Sunday, December 17, 2017

Could 2018 be even stranger than 2017?

Photo by Daniel Ward
2017 was a year of constant surprises. Will 2018 be more "normal," or will it also be a year of "who would have thought?" I say expect the unexpected, yet again. Here's why:

Serena Williams, while she may be tennis's version of Wonder Woman, missed almost an entire season. She also had a baby, which I know is not of itself a hindrance--consider both Evonne Goolagong and Kim Clijsters--but because she has a new baby, she is very tired. She also isn't young, in tennis terms. None of these factors, on its own, has much meaning when we're dealing with someone of Serena's extreme mental and physical fitness. However, taken together, they present a potential obstacle.

Do I think this multi-faceted obstacle will present Serena from winning a major? Not necessarily. But it is likely to inhibit her.

Vika Azarenka is back (at least for now), and while it's difficult to imagine that she can pick up right away where she left off, she is still likely to spoil some good times for other talented player. When Azarenka is "on," she can go after anybody.

And there are so many players with big (or at least medium-sized) question marks above their heads:

Karolina Pliskova: She has yet to win a major, but it could happen at any time, except perhaps, during the French Open. Pliskova is low-key and focused. She goes about building her career in a deliberate, Kerber-like, way that should serve her well. Pliskova has already experienced playing in a major final; it would be no surprise if she reaches another one--and wins it--this coming season.

And speaking of....

Angie Kerber: Considering her talent and her accomplishments, she has no way to go but up from her 2017 level. And while no one I know is expecting Kerber to have another 2016, it isn't fair to toss her into a corner marked "aberration." The German played her heart out in 2016, yes, but she was able to reach a very lofty height because of planning, determination and a willingness to change. At least keep an eye on her.

Petra Kvitova: Kvitova is slowly regaining the feeling in her left hand. Her 2017 performances were nothing less than remarkable, under the circumstances. I know my heart refuses to push me in any other direction, but I really do have a good feeling about 2018 Petra; I'm expecting some very nice results.

Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's return to the tour looked good, also. Her serve reflected the Maria serve of years earlier, and the fire was still there. I like her prospects for 2018, also, though it may take playing some more matches before she's fully comfortable. More than anyone, with Sharapova, if the serve is solid, good things happen.

Simona Halep: She's the world number 1. For some players, that designation causes anxiety; for Halep, it may create confidence. Is 2018 the year that she finally wins the French Open? It's quite possible. Or she may surprise us and win another major. As long as someone can calm her down (Amelie Mauresmo, I have a job for you!), Halep can swing freely and believe in herself.

Caroline Wozniacki: The arc of the Dane's career makes me think of the old "Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football" routine. She goes off the track, gets distracted, disappoints her fans, then suddenly launches into offensive play and climbs back up the rankings. Then, just when fans' expectations are peaking, she takes several steps back. This has been going on for a very long time, and there are a lot of fans and commentators who are happy to play the role of Charlie Brown. I would be surprised if the pattern changes.

Alona Ostapenko: My only question about the player Todd Spiker calls Latvian Thunder is: How is her coaching going? If Ostapenko is busy learning some finesse and developing some feel about the court and her shot selection, then watch out. (If she isn't, watch out anyway.) Ostapenko possesses the power of a giant and the resiliance of a child. As I write this, she's participating in a ballroom dance competition, and the grace required to do that has already helped her on the court, and could help her even more in the future. If ever there were a player to watch, it's our new star from Latvia. Watch her serve, watch her hit groundstrokes, watch her move her rubber, Jankovic-like body. And watch her face. There's never been a player quite like her.

Venus Williams: Williams's 2017 was nothing short of amazing.  With everything she's been through, reaching two major finals was quite an accomplishment. Does she have another year like that in her? She just may.

Other players whose 2018 fates hold my interest are Carolina Garcia, Johanna Konta, Elina Svitolina, Julia Goerges, Kiki Mladenovic, Belinda Bencic, Ash Barty, Madison Keys, Dasha Kasatkina,
and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens. A year ago, I was especially intrigued by Svitolina. I still am, but I'm perhaps even more intrigued by the progress of Garcia.

Someone who doesn't have a question mark over her head, in my opinion, is Garbine Muguruza. She had a big one during part of 2017, but once she won her second major (on a completely different surface from her first one), she removed my doubts. Yes, I think we'll see her "Mugu" around the court for much of her career, but we'll also see her take home huge trophies. When Muguruza is at her best, she's calm, fluid, and completely in charge.