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More questions than answers coming off the Slam season

9/10/2008 - Tennis
AP Photo/Elise Amendola

The Grand Slam season is over in tennis. Now what?

1. The Roger and Rafa Show continues
The tennis world was hoping for Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal III at the U.S. Open. Although it didn't happen, the overall skill, intensity and effort that these two geniuses have brought to the game in 2008 have been inspiring and bode well for 2009. Nadal is the best player of the year by dint of wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Federer's U.S. Open win was impressive, too -- and hardly a foregone conclusion, given his relative woes throughout 2008.

Most delightful to see was how much each player continues to pursue improvement. Nadal's court position and serve have taken major steps forward. To win big on hard courts, Nadal needs to improve his volleys because the drop volleys he favors are far less effective. Knowing that his volley skills don't do much for him on hard courts, Nadal often labors more from the baseline, wearing him down.

It was impressive to see how earning a gold medal in doubles at the Olympics triggered a mini-renaissance in Federer's attitude toward volleying, which came in handy during the U.S. Open. Federer, like Nadal, has earned most of his titles from the baseline, but his grips and technique make it far easier for him to volley more proficiently than the Spaniard. It will be interesting to see whether Federer's willingness to attack more was merely a onetime New York romance or a tactic he will employ more frequently. It's not necessary for him to rush the net as often as Patrick Rafter or even Pete Sampras did. But the ability to instill more doubt in his opponents -- particularly in a player who hits such high service returns as Nadal -- could well take him to even further heights.

2. Aspiring Americans can learn from Andy Murray

American coaches, developing players and their parents should watch Murray play -- but not merely to imitate him. A coach once called the U.S. "a land of kids who hit on the ball machine." Murray is the opposite. As a child, he studied much more than learning how to hit the ball. He studied players -- tendencies, patterns, grips, spins, weaknesses and strengths -- and thus has emerged as a masterful strategist and tactician. Although far too many American instructors and coaches emphasize stroke production, what can be learned from both Murray and Federer -- another player who's adroit at putting opponents off-balance -- is the need for a student to create a playing style, to grasp a principle American legend Bill Tilden articulated more than 50 years ago: "Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes." So the next time a player says, "I've just got to play my game," start wincing. Just like a pitcher facing a hitter, tennis is an interactive game. Murray and Federer grasp this magnificently.

3. Serena has stepped up, at least for now

No player -- man or woman -- has ever regained the No. 1 ranking five years after previously holding it. But then again, the road less taken is de rigeur for Serena and Venus Williams, so why stop now? Serena's U.S. Open win was impressive, once again showcasing her ability to compete boldly, whether against her sister in the quarters or versus Jelena Jankovic in the finals. Had Jankovic earned one of her four set points in the second set, it would have been very interesting to watch a weary Serena fight through the third. Once again, though, Serena seized the moment. Though she repeatedly has spoken of her desire to make sure she and Venus rule the sport once again, talk from athletes is of little consequence; action is what matters. No matter how wavering the Williams sisters' commitment may be to sustained tournament play, and no matter how unorthodox their approach may be to scheduling, practice, tactics or anything else, these two have won an impressive 16 Grand Slam singles titles combined. That total is thoroughly maddening, baffling and filled with success. Might they have won more if they'd dedicated themselves more to tennis? Will they rule again in 2009? Though their display of determination is about a 180-degree turn from the sustained desire we've seen from Federer and Nadal, it's tough to dispute the quality of a Wimbledon win (Venus) and a U.S. Open title (Serena).

4. Serbia is no monolith

Whenever two or more players ascend from a particular nation, it's tempting to study that country as if it has manufacturing secrets buried deep within its culture. But the U.S. Open journeys of Jankovic, Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic revealed that tennis, more than any sport, is a game for individuals who each winds his or her way down distinctive paths.

Jankovic might be the most self-dramatizing and funniest player to ever reach the No. 1 ranking, but certainly her work ethic and grinding game have taken her far. Similar to a contestant on "Survivor," she has shown the payoff of tenacity, concentration and a darn good set of wheels. Next up: bigger offense on big points.

Djokovic's ball-striking skills remain impressive, particularly off the backhand. When he's playing well, his ball penetrates through the court superbly, and his serve can deliver on key occasions, too. But of late, his limits have also surfaced: more than a bit of uncertainty at the net and, even more beguiling, a desire to discuss his injuries and explain himself as if he were on a campaign trail. If he finds the time to fix his breathing problems, improve his volleys and wipe the slate clean with peers, press and public alike, that will help. He's smart and committed enough to put time into all.

Since Ivanovic's win at Roland Garros and ascent to the No. 1 ranking, she has been unsettled and fragile. Did she arrive at the top too soon for her own good? How troubling is the thumb injury she suffered this summer? How is she coping with the demands of fame? Will she get back to No. 1? One major issue: scheduling. That is, ensuring the best possible mix of development and competition.

5. Maybe it's Mardy
Of all the American men competing, Mardy Fish demonstrated the most improvement and all-around prowess at this year's U.S. Open, beating James Blake on his way to the quarterfinals. A jacked-up training regimen has helped his physical and mental fitness, allowing Fish at age 26 to employ a pressing brand of attack predicated less on striking winners -- a hard way for even pros to win with -- and more on forcing opponents to attempt difficult passing shots and make errors. To quote again from Tilden: "Nothing so upsets a man's mental and physical poise as to be continually led into error."

6. The Russians keep coming, but where are they going?
Sturdy, tenacious ball strikers Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina earned high marks for their play the past four months. But for all the results generated by Russia, whither a broader approach to all-court tennis? Memo to Russian coaches: Please see item No. 2.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.