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Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Men's field more robust than ever

It's a new year, so I'll do my best to stay positive and not rant about the ATP tour's rebranding effort, which launched Jan. 1. Excuse me, the ATP World Tour. (Got to get that "World" in there.) I'll be good and not make excessive fun of those new NASCAR-sounding tournament designations: ATP World Tour Masters 1000, ATP World Tour 500 and ATP World Tour 250. As much as it pains me, I'll refrain from making fun of that photo op of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal looking like giants on a mini tennis court floating in the Persian Gulf to promote the Qatar ExxonMobil Open this week, in lovely "Dough-Ha."

I'm not bothered by any of this nonsense (at least for now) because on the court, away from the boardrooms and the boneheaded ideas that often come out of them, men's tennis has never been in better shape. From the players vying for majors and the No. 1 ranking to the young guns looking to make their marks, there are enough story lines to fuel a daily tennis talk show. Where to begin? The obvious spot: Federer trying to wrestle the top ranking and his Wimbledon crown from Nadal. Federer got off to a crummy start last season; this year, both he and Rafa should be on their games, healthy and motivated.

But it isn't just a two-man show anymore. Andy Murray now is a legitimate threat to win Grand Slams and become No. 1 in the world. His game, to say nothing of his combustible attitude, has matured remarkably over the past year. Murray always has been a crafty shotmaker, but as he has proved in recent matches, he has a willingness to play a little more straightforward when it's the smart thing to do. He also has put a lot of work into his fitness, which clearly is paying dividends. Hearing Murray talk about his offseason regimen reminds me of how Andre Agassi used his winter "downtime" after he realized that being in better shape than his opponents was every bit as much of a weapon as a blistering forehand. Murray has learned that lesson -- and at a much younger age.

Of course, you can't forget the 2008 Australian Open champ, Novak Djokovic. Although he sputtered after winning his first major last year, he ended the season on a high note by winning the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup. (BTW: This year, the name has been changed, for no logical reason, to the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Or as I like to call it, the WTF event.) Refreshingly, Loco-Djoko isn't afraid to play the role of antagonist to the overly polite Federer and Nadal, two guys who act less like rivals at the top of their sport than two men engaged in a serious bromance.

Taken together, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray are the strongest, most competitive players tennis has seen in ages. They all are at, or near, the peak of their powers. Throw in the likes of steady-as-they-come Nikolay Davydenko, big-serving Andy Roddick and a slew of promising up-and-comers (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils, Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis), and men's tennis is giving us plenty of reasons to be excited. It's more compelling than the two-man show of Federer and Nadal, which, let's face it, got a little tired. And given the lousy state of women's tennis -- no dominant No. 1, MIA divas and loads of injuries -- men's tennis is where it's at.

Even a hokey name like ATP World Tour Masters 1000 can't change that.