Friday, December 29, 2006

ATP 2007 Preview

ATP tennis begins the 2007 season on Sunday in Adelaide, Chennai, and Doha. Round robin also makes its debut in Adelaide, but that’s a whole other story, and I ain’t going there right now. I will say that this off-season went by in a flash, and while I’m certainly eager to see more tennis, I’m not quite ready. But the calendar waits for no one.

The Players to Watch
Who to watch in the new year? These previews are generally reserved for up-and-coming youngsters who hinted at a breakout in 2006, but I’m going all over the map with my picks with a look at a some veterans, a few players in their prime, and a couple of relative newbies. In no particular order, he we go:

Guillermo Canas - Tempus fugit. Seems like yesterday that the Argentine was suspended for two years after testing positive for a banned substance. But he’s been playing (and winning) challengers, and this feisty workhorse with a forehand has been known to cause trouble at big events in the past (see TMS Canada, circa 2002). He enters the season ranked 143, but he’ll be back in the top 50 in no time flat. I have to ask, though: can he stay away from the illegal stuff?

Lleyton Hewitt - 2006 was a down year for him, as he sat out much of the hardcourt season with injuries. He also became a father and surely, family life took precedence over his tennis as he made the adjustment into fatherhood. Entering 2007 ranked at No. 20, I don’t know if Lleyton can get back into the top five as, say, Nadal has suggested, but I do expect him to take advantange of the faster Australian Open courts, and if his draw is kind (he has to avoid Federer in the early rounds), he should go far. He’s been training early and hard for his home Slam and he intends to play two tune ups for the first time in forever. He’s even planning to play doubles. Since he has suggested that no one need write his epitaph, the spotlight will be on him in every event he plays to see if he can put his money where his mouth is. And speaking of Nadal...

Rafael Nadal - Spain’s top player is on this list precisely because his 2006 was such a bust after falling to Federer in the Wimbledon final. No surprise then that he thinks Hewitt can get back to the top of the game given the similarities in their playing style. Rafa missed last year’s first Slam because of a foot injury. Many predicted that had he played, he would have fared well on the slow high bouncing surface. But the rebound ace courts for the 2007 Australian Open are playing faster and the bounce isn’t quite as high. How will Rafa fare in the faster conditions? Can he reclaim his mental advantage over Roger? Rafa recently said that Federer was “unbeatable.” Was this posturing or has he become Roger’s newest disciple? Time will tell. For now, enjoy this.

Mark Philippoussis - The 30-year-old Aussie has recently ended his engagement to focus more on tennis. He’s called upon Darren Cahill to get him back into the top of the game. And if that weren’t enough, he trained in Las Vegas where recently retired Andre Agassi has been helping out whenever he can. The tour has likely passed by the big man with the bum knee, but more power to him for re-committing to tennis full-time in the hopes of winning the one crown he says he’s certain he can win before retirement: Wimbledon. Ranked at 114, he’ll need a wildcard to get into his home Slam, but he’s likely to get it. He represents Australia alongside Alicia Molik, making comeback of her own, in Hopman Cup play which began earlier today.

Joachim Johansson - The Swede has learned many lessons from his time away from the tour. Sometimes called the Euro Roddick (I can't bring myself to type his other nickname), Joachim played his first ATP tournament since San Jose in Stockholm last fall where he defeated Rafael Nadal before falling in the semifinals to Jarkko Nieminen in a thriller. With his huge serve and massive forehand, he can threaten on anything except clay. But will that shoulder hold up? We’ll see. And speaking of huge serves...

Andy Roddick - Andy claims that he respects Federer as much as the next guy but is going to go after him a lot more in 2007. Sounds like Jimmy Connors, who has committed to traveling virtually full-time with his compatriot in the new season, is in Roddick’s head afterall. Connors has convinced Roddick to take advantage of the tour’s best serve and follow it to net, a strategy that worked so well, he earned 3 match points against Federer the last time they met. Safe to say, such an aggressive strategy will work against other plays as well. If the book on Andy became just block his serve back and you’ve got a shot, Roddick seems determined to write a new chapter. Or a whole new book. It will be interesting to see if the Jimmy and Andy show can prevail on a Slam Sunday in 2007. And speaking of Andy’s with high-profile coaches...

Andy Murray - What will Brad Gilbert do for the Scot in 2007? Will Andy the Younger be beefed up by Melbourne? Will he have a first serve that lands inside the service box more than half the time? Will he dispense with the drop shot? Will he defeat Federer again? Will he break into the top 10? The top 5? Will he win a Slam? I’d guess no, maybe, no, no, yes, no, and no. But my predictions are usually wrong. You’d be better off asking Pam Shriver.

