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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Final Thoughts on 2006 Season

Comeback Player of the Year

Undoubtedly, this label must be worn by Martina Hingis. The former world No. 1 had been gone for the better part of three years when she resumed play on the WTA Tour in January. Remarkably, she won two tournaments during the year including the Italian Open, made it to two quarterfinals at the Grand Slam events, had wins over the likes of Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and finished the year back at No. 7 in the world. What she accomplished was no mean feat. I was among the skeptics who seriously doubted her ability to hold her own any longer with the growing legion of big hitters out there in the women’s game, but Hingis adapted beautifully and stood her ground admirably. She remains one of the game’s most compelling and appealing players, a strategist of the highest order, a clean ball striker with a purpose behind every shot, a tough competitor who knows how to navigate her way through matches like almost no one else. Her reemergence among the game’s elite was one of the most uplifting stories of 2006.

A Triumph for Replays

Across the summer and through the fall on the WTA and ATP Tours--- most notably at the U.S. Open and Davis Cup Final--- the Hawkeye instant replay system was showcased at tournaments. During the U.S. Open Series and in the autumn at tournaments all over the globe, Hawkeye was a major triumph for the sport. It gave the players much more peace of mind when close calls occurred, probably made linesmen and lineswoman all the more alert, and assisted umpires in their line of duty. Until the Davis Cup final between Russia and Argentina, however, the “limited challenge” system was in effect. Players were allowed two incorrect challenges a set. It placed a burden on them to be strategic in their protests, to make sure they did not run out of opportunities to challenge calls they felt were wrong. But in the Cup final, the players were allowed unlimited appeals, and they did not abuse the system in the least. After watching the “unlimited challenge” system with Hawkeye and comparing it to the limited, I came away convinced that the unlimited system is the way to go.

Why? Because the more that bad calls can be erased and rectified, the better it is for the game and the players. Some authorities who were understandably concerned initially that some players would overdue their appeals and “slow the game down” too much were wrong in my view. Players like Marat Safin and David Nalbandian clearly did not want to go haywire and challenge every close call. They remained relatively cautious about when and where to make their cases. The reason was simple. The players have discovered all year that they can often be wrong, and they do not want to be embarrassed in front of large crowds who would be ready to boo vociferously whenever they felt a player was stepping beyond his bounds. So the hope here is that the unlimited challenge system will become the rule rather than the exception. The game would be far better for it.

Man of the Year

Who else but Roger Federer? He played the best tennis of his illustrious career in 2006. He matched his 2004 feat of securing three major titles, but this time around he also advanced to the French Open final, making his best showing yet on the slow red clay of Roland Garros. Federer was the ultimate professional, pacing himself all year, pulling out of tournaments like Hamburg in the spring and Paris in the fall when he knew his body and mind needed rest. And yet, his schedule was still quite full. He played 17 tournaments and won 12 of them. He lost to only two players, bowing four times in six meetings with Rafael Nadal and losing once to Andy Murray. He was supreme on all surfaces with the exception of clay, but even on that surface where he remains most vulnerable only Nadal could beat him in the three springtime events he entered at Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros. And Federer performed with grace and grit under pressure all year. He was down a set and a break to Marcos Bagdhatis in the Australian Open final and then won persuasively in four sets. He won the most crucial match of the year over Nadal at Wimbledon to break a five match losing streak against the Spaniard, and even there on the grass he was tested. Nadal served for the second set at 5-4 and had he held there and reached one set all, Federer could have been in considerable trouble. But he calmly broke back, took that set and went on to win in four sets. And in the U.S. Open final against Andy Roddick, with the crowd fervently supporting the American, Federer broke open a close match. Having split sets, the two players were tied at 5-5 in the third but Federer soared to another level thereafter, winning 8 of the last 9 games to take the title and record his ninth Grand Slam tournament triumph. Now he has become the first man ever to sweep the Wimbledon-U.S. Open “double” three years in a row. This master of his craft deserves everything he has achieved.

