Fissette also said that Halep simply feels more comfortable with Romanians on her team, which might explain why she’ll now work with Victor Ionita, who is a fellow countryman but not why she’s also hired Thomas Hogstedt, who is not. Incidentally, there’s a new niche in the coaching trade, and Hogstedt, who has coached Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, defines it when he defers and describes himself as a mere “consultant” to Halep.

You can put James Blake in the “consultant” category as well. He’ll be working with America’s brightest prospect, 22-year-old and ATP No. 42 Jack Sock. Blake, who doesn’t want to travel, will mostly mentor Sock. “I'm definitely not in the role of being the day-to-day coach. That's Troy Hahn. He's worked with him closely. I help with some of the big-picture type things, keep the mindset the right way, make sure he gives his opponents enough respect. I think that's something a lot of younger players overlook. Keep his mind in the right place.”

[+] EnlargeSimona Halep
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesSimona Halep changed her coaching direction following a career year.
In other words, Blake is the coach who will try to peel Sock’s eyeballs off his Twitter feed and make sure Sock knows the price he’ll pay for a late night out. It’s a far cry from ordering him to do 50 sit-ups or to serve out a shopping basket full of balls.

The motivation behind the Radwanska-Navratilova partnership is similar to the force that drove Djokovic to find Becker. Only Djokovic was a Grand Slam champ in a Grand Slam finals slump, while Radwanska still hasn’t punched through. The conspicuous difference in the styles of the two women raises some interesting questions: Will Navratilova advise Radwanska to chip and charge behind her service return if she gets to critical break point against a Sharapova or Williams in a French Open or Wimbledon semifinal?

The job definition for “coach” has become so pliant that even television commentators have jumped into the fray, as evidenced by the fact that Tennis Channel’s Justin Gimelstob will replace Mike Sell as coach of the highest-ranking American, No. 19 John Isner. Navratilova is also a TC commentator. As is Lindsay Davenport, who will be coaching promising youngster Madison Keys in 2015.

Perhaps “coaching” is too strong a word to use in some of these cases. Davenport is locked into her commentary work for the upcoming year, and she’s also the mother of four. So she says she’ll just talk with Keys when she can, presumably with a phone in one hand and her 11-month-old in the other, bouncing on her hip.

Although the general U.S. economy may still be a bit sluggish, coaching certainly has become a booming and baffling business. My advice to any coach who has got a solid top 20-type player looking to improve: Don’t let her or him get anywhere near the top five or you might find yourself out of a job.

Serena Williams, Kei Nishikori are POYs

December, 5, 2014
Serena WilliamsJulian Finney/Getty ImagesSerena Williams capped what looked like a lost year with titles at the US Open and WTA Finals.
In some years, the players of the year are those who clearly dominated the playing field. Think Roger Federer in 2006, Novak Djokovic in 2011, or Serena Williams almost any time (on the Mayan as well as Gregorian calendars).

This year, my choices for player of the year won but one Grand Slam title between them. And just one finished the year ranked No. 1 -- and that just by the skin of her teeth.

I’m guessing you know my WTA pick: Serena Williams. On the men’s side, my POY is Kei Nishikori.

First, let’s clear up any confusion about what qualifies a player for my award. You can’t play like dog poop and earn the distinction, but piling up the W's doesn’t get you the nomination, either. To me, the POY is the male or female who had the greatest impact on the game. Often, that’s also the best player, as in the case of Williams in 2014.

Sometimes the POY is the athlete who brought more than just a walloping serve or ball-crushing forehand to the party. It’s the player who captured our collective imagination, elevated the game in the public eye, or achieved something few had anticipated and surprised us. And that’s what Nishikori did this year.

Serena is one of the biggest tennis personalities ever to pull on faux biker boots. But most years she’s been so deadly efficient on the court that she was a strong candidate for POY based exclusively on her record. This year, it was different. This year, we weren’t asking, “Can Serena achieve a Grand Slam?” or “Will she lose a set during the tournament?”

Instead, for most of the year we were asking, “What’s wrong with Serena?” And let’s be frank here: By August, many wondered if she was through winning majors.

This situation caused endless anxiety for Williams fans, but it helped the game. And it provided a nice counterweight to one of the other big WTA stories of the year, the breakthrough by Eugenie Bouchard. For the media, Williams is the gift that just keeps giving. And she’s such a great player that she’s an even bigger story when she’s losing than when she’s winning.

Williams kept us on tenterhooks for most of the year. She lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Ana Ivanovic (who had never previously beaten Williams). She then suffered the worst defeat of her Grand Slam career when Garbine Muguruza allowed Williams just four games in a second-round clash at the French Open. At Wimbledon, she lost to Alize Cornet in singles and then withdrew (with partner and sister, Venus) a few games into a doubles match due to a disturbing episode of physical disorientation.

The story of Williams’s demise was all teed up for the U.S. Open. But after Wimbledon, Williams proceeded to win 19 of her last 20 matches of 2014, including a dramatic and entertaining U.S. Open final. She had kept us on the edge of our seats all year, and then turned a potentially sad story into a glorious one.

