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Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Reasons to be thankful

As we all prepare to sit down and jab a fork into that slow-roasted, butter-basted Penn No. 2, stuffed with sawdust and served with sides of Ben-Gay and sunscreen, let's give thanks for some of the things that make tennis such an absorbing and entertaining way to rescue time that otherwise might be spent doing something stupid or unhealthy, like working. Here are five things that have made tennis better for me this year:

Rafael Nadal: A tennis landscape without Jet Boy would be a grim place indeed, kind of like one of those sci-fi movies in which everyone is scurrying around in a high-tech toga on some cold, benighted landscape filled with groveling minions and worshipers of a lethal, seductive, black-turtleneck-wearing force known simply as Rajah (for Roger, as in Federer).

Nadal stepped into this scenario at 18, two years ago, to play Luke Skywalker, and since then he's positioned himself as the only thing standing between Rajah and utter domination over Planet Tennis. The game needed someone to do this: In denying Federer the French Open title and making good on his promise to become an all-surface contender (Nadal lost to Federer in the Wimbledon final, in a match that almost got real interesting), Nadal has shown that one lonely hero still stands between Federer and his intentions. Muwahhhaaaaahhaaahahahahah …

Cincinnati (Western and Southern Financial Group) Masters: Being in the Midwest, hard by Interstate 71 and the King's Island amusement park, this tournament will never have the cache of, oh, Indian Wells (the Pacific Life Open), Monte Carlo or even the funky Hertogenbosch (whatever the hail that is). But this mid-August tournament has hung in there as a premium event forever, and you simply won't find a more laid-back, family-friendly, open and welcoming event featuring a first-class draw -- not anywhere on earth.

Justine Henin-Hardenne: I can think of a few (like 340) reasons to trash this supremely self-absorbed but spectacularly talented dynamo, starting with the way she quit cold in the Australian Open final against Amelie Mauresmo earlier this year. On the other hand, on a tour full of overhyped divas, Hollywood butt kissers and smug, defective competitors, H-2 is the real deal: a little warrior who shows up at the big events and plays with a competitive zeal suggesting that her heart is neither as cold nor as small as it may appear. She made the final of all five major women's events this year (the Grand Slams and the WTA Championships); while she won two and quit in another, she once again made the welcome statement: I'm Justine, I'm just a tennis player, and I come to play like nobody else on the WTA Tour.

Greg Sharko: In the ATP media guide, he's listed as the Director of Media Relations and Information; in reality, Greg is, to borrow Reggie Jackson's famous phrase, "The straw that stirs the drink" for the media. He's got a fingertip grasp of stats, facts and details that would have put Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" character to shame in the memory department, and he's always just a punch of the speed-dialer away. (You can also ambush him by lurking near any tournament concession stand that offers curly fries and cheeseburgers with the works.) I wish I got a quarter for every time some ink-stained wretch frantically calls Greg at some ungodly hour and asks a question to which Sharko -- if he weren't such a good guy -- would appropriately answer: The head-to-heads are available with two clicks at the Web site, doofus … Go away! All this, and he's a terrific dad, too!

Hawkeye: The debate raged long and hot throughout tennis for more years than I can remember: Will electronic officiating destroy the game, removing a key, dramatic human element that is as big a part of tennis tradition as doubles players bitterly complaining about being underpaid? That trope was laid to rest, brilliantly and conclusively, by the debut of Hawkeye in Grand Slam competition. Somehow, we now have accurate, verifiable line-call accuracy as well as an increase, rather than decline, in that elusive but important "human factor." This is the biggest win-win to hit tennis since the invention of the tiebreaker.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, folks, and especially you members of the TennisWorld Tribe where I do my everyday ranting. Pass the Gatorade, please …