Back in the Saddle
Today is the first day of Q4 2009, and as good a time as any to get back on the blogging wagon after a month-long hiatus. This posting will just be a small warmup. Much has gone down in the tennis world since the end of August -- the emergence of Melanie Oudin and Yanina Wickmayer, the coming of age of Juan Martin del Potro, Serena-gate, and most recently the not-so-surprising return of Justine Henin. As rumors swirled of a return and compatriot Kim Clijsters fought her way to the U.S. Open title in just her third tournament back after a two-plus year layoff, I joked to a colleague of mine that Henin was no doubt sweating buckets on a treadmill in the middle of the night in Europe watching her longtime rival win the final on TV.
In any case, here's the sabbatical story I wrote when the news of Henin's comeback broke. I don't begrudge her the right to change her mind, but it is remarkable how adamant she was that she was done with competitive tennis just a few months ago. Even Larry Scott, who was WTA Tour CEO when Henin pulled the plug on her career (he's now head of the Pac-10 Conference) told me by email he was surprised. The video clip of her press conference at this year's French Open (as Tweeted by my friend and respected colleague Bonnie Ford at ESPN.com) proves how definitive she was. The first two questions in the clip are from yours truly, followed by Ford. Here also is my second-day follow on Clijsters' victory in USA Today, which only ran online.
I noted with interest Roger Federer's decision to pull out of Tokyo and Shanghai last week. Though he cited a "physically challenging year" for his withdrawal, I wonder if his back is acting up again. While it received less attention for his struggles in 2008 ("struggles" being relative since he won a major and reached two other Grand Slam finals), Federer told me this summer than it was a big reason he did not feel physically up to par for much of last year. He also had mononocleosis. The bad back affected his movement, but also his serving, which was horrendous in last month's U.S. Open loss to del Potro. According to the stats page I just pulled out of my file, the Swiss No. 1 hit a paltry 50% of his first serves in (41% in the first set, which he won 6-3) and blasted 11 aces -- 44 fewer than he did against Andy Roddick in his five-set Wimbledon win. While that doesn't tell the entire story of the match -- del Potro gets props for taking speed off his own first serve to up his percentage and pummel Federer with his increasingly deadly forehand -- it does suggest something was wrong, that perhaps Federer was not able to stretch up enough on his first serve comfortably. That he was having back issues was confirmed after the match by a member of his team, though Federer, class act that he is, never mentioned any physical ailment after his defeat.
Meanwhile, in Japan this week, the top women have dive bombed out of the tournament like kamakazi, bolstering the contention that few WTA players can manage the long season and their fragile psyches at the same time. Look for strong showings from two of the women still alive -- Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic -- for the remainder of the fall. Sharapova craves matches and is hell-bent on building up her match toughness, while Jankovic has mega points to defend from her late-season push in '08 to finish the year No. 1. It's only a year removed, but it must feel like a lifetime for the streaky Serb.