There’s also this: When it comes to the WTA, Williams remains the only fixed point on an ever-shifting and confusing plain. It makes you wonder what will happen when she’s gone.

[+] EnlargeKei Nishikori
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesA measured, consistent approach helped Kei Nishikori make his mark this season.
If you wanted to nominate an "anti-Serena" in the personality department, Nishikori would surely be on your short list. The 24-year old Japanese isn't so much self-effacing as he is introverted. Nishikori is so absorbed in the day-to-day demands of his profession that he has almost no media presence. His game is equally understated, which is one of the reasons so many fans, upon seeing him in the U.S. Open final, wondered how he got there.

Well, the answer is fairly simple: He’s a wonderful ball striker with clean, grooved strokes. He’s remarkably nimble and willing to take the ball on the rise. Also, he has a grinder’s mentality. He can simply outlast run-of-the-mill opponents with his superior consistency and patience, and keep pace with the elite players because his focus keeps at bay some of the customary fears and doubts attendant to facing a Djokovic or Federer.

That alone wouldn’t necessarily net him distinction as the ATP POY. After all, Marin Cilic was an equally surprising U.S. Open finalist, and he beat Nishikori for the title. Another introvert, the 26-year-old Cilic has two years on Nishikori, but has won just three of their eight meetings (including 1-2 in 2014). At 6-foot-6, Cilic is another in a long line of sinewy, towering Croatians who have left their mark on the game.

By contrast, Nishikori is a mere 5-foot-10. In baggy shorts and a baseball cap, he looks as if he just wandered in from a panel in "Peanuts." He’s one of the players who seem designed to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief (and the existence of thumpers like Cilic) that "bigger" doesn't necessarily translate into "better." Thanks to guys like Nishikori, slightly built men and women know there’s always hope.

Nishikori, who finished the year at No. 5, also established new high-water marks for Asian male players, a valuable service at a time when the game is enjoying a growth spurt throughout the Pacific region. To be sure, tennis is no novelty in Japan, nor will the Chinese fall all over themselves to embrace Nishikori as some sort of pan-Asian hero. But it was high time for an Asian man to step up and serve as a convincing regional role model.

This was a somewhat odd year in pro tennis, as presaged at the Australian Open by that Ivanovic upset of Serena and the muted men’s final that produced a 29-year-old first-time Grand Slam champion, Stan Wawrinka.

And, in some ways, the Grand Slam cycle ended with equally big surprises thanks to players of the year Serena Williams and Kei Nishikori.
Grigor Dimitrov Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAn ATP star was born in 2014 in the form of promising Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.
They hung the Baby Federer moniker on Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov nearly a half-decade ago, thanks largely to that gorgeous one-handed backhand. But in the interim you sometimes had to wonder whether the designated successor to the mighty Federer would ever take more than baby steps toward glory.

The waddling and stumbling appear to be over now for Dimitrov. He’s 23 years old, and in 2014 he took some giant steps toward elite status. Thus, he’s my pick as most improved ATP player of 2014.

Other players certainly could stake a claim to the honor. Stan Wawrinka won a Grand Slam event, a Masters 1000 and a Davis Cup championship in 2014. Japan’s Kei Nishikori became the first Asian to play in a Grand Slam final, and Croatia’s Marin Cilic was crowned a Grand Slam champ.

But all those men have more history in the game and had come close to glimpsing the promise before this year. Until 2014, Dimitrov had never been in the top 20; this year he reached No. 8 and finished with a year-end ranking of No. 11. More importantly, he’s put together a platform for taking that final, most difficult leap to the top.

Dimitrov won titles on three different continents this year (he had just one title previously) and on all three major surfaces: hard courts (Acapulco), clay (Bucharest) and grass (Queens). The takeaway is that Dimitrov is versatile enough to be a factor at all big events.

That versatility wouldn’t mean nearly as much were it not for a great improvement in Dimitrov’s consistency. His final match record was an outstanding 50-18, and over the course of the past 11 months he seemed to develop the reliability and focus that gets you into the top 10 and keeps you there.

Learning to win -- day in, day out, on days sunny as well as cloudy, cool as well as warm, and when the backhand is clicking as well as on those days when it’s on the fritz -- is an important mission for any young player. It’s doubly so for Dimitrov, a mercurial talent whose ball-striking prowess is matched by his flair and star quality. You can pooh-pooh that latter trait, but it’s something he has to live with and manage.

Dimitrov -- dark-haired, lean and sinewy -- penetrated the tabloid culture when he turned up as Maria Sharapova’s boyfriend back in 2013. Clearly, the liaison has been less a distraction than a source of motivation.

The most impressive thing about Dimitrov’s year may be that he lost in the first round (or second, on those occasions when he had a bye) only twice during the entire year. That would be an outstanding display of consistency by anyone, including many a Grand Slam champion. By contrast, No. 4 Wawrinka lost his first match four times in 2014.

Dimitrov’s other highlights in 2014 included a third-round win over Milos Raonic at the Australian Open. He also had two wins over Andy Murray -- one in the Acapulco semifinals and the other at Wimbledon, where Dimitrov knocked out the defending champion and wildly popular local hero in the quarterfinals.

