Serena, Kim, Roger, and even young Rafa are veterans who all won Slams in 2010, but the vets that TCW wants to recognize are those hard-working but unheralded players who took a big step in to the spotlight this year. These are the late-bloomers, the comeback stories, and the journey(wo)men…
Jurgen Melzer - The 29 year old Austrian had his best year in 2010 after 11 solid but lackluster years on tour. Melzer never made it past the 3rd Round in 31 Grand Slam visits until this year’s Roland Garros. He ended his ’3rd Round Jinx’ in style in that very round with a shocking win over David Ferrer, who after Rafa came in to the French with the best clay-court season. After Jurgen beat Gabashvili in the 4th round, it sure seemed like his monster ride had run its course when in the Quarters he lost the first two sets to Novak Djokovic, but Melzer mounted an unexpected comeback to get to the Semis where he would lose to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. With the jinx behind him though, the Austrian then proceeded to make the 4th Round of both Wimbledon and the US Open…and yes, his improved ranking/seeding didn’t hurt. 2010 saw Jurgen reach both his highest singles and doubles ranking as he and Philipp Petzschner won the Wimbledon trophy together and qualified for the ATP Tour Finals in London. And since Jurgen does not have many ranking points to defend early in the year, he seems destined to crack the Top 10 eventually. Quite an achievement for any player, but for someone who seemed stalled in the high 20s/low 30s for years, this ascent in the ranks seemed improbable at best.
Mardy Fish – As a TennisCrackWhore favorite, we chronicled Mardy’s improved fitness and success throughout the year. Like Jurgen, Mardy also reached his career-high ranking just this past week inching up to #16 despite being out with an ankle injury and also could realistically crack the Top 10 with a decent start to the 2011 season. But unlike Jurgen, Mardy’s career had seen lots of highs and lows prior to this record year. Not only had Mardy made a couple of Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances, but he also had been to a couple of Masters Series finals and won an Olympic silver medal. These were impressive accomplishments but inconsistent play, mental lapses, and Nalbandian-esque fitness prevented him from establishing himself as an elite player. Let’s see what 2011 has in store for the 28 year-old American.
Michael Llodra - Yet another 30 year-old who just reached his career-best ranking at #23. What is going on?!?! The quirky Frenchman, who you may remember hid naked in Ljubicic’s locker a few years back to absorb some of his good luck, has taken a different path. Until a few years back, he was known more for his achievements in doubles as he has racked up 18 titles including 2 Grand Slams. I hesitate calling him a doubles specialist because he has always played a full singles schedule, but it sure seems like he has focused more on his singles in the last 3 or 4 years and that focus is paying dividends now. Some of his highlights this year include titles in Marseille and Eastbourne as well as wins over Djokovic, Soderling, Verdasco, and Berdych. He is also a big reason why France made the Davis Cup final this year.
Ivan Ljubicic - Although the 31 year-old Croat may not be having his best overall season, he did get the biggest title of his career this year at Indian Wells. Beating Nadal, Djokovic, and Roddick along the way, Ljubey truly earned his first and probably only Masters Series shield.
I have struggled to understand why there have been so many late bloomers and comeback players as those are just a select few. Maybe part of the reason is that the Big 4 haven’t been as invincible like they were a couple of years ago and the veterans have done better to take advantage. Besides the players above, 2010 also saw the return of David Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero who put their names back in the conversation. Plus, Soderling and Berdych have shown that you can have your first tastes of great success at 25 or 26 instead of the teenage prodigies of yesteryear.
The lack of teenage prodigies is a good transition to talk about the women’s game since much more than the men’s game, the WTA used to be loaded with the next teenage sensation. Right now, there is not one teenager in the entire Top 20….has that even ever happened before? Granted, world number one Caroline Wozniacki only recently departed her teenage years, but even she is the exception as opposed to what used to be the teenage rule. And let’s face it, either Kim or Serena would have to be considered the best player on tour right now until Caroline wins a big one. But let’s talk about the only other Slam winner of 2010….
Francesca Schiavone - I cannot think of any bigger surprise winner than the 30 year-old Italian charmer holding up the Suzanne Lenglen Cup. Just think about the fact that up until then she had played 38 consecutive Grand Slam events and never got past the quarterfinals! And those three times she made the Final 8, it seemed like even that was an overachievement for the short but feisty grinder. However, the aggressive all-court game that she displayed against Stosur while showing no nerves in the match of her life was truly a joy to behold. Then the real joy came as she delivered a blissful acceptance speech that she simply did not want to end, and nor did I!
Kimiko Date-Krumm - So far we have talked about lots of 30 year-old players but how about the achievements of this 40 year-old? You can see previous entries for Kimiko’s success throughout the year, but her accomplishments are beyond extraordinary. The comeback that began last year got even bigger in 2010 with wins over Petrova, Pavlyuchenkova, Safina (twice), Sharapova, Stosur, Peer, and Na. That is a lot of Top 10 and Top 20 wins for any player on tour, much less for a woman who just turned 40 and also still stands at a diminutive 5″4. Kimiko may not look it, but she is a jock through and through. Her parents were tennis players, and while retired she ran a marathon in 3 hours and 30 minutes. Oh yeah, and she’s a natural lefty who taught herself to play right-handed due to Japanese traditions. I am fascinated by this woman, and I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next year now that her ranking is up to #46 and she doesn’t have to qualify for tournament entry since she refused wild cards at the start of her comeback out of fairness to the other players. I want to be on record right now saying that we will see Kimiko in the quarterfinals or better of a 2010 Grand Slam, most likely Wimbledon. Go Kimiko!
There are still so many other veteran stories to talk about even at the Challengers this week with Thomas Muster back playing at age 43 and Dominik Hrbaty still grinding as well. But it’s also time to say farewell to two of my favorite players EVER. Adios Carlos y Dasvidaniya Elena…..
Dementieva said goodbye a few weeks ago at Doha, and Carlos Moya announced his retirement today stating a foot injury forced his decision to retire and that this was not how he envisioned his career would end. Their presence will be missed by fans of course, but upon reflection of their retirements it seems like the road they paved for this current generation of players in their respective countries had an even greater impact on our sport than any of their own individual achievements.
To Carlos and Elena – we wish you both well, and although many of us will dream about comebacks for both of you, first and foremost we hope that you are happy because you have given us a lot of tennis joy and pride over the years. Best of luck in this new chapter of your lives, but please stay in touch!
Just in case you have not yet seen the new player profile picture of Thomas Muster, take a look to see who the rising teenage stars will be looking across the net at during Challenger events in 2011. And for you TCW youngstas who quite possibly have never even heard of the Moo-man, you really should brush up because he is and was an inspiration.
Go get ‘em, Gramps!!!!