The season-ending event bringing the eight top females to Doha in late October produced some nice tennis, but the drama of deciding the full-year champion was spoiled early, while three of the eight starters exited in injury-related retirements. Meanwhile the Paris Indoors served to cement the eight-player cast for the men's finale in London formerly known as Masters Cup, even as the race tightened between Federer and Nadal for the year-end #1 position and the acknowledged year's championship.
Dinara Safina and Serena Williams came to Doha, 27 October-1 November, almost exactly tied atop the year's points race, far ahead of all other players. Serena did her part to maintain the suspense, winning all three of her matches in the round-robin portion, showing her power serving and stroking at close to their best. But Dinara, who had been troubled with a back injury, withdrew during her first round-robin match, thus departing from the tournament and surrendering to Serena the year's #1 ranking. Serena would go on to defeat a hobbled Wozniacki in the event's semi-finals and then win the final, beating sister Venus, thereby capturing the year-ending event for the second time. Throughout the week, Serena's superiority over the other contenders in serving had been amply clear, reinforcing her excellence in both attacking and defensive court play. It was also her second time as a year's women's champion, which she first attained in 2002.
At #3 position for 2009, behind Serena and Safina, was Svetlana Kuznetsova, who had earned a late lift by her triumph at China Open, a Premier Mandatory tournament held in Beijing in early October. Her W-L mark of 1-2 in the round-robin phase at Doha was good enough to keep her year-long standing slightly ahead of Caroline Wozniacki and Elena Dementieva, who finished #4 and #5, respectively, for 2009.
The doubles at Doha went to the Spanish pair of Llagostera Vives and Martinez Sanchez, who first defeated the sisters Williams and then the top-seeded pair, Black-Huber, who had beaten Stosur-Stubbs in the semis. The year's #1 ranking went to Black-Huber. The Williamses, having won three doubles Slams in 2009, were second.
Six of the top-eighters at Doha this year were also members of last year's top eight. The two newcomers to this elite group were Caroline Wozniacki, 19, and Victoria Azarenka, 20, both of whom seem destined to meet many times on the world's tennis stage as leaders of the new generation of tennis women.
Wozniacki and Azarenka are both right-handers, both use two-handed backhands, and both are listed at 5-10 in height and about 130 pounds. Wozniacki was born and raised in Denmark; Azarenka was born in Belarus, trained in recent years in Arizona. Azarenka is the more powerful server and stroker and also the more mercurial in temperament. Wozniacki's game is the more patient, built on her excellent control in shot-making and good court mobility. She can work the sides well, moving her opponent, and she can also attack with precise angles in ways reminiscent of Martina Hingis. She looks quite young, but her tennis maturity is strong. Caroline won their meeting at U.S. Open 08 but lost twice to Victoria in tour events of early 2009.
At Doha the two youngsters met on the second evening. Both showed plenty of power, mobility, and court intelligence. As expected, Azarenka was the harder and more persistently aggressive hitter, Wozniacki the better defender though ready and willing to take the initiative often. Despite a heavily wrapped thigh, Caroline produced a fine, come-from-behind victory in three sets. Probably Azarenka's fade toward the finish reflected the length and ferocity of the match along with the evening's warm temperature. An angry display by Victoria at the end seemed to presage Azarenka's failure in her next round-robin match, against substitute Agnieszka Radwanska. Victoria won the first set and led Agnieszka by two breaks of serve in the second before faltering and then retiring.
Other pre-21's who at season's end seemed likely to do well in 2010 were Belgium's Wickmayer, 6-0, Poland's Radwanska, 5-8, and Germany's Lisicki, 5-10, all aged 20. With Clijsters and Henin again competing, and with Sharapova again at full strength, the immediate future of women's pro tennis looked intriguing. But the announcement of Wickmayer's 12-month suspension for being unavailable for drug testing again diminished the sport's outlook for 2010.
Scarcely noticed in America was the Fed Cup finals, held 7-8 November on Italian clay, where the host-nation nominees Pennetta and Schiavone settled the team verdict by winning the first three singles matches against U.S. opponents Oudin and Glatch. All three matches were settled in straight sets. It was Italy's second Fed Cup championship. There had been talk that Serena or Venus Williams might participate, but their absence left the American squad outgunned.
