Ten players could be defined by their 2011 play

Tennis history is chock full of remarkable resurgences, but it’s also stocked to the brim with desultory years for elite players. When it comes to veteran performers, there is always a key year that makes or breaks their future. Here are 10 players facing critical 2011 seasons:

Maria Sharapova: The former No. 1 hasn’t won a major since the 2008 Australian Open, which was just two months before she seriously injured her right shoulder and 10 months before she underwent surgery. She had some very good moments in her comeback, but few great ones, and she was seriously disappointed in her results in the 2010 majors, when she lost four tight (and arguably winnable) matches against Maria Kirilenko, Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki.

Her service speed has returned back to pre-surgery levels, but her stroke is very inconsistent and has plagued her at key moments. She’s still lethal off the ground but isn’t finishing off points the way she used to. While Sharapova may look like a very young 23-year-old, she’s practiced and played thousands of hours and given that she’s now engaged to NBA player Sasha Vujacic and has widened her offcourt interests, it’s hard to see her playing beyond another four years. The three-time Grand Slam champion just hired a new co-coach, Swede Thomas Hogstedt, in hopes that she can find a few more areas in her game that she can improve so she can return to glory.

If she doesn’t bag another Grand Slam title in 2011, when both Williams sisters and Justine Henin are question marks, than it’s likely the talented younger players will catch her and possibly lap her in 2012. She has to prove to herself that she is still extremely relevant.

Justine Henin: For some, it might be hard to gauge where the Belgian is headed given that, like Serena Williams, she only played half a 2010 season due to injury. But really, she’s 27 years old, has had a history of injuries and clearly, because she did briefly retire, she is not addicted to her sport. What that means is that it’s highly likely that after her next major injury, she’ll likely retire, so if she wants to add to her Grand Slam total of seven majors, the time is now.

At times in 2010, she looked absolutely brilliant and perhaps even more formidable than she was in her 2004 heyday, but she also took a series of tough losses to the other elite players like Kim Clijsters and Sam Stosur. The Belgian does have the game’s most admirable mix of power and variety, but she and her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, made a bad move trying to fiddle with her once-very-good serve in order to add more pop as now it’s a very shaky and less-than-dependable stroke. If she doesn’t develop more consistency with her serve, she won’t feel comfortable taking risks on her return games.

It’s difficult to doubt the abilities of one of the most mentally tough players ever, but Henin is going to have to push herself hard in 2011 before the doubts start to creep in. She’s very capable of being the sport’s top player again, but she’s also capable of falling back in the pack.

Daniela Hantuchova: The Slovak has been a player on the verge of greatness for a good nine years now and it’s pretty clear that despite the tremendous amount of work that she puts in and how smart she is, her limited movement has really plagued her at the majors. She had one great chance to reach a Slam final at the 2008 Aussie Open and then blew a set and a break lead against Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals. Since then, she has been trying to improve her conditioning so she will be quicker and last longer in matches. But staying power has never been much of a problem, it’s closing out fine competitors once they get her on the run that stifles her.

She ended 2010 ranked No. 30, her worst year-end mark in five years and well off her career high of No. 5 in 2003. If she’s lucky, she’ll get one great draw at a 2011 Slam and attempt to capitalize, which will mean being more of a risk-taker and not losing her head when the big points come. If Hantuchova doesn’t reach another final four of a major in 2011, she won’t get another chance.

Venus Williams: The last women’s player who continued to have major impact past the age of 30 was Martina Navratilova, and she was in much better shape than Venus is now. That does not mean that Navratilova was a better athlete or worked harder off court (although she likely did), but she suffered nowhere near the amount of injuries that Williams has. Venus is once again saddled with a bum knee and will enter 2011 extremely rusty.

The only chance that Venus has to win another major is to come forward more often and it’s completely stunning that in the last stage of her career, she hasn’t committed to becoming a serve-and-volleyer and slap-and-charger, because she’s the most threatening and best net player amongst the elite players. But she’s very stubborn and still believes that she can win most battles from the baseline, even though statistics show that over the past five years, she’s been hard-pressed to so against the other elite players.

Williams’ last chance to win her eighth major will likely come at Wimbledon, as it’s becoming harder and harder for her to remain relevant on slower-court Slams.  If she doesn’t win a major this year, she won’t ever again and if she sustains another sizable injury, she might be forced into retirement.

Jelena Jankovic: Credit Jankovic for actually going out there, realizing her ship was sinking and hiring a new coach with a strong personality — former top-15 player Andrei Pavel — to help get her going in the right direction again. The former No.1 is only 25, but the carefree confidence and inexhaustible baseline game that she displayed in 2008 have largely disappeared and she doesn’t know whether she should be trying to win points quicker or go back to winning matches with her legs.

