Commentary

Henin's swan song just one sour note sounded in 2008

From the gaffes of tennis' glamour queens to the shortcomings of the top American men, tennis was fraught with disheartening and disturbing moments.

Originally Published: December 16, 2008
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

Justin Henin JohnO'Boyle/US PresswireJustine Henin's sudden retirement was as bittersweet as her career was savory.
Editor's note: The 2008 tennis season left us with indelible memories. ESPN.com recounts the top 10 highs and lows from Monday through Friday this week.

Justine Henin's sudden departure from tennis disheartened tennis fans as deeply as her career dazzled our collective consciousness. But the loss of Henin's grit and ingenuity weren't the only downers of the past 12 months. Here are the top 10 disappointments of the 2008 tennis season:

1. Henin's retirement
Which was more commendable: Henin's playing style or devotion to the sport? Call it a toss-up. Either way, the sudden announcement of her retirement left a Texas-size gap in two significant categories in tennis: commitment to excellence and the texture of her game. It wasn't just that her abdication highlighted the shortcomings of other contenders; it was her absence itself that proved disturbing. Henin was that rare sight: an innovative shot-maker with a strong work ethic.

2. Cinderella Novak Djokovic: Pumpkin time?
A year ago he was the celebrated debutante, with everything from his playing style to his engaging impersonations earning applause. But this year he showed a disturbing edge, a crude side and tone-deaf awareness of how his words and actions would impact the way audiences feel about him. Watching him get booed at the U.S. Open was a painful sight. Add to that his over-the-top rooting section, and one hopes he finds a way to keep life uncluttered and instead let his magnificent tennis do the talking.

3. Maria and Ana sizzle and slide

Top 10 week -- 2008 season

Monday Top 10 players
Tuesday Top 10 matches
Wednesday Top 10 delights
Thursday Top 10 disappointments
Friday Top 10 verbal volleys
Each of the sport's glamour queens, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, was sharp in claiming Grand Slam titles. And then, alas, both made hardly a dent on the tennis year, debilitated by injuries, early exits in Slams and disturbingly lackluster play.

4. The chronic game: Lack of leadership
Every year there's awareness that tennis has many frayed edges. Everything from the too-long season to business matters related to the Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Olympics, television, sponsorship and other marketing and organizational matters proves a point: The sport has many managers, but far too few leaders -- that is, people who can articulate a broader vision and unify much of a fragmented sport.

5. Olympics: Yet another blown opportunity
Every four years, tennis takes part in the world's biggest sporting event. And every four years tennis does little to create a format for the Olympics that is truly distinctive and compelling. What happens instead is merely another tournament. And while such gold medalists as Rafael Nadal, Elena Dementieva, Roger Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka and the Williams sisters were justifiably elated, only for the winners is the Olympics particularly memorable. Why not make it a true team competition? And at the same time, it's terrible how the event guts the existing tournament schedule.

6. Fed Cup follies
Lest you think the Davis Cup's promotional woes are unique, consider the women's equivalent. Time was when the Fed Cup was played at one venue and was a weeklong festival of high-stakes competition and unique emotion. Since it began to mimic the Davis Cup format of a yearlong event, it has splintered and now hardly generates the emphatic engagement it deserves.

7. Fed's French flop
Unquestionably, Federer's articulate manner offers hope that he will play intelligent tennis. And most of the time, he does. But on the day of the French Open finals, with Nadal playing exceptional tennis, Federer's vast experience and court-management skills seemed to evaporate. Hardly considering alternative tactics, stubbornly refusing to alter spins or attempt to come to the net, he went down in flames. That he was able to resurrect his skills to play a magnificent Wimbledon final and win the U.S. Open is a sign that perhaps what happened in Paris was less the sign of a rigid mind than it was a momentary lapse.

[+] EnlargeJames Blake
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesJames Blake's comportment was exemplary, but his performance in 2008 fell well short of expectations.
8. American men: Red, white and (ultimately) blue
Armed with good intentions, articulate and sporting in a manner light years removed from the bratty dispositions of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, top two Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake naturally commenced 2008 with high expectations. Alas, each reached only one Grand Slam quarterfinal.

9. Where have you gone, Nicole Vaidisova?
She cracked the top 10 in 2006 and reached a career high in the rankings (No. 7) in 2007. But in 2008, the promising Czech looked utterly nonplussed about tennis, reflected in her manner, walk, reduced fitness and wavering concentration. By year's end, she had sunk to No. 41, with her only result of note being a run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Word has it she has amped up her training regimen, so it should be very interesting to see what 2009 brings.

10. Russians have come, but what have they left?
Outside of Sharapova -- who is scarcely homegrown, having lived in the U.S. for more than a decade -- the other Russian women continue to play hard, but continually come up short on the big occasions. Do they play too often to peak properly? Do they lack that extra dollop of greatness that generates Grand Slam glory? Or are they at heart dogged but limited players?

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

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