MEN'S RACE -- COUNTDOWN TO LONDON
Following U.S. Open, Federer and Nadal commanded the first two places in the year-to-date points race for 2009, while Novak Djokovic by winning China Open in Beijing in early October passed Murray and del Potro to claim position #3. The Masters-1,000 tournament in Shanghai one week later produced an unexpected winner, Nicolay Davydenko, who beat Nadal and Djokovic on the final weekend. With his 1,000-point reward, the slender and speedy Nikolay moved into the year's first eight, on the verge of claiming one of the undecided positions at London.
The next big week came in early November, when 500-Series tournaments were held in Basel and Valencia, where the winners each earned 500 points. Roger Federer at Basel made his first appearance since September, seeking to repeat his customary triumph at his home city. Novak Djokovic headed the opposite half of the draw and managed to reach the final, but only after surviving several adverse match points against Radek Stepanek. Radek, age 30, from Czech Republic, is a powerful, athletic competitor, who is able to adjust his playing tactics over a wide range including, on occasion, an excellent net-attacking style. Against Djokovic, Radek served well and moved to net with a resolve and regularity rarely seen nowadays. Djokovic turned matters his way at the end, showing good on-court maturity.
The final round at Basel pitted Djokovic and Federer. Federer played reasonably well -- well enough to have beaten nearly all opponents, but on this day his artillery was slightly less potent and slightly more prone to error than Novak's. There were many dazzling exchanges of rocketry, each man summoning superb court movement to answer the forcing shots of his opponent. Indeed, both defended so well that winners were hard to come by, and most points ended with close misses. Djokovic showed some variety in his tempo and placement, but in essence his victory was owed to the relentless pressure of his forehand and very solid backhand, especially his ability to sustain his barrage with few errors. Djokovic d. Federer, 64 46 62.
Federer's runner-up finish gave him another 300 points in the year's race, now giving him a strong, 1,300-point lead over second-place Nadal. Djokovic's winning at Basel, and Andy Murray's winning at Valencia lifted both closer to the two leaders. But with only 1,000 points available for winning Paris Indoors and a maximum of 1,500 for winning at London, both Djokovic and Murray were too far back to overtake Federer. There remained a small chance that one of them could pass Nadal at #2.
The next week, 8-16 November, brought the Paris Indoors, a Masters-1,000 tournament whose lineage reached back to some of the earliest international professional events in the early 1930's. It was the last tournament prior to the London finale, two weeks ahead. Results in Paris would affect Federer's margin over Nadal at the start in London, and would also decide who would be the last two qualifiers and also the two alternates for the elite eight at London. (The Big Four had already acquired enough points to qualify for London, along with del Potro and Roddick.)
PARIS INDOORS -- THE RACE FOR FIRST PLACE
Both Federer and Nadal faced trouble in their opening matches in Paris. Rafa's first opponent was countryman Nicolas Almagro, of the blistering serve and backhand one-hander. As expected, Nadal produced his heavy-topspin, baseline game, but too often his offerings landed short, allowing Nicolas to strike back from optimum hitting height, peppering the sides and corners.
Almagro won the first set and took an early break in the second, but matters stayed close amid a propensity of extremely close errors from Almagro's forcing game. With Almagro serving in the second set, ahead at score 65, 40-love, Nicolas held match point five times, but he lost all five chances amid what seemed his retreat to conservative stroking even as Rafa halted his occasional error-making. After that disappointment, a distraught Nicolas contributed several horrible errors as the set-ending tiebreaker went to Rafa. The third set brought spells of soft hitting by Rafa, which again spelled target practice for Nicolas's rocketry. But matters ended amid cramping in the Almagro left leg. Nadal d. Almagro, 36 76 75.
Federer too was pressed by his first opponent, tall French star Julien Benneteau, age 27, who is probably best known for his past success in doubles. Serving forcefully and well, at one point Benneteau delivered 25 consecutive in-court first serves. Willing to rally with patience matching Roger's, at times aggressive in his stroking and in coming forward (Julien won 16 of 22 points at net), Benneteau captured an early service break in set three. Buoyed by strong and noisy crowd support, Benneteau thereafter held off strong pressure from Roger in Julien's serving games, producing his best serving and net play of the evening. As for Roger, as in his loss a few days earlier in Basel, there were too many uncharacteristic errors along with perhaps too much patience, too little boldness. Benneteau d. Federer, 36 76 64.
