2007 ATP Season Has Major Shoes to Fill

In 2006, we saw a legend leave the game, an unprecedented run of domination by a legend-in-the-making, and the emergence of the best tennis rivalry since Andre Agassi/Pete Sampras. Perhaps the only thing the ATP lacked last season was unpredictability, as Roger Federer rolled through the three Grand Slams he is always expected to win, while Rafael Nadal repeated at Roland Garros.

With the Australian Open, the unofficial grand opening of the professional tennis season, suddenly upon us, it's time to recap the best of the best of 2006 and look ahead to 2007.

Player of the Year: Roger Federer

After Rafael Nadal waxed Federer in the French Open final, extending his 2006 record against the world No. 1 to 4-0, it looked like the Player of the Year award was up for grabs for the first time since 2003. Federer quickly erased such a notion, however, restoring order to the Federer/Nadal rivalry by exacting revenge in the Wimbledon title match and consolidating that with a semifinal win at the year-end Masters Cup in Shanghai. After disposing of Nadal in straight sets, Federer erased James Blake in the final match of the season, a fitting end to an incredible year. He compiled a ludicrous 92-5 record in 2006, reached the finals of every tournament he entered except one, and added 12 titles, including three more majors.

2007 projection: Federer. Obviously. Nadal is the only player with a chance of outdoing Federer in 2007, but even that possibility is slighter than slight. Perhaps if the ATP extended the clay-court season one or two more months at the expense of the hard-court U.S. Open Series, Nadal would be able to put up Federer-like numbers. But since that's not happening, we have every reason to believe that once again the Spaniard will swagger through May and June while Federer cleans up the rest of the season.

Assuming that nobody outside of tennis's dynamic duo wins a major this season, Nadal will have to match Federer with two in order to have any chance of ending the year at the top. Wimbledon is basically a foregone conclusion in Federer's favor, as is the U.S. Open considering Federer's recent dominance and Nadal's shortcomings at Flushing Meadows. That means Nadal will have to come out of the gates swinging Down Under, as he has a much better chance on the rebound-ace courts of Melbourne than he does on the super-fast surfaces of New York.

Match of the Year: Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, Rome Final

The only thing missing from this one was the grandeur of the stage. If this match had been a Grand Slam final — say, at Roland Garros - it would live in tennis lore forever. Sure, a Masters Series final is not too shabby, but it's no Grand Slam. People without access to the Tennis Channel on their home televisions most likely never have and never will see this match. They missed a classic.

After five hours and five minutes of grueling tennis, Nadal emerged victorious 6-7(0), 7-6(5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(5). But not before Federer had the king of clay on the brink of defeat. After pulling even with a convincing performance in the fourth set, Federer surged to a 4-1 lead in the fifth. Even after Nadal got the break back, Rafa still found himself on the verge of being upset, serving at 5-6, 15-40. Double match point for Federer.

Nadal, however, slugged it out from the baseline on both points and coaxed Federer into making two forehand errors. Two points later and what we had on our hands was the only thing fit to separate the two titans of tennis — a fifth set tiebreaker. In keeping with the trend of their head-to-head rivalry, Nadal played the big points better and capitalized on his first match point to win the 'breaker 7-5.

Runner-up:: Andy Roddick vs. Dmitry Tursunov, Davis Cup Semifinals

Non-tennis channel folk were also deprived of this one. What they missed was a match that lasted four hours and 48 minutes and a scoreline that takes almost as long to read: Tursunov d. Roddick 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 17-15. The American served for the match at 6-5 in the fifth after earning his only break of the set, but Tursunov struck back immediately. The two then held serve a combined 18 consecutive times before the Russian finally broke to win the match and clinch the Davis Cup tie in front of the hometown crowd.

The 72 games played by Roddick and Tursunov tied a Davis Cup World Group record, as did the 32 games in the fifth frame. What's equally amazing considering the unparalleled pressure of the Davis Cup is that it was high-quality tennis throughout, even in the waning moments of the grueling final set.

2007 projection: Obviously, this is something you can't predict, but with Andre Agassi out of the picture, Nadal and Federer could have the tennis stage all to themselves. If the 2007 French Open final once again arrives with Nadal being the only thing standing between Federer and the immortality of a career Grand Slam, this would be a must-watch for all sports fans. While Federer clearly has the advantage on grass and hard courts, it would be a surprise if these two didn't go the distance this time around at Roland Garros.

