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Clay can be the most demanding surface, and recently it has been the most predictable. Rafael Nadal has treated Roland Garros as his stomping ground, raising the Coupe de Mousquetaires in eight of the past nine years.

The world No. 1's surprising loss to David Ferrer in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals, combined with the right wrist injury that limited No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the second set of his Monte Carlo loss to Roger Federer, may give challengers a bit more hope before the start of clay-court Masters tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

Consider that since 1999, there has been one unseeded French Open champion (Gaston Gaudio in 2004), three unseeded runner-ups (Andrei Medvedev in 1999, Mariano Puerta in 2005 and Martin Verkerk in 2003), a 20th-seeded champion (Albert Costa in 2002) and a No. 23 seeded runner-up (Robin Soderling in 2009).

That's not to suggest a long shot will reach the French Open final in June, but it is a reminder that clay can be a shifting surface. With that in mind, here are our top 5 dark horse players to watch during this clay-court season. We define dark horse as a player ranked outside the top 10.

No. 13 Fabio Fognini

Strengths: Savvy court sense, sharp groundstrokes, a flair for angles and a mischievous mind are all assets Fognini has applied, posting a 16-3 record on dirt this season. Soft hands and the ability to close at the net enable Fognini to carve up opponents with a sculptor's creativity. He reached seven clay-court quarterfinals in 2013 and posted a career-best 13-match winning streak on dirt, sweeping successive titles at Stuttgart and Hamburg. His ability to take the ball early and redirect pace accurately are resources on return. Fognini finished fifth in return games won (31 percent) last season.

Shortcomings: Emotional volatility. The theatrical Italian's response to stress sometimes sends him into meltdown mode, shattering his concentration to collateral damage. Mood swings can cause Fognini to careen from smooth shot-making to casual indifference and when his inner clown comes out, matches can become a circus. He was booed by the Monte Carlo crowd for an apathetic attitude in each of the past two years. The 5-foot-10 Italian Davis Cup hero has a solid first serve, but his second serve can be shaky under pressure, contributing to his 4-29 career record versus top 10 opponents.

No. 16 Grigor Dimitrov

Strengths: Athleticism and an all-court game that can challenge the elite. Dimitrov beat Djokovic on clay in Madrid last year, defeated No. 3 David Ferrer to win his first title in Stockholm in October, and topped Andy Murray en route to the Acapulco title in March. His first serve, forehand, movement and ability to improvise on the run are all weapons.

Shortcomings: Shot selection, inconsistency and underwhelming results in Masters and majors. Dimitrov can dazzle winning style points, but can lack clarity on crucial points. When pushed back behind the baseline, his one-handed backhand can be vulnerable. He has won just three career matches at Roland Garros, and his best performance in a clay-court Masters was a quarterfinal result at Monte Carlo last year. Both of Dimitrov's titles have come on hard courts, and though he owns a .568 winning percentage on dirt, the 22-year-old Bulgarian sometimes suffers an identity crisis on clay and looks unsure how to attack on the slower surface.

No. 18 Tommy Robredo

Strengths: The marathon man has a habit of producing determined runs on dirt. Robredo, who has won 11 of his 12 career titles on clay, reached his fifth French Open quarterfinal last year in historic style. He became the second man in history to come back from two sets down to win in three consecutive Grand Slam matches, joining Henri Cochet, who did it in 1927. The 31-year-old Spaniard is one of five active men with 200 or more career clay-court victories and his desire remains undiminished. Robredo has scored top 10 wins over Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet in the past year. He owns a 14-4 career fifth-set record and an impressive .691 clay-court career winning percentage.

Shortcomings: Mounting mileage, advancing age and lack of a major weapon. Robredo's habit of running around his one-handed backhand to crack his favored forehand is his preferred pattern, but can leave him vulnerable against power players who can pound his weaker backhand. He lacks the jolting power to end points with a single shot that lower-ranked compatriots Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco possess. The veteran with 770 career singles matches to his credit doesn't always recovery as quickly as he once did, which can cause complications. He has suffered clay-court losses to No. 91 Leonardo Mayer and No. 84 Santiago Giraldo this season.

No. 23 Ernests Gulbis

Strengths: Physicality, a punishing serve and explosiveness from virtually anywhere on the court (and the postmatch interview). The 6-foot-3 Gulbis can deconstruct opponents with his punishing two-handed backhand, and his reconstructed forehand is a weapon when he has the time to set up for it. The 2010 Roland Garros quarterfinalist typically plays his most finely tuned tennis in big moments: he is 3-2 against top 10 opponents this season and 5-0 lifetime in ATP finals.

Shortcomings: The enemy within. Gulbis is vulnerable to mental mayhem that sabotages point construction and often compels him to overplay the drop shot when he runs out of ideas. The aggressive baseliner owns the shots to control play, but doesn't always put them together wisely. He is fifth on the ATP in aces, but 17th in service games won (84 percent). Stress can cause Gulbis to go off the grid, and anything can happen, from erupting into a racket-smashing frenzy, to kicking courtside signs, to the volatile Latvian indulging his urge to squeeze low-percentage blasts down the line.

No. 80 Dominic Thiem

Strengths: Electric groundstrokes generated by eye-popping racket-head speed, a strong tennis pedigree as the son of two coaches and protégé of Gunter Bresnik, former coach of Boris Becker, and plenty of tenacity. The youngest man in the ATP top 100 has successfully played through qualifying to reach main draws five times in six attempts this season. The 2011 French Open junior finalist's one-handed backhand demands attention, and his forehand can command rallies. Thiem is still refining the rough edges of his game, but clay is his best surface. He posted a 54-17 clay-court record with five titles on the ITF Futures circuit.

Shortcomings: Endurance and inexperience. The 20-year-old Austrian admits he must get stronger: Thiem owns a 2-13 career record when losing the first set. Thiem is working to refine his return game -- he's averaging just 16 percent return games won this season -- and sharpen his footwork to ensure he strikes on balance.
The visiting team has split the World Group semifinals in seven of the past 10 years, but will that trend continue this weekend? Defending Fed Cup champion Italy travels to the Czech Republic in a meeting of nations that have combined to capture the past five Fed Cup championships. Australia hosts Germany in a tie of two teams aiming to advance to the Fed Cup final for the first time in more than two decades. Here's our final four preview.

Italy at Czech Republic
Hard Court
CEZ Arena Ostrava, Czech Republic


The semifinal stage presents a familiar plotline as the two nations square off in the semis for the fourth time in the past five years.

A year ago, Sara Errani beat Lucie Safarova in the opener and Roberta Vinci scored a pair of singles wins to lead Italy to a 3-1 win over the Czechs on the slow red clay of Palermo. Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti faces an interesting decision for the rematch on a much faster track. Does he start 31-year-old veteran Vinci, opt for 50th-ranked Karin Knapp (who scored a pair of singles victories in Italy's 3-1 win over the USA in the quarterfinals) or select rising No. 54 Camila Giorgi, who reached her first WTA final in Katowice over the weekend and has won nine of her past 12 matches?

Vinci's versatility and ability to use her slice backhand to change the pace has helped her defuse the Czech power players in the past, but she's mired in horrific 2-9 start to the season and enters this tie searching for confidence. Giorgi, who played through qualifying to reach the US Open fourth round last summer, has the aggressive baseline game suited to the surface, but owns only one Fed Cup appearance to her credit.

Kvitova is the key here. While the world No. 6 can be wildly streaky and occasionally flaky under pressure, she is one of the best pure ball strikers in the game, she's 6-0 lifetime versus Errani, she plays her best tennis indoors and the lefty is one of the most imposing Fed Cup players in the world. The 2011 Wimbledon champion has won 14 of her past 16 Fed Cup singles matches. Errani and Vinci are the former top-ranked doubles team, but Czechs have depth with reigning US Open doubles and mixed-doubles champ Andrea Hlavackova and No. 31 Klara Koukalova, already a 20-match winner this season. The faster surface favors the flatter-hitting Czech power players; the home team has won the past three semis between the two nations and gone on to capture the Cup.

The Pick: Czech Republic, 3-2

Germany at Australia
Hard Court
Queensland Tennis Centre, Brisbane, Australia


Traditional tennis powers play for a long-awaited return to the final.

Germany boasts a higher-ranked cast -- No. 7 Angelique Kerber, No. 28 Andrea Petkovic, who is fresh off winning the biggest title of her career in Charleston, and No. 94 Julia Goerges -- and will be driven to reach its first Fed Cup final since 1992, when Steffi Graf and Anke Huber led the Germans to a 2-1 triumph over Spain.

