The 12 Days of Tennis

BY foxsports • December 21, 2009

Welcome to the 12 Days of Tennis. Each day between Dec. 21 and Jan. 1, tennis personalities Matt Cronin, Richard Evans, Zack Pierce and Brian Webber will tackle a new topic from the year in our sport. The best part? You get to use the comments section to tell us how nuts we are. Kick back, relax, grab the egg nog and check back each day for the latest installment.

On the twelfth day of tennis we ask ...

What's your New Year's resolution for 2010?

WEBBER: That the U.S. Open adds a roof. In September, the United States Tennis Association announced that it is "undertaking a study" to build a retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows.

It’s time for to stop talking and start building. While it is understandable the USTA wants to be prudent in these tough economic times, a roof is long overdue at Ashe Stadium to combat the rain that seems to plague the Open every year. The U.S. Open men’s final has been played on a Monday each of the past two years because of inclement weather.

Wimbledon unveiled its roof this year and there are plans for Roland Garros to add a similar structure in 2011. America’s Grand Slam tournament should have facilities that are just as grand as the other majors.

CRONIN: That players, especially on the WTA side, shake off their pre-match nerves deep in every major event, so that thrilling matches like Federer against Roddick, Nadal and Del Potro, and Serena against Dementieva and Kuznetsova are more commonplace and the stinkers become a thing of the past.

EVANS: That the game and all its leaders should never stop looking for new formats, new markets and new ways to expand the popularity of the sport. The Davis Cup scheduling format needs to be re-designed to make the most of this fantastic event. World Team Tennis needs to spread its wings overseas. And why leave mixed doubles as a poorly-treated afterthought? Vision, courage and commitment are what’s needed from the ATP, WTA and ITF. Let’s see it happen in 2010.

PIERCE: That Justine Henin’s return and Kim Clijsters’ continued comeback add a spark to the women’s game. Ever since Henin retired in 2008, the game has been searching for a true No. 1 player. Serena Williams has filled the void as well as anyone, winning three of the seven Henin-less Slams, but even she performs at her best so sporadically that it’s hard to put a crown on her. The rest of the players to take turns at No. 1 have vacated the ranking without much to write home about.

The success Clijsters had at the U.S. Open will surely be a motivating factor for Henin, who is slated to return in time for the Australian Open. Let’s hope the two Belgians can help provide depth to the top ranks of the women’s game and encourage the other highly ranked ladies to up their play.

On the eleventh day of tennis we ask ...

What was the biggest lesson we learned in 2009?

PIERCE: That there’s nothing quite like a good underdog story. Whether it was an old favorite making a comeback to the sport, a new face bursting onto the scene or a top-10 mainstay showing he can still play with the best, 2009 showed the crowd loves rooting for the little guy (or gal).

Kim Clijsters won the U.S. Open just a month into her comeback. Melanie Oudin upset Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva at the same tournament. Andy Roddick pushed Roger Federer to the absolute limit in the Wimbledon final. And that’s just the high-profile examples. As fun as it is to watch Federer and Nadal battle for titles, it’s good to know that there’s plenty of room in fans’ hearts for the next big thing.

WEBBER: That being No. 1 doesn’t mean much in women’s tennis. Jelena Jankovic started 2009 at No. 1 but lost in the Round of 16 as the top seed at the Australian Open and finished the year ranked eighth. Dinara Safina was No. 1 for most of the year while enduring some monumental meltdowns at the Slams.

Serena Williams’ victory at the season-ending WTA Championships in Qatar allowed the American to end the year at No. 1 while confirming what was obvious to most observers: Serena was the best women’s player this year. But the WTA rankings need to be tweaked to give even more significance to winning majors so that being No. 1 on the computer has actual significance.

CRONIN: That regardless of how transparent the issue was or how appalled that fans were, tennis authorities often refuse to impose hardcore sanctions due to a player's popularity or sponsor money (as in the case of Serena Williams’ minor punishment for imploding at the U.S. Open or refusing to boycott Dubai for not letting Shahar Peer play there).

Or, the authorities get caught up in their own Byzantine rules (as in the case of Richard Gasquet, whose bizarre excuse as to how he tested positive for cocaine was bought by the Court of Arbitration for Sport) and are unable to make an example of someone even when they try to do so.

