Between The Lines
December 13, 2009
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||EXPLORE THE TENNIS NET:
Player of the Year 2009
by Ray Bowers
The winning of Slams counts heavily in choosing our pro tennis Player of the Year here, indeed in measuring tennis greatness everywhere. But there are other achievements too, sometimes a combination of several, that may cause us to choose a less obvious representative for the year. Indeed occasionally -- i.e., in two of our eleven awards to date -- our honoree was neither a Slam winner nor the year's male or female singles champion. Weighing the achievements of the various candidates provides a chance to recall and savor the year's high moments.
THE FEMALE CANDIDATES
Serena Williams was our Player of the Year back in 2002, when as a 21-year-old star she captured three of the four Slams (she did not play Australia), and finished the year ranked at #1. Now in 2009, in what was otherwise a rather formless year in women's tennis, Serena's achievements were quite similar to those of that earlier year. Now at age 28, Serena in 2009 captured two Slams (Australia and Wimbledon), won the women's year-ending event in Doha, and once again finished at #1. To these laurels in singles, she added three Slam crowns in doubles, partnering sister Venus. (She also beat Venus to win Billie Jean King Cup, a one-night exhibition that broke a nine-year absence of women's tennis from Madison Square Garden.) Despite periods of knee and hamstring trouble, it was clearly a successful year for Serena.
But much is expected of one who has been a great champion over many years. Several matters weakened Serena's 2009 credentials. During the year she played in 15 other tournaments, winning none and reaching the final in only one, Miami. She did not participate in any of the three U.S. Fed Cup engagements. An impression remains, perhaps unfairly, that although she likes celebrity roles, her commitment to strengthening women's pro tennis is weak. Also hurting Serena's candidacy here was her disgraceful public conduct in berating a linesperson for calling a critical foot-fault at U.S. Open.
Tennis Server Players of the Year
Player of the Decade
Player of the Century
There is a different kind of appeal in the feat of Kim Clijsters, who returned to pro tennis this year at the age of 26 after having given childbirth. In her third tournament back, Clijsters became champion of U.S. Open 09, where she faced and clearly outplayed Serena in winning their semi-final meeting. The splendid quality of Kim's athletic tennis seen in her comeback, along with her unfailing good nature throughout, give extra weight to her achievement. In my opinion, the intriguing story of Kim Clijsters in 2009 lifts her candidacy here to the same level as Serena's.
Another remarkable achievement came with Fed Cup 2009, where the Italian artists Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone pulled off the nine victories in singles that would capture the Cup for that nation. In turn the Italians defeated first France, then Russia, and finally U.S.A. The most critical moment came in the upset by Schiavone over Russia's Kuznetsova, achieved in split sets on Italian clay in April. Kuznetsova would become Garros champion a few weeks later. In all, of the nine singles wins required to win Italy's three meetings, Pennetta contributed five, Schiavone four. (Schiavone probably deserves primacy here over her teammate because of her critical win over Kuznetsova.)
Two Russian players merit consideration -- Svetlana Kuznetsova for her triumph at Garros, and Dinara Safina for her extended tenure at the year's #1 ranking. Dinara was narrowly overtaken late in the year by Serena Williams, but along the way Safina won at Rome and Madrid, was finalist at Australia, Garros, and Cincinnati, and semi-finalist at Wimbledon. Kuznetsova finished the year ranked at #3, behind Serena and Safina. Also worth noting is the 2009 success of Venus Williams, who partnered Serena in winning three doubles Slams and was singles runner-up both at Wimbledon and at year's end at Doha.
Another worthy achievement came in women's doubles by a veteran star from South Africa, who this year for the first time represented U.S. of America. Liezel Huber partnered Cara Black to the year's #1 ranking, the pair winning five tournaments. Huber was also was a member of the winning doubles pair in the fifth and deciding match of America's two Fed Cup victories, over Argentina and Czech Republic, respectively. (The outcome in the U.S. final-round loss to Italy was decided prior to the doubles.)
All the above candidacies are distinguished. For me, the one that is most compelling is that of Kim Clijsters. Her talent, will, hard work, and amazing success in returning to tennis in summer 2009 make Kim our female nominee for Player of the Year 09.