Australian No. 1 Samantha Stosur, who has been prone to playing tentative, nervous tennis on home soil, has not won back-to-back matches since February, when she dropped just nine games in a pair of singles wins to power Australia to a 4-0 sweep of Russia in the Fed Cup quarterfinals. Stosur must step up for the home side to reach its first final since 1993, and she has the ability to do so. The 2011 US Open champion has won eight of her past 10 Fed Cup matches, including straight-sets wins over Kerber and Petkovic in a 3-2 victory in the 2012 Fed Cup Playoffs on red clay in Stuttgart. Australian No. 2 Casey Dellacqua has been resurgent, winning 12 of her past 15 matches.

German captain Barbara Rittner played doubles on the nation's last Fed Cup championship squad and has several options if doubles is decisive here. Goerges and Petkovic won the dead-doubles point the last time these teams faced off, and Anna-Lena Groenefeld, ranked No. 13 in doubles, has extensive Fed Cup experience. Former world No. 1 doubles player Stosur is 6-0 lifetime in Fed Cup doubles and both Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty are top 20-ranked doubles players. Managing nerves will be crucial, but I see the Aussies celebrating a final return on Sunday.

The Pick: Australia 3, Germany 2

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World Group Playoff

France at United States
Hard Court
Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis, MO


Playing without the Williams sisters, the Americans turn to players with promising futures. France's future has already arrived.

Probable French singles starters Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia tuned up for this tie winning titles over the weekend. Cornet saved a match point defeating Camila Giorgi in the Katowice final to raise her ranking to No. 21 -- her highest rank since 2009. She also beat world No. 1 Serena before losing to Venus in the Dubai final in February. The 20-year-old Garcia, who owns the all-court skills that prompted Andy Murray to once tout her as a potential future No. 1, swept the singles and doubles championships in Bogotá, becoming the first woman since Serena at the 2012 London Olympics to sweep singles and doubles crowns at the same tournament.

The USA counters with a slumping Sloane Stephens, who has looked disengaged losing three of her last four matches since her run to the Indian Wells quarterfinals, No. 42 Madison Keys, No. 48 left-hander Varvara Lepchenko and No. 59 Christina McHale.

Pressure is the trickiest variable to consider when forecasting a match, and it becomes even more unpredictable given the youth at play here. Both U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez and her French counterpart, former Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo, still travel the tour and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. If she gets off to a fast start and plays with positive emotion, I can see Stephens snapping out of her mini-slump and stamping her game on this tie, but she hasn't shown the initiative or tenacity to grind out matches when her best tennis eludes her. When Keys is clicking, her massive serve is one of the game's most striking weapons, but the 19-year-old looked skittish in her Fed Cup debut in February. Current form favors France.

The Pick: France 3, USA 2
Screaming vuvuzelas, smacking thundersticks and singing chants charge Davis Cup with a festival feel in which athletes and audience both crank up the intensity.

Three of the four World Group quarterfinals rocked into a decisive fifth match last weekend. Let's look into the reverberations.

Here are five takeaways from the quarterfinals to consider while Davis Cup pulls the plug on the party for the next five months before two-time defending champion Czech Republic visits France and Switzerland hosts Italy in the Sept. 12-14 semifinals.

Roll Player
Italian No. 1 Fabio Fognini isn't the best Davis Cup player in the world, but he might be the most entertaining when he's conjuring his all-court magic on clay. The Fog rolled over Andy Murray to level the quarterfinal with Great Britain and set the stage for Andreas Seppi to clinch Italy's first trip to the semifinals in 16 years.

[+] EnlargeFabio Fognini
AP Photo/Salvatore LaportaFabio Fognini's enthusiasm and all-around game served him well against Andy Murray.
Fognini not only produced under the burden of looming elimination (and British fans chanting "Fabio, we are in your head!"), he made the Wimbledon champion's game look mundane in comparison. The 13th-ranked Italian scored his 13th straight Davis Cup singles win and snapped Murray's 19-match Davis Cup singles winning streak.

Fognini's game reminds me of another Davis Cup stalwart, the retired David Nalbandian. Both are creative sub-6-footers who can take the ball on the rise, as well as savvy doubles players moved by the Davis Cup muse to play their most inspired tennis.

The question is whether Fognini, who is 12-1 in Davis Cup singles matches contested on clay and 14-2 on dirt this year, can translate his game to the faster court surface he will see in Switzerland. Fognini owns a .390 career winning percentage on hard court.

Star power
Pluto was still a planet that last time Roger Federer led Switzerland to the Davis Cup semifinal in 2003. This year, the stars are aligned for Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka to carry the Swiss to their first Davis Cup.

Complications arose against Kazakhstan when world No. 64 Andrey Golubev tripped up Wawrinka 7-6 (5), 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in the opener, then knocked Stan down with a roundhouse forehand return on match point to seal Kazakhs doubles victory, giving the visitors a 2-1 lead and bracket-busting visions.

Wawrinka slammed 25 aces and did not drop serve to level, and Federer defeated Golubev to clinch the semifinal spot, then played with finesse when asked about playing the semifinals.

"The only hope I always have is that we will be healthy," said Federer, who has processed recent developments -— recovery from a back injury that contributed to his fall in the rankings, transitioning to a larger Wilson racket, the new partnership with Hall of Famer Stefan Edberg -— and channeled them all into a sharper attacking approach.

The 2008 Olympic doubles gold medalists make the Swiss the team to beat, but they are not invincible. Federer and Wawrinka have lost four straight Davis Cup doubles matches together, and the Swiss face the prospect of a road final if they beat Italy in the semifinals.

Home runs
Though three home teams were wobbled and one was done heading into the reverse singles play, host nations Italy, France and Switzerland roared back from 2-1 deficits last Sunday to reach the final four.

Japan, playing without its No. 1 Kei Nishikori -- who suffered a groin injury during his run to the Miami semifinals -- and in the absence of a Top 100-ranked singles player, was swept by two-time defending champion Czech Republic.

In 2014 World Group play, the host nation has won eight of 12 ties. Semifinal hosts are tough outs at home: France is 7-1 and Switzerland is 6-2 in their past eight home ties.

David's cup
The quarterfinals reinforced Davis Cup's reputation as the ring where inspired Davids can teeter and sometimes even TKO twitchy Goliaths.

You can argue Golubev's win over Wawrinka isn't that big of a shock, given Golubev's 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles matches on hard court and the fact the Kazakhs swept the Wawrinka-led Swiss team, 5-0, in a humbling 2010 playoff thrashing.

But how do you explain 119th-ranked Peter Gojowczyk fighting off a pair of match points and cramps to shock Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 5-7, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 7-6 (8), 8-6 and give Germany a 2-0 lead over host France? Still, Tsonga and Gael Monfils restored order on the final day.

"This victory is logical and was expected, but we know nothing is logical in the Davis Cup," French captain Arnaud Clement said in comments that also sum up the extremes of his team.

France has the most depth of any team in the final four with enough talent to win its first Davis Cup in 13 years, but can its sometimes temperamental cast manage their nerve and quiet the noises in their heads when it matters most?

Lion tamer
When Czech Davis Cup hero and doubles wizard Radek Stepanek unveils the lucky lion shirt he wears in Davis Cup play, it's a bit like seeing KISS hit the stage in full makeup: If you're not a fan, the old-school theatrics might seem a contrived cheesy affectation, but if you're an enthusiast, then you know you're going to see a showman ready to rock on all levels.

Stepanek made history last November when he clinched the defending champion's 3-2 triumph over host Serbia in the final, becoming the first man in the 101-year history of the Davis Cup final to clinch decisive matches in successive years. Last weekend, the 35-year-old won the opening singles match and partnered with Lukas Rosol in a doubles victory, extending the Czech Republic's winning streak to 11 ties.

Stepanek's soft hands around net, his flat strokes, guile for playing angles and gift for annoying opponents all play well in the Davis Cup cauldron. Who knows what the reigning U.S. Open doubles champion will bring to the semis, where France and the Czech Republic have split 14 prior meetings, but something tells me it will be worth watching.
Family Circle CupJake Drake/Icon SMIThe Green Clay at the Family Circle Cup is a welcome sight this time of year.
Miami likes its heat, both in the air and on the basketball court, but could probably do without the criticism its tennis tournament has recently received.

The Sony Open gave us two No. 1 vs. No. 2 singles finals (along with two men’s semifinal walkovers), but an unavoidable takeaway from the event is that it’s falling further behind its western rival, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, in terms of prestige and opinion.

Things aren’t at a boiling point for Miami, not with its coveted Masters 1000 designation, but renovations to the aging facilities are needed. Paul-Henri Mathieu called Miami the “most regressed tournament” on Twitter, after saying that Indian Wells was the “most improved tournament for the last decade.”