EVANS: That you should never underestimate the public’s appetite for tennis. In a year of severe recession, corporate hospitality sales may have fallen but overall attendances never did. Over a dozen ATP tournaments posted record crowds - every seat was sold for the entire week at Monte Carlo, on nine separate days Wimbledon posted record crowds and ended with an all-time high of 511,043.

The U.S. Open bettered its amazing 2008 total of 720,000 by several thousand, the ATP Masters in Paris hit record highs and then, of course, there was the ATP finals in London. Refuting any suggestion that the public would not respond to a winter tournament in London’s docklands, 256,000 people crammed the magnificent O2 Arena over eight days. Tennis a niche sport? Some niche.

On the tenth day of tennis we ask ...

Who was the player of the year in 2009?

EVANS: Juan Martin del Potro, with his U.S. Open triumph, and Nikolay Davydenko for his strong finish to the year and brilliant play at the ATP World Tour Finals in London get honorable mentions but who else can be the Player of the Year but Roger Federer?

Appearing in all four Grand Slam finals and increasing his staggering record of never having lost before the semifinals to 22 consecutive Slams would be enough. But Federer also pulled off the rare feat of winning the French Open and Wimbledon within a month - possibly the greatest test of a player’s all-around abilities the game has to offer. And Roland Garros was the one title missing from the Federer portfolio - the one that gave the doubters their chance to deny Roger the acclaim of being the greatest player of all time. Tough to deny him that now.

PIERCE: It’s nearly impossible not to give this award to Roger Federer, but allow me to make the case for Serena Williams.

It’s easy to overlook just how close she was to sweeping the year’s five biggest tournaments. She won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the year-end WTA Championships. At Roland Garros, she lost 7-6 (3), 5-7, 7-5 in the quarters to eventual champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the women’s match of the year. In New York, of course, she bowed out to eventual winner Kim Clijsters after the famous tirade cost her match point in their semifinal clash. Had she advanced in those two tournaments, she would’ve been heavily favored in the ensuing matches.

Federer, of course, was even closer to pulling off the same feat, but Serena deserves credit for winning three of the year’s biggest titles.

WEBBER: Roger Federer. The great Swiss added a few more chapters to his incredible legacy in 2009. He reached the finals of all four Grand Slam events and completed the Career Slam by finally winning the French Open. The world No. 1 eclipsed Pete Sampras’ record by winning his 15th Grand Slam title in a Wimbledon final that ranks among the most memorable matches of the Open Era. And Federer did it all with style and grace befitting a truly transcendent superstar. The conversation regarding who is the greatest tennis player of all-time may have now a definitive answer.

CRONIN: While Serena Williams grabbed two majors plus the year-end WTA Championships, Roger Federer faced much more pressure in 2009 as he strove to tie and then break Pete Sampras' all-time Grand Slam title mark of 14. After a slow and emotionally challenging start to the year where he was worn out by arch-rival Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open and then failed to win a significant title until mid-May, the Swiss outthought and outfought the field at the French Open, winning his first crown in Paris.

He then faced down Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final - when the American was at his very best - and surpassed Sampras' record. While Federer failed to win the Australian and U.S. Opens, he did reach both finals, showing the rest of the tour that there could be no significant big dance without him.

On the ninth day of tennis we ask ...

What was the match of the year in 2009?

CRONIN: While the Federer-Roddick Wimbledon final was a shootout of the highest proportions, for those fans who love a mental and physical marathon, there was no more thrilling contest than Rafael Nadal's heroic 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (7), 6-7 (1), 6-4 semifinal victory over fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in 5 hours and 14 minutes at the Australian Open.

The contest ended at 1:08 a.m. on Saturday, but no one in the still-packed Rod Laver Arena wanted it to end, as the match between the two Davis Cup teammates featured breathtaking, end-to-end, net-to-baseline rallies all night long. Both men produced incredible shot-making, with Verdasco hammering huge flat serves, rocket forehands and cutely spun one-handed slice backhands that had the fans out of their seats. For his part, Nadal never let down against his ambitious opponent, hooking heavy forehands, hustling like mad, thumping heavy kick serves and withstanding one barrage after another.

