Monday, December 31, 2007

Players To Watch In 2008

by Craig Hickman

The off-season is simply not long enough. It seems like just yesterday I penned my 2007 review and it's already time to look ahead to the 2008 season.

Someone recently asked me if I do any overall predictions for the year. Not exactly. I guess you could say I do anti-predictions such as the no brainer that no one will win the Golden Slam on either tour in 2008. But that's about as far as I'll go. There are simply too many unknowns and variables to try with any solid reasoning to predict the winners of, say, the US Open. Roger Federer, of course, would be good money, but he's got to lose it sooner or later, no? And one would think that with the Olympics in the mix, he'd much rather take an Olympic Gold than his fifth US Open title, if he had to choose between the two, and with them being so close together, that's exactly what he might have to do. Which is all a long, drawn-out way of saying that my preview of next calendar's tennis will focus solely on a select list of players to watch. Without further ado:


Ernests Gulbis made noise at the US Open last summer with his straight-set demolition of Tommy Robredo in the third round. His smooth game, excellent court craft and pinpoint strokes off both sides would appear to make him someone who could compete on every surface. He's young, though, and his head isn't always screwed on. Let's see if he can continue to make waves after putting Latvia on the tennis map.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was my pick for Outstanding Newcomer on the ATP in 2007. Sure, he's in his early 20s already, but his young career has been halted by injuries. If he can remain healthy in 2008, I think he'll make a deep run at Wmbledon and/or the US Open.

Richard Gasquet seems to believe, finally, that he belongs in the top of men's tennis, thanks in large part to his epic come-from-behind win against Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year. But can his fragile constitution see him through to his first Slam semifinal in 2008? Stay tuned.

David Ferrer had one of the hottest streaks to end 2007. Simply put: can he keep it up? With the plexicushion playing even slower than Rebound Ace, he needs to carry his momentum straight into Melbourne and let the world know he's not satisfied with his new status in the Top 5.

Novak Djokovic could experience the most pressure of any Top 10 player next year. He has to defend a truckload of points, and since he still believes his own hype, the pressure to deliver on it will rise like the mercury Down Under. As it is, he's skipping his title defense in Adelaide to play Hopman Cup, and while the Next Generation International isn't a big enough event to lose him a ton of points, he won't have a tour title heading into Melbourne. On the other hand, he ought to be better rested to contend on the cushy stuff.

David Nalbandian didn't exactly come out of nowhere to end 2007 with his first two regular Masters Series shields, beating the top dogs to take them both. He's always played well in Australia, so if he continues his form, I expect his entire 2008 campaign include contending at all four Slams and maybe, just maybe, even winning his first.

Donald Young is the youngest player in the Top 100 and his all-court game has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 12 months. If he can believe in himself, as his coach and mother tell him he's gotta do, he can have a breakthrough year.

John Isner has been already dismissed as overhyped because of his lackluster performances on the challenger circuit. Lest we forget, however, he won several matches over the summer 7-6 in the third and won a tiebreak set against Raja at the US Open. Perhaps the challenger circuit just isn't high-stakes enough for America's answer to Ivo Karlovic. And he's six years younger. I say we give him a chance before writing him off as too much hype.

Nicolas Kiefer came back strong from injury to remind us why he was once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world. Another player who produces Down Under, the first quarter of 2008 will be crucial. If he stays healthy, I expect him to cause a surprise or two at Wimbledon.

Juan Monaco took Most Improved Gonads for 2007. A great athlete with a warrior attitude, the Argentine could start the year strong in Melbourne and follow that up with a deep run at Roland Garros.


Li Na was poised for a solid campaign to enter the Top 10 when she had to leave the tour with a rib injury. But she'll be back in January with a new lease on life. Always my favorite Chinese up-and-comer, probably because I find her story so fascinating, Li may take awhile to get back into the second week of a Slam, but her storyline will be worth watching.

Agnes Szavay has a fluid game, the heart of a champion, and a bad back. Which will prevail in 2008?

Tamira Paszek needs a better serve. If she found one during the off-season, she could win her first WTA title and make another second-week appearance in a Slam.

Amelie Mauresmo came back too soon from abdominal surgery last year. Has she fully recovered? Will she return to the winner's circle or regress to choker extraordinaire? Will she finally shake her demons in front of her home crowd?

Serena Williams couldn't get her body to stop betraying her will for the last three quarters of 2007. If she can run, she can beat all comers. Will she be able to run ragged her opponents in 2008 or will her flesh be weak?

Linday Davenport has committed to playing a full schedule through the US Open. Who knows, she may even play in Paris again. Wouldn't it be lovely to see a another mother win a Slam?

Monica Seles claims she'll play at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne. Nuff said.

Anna Chakvetadze is either going to solidify her Top 10 status or crash and burn. How insightful, no? But for real, though. If she can avoid Maria Sharapova at big events, she should do well. Of course this assumes that she can put the trauma of being tied up in a home robbery behind her and get off to a solid start in Melbourne where she's a defending quarterfinalist.

Marion Bartoli is controversial, talented, and targeted. She would certainly prefer more tournaments on grass. After finishing the year in the Top 10 for the first time in her career, she'll have to recover from a year-end double bagel at the hands of the woman she shocked in the Wimbledon semifinals. I don't think she's going to fall off as much as many others, but that might just be because I like her.

Ahsha Rolle appearing on this list will probably make you raise an eyebrow. Or two. Simply put: I like the variety in the American's game, the fire in her eyes, the way she handled her business at the US Open this past summer. Nobody expected her to beat Tatiana Golovin in the first round. Perhaps 2008 will bring a few more surprises for this player under the radar.

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