Best of Three: Rafa retuns, Stosur survives, playoff fever strikes

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1. Rafa returns: Clay season is upon us, which, of course, means it's time for Rafael Nadal to reduce the rest of the field to rubble. Never mind that he'd failed to win a title in nearly a year and looked a smidge off -- "Like 87 percent Rafa," a friend estimated -- in the first four months of 2010. Nadal was up to his old domina-tricks last week in Monte Carlo, winning the title for the sixth (!) straight year and nearly double-bageling two opponents including Fernando Verdasco in the final. As we saw last year on the middle Sunday of the French Open, anything can happen on any given day. But if Nadal stays injury-free and sustains anything close to this level of tennis over the next two months, he's your favorite at Roland Garros again.

2. Same song, different verse: Let's imagine you're the promoter of the Charleston tournament. You run a well-regarded event in one of the truly great cities in America. You have a loyal title sponsor in Family Circle. You pay a fat sanction fee to the WTA, but that's OK because, in return, you're lavished with a fine field of players. This year, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were the headliners. Alas, neither of them could make it because of injuries. That's a shame, but there were other headliners. Like the defending champ, Sabine Lisicki, who charmed the city in 2009. What's that? She was also a non-starter. Well, there were other top 10 players. Like Viktoria Azarenka, Caroline Woznaicki and Marion Bartoli. Oh, wait they all had to retire mid-match with injuries, too. (We chuckle at reports that the irony-deprived the DJ played "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" as Wozniacki took treatment for an ankle injury.) In the end, Sam Stosur beat Vera Zvonareva. Quite literally, they were last two standing. It's tired issue, yes. But the emperor (and empress) continues to wear new clothes: an ice pack and Ace bandage. For all the hands wrung over tier designation and roadmaps and Brave New Worlds and Wayne Odesnik, this should be priority number one. If the top players are insufficiently healthy to compete with any regularity, the whole enterprise is in trouble.

3. Opening up the field: The USTA tends to get beaten up pretty good out there in Tennis Land -- unsurprising perhaps, given the massive U.S. Open profits and staggeringly high salaries coupled with the dearth of American pros in the pipeline. But, increasingly of late, the organization has been getting it right. The website is fantastic; so much so it's become a model for other sports organizations. Pat McEnroe has brought a measure of credibility and accountability to junior development. Most recently, the U.S. Open National Playoffs concept -- whereby winners are granted a wild card into the men's and women's U.S Open qualifying draws -- is an outright winner. Play kicked off over the weekend and the winners will be crowned during the first events of the U.S. Open Series this July. Two suggestions for next year:Expand this to doubles and partner with the Tennis Channel to turn it into a reality show!