EVANS: There were plenty to remember. Fernando Verdasco’s utterly brilliant attempt to derail Rafael Nadal in the semifinal of the Australian Open, Juan Martin del Potro’s stunning fight back to beat Roger Federer at the U.S. Open or one of those numerous battles that tend to get overlooked like Gilles Simon’s 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 victory over Robby Ginepri at the ATP Masters in Madrid’s new Caja Majica after Ginepri had missed two match points at 6-4 in the deciding tie-break.

All contained breathtaking tennis. But the match of the year for me had to be Federer’s victory over the most gallant loser of the year (Andy Roddick) in yet another unforgettable Wimbledon final. It is quite probable that no one, ever again, will spend over four hours on Wimbledon’s Centre Court holding serve for 37 consecutive games and lose it for the first time to go down 16-14 in the fifth. Only Federer’s grit as well as his skill prevented Roddick’s superb performance from being translated into triumph and, in the end, with 57 percent of all television viewers in Britain and heaven knows how many millions around the world riveted by the drama, the sporting world rose to acclaim two competitors who had every right to call themselves champions for the manner in which they had enhanced the game’s greatest stage with their courage, skill and sportsmanship.

PIERCE: Roger Federer and Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final. While the serve-flailing return-easy winner rhythm of the match may not have produced the exciting rallies that Federer and Rafael Nadal had showcased in the previous year’s title match, it was truly remarkable to watch these two battle toe-to-toe.

What the match lacked in prolonged rallies it more than made up for in storylines. Federer going for his record-setting 15th Slam title. Roddick trying to prove he still has Slam-winning talent. Pete Sampras showing up in the middle of the first set to watch the whole thing transpire. The 30-game fifth set. Truly a classic.

WEBBER: Rafael Nadal vs. Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open. The Spaniards played a sensational semifinal match in Melbourne. It took Nadal 5 hours and 14 minutes to defeat his countryman in the longest match in the history of the tournament. Although it was played on the Plexicushion surface, the epic encounter had a clay-court feel with many protracted rallies at Rod Laver Arena. For Verdasco, the loss foreshadowed a stellar 2009 that finished with a trip to the ATP World Tour Finals in London. For Nadal, the win put him in position to win the sixth Grand Slam championship of his career.

On the eighth day of tennis we ask ...

Who showed in 2009 that they've still got it?

WEBBER: Andy Roddick. The top-ranked American enjoyed a resurgence this year. Roddick dedicated his offseason to improving his fitness and his conditioning paid dividends throughout the year. Off the court, Roddick clicked with his new coach, Larry Stefanki.

While the former U.S. Open champion only won one singles title in 2009, his brilliant performance at Wimbledon proved that Roddick is still one of the best players in the world. Federer took the fifth set 16-14 in a match for the ages, but Roddick won over many fans with his graciousness in defeat.

CRONIN: There were plenty of critics who felt that Kim Clijsters was too mentally soft to begin with and that -- after a two-year hiatus to start a family -- the new mom would return largely without a killer instinct.

But they had forgotten that this soccer star's daughter could still run like the wind, had huge weapons and a world of experience. Plus, getting married and having a baby actually helped her put things in better perspective and she no longer obsessed about her tennis. The result was an amazing U.S. Open title run from the Belgian -- her second, and this one a whole lot more satisfying.

EVANS: When Daniel Nestor and Mark Knowles split a couple of years ago to find new partners, they were both confident of being able to remain competitive at the top of the doubles game. But, perhaps, both have been a little surprised at just how successful they have been so late in their careers.

Nestor is now 37 and yet, in harness with Nenad Zimonjic, the pair won nine titles in 2009 and Nestor collected a personal record of $1,111,822 in prize money. He finished at No. 3 in the world.

Knowles, a year older at 38, combined so well with Mahesh Bhupathi that he was able to end the year at No. 5, after the pair won titles in Montreal and Memphis and reached the final of the Australian and U.S. Opens.

Both Nestor and Knowles, the latter with a reduced schedule, will head into 2010 happy in the knowledge they have still got it.

PIERCE: John McEnroe. Did you see that pinpoint cross-court volley against Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open? In street clothes, no less. Now that’s talent.

