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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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 YEAR IN REVIEW


In the world of tennis--- as in the larger arena of life--- seasons come and go. Some are more memorable than others. Many leave us sorely let down by the turn of events. Each and every year has an identity of its own. But 2008 will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most captivating years ever in the sport. In the four Grand Slam events for the men and the women, seven different champions emerged at the majors. A “Changing of the Guard” took place in men’s tennis, and in the women’s game no one really stepped up to fill the sizeable void left by the retirement of Justine Henin in May. And yet, the Williams sisters each collected another “Big Four” singles crown, Maria Sharapova garnered her third career major, and Ana Ivanovic got on the board with her first triumph at a Grand Slam tournament.
Let’s return to the men’s 2008 campaign, which was riveting from beginning to end. It all commenced in Melbourne with Novak Djokovic securing his first Grand Slam title, upending two-time defending champion Roger Federer in the semifinals and then ousting the brilliant and charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. I believed then that Djokovic could well be on his way to the penthouse of tennis. He only confirmed my feeling by capturing Indian Wells in March and the Italian Open in May. There was a growing feeling among the cognoscenti that the Serbian was moving to another level as a player, and he seemed comfortable with his rising status in the game.
And yet, from the middle of spring deep into the summer, the redoubtable Rafael Nadal was not to be denied. Nadal recorded his first tournament victory of 2008 in Monte Carlo on the red clay where he is virtually unstoppable. He went on to win Barcelona and Hamburg and then was immaculate at Roland Garros, capturing his fourth French Open in a row without the loss of a single set in the fortnight. In the final, he demolished a subdued and seemingly helpless Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 as the Swiss suffered his most one-sided defeat ever at a major event.
At Wimbledon, Nadal and Federer played probably the greatest tennis match of all time. It was surely the best contest since the epic Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe 1980 final at the All England Club, when McEnroe saved no fewer than seven match points in a stirring fourth set comeback, only to lose a hard fought fifth by the tightest of margins to the implacable Swede. Borg won that one 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6. They were then the two best players in the world, and both players raised their reputations immeasurably with their shining performances that afternoon.
Nadal and Federer--- the two best players of 2008--- put on such a sublime display that their confrontation was observed by casual sports fans as well as tennis diehards, by those who had seldom watched tennis before to insiders who found themselves gasping at the improbability of it all. Let’s recollect what happened. Nadal took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4, but they were not easy. He had to save break points at 5-4 in both sets, but the left-handed Spaniard handled those demanding moments with customary discipline and focus.
In the third set, the players were forced off court by a rain delay with Nadal serving at 4-5. Federer had held on gamely from 0-40 at 3-3 to escape what would almost certainly have been a straight set loss. When the players returned, they moved inevitably into a tie-break, and Federer was magnificent in that sequence. He served exquisitely and thoroughly deserved to win that set. The fourth set went with serve all the way to another tie-break, and Nadal had the match well within his grasp as he served at 5-2. Had he held onto both of his service points from that juncture, he would have sealed the verdict and taken the match in four sets.
Nadal, of course, double faulted off the net chord at 5-2. Then he failed to take control of the next point, and Federer—back to 4-5-- was reborn. Even so, Nadal twice advanced to match point in that tie-break. Federer produced a service winner to save the first one. On the second match point, Nadal sliced his serve wide to the backhand in the advantage court, and Federer’s return was short. Nadal should have ripped his approach crosscourt, and Federer would have been hard pressed to make the passing shot. Instead, the Spaniard guided his forehand with good depth but not enough pace, and Federer majestically drove a backhand pass down the line for a clean winner.
Federer had almost miraculously survived to set up a fifth set. At 2-2 in that final set, there was another rain delay. Somehow, when the players resumed the battle, they played a superb set. Nadal had the unenviable task of serving from behind across the entire final set. At 3-4, he saved a break point; at 4-5, he held on from 30-30 when he was two points away from defeat. And then, at 7-7, Nadal broke Federer. As he served out the match, the sky was growing darker by the moment. There was no time to spare. If Nadal had not held on at 8-7, the match would have been halted and the players would have needed to pick up play the following day.
Nadal made it to match point for the third time at 8-7, 40-30 but Federer unleashed an astonishing backhand return winner crosscourt off a first rate, wide serve. Nadal responded with a service winner to the Federer forehand. And then, at 9:16 in the evening, on his fourth match point, after four hours and 48 minutes of gripping and high quality tennis, Nadal finished it off as Federer netted a forehand crosscourt. Nadal had won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
And so Nadal became the first man since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back. Over the summer, Nadal took the Olympic Games in Beijing, eclipsing Djokovic in a terrific semifinal, defeating Fernando Gonzalez in the final. Since Monte Carlo, he had won eight of the ten tournaments he had played, and he seemed ready at last to stamp his authority on the U.S. Open. But he was essentially a spent force.
