New players emerge on the tennis scene

The U.S. Open, the last slam of the year, finished up a few weeks ago. There’s still more tennis, though, including the Davis Cup and the year-ending championships where the top eight players battle it out. But now that the slams are done, we can review the season.

Roger Federer, continuously ranked number one since Feb. 2, 2004 (yes — that’s a record), reached his seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th consecutive Grand Slam finals (yes — that’s a record), winning the Australian and U.S. opens and Wimbledon for his 10th, 11th, and 12th titles (Federer should tie Pete Sampras’s record of 14 next season). Rafael Nadal continued his dominance on clay, winning the French Open for the third straight time.

The Federer-Nadal rivalry started out interesting, but ultimately fizzled. It seemed that a new-and-improved Nadal would be able to challenge Federer on surfaces besides clay. Nadal came extremely close to beating Federer in the Wimbledon final. As of summer, there was even a chance that by the end of the season, Nadal could take the top ranking from Federer.

But in the summer, Nadal slumped as he always has. Nadal plays a very physical style of tennis and runs down every ball. In the last few years, he has run out of energy after Wimbledon. After seriously threatening Federer at Wimbledon, Nadal trailed off, bowing out of the US Open in a tired-looking fourth round defeat. I am waiting for Nadal to develop some serious injuries that will disrupt his career. Longevity is not among Nadal’s priorities.

The other intriguing development of 2007 was the emergence of 20-year-old Novak Djokovic. At the hard court tournament in Montreal, Djokovic beat third-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarters, second-ranked Nadal in the semis, and number-one Federer in the final. Although Djokovic lost the US Open final to Federer, he is the real deal and will challenge Federer and Nadal next season.

Federer (7605), Nadal (5385), and Djokovic (4295) have set themselves far apart from the rest of the field in the rankings. Davydenko at number four is about 1000 points (a Grand Slam title’s worth of points) below Djokovic and Roddick is a further 700 points below Davydenko.

The question for 2008 is whether anyone can challenge the top three. Roddick is a combined 3–16 against those players. Davydenko is 0–12 against Federer and Nadal. James Blake usually loses early in the slams, so he’s not even a factor.
All of the players in the top 20 have been around for a while; they’ve all been losing to Federer and Nadal for the last three years. Young Andy Murray was turning into a dangerous player until he got injured, so it will be interesting to have him back.

For prospects, we must include American John Isner, who just finished up his NCAA career but has made a splash on the professional circuit already with his fearlessness backed up by a serve — it’s a testament to his youth and lack of experience that Isner can hit second-serve aces routinely.

The women’s season was interesting as well. Justine Henin won the French and US opens. Serena Williams came back from a long injury layoff and won the Australian Open (her eighth slam), defeating several top players. Serena can beat anyone, anytime. Venus Williams won Wimbledon for the fourth time, her sixth slam overall.

The most exciting storyline, however, was the rivalry between the Williams sisters and top-ranked Justine Henin. Before this season, Henin had a lousy record against Venus and had only beaten Serena on clay. However, Henin took out Serena at the French Open (where she won her third straight), Wimbledon, and the US Open. Henin’s US Open title run (her seventh slam overall) was spectacular — she took out both Williams sisters in straight sets on the way.

Two players emerged. Jelena Jankovic rose to the third spot in the rankings. Jankovic is a quick player with some weapons. However, she doesn’t have enough firepower and will not win a Grand Slam. Ana Ivanovic, who’s the age of most college sophomores, got to the French Open final. Ivanovic has lots of weapons, but is a bit slow-moving.

So, who will be the Grand Slam contenders in 2008? Henin and the Williams sisters are the top players in the world right now. They all have great games. Each player has huge weapons. These three can defend against Ivanovic and match her weaponry. Sharapova is a big question mark after several ugly and perplexing losses in the 2007 slams. Amelie Mauresmo, who won two slams in 2006, all but disappeared in 2007.

The 2008 season promises to be interesting. We’ll see if Djokovic or anyone else can loosen Federer and Nadal’s grip on the sport. We will see what happens between Henin and the Williams sisters, whether Maria Sharapova can bounce back, and whether any of the young guns — Jankovic, Ivanovic, Chakvetadze — can challenge them.