The Wrong Mindset

As great was Federer was in 2006 and as unrelenting as he has become, the fact remains that only Nadal has confronted him fearlessly and forthrightly on a consistent basis. The bad news in 2006 was that front line players who should be demanding much more of themselves like Ivan Ljubicic and Nalbandian are not. They are too content to let Federer rule. Ljubicic--- who finished 2006 at No. 5 in the world— has a big game with one of the game’s best serves and a magnificent one-handed topspin backhand. He should be capable on his day of toppling Federer at least every once in a while but he does not seem to look at it that way. He seemed content after losing 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 to Federer in the final of Miami last April. The loss should have been bruising since he had chances in every set, but he carried himself like a man willing to bow at the feet of the game’s master. At the French Open in the semifinals, Ljubicic moaned and groaned his way through a straight set loss to Nadal and then said afterwards he hoped Federer would win the final. He has essentially a loser’s mentality, as does Nalbandian. Nalbandian has always played Federer tough, which is totally to his credit. He had not only upended a rusty Federer in the final of the Tennis Masters Cup at the end of 2005 in five tumultuous sets, but he pushed Federer into a final set tie-break in the semifinals of Rome in 2006. Then he confidently took a 6-3, 3-0 lead over Federer in the semifinals of the French Open. Federer--- who had been badly off form and miss-hitting backhands with alarming regularity--- found the spark just in time and stormed back to take the second set.

Federer built a commanding 5-2 lead in the third set and then Nalbandian retired, claiming an injury made it impossible for him to continue. Here he was in one of the biggest matches of his career, facing Federer in the semifinals of a major, and he quits in the middle of the match! Nalbandian and Ljubicic are first rate tennis players. Ljubicic finished 2006 at No. 5 in the world while Nalbandian was three places behind him at No. 8. They spent much of the year as the third and fourth ranked players in the world. But they are far too typical of today’s breed, willing to accept a high standard without at least striving to be the best in the world.
Nikolay Davydenko surged to No. 3 in the world at the end of 2006, which was a considerable accomplishment. He is industrious, quick, solid off both sides, capable of playing great tennis. But I worry that he may settle for what he is rather than what he could be. He is in danger of becoming another Nalbandian or Ljubicic.
Fortunately for all of us who love to see fierce competition at the uppermost level of the game, Nadal will be the man to consistently challenge Federer in a serious way. He did lose their last two clashes of 2006 after taking four in a row from Federer earlier in the year, but Nadal has the heart, the ferocity, the emotional intensity of an authentic champion. He will not go away. He is the indisputable No. 2 player in the world but he will not rest on his laurels and he will keep coming at Federer. He has an unwavering will to be the best in the world. Nadal won’t approach his rivalry disrespectfully but he will not allow his reverence for the world No. 1 to get out of hand. The only other leading player who seems to share Nadal’s deep pride and determination is Andy Roddick, who squandered three match points against Federer in the round robin at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai last November. He has the right set of priorities; he hates to lose to anyone, Federer notwithstanding.

The hope here is that in 2007 a few more players will go all out against Federer, realizing they have absolutely nothing to lose, casting caution aside and taking chances at the right times when they meet the world champion.

Three Way Battle for Supremacy

The women had a compelling battle for supremacy in 2006 among the prodigious trio of Justine Henin-Hardene, Maria Sharapova, and Amelie Mauresmo.
Their down to the wire race for the No. 1 world ranking was terrific for women’s tennis because all three have so much to offer. Henin-Hardenne is the toughest competitor in that trio, Sharapova the biggest hitter with the best serve, and Mauresmo probably the most versatile. All three of these champions gave fans a great deal for their money over the past season. Henin-Hardenne played the lightest schedule to protect herself against injuries and weariness, yet still won more tournaments (6) than any other player. Mauresmo was the only woman to win two majors, a wonderful achievement for a player who had never won a Grand Slam singles event across her entire career. And Sharapova was a superb U.S. Open champion who seemed to be thoroughly coming into her own. These three players shined in many ways in 2006 and made it a memorable and scintillating year for the women’s game.


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