Of greater concern was this blunt assessment from tournament director Adam Barrett: “We want to stay in South Florida but we don’t want to run a second-class or third-tier event.”

For many reasons, Miami is not Indian Wells, and it shouldn’t look towards the Coachella Valley for inspiration. Yes, its $50 million renovation plans should take cues from Larry Ellison’s ideas, but Miami needs to differentiate from Indian Wells, not imitate it. It should, however, look to imitate a different American tournament in one significant way.

Which brings me to this week’s Family Circle Cup in Charleston. Now its 42nd year, the green-clay tournament has been an unqualified success story at a time when tournaments are leaving the United States in droves. It is the longest-running pro tournament sponsored by the same company, punches well above its weight in the fields it draws -- 15 of the 16 seeds in this year’s event are in the Top 40 -- and receives rave reviews from players.

And from this fan as well. Sadly, I won’t be attending the Family Circle Cup for the first time in five years, but I’ll be watching the women kick off the clay-court season on green Har-Tru. The surface is a pleasure to play on -- it’s easy to move around and forces you to hit a lot of shots -- and gives the U.S. something no other tournament offers. Think of Charleston as everything that Madrid wasn’t, when that tournament infamously switched to blue clay for one year.

I also think of Charleston as everything that Miami should be, only on a much smaller scale. Har-Tru has a long history in the state of Florida, and using it would be a natural way for Miami to evolve and create some much-needed buzz. Changing to clay would also be seamless from a calendar perspective, with the red-clay season beginning in Europe shortly after Miami’s conclusion (along with Charleston, of course).

Instead of ending a long hard-court slog, Miami could become the kickoff of the clay-court season. For that reason, I believe a surface switch would go over well with players, particularly those from South America who grew up on clay and receive tremendous support from the Latin-heavy crowds in Miami.

If Indian Wells serves as the entrée in the post-Australia hard-court meal, Miami is the third helping I didn’t really need. Charleston is something entirely different, the pecan-filled desert.

Enjoy it this week, perhaps with a sweet tea vodka, and hope that Miami comes to its senses and goes green.
Three weeks ago, Noelle Pikus-Pace and John Daly -- the skeleton racer, not the golfer -- were relative unknowns. They are now household names in the United States thanks to their performances in Sochi, Russia, and their sport helps represent the maxim “Less is more.”

Held just once every four years, the Winter Olympics are a refreshing example of restraint in sports, inevitably worth the wait each time they are staged. We may not remember Pikus-Pace and Daly three weeks from now, but for a time, they were at the center of the athletic universe, no small accomplishment considering their niche sport.

On the other side of the sled, we have Davis Cup and Fed Cup, the anti-Olympics. They are held too often -- not just every year but multiple times every year -- and they are unable to grasp the general public’s eye and fail to take advantage of their international innards.

But if casual sports fans took to skeleton, biathlon and moguls skiing while those sports were in the spotlight, it’s hard to imagine them neglecting tennis if its premier, worldwide competitions were structured like the Olympics. It’s also worth noting that even hard-core tennis fans -- not to mention the players themselves -- take issue with their current bloated schedules. This much is clear: Davis Cup and Fed Cup can’t continue with the status quo if they want to re-establish themselves as must-see events.

It’s not as simple as just extending the time between competitions, however. For Davis Cup and Fed Cup to thrive, the top players have to participate. And that falls on the tennis tours, which ultimately have to come together for the betterment of their sport. In my ideal scenario, Davis Cup and Fed Cup would be held concurrently, every two years -- bookending the Summer Olympic years, to avoid conflict -- over a three-week period during which no ATP or WTA tournaments take place.

This may sound ambitious, perhaps even repetitive. But remember that both tours already carve out weeks in their crowded calendars for Davis Cup and Fed Cup. If all those weeks were taken at once -- say, after the Grand Slams -- and in concert with one another, no tournaments would be lost; they’d only need to be rearranged.

Such an exercise has precedent: Since 1998, the National Hockey League has shut itself down for two weeks every Winter Olympic year. It’s largely a concession by the league’s owners to its players, but both sides reap the rewards of exposure. Do you know who T.J. Oshie is? I bet you do, even if you never watched an NHL game before Sochi. Such is the reach of the Olympics, something that a combined Davis/Fed Cup event could become, if done right.

Emulating what the Olympics and NHL do every four Februaries is just part of how tennis should promote its flagging but historic team competitions. It should also mimic what college basketball does in March. The NCAA tournament accommodates a large number of teams in a variety of venues -- which sounds a lot like Davis Cup and Fed Cup to me. In my ideal scenario, the first week of this three-week tennis event is used for traditional home and away ties, with the surviving teams playing the second week at a smaller number of sites. The last week -- the Final Forehands, if you will -- must be held in just one city, like a regular tournament. Yet with two champions crowned and a best-of-five rubber format, there will be nothing regular about it.

The most common complaint I hear about Davis Cup and Fed Cup is that they are so confusing to follow. Indeed, it’s hard to generate buzz when four rounds of play are held at four different times of year (in Davis Cup), or when a final takes place seven months after the semifinals (in Fed Cup). And players abhor that the champion must begin its title defense in February after just having conquering the world in November. Drastic changes are needed.

But among the magnitude of the Olympics, the compromise of the NHL and the structure of March Madness lies the blueprint to a tennis extravaganza.

The somber state of the States

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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“You’ve got to create a positive atmosphere.”

That was the advice that Sloane Stephens' hitting partner and traveling coach, Andy Fitzpatrick, gave her during a changeover last week in Doha. Stephens, ranked No. 18, had just lost an error-filled first set to Petra Cetkovska, ranked No. 134. “It’s all in your head,” Fitzpatrick told her.

If anything, the atmosphere became even less positive in the second set, which an increasingly morose and bewildered Stephens lost 6-1. The trend continued this week in Dubai, as Stephens went out again in straight sets -- again to a lower-ranked player -- in her opening match.

Was the negativity contagious? Watching Stephens’ friends and fellow Americans Sam Querrey and Jack Sock in Delray Beach later in the day, you might have thought they caught the bad vibes from an ocean away. Each lost his first-round match there, and neither put up much resistance when things went south. Even the man who beat Sock, France’s Adrian Mannarino, didn’t want to bask in his achievement.

“There’s not a lot to say about this match,” Mannarino told reporters. “It was not a good match. But I’m happy to win.”

Tennis fans in the U.S. have been bemoaning the state of the nation’s game for years now, but we seem to have reached a new crisis point in the first months of 2014. It was triggered by dismal recent performances in two team competitions that the country once dominated.

First, the Davis Cup team lost at home to Great Britain, a country that hadn’t won a World Group tie in 36 years. Making it even worse was Querrey's inexplicable collapse against James Ward, a player ranked outside the top 150, after Querrey held a commanding lead.

The following week, the U.S. Fed Cup team could muster only one winning set in three live rubbers against Italy. The fact that the Americans were without their two best players, Stephens and Serena Williams, would be more of a mitigating circumstance if the Italians hadn’t been without their three best, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta.

If we’ve learned one thing over the last decade, it’s that there’s no easy way to reverse the decline in U.S. tennis, or even to identify why it’s happening. We hear that fewer top-notch athletes choose tennis in the States than in other countries. We hear that kids are hungrier for success in Eastern Europe. We hear that no one country can dominate in an era of globalization. We hear that our young players don’t like to compete, they have cookie-cutter games, they don’t get enough coaching, they get too much coaching, they get the wrong kind of coaching.

The bottom line is that tennis champions are usually aberrations, rather than logical, predictable products of a national system. Serena learned the game with her family on public courts in Compton, Calif. Rafael Nadal learned from his uncle on the tiny island of Mallorca. Roger Federer came from a country that had never produced a great male champion. There will be another aberration from the U.S. at some point.

But as long as we’re in hand-wringing mode, I’ll offer one suggestion, by echoing Sloane Stephens’ hitting partner above: Create a positive atmosphere. There was little pleasure evidenced in the games of Stephens, Sock or Querrey this week. John Isner, the top seed in Delray, shows fight at times, but gets down on himself at other times. Donald Young and Ryan Harrison have let their anger get the best of them. The men in general have struggled to leave the shadow of Andy Roddick, who, if nothing else, always relished a battle.

On another court in Dubai on Tuesday, another U.S. woman, Venus Williams, won her first-round match. Afterward, Venus said, “This is definitely a privilege, but a privilege I deserve. I’ve done the hard work to be here, and I definitely don’t take any win for granted anymore. Now it’s even more special with every win.”