It was a good if not surpassing year for Roger Federer, who turned 28 during the year, well past the average age where modern superstars start showing declining results. Roger nevertheless recaptured the year's #1 ranking after losing that honor to Nadal last year. Otherwise, Roger's prime achievements this year came in the Slams, including his winning of Roland Garros, an achievement that completed his Career Grand Slam. Only five others in tennis history have captured all four Slams at least once. One month after his Garros triumph, Roger won Wimbledon, for the sixth time, thereby completing the capture of both Old World Slams in the same year, an achievement almost as rare as the Career Grand Slam. Meanwhile Roger was runner-up at both Australian and U.S. Opens 09.
A weakness in Federer's career resume has been the absence of a Davis Cup crown for his homeland, Switzerland. In late 2008 Roger and teammate Stan Wawrinka lifted Switzerland into World Group 09, but injury prevented Roger's participation in February 2009 when the Swiss lost to U.S. in World Group 09 play. Roger rejoined the team in September, contributing two singles victories against Italy in Switzerland's successful defense of its World Group status. Both Federer and Wawrinka are expected to play in the coming meeting against Spain to start the 2010 Cup campaign. In my opinion Roger's Davis Cup efforts add to his strong candidacy for our current award.
THE MALE CANDIDATES IN LONDON
Federer and the year's other top-ranking stars gathered in London, 22-28 November 2009, for the Barclays ATP Tour Finals -- the round-robin event formerly called Masters Cup. Winning that year-ending event carries prestige and ATP points second only to the Slams. Several of the entrants had achieved distinctions earlier in the year which if reinforced by a championship run in London might have rivaled Roger's credentials for our judgment here.
Roger's performance in London was unimpressive -- he struggled but managed to win two of his three round-robin matches, all three-setters, thereby reaching the event's Final Four by narrow margin. He then bowed out in the semi-finals, losing a stiff fight against Davydenko.
But Roger's two apparently foremost rivals in our exercise did no better. Rafael Nadal, who had an outside chance of surpassing Roger as year-end #1 in the official point standings, lost all three of his round-robin matches. Rafa had won Australian Open, Indian Wells, and the early clay events of 2009, but a bad knee then sidelined him for several months, and his former dominance never returned. Meanwhile Novak Djokovic had risen to #3 in the point standings by winning late-year tournaments in Beijing, Basel, and Paris. The 22-year-old with the potent serve and ground-strokes started off well in London, beating Davydenko in his first match, but he then split his last two round-robin matches, finishing the round-robin phase with a W-L record of 2-1 and failing to advance to the semi-final round. Djokovic looked physically and perhaps mentally tired from his long and stressful fall season.
Two of the London semi-finalists came to that event showing high-order achievements earlier in the year. Robin Soderling was the player who beat Rafael Nadal at Garros 09, thereby ending Rafa's amazing run in capturing that crowning event of clay-court tennis the four preceding years. Soderling also played well on later occasions, including at U.S. Open. Meanwhile Juan Martin del Potro had achieved comparable distinction, becoming U.S. Open 09 champion at the age of 20, ending Federer's five consecutive years of supremacy there. The two men, Soderling and del Potro, faced each other in the semis at London. The tall Argentine player won their third-set tiebreaker, thereby advancing to the final round.
Nicolay Davydenko's dazzling triumph over del Potro in the London final completed a week of ever-stronger performances for the slender 28-year-old. It added up to a signature achievement of high magnitude, one scarcely predictable from his previous performance during the year. At mid-summer Nicolay's ranking had fallen outside his customary place within the Top Eight amid injuries, but he returned during the fall with triumphs in tournaments in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. Only narrowly was Nicolay among the eight qualifiers for London, and still more narrowly was he among the four who survived the round-robin phase. Nicolay's opponent in the London semis was Roger Federer, who had won all twelve previous meetings between the two men.
Now, Nicolay began with his usual court speed and a higher-than-usual degree of machine-like precision, badly outplaying Federer especially in his swift movement into striking position. But after Nicolay took the first set easily, the two then settled into an extended fight as Roger stepped up his own energy and forcefulness. It was close at the finish, Roger operating from close on baseline looking to attack, Nicolay replying with deep sizzlers that gave Roger little time to prepare. The critical late going brought several untouchable winners by Roger, but more often there were critical errors by the former champion.
Davydenko was even closer to perfection the next day in the final against young del Potro. At his peak in all aspects, Nicolay outclassed the U.S. Open champion with superb court movement and precision in his aggressive striking.
The manner and conviction in Davydenko's triumph in London lifts him to the level of Soderling and del Potro in our reasoning, all slightly ahead of Nadal and Djokovic as possible alternatives to Federer among our male candidates. But the historic magnitude of Federer's completion of the Career Grand Slam along with his attainment of the rare Garros-Wimbledon double, both in the current calendar year, along with other important credentials noted above, make clear that Roger once again emerges as the male representative in our annual exercise.