Moment of the Year: Andre Agassi's Farewell Speech, Arthur Ashe Stadium

It's tough for me to continue reminding myself about this, but I could have been front row for this moment. Instead, I left my primetime seat after the second set, planning to return to see Agassi bid adieu, as even though he somehow pulled out the set it was clear that only a major miracle would allow his body to produce yet another improbable victory. Fully immersed in the Marat Safin/David Nalbandian thriller from box seats in Louis Armstrong, I rolled the dice by hoping this match would turn out to be some epic five-setter and praying that Agassi would also extend his match to five sets, thus allowing me time to see the conclusions of both.

Sure enough, Safin/Nalbandian did turn out to be a classic, with the Russian prevailing 8-6 in the fifth set tiebreaker. But because Benjamin Bleepin' Becker ended Agassi's career too soon for my — and everyone else's — liking, I was left to commemorate Agassi's end with the rest of the unfortunates in Louis Armstrong by giving the legend about a two-minute standing ovation. Even Safin and Nalbandian appeared more than willing to interrupt their match for the occasion, even though they were in the middle of a decisive fifth set.

The whole thing was nice, but it surely did not compare to the scene just a few yards away in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Only a too-good-to-be-true exit as U.S. Open champion would have been more perfect that this sendoff. Tears flowed throughout Arthur Ashe Stadium as the crowd had the privilege of hearing the heartfelt closing speech from a man whose ability to connect with American tennis fans was simply unprecedented. It's never easy to see goodbye, but there's no better way to say it than to thousands of adoring fans at a venue that gave you two Grand Slam championships.

Runner-up:: Andre Agassi vs. Marcos Baghdatis, U.S. Open Second Round

If the Nadal/Federer clash in Rome had it all, this one had everything and more. It didn't quite achieve the same standard of play — no other match in 2006 did — but I'm pretty sure not one person left Arthur Ashe stadium bemoaning that fact. What those lucky souls witnessed was a match that will live in U.S. Open lore forever; and that's even if it had not turned out to be the last victory of Andre Agassi's career.

While the 21-year-old Cypriot seemed overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the early going, Agassi came out like a man possessed. And he was. Agassi seized the first two sets 6-4 and 6-4, yet even then the pervading feeling in the stands was that the ailing Agassi had to finish Baghdatis in straight sets.

Even though the scoreboard said two sets to none, the third set felt like it would be a decisive one. That feeling certainly carried over to the fourth set after Baghdatis took the third 6-3. When Agassi surged to a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 lead, the youngster started playing as if he had nothing to lose while the aging veteran's form turned suddenly into something that almost suggested he knew his body would not be able to stand a third-round match. Baghdatis would even the match at two sets a piece by taking the fourth 7-5.

Somehow, neither Agassi nor the Arthur Ashe faithful threw in the towel. Not even after Baghdatis broke Agassi in the opening game of the final set. Agassi broke back immediately. Neither player could regain the upper hand, but Baghdatis soon stumbled upon a golden opportunity in an epic ninth game of the set. With Agassi serving at 4-4 and an almost unbearable tension enveloping the stadium, Baghdatis began cramping. Perhaps it was the Cypriot's physical travails that caused Agassi's mind to begin suffering equally severe cramps. It's always difficult to play against an injured opponent, and Agassi donated three match points in that service game to the hobbled Baghdatis. He saved them all and finally took the game to lead 5-4.

Baghdatis then held serve to stay in it before Agassi regained a slim lead at 6-5. For a match far more exhausting — for both the players and fans — than even the three hours and 48 minutes would suggest, a fifth-set tiebreaker simply would have been too much. When Agassi broke Baghdatis to cap off a 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 victory, he left his throngs of supporters wondering if what they had just seen actually happened. Agassi, too, knew that things of this magnitude are rare. "You're not guaranteed these moments," he said in his post-match press conference. "To feel it out there was something I can keep with me forever."

Newcomer of the Year: Novak Djokovic

The 19-year-old Serbian started 2006 ranked 78th and ended the year at No. 16 in the world. Djokovic enjoyed his coming-out party at the French Open, where he reached the quarterfinals before bowing out to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. En route to the quarters, Djokovic posted three enormous wins in-a-row, defeating Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Haas, and Gael Monfils. He then proved his grass-court ability by reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon. There, Djokovic had Mario Ancic on the brink of elimination and the youngster seemed poised to reach his second straight Grand Slam quarterfinal, but Ancic ultimately prevailed in five sets.