On the seventh day of tennis we ask ...

What was the biggest off-court story of 2009?

PIERCE: Andre Agassi gets the prize here for proving you don’t have to still be playing to steal the headlines. His admission of meth use –- among other things –- in this fall’s autobiography sent a jolt through the ATP and devoted fans of Agassi.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. To think that the flashy dressed, image-is-everything young star of the international tennis circuit never dabbled in anything unsavory is naïve. Still, the revealing book was full of wild details and makes us all wonder just what some of the game’s other legends might be keeping to themselves.

WEBBER: Andre Agassi’s revelations in his book “Open” rocked the tennis world. His admission of using crystal meth moved tennis from the sports section to front-page news. The former world No. 1 was equally honest about matters on the court. Agassi plainly stated that he hated tennis because his father had forced him to play the sport as a child, while hinting that he had tanked matches during his illustrious career. “Open” is a fitting title for one of the most candid sports books ever written.

CRONIN: Given the United Arab Emirates’ sour relationship with Israel, it shouldn't have come as a great shock when Israeli women's player Shahar Peer was denied a visa and wasn't allowed a slot in the WTA's showcase Barclays Dubai Open, but the scandal that ensued shook the tennis world.

The UAE and the tournament was hit with an incredible amount of international condemnation (let alone losing broadcast partners and sponsors), but it failed to relent and never let Peer play. The WTA decided not to boycott the tournament, but did hit it with a massive fine and threatened to pull its sanction if it didn't allow every player to enter in 2010. The next week, the UAE did grant Israeli's men's player Andy Ram a special visa to play in the ATP event.

EVANS: The biggest off-court story, in my opinion, was the decision of the Flanders National Anti-Doping Organization to ban Xavier Malisse and Yanina Wickmayer for one year for failing to follow the rigid rules of availability for drug testing. There has never been a suspicion of drug abuse on the part of either player –- just a failure to comprehend and react to a complicated set of e-mails that may or may not have reached them.

But the story gets worse. The World Anti-Doping Agency actually wanted these two athletes to be banned for two years. Does justice and common sense mean the same to them as it does to me and most other people I know?

Happily a court in Belgium has overturned the original ruling and, now that the ITF has kindly ratified it, Malisse and Wickmayer will be allowed to compete, pending appeal. But they are not clear yet and the drug police will be chasing them into the New Year.

On the sixth day of tennis we ask ...

Who would most like a do-over on something from 2009?

EVANS: The match was the longest in Australian Open history and ended in victory for Rafael Nadal over his Spanish friend Fernando Verdasco -– 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 at 1:15 a.m. after five hours, 14 minutes of the most wonderful tennis one could wish to see. Verdasco hit 95 winners and the point difference was just one -– 193 to 192.

But Verdasco will always remember the eighth game of the fifth set and the second serve off which he could have reached double break point. Nadal had gone 0-30 down serving at 3-4. He won the next point but missed his first serve on the next. Verdasco, whose forehand had been lethal, went for the big return and netted.

"I decided to go for my forehand," he said afterwards. "I decided to be aggressive and I put it into the net. Now, after, it is easy to see everything. Now, if I can return in time and have the chance again, I will put the ball in play and try to run and fight for the point. Looking back, it was my big chance."

PIERCE: Victoria Azarenka was cruising at the Australian Open, rolling into the fourth round without a set lost. Her opponent there was Serena Williams. Azarenka won the first set 6-3 before an illness and the intense Melbourne heat forced her to retire trailing 4-2 in the second.

Serena is never to be counted out in any match, no matter the score, but it felt like a coming-out party for Azarenka -– who won the Sony Ericsson Open not long after and has since climbed her way into the top 10 -– before that unfortunate end. Serena went on to win the tournament. Azarenka is still looking to advance past a Grand Slam quarterfinal. She’d love a reset on that match.

WEBBER: Williams’ meltdown at the U.S. Open. Serena’s outburst in New York City could have fit into many of these categories. She was fined a record $82,500 for her profanity-laden tirade at a U.S. Open linesperson, and the point penalty she received for her behavior cost her the semifinal match against Kim Clijsters.

