The dust, or whatever comes off a slow American hard court, has settled after three weeks. What, if anything, have we learned about the spring swing? More than any year in the past, I felt like Indian Wells and Key Biscayne together constituted a self-contained section of the year, not unlike the way each of the majors do. It was worth watching for its own sake, but with the clay season upcoming, not necessarily a harbinger of things to come for the pros.
The upside of this system for fans, and the downside for certain players, was that we saw two different sets of people perform well and get rewarded for it. The winners in Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic, Mardy Fish, Ana Ivanovic, couldn’t bounce back mentally in Miami. So we were treated to a different set of four finalists: Rafael Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko, Serena Williams, and Jelena Jankovic. I was all for that variety—how often do you get to see Davydenko show off all that timing and balance and also end the week with a smile?—and wasn’t bothered that it was essentially unfair to, say, Djokovic. I still believe his win Indian Wells was the most significant, since he did it against a full draw of fresh players.
The conclusion of the IW/KB Slam (the Sun Slam?) puts us roughly one-quarter of the way into the 2008 season. Before the shift to clay and a new dawn, CE hands out first quarter report cards to our best students, as well as a couple notable underachievers.
The timing on the backhand, the balance on the forehand, the racquet speed on both sides, the ability to cut off the angle when he’s moving wide: The guy is a pure tennis player, and fun to watch when he’s feeling confident. Like his fellow traveler Jankovic, he was also having a status quo year until the draw opened up in Key Biscayne. Credit him for making the most of the opportunity. But is he still too diffident, too deep in his shell, too willing to chase the next paycheck halfway across the globe, to challenge for a major? I’m thinking, unfortunately, yes. A-
He’s been the best around so far, with a major and a Masters, as well as wins over Federer and Nadal, under his belt. I don’t notice anything he’s doing drastically better than he did in the past—he seems to have arrived with a fully formed game. What he has shown is the ability to absorb a defeat, to Federer at the U.S. Open and Nadal at Indian Wells last year, and reverse the result the next time out. Which just means he’s no fluke, and we’ve known for a while now. Djokovic couldn’t keep it together against Kevin Anderson in his opening round in Key Biscayne. Does this mean he’s not cut out to be a dominant champion, à la Federer? Or will he learn from it, just as he’s learned from his losses in the past? I’m leaning toward the latter. A+
Sire Jacket is the big question mark of the season, and his lack of dominance—no titles through March—is making the men’s race interesting for the time in years. More of a question mark is what effect his belatedly diagnosed mono will have on him going forward. If it’s not still in his body, it may still be lodged in his head. Federer played better in Key Biscayne against Roddick than he did in Indian Wells against Fish. Still, when I turned on the Roddick match, I was struck by how ordinary Federer looked. He was playing at the level of a top pro, but not to his usual level; there was no sense of menace from the baseline, no sense that he could take over a point from anywhere on the court or that his routine baseline game was automatically superior to the American’s. But like I said, that constituted progess after his debacle in the desert. B
With a 9-6 record so far, he’s coasting, and he seems to be miles from figuring out, or wanting to figure out, how to fend off the tour’s bigger, better athletes. C-
The clay season and the French Open can’t come too soon for Justine. She’s taken serious beatings this year from Sharapova and Serena. Some of that is the power and size of those opponents, and some is the erratic play that comes from trying to match their shot-making. But particularly against Williams, Henin failed to mix up her serve or gain any advantage from it whatsoever. B-
Her loss to Davenport in KB was depressing—she was outclassed again by a big hitter—but her win in IW was the more significant result. There she showed a killer instinct and match-management skills that had been lacking at times in the past. Like fellow Serb Djokovic, she’s a student of the game, which means the sky is the limit as to how much she can improve. Next step: Learn to counter-punch and keep the rally alive against the bruisers. A
She seemed content with her semifinal status in Indian Wells, then showed a lot of heart by scratching and clawing her way to owithin shouting distance of the title in Key Biscayne. It’s been a status quo quarter for her, which means she’s been entertaining in both victory and defeat. Who else smiles as her opponent is hitting a great putaway? B
Nadal has the most wins on the men’s tour, but is without a title. He’s shown his usual fight in reaching the semis or better of three big hard-court events (Melbourne, IW, KB), but he’s been steamrolled out of each by lower-ranked players. I suppose this is what we’ll continue to get from Nadal on the hard stuff—his willpower is enough most of the time, but his short backhands and hack slice returns will always leave a big window open for an opponent to find his best form. B+
Is this the year of the Roddick? In danger of becoming the Next Vitas Gerulaitis—i.e., a self-deprecating second-fiddle—he’s suddenly knocked off Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer. The latter match was about as well as I’ve seen him play since he blitzed Lleyton Hewitt at the U.S. Open in 2006—Roddick was even acing Federer. But he’s also thrown in a few clunkers and hasn’t solved his basic baseline quandary: Should he just do what he does best and grind? Or does he need to keep trying to venture out of his comfort zone and into the forecourt? Unfortunately, his season is on hold for the moment, with the clay spring arriving. Or is it? Is this the year he goes deep somewhere on clay? I’m thinking quarters in Rome. B+
She’s proven she’s still got Grand Slam game, and has lost just one match as of this writing. But her surge was clearly waning by the time she got to Indian Wells, where some of the old inconsistency crept back into her game. A great start; now we’ll see if she can embrace the expectations this time around. And face up to Venus or Serena. A
Is the floor falling out from under her? Vaidisova, a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist and multiple title winner by 17, started the year respectably but lost two ugly first-rounders at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. I didn't get a chance to see either of those performances, but she's obviously going in the opposite direction from her peer and former rival, Ivanovic—the Serb is now No. 2 in the world; Vaidisova is No. 15. The power was always there, but the form and temperament were questionable. They've caught up with her at the moment. C
Little sis couldn’t make lightning strike twice Down Under, but she did it for a fifth time, and in convincing fashion, in Key Biscayne. She trounced Henin and survived Kuznetsova and Jankovic. Along the way, she was out of position more often than usual, but she had her swing and contact point dialed in. And that’s always been enough for her against the rest of the WTA. I’ve never seen her as nervous, or at least as affected by her nerves, as she was against Jankovic in the KB final. It was nice to see, actually, and nice to see her narrow her eyes in the final game and overcome them. And her 2-and-0 win over Henin made the women’s season a lot more interesting. A-