FEDERER OR CLIJSTERS?
Weighing one player's greatness over a full pro-tennis year against another player's more intense kind of greatness in a limited period or a single event is inherently subjective, often turning on the intangible. Our difficulties are further multiplied when we are also deciding between the chosen male and female nominees, who performed in very different contexts. In seeking a final verdict, it usually seems helpful to mull things over for a week or so, perhaps talking over the pros and cons with tennis friends, sometimes during warm-ups or changeovers in social doubles.
In the eleven years of the award to date, the male finalist has been chosen eight times, the female only three. An inclination to change the balance arises, favoring Kim over Roger. Federer was our winner in 2003, 2004, and 2006. Clijsters was our female finalist once, in 2005, when the final choice was a 19-year-old Nadal. But for me, what make compelling the case for Clijsters are the emotional aspects, which shine above an otherwise rather bleak year in women's tennis, stained by too many injuries and cases of ill behavior and suspension. Kim has always been esteemed by audiences worldwide for her good nature, her earnestness in competition, her wonderful athleticism. She left the game two years ago for more important goals in life. She returned in 2009 to compete at an impossible-seeming level of performance.
Whatever the future holds for Clijsters, her family, and her tennis crew, the sport universally wills her good things. Here, for her stunning achievement at Flushing Meadows, which lifted the sport-business to a glow seldom seen in these times, we honor Kim Clijsters as our 2009 Player of the Year.
The verdict feels right.
Kim Clijsters (shown after her victory at the US Open) is the 2009 Tennis Server Player of the Year.
TENNIS NATION OF THE YEAR
In winning Davis Cup 09, Spain earned the foremost team prize in men's tennis. All four victories enroute to the crown took place on Spanish clay, where the talent and depth of the Armada repeatedly prevailed. The victories came in succession over Serbia, Germany, Israel, and Czech Republic, where the most dangerous moment came against Germany in July. On that occasion, Spain's veteran Juan Carlos Ferreros won the deciding fifth-rubber showdown created by Kohlschreiber's two singles wins earlier.
A stalwart during the year for Spain was David Ferrer, who turned in opening-day singles wins in three of the meetings, defeating Djokovic, Levy, and -- in a dramatic recovery from two sets down in Barcelona -- Stepanek. Rafael Nadal also won three meaningful Cup singles during the year without loss. Spain thus became the first nation to capture the Cup in consecutive years since 1998.
Another team event is ATP's World Team Cup, played in Dusseldorf on outdoor clay in the week just before Garros each year. This year's winning nation was Serbia, led by Troicki and Tipsarevic in singles and Troicki-Zimonjic in doubles. (Djokovic did not play.) Second place went to Germany. Spain did not compete.
It is always interesting to tally matches won by each nation at the Slams, combining singles and doubles. Spain's males scored more wins than the men of any other nation at this year's Australian Open and Garros. The U.S. men's contingent won the honors at Wimbledon and U.S. Open. France broke into the top two at Garros, finishing only one match-win behind the Armada. Meanwhile in the tallies at the year's Masters Series events, Spain's males led at five (the clay events, plus Canada and Shanghai). France and U.S.A. both led at two. At the year's final event in London, two of the eight singles qualifiers were Spanish -- Nadal and Verdasco. But both of them lost all their round-robin matches. It brought memory of a time when Spain's clay artists were usually losers on nonclay surfaces.
Among the women, the dominance of the Russkayas in winning the most matches at Slams and other tournaments persisted, except that the Americans claimed the most wins at U.S. Open for the second straight year. The Fed Cup final went to a strong Italian team led by Schiavone and Pennetta over U.S.A. lacking either Williams sister. (Spain had a bad year in Fed Cup play, falling out of the World Group for next year.) In the individual rankings for the year Russia placed three players among 2009's top eight, but none of the three reached the Final Four at the Sony-Ericksson year-ender in Doha. Two Americans -- Serena and Venus Williams -- met in the final round, won by Serena. The American sisters finished the year ranked #2 in women's doubles, behind Black and Huber. Spain's Llagostera Vives-Martinez Sanchez finished at #3, having won the finale at Doha where they beat both of the higher-ranked pairs.
The only team competition combining men's and women's matches is Hopman Cup, won in January 2009 by Slovak Republic. Cibulkova and Hrbaty defeated the Russian siblings Safina and Safin, respectively, in singles matches to wrap up the final-round victory.