But this incident had far more resonance off the court. It became part of a national conversation about manners and civility in sports. The 11-time Grand Slam champion has apologized and says she’s ready to move forward. Given a chance, Serena would certainly ask for a do-over.

CRONIN: American Andy Roddick was having the tournament of his life at Wimbledon. He had faced down Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray in two classics and was literally hitting five-time champion Roger Federer off the court in the final, winning the first set and ahead 6-2 in the second set tiebreaker.

Federer came up with three amazing shots, but then Roddick gagged on a huge one. At 6-5, Roddick approached the net and looked at an easy high backhand volley, but seized up and hit it well wide. The match might have been decided there, as Federer went on to grab the next two points and the set. Federer -– who won the classic battle 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 –- later admitted that it would have been extremely difficult to come from two sets down with the way that the Roddick was serving. Roddick's chance at Wimbledon glory was gone, possibly his final one.

On the fifth day of tennis we ask ...

Who got the biggest gift in 2009?

CRONIN: Roger Federer in Paris. Maybe Federer was bound to win the French Open anyway. Maybe his form was so stellar after beating Rafael Nadal in Madrid that no one in Paris was going to be able to match his repertoire at Roland Garros.

But without question, when Sweden’s Robin Soderling upset four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in Paris, the draw parted like the Red Sea for Federer. While he still had to take down a number of competent foes to win the title, not having to face the guy who had crushed him in the 2008 final, as well as beating him on three other occasions there, was a godsend and helped get him the one major crown that had eluded him.

EVANS: Every top player has an opponent he or she has more trouble with than most. And even though Roger Federer had beaten Rafael Nadal in Madrid on clay two weeks before, the match was played at altitude and conditions were different from those found at Roland Garros where Nadal had reigned supreme for four consecutive years. So Nadal was the mountain that Federer -- himself a three-time finalist at the French Open -- was going to have to climb to complete his set of four Grand Slams.

But the mountain disappeared. Robin Soderling, previously known as a fine indoor player with limited success on clay, did the mountaineering for him. The Swede scaled the heights, beat Nadal in the fourth round and presented himself as a lamb to the slaughter for Federer to beat in the final. What a gift!

PIERCE: Rafael Nadal’s loss at the French Open was certainly helpful, but Roger Federer’s biggest gift of the year came in the Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick. He had lost the first set and was down four set points in the second set tiebreaker. Federer saved the first three and then luck struck. Roddick had a relatively easy backhand volley chance –- with Federer completely out of position -– and sent it sailing wide.

Very nearly down two sets to none, Federer then ran off the next two points to take the set, won the third set in a tiebreak, lost the fourth and won that epic fifth set, 16-14. The thriller gave Federer his record-setting 15th career Grand Slam title -- an achievement he would likely still be chasing if Roddick had only connected on that set-point volley.

WEBBER: Indirectly, Roger Federer received a large gift when Robin Soderling knocked out Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at the French Open. Federer did not have to face his primary rival in Paris and captured his first title at Roland Garros by beating Soderling in the championship match. Roger beat Rafa on clay in Madrid earlier in May and there’s always a chance that Federer would have defeated an ailing Nadal at the French Open as well.

But given that Nadal has won 13 of the 20 matches he’s played with Federer and had never lost at Roland Garros, Federer had to be smiling when he learned that Nadal had been upset.

On the fourth day of tennis we ask ...

Who is Santa Claus coming for in 2010?

WEBBER: Marin Cilic. Reading the tea leaves of tennis is an inexact science. We could take a shot that Nikolay Davydenko will use his win at the ATP World Tour Finals in London as a spring board to capturing a slam in 2010. But we’ll dig deeper into the rankings and go with Cilic.

The Croatian has advanced to at least the fourth round at each of the Grand Slam events and made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, beating Andy Murray this year. Cilic’s big serve and an attacking style helped him win two titles in 2009 while reaching four finals. He’s a rising star who’s ready to shine in 2010.

CRONIN: Victoria Azarenka. The world’s No. 7 player lost a slew of tight matches to veteran players in 2009, but she also won her fair share of contests against notable players like Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic.