Venus is 33. She played her first professional match 20 years ago. U.S. tennis players would do well to heed her words.
Maria Sharapova spent her younger years in Sochi driving herself up the wall against an unerring opponent. The wall where she hit her first ball is a Sharapova mural now, ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-O3Qi-8qbc#t=33) and she returned to hit against herself before bringing sizzle as the torch bearer for the Sochi Olympic Games.

Sharapova and longtime tennis junkie Bode Miller give tennis a stake in Sochi. Imagine ice and snow as surfaces in the tennis landscape. Grading the first month of the tennis season on the Winter Olympic scoring system, here are some performances that made a mark.

Downhill

Gold Medals: Stanislas Wawrinka and Li Na

Wawrinka faced a mountain of misery, carrying both a winless career record against Rafael Nadal and an ignominious 0-15 record against world No. 1 players into the Australian Open final but played fearless tennis and timed the ball beautifully in breaking through for his first Grand Slam title in his 36th major appearance. Wawrinka, who defeated defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, has reached the past eight or better in three of his last four majors and with Roger Federer back on board for Switzerland the pair could make a run for the Davis Cup.

Li couldn’t find the finish line in two prior Australian Open finals, but those setbacks -- particularly the 2013 final, when she scraped herself off the court after suffering a pair of left ankle injuries and banging the back of her head after a nasty fall -- strengthened her resolve as she joined Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles as the four woman in the Open era to win the Aussie Open after saving a match point. “In China, we say if you have a tough time, you pass that, it means you be so lucky,” Li , who will rise to a career-best No. 2 in the new WTA rankings, told reporters.

Super G

Silver Medalist: Gael Monfils

A year ago, Monfils’ matches were jarring rides as he slapped his flying forehand around and slid to No. 108. He’s soared to a 12-2 start this season (with both losses coming to world No. 1 Rafael Nadal), reached two finals in three tournaments and dismissed No. 9 Richard Gasquet for the second time in five weeks to win his fifth title in Montpellier on Sunday. If the flashy thrill seeker can stay healthy, sharpen his second serve -- Monfils is 13th on at the ATP in first-serve points won (78 percent), but just 38th in second-serve points won (53 percent) -- and temper his flights of high-risk shot-making whimsy, he can continue an ascent back to the top 10.

Freestyle Aerial

No Medal: Mikhail Youzhny

Advancing age can draw veterans down like gravity, but Youzhny was up to his all-court tricks in 2013, earning his 400th career victory, winning two titles and finishing in the top 20 for the first time in three years. He has struggled to stick the landing this year. The rugged Russian may be beating up on himself after a 1-4 start with three of his four losses coming to players ranked outside the top 50. But he’s an all-surface threat -- Youzhny posted winning records on hard court, clay and grass last season -- who can halt the fall at any point.

Short Track

Silver Medal: Dominika Cibulkova

The shortest member of the top 50 sped past four seeds -- No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 11 Simona Halep and No. 5 Agnieszak Radwanska -- in succession to become the first Slovak to reach a Grand Slam final. Cibulkova lost to Li Na in the final and hasn’t won a match since. Her size may limit elite staying power, but Cibulkova plays with bold strikes and buzzing intensity that make her a contender in major races.

Speed Skater

Silver Medal: Eugenie Bouchard

The stuffed animals fans feed her after matches are typically the spoils of figure skaters, but the 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year uses her legs to stay lower and drive through her shots like a speed skater powering through the corners. Bouchard followed up her run to the Australian Open semifinals by surrendering just four games in two matches to lead Canada past Serbia in the Fed Cup World Group II tie in Montreal.

Giant Parallel Slalom

No Medal: U.S. Davis Cup and U.S. Fed Cup teams

Home soil was a slippery slope as skittish American Davis Cup and Fed Cup players struggled with nerves and inspired opponents before crashing off the World Group course.

Pairs Mixed

Gold Medal: Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor

Capturing the Australian Open mixed-doubles title without dropping a set, these two are so in sync at net, their moves could have been choreographed by Evgeni Plushenko. It was the second mixed-major crown in the past three Grand Slams for the 20-year-old Frenchwoman and 41-year-old Canadian, who partnered to win Wimbledon last July. Given the fact they were 2013 French Open finalists and U.S. Open semifinalists, it’s conceivable they could make a run at the mixed doubles Grand Slam this year.

Pairs Mixed

No Medal: Caroline Wozniacki and Thomas Hogstedt

The former world No. 1 nicknamed “Sunshine” hit Hogstedt with burn notice in firing her coach after less than three months together. Hogstedt, who previously coached Maria Sharapova for two-and-a-half years, was encouraging Wozniacki to use her speed moving forward to create more offense. Now, she’s working with Danish coach Michael Mortensen and trying to reverse course, apply her counter-strike skills and change up her spins to halt a slide in which she’s failed to survive the third round in seven of her past eight major appearances.

Curling

The former No. 1 known for his flat strikes fantasizes about sweeping up on ice. Jimmy Connors says if he could play any other sport at an elite level, he would chose … “Curling. Every time I see it just mesmerizes me.” Connors told Tennis.com.
They say February is one of the slowest months in tennis, but with 12 ATP tournaments, seven WTA tournaments and rounds of Davis and Fed Cup for good measure, it seems pretty fast-paced to me. What I'd compare February to is the first week of a Grand Slam tournament -- there's plenty to discuss, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the main events ahead. At the Slams, that means the second week, where the top players take back the headlines. On the calendar, that means March, where Indian Wells and Miami take center stage.

That's not to say February is devoid of big names, with Roger Federer and Andy Murray playing Davis Cup and impressive fields converging in Doha and Dubai. But these are the exceptions in a month full of small-stakes tournaments. Yet these events offer their own charms, specifically chances to watch players you wouldn't normally focus on. Players such as Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, two relative unknowns who captivated fans around the world during the Australian Open with their charisma and talent. By the time Stanislas Wawrinka turned the tournament on its head, both teenagers were in the rearview mirror, but that's the difference between first-week and second-week players at majors -- something Australians Kyrgios and Kokkinakis are now keenly aware of.

The Kyrgios (or Kokkinakis, if you prefer) of Croatia may be Borna Coric, a 17-year-old currently ranked No. 303. He was given a wild card into this week’s Zagreb Indoors, where he faced veteran Michael Berrer. Last year, Coric actually played Berrer in Zagreb qualifying, winning just four games. This year, he won a set and put a scare into the German, who was forced out of his defensive comfort zone to keep up with Coric's impressive and aggressive game. The Croat has an outstanding two-handed backhand, can serve with pop and has a taste for finishing at net. He lost 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, but it would be surprising not to see Coric resurface -- and win -- in tournaments down the road.

And perhaps that is the best way to describe February -- as a glimpse into the future. Look past the usual stable of French veterans in Montpellier and you’ll find wild card Pierre-Hughes Herbert, the 22-year-old who last fall took Novak Djokovic to a tiebreaker at the Paris Masters. In Fed Cup, it's 18-year-old Madison Keys -- not Serena Williams or Sloane Stephens -- who will lead the United States against Italy. And Kyrgios and Kokkinakis even gave encore performances in Davis Cup last weekend. With both tours so top heavy, February is a good time to see what else is out there, and there’s no shortage of options.

The only thing slow about February may be the schedules of the elites, but I don’t think that's a bad thing. Whether you're a fan of the Big Four or not, it's in the sport's best interest to see them healthy and playing at their peak. They'll be back before you know it. For now, show some love before, after and during Valentine's Day for those who will likely be their opening-round opponents come March.
December is the downtime of the tennis season, when players train for the New Year that dawns Down Under at the Australian Open and observers dream of the adrenaline rush rivalries can produce.

Compelling rivalries can be the tennis equivalent of a film franchise that continues to crank out successful sequels. Competitive character, contrasting styles and personalities, and the daring to strike under pressure can all conspire to push the plotline of a match in adventurous directions.

Blockbuster rivalries pulsate with stars the world knows on a first-name basis: Rafa vs. Novak and Serena vs. Vika. Engaging rivalries can create a euphoric buzz and the craving for rematch.

We’re rooting for four potential rivalries in particular -- two featuring Top 10 players and two between players with Top-10 potential -- to flourish in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVictoria Azarenka
Al Bello/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka's strong return could make for fun tennis against Petra Kvitova's big serve.
No. 2 Victoria Azarenka vs. No. 6 Petra Kvitova
Head-to-head: Kvitova leads 4-2

These aggressive baseliners both arrived at the 2012 Australian Open semifinals with a shot to seize the world No. 1 ranking, and while Azarenka won the title to secure the top spot then defended her Melbourne crown last January, Kvitova has been busy battling health and consistency issues.

