Having celebrated the most noteworthy accomplishments of this season, we now turn towards those who will approach 2011 determined to erase the memories of 2010.  Don’t worry if your favorite player lands on this list, for they find themselves in extremely exclusive company amidst five Slam champions, three former #1s…and one sheepish-looking GOAT.

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland breaks between sets during the men's singles Final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 6, 2008 in London, England.

Federer:  With a majestic dismissal of longtime nemesis Murray at the Australian Open, the Swiss legend once again seemed the monarch of all he surveyed.  But his Melbourne momentum melted away like a snowball in the Australian summer, leaving behind an unsightly puddle.  At the Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami, Federer suffered uncharacteristic, eerily similar defeats to Baghdatis and Berdych after holding match points on both occasions.  Neither the Cypriot nor the Czech had defeated the world #1 before, so their triumphs perceptibly emboldened their peers.  Before the season reached its midpoint, even moderately sharp-toothed sharks had sighted the blood in the water and converged upon the figure who once had terrorized them with a casual flick of his well-coiffed hair.  Amidst defeats to players like Montanes and Hewitt, the highlight of Federer’s clay and grass campaigns came with a charge to the Madrid final—where he whiffed a routine forehand on the last point.  In addition to the #1 ranking, Swiss master’s streaks tumbled in swift succession, from his 23 consecutive Slam semifinals and eight consecutive Slam finals to his seven consecutive Wimbledon finals, six consecutive US Open finals, and seven consecutive seasons of winning either Wimbledon or the US Open.  Stirring to life in the second half under the guidance of Paul Annacone, Federer exacted a measure of revenge from Berdych and Baghdatis during the US Open Series.  Nevertheless, he would lose two more encounters after holding match points, including a demoralizing, often absent-minded loss to Djokovic in New York.  Salvaging some dignity at the year-end championships, the 16-time major champion scored a crucial victory over Nadal that may have reinvigorated him for 2011.  And a first Christmas with his new family should dull the disappointments suffered by this unflinching perfectionist.

Del Potro:  Through no fault of his own, the 2009 US Open champion became the single greatest disappointment of 2010 when a nagging injury curtailed his season after Australia.  At the year’s first major, his uninspired performance bore scant resemblance to the fearlessness with which he had dismantled Nadal and Federer in New York.  Into the silence surrounding the Argentine’s status seeped malicious rumors on his psychological condition, which lingered longer than he would have wished.  A few aborted comebacks behind him, Del Potro launched an unconvincing return in the fall before choosing to regroup and reload for 2011.  Thrilled by his sensational fortnight at the US Open, one hopes that he can challenge the hegemony of the top 5 once again.

Cilic:  After beginning 2010 with a 15-1 record that included two titles and the Australian Open semifinal, the latest Croatian tower of power recorded just a 25-21 record over the rest of 2010.  Unlike Del Potro, he lacked an injury alibi as his serve and forehand wandered capriciously out of his grasp.  Cilic proved in Melbourne that he can muster the courage and fortitude to compete at the elite level, battling through three five-setters en route to the best Slam performance of his career thus far.  After a listless loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at Indian Wells, however, his season slowly disintegrated as foes such as Montanes, Seppi, Florian Mayer, and Andreas Haider-Maurer conquered an opponent who should have pulverized them with ease.  Deflated by a tepid summer, Cilic endured a five-set loss to the promising but limited Kei Nishikori at the US Open, where the Croat had upset Murray just one year before.  While he has too much talent to lie dormant for long, this extended period of stagnation (or worse) should invite him to address technical issues such as his awkwardly timed forehand swing.

Davydenko:  Like Federer, he began 2010 in sublime style before sagging thereafter.  A champion at last year’s World Tour Finals, the Russian battled past both of the top two in Doha before entering Melbourne as the trendy choice to win a maiden major.  For a set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, Davydenko’s stock soared higher than ever as he made the Swiss demigod look mortal with his crisp, breathless groundstrokes.  Offered a chance to establish a stranglehold upon the reigning #1, however, he shrank from the occasion in spectacular style by dropping the next 13 games.  Several weeks and an Indian Wells wrist injury later, his season slid inexorably downhill with several losses to players outside the top 50 and almost no pairs of consecutive victories until the fall, when he scored his first top-10 win since Australia over the wallowing Berdych.  Now adrift outside the top 20, Davydenko aims to recapture his former glory in 2011, but time is not on his side.  One senses that the Russian’s peak lies behind him.

