It’s taken two months, but the first act of 2007 is now complete. While that doesn’t quite bring us to the quarter mark of the season—it’s almost 11 months long, after all—it does make a convenient time for an initial assessment of some the major players and trends on tour. Here we go, from the star students to the biggest underachievers.
Serena Williams: A+
It’s hard to argue with a 15-1 record, titles at two big events, the Australian Open and Key Biscayne, and final-round wins over two different No. 1 players. Williams has done it with her best, most untouchable stuff (she likes to save it for Maria Sharapova, it seems), but she’s also done it with less than her best. Which has been more impressive, in a way—she’s shown again just what a competitor is in this sport. That by itself has made the entire tennis season more exciting.
Some fans seem to feel that Serena is not quite deserving, that she just relies on God-given talent. The guy who was accused of heckling her in Miami denied saying anything racially oriented, but he was happy to admit that he had called Serena “lazy,” as if that was totally understandable. When I hear this about Serena, I always think of John McEnroe. He was famous for hating to practice; when asked about his nutrition, he said he was on the “Haägan-Dazs diet”; and after losing a U.S. Open final to Ivan Lendl, he said he might “go lift a few weights” (few were convinced). But no one screamed at Johnny Mac that he was “lazy” when he was winning big tournaments; instead, he was celebrated for it. In the minds of fans, he was the pure tennis player and free spirit, while Lendl was the workaholic drone. The less McEnroe did off court, the more he was respected for what he did on it. We may not owe Serena more respect for her work habits (whatever they may be), but we certainly don’t owe her less.
Roger Federer: A
Sire Jacket has done what he set out to do, winning the year’s only Slam. He even went a step further and did it without losing a set. Then he skipped Davis Cup for some commercial duties and was brought to earth by Guillermo Cañas in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. He played poorly in the first of those matches and looked tight in the second. Now there’s a sense that at least he isn’t utterly invincible—which makes it feel like a whole new season on the men’s side. But even in losing, he provided us with two of the most exciting matches of the season so far, and he was gracious in defeat both times.
Novak Djokovic: A
We seem to have a new star on our hands. Djokovic makes it all look easy, from the uncluttered strokes to the tempered aggression with which he plays each point. Even his vicious kick serve is silky smooth. More important, he combines all that with a fierce desire to win as often as possible, and a healthy lack of contentment. He could have coasted after reaching his first Masters final, in Indian Wells, but he learned from his loss to Rafael Nadal there and came back to beat him for the first time in Miami. I just wish I enjoyed his game as much as I admire it.
Rafael Nadal: A-
Nadal has simultaneously come down a notch this year and reaffirmed his status as the world’s second-best—that shows how much distance there was last season between he and Federer and the rest of the field. Just when it looked like there might be a dozen guys who could beat Nadal on any day, he rolled through the draw at Indian Wells, mowing down both Djokovic and world No. 3 Andy Roddick along the way. While he no longer resides with Federer in the stratosphere, Nadal's confidence has stablilized going into the meat of his season, the clay circuit. Unfortunately, he also pulled out of what could have been a barn-burner of a Davis Cup tie with the U.S.
Andy Murray: A-
Like Djokovic, the tempermental Scot has been getting better by the week. He played the match of the year against Nadal in Australia, won in San Jose, and reached two Masters semis. With Brad Gilbert behind him, he’s turning into a reliable performer. Except when he isn’t. Murray has lost twice to Djoko in dispiriting fashion this spring. His mental fragility and pessimism may always leave him vulnerable to the odd disaster, matches where his confidence, which is shaky even on his best days, simply collapses. Still, his game is the most interesting around right now.
Justine Henin: B+
The little fighter showed a human side by putting her personal life ahead of her tennis life, at least for one tournament, when she skipped the Australian Open to deal with marital troubles. But she was able to shut it out again right away, bouncing back to win in Dubai and Doha. Still, in her biggest moment of the year, she blinked, playing tentatively when she tried to serve out the Key Biscayne final against Serena Williams.
Fernando Gonzalez: B+
He played the tennis of his life to reach the final Down Under, but has looked a little burnt recently. Perhaps a case of too many matches too early. His newfound base of consistency should serve him well on clay.
Andy Roddick: B+
Roddick has done the opposite of Nadal in 2007: He’s upped his level a notch and regained a lot of his confidence, but the end result is that he’s proven he’s nowhere near the two best players in the world, both of whom have given him serious beatdowns. He gets a half-grade bonus for ending the U.S. Davis Cup team’s decade-long run of clay futility.
Guillermo Cañas: B+
With Serena, he's made tennis exciting the last few weeks, showing that Federer can be beaten if you can hold your nerve—and never miss a shot. A lot of other guys could learn from his grit and deep committment to every point. Are his wins tainted by his drug suspension? While the positive test is reason for suspicion, I have no problem enjoying his success. He's done his time, and his scrappy, almost rec style is fun to watch.
WTA On-court Coaching: B
The once-per-set experiment may not be enough to affect many matches, but it makes for good TV. When the rule was made, did anyone think it would give Richard Williams a second chance at stardom? He’s still smart, and still funny—did he really tell Serena to hit to Sharapova’s backhand so she could get some practice for her next match?
James Blake: B-
Did he overschedule early, like Gonzo, or is he just destined to have streaks where he can’t find his game? Both. He’s looked lost in his last two matches—fast Davis Cup courts this weekend may be the cure. But I don’t think I’d bet on it right now.
Etienne de Villiers: C
I’m not ready to throw the ATP chairman overboard, but he handled the round-robin situation about as badly as possible, trying it too soon and then amending its rules on the fly. He’s also threatened to suspend top players for withdrawals—bad idea—and is working on overhauling the Masters structure—good idea.Of course, this being tennis, he’s already being sued for that good idea, by the Hamburg Masters tournament director, who will likely see his event downgraded. It’s a tough job; hopefully de Villiers will learn how to do it soon enough to implement a few needed changes.
The Roger-Tiger Friendship: D
It was cool, and extremely unexpected, to see a tennis player acknowledged alongside Tiger for a while. But now the synergistic “friendship” is getting tired, as are their canned compliments about each other. We get it, you’re both awesome.
Kim Clijsters: D
Quitting at her peak was odd, but quitting her own farewell tour is just perverse. It's clear she doesn't care about tennis; how much can we care about her?