2007: The Big Questions

Thursday, December 28, 2006 /by

FednadIs it a slow day at the office? It is at TENNIS Magazine’s HQ in the glamorous lower Murray Hill section of Manhattan, where I can gaze out my eighth-floor window at the world-famous Dunkin’ Donuts/Taco Bell combination store on the corner below. Theoretically, this is a good time to get some work done, but I’ve spent the last five minutes on Netflix trying to decide whether to move Dodgeball or A History of Violence to the top of my queue (you can feel my pain, I’m sure).

Other than that, I’m left with only one thing to do this afternoon: See into the future! For some reason, this is now a major part of the job description of all sportswriters. Very, very few of our prognostications come true—upsets are upsets because no one, including the most tediously informed observer, sees them coming. But fans want predictions in part because they want you, the know-it-all wannabe athlete, to be wrong. I myself return to Pardon the Interruption every evening just to see how Kornheiser and Wilbon avoid eating crow.

That said, I will now answer the important questions for the 2007 season, which, because this is tennis, actually begins on the final day of 2006.

1. Can Roger Federer win the Grand Slam?
Federer now dominates the sport so thoroughly that a writer can’t pick anyone else to win a big tournament—with the exception of Rafael Nadal on clay—without provoking gales of laughter. Davydenko winning Key Biscayne? Impossible!

With that in mind, here are the upsides and downsides to Federer's Slam quest:

For Him: It’s three-out-of-five sets at the majors, which rules out a quick ambush by a hot opponent, and makes a fatal off day for Sire Jacket unlikely. Someone’s going to have to go out and get the best of Federer for two or more hours, which is almost unimaginable right now. As for his one weak point, the French Open, Federer has three things going for him: (1) He’ll be more motivated than ever to win it; (2) He’s already established himself as a serious contender, which will give him confidence; and (3) He’s known for eventually figuring out his nemeses (see Hewitt and Nalbandian), and two straight losses to Nadal in Paris must have taught him something.

Against Him: That list of positives about his chances at the French Open? It's pretty much what I wrote as Federer went to Paris last year. In the long run, winning the calendar-year Slam will mean that he’ll have won six consecutive majors (counting the 2006 Wimbledon and U.S. Open) and 42 straight matches at those events. That’s a lot to ask, particularly from a physical standpoint—how long can he stay injury free? Not to mention that the pressure would be unprecedented by the time he got to Flushing Meadows. No man has been in that position in 38 years. But I think Federer is well-equipped to handle that, and would even welcome it. He’s also made the Open his home for three straight years. The keys are the Australian and the French; if he wins those, he’s going all the way.

2. Will there be changes at the top among the women?
Justine Henin-Hardenne: Her win in Madrid felt like an important one. I can see her using it as a jumping off point for two majors in 2007 (plus, she’ll come into Melbourne looking to make everyone forget her foolish retirement in last year’s final). Henin-Hardenne is not just No. 1; she really is the best player in the world in the post-Williams era, more explosive than Mauresmo, more versatile than Sharapova, tougher than Clijsters. She just needs to find a way to shake off those debilitating Grand Slam nerves when she gets to the second week—they cost her three majors last year, and almost the fourth.

Maria Sharapova: There could be a surge here. She’ll be dangerous at each Slam other than the French, and she won’t be content to go back to her semifinal routine after winning the 2006 U.S. Open. The Russian will always be at a disadvantage athletically against Henin-Hardenne, Mauresmo, and Clijsters, but she has somehow improved her movement over the last two years, and you know she’ll be ready to play each day. The question is whether she can find the right level of controlled aggression at the right moments, the way she did at Flushing Meadows. In the big matches, it may be a question of getting a little less intense.

Amelie Mauresmo: She’ll turn 28 in July, and she certainly has another Slam in her. But she’ll be hard-pressed to match last year’s double. Henin-Hardenne turned the tables on her pretty convincingly at the year-end championships. Last season may have been Mauresmo’s peak.

Kim Clijsters: She’s the wild card. If this really is her last year, she’ll be more relaxed, which makes her much more dangerous—not relaxing has been her one problem over the years. Clijsters played some strong, hungry tennis in Madrid. If she matches it in Melbourne in January, she’s got a great shot at the year’s first major, where the Rebound Ace bounce puts the ball in her high strike zone.

Others: Svetlana Kuznetsova will remain the flaky, fun-to-watch, utterly unpredictable dark horse; it’s time for Nadia Petrova to make a serious Slam run, I’m thinking at Roland Garros; Martina Hingis, at No 7, will struggle to go any higher, but she has a chance in Melbourne at least.