Paul Capdeville - This 23-year-old Chilean is a tall player with a big game. He also likes to come to the net. He showed promise during the Davis Cup tie against the US on grass. Last February, he scored wins over Tommy Robredo and Ivo Karlovic before falling in three sets to Kristof Vliegen in Memphis indoors. His results fell off after that, but such is often the case after a few good wins build up expectations. If he can continue to improve, 2007 might be his breakout year as he moves from 149 into the top 100.

Juan Martin del Potro - Another player from south of the equator, the Argentine was the youngest player on the ATP to rank inside the top 100 in 2006. And he only played his first ATP match in February. Now ranked at 92 (he climbed as high as 82), he'll be looking to maintain the momentum he gained by advancing to the quarterfinals of Basel where he fell to Fernando Gonzalez in three tight sets. I’ve yet to see him play, but at 6'5" with a booming serve, this kid could rise in the rankings awfully fast. And speaking of tall teenagers...

Sam Querrey - The talented American teen has been supported by all the powers that be in US Tennis, as well as the top American players. Currently ranked at 130, Sam received a wildcard into the Australian Open where he will play for the first time. At this past summer’s US Open, his only other Slam event to date, he won a match and looked rather impressive against Gaston Gaudio in the 2nd round before succumbing to the occasion and bowing out in four sets. He can expect wildcards into the main draws of numerous US stops on the ATP tour so by year’s end, we’ll have a pretty good idea what this kid is made of.

Danai Udomchoke - Why would I include a player who turned pro in 1997, will turn 26 next year, and whose ranking hovered around 100 for all of 2006? Because I feel like it. But really, though. The Thai player recently won the gold medal at the Asian games with a straight-set win over Hyung Taik Lee, who is no slouch, mind you, and such an important win has to do something for Danai’s confidence. Ranked at 104, he should be able to get direct entry into the Slams and many other ATP events, so who knows? Maybe 2007 will see the would-be journeyman make a splash. And speaking of players who turn 26 in 2007...

Benjamin Becker - The German sits at a career-high ranking of No. 58 due largely to his runs to the US Open round of 16, where he fell to Roddick after ending Agassi’s career, and to the semifinals in Tokyo, where he lost to Federer. He also made the finals of a challenger at the end of the season in the Ukraine, where he lost to Dmitry Tursunov. No shame in any of those games. How will he fare in Melbourne? The faster courts will surely help his big game, and if he gets a decent draw, he should match his US Open result. But no matter how he fares at the first Slam, he is poised to climb higher in the rankings in 2007 and will be a danger in any draw.

Gustavo Kuerten - At last, Guga returns. Inexplicably denied a wildcard into the Australian Open after it had been announced that he’d likely receive one, the Brazilian star will make his 2007 debut at Viña del Mar. How will his hip hold up? How has he adjusted his game? How much longer will he play? These questions and many more will be answered in the new year. And speaking of returns...

Marcelo Rios - The retired star and No. 1 player on the senior circuit, will return to ATP play at his home tournament in Viña del Mar. He claims it’s a one-event-only return, but if I were a betting man and he performs well, I’d gamble a penny or two that we’ll see him play a few more claycourt events in 2007. Whatever the case, with both Guga and El Chino in the draw, the Movistar Open will be the event to watch next month. Pity it won’t be televised in the States.

The Story to Follow
Who will stop Roger Federer from winning another three Slams in 2007?

Roger has said that his three main goals are to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and, of course, maintain his No. 1 ranking. But if his dominance continues, who’s to say that he won’t win all four Slams? While a part of me would like to see a male player in my tennis fandom lifetime win four Slams in a row (calendar year or not), I also hope Roger is dethroned by someone other than Rafael Nadal at a Slam. Journalists are beginning to write about the unpredictability (read: boredeom) of FedBot’s reign. Matt Cronin wrote about it a few weeks ago, and just recently, Charles Bricker of the Sun-Sentinel was blasted by his readership for penning the same.

The Subplots
Will Nalbandian finally win a Slam? Will Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero and Guillermo Coria return to championship form? Will Marcos Baghdatis and Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych and Mario Ancic and Dmitry Tursunov achieve consistently strong results or continue their streaky ways? Will James Blake and Tommy Robredo and Nikolay Davydenko and Ivan Ljubicic and Fernando Gonzalez remain fixtures in the top 10 or will they be overtaken by the aforementioned? Will a previously overlooked player unexpectedly steal a few scenes? Will Tim Henman have one last hurrah at Wimbledon? Will Pete Sampras?

This blogger provides a few answers.

What say you?