Monday January 3rd, 2011

Ten things I'd like to see as the 2011 tennis year unfolds:

1. Serena Williams comes back in top shape. She's the first to admit that she's not Venus, that she puts on weight easily, that her body type is best described as "bootylicious." But Serena confounded many critics in the past, when she returned from layoffs and immediately regained her dominance. This absence -- from mid-summer 2010 all the way to March -- presents the biggest conditioning challenge of her career.

2. Roger Federer continues his rush to the net. It has been a subtle change, never presenting itself in all-encompassing form, but Federer has come to realize that his net game compares to anyone's in tennis -- and could rightfully match Stefan Edberg's or Patrick Rafter's if he made it a centerpiece. By the end of last year, with considerable influence from coach Paul Annacone, Federer was crushing people with put-away volleys. It would be nice to see him escalate this part of his game at the majors (except the French, of course).

3. Change in the men's hierarchy: Juan Martin Del Potro in, Tomas Berdych out. It may be a while before Del Potro fully regains form -- think back to his victory over Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final -- but whenever that happens, he'll be a dynamic presence. Berdych, while extremely talented, is just wasting our time. He destroys lesser players on pure ability, then can't summon the mental strength to finish the job in big events.

4. A rain-free U.S. Open. Recent years have lent the impression that those Atlantic-coast hurricanes torment Flushing Meadows every year, and that there's a desperate need for a roof over (or a radically restructured) Ashe Stadium. In truth, over the past 30 years, there have been idyllic U.S. Opens in which the searing summer heat gives way to a fresh autumn breeze and there isn't a single rainout. We're overdue for one of those.

5. Those tormented Andys -- Roddick and Murray -- show there's more to their big-event presence than meets the eye. Yes, it would be nice, but I can't see it. Murray can't stay in search-and-destroy mode for more than a few days, because it's simply not his nature. Roddick has long battled the limitations of his game when he meets the top players on the biggest stage, and it's hard to envision a miraculous resurrection this late in his career.

6. As much exposure as humanly possible for Francesca Schiavone. She has so much to offer the younger generation: spirit, panache, a sense of truly enjoying herself on court, and a heavy dose of old-school variety in her game. SI.com's Bryan Graham made Schiavone his nomination for Sportsman of the Year, and I couldn't have agreed more.

7. From the younger generation, continued progress from Victoria Azarenka and Aravene Rezai. With most up-and-comers on the women's tour, you've forgotten their performances -- even the dramatic ones -- within moments of their conclusion. These two mix a lot of fire and energy with their powerful groundstrokes.

8. Better timing from Novak Djokovic. He never seemed to come through when it mattered, often citing physical ailments, and just when we were literally one stroke away from a Federer-Rafael Nadal final at the U.S. Open, Djokovic stole it away. The man showed big progress by leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title (and since we're on that topic, let's see more inspirational play from Viktor Troicki).

9. Dream matchups. Nadal-Gael Monfils at the French Open, Maria Sharapova-Justine Henin at Wimbledon, Kim Clijsters-Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, Nadal-Federer anywhere.

10. Enough of the December exhibitions, especially as they involve the top players. If Nadal claims that the ATP makes a "big error" by extending the season so deep into autumn, he needs to shut down his personal calendar after the year-end championships and take a significant break or two along the way.

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