Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Newbie Del Potro leading the charge of emerging faces
By Joel Drucker
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: The 2008 tennis season left us with indelible memories. ESPN.com recounts the top 10 highs and lows from Monday through Friday this week.
It was a volatile year in many respects, but 2008 also offered memorable tennis. New faces emerged, and a palpable shift at the top of both tours made for some exciting and intriguing occasions. Here are the top 10 delights of this past season:
1. Sister saga swings on
|Elena Dememtieva, center, showed mettle and passion in her run to the Olympic gold medal. |
They play when they feel like it, perform erratically and promote the game mostly through their intermittent excellence. But 2008 showed once again how Venus and Serena Williams can win big. Better yet, their matches at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open revealed significant improvements in each sister's tennis game.
2. New kids on the block
A whole new generation from all over the world has stepped forward. Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori all made big marks in 2008 and figure to rise even higher in 2009.
3. New kids, Part II: Diverse playing styles
A diverse new range of playing styles is emerging in the men's game. We've long been familiar with Roger Federer's comprehensive brilliance, but everything from the diversification of Rafael Nadal to the tactical nuance of Andy Murray and Gilles Simon and the all-court prowess of Del Potro, Tsonga and James Blake all provided many engaging moments. The new methods also revealed how everything from fitness to foot speed and equipment is taking the game to new skill levels.
4. Rafa to the top
The changing of the guard always is notable. To have watched Rafael Nadal ascend during the past four years has been an impressive sight. That he has managed to do so during the reign of a man who might well end up being the greatest player in tennis history is even more dazzling.
5. Federer brings more heart than ever
Top 10 week -- 2008 season
He hadn't finished a year Slamless since 2002. He'd lost his Wimbledon crown and the No. 1 ranking. So, naturally, Roger Federer came to the U.S. Open on a mission. But in earning the triumph at Flushing Meadows, it wasn't just the quality of his tennis as well as an increased appetite for attack that told the story, but more so the quality of his passion. Certainly, Federer has shown his emotions before, but it was particularly powerful to see him earn such a redemptive win as summer turned to fall.
6. Dementieva's renaissance
After a long stay in the top 10, the hard-hitting Russian slipped to No. 11 at the end of 2007. Was Elena Dementieva's best tennis behind her at age 26? No way. Her groundstrokes were as lethal as ever. Her serving had been so well chronicled that she appeared this year to have reconciled those woes and leaned on other parts of her game to get her through matches. Best of all, Dementieva played with passion and increased focus to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Although it's debatable how significant an Olympic gold medal is in world tennis, for this Russian, there's no argument: It was a career-defining moment, and perhaps the kind of big triumph that will continue to motivate her.
7. Ascent of Safina
Dinara Safina didn't just crawl out of her brother's shadow. She sprinted. In May, in Berlin, she emerged with wins over Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva to take a major clay-court title. Then followed a long season of consistency, highlighted by Safina's reaching her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros and the semis at the U.S. Open, as well as attaining an Olympic silver medal and four tournament titles.
8. Andy Murray comes of age
A beautiful mind merged with an improved physique. With power and guile, finesse and force, Great Britain's hope made his way to the tip of the top echelon. A nation crosses its fingers while the world savors his brilliance.
9. Ivanovic wins a Slam
|Andy Murray evolved from a petulant, inconsistent performer to arguably the player to beat in 2009.|
She'd played poorly in two previous Slam finals, so when Ana Ivanovic made her way through the French Open draw, it was still uncertain just how well she could play when it mattered most. In Paris, she proved exceptionally resolved, taking down her fellow Serb, Jelena Jankovic, in a sparkling semifinal, then marching on to a breakthrough victory.
10. Roddick brings in Stefanki
Once the Roddick and Jimmy Connors coach-disciple relationship ended, it was unclear whom Roddick would next take on as coach. Throughout 2008, he continued with his brother John, joined forces with Patrick McEnroe for the U.S. Open and spent the autumn on his own. But to bring Larry Stefanki on board was an inspired move. A hard-core court rat who loves digging his teeth into every aspect of big-time tennis, Stefanki's in-your-face Zen approach is refreshing and informative. Though it's impossible to say at this point how or if Stefanki can help Roddick generate better results, it's yet another example of Roddick's taking every step possible to wring as much as he can out of his playing career.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.