With the season half completed, we revisit the 11 predictions with which we began 2011.  Have we struck more aces or double faults so far? After reviewing the initial calls that we made in December, Halftime Hawkeye delivers its verdicts….

Rafael Nadal (L to R) Finalists Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland pose for the cameras prior to the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 5, 2011 in Paris, France.

1)      Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  That “one more Slam final” did occur at Roland Garros, and their tepid Miami semifinal illustrated the overall decline of this rivalry, so the note of nostalgia struck here sounds apt in retrospect.  But the Roland Garros final edged the Wimbledon final in drama and intrigue, suggesting that Djokovic-Nadal has not quite overtaken Nadal-Federer as this prediction had hinted.

2)      Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  Fortunately, we buried that line about Djokovic’s Wimbledon chances so deep into the paragraph that most of you probably didn’t notice it. 

3)      Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  The Scot did leave his counterpunching comfort zone during the European spring, surpassing our expectations.  On the other hand, his mental state remains in the “quicksand between believing and not believing” that we described above.  Murray prefers the US Open to all other majors and always flourishes most on hard courts, but it’s difficult to imagine him defeating two of the top three in best-of-five matches on consecutive days.

4)      Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Let.  The Argentine left little impact at the Australian Open, but he bounced back faster than we expected with an Indian Wells semifinal.  The clay season did play a major role in the process as noted, highlighted by wins over Soderling and Verdasco en route to the Estoril title.  Still, the vital “finishing strong” part of the prediction remains open to conjecture, so we must wait a little longer for an official ruling.

5)      Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Double fault.  Remind us never again to underestimate Spain in Davis Cup competition,after the Rafa-less squad proved superior to the American A-team with two top-10 singles stars.  We still will have “a scintillating match” in the Davis Cup final, though, if both Spain and Serbia collect another win in September.  Halfway through the season, #5 is our only prediction that already has no chance of fulfillment.

6)      Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Wozniacki’s tireless schedule indeed has earned her a stranglehold on the WTA #1 despite ignominious defeats at the last two majors and a generally unimpressive European spring.  But Nadal did “relinquish his dominance” over grass and much of clay, while a worthy #1 rose to supplant him.  With another Slam title and the year-end championships final still to defend, Rafa will struggle to validate the ATP half of this prediction.  He defends more points than Djokovic does at the key second-half tournaments; the Serb should outdo him there in 2011 and merely consolidate his grasp on #1.

7)      Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Chalk…flew…up?  If anything, we underestimated the depth of Zvonareva’s sophomore slump, which has included six losses to players outside the top 20 and pre-quarterfinal defeats at the last two majors.  Federer’s season has unfolded mostly according to expectations with a few glittering moments punctuating the overall spiral of decline.  One struggles to imagine him overtaking either Nadal or Djokovic, considering his 1-6 record against them this year.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  This prediction sounded bold when the year began but came true in rather anticlimactic fashion.  With both sisters effectively crippled for the first two majors, they had to sweep the last two.  Despite their miraculous comebacks before, one week at Eastbourne couldn’t catapult them back into Wimbledon contention in an invigorated, increasingly less intimidated WTA.

9)      Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Ace.  One of our least ambitious predictions, Kim’s Australian Open title arrived after slightly more suspense than most had anticipated.  Required to defeat none of the “primary challengers” mentioned above, she nevertheless came within three games of defeat against Li in the final.  Previously, though, Clijsters enjoyed an uneventful route through the draw against thoroughly overmatched opponents, including the aforementioned Zvonareva.  Since the younger generation now has ceased “to tread tentatively,” she may find her future routes to Slam glory more arduous.

10)   Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Service winner.  While she may not have won a major, the blazing-eyed Belarussian achieved her highest career ranking this year as she captured Miami for the second time.  Azarenka also became one of only three players to reach the second week of every major, attaining her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon.  With Wozniacki somewhere between stagnation and regression, her burgeoning rivalry with Kvitova could become one of the key narratives in the second half.  Injuries and retirements do continue to accumulate at an alarming rate, however, raising questions about her training regimen.

Ana Ivanovic - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Two

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

Halftime Hawkeye:  Second serve.  Following an erratic first half littered with opening-round losses, Ivanovic led the WTA in bagels served but excelled in few other statistical categories.  Since her ranking has remained in virtually the same position where it ended 2010, the gap separating her from her countrywoman has narrowed almost entirely as a result of the latter’s shortcomings.  Currently at her lowest ranking since 2007, Jankovic won four total matches at the first three majors but has many fewer points to defend during the second half.  Conversely, Ivanovic defends two fall titles and a pair of strong North American runs in Cincinnati and New York, so the gap may not narrow further.

***

Well, we fared a bit better at the service notch than did Pavlyuchenkova in Baku.  This weekend, we return with a preview of Stanford, one of the most star-studded small tournaments in the WTA calendar.

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