Surprisingly, these two Grand Slam champions have not faced off since Kvitova defeated Azarenka, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, in the 2011 WTA Championships final. This matchup intrigues because it features two immaculate ball strikers who can dictate play from the baseline. It pits Azarenka’s sniper return against the left-handed Kvitova’s sometime lethal serve.

In 2013, Azarenka led the WTA in return games won (54.8 percent), while Kvitova was third on Tour in aces (250). Three of their six meetings have come in Grand Slam tournaments and though the 6-foot Kvitova can be more explosive, the 6-foot Azarenka is usually more exact.

Azarenka is a more ruthless front-runner, a more tenacious competitor, she’s won more titles (17 to 11) and has reached at least the semifinals of all four majors. But Kvitova possesses more variety, is comfortable from all areas of the court and can be more dangerous on all surfaces: She’s won titles on hard court, grass and clay.

The Czech can be streaky and prone to the mid-match malaise, though. Kvitova must compete with more consistency and play more efficiently in early rounds to reignite this rivalry. She played 37 three-setters in 2013, while the more commanding Azarenka went the distance just 15 times last season.

An encouraging sign for Kvitova: She was 10-1 in her final 11 three-setters of the season and reached at least the semifinals in four of her final five tournaments, including the WTA Championships.

No. 11 Simona Halep vs. No. 12 Sloane Stephens
Head-to-head: Stephens leads 2-1

Remember when some insisted the retirements of Martina Hingis and Justine Henin marked the end of women shorter than 5-10 winning Grand Slam singles titles and the start of the WTA's amazon age?

Toss the tape measure aside and try this fact on: Since the 5-9 Serena Williams won the 2009 Australian Open, 16 of the last 20 Grand Slam titles have been won by women standing 5-9 or shorter. The success of Halep and Stephens reinforces the fact that timing, technique, court coverage and all-surface acumen still matter more than size.

The 5-6 Halep rocketed up the rankings from No. 47 at the end of 2012 to a year-end rank of No. 11 in 2013, earning WTA Most Improved Player of the Year honors. The 5-7 Stephens showed flashes of elite form, knocking off a hobbled Serena to reach the Australian Open semifinals and advancing to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, losing to eventual-champion Marion Bartoli.

Both are bound for the Top 10, and each exhibits what the other aspires to achieve. Halep was at her best in WTA tournaments -- winning six titles on three different surfaces -- but was underwhelming in Grand Slam play, losing in the opening round of both the Australian Open (to Stephens) and Roland Garros.

Stephens has played her most inspired tennis in Grand Slam tournaments, but can look downright disengaged in WTA events: The 20-year-old American has yet to reach a WTA final.

Both can crack the first serve and both concluded 2013 parting with coaches: Halep split from Adrian Marcu and Stephens, who had been coached by the USTA's David Nainkin, is now working with Paul Annacone, who formerly coached Roger Federer, Tim Henman and Pete Sampras. Halep has shown a sharper court sense and competitive instinct, but Stephens, one of the fastest women in the game, may have a higher upside if she can clearly define her style and play with more passion.

[+] EnlargeStanislas Wawrinka
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesStanislas Wawrinka has teamed with Jo-Willy Tsonga to produce some thrilling tennis.
No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka vs. No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Head-to-head: Tsonga leads 3-2

Two things usually happen when these two meet: Dynamic tennis erupts and the match goes the distance.

At the 2011 French Open, Wawrinka roared back from a two-set deficit to beat Tsonga. In their French rematch a year later, Tsonga halted another Wawrinka comeback with a 6-4, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 triumph in a match that spanned four hours spread out over two days, with both guys splattering winners across the red clay.

Because both are strong servers -- Tsonga was fourth on the ATP in service games won (88 percent), Wawrinka was 11th (85 percent) -- breaks can be scarce. They were born 20 days apart and their meetings can come down to tactical imposition.

Wawrinka wants to work Tsonga over in backhand exchanges, because Stan’s one-hander is a much more reliable and penetrating shot than Jo’s two-hander. Tsonga, whose forehand is his best shot, tries to wield that weapon against Wawrinka, who hits his forehand flatter and can be streakier off that side.

Tsonga tends to play closer to the baseline, but both can close at the net and Wawrinka has applied his all-court skills more effectively working with coach and former French Open finalist Magnus Norman. When pushed out of position, both men are prone to indulging their shot-making urges and play the down the line drive.

No. 21 Jerzy Janowicz vs. No. 23 Grigor Dimitrov
Head-to-head: None

What do you get when you mix power, finesse, volatility, agility, eye-popping shot-making on the move and mind-numbing shot selection at crunch time? Magic and mayhem.

You know pop culture has infiltrated the sport when you see two guys with the freaky athletic ability of Janowicz and Dimitrov pull off shotmaking so audacious, it looks like it came straight from the mind of an over-caffeinated video geek on an Xbox binge.

Both men had break-out moments in 2013. In just his fifth Grand Slam main draw, Janowicz reached the Wimbledon semifinal to become the first Polish man to advance to a major semifinal. Dimitrov, who upset world No. 1 Novak Djokovic on clay in Madrid, rallied for a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 3 David Ferrer in the Stockholm final in October to win his first ATP title, becoming the first Bulgarian in the Open Era to win an ATP crown.

The 6-8- Janowicz looks like he’s leaping off a step ladder when serving -- he hit 30 aces in three sets against Nicolas Almagro at Wimbledon -- but he’s not a mindless baseline basher.

Janowicz’s bold two-handed backhand, flair for the angled drop shot, imposing size and agility, and volatile and wacky temper -- an Australian Open meltdown during which he repeatedly raged "How many times? How many times?" inspired a YouTube hip-hop remix -- make him as unsettling as an evening spent slam-dancing with sumo wrestlers.

Dimitrov is an enchanting talent because he can flash of shot-making magic on the move from virtually anywhere on court, and the contrast between his explosive topspin forehand and the biting slice of his one-handed backhand can be a jarring combination. Dimitrov’s all-court skills and athleticism are dazzling; his atrocious major results -- he’s failed to surpass the second round in 12 of 13 Grand Slam starts -- are disconcerting.

"I think Dimitrov has a huge upside. If he stays healthy, he has a live arm, huge serve, he moves well," James Blake told me last month. "Looks like he's comfortable hitting any shot. Just a matter for him of putting it all together. If I had to say one [young] guy that has the game that actually excites me, it's Dimitrov. Milos Raonic is the most uncomfortable to play, but I don't get quite excited watching a guy serve 25 aces and win a match 6 and 6."

From tweeters and tweeners

November, 14, 2013
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The World Tour Finals is the most important men’s-only event of the season, a showcase for the best the ATP has had to offer over the past 11 months. But it isn’t just forehands and backhands that are on display; as the week progresses, we get a sense of many of the latest trends on tour, and how the players compete and relate to each other today. Here are five that I spotted in London last week.

1. Twitter makes the man

The most surprising and enlightening development of 2013? It may have been the presence of Tomas Berdych on Twitter. In his many tweets -- including 80 of them in his first day alone -- the icy-looking Czech revealed himself to be a surrealist goofball at heart, as a pretty funny and humble guy. After his last loss in London, the self-styled “Birdman” sent out a photo of an exit sign in the city’s transportation system -- he was outta there. The he followed it with a photo of a heart, with the caption, “I love this game.”

While he’s not as wacky as Berdych, Stan Wawrinka also has used Twitter to show more warmth, humor and personality than he can reveal when he’s on court. After Rafael Nadal beat Berdych last week, thus guaranteeing Wawrinka a spot in the semifinals, Stan tweeted a photo of a victorious Rafa under the words “Vamoooos! Next dinner is on me!! Good job!!” It was a banner year for Stan, on court and online.

2. A post-tweener age is possible

How many times have you wondered why a male player, on an important point, would choose to hit a ball between his legs, facing away from the net, when he could have something so much easier? I wondered again when Juan Martin del Potro went out of his way to try a tweener -- and lost the point, of course -- while he was serving for the first set against Roger Federer. Del Potro did it again at the end of the third set, and actually managed to hit a lob over Federer’s head. OK, he made the shot, but he still lost the point.

Unfortunately, Delpo’s successful tweener got a lot of attention, more attention than what David Ferrer had done the previous day when a lob had gone over his head. Ferrer had handled it the old-fashioned way, by running around the ball, hitting a normal forehand and sending a lob back over his opponent’s head. Guess what: Ferrer won the point. That, rather than Delpo’s losing tweener, is the play that should have gotten people’s attention. I hope some other players saw it, anyway.

