Great year for Nadal but Serena leaves vacuum

LONDON, (Reuters) – A year that began with doubts  over Rafael Nadal’s body and continued with worries over Roger  Federer’s head ended with both men at the peak of their powers  and promising some juicy new chapters of their rivalry in 2011.

Rafael Nadal

The sight of the two greatest players of their generation  jousting on opposite sides of the net at London’s O2 Arena as  the men’s season came to a spectacular conclusion was a  heart-warming one for fans the world over.

A paltry four meetings between the Spaniard and the Swiss in  the past two years has left tennis followers feeling slightly  short-changed but as the Australian Open looms both are eager to  square off for the major prizes.

With Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, fresh from leading his country  to a first Davis Cup title against France, British shot-maker  Andy Murray and Sweden’s Robin Soderling posing genuine threats,  the men’s game heads into the new year in rude health.

Shame then that the women’s game is in a state of flux.

Serena Williams won the 2010 Australian Open and then  claimed a 13th grand slam title at Wimbledon before treading on  broken glass in a Munich restaurant in July. She has not played  since and the Tour needs her back.

Williams had been the dominant personality on the WTA Tour  and her absence has left a vacuum that the new generation of  baseline belters are not yet ready to fill.

Denmark’s 20-year-old Caroline Wozniacki ended the year as  world number one almost by default. All eyes will be on her to  win her maiden grand slam title in Australia where a  still-struggling Williams will not be defending her crown.

Vera Zvonareva reached the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals  but the Russian world number two could walk through most city  centres without attracting a second glance.

With Serena injured and sister Venus now the other side of  30, 2011 could be prime time for Belgians Kim Clijsters and  Justine Henin to regain a stranglehold on the game.

RETIREMENT U-TURN

Clijsters retained the U.S. Open title she won the previous  year months after returning to the Tour as a mother and Henin,  who also made a retirement U-turn to rejoin the Tour in January,  reached the Australian Open final, losing to Serena.

Henin was tipped to take the French Open by storm and win a  fifth title at Roland Garros but crashed in the quarter-finals  to Australia’s Samantha Stosur, her first defeat there since  2004.

Veteran Francesca Schiavone beat Stosur in a superb final to  become, at nearly 30, the first Italian woman to win a grand  slam singles title — stunning proof that women’s tennis is no  longer a playground for teenagers.

Schiavone completed a memorable year by helping Italy to a  third Fed Cup title in five years.

Serena Williams

The men’s game is not flush with new faces either. There are no teenagers in the top 100 but, thankfully, the  quality of the cream at the top persists. Nadal’s year was simply phenomenal.

After ending 2009 short of confidence and form, with  concerns about his knees, the 24-year-old Mallorcan caught fire  during the claycourt season and blazed a trail back to the top  of the rankings in devastating fashion.

In March, he slipped to fourth in the rankings, then, in  May, he snapped an 11-month title drought by winning the Monte  Carlo Masters for a sixth consecutive time — demolishing  Fernando Verdasco 6-0 6-1 in the final.Suddenly the demons vanished and he swept to victory in Rome  and Madrid before regaining his French Open crown with an  emotional win over Soderling at Roland Garros. Unstoppable, Nadal roared to a second Wimbledon title and  then won the U.S. Open for the first time, beating Djokovic in  the final.
In doing so he became the youngest man to win a career slam.

CONFIDENCE CRISIS

Nadal’s return to number one in the rankings coincided with  Federer’s crisis of confidence.

The Swiss was overpowered by Soderling on a soggy claycourt  in the quarter-finals of the French Open, ending a run of 23  consecutive grand slam semi-final appearances.

Worse was to follow.

At Wimbledon, scene of six of his 16 grand slam titles, he  almost lost to Colombian firebrand Alejandro Falla in the first  round. Trailing by two sets in front of a disbelieving Centre  Court crowd, the Swiss was at 4-4 0-40 down in the third before  somehow digging himself out of a hole. He admitted his escape was due to luck more than good play  but there was no let-off in the quarter-finals when big-hitting  Czech Tomas Berdych put him to the sword. “It took me a little bit to get over not regaining the  Wimbledon crown, not being in the Wimbledon finals for I don’t  even know how many years,” Federer said.

“That was a bit of a different feeling. But my feeling was  always that I was going to come back strong after Wimbledon.”

Federer linked up with Paul Annacone, former coach of Pete  Sampras and, while he lost to an inspired Djokovic in the U.S.  Open semi-finals having missed two match points, he quickly  rebounded to go 23-3 in the final months of the season.

“I think the men’s game is at an absolute high right now  with a lot of exciting games being played, with a lot of  respect,” Federer looking ahead to 2011.

“I think having had me and Rafa both making the career grand  slam already at a young age is great for the game. We’re  obviously playing not only for ourselves and beating the other  guys, but also for history.”

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