Roundtable: Tennis, we give thanks
But let's use this opportunity to give the most thanks in 2011 to Novak Djokovic, who is 70-5 this year. Djokovic possesses neither the flair and sophistication of Federer, nor the conspicuous pugnacity and sidewinding lefty-funkadelic game of Nadal. Thus his season -- ostentatiously excellent as it has been -- still hasn't gotten quite the credit it warrants. Let's be clear: Even after Djokovic's autumn fatigue, this ranks as one of the great seasons of all time. Prepositions, please: He's won around the globe, on all surfaces, under various circumstances, with two of the five all-time greats -- Federer and Nadal, of course -- as contemporaries. His record at Grand Slams is 26-1. From break points converted to first serves won, his statistics are exceptional. You might prefer the personality of other players. You might be more inclined to like the aesthetics of others. You can raise a skeptical eye after his various withdrawals and rash of injuries. But everyone has to concede that Djokovic was the runaway star of 2011. And for that, we ought to be grateful.
I was just a kid, but I'll never forget the fire, the presence, the elegant shotmaking ability. In retrospect, he was a veritable Anthony Quinn out there, a dashing warrior commanding everyone's attention, and in that sense he stood apart from Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and other highly temperamental players of future generations. Those guys drew genuine hatred from a tradition-minded sector wishing they'd just get out of tennis for good. Pancho could be annoying, perhaps a bit insufferable at times, but nobody wanted him to go away.
As the years went on, I came to grasp the measure of Gonzalez' place in tennis history -- the greatest of them all, some said. But he was only part of the show in those barnstorming days. I saw the great Rod Laver, and believe me, nothing in today's game quite compares to the sight of Laver rushing the net at every opportunity, flying about the court in a whirlwind, owner of every shot in the book. But my experience was no more special than any kid's first look at greatness, be it Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf or Roger Federer. That's the beauty of tennis, a sport that offers immediate insight into a player's style, countenance and competitiveness under pressure. You can trust your eyes in this sport, and those early glimpses forge devotion for a lifetime.
Then, of course, you had the roulette wheel that was the WTA, where, again, narratives (read: champions) sprung up from nowhere. From Li Na's incredible French Open run, to Petra Kvitova's emergence as Wimbledon winner and top young talent, to Sam Stosur's upset of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, I love tennis' ability to change its landscape at seemingly breakneck speed. Every week offers a new opportunity to write (or rewrite) your career. Even now, I'm sitting in London watching Janko Tipsarevic take on Tomas Berdych. Tipsarevic, the man who always played second fiddle to Djokovic in Serbian tennis, won the first title of his career last month, went on a tremendous run and now finds himself under the bright lights at the O2 Arena alongside the best players in the world. With so many ever-changing storylines, tennis is the best year-long soap opera in sports.
The program gets kids excited about the game by shrinking the court down to their size. Even better, it encourages coaches to use slower-flying, lower-bouncing tennis balls that keep that action at a pace kids can handle. As the students' skills increase, coaches increase the size of the court and introduce a ball that bounces a little higher and flies a little faster.
The best part about the program is that it works. My 7-year-old son now regularly sustains six-, eight- and 10-hit rallies in his group lessons using the green-and-yellow 78-foot ball. He's talked to me about wanting to play tournaments, likes watching tennis on TV, and one morning held me to a foolish promise to take him to the courts at 6:30 a.m. so he could hit some balls before school started.
There are three Americans men ranked in the top 20. In the late '80s and early '90s when I was a college player, there were often three Americans ranked in the top five. We were spoiled by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Todd Martin. All of us want to keep growing the game at the recreational level and develop a richer pipeline of potential pros, so we should be thankful for programs like 10 And Under Tennis because, for a lot of future players, this is going to be where it all begins. Now pass the cranberry sauce.
We give thanks that tennis has produced so many champions in the women's game in '11. Sure, the sport tends to function more smoothly under a dictatorship than in a coalition, but such was the case in a year that featured four different Slam winners. Instead of bemoaning the power vacuum, we should relish the variety in these titlists. Kim Clijsters is an old story but -- as she proved while cruising to her fourth major at the Australian Open -- still a classic. Melbourne also introduced us to Li Na, revealing her as perhaps one of the funniest people walking the earth. ("Take my husband, please!") Four months later in Paris she was revealed as one of the toughest while claiming her first major. Petra Kvitova, who won her first Slam at Wimbledon, was a breath of fresh air and could potentially be a regular atop the rankings. Sam Stosur, Australia's great hope, overcame Lyme disease, anxious expectations Down Under, as well as the considerable noise off and on the court in her Slam breakthrough at the U.S. Open. Face it: The women's game features the kind of parity that NBA fans long for -- when they're not longing for their sport to come back. Until it does, why not watch a little tennis while you wait? I think you'll find the game has much to offer and even more to appreciate.