In his second appearance, on Thursday, Rafael Nadal again narrowly survived, recovering his top form toward the finish when Tommy Robredo briefly faltered. All afternoon Tommy had played a balanced, forcing game, pressing Rafa just enough to retain a narrow edge. But Tommy's patience vanished amid the pressure late in the third set, serving for the match, ahead at score 54. Tommy sailed three or four rockets out of play, all of them coming very early in points. With the score unexpectedly equalized, Rafa now became the relentless warrior of old, forcing play and giving away nothing. Nadal d. Robredo, 63 36 64.
Rafa won again on Friday, overcoming last year's winner of the event, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 75 75. Tsonga's excellent power and net game were on display, but with them came too many errors, while Nadal mixed his own fine defensive work with some first-strike attacking. Nadal's three match wins to date now counted for 360 ATP points, more than balancing Roger's gain at Basel. But with the big point rewards now on the table, Rafa would lose to the eventual tournament winner, Novak Djokovic, in their Saturday semi-final. In that affair both men played more aggressively than in their earlier matches. But after they divided the first four games, Djokovic's superb forehands, many of which were inside-out winners, and backhands, including many down-the-line untouchables, took dominance. There was little Rafa could do to turn the tide of Djokovic's power game at its best.
Nadal's 945-point margin behind Federer meant that Rafa must win at least two and perhaps three more matches than Roger in London in order to overtake Roger and claim the year-end #1 ranking.
PARIS INDOORS -- QUALIFYING FOR LONDON
To be decided in Paris were the #7 and #8 qualifiers for London, along with the first and second alternates. Davydenko and Verdasco momentarily occupied the two prized positions, but several other stars were close enough to unseat them if they could reach a very late round in Paris -- Soderling, Gonzalez, Tsonga, Stepanek, Cilic. Close enough to contend for alternate positions were Robredo, Simon, and Monfils.
The two current residents, Davydenko and Verdasco, both won their first and then lost their second matches in Paris. Both, however, cemented their places in London, as their first-match victories were enough to eliminate Stepanek and Cilic, while Soderling, Gonzalez, and Tsonga lost their chances by losing their matches on Thursday/Friday. Meanwhile the importance of the alternate positions increased given Andy Roddick's knee trouble (which kept him away from Paris) and when del Potro withdrew with abdominal strain on Friday against Stepanek. Emerging as the probable first alternate was Robin Soderling, who progressed nicely in Paris, beating Davydenko but then losing a three-setter to Djokovic.
The Djokovic-Soderling meeting was a brutal affair, where both men delivered sustained and aggressive power throughout. Djokovic's heavy artillery -- delivered with remarkable avoidance of error and special quality from the backhand side -- equaled what he had displayed at Basel. Soderling's blunt deliveries were not quite at the level of error-avoidance shown at Garros and Wimbledon earlier in the year, but when he found his target, his flatter-trajectory strokes were often point-enders. Matters reached three-games-all in the third set, whereupon the Swedish player lost his accuracy, enabling Djokovic to close out while playing mostly conservatively. Djokovic d. Soderling, 64 16 63.
On Friday, Gael Monfils, 23, winner over Benneteau, met Marin Cilic, 21, conqueror of Verdasco. Cilic's serving and forehand power captured the first set, but after that the athletic French player matched up well in the longer exchanges, indeed showing the better avoidance of error and, especially, better mobility and athleticism. There were several instances of extreme, indeed dazzling agility by Monfils, reversing and then capturing points that had seemed lost. Gael clearly enjoyed such moments, perhaps explaining why he sometimes prefers playing defensively. But on this day, his attacking came through often enough to make the difference. Monfils d. Cilic, 36 64 64.
Thus it was Monfils against Stepanek in a Saturday semi-final that would either give Stepanek the prime alternate place in London or keep alive the Monfils hopes. (Stepanek had knocked out Andy Murray earlier in the week when Murray played with minimal rest time after beating Blake in a three-setter ending at 2 A.M. Murray won the first set but then lost his way before some excellent net-attacking by Stepanek.)
