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Roundtable: Tennis, we give thanks

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Jon Wertheim: We bestow thanks on Andrea Petkovic and her outré Petkorazzi alter ego -- both for the delightfully wacky content and the proof that expressing some color and creativity and downright weirdness can have a salutary affect on an athlete's career. We thank the Indo-Pak Express (Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Qureshi) for everything they represent. We thank Nicolas Mahut for his persistence; Donald Young for his newfound maturity; Maria Kirilenko for her newfound net game; Milos Raonic for his future; Petra Kvitova for her strong finish; Andre Agassi for being Andre Agassi; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for staying classy; Serena Williams for her pathological fondness for drama and assuring tennis is never boring; BNP for the financial largesse; Gael Monfils for his showmanship; Sloane Stephens and Ivo Karlovic for their tweets; Istanbul for showing other WTA destinations how it's done; ASAPsports for its transcription excellence; and fans globally for their continued interest in the sport when television "partners" are so often fickle lovers.

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.

Bruce Jenkins: I give thanks for my father's good taste. He was a prominent musician who had worked intimately with some big personalities -- Al Jolson, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, to name a few -- and he was an admirer of special talent. When the barnstorming tennis professionals came to the Los Angeles Sports Arena in the late 1950s, he made sure I got a look at Pancho Gonzalez, to this day the most charismatic player I've ever seen.

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.

Bryan Armen Graham: My estimable colleague Jon Wertheim often bemoans that tennis markets its past at the expense of its present, and he's right. But I'm thankful for right here and right now. For stylistic contrarians like Francesca Schiavone and tortured artists like Andy Murray. For the palpable menace of Serena Williams and indomitable spirit of James Blake. I'm thankful for Andy Roddick's gallows humor, Sloane Stephens' Twitter feed and Bethanie Mattek-Sands' cornucopian wardrobe. For Oracene. And I'm supremely grateful for Tennis Channel, the cable network that's long punched above its weight, beaming the action from previously unwatchable events at far-flung Tour stops into our living rooms. Casual fans can (and do) wax nostalgic for Evert-Navratilova, McEnroe-Borg and the '90s heyday of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang. But only in the globalized game of 2011 can you watch a Nietzsche-reading Serb (Janko Tipsarevic) trade 120-mph serves with a 6-foot-10 moonlighting rapper (Ivo Karlovic) live from Tokyo at 4 a.m. local time -- and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Courtney Nguyen: I'm thankful for tennis' ability to surprise and create new and interesting narratives out of nowhere. The unpredictability makes for fun, lively and endless debates among fans and pundits. Of course, the story of the year has been Novak Djokovic's sudden and stratospheric rise to the top while accomplishing feats that most would have deemed impossible at the start of the year. In topping Rafael Nadal six times in finals, including twice on clay, and going 4-1 against Federer, with two victories at Slams, the odd man out became the man to beat. A year ago we were all wondering if Djokovic had the heart and health to break the duopoly at the top. It took a matter of months for the Serb to rewrite the static script.

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.

David Dusek: We give thanks that the United States Tennis Association has embraced 10 And Under Tennis. And by "We" I mean every parent in America who has a kid who dreams of one day being the next Roger or Rafa or Maria. Or at lease beating Dad.

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.

Drew Lawrence: We give thanks that tennis finally gave us a handful of matches between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal this year. Their four meetings in 2011 are the most in three years, and the pride and history between these two competitors still keeps this rivalry spicy. Even if Nadal's inability to crack the Djkovic Riddle commanded the headlines, it's delightful to see Federer trading haymakers with Nadal in the French Open final or felling him to the canvas in the Tour Finals, periodically flashing the kind of form that reminds you that the Greatest of All-Time is very much still playing in our time.

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.