3. How high can Andy Roddick and James Blake climb?
At 24 and 27, respectively, it’s fast becoming now or never time for the top Americans. I would guess that Andre Agassi’s retirement will help them—now, finally, they are the guys. Last season was encouraging for both of them as well. Blake got a taste of the big time by reaching the final in Shanghai. While his blowout loss to Federer must have left a bitter taste, he’ll be stronger and more confident for having finished the year at a career-high No. 4. He’s had the explosiveness; it was confidence he lacked. Now Blake has proven to himself that he can beat everyone except Federer. His high-risk game will always result in hiccups and head-scratching losses, but there’s no reason Blake shouldn’t seriously contend at each non-clay major and Masters event and earn a return trip to the Masters Cup.

As for Roddick, I would advise him to pretend every opponent is Roger Federer. Roddick used to come out and overhit against the world No. 1, but by barreling forward and pressing the action relentlessly this year, he stumbled on a style that troubles Federer. So far, though, Roddick hasn’t felt that same urgency to make the points short against the other guys, and Nalbandian and Berdych, among others, were able to expose his lack of variety and foot speed late last year. The way forward is there for Roddick, and it’s just that—the way forward. I think he’ll use it and have another successful season, return to the Top 5, reach a Slam final, and win one Masters event.

4. What’s in store for the Federer-Nadal rivalry?
Their last get-together, in Shanghai, was a blistering slugfest and may have been the year’s best match. It’s going to be a good 2007 if we can get them to face each other five or six times. The question is whether Nadal can live up to his side of the bargain, which he was unable to do for the second half of 2006. The problem is that nothing comes easily for him; baseline bruising is how he wins, and it took its toll late last year. I see Nadal starting strong Down Under and during the March hard-court swing, where the courts have been to his liking in the past. Even in his two losses to Lleyton Hewitt in Melbourne, Nadal looked comfortable (though the surface is apparently playing faster this time around). His serve improved last year; now it’s his backhand he’s got to shore up and make more consistent if he’s going to be a threat all year and on every surface.

From Federer’s standpoint, he has begun to turn the tables, but they’re not reversed just yet. In Shanghai he used his wide serve in the deuce court to tremendous effect, but once a rally began, Nadal was able, even on a quick court, to push Federer onto his back foot, something no one else in the world can do on a regular basis. In 2007, they’ll continue to have close, exciting, exhausting matches on clay and slow hard courts—everywhere except Wimbledon, where I don't see Nadal repeating his run to the final. This year I like Federer at the French, and Nadal at the Australian (cue the gales of laughter).

5. Which young gun will have a breakthrough season?
Richard Gasquet: This should be the year for Baby Federer (or is that Baby Leconte?) to shine. He’s got a Masters title in him, anyway, and a Slam semi.

Ana Ivanovic: Her weapons are in place, but needs another season on tour before she’s consistent enough with them to put together a big run.

Marcos Baghdatis: I wonder if a slump is in order? Mr. Loose is always a potential upset victim, but watch out if he wins three rounds at any major.

Novak Djokovic: More quiet improvement, a Top 15 ranking, a Slam quarter or two, more titles, more annoyed opponents, more losses to Federer, a win over Nadal.

Nicole Vaidisova: The power is there (if not the smoothness), and she’s further along than Ivanovic. There’s that pesky temper, though.

Andy Murray: The partnership with Brad Gilbert is an ideal one, as long as he can stand him—Murray’s talented, Gilbert’s motivated. The kid almost has too many ways to win right now; he’s got to choose the most efficient one. And then get stronger. And fitter. And less whiny. Still, those deficiencies won’t keep him from having some big wins by the end of 2007. (Side note to all Federer militants about the Murray-Federer match in Cincy last year: Tennis matches don’t have “asterisks” after them. They have periods. You play a match and you either win it or lose it, and Murray beat Federer. Period.)

6. Who will win the Grand Slams?

Australian Open: Nadal, Henin-Hardenne

French Open: Federer, Henin-Hardenne

Wimbledon: Federer, Sharapova

U.S. Open: Murray, Clijsters

Last year, I was 4 for 8 in Slam predictions; think I can beat that in ’07? I’m guessing you’ll be happier if I don’t!

On that note: Happy New Year, everyone. I’ll be back in a couple weeks to talk about the opening of the new season, including the Hopman Cup, a relaxed warm-up event that usually produces some good tennis.

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