A lot still to prove before 2010 ends

BY foxsports • September 14, 2010

Rafael Nadal's triumph at the U.S. Open, which earned him his third straight major crown, locked up the season for the Spaniard and now everyone on tour will be left rewriting their playbooks.

Regardless of what the top-ranked Nadal does for the next two months, he'll end the year at No. 1 for the second time in his career. But that probably doesn't matter much to him, as he has to be thinking about becoming the first male since Rod Laver in 1969 (the Aussie won the calendar year Grand Slam) to win four consecutive majors when he heads Down Under for the 2011 Australian Open. That achievement would firmly throw Nadal into the greatest ever discussion, as he would have then won 10 Slams and would be just one behind all-time greats Laver and Bjorn Borg.

Nadal really has nothing left to prove this year, although he stated as his goal to try and find a way to win the year-end ATP World Tour Finals in London, which begins the week of Nov. 21. The Spaniard has never won the prestigious year-end championships and would like to add another notch to his bulging belt. With his now huge and flat first serve, he's bettered his chances indoors.

Third-ranked Roger Federer could use a positive fall season to brighten up his year, although he has nothing to be embarrassed about with his five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semis. Djokovic seized the match from him late in the contest, but it's not like Federer choked.

Federer and his new coach, Paul Annacone, must figure out a way for the Swiss to get more comfortable charging the net because at the age of 29, it's going to get harder and harder for him to win ultra-physical points from the baseline.

Given that he played as well as he ever has — and that includes his title run at the 2008 Australian Open — in reaching the U.S. Open final, No. 2 Novak Djokovic shouldn't harbor any negative thoughts. Yes, he can still lose a bit of focus in long matches, but armed with a more dependable serve and bigger forehand, he has all the tools to win more majors.

It's merely a matter of Djokovic improving another five percent in the next year and he should pocket another Slam. Defending his Masters Series Paris title or winning the year-end championships would put him in prime position for another strong run Down Under.

Other than those three men, everyone else on tour should focus on making substantial strides in the fall. Britain's Andy Murray received a major psychological blow when he came off a fine summer hard-court warm-up stretch and was stunned by Stan Wawrinka in the third round of the U.S. Open. Murray already has had a substantial amount of success in Masters Series tournaments, so winning one or two during the fall won't guarantee success at the majors, but going down quietly will only lessen the small amount of confidence that he has at the moment. Hiring a new coach and examining exactly why he's underachieving at the Slam is mandatory for the No. 4 in the fall. T

Two veterans who made substantial all-around progress this year — French Open finalist Robin Soderling and Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych — should simply stay the course and attempt to add a little more variety and more seasoned footwork to their already impressive arsenal. Spaniards Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer should take a page out of Nadal's book and learn to focus harder point by point.

Overall, the American men have a lot of work to do. Andy Roddick, now 28, has to begin taking more risks in big matches when he's being out hit, while his good friend, Mardy Fish, needs to better identify what can work for him over the long haul against elite opponents.

Roddick has a fine shot at qualifying for London and needs to have a positive tournament to put his poor showings at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open behind him, while Fish must go on a tear if he's going to qualify for the year-end tournament for the first time.

Younger Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey both made a fair amount of progress this year, and given that the rest of the season will be played on fast hard courts, there is no reason why both can't make late charges at the top 15.

The rest of the season on women's side will begin lengthy a discussion as to whether No. 1 Serena Williams will play again this season and hopefully conclude with an appearance at the year end WTA Championships in Doha, Qatar. So far, it's undetermined, as she hasn't indicated how long it will take her to recover from foot surgery. Serena has never played much in the fall anyway, but she did compete in the WTA Championships last year and will be under tremendous pressure to compete again in the tour's crown jewel.

But Serena has always marched by the beat of her own drummer, and if she doesn't feel up to it, all the pleas from tour officials for her to play will fall on deaf ears. The same goes with a possible appearance in the Fed Cup final against Italy in San Diego. Serena has said she'll play if healthy, but if she doesn't get a few matches in before the Nov. 6-7 tie in San Diego, expect her to opt out once again.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the 2010 WTA season is looking a lot like 2009 at the majors, with Serena capturing the Aussie Open and Wimbledon again and Kim Clijsters reigning at the U.S. Open for the second straight year. The only major twist in the competition was watching Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone come out of the woods and score a career — and very likely one-off — victory when she won her first Slam at the French Open.

Like in 2009, the veterans ruled the majors and the younger players had a much tougher time. Caroline Wozniacki, 20, had an impressive summer run up until the U.S. Open semifinals, when her offensive limitations became clear in a straight-set loss to Vera Zvonareva.

As it stands today, there are only two younger players in the top 10, No. 2 Wozniacki and No. 10 Agnieszka Radwanska. While three other young players — No. 11 Victoria Azarenka, No. 20 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and No. 21 Yanina Wickmayer — all have substantial upsides, it's quite possible that 2011 will also be ruled by the more experienced, savvy and more technically sound veterans.

With only six weeks to go before the WTA Championships, more than few notables need to make a big push if they are to qualify for the final eight. At this point, six spots look pretty secure for Wozniacki, Serena, Clijsters, Zvonareva, Venus Williams and Samantha Stosur. Jelena Jankovic and Schiavone, who currently hold the seventh and eighth spots, are somewhat under threat, but decent performances in the upcoming tournaments in Asia could more or less sew up their spots in the next month.

The good news for players who really need to polish up their seasons like Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Na Li — all of whom had mediocre years by their standards — is that Serena and Clijsters (who is undecided about her fall schedule) could opt out of the Championships, giving the Russians and China's top player outside chances.

Azarenka and Radwanska could also boost their confidence levels by getting back to Doha, but whether Azarenka (who looked so lethal in knocking Sharapova off to win Stanford) and Radwanska (who had a fine summer before imploding at the U.S. Open) will be willing to grind is questionable. Azarenka suffered a concussion at the U.S. Open and is still recovering, and Radwanska has arguably overplayed.

Stosur and Jankovic could also use big fall seasons — the Aussie because she largely choked in her quarterfinal loss to Clijsters at the U.S. Open, and the Serbian because she didn't have one positive tournament after freezing up in the Roland Garros semifinals against Stosur.

Another more than notable player from Serbia, former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, did make strides this summer, but after reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open and going down quietly to Clijsters, she said that in order to end her year feeling great about herself, she'd like to capture one title.

But whatever occurs the rest of the year, 2010 will go down as the season when 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena solidified herself as one of the top five players of all time, and nine-time champ Nadal made a case that he's very close to that distinction.

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