The 20-year-old Belarussian who calls Arizona home is a terrific ball striker, an underrated mover and a heck of a fighter when her head is in the right place. But she just parted ways with her longtime coach which will put the first part of her season in question. While her forehand and serve need fine-tuning, she has to get into better shape and to learn to keep her cool when closing out matches, Azarenka has the directed look of a Slam champion-to-be and should end 2010 solidly grounded in the top five.

EVANS: Andy Murray has given up Christmas in Britain in favor of more hard work with his fitness team at Miami University. But Santa could still bring the young Scot a nice Christmas present if everything clicks into place at the Australian Open.

However, Santa may prefer to keep his big present on ice and let it melt all over the clay at Roland Garros handing Gael Monfils the trophy no Frenchman has won since Yannick Noah in 1983. It all depends on Monfils’ elastic body and his ability to keep it in fighting form under the demanding eye of his Australian coach, Roger Rasheed. Monfils, a semifinalist in Paris in 2008, is getting better and stronger and this may be his year.

PIERCE: Caroline Wozniacki. She doesn’t have the heavy-hitting firepower of some of the other top women, but Wozniacki had a strong end to 2009, finishing the year ranked No. 4. Her run to the U.S. Open final was followed a couple months later by a good show at the year-end championships -– she was leading Serena in the semifinals before she was forced to retire due to injury.

Despite the strong efforts in those two major tournaments, Wozniacki hasn’t knocked off anyone in the top five since April. Is she ready to hang tough with the best on the biggest stages in 2010? With women’s tennis as wide open as ever, she’s certainly a leading candidate.

On the third day of tennis we ask ...

What was the defining image of 2009?

PIERCE: Serena Williams’ tirade at the U.S. Open is what does it for me here.

Down a set and trailing Kim Clijsters 5-6 in the second in the semifinals, Serena committed a foot fault while hitting her second serve at 15-30, giving double match point to Clijsters. Serena angrily protested the call, accosting the linesperson as TV microphones picked up a barrage of not-so-nice language. The ruling on the court was a personal conduct penalty – Serena’s second of the match – which meant a forfeited point and a victory for Clijsters.

The whole sequence of images -- from her pleading with tournament officials to walking to the other side of the court to congratulate a dismayed Clijsters -- is memorable, but the shot of her shaking her racket at the linesperson gets the honor.

WEBBER: Kim Clijsters’ U.S. Open celebration. Clijsters’ amazing run at the U.S. Open was even more special because the former world No. 1 was able to share her accomplishment with her family. Clijsters had initially retired from tennis in 2007 to focus on being a mom. She won the Open as an unseeded player in just her third tournament after announcing her comeback. The presentation of the championship trophy at Arthur Ashe Stadium after Clijsters defeated Caroline Wozniacki produced an enduring image: Kim savoring the moment with her young daughter, Jada.

CRONIN: Federer's tears. While Roger Federer went on to great triumph at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, the vision of the great Swiss crying for a good three minutes on court after his heart wrenching 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 defeat to his archrival Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open will stay with his fans forever.

Nadal's first hardcourt title at the majors put a plump cherry on the Spaniard's stellar career, but in the same moment, Federer couldn't contend with the possibility that he might never break Pete Sampras' Grand Slam title record of 14.

"God, it's killing me," Federer said to the crowd.

EVANS: For me the happiest image of 2009 was Kim Clijsters and her tiny but stage-smart daughter clutching the U.S. Open trophy.

But the defining moment has to be two-fold -- Roger Federer in floods of tears after losing to Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open and then that same Roger Federer sinking onto the unforgiving clay of Roland Garros to realize his ultimate dream of a French Open crown five months later. Written off in February, back up in June and flying high with a Wimbledon crown in July. Frank Sinatra should have sung about it.

On the second day of tennis we ask ...

Who was the underachiever of the year?

EVANS: Ana Ivanovic, who finished the year at a thoroughly disappointing No. 22 on the WTA ranking list, would be a candidate but I am afraid the nomination for the biggest underachiever of the year has to go to Ernests Gulbis.

The 21-year-old from Latvia had moments during the year when his hugely gifted game seemed to be paralyzed. This young man appears to have everything -- an all-around game underpinned by a massive serve. Yet, having been identified as a candidate for the world’s top 10, he ended up at No. 90.