In the semifinals of the U.S. Open, Nadal lost for the first time in six career head-to-head clashes with the rapidly advancing Andy Murray. In the other semifinal, Federer struck down Djokovic in a rematch of the 2007 final. Federer had a day off after his win over Djokovic. Murray had to contend with Nadal over two days as rain intruded. In any case, Federer was primed for the occasion and admirably collected his fifth U.S. Open in a row with a straight set victory over Murray, setting a modern record. Not since Bill Tilden (1920-25) had a man ruled at the American Championships five (or more) years in a row.
Interestingly, that was the only time Federer beat Murray in four 2008 meetings. In the autumn on the indoor circuit, Murray took a pair of compelling contests from Federer, winning in Paris and Shanghai, prevailing 7-5 in the final set on both occasions. Djokovic, meanwhile, reemerged in Shanghai. He had not won a tournament since the Italian Open, but came through indoors to capture the season-ending event by defeating Nikolay Davydenko in the final. Nadal, nursing a knee injury, did not play.
But seldom has the struggle for supremacy been so intriguing at the top of the men’s game. Nadal took the No. 1 ranking away from Federer in August, and--- much more importantly--- closed the year as the top-ranked player in tennis, denying the Swiss stylist a fifth consecutive year at No. 1. Federer narrowly edged past Djokovic for No. 2, and Murray surged to No. 4 in the world. All four men will clearly approach 2009 with vigor and self conviction.
And what of the women? Sharapova was outstanding at the Australian Open, winning the tournament without the loss of a set, erasing Henin, Jelena Jankovic, and Ivanovic in the last three rounds. I thought then that she would have an excellent year, but her shoulder acted up again and by Wimbledon--- where she lost early--- it was apparent that she was not serving with her usual velocity. She missed almost the entire second half of 2008 with that injury. Henin announced her retirement in May, which was a big blow to the women’s game.
Ivanovic--- so impressive in reaching the final of the Australian Open--- went one better in Paris. Her French Open triumph was thoroughly deserved. In the semifinals, she faced her countrywoman Jankovic in a stirring test of skills and wills. Jankovic was agonizingly close to winning, serving with a 4-3 lead in the final set. Ivanovic blasted her way courageously out of that corner and won three games in a row for a place in the final. She was much better on the big points than Dinara Safina in the championship match, and came away victorious in straight sets.
At Wimbledon, Serena and Venus Williams made it to the final, their first “Big Four” title round match in five years. I was convinced Serena would win. She had beaten Venus twice before in the finals of Wimbledon. She had stopped her older sister in three other major finals at the French Open and U.S. Opens in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003. I believed Serena was the better big match player. But I may have underestimated Venus’s propensity for finding the upper level of her game at Wimbledon.
Venus battled back from 2-4 down in the opening set for a 7-5, 6-4 win. Not only was this the fifth time that Venus had won on the lawns at the All England Club, but it was also her third triumph there in the last four years. She has elevated herself to a place among the elite as one of the best grass court players in the history of the game.
That Venus-Serena collision was first class. But their quarterfinal at the U.S. Open was the match of the year in the women’s game, and the best match the two icons have ever played against each other. Under the lights in New York, Serena somehow overcame Venus 7-6(6), 7-6(7). In the first set, Serena saved two set points, and in the second she saved eight! Venus was playing the better brand of aggressive baseline tennis through most of this encounter, but Serena was superior on defense. The willpower of Serena Williams was almost tangible.
Serena did not waste that triumph. In the semifinals, she easily dismissed Safina in straight sets, and in the final she defeated the tenacious Jankovic 6-4, 7-5. Williams saved four set points in the second set on her way back from 3-5, 0-40, and ran out the match with four consecutive games for her third U.S. Open championship, and her ninth major. She has never looked more exhilarated after a big win.
And yet, Serena did not finish the year at No. 1 in the world as she had hoped she would. That honor belonged to Jankovic, who was incredibly consistent all across the year. Her Grand Slam results were good, including semifinal showings in Melbourne and Paris and her first major final round appearance in New York. She worked hard for her achievement, and finished the year strong with three straight tournament wins near the end of the season indoors. But it was a shame none of the major champions did enough elsewhere to secure the year-end No. 1 ranking. I am a big believer that to stand authentically at the top of the tennis mountain and preside at No. 1, you must win at least one Grand Slam tournament.
It was that kind of year for the women. Ivanovic fell into a terrible slump after Roland Garros. Henin was gone. Sharapova was hurt. Serena was inconsistent and at times indifferent. Jankovic was indisputably the best player week in and week out. But it was not a good thing for the women’s game that she was No. 1 without the necessary credentials. The hope here is that she will maintain her consistency in 2009 and also take a major along the way. Under those circumstances, I would applaud loudly if she concluded the season as the top-ranked woman in the world.





1 Comments:

At January 04, 2009 5:30 AM, Anonymous Tennis Betting Pro said...

Great review.

Wow its been a long year.

Predictions for the new season:

-Murray to get a breakthrough slam.
-Nadal to not drop a single game in the French
-Sharapova to put her inuries behind her and firmly reclaim her place as number 1 good looking girl in Tennis, ahead of a dejected Ana ivanovic.

 

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