Late in the second set against Stepanek, Monfils served seeking to complete a straight-set victory. Just in time Stepanek raised his volleying, exposing what appeared to be weakness in the Monfils passing-shot and lobbing game. Either man could have won the third set, as Stepanek was now coming forward boldly in nearly every point and Monfils remained weak in his replies. As the crowd rose in its support of Monfils, Gael became the cheerleader, doubtlessly irritating his opponent. It was Stepanek who faltered, missing two volleys in game nine to lose his serve, then missing two approach shots that cost him the final game. Monfils d. Stepanek, 64 57 64.
Meanwhile Novak Djokovic had beaten Soderling closely and Nadal one-sidedly. His final-round victory over Monfils alternately followed both patterns. For the first hour or so, Novak dominated Gael as fully as he had dominated Nadal the day before, ripping first-strike attacking ground strokes to the corners for winners seemingly at will. But with Djokovic ahead by a set plus three games in the second set, Novak's magic suddenly vanished. Close errors began to creep in as Monfils tightened his own play amid increasingly frenzied crowd support. His confidence now low, Novak began playing safely, drawing back from his earlier forcefulness, no longer attempting the forehand inside-out rockets or those magnificent backhand down-the-line winners seen all week. Monfils matched up well in the many grueling rallies that followed, helped by the crowd and occasionally by his own superiority in cat-and-mouse play close-in. Gael took the second set and twice recovered from adverse service breaks in the third to reach tiebreaker. It might have ended either way. Djokovic d. Monfils, 62 57 76.
If he had won the final, Monfils would have displaced Tsonga for a place as an alternate in London. That did not happen, but the ability of the Paris-born 23-year-old to compete with the best had been proven in the city of his birth. Meanwhile by winning the doubles in Paris, the pair of Nestor-Zimonjic reached near-commanding position to claim the year-end #1 rank. Finally, the nation whose players won the most matches in Paris, singles and doubles, was France. Second place went to Spain.
JUST AHEAD -- LONDON
The eight qualifiers and two alternates for London, 22-28 November, had been determined. Evaluating the likely outcomes there based on Paris remained risky, although conditions at the O2 arena in London should be similar to those at Paris Indoors and although the two events are close in time. But not once in the first eight years of the current century had the Paris winner then become the winner at Masters Cup. Three times, however, the Masters Cup winner was also the previous year's Masters Cup winner. In the present case, Djokovic won both these antecedents -- Paris 09 and Masters Cup 08. Here are what seem proper odds for triumphing at London:
-- Djokovic (won Paris Indoors 09, won at Basel 09 beating Roger; won Masters Cup 08), odds for London 5-2 (or 2.5-1).
-- Federer (won Masters Cup four times starting in 2003; lost early in Paris Indoors 09), odds 3-1.
-- Murray (host-nation favorite; won Valencia 09), odds 6-1.
-- Nadal (won three matches at Paris Indoors 09 albeit with difficulty), odds 9-1.
-- del Potro (won U.S. Open 09 but withdrew at Paris Indoors 09 with injury), odds 13-1.
-- Davydenko (won Masters Cup 06), odds 15-1.
-- Roddick, odds 20-1.
-- Verdasco, odds 25-1.
If one or both alternates move into the starting eight, then the odds for those individuals would be approximately:
Has late-year 2009 so far been a season of sizzle, as promised just after U.S. Open? Or was it a season of fizzle, which now seems partly to have been the case?
The answer is, there has been plenty of both. The fall of Safina from the women's race for #1, the injury withdrawals at Doha, the Wickmayer suspension, and the absence of the Williamses from the Fed Cup final adds up to disappointment among the women. On the men's side there was a cooling in the men's race for #1 between Federer and Nadal, and there were recent sad disclosures from Andre Agassi. But the unquestionably red-hot tennis in Paris, including the emergence of Monfils, all brought magnificently to America by The Tennis Channel, in my opinion overbalances toward the positive among the men.
In Paris the tennis did sizzle,
Though Doha brought bad luck and fizzle.
Still one thing is certain,
They'll bring down the curtain
In London, indoors with no drizzle.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.