3. Thoughts are spared for those in defeat

When Nadal beat Federer in the semifinals, he took off his headband, jogged to the net and gave his friend a look of commiseration. When Novak Djokovic beat Nadal in the final the next day, he briefly raised his arms before ... jogging to the net and giving Nadal a look of commiseration. That was it.

We still see our share of joyful outbursts in victory -- Nadal couldn’t hide his relief when he clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking. But the top players have faced each so many times and known each other for so long now, it shouldn’t be surprising that, even in their moments of triumph, they spare a thought for their losing opponents.

4. The players play it out

Once upon a time, round-robins brought out the pros’ inner-tankers -- if you can lose a match and still advance, why not lose a match? At the 1981 version of the World Tour Finals, held at Madison Square Garden, Ivan Lendl showed a conspicuous lack of effort against Jimmy Connors in a round-robin match. It just so happened that the loser of the match would avoid having to face Bjorn Borg in the semifinals -- Connors called Lendl a "chicken" afterward.

Times have changed. With nothing to play for in his final match, David Ferrer, who already had been eliminated, put on the fieriest performance of the tournament against Wawrinka. Ferrer went so far as to smash a racket in his losing effort. The next day, as I mentioned above, Nadal came through in three sets over Berdych, even after he had clinched the top spot in his group. And Djokovic, with a semifinal to play the next day, stuck around to win a long three-setter over Richard Gasquet in his last round-robin match. The paying audience was grateful each time.

You may be tired of hearing about the golden age of men's tennis, but the World Tour Finals showed us again that, tweeners aside, this group of ATP pros does a lot of things right.

Here's how to improve the year-enders

November, 4, 2013
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I have a problem with the names of tennis’ season-ending championships. It's not that I don’t think “WTA Championships” accurately conveys the importance of the event or that the former “Tennis Masters Cup” sounds so much cooler than today’s “ATP World Tour Finals.” And I’m not even talking about the much-maligned “WTA Tournament of Champions,” which somehow takes place after the season-ending championships. It’s something deeper that I take issue with.

It’s that I don’t think the two season-ending championships should end the season at all. They should be the season-beginning championships, even if the name needs some work.

This year’s WTA Championships in Istanbul wasn’t the flash point for this idea, but it didn’t dispel any concerns I had about the event’s position on the calendar, either. When Victoria Azarenka, who had played all of two matches since the US Open, cited burnout in one of her postmatch pressers, it was the latest in a long line of player complaints about the season’s interminable length. It even prompted the Tennis Channel’s commentators to say, in a preview of Azarenka’s next match, that one of her keys to success would be overcoming a “lack of motivation.” That looks bad for the world No. 2, of course, but the sport comes off even worse. Simply put, it’s an embarrassment -- in what other sport can you think of that being cited during a championship event (and in complete seriousness)? But we see and hear this every year in tennis.

And it’s not just today’s pros. Lindsay Davenport, no stranger to season-ending championships when she played, remarked on air that she used to put a calendar in her locker at the event to “count down the days.” Even if some players treat the season-ending championships like a fifth Grand Slam, the fact that other players find them as exciting as two-a-days really hurts the event’s credibility.

I believe that credibility can be restored, and the tours’ signature tournaments can flourish, if they are held at the beginning of the season rather than at the end. Azarenka’s and Davenport’s comments are hardly the only reasons.

The biggest reason, which ties in to what these two women said, is that the season-ending championships take place after a practically nonstop, 10-plus-month calendar. The players are fatigued -- and so are most fans. Yes, diehards would tune in to watch Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer trade groundstrokes on ice at the North Pole on Christmas Day, but the great majority of sports fans could not care less about these final showdowns. I’d be willing to wager that plenty of “non-casual” tennis fans have had their fill by September as well.

It’s tough to feel sorry for the millionaire players, I get that. But the quality of the season-ending championships can be compromised when some of the entrants are coming off of point-seeking binges in the weeks that lead into Istanbul and London. There is no break in between the final WTA and ATP tournaments and the season-ending championships, and it’s not uncommon to see players overexert themselves in an effort to qualify.

This would not be a problem, of course, if the WTA Championships and ATP World Tour Finals followed a proper offseason -- or at least tennis’ truncated version of one. The points race would then be for an exclusive tournament held at the beginning of the following season, a few weeks before the Australian Open, with all players rested, ready and motivated. If that reminds you of the lucrative exhibition tournaments many top players enter in early January (Abu Dhabi, Kooyong), that’s by design. With the round-robin format inherent in the current season-ending championships, players would get their guaranteed matches before Oz, against top competition, and be paid a princely sum to do so. It could effectively replace these exos, which in many ways detract from what the tours try to accomplish: promoting their own tournaments.

But most important of all, this change would give tennis a true kickoff experience that it presently lacks. For a sport that doesn’t have a real “opening day,” this is the perfect way to make fans aware of the new year, segue into the Australian Open and showcase the best talents at a premier, stand-alone event -- one that should combine both tours, just like the majors.

Another change for the better: The 24 round-robin matches should be spread out over six days (each day featuring two men’s matches and two women’s), with only the group winners advancing to a Sunday final. In an eight-player tournament, semifinals unnecessarily penalize the group winners, who sometimes win two more matches than their opponent. A player who finishes round-robin play at 3-0 deserves more than someone who ended it 1-2.

Last but certainly not least: This change can actually be accomplished, which is no small task in tennis. Since the season-ending championships take place at the end of a season, there’s no chain reaction set off if you moved the two events to the top of the calendar instead of the bottom. Doing so would also give the Fed Cup and Davis Cup finals more of a spotlight; currently these capstone events are played in the receding shadows of the season-ending championships.

And yes, I realize that in order to not cannibalize the tournaments currently held in the first week of January, the WTA Championships and ATP World Tour Finals would be played in late December. That’s not ideal at all, and hopefully those tournaments could be moved ahead a week to accommodate. There is one good thing about that December slot, however: They could still technically be called the year-end championships, even if they begin a new season.
Can you imagine what it will be like when Roger Federer calls it a career? Or when Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray decides to put away his racket for good? Or even when Juan Martin del Potro, the only player besides the aforementioned four to have won a Grand Slam singles title since 2005, says adios?

I say this because it was somewhat surprising to hear so much reaction to the retirement of David Nalbandian. Arguably the best player never to have won a Slam, the 31-year-old reached No. 3 in the rankings and at least the semifinals of all four majors. But to outsiders it must have seemed like tennis heads were talking about one of the game’s integral players, not someone who hasn’t won a title in three years or a title of great significance in six years -- both the Madrid and Paris Masters, which he won in back-to-back weeks in 2007.

I chalk the buzz up to two things: First, Nalbandian has always been a polarizing player. Some people adored him for his talent, others panned him for not being able to harness it on the sport’s biggest stages. (He was also part of three Davis Cup teams that lost in the final.) Some people liked his everyman attitude; others felt he didn’t treat the game with respect. You won’t have to search far to find a piece written about Nalbandian’s fitness or the incident that got him disqualified in last year’s Queen’s Club final. As you’ll see, you’re reading one right now.

The other reason is a reminder that, even in this era of men’s tennis dominated by a powerful quartet, there are other players worth recognizing and discussing. They may not grab the spotlight often or puncture the general sports landscape, but there is more than the big four, and Nalbandian was one of the best in that second tier. Here are four of my memories of the Argentine, at his best and worst:

1. Nalbandian experienced major disappointment throughout his career. He was dominated in the 2002 Wimbledon final by Lleyton Hewitt and saw late leads evaporate in the semifinals of the 2003 US Open (he held a match point against Andy Roddick) and the 2006 Australian Open (he fell in five sets to Marcos Baghdatis). But one missed opportunity that’s often forgotten came at the 2006 French Open, where Nalbandian faced Federer at his peak. David did some good things in this match, taking the first set 6-3 and leading the second by a break. But Goliath would win this one as a result of a different kind of Nalbandian retirement, one he called for in the third set because of an abdominal injury. Nalbandian, still just 24 at the time, wouldn’t reach another Grand Slam quarterfinal.

2. Nalbandian had reason to think that victory over Federer was possible -- he'd beaten him just seven months earlier at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. It was the best of his eight wins over the Swiss legend; at one point Federer was 0-5 against Nalbandian. But Federer won their next four meetings, and a fifth straight win looked all but certain when the world No. 1 took what appeared to be an insurmountable lead.

Federer won the first two sets -- but he needed tiebreakers in both. Riding his beauty of a backhand and steadily increasing momentum, Nalbandian lost just three games in the next two sets, then won his first tiebreaker of the match in the deciding fifth. Federer had won 24 consecutive finals, and 35 consecutive matches, before this defeat.