The reasons are not clear. There was no reluctance to put himself out there; he played in 27 tournaments. But Gulbis, who reached a high ranking of No. 38 in August 2008, seems to have lost the knack for closing out matches. Is it lack of concentration, lack of confidence or a lack of the killer instinct that can come from too comfortable a background? Ernests’ father is one of the richest men in Latvia.

PIERCE: Andy Murray. Tough to call him an underachiever when he won a tour-high six titles and had the tour’s best winning percentage in 2009. But I’ll make the unorthodox pick because this was supposed to be the year the Scot won a Slam and he was a big disappointment at all four majors.

It started with the Aussie Open, where he lost in the fourth round to Fernando Verdasco. At Roland Garros – admittedly not his best event – he lost in the quarters to Fernando Gonzalez. The hype mounted for Wimbledon, where he reached the semis before a stunning loss to Andy Roddick. In New York, Marin Cilic got him in the round of 16.

A wrist injury was partially to blame, of course, but still … the season that might have been Murray’s breakout on the big stage went awry.

WEBBER: Ana Ivanovic. She would like to turn back the clock to 2008 when she was victorious at Roland Garros, reached the final at the Australian Open, and got to No. 1 in the world. The Serbian was unable to maintain that momentum in 2009. Ivanovic did not make it past the fourth round in any of the Grand Slam tournaments and was knocked out of the U.S. Open in her first match. While she has tinkered with her serve, Ivanovic may need to overcome confidence issues as well if she hopes to return to the top 20 next year.

CRONIN: Jo Wilfried Tsonga. After he knocked out Rafael Nadal to reach the 2008 Australian Open final, it appeared that the bellowing serve-and-volleyer was prepared for a serious assault on the top 5. But even though he finished 2009 ranked No. 10, the Frenchman took disheartening losses at the Slams to Fernando Verdasco, Juan Martin del Potro, Ivo Karlovic and Fernando Gonzalez. Big Jo still has a huge upside, but he must seriously refine the small yet critical parts of his game.

On the first day of tennis we ask ...

Who was the breakthrough player of the year?

CRONIN: Juan Martin del Potro stamped his large imprint on the men's side, but Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki willed herself above a talented group of youngsters on the women's side, showing a world of fight in reaching the U.S. Open final and displaying a much improved and headier game that brought her three titles and the No. 4 ranking.

The youngest member of the top 20 at the age of 19, the charismatic Dane needs to improve her serve and get a bit more aggressive. If she does, the versatile Wozniacki is capable of going deep at every Slam in 2010.

EVANS: A place in a Grand Slam final seemed like a logical step forward for Juan Martin del Potro, the 6-foot-6 young Argentine with the massive ground strokes. It came at the U.S. Open -- just as it had for Andy Murray a year before -- and once again Roger Federer was the man barring the newcomer’s way.

Few experts gave del Potro much of a chance at the start of the match and their numbers would have been dwindling rapidly as they witnessed Federer produce tennis from the gods during the first set and a half. Rarely has the Swiss maestro played better. But del Potro refused to be overawed and refused to buckle. Somehow he hung on to grab that second set and then, in the ultimate moments, did not waver in the fifth.

On the largest stage the game has to offer, del Potro broke through big time -- right into that Grand Slam winners' circle that is reserved for those with nerves of steel and a whole heap of talent.

PIERCE: Becoming the only man besides Rafael Nadal to beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final is more than enough to lock up this award. Juan Martin del Potro’s brilliant run in Flushing Meadows -- he also beat Nadal before unseating Federer -- made the world realize that the Argentine has reached elite status.

On the other hand, we’ve certainly seen our share of one-Slam wonders over the years. Let’s see if del Potro can back it up in 2010.

WEBBER: Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine joined the exclusive club of Grand Slam winners by overcoming long odds at the U.S. Open. Roger Federer seemed poised to win his 16th major in New York and was riding a 40-match winning streak in Flushing Meadows.

The Swiss star had beaten del Potro in their six previous meetings and appeared to be on his way to another victory when he took the opening set. But del Potro used his powerful ground strokes to put together an improbable comeback win. The 21-year-old may be ready for even bigger achievements in 2010.

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