1. Which Russians will emerge as the best players?
This promises to be a pivotal year for Russian women, particularly if most women stay healthy. Anastasia Myskina's French Open, as well as Elena Dementieva's runner-up efforts in Paris and New York, vindicated their homeland's emphasis on hard work and, of course, pounding groundstrokes.
Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, three
Russians eager to move to the top and there are others ready if they should falter.
Over the long term, though, my money's on Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Sharapova reminds me of Monica Seles – the grunt, the determination and the capacity to strike boldly on the big point. Kuznetsova's more like Steffi Graf – a great forehand and an all-court game based on footspeed and a first-rate work ethic (Sharapova's a court rat also).
Click photo to hear Joel Drucker talk about the prospects for women's tennis in 2005.
2. Can the Williams sisters return to the top?
Was it only two years ago that some were saying these were the greatest players in tennis history, set to dominate for years to come?
On one level, it's best to view each sister separately. Over the last 18 months, Venus has eroded tactically, emotionally and technically. Her forehand needs a major overhaul. Her first serve is unreliable, and her second serve inspires fear in no one.
Serena, more technically-sound than her sister, also suffered her share of forehand breakdowns last year. And there were also many times when she was simply outhit, outmaneuvered, or outsteadied.
Can the Williams sisters claw their way back to the top or are they just too distracted? My money's on Serena.
On another level, they're in the same boat. Tennis is a ruthless game. If you're not improving, someone else is. I'm convinced that the great bulk of outside interests that make these two so engaging and articulate have also hindered their ability to focus on becoming better players. As Venus and Serena basked in the glow of fame, other players continued to improve, and even more players emerged who are not particularly intimidated by either sister's power.
The Williams Camp may emit its share of signals, but it hardly takes in many. Richard Williams did a remarkable job supervising his daughters to become one of the greatest stories in the history of sports. Now if he'd open the door and let some other experts help their tennis, more Slam trophies might make their way onto the family mantle. My strong hunch, though, is that the best hope is by far Serena.
3. What will come of those great Belgians?
Justine Henin-Hardenne needs to stay healthy in 2005.
Kim Clijsters' wrist is a big question mark. She's progressing, but slowly. She recently took herself out of the Australian Open, where last year she reached the finals.
Her opponent that day, Justine Henin-Hardenne, is also recovering delicately from the virus that kept her out for much of 2004. Henin-Hardenne is quite disciplined, but also persnickety. In a way somewhat like Roger Federer, her game consists of more moving parts than many of her rivals. This textured quality makes her quite compelling, but it also makes it tough to come back and find the right range.
If Clijsters' wrist heals once and for all, she'll be able to get in the swing sooner and play better tennis. But over the long-term, it's Henin-Hardenne who's 3- 1 in Slam finals, while Clijsters is a vexing 0-4. Clijsters needs to get healthy. Henin-Hardenne needs to stay healthy.
4. Why aren't there more top-level young American women players?
Let's have a look at the American sporting landscape for youngsters. If I'm a parent evaluating potential athletic activities, I want my child most of all to get plenty of playing time, have fun and maybe even make some new friends. Tennis doesn't necessarily provide any of these three. It's a hard sport to learn, the dynamics of individual competition are brutal (half the people who enter a tournament lose in the first round) and families that might work together in a team environment are inherently separated in tennis. Hello, soccer.
In another way, women's tennis is the victim of its success. It is by far the most successful women's professional sport in the world. But prize money, potential scholarships and all the extrinsic goodies that reward top-flight competitors also throw a jolt of fear into parents and children.
At a time when women's sports is booming and more athletically-inclined girls are getting into sports, they're finding it far more fun to play volleyball, soccer, and basketball than tennis. They'll never get rich from those sports, but in an economy like ours, that's not the point anyway. As I said when someone asked me how we in the U.S. could replicate the player development system of Russia, how ‘bout 30 percent unemployment, runaway inflation and starve our children?
It will be interesting in the coming years to see how such American prospects as Orange Bowl champ Jessica Kirkland and Alexa Glatch fare.
5. Will there ever be another woman who plays serve-and-volley tennis?
Not for some time, and only if she's taught completely differently from today's players. Once again, the professional opportunities of contemporary tennis prove costly. The first thing every tennis player learns is how to keep the ball in play from the baseline.
Martina Navratilova was the greatest serve-and-volley player in women's tennis but who will follow her?
Time was when it became necessary for an aspiring player to diversify his or her game with approach shots, volleys and variations in spin and pace. But as Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert demonstrated, it's possible to build your game predominantly around groundstrokes. Parents and children, more eager for short-term results than long-term growth, become complacent and narrowly-focused in their pursuit of sectional rankings and spots on high school and college teams. Fail to diversify, then and you've little chance of innovation once the fight for money enters the picture.
So instead of investing in the broadest array of weapons, we end up with 14-year-old girls who think coming to net is dangerous. They feel humiliated when they're passed rather than grasp the way net play forces errors and instills doubt into an opponent's head. And while a young boy eventually grows into a man late in his teens – and can gain at least a measure of tactical maturity – woman physically mature earlier and become locked into their games well before their brains ripen.
This predisposition towards mental rigidity is a sad truth that's even affected the likes of Martina Hingis and Venus Williams. Each of these players became less enterprising as their careers wore on, as if they were guarding territory more than creating opportunities.
My pointer for parents, coaches and players: diversify your game as much as you can at an early age. And play more doubles – but come to net. Golly, even Chris Evert could serve and volley in doubles. It's encouraging, though, to see Maria Sharapova experiment with net play.
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Joel Drucker, TennisOne writer-at-large
(Click link to purchase Joel Drucker's book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life: A Personal Biography, at amazon.com.
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