3. Fast-forward seven years to another final, with Nalbandian playing Marin Cilic at Queen’s Club. Up a set and serving at 3-3 in the second, Nalbandian ran to his right to play Cilic’s service return, and his reply drifted long. What was on target, however, was Nalbandian’s foot, which he used to kick an advertising placard in frustration, which was directly in front of a seated linesman. The result? The official was cut in the leg and Nalbandian was disqualified. Did Nalbandian think the grass court was a soccer pitch? It’s the only explanation for a bizarre incident that he will forever be remembered for.

4. I’ll leave Nalbandian’s career on a high note, and there are plenty to choose from, including his famous indoor Masters double. But one I’ll never forget is when I watched him play in person at the 2011 Davis Cup final in Seville. A stalwart of the competition, Nalbandian came to the early-December tie having not played since October. He was tossed into the ultimate pressure cooker: a must-win doubles match (Spain won both of Friday’s singles matches) in the raucous Estadio Olimpico, with a partner he’d never played with before, Eduardo Schwank.

As we celebrate Nalbandian’s career today (OK, some of us), I’ll remember the only celebration that took place that day, between the baby blue-and-white clad players and their boisterous supporters. Nalbandian was impeccable, displaying ingenious touch and his trademark groundstrokes in a clinical 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 dismissal of Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco. It left the crowd stunned. The next day it took Nadal’s best, a hard-fought four-set win over del Potro, to secure the Cup for Spain.

Nalbandian also had a history of pressuring Nadal. The Argentine won their first two head-to-head matches. And although Rafa would win their next five encounters, Nalbandian had already proved, once again, that on any given day, there might be no one better than he was.


Stillness helps Novak Djokovic recharge, so it’s fitting he made a major move without stepping on court this week.

Djokovic, who credits his daily silent meditation sessions for improved clarity, reached a milestone in becoming the ninth man in ATP history to hold the world No. 1 ranking for 100 weeks. But is hitting the century mark a prelude to an extended run or a sign of a pending expiration date?

“The simple answer to that question is it depends on Djokovic’s rivalry with Nadal,” said ESPN announcer Cliff Drysdale, who has covered all nine men to reign for at least 100 weeks at the top. “When Djokovic was beating Nadal, he could take his time and wait for the short ball and then jump on it. And it didn’t matter how long it took for that ball to come -- he was ready for that moment. Lately, Nadal is taking that opportunity away from him, and that is really what has changed in their rivalry. And the solution to that is for Novak is to become a little more aggressive more quickly in their rallies.”

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Stringer/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has been ranked No. 1 for 100 weeks, and though he might lose the top spot soon, there is plenty of reason to think he'll get it back.
They may be swapping spots soon. Barring injury or inactivity, a resurgent Rafa, who leads Novak by 2,905 points in the ATP Race, will almost certainly surpass the Serbian to seize the year-end No. 1 ranking for the third time in the past six years.

Two-time year-end No. 1 Djokovic, who is defending 3,000 ranking points over the rest of the season, has lost six of his past seven matches to Nadal. Djokovic has also dropped his past two Grand Slam finals, and the four-time Australian Open champion is 2-6 in major finals contested outside of Melbourne.

Djokovic drove his two-handed backhand to counter Nadal's crosscourt forehand in winning seven straight matches between the pair from March 2011 through the 2012 Australian Open. But the 13-time Grand Slam champion has played more assertive tennis and has been a more convincing closer in matches preceding his clashes with Djokovic.

“Djokovic still believes he can beat Nadal, but it’s the matches before he gets to Nadal that are important for him beating Nadal,” Hall of Famer and television analyst Fred Stolle told ESPN.com. “I think Djokovic lost a bit of his edge in both the Wimbledon and the US Open finals because both of his semifinals went the distance. The 54-stroke rally Nadal and Djokovic played in the US Open final was the best rally I’ve ever seen -- each guy hit 10 winners and each of them responded to those winners with interest in that rally -- but when Djokovic has to deal with Nadal’s relentless pursuit of perfection, it’s just bloody hard, particularly when he had to go five with Stanislas Wawrinka a few days before.”

Consider that five of Djokovic’s nine losses this season have come to opponents ranked outside the top five and you can better understand that the physicality of today’s tennis means free points don’t come easily. The 26-year-old Serbian has not won a title since he snapped Rafa’s eight-year reign in Monte Carlo in April.

With a healthy, hungry Nadal rampaging through the tour, registering a 22-0 mark on hard courts and a 17-1 record versus top-10 opponents this season, Djokovic’s short-term hold on the top spot is tenuous, but his long-term future at No. 1 is tremendous. Here are five reasons why Djokovic will make an extended run at No. 1 and climb the longevity ladder among the sport’s iconic champions even if he drops to No. 2 as expected:

All-Surface Acumen

Although hard court is his best surface, Djokovic’s ability to adapt to all surfaces is a major asset. He is the only top-10 player with a winning percentage of .825 or better on every surface in 2013.

“He’s so good. Really, even though the players are great today, I think he really only has to be concerned with a couple of them,” Pete Sampras, who held the year-end top spot for a record six straight years, said earlier this season. “I see him -- if he stays healthy -- staying on top for as long as he wants to be. I just think he’s that good. He wins on hard court; he wins on clay; he wins on grass.”

Adaptability

Djokovic’s skill in shortening his backswing to take the ball early makes him a sniper on return. His work sharpening his serve and forehand were key components to his commanding 2011 season, when he won 10 titles in 11 finals, including three Grand Slam crowns.

“The mechanical changes he made to his swings -- he clearly changed his forehand and even more dramatically his serve -- have made a world of difference, and I think he can get more juice on his first serve,” Drysdale said.

Quality Control

You can focus on the fact that Djokovic is 2-4 in his past six Grand Slam finals, but consider he’s riding a streak of 14 consecutive major semifinal appearances and his 14 career Masters 1000 titles puts him fourth all-time behind Nadal (26), Roger Federer (21) and Andre Agassi (17). When you repeatedly put yourself in position to play for the most meaningful titles, as Djokovic does, it ensures a place among the elite.

Staying Power

Health is an essential element to longevity, and Djokovic, who tapped out of matches in three of the four majors early in his career, conceding his body felt like it was “breaking down,” has become one of the fittest men in the game since breaking from bread. The gluten-free Novak has played at least 60 matches a year for seven straight years and owns a 20-7 record in five-setters (.741 winning percentage).

Premier Return

Djokovic's elastic ability to attack and defend off the return has prompted Agassi to call him the best returner he’s ever seen. Djokovic is No. 12 on the ATP in break points converted (43 percent), while Nadal is No. 2 (47 percent), and is No. 3 in return games won (33 percent). But if Djokovic is slashing his return down the line, it opens the court against even his fiercest rival.

“The Djokovic return to the Nadal forehand, particularly off the first court, is the key stroke in their rivalry,” Stolle said. “Djokovic has learned to tag that return of serve right down the line to the forehand, and Nadal moves to his right after serving to set up his forehand so space is there. Nadal served well at the US Open, so it comes down to confidence with both of them trying to take control, and I do think the rivalry will continue to go back and forth.”
Maria Sharapova and Jimmy Connors. Stop and think about it: It sounds like a shotgun mixed-doubles team at an exhibition, not a formal arrangement between player and coach. But in the aftermath of Wimbledon, where Sharapova suffered a second-round loss, it was announced that the two would be working together for the foreseeable future.

There has been little else mentioned about the pairing -- other than that Sharapova’s former coach, Thomas Hogstedt, couldn’t commit to the travel required of the job -- and we’re left with even more questions than usual about a high-profile tennis union. Perhaps it is the sport’s answer to the Miami Heat’s Big Three -- huge personalities coming together; whether they’ll neatly join or collide and clash remaining to be seen.

We know one thing before Sharapova ever strikes a ball with Connors in her corner: There will be immense pressure on both parties to perform. Sharapova, one of the top stars in women’s sports, likely isn’t starstruck by anyone anymore. But when it’s an eight-time major champion watching your every move instead of someone with which an established comfort level exists, it will surely be a different experience. There will be an added level of scrutiny, and unfairly or not, what Sharapova does or doesn’t do will be tied back to Connors. The focus may periodically waver from Sharapova because of her new coach’s status, but the spotlight will undoubtedly be more intense.