It’s unlikely that she’s going to win a Slam largely being speed demon, so really, she’s going to have to find a way to up the pace on her serve, forehand, and trust herself more at the net. But “JJ” is the epitome of a confidence player and if she continues to drop match after match in 2011, her self-belief will be in shambles and she’ll never return to the top five again.

Andy Roddick: Given that Roddick is one of the hardest workers on tour, it’s possible that he’ll still be a top-10 player in 2012, but the time is now for the 28-year-old to win that elusive second major. He had a disappointing year at the majors in 2010, completely underwhelming in every event except the Aussie Open, where injured he still nearly knocked off Marin Cilic in the quarters. Roddick had a long stretch of his career where he wasn’t dealing with sizable injuries, but that hasn’t been the case over the past two years and now he’s forced to look over his shoulder wondering when the trainer is going to have to visit again.

There is little now that he can do to improve his game other than manage his emotions and strategies better in big matches, as although he probably doesn’t want to hear this, he’s likely done all that he is physically capable of doing in improving in the weaker areas of his game (movement, backhand, return and net game) so now it’s a matter of maximizing his strengths when he confronts the tour’s Big 4. He showed in knocking off Nadal in Miami and nearly taking him out at the ATP Finals that he’s still capable of big-time tennis, but if he ends 2011 without being a second-week fixture at the Slams, the former No. 1 is going to seriously question whether he has the goods to play big-time ball again.

Mardy Fish: The U.S. coaching staff is highly excited about the 29-year-old’s prospects next year, with former Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe saying he can reach the top 10. That’s a reasonable expectation for a player who has gotten in top shape and cracked the top 20 again, but talent has never been Fish’s problem at the majors. The question is whether he can focus and has enough self-belief to be able to dismantle the big boys. He can get on an amazing hot streak with his serve-and-volley attack and precise backhand, but consistent, aggressive baseliners like Novak Djokovic trouble him.

At  29, this more than likely will be the last year that Fish can make a strong charge. If fellow American Robby Ginepri reached a Slam semifinal, Fish should be able to also and he’ll have three realistic chances at the Aussie Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He has to focus on imposing himself from start to finish, get down in the trenches and battle until his guts are hanging out. If he takes that type of Andy Roddick-attitude into the big moments, he’ll finally realize his potential. If not, he could walk away from his career disappointed.

Fernando Verdasco: In 2010, I really thought that Verdasco was going to make a hard charge toward the top five. He has a bullet of a serve and forehand, appears to be in great shape and is quite a shotmaker with his back against the wall. But he overplayed, got injured and consequently hurt himself at the majors. He’s 27 now and has a good two years of shelf life left, but just what happened to the mental fortitude that he displayed in leading Spain to the 2008 Davis Cup title and reaching the 2009 Aussie Open semis where he nearly knocked off Nadal?

Nando could be just one of those players who’s capable of a great match here and there but has trouble focusing day after day. With a little improvement to his backhand, his net game and his defense, he could be a major threat, but it’s quite possible that he doesn’t relish the battle like his countryman Nadal does. If he doesn’t make a major Slam run this year, he could descend out of the top 20.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Exactly how many knee and shoulder injuries is big Jo capable of sustaining? One has to think that with one more major injury, he’s going to have to think seriously of retiring, because even though he’s only 25, he’s suffered a decent-sized ailment annually since 2005 and can rarely seem to get enough quality matches in to be a consistent threat. Yes, he can serve volley and whale forehands, but his backhand and return of serve are marginal, and with the exception of his fantastic run to the 2008 Aussie Open finals, the longer he goes in majors, the more he seems to wear down.

The Frenchman’s talent is there, but he’s probably sick of hearing that and wants to some improved results from the work he puts in. Mentally, 2011 will be a defining season for him.

David Nalbandian: How many times have you heard that the Argentine is one of the most talented players on tour? One thousand? Without question, his two-handed backhand is one of the sweetest strokes on tour and he almost has a serve-and-return game to match, but like Tsonga, he’s constantly getting hurt and there is no reason to think he won’t again. 

Every elite player on tour has lost to the bullish Argentine, so he still carries a bit of a fear factor, but every guy in the locker room also knows if they can hang with him long enough that he’s capable of pulling a stomach muscle and retiring. The 28-year-old knows that the clock is ticking on his chances to reach another Slam final and 2002 Wimbledon (where he lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the final) seems like a very long time ago. If he doesn’t find a way to stay spry and directed in at least one 2011 major, you can kiss his Grand Slam hopes goodbye.