Venus:  Winning 18 of her first 19 matches, the elder Williams sister defended titles in Dubai and Acapulco, reached the Miami final, and appeared in the second week of every major.  So why does Venus find herself in this disreputable neighborhood?  Unable to harness either her serve or her groundstrokes for a prolonged period, she unleashed a torrent of double faults and unforced errors during her loss to Li Na at the Australian Open, where the Chinese star proved all too willing a partner in crime.  Scattered across that 18-1 period, in fact, were early-match or mid-match meltdowns that Venus often escaped through the frailties of her opponents rather than her own excellence.  For example, we recall her three-set meeting with Hantuchova in Miami, a quasi-unwatchable quagmire that even the Slovak’s leggy charms couldn’t save.  Whatever had happened to Venus elsewhere, though, grass always had remained her refuge.  But this year she collected just five games from the unheralded Pironkova at Wimbledon as her glittering decade of achievements at the All England Club crashed to a stunning conclusion.  To her credit, Venus then showed the resilience of a champion by surging within a tiebreak of the US Open final before her serve abandoned her once more.   Although she probably has won her final major, her experience and her still seismic serve render her a dangerous threat to any adversary in any draw.  (While we hesitate to critique fashion, we also feel obliged to note the American’s hilariously disastrous outfits at the non-grass majors, which left Venus only somewhat more effectively attired than the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale.)

Azarenka:  For the second straight season, the Belarussian volcano ignited her season splendidly at the Australian Open, where she took a set and nearly more from Serena.  In fact, Azarenka lost only to the eventual champion at each of her first three tournaments, suggesting that she might build upon a 2009 campaign during which she reached three Slam quarterfinals and won Miami.  But she predictably imploded under the pressure of defending her Miami title, and injuries crippled her clay campaign.  From the grass season onwards, Vika alternated stirring results at relatively minor tournaments such as Eastbourne and Stanford with debacles at significant events such as Wimbledon and Cincinnati.  Her vertiginously erratic summer culminated with a concussion-caused exit from the US Open as disturbing as it was bizarre.  From the third set of her compelling semifinal with Wozniacki in Tokyo surfaced a metaphor for Azarenka’s season.  Trailing her rival and best friend 5-0, she rallied to win the next four games before meekly losing the tenth game.  Likewise, the coquettish Belarussian continually awakened hope in her fans but failed to convert her 2010 opportunities when it mattered most.  More talented than almost all of her contemporaries, Azarenka must subdue a pugnacious streak that still consumes her from within when matches grow tense.

Henin:  Just like Clijsters, she reached the final of the first major after a highly anticipated return.  In her first four tournaments, moreover, Henin played a starring role in three of the season’s most dramatic matches:  the Brisbane final, the Australian Open final, and her Miami semifinal with Clijsters.  But the petite Belgian settled for best supporting actress in each of those encounters, and she struggled to hone her ultra-aggressive new style throughout a year truncated by her injury at Wimbledon.  Dominant over Kim during their first incarnations, Justine dropped all three of their meetings in 2010 while sustaining a loss to giant-killer Gisela Dulko and a third-set bagel against Aravane Rezai on her beloved clay.  Although she collected titles at Stuttgart and the Dutch Open, Henin returned to pursue objectives more prestigious than those minor tournaments.  Ever a fireball of emotion, she displayed an affinity for reckless shotmaking that undermined her late in many of her losses.  And her serve, albeit amplified, continued to cost her matches with untimely double faults, much as it had in the last few months before she retired.  More fragile than most of her rivals, Henin may reconsider this comeback if it continues to fall short of the lofty standards that she imposes upon herself.  The career Slam for which she yearns still looks extremely distant.

Kuznetsova:  Winning multiple matches in just seven of seventeen tournaments, the Russian bristles with athletic ability but contents herself with showing us just the tip of the iceberg.  Gone before the quarterfinals at every major and every Premier Mandatory event, Kuznetsova displayed few glimmers of last year’s Roland Garros champion.  Outside her San Diego title, she defeated only one top-20 opponent during the entire season while falling to four players outside the top 50.  Considering the mercurial Russian’s proclivity for streakiness, an impressive 2011 campaign may lie in store after the disappointments of 2010.  Having forged and dissolved partnerships with multiple coaches recently, Kuznetsova must` continue to search for a patient, dedicated guide who can unlock her potential without succumbing to frustration.  Submerged below Zheng in the rankings, the former #2 must gather her concentration and confidence in order to rise above swaggering but less talented opportunists like Rezai and Kanepi, who will salivate over a vulnerable foe with an impressive pedigree.

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Having spent the last several articles looking backward at the year that was, we next look forward to the year that will (or might) be.  Our next article features 11 predictions for 2011.

 

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