Later in the fall, Dimitrov made the final of Stockholm (indoor hard court), where he was the popular defending champion. But he lost an excruciatingly close match to Tomas Berdych 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

Perhaps finding out the hard way that what goes around, comes around was the final lesson prepared for Dimitrov in 2014. It looks like he’s ready to put on big-boy pants.

Bouchard's stellar, saga-laden season

December, 1, 2014
It’s hard to pick anyone but Eugenie Bouchard as the most improved player, WTA division, for 2014. But if you were to award her a plaque to commemorate her breakout year, it might come with a warning label: Overexposure may be hazardous to your health.

Bouchard is perched close to the top of her world. She’s just 20 years old, but she reached two semifinals and a final at Grand Slam events this year. Credit an aggressive baseline game and a stable and courageous temperament. Her wins were predicated upon quick reactions and the ability and willingness to take the ball on the rise, from inside the court. Peaking at the most important of tournaments enabled her to vault from a ranking of No. 32 at the start of 2014 to her present No. 7. (She hit a career-high No. 5 along the way.) To top it off, Bouchard is charismatic and highly marketable, and she hails from a prosperous, tennis-conversant nation (Canada) that has been starved for a world-class female champion.

That potent combination of accomplishments and qualities has made her an overnight sensation. Yet in the past few months, she has seemed less star than star-crossed. Has a most improved player at the end of any year gone into the following one with as many turbulent questions roiling over her head as this 5-foot-10, sturdily built Quebecoise?

Bouchard burst upon our consciousness when she broke through to the Australian Open semifinals (l. to champion Li Na). She went on to claim the first -- and thus far only -- title of her career in late May, at Nurnberg, Germany. A first win is always a special moment for a pro, but in that one she didn’t beat a player ranked higher than No. 52. Nevertheless, Bouchard then powered her way to the semis of the French Open, where she lost once again to the eventual champ (Maria Sharapova). The Canadian hit the zenith of her year at Wimbledon, where she made the final. But Bouchard was beaten, swiftly and mercilessly, in a credibility-straining 6-3, 6-0 display of firepower by now-two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

Then the lug nuts began to spin loose. Withdrawing from her first summer hard-court event (Citi Open) with an injured right knee, Bouchard did not make her North American debut until her hometown event, Montreal. She seemed fine physically but panicked and choked in her first match, losing a three-setter to American qualifier Shelby Rogers. Things went downhill from there.

Sources close to her camp say that the knee injury kept Bouchard from developing adequate fitness for the US Open, where she made the fourth round but was upset by No. 18 Ekaterina Makarova. Bouchard rebounded to make the Wuhan final (l. to Kvitova) but was thumped in the opening round in Beijing (l. to Sabine Lisicki). Her results were indifferent for the rest of the year, and she left the Singapore WTA Championships without winning a set -- or more than three games in any set -- in any of her three round-robin matches. After she lost a 6-1 first set to Ana Ivanovic, Bouchard complained to her coach, Nick Saviano: “Why am I even playing this tournament?”

Meanwhile, Simona Halep, the other viable most improved player candidate, made a statement more typical of a surging player. She beat Bouchard, Ivanovic and Serena Williams in the round robin and took out Agnieszka Radwanska in the semis before Williams gained revenge by winning the final. Halep ended on a high note, rising to No. 3 at the final event of the year.

But there was more to come: In November, Bouchard and Saviano announced that they had terminated their relationship. And around Thanksgiving, Bouchard pulled out of a team exhibition match in India, citing an unspecified injury. All she said (in a news release) was: “I’m really disappointed I won’t be able to compete in the IPTL (International Premiere Tennis League) this year due to an injury I suffered in practice.”

The most disturbing element in Bouchard’s complicated saga is the breakup (by mutual consent) with her coach, Saviano. A coach whose reputation is a lot stronger among tennis insiders than the media and fans, he has declined to say anything other than how proud he was to help Bouchard, with whom he worked since she was a 12-year-old, achieve that No. 5 ranking. He has wished Bouchard the best of luck. When coaches and/or players decline to give any solid reasons they’re breaking up (it’s unlikely money is the culprit here, as Saviano has a successful tennis academy), it suggests that something has changed dramatically in the nature of their relationship.

Bouchard probably will need all the luck Saviano and others wish upon her for 2015, especially if her injuries were as impactful -- and persistent -- as it appears. She has loads of rankings points to defend and a great big target on her back. All eyes will be upon her, the way they once were on Sloane Stephens. The need to juggle her career as a tennis-transcending star surely will constitute a distraction for Bouchard. The challenges seem formidable, but then this lady has one great asset as she confronts them. Asked in a conference call recently whether she’s comfortable with all the attention she’s received, Bouchard conceded that she needed “to manage my time better.”

She also said, pondering the price of her high profile: “I knew what I was signing up for. If I didn’t want attention, I would have been a librarian.”

This clearly is one tough young lady. She’ll need to be, given what lies ahead.