Then there’s Connors, whose previous coaching stint with Andy Roddick produced mixed results -- and not one Grand Slam title. He’ll be thrown into the fire right away, with Sharapova not scheduled to return until Toronto, a scant few weeks before the US Open begins. Assuming their partnership lasts beyond 2013, they’ll have months’ worth of tournaments to prepare for 2014, but the bulk of this season is behind us, and Sharapova’s final shot at a Slam is fast approaching. What can Connors teach Sharapova that she can implement in such a short time frame? Again, we’re left with questions.

I’m going to guess that, in the short term, we should expect much the same from Sharapova, with any radical changes to come gradually, over time. Even the very natural pairing of Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray took time to materialize into what it has become today. The Scot seemed to be stuck in his old, passive ways for a while, even with a new voice and perspective running his practices. But Lendl’s persistent assistance seems to have played a big part in Murray’s rise, and that might be the best news for those who want to see Sharapova take a different kind of leap. Already a winner of the career Slam, the never-satisfied icon likely wants to become a truly dominant No. 1 while she still can.

It’s not an unreasonable desire. At 26, Sharapova is firmly in her prime and is the prohibitive favorite against all but a few of her contemporaries. It’s also worth wondering if Sharapova got the most out of the relationship with Hogstedt, and if Connors, whom Sharapova briefly worked with in 2008, might be the missing link. The timing may be right for a change.

Ultimately, whether this coaching change works will come down to Sharapova. Connors can instill his experience and tactics all he wants, but Sharapova is nothing if not a stubborn player. She plays at one volume: loud. Not just with her voice, but with her bold, flat groundstrokes, and with a serve that continues to walk the tightrope between aggressive and reckless too often.

Here’s another thing I can predict: Expect the cameras to pan to Connors after a groan-inducing Sharapova double fault. The American would be considered a genius if he could eradicate those from the box scores. But again, it’s Sharapova who will hit those second serves, and the one who, when tossing the ball skyward beforehand, will have to stop and think about everything.

Clay-court tennis has evoked expressive variety in Serena Williams this season. The world No. 1 has captured clay-court championships in three different countries -- and delivered victory speeches in three different languages: English (Charleston), Spanish (Madrid) and Italian (Rome).

Williams roars into Roland Garros on a career-best 24-match winning streak and has cleaned up on clay, posting a 16-0 clay-court record this year and a 33-1 mark on the dirt since the start of the 2012 clay-court season. She blasted former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka off the Rome red clay, 6-1, 6-3, to collect her 51st career title and regained the Rome crown she last won in 2002 when she beat Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin back-to-back and solidified her status as the woman to beat in Paris.

Here's a look the leading contenders for the French Open title.

Serena Williams

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesSerena Williams has a career-best 24-match win streak heading into Paris.
Why she’ll win: An iconic champion is inspired to regain the Roland Garros championship she last won 11 years ago. That may sound like a lifetime ago in tennis terms, but consider Williams' 2012 U.S. Open crown came 13 years after she won her first Flushing Meadows major in 1999. She's playing some of her best tennis right now, and she has won two of the past three majors. You know she will be pumped up for Paris, where she owns a home and has trained with coaching consultant Patrick Mouratoglou. Although dirt does blunt her power a bit, it expands her variety. Serena has used her slice serve out wide to set up her first strike; she ripped some emphatic running forehand winners against Azarenka; she plays the short, sharp-angled backhand more; and she has even deployed the drop shot on occasion during her unbeaten clay run.

Why she won’t: The dirt diminishes her most imposing weapon -- the serve -- which can bail her out of trouble with one swing on other surfaces, but if it's a damp fortnight and the terre battue becomes an even slower track, that could create complications. Although Williams is the dominant player in the sport, she has not reached a French Open final four in a decade and has played tight, tentative tennis in Paris in the past. Serena was 46-0 in the first round of Slams and undefeated on clay in 2012 before suffering a shocking 4-6, 7-6 (5) 6-3 upset to 111th-ranked Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano in the opening round.

Maria Sharapova

Why she’ll win: The reigning Roland Garros champion has been dynamic on dirt. Five of Sharapova's past six titles have come on clay. At her best, the aggressive baseliner can command the center of the court, dictate play from the first strike and is a tremendous fighter. Sharapova has won 17 of her past 19 three-setters with only Azarenka (2012 U.S. Open semifinals) and Serena Williams (2013 Miami final) scoring wins in that span. She once famously compared her movement on clay to "a cow on ice," but Sharapova has found her footing in Paris, reaching at least the quarterfinals in four of the past six years.

Why she won’t: Sharapova finds beating Serena is a task as easy as leaping the Seine in a single bound. Williams has 12 consecutive wins over Sharapova, winning 24 of the past 27 sets they've played during the past nine years. Sharapova has never successfully defended a major title and while her flat serve can effectively set up her first strike when she's landing it, she can also lose the serving plot under pressure. Sharapova has hit 141 aces against 163 double faults and can become skittish on serve against heavy hitters. A viral illness forced Sharapova to withdraw from her scheduled Rome quarterfinal against Sara Errani last week, causing some concern about her health for Paris.

Victoria Azarenka

Why she’ll win: The two-time Australian Open champion is a sniper on return. Vika has won nearly 57 percent of her return games and converted nearly 55 percent of her break-point chances this season. "Vika is probably the best returner in the game," says Marion Bartoli. Her bold two-handed backhand is one of the best in the game, and she's one of only two women to beat top-ranked Serena this year with a 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 victory in the Doha final. She has been a major player in Grand Slam tournaments recently, reaching the finals in three of her past five majors. Though 15 of her 16 career titles have come on hard courts, Azarenka was 12-3 on clay in 2012, registering runner-up appearances in Stuttgart and Madrid.

Why she won’t: Recent history reinforces the tough task she faces. No woman has won the Australian Open and Roland Garros in succession since Jennifer Capriati's comeback fight against Kim Clijsters in the 2001 French Open final. The slower clay courts can diminish some of the sting from her groundstrokes, and while she's a sound lateral mover, Azarenka is still developing her transition game and can be a plodding player when dragged forward into the front court. Consequently, she's vulnerable to the drop shot and short slice on dirt and is 0-4 combined in clay-court meetings with former French Open champions Williams and Sharapova. Azarenka has not exactly peaked in Paris in the past. She has fallen in the first round three times and has failed to survive the fourth round in five of seven French Open appearances.

Li Na

Why she’ll win: An agile, athletic player, Li electrified the City of Light defeating Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, Sharapova and defending champion Francesca Schiavone in succession to capture the 2011 French Open. Working with coach Carlos Rodriguez, who guided Justine Henin to four French Open championships, Li is applying her all-court skills more effectively. She's constructing sounder points, and she's shown the ability to elevate her game on major stages. An extremely fit player, the 31-year-old advanced to her second Australian Open final in January, was the runner-up to Sharapova in Stuttgart and advanced to at least the semifinals in four of her first five tournaments in 2013.

Why she won’t: Despite her historic triumph in Paris as the first Asian player, male or female, to win a major singles title, clay is Li's least favorite surface. She has failed to surpass the round of 16 in five of her six Roland Garros appearances and only one of her seven career titles have come on clay. Li's emotional intensity can be a strength -- when she channels it into positive action -- but she has been prone to implosions under pressure. When she gets tight, Li can lose the shape of her swing on the forehand and serve and sometimes flat-line those shots into net, which can cause streakiness. Li opened her clay season by reaching the Stuttgart final, but was underwhelming in both Madrid and Rome, winning just one match at those two important French Open tune-up tournaments.

Petra Kvitova

Why she’ll win: One of the purest ball-strikers in tennis, the left-hander's ability to detonate points with a single swing disarms opponents, denying them the rhythm that comes from playing longer rallies. When Kvitova is on her game, she is dangerous off both serve and return and is a well-balanced player who can rip the ball off both forehand and backhand. She can impose her game on almost anyone. Kvitova's flat blasts can rob opponents of time and make them feel as unsettled as if they're operating at the wrong end of a shooting gallery. "She hits so strong," 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani said. "It's tough to move her. It's hard to play because her ball is very flat." The 2011 Wimbledon champion has played deep into the second week of majors before. Kvitova is a 2012 French Open semifinalist and has reached the final four of every major except for the U.S. Open.

Why she won’t: She's an explosive force, but Kvitova can be extremely erratic and prone to the mid-match malaise when her mind wanders and shots stray. When she loses the plot, Kvitova sometimes looks unsure how to regain her rhythm and can spray shots with abandon. The 23-year-old Czech is fitter this season, but court coverage is not an asset, which can make her suspect against quicker players who can withstand her pace and counter on the run. Though Kvitova opened the clay-court season reaching the Katowice final, little has come easy on clay since then: She's 5-4 on dirt since then and has been pushed to three sets in seven of those nine matches.

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