Taking Stock of the First Third of '08
33.3% Tennis Report
Although the clay court season has begun, let’s take a quick look back at the first third of the 2008 tennis season and take stock.
Probably the most stunning development is the lack major success by the ATP Tour’s top two men. For the first time since 1999, the ATP's two top-ranked players went without a title during the first three months of the season. No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who own 76 titles between them and have dominated the last three years, kick off their European clay-court campaigns without a single tournament victory so far in 2008.
The last time that happened was nine years ago when No. 1 Pete Sampras and No. 2 Carlos Moya were winless from January to March. Swiss Federer hasn't gone without a win for the first quarter of the season since 2000, while Spain's Nadal has been title-less since last July.
Meantime, third-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who won the Australian Open and the Pacific Life Open, has closed the gap on his two rivals and leads the ATP 2008 Race with 331 points. Nadal is second with 249 points. Federer stands in sixth place with 160 points.
Whether Federer’s new arrangement with former pro Jose Higueras will bear fruit remains to be seen. Much has been written about it in the last few days; I’ll address it at a later time or perhaps after Estoril, where the two are feeling each other out.
--With two major hard-court titles, Djokovic has been the best player on asphalt so far this season. Already a semifinalist at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it will be interesting to see how far his confidence has come on clay and grass after realizing his talents on cement.
--Andy Roddick is back in the mix. It’s been a big couple of months for Roddick. He split with mentor Jimmy Connors, announced his engagement to Brooklyn Decker put up wins over the triumvirate at the top of the game, even snapping an 11-match losing streak to Federer at Key Biscayne.
--A number of new faces and some surprising ones made early noise: Japanese teenager Kei Nishikori stunned James Blake to win Delray Beach; 20-year-old Sam Querrey won his first event at Las Vegas; South African and former University of Illinois standout Kevin Anderson reached his first final (losing to Querrey at Vegas) and then upset Djokovic in his opening match at Key Biscayne; Sergiy Stakhovsky, a 22-year-old Ukrainian, became the first lucky loser to win a title in 17 years when he beat Ivan Ljubicic at Zagreb.
On the women’s side, the established order has been equally challenged. Justine Henin’s underperforming start has to be one of the bigger surprises. Henin won two of the three majors she played last year (and just about everything else) but has struggled with a troublesome knee injury. The Belgian’s fragile body has again let her down and it seems to have affected her confidence level, too. Henin got pummeled by Sharapova at Melbourne and by Serena Williams at Key Biscayne, dropping bagel sets in both encounters. That does not bode well for her mental state on faster surfaces for the rest of the year. But if anything can right her game, it’s the extra time she gets on clay, which allows her to user her variety to construct better points and exploit her superior all-court movement.
Serbs Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic both had fine starts, with Ivanovic reaching her second major final in Australia and winning Indian Wells. Jankovic hasn’t notched a big title but has been remarkably consistent with semifinal showings at Melbourne and Indian Wells and a finals appearance at Key Biscayne. Ditto Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has played well and reached finals at Sydney, Dubai and Indian Wells but can’t seem to break through in the big matches.
The wild cards, as usual, are Serena and Venus Williams. Serena has played only three events but won two of them, at Key Biscayne and Bangalore. She had a decent showing in Australia, losing to Jankovic in the quarters. Now what? She’s in better shape than this time last year, but will she start to dominate again or will she get hurt and/or distracted and fade out? Reigning Wimbledon champ Venus, meanwhile, is out with a mysterious ailment until at least Roland Garros, which doesn’t bode well for her late spring/early summer season, even if she remains the preeminent woman on grass.
Disappointing Fed Cup Turnout
An incredibly weak U.S. Fed Cup team has been fielded for the upcoming semifinals against defending champ Russia. Eighteen-year-old Madison Brengle joins South African-born Liezel Huber, Vania King and Ahsha Rolle to face Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anna Chakvetadze, Dinara Safina and Elena Vesnina on indoor clay in Moscow. China faces Spain in the other semifinal.
The highest ranked player is No. 112 King - just the tenth best American woman based on this week’s rankings. Has there ever been a poorer, more star-starved semifinal U.S. team in Fed Cup history? Mary Joe Fernandez must be asking herself why she wants this job when she takes over from Zina Garrison next year. The dismal showing is particularly stark when compared to the American men, who play almost without fail if asked.