The Serbian bounced back immediately, however, reaching the first two ATP finals of his career at back-to-back clay-court tournaments, winning one in The Netherlands.

It looks like Djokovic's meteoric rise will continue, as he won the season-opening tournament in Adelaide, Australia. Don't be surprised if the youngster breaks into the top 10 right around his 20th birthday in May.

2007 projection: Chris Guccione. By writing this a week into the season I had the benefit of seeing Guccione's first effort of 2007, and without that, I must admit I would not have considered him here. The 6'7'' Aussie entered the year ranked 153 in the world and left Adelaide just seven spots away from cracking the top 100. Such an ascension happens when you roll through round-robin play unscathed and two matches later find yourself in your first ever ATP final. That's just what Guccione did, and in the process he took out Benjamin Becker, Arnaud Clement, and best of all Richard Gasquet.

I'm not too excited about any other unproven youngsters right now, but I'm going to go out on a limb with this name: Evegeny Korolev. Korolev is an 18-year-old Russian who is just outside the top 100 right now and I think he could be close to the top 30 by season's end. He put up nice results in a number of Challenger events last season and also did a bit of damage on the main circuit. In the second round of the French Open, the youngster even took Gaston Gaston Gaudio, a former champion at Roland Garros, to five sets. This past week in Auckland, Korolev escaped one-set deficits to overcome both Hyung-Taik Lee and Robby Ginepri before losing to James Blake in the quarterfinals. Needless to say, the present is pretty darn good for the 18-year-old, and the future looks even better.

Comeback Player of the Year: Martina Hingis

While this article had been strictly about the ATP Tour (and not the WTA) up to this point, I just couldn't help but make an exception here. First of all, nobody in the men's game returned from the depths to resurrect a career. To say Martina Hingis did would be an understatement. Hingis essentially took three entire years off from tennis between 2003 and 2005, but her triumphant return to the game in 2006 was shockingly swift.

Hingis announced her presence with authority right from the start, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. The Swiss Miss matched that effort at Roland Garros, and by the time the year ended, Hingis found herself at No. 7 in the world. Even in a season that saw one woman reach all four Grand Slam finals (Justine Henin-Hardenne) and another win her first two majors (Amelie Mauresmo), Hingis just about stole the show.

2007 projection: Joachim Johansson

Unless you follow pro tennis religiously, you probably think this guy fell off the face of the earth. After reaching a career-high ranking at No. 9 in the world in February 2005, Johansson endured a devastating freefall that hit rock-bottom when he underwent shoulder surgery in July of that year. He didn't win another ATP Tour level match until October of 2006. Before season's end, Johansson had wins over both the second and third-ranked players in the world in Nadal and Nikolay Davydenko, respectively.

But because both wins took place during the post-U.S. Open doldrums of the tennis season, it pretty much went unnoticed. Well, take notice now. The huge-serving Swede is off to a nice start in 2007, having reached the semifinals of the season-opening tournament in Adelaide. Johansson is still suffering from various health problems heading into the Australian Open, but right now it looks like that's the only thing that can stop him from making an emphatic statement in 2007. That statement, quite simply, is that he's back.

Blogger of the Year: Dmitry Tursunov

Not even the ATP website could resist going the way of the weblog in 2006. And it's a good thing it didn't resist, especially for Dmitry Tursunov, who typed his way to fame with an outrageously entertaining blog. After thrilling readers with a behind-the-scenes look at his week at the Estoril Open in May, Tursunov became the ATP website's "resident blogger."

One player per week blogs from a tournament, and almost all of them are well worth stopping by for a daily read. When the "Tursunov Tales" make what's supposed to now be a monthly appearance, stop whatever you're doing and immerse yourself in Tursunov's unforgettable penmanship.

2007 projection: Tursunov!!!!!!!!!!! (If you've read his blog, you understand the exclamation points.)

And with that, I hope I've left you as fired up for the 2007 ATP season as I am. It certainly is a year that sure has some big shoes to fill in the wake of an unforgettable 2006.

Comments and Conversation

January 25, 2007


a MUST read for every tennis fan. Perfect re-cap and awesome descriptions of players, matches, fans’ reactions, etc…Best tennis analysis and writing I’ve see.

August 3, 2007


Very good article especially in a part about Dima.

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