Monday, February 5, 2007

ATP 2007: And So it Begins…

By Tom Kosinski

The 2007 tennis season has begun in earnest. With the Aussie Open in the books, the question to me is what will this year really look like? I think just about everyone figured that Roger Federer would pick up at least two majors, and the early season hopes for the first male Grand Slam since 1969 was truly a possibility.

But I don't think anyone realized how truly possible it may be, at least not until the semis of the Australian Open. Watching R-Fed kick Andy Roddick's butt around the court at will was just an amazing feat. What made it more enjoyable is that A-Rod was at his best, and Roger had an answer or 10 for every single shot and point. Roddick was outclassed, outgunned ... heck, he was just out.

I'm not going to put Roger in the pantheon as the greatest player ever, but I will say that his shot-making in this match was maybe one of the top three exhibitions I have ever seen in my time on earth. He never looked hurried, he never looked frazzled, and he just was everywhere he needed to be to answer the attack of Roddick.

One point sticks in my head. I believe it was in the second set. Andy made a very strong serve up the center of the court, and Roger lofted back a weak return. Andy came to the net and hit a very good, deep, and well-placed volley to the forehand court. Roger came from nowhere, got his racquet around the ball, and hit a sharp crossing forehand passing shot that hit an incredible angle and landed just past the reach of the hardy American. I'm sure Roddick was stunned, and I know I was.

So, the men's game, unless Federer gets hurt or decides to retire midseason, will come down to Federer vs. fill in the blank for the rest of the year. I will probably be covering the U.S. Open in the late summer and having to fight for a spot in the press room as Roger steps to the microphone and is getting asked if he can finish the Grand Slam off. All the other press rooms will be empty.

The story for 2007 for the men will be more about who will rise from the rest to challenge Roger all year. James Blake took a major step backward with his early exit in Melbourne. Mardy Fish's run was admirable, but not repeatable. Rafael Nadal looked human again. I wonder if he'll be as invincible on clay this year as years past, too. Team Roddick seems to have righted the ship and put it back on course, but even the unexpected appearance of James Scott Connors wasn't enough to put Andy back in the lead.

Aussie Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez of Chile looked like a world beater for two weeks, and has shown enormous potential at times in the past. His three set loss to R-Fed was actually a good match, and closer than the final scores made it seem. Problem is, Gonzalez is not consistent and for the next few months, he will be playing on the slow European clay, a surface not specifically suited to his talent.

Of all the South Americans on the men's tour, Gonzalez is probably the least suited to the slow dirt. Fernando was exceptional last year on the grass during the U.S./Chile Davis Cup tie in California and has consistently performed on the hard courts over the past two years. You might ask why I am highlighting this performance. Gonzalez has moved up to challenger status, and looks to be taking the place held by Marcos Baghdatis in 2006, but probably will not be the one player to push Federer all season long.

Tommy Haas made a very good run to the semis. Haas has always been on the cusp of something really good. Personal problems and injuries have always gotten in the way before. Haas has the tools to be able to challenge Roger. Maybe he will be the one.

Brad Gilbert has done amazingly well with Andy Murray. Murray's loss to Nadal in five sets in the fourth round showed that on the faster surfaces, Murray has some talent. If there is anyone in the world who can teach a player to compete and be a true challenger, it's Brad. I wonder if young Mr. Murray has the drive to finish it off.

One down, three majors to go. Men's tennis will be both interesting and boring, not unlike men's golf when Tiger Woods plays. Federer will either dominate completely, or his absence at certain events will allow the rest of the boys to showcase their talent.

I'm rooting for Roger. Why bother wasting my breath for anyone else?

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