We conclude that the prime national honors this year were won by Spain's males. That country's females added to Spain's success only slightly -- i.e., in the fine run by Llagostera Vives and Martinez Sanchez in women's doubles. The Russian, Italian, and American women all scored much better than Spain's in our search, but not enough to outweigh Spain's successes on the men's side. Our selection as Tennis Nation for 2009 is Spain.
BELLYACHE OF THE YEAR
The round-robin format used at the ATP tour final, held this year in London, provides a setting for dream match-ups from start to finish. Unless a player becomes injured, no-one exits without playing at least three matches. The round-robin schedule allows late ticket buyers to pick which players they will watch. But there is a price for these benefits. One penalty is a high risk of ties in the round-robin standings along with poor general understanding as to how such ties are broken. This year, for example, both of the four-man groups at London finished with three players with W-L records of 2-1. Which two players in each group advanced to the semi-finals was decided by comparing sets-won and games-won percentages. Especially the latter measurement borders on the trivial.
A more serious weakness is the frequent happenstance where one or more of the late round-robin matches is meaningless for one of the participants. In the case where one player has already certified his berth in the Final Four, for example, his interests in playing his third round-robin match are probably best served by conserving his energy for the coming showdowns. Thus his opponent that day may unfairly nudge out a more worthy player in the standings.
Here's what happened this year in London.
In Group A, Federer, Murray, and del Potro all finished at 2-1 records when del Potro beat Roger in the last match. All three had identical sets-won records of 5-4, as all six matches in Group A play had been three-setters. Federer became the group winner and del Potro the group runner-up by their games-won percentage. In reality Roger clinched his place in the Final Four the moment he won the second set against del Potro, which assured that he would beat out Murray. From then on, Roger had negligible competitive interest in what happened, though his role in deciding between Murray and del Potro was still active.
In Group B, Soderling had already clinched a Final Four place prior to the third round of round-robin play. (Even if Robin lost in straight, love sets to Davydenko in the third round, he would finish ahead of both Djokovic and Nadal.) In actuality Robin lost his for-himself-irrelevant three-setter to Davydenko, who thus claimed second place narrowly ahead of Djokovic, even though the latter player had beaten Nicolay in their head-to-head encounter in the first round.
Amid further frowning here for the delay and resulting confusion in confirming the Group A outcome, the whole arrangement easily earns our founding award for Bellyache of the Year. See footnote, below, for a seemingly better way.*
All in all, it was an interesting and eventful tennis year, where the two-player lock on the top two places in the men's race weakened but continued for the fifth consecutive year. Meanwhile we congratulate Kim Clijsters and tennis nation Spain as our wonderful winners for 2009.
There once was a player named Kim,
Whose chances of winning seemed slim.
But then when in Flushing
Kim won amid blushing,
Serena turned angry and grim.
*FOOTNOTE -- A BETTER WAY?
There is a straightforward way of changing the future format at London in order that (1) all matches become fully meaningful for both participants and where (2) there is no need for tie-breaking rules in deciding the Final Four. Here's how this scheme, a double-elimination arrangement, works.
In the first round, the eight players pair off in four matches in accord with the seedings. In the second round, the four winners pair off against each other and the four losers likewise.
Thus after two rounds, all players will have played twice. Two of them have won twice, and these two have now advanced to become the higher-level seeds in the Final Four. Meanwhile two players have lost twice, and they have now been eliminated. The other four players have each won once and lost once. These four will face off in the third round, matching-up to avoid repeats. The two third-round winners, now with 2-1 records, will become the lower-level seeds in the Final Four. The two losers, with 1-2 records, are eliminated.
The Final Four then play the semis and final as now, paired to avoid repeating an earlier match-up if possible.
(Note that in our scheme the total number of matches prior to the event's semi-finals is ten -- two fewer than under the present format. Now absent are any match-ups involving non-meaningful play or where a player has lost control of his own destiny. If more matches are desired in the week's program, then one or two play-in matches could be added at the start, pitting one or both of the alternates against the one or two lowest-seeded entrants. Problems arise if injuries force one or more starters to withdraw after the first round of play. The rules for defining the rights of the alternates and remaining starters would probably be even more awkward than at present but would probably entail the substitute inheriting the earlier record of the injured player for scheduling purposes with some adjustment on purse and points awarded. Satisfactory periods of rest for all players between the round-robin and the semis can be scheduled in this, as in any arrangement, by working in doubles play as needed.)
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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.