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Monthly Archives: January 2010

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First major produces more surprises

Andy Roddick's right shoulder injury was one of two surprise injuries at the Australian Open.

Andy Roddick's right shoulder injury was one of two surprise injuries at the Australian Open.

Roger Federer gliding his hands through his long, black hair, with sweat dripping off of every lock. Camera shots of his wife with her arms outstretched, celebrating another Grand Slam victory for her man. And the Melbourne crowd screaming, thankful as ever for another opportunity to watch the greatest win again, this, No. 16.

The ending to the Australian Open – Federer capturing another major in straight sets – we had seen before. We have watched the much-hyped last match end with a final set of drama even though everyone had memorized the last words of the chapter.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this year’s first major didn’t live up to its reputation of surprising us. It’s just that this year’s surprises weren’t the ones we want to see again.

The first revelation arrived with more confusion than the second. Here was Andy Roddick, a player known for his work ethic and great fitness, reaching for his right shoulder. After losing a set, he even called out the trainer.

We knew of Roddick’s bothersome knees, the injury led him to skip Davis Cup this year, but his right shoulder causing aches, the one in which his livelihood depends upon?

This was not a pestering injury that chose an awful time to reappear. This was a new pain that surfaces when you play tennis year-round with hardly any breaks.

But, to his credit, Roddick stayed in his quarterfinal contest against Marin Cilic, and even turned it into a match, winning the third and fourth set before falling in the fifth.

The second shocker was more of an eyebrow-raiser than an outright surprise. People probably expected Rafael Nadal to retire sometime during the tournament because of his nagging knees. But the knee injury that made him quit against Andy Murray in their quarterfinal was a new discomfort for Rafa, different from the tendonitis that has threatened his career.

Two top 10 tennis players, in skill and in popularity, reduced to mere editions of themselves, far from their best because of injuries. Both Roddick and Nadal might have lost even if they were healthy, but we’ll never know and that’s the shame of tennis’ offseason, or the maybe two months players don’t have tournaments to enter.

In few major events have we seen such glaring reminders of why tennis needs a longer break. Players have publicly complained about it for years, most recently, Roddick, coincidentally.

But how many more top 10 players need to bow out before tour officials to take them seriously? How many more matches will players need to tank at smaller tournaments to conserve their bodies for the Grand Slams before the rules are changed? And how many more careers will be threatened with injuries before the age of 30?

Tennis, like golf, as a sport, is especially afflicted when it loses its stars. The sport aches without its greatest stories, such as Rodick and Rafa. Some of the luster disappears, and tennis becomes even more of a niche activity to the non-participants.

But let’s not let it digress. Let’s fix the problem before it worsens and actually listen to the professionals: create a legitimate offseason.

Men’s season hinges on Nadal’s knees

We could see more of Nadal hoisting trophies or more calls for the trainer in 2010.

We could see more of Nadal hoisting trophies or more calls for the trainer in 2010.

The last time we saw Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam, he was being replaced by the man he was supposed to be: a young, aggressive player with a volatile go-to shot that made everyone in the game awe at his skills.

But instead of Nadal ending Roger Federer’s five-year U.S. Open run and adding to his dominance over the greatest player ever, we welcomed Juan Martin del Potro to the New York winner’s circle and crowned him the best contender against Federer.

For del Potro, the 21-year-old Argentine, it was an earlier start to his Grand Slam collection than most had predicted. But, for Federer, it marked a time when someone not named Rafa maneuvered inside his head, disrupting the mental game of the best ever.

This season, no player’s 2010 trajectory could impact the men’s game more so than Rafa – the ripped, 23-year-old Spaniard who owns a 13-7 record against Federer.

If Rafa recovers from the second half of 2009 and intensely competes even with patellar tendinitis hampering him – although he says he’s healthy – he could battle or overtake Federer and Co. for almost every Grand Slam.

We could be spoiled with more classic Federer v. Nadal matches, with greatness trickling out of every shot and every point.

Tennis’s boxer would be back.

But if his knees pester him, if the bandages multiply and the pain increases, the lack of Rafa creates an open race for the titles, or as much of an open race as you can have with Federer still No. 1. Not to say that continued parody would be a bad thing, either, but an injuried Rafa only enhances Federer’s advantage, as we’ve seen.

With almost every other contender to Federer, we can at least pretend to think we know what we’ll be getting this year at the Grand Slams.

Novak Djokovic: a finals appearance, maybe even a title, but no dominating like a healthy Nadal could.

Andy Murray: an early exit, a couple of semifinal appearances and maybe even a final, but probably no championship.

Nikolay Davydenko: a solid three sets. For now, that’s about it.

Andy Roddick: see Murray.

It is del Potro who offers the best chance to replicate what Nadal has done. But to expect del Potro, after one Grand Slam triumph, to ease through the competition as only Nadal and Federer have done of late might be asking too much, too soon.

What Nadal will attempt this year will be something we have seen few times in this sport: a champion trying to rehabilitate his body while playing, and along the way, attempting to reclaim his dominance.

That is fitting, though, because much of what Nadal has achieved on the tennis court we had never seen before him.

With most everyone else this year, we at least have history to help us predict.

But with Nadal, we just don’t know.