Commentary

The Worm wriggling his way up

Updated: February 26, 2009, 9:50 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Radek StepanekBradley Kanaris/Getty ImagesWhether on his feet or chest, Radek Stepanek has been smooth on the court in 2009.

When it comes to strength and conditioning in tennis, Rafael Nadal has nary a rival. But even the world No. 1 opened a few eyes Down Under, overcoming Roger Federer in the Australian Open final after toiling for more than five hours in the semis.

The campaign's inaugural major also proved Federer is utterly befuddled by the Mallorcan and that when crunch time approaches in the Grand Slams, Serena Williams soars to another level.

What else have we learned through two months in 2009? Here's a closer look.

Williams vs. Williams is good

Not so long ago, the thought of Serena facing big sister Venus Williams didn't entice. Their head-to-heads often lacked drama and quality, and rumblings of pre-determined outcomes arose.

No more.

The duo produced veritable epics at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2008, and their other two meetings this past year went the distance.

At the controversial Dubai Tennis Championships this past week, the pair met again and Venus emerged in a third-set tiebreaker to take a 10-9 lead in their ongoing battles.

"It was definitely a high-quality match," Venus Williams said. "I think Serena and I are the best in the world," she added, justifiably.

Serena Williams served at a horrific 36 percent in the opener, precipitating this post-match gem: "My serve has been off all year," she began. "I think it's been on vacation, so I'll have to catch up with it."

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is

Much anticipation and excitement there was when Federer's Switzerland drew the U.S. in the Davis Cup. After all, Federer revealed at the end of 2008 he intended on representing his nation in the opening round for the first time since 2004.

Alas, Federer changed his mind, instead deciding to strengthen his back with much bigger fish to be fried -- that record-tying 14th Grand Slam title is tantalizingly within grasp.

Andy Roddick and company should cruise in Birmingham in a week and a half, and the U.S. probably travels to Croatia in the quarterfinals, a winnable series no matter what the surface. A potential, mouthwatering visit to France in the semifinal looms.

The worm wriggles

Ask former Australian Open champion Petr Korda and he'll tell you his entertaining charge, Radek Stepanek, has underachieved throughout his long career. The wily Czech, at the landmark age of 30, is now putting it all together, though, with his varied game clicking.

Stepanek owns a 16-3 record and two titles already in 2009, a byproduct of working harder in Florida in the offseason.

"I am happy with the start of the year but not satisfied," Stepanek thankfully said upon losing the Memphis final to Roddick on Sunday. "I hope to keep playing well the rest of the season."

If he could only transfer some of the success to two compatriots, girlfriend Nicole Vaidisova and Davis Cup teammate Tomas Berdych.

Stepanek, incidentally, has been involved in two of the most bizarre matches this season: He succumbed to blossoming Spanish lefty Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 6-0, 6-0 at the Australian Open, then fed U.S. qualifier Todd Widom a pair of bagels in a 5-7, 6-0, 6-0 win in San Jose, Calif.

Tennis has its sophomore jinx

The Serbs were the toast of the town for much of 2008: Novak Djokovic claimed the major everyone knew was coming; Ana Ivanovic did the same and Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic rose to top spot in the rankings.

Few would have predicted, then, that none would get past the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. Further, entering this week, the trio contested a combined 10 tournaments in 2009, without reaching a final. Their overall record at tour level stood at a sobering 22-10.

A reminder that Jankovic's coach, Ricardo Sanchez, forecasted his pupil would win two majors -- the first two of her career -- this season. No such bold predictions from the Djokovic and Ivanovic camps.

Some don't like home comforts

Safe to say Richard Gasquet doesn't like playing in his native France.

In 2008, he bailed on the French Open, citing a knee injury, only to reach the quarterfinals at a grass-court tune-up days after the Paris tournament ended. He ended the campaign by skipping the Paris Masters, blaming an elbow injury.

The ridiculously talented 22-year-old resembled a deer in the headlights at those events in recent years.

So was it that much of a surprise when Gasquet withdrew from this past week's Open 13 in Marseille, pointing to a bum right shoulder?

He subsequently showed up at the men's Dubai Tennis Championships this week and duly dispatched Marat Safin in the first round. He also held up in a three-hour win over versatile Italian Simone Bolelli on Wednesday.

Workaholics exist

[+] EnlargeElena Dementieva
Tom Shaw/Getty ImagesElena Dementieva has reached at least the quarterfinals in all five events she has played this season.

With Russian Nikolay Davydenko missing a chunk of the first two months thanks to a heel problem, an iron man, or iron woman, replacement was sought. Up stepped another Russian, Elena Dementieva.

The workmanlike Olympic champion played every available week in 2009, Fed Cup included, before opting to stay away from the current Abierto Mexicano in Acapulco.

What's the rush?

The men's equivalent is Frenchman Gilles Simon, a funny chap, like Davydenko.

One of the tour's most improved players in 2008, Simon has had only one week off. And he probably won't get a week off until April.

Simon, seeking to bulk up his slender frame, struggled in his Dubai opener Tuesday, needing three sets to fend off 469th-ranked Kuwaiti wild card Mohammed Ghareeb.

Sarasota rocks

So says the gone but not forgotten Maria Sharapova.

Still away from the tour due to a troublesome serving shoulder, the three-time Grand Slam winner has updated fans on her recovery, as well as a slew of off-court happenings, via her Web site.

Here's the Florida-based Russian's take on Sarasota, a coastal city in the Sunshine state.

"I never thought I would say this about Sarasota, but it is really coming around, with great little boutique restaurants and art galleries," Sharapova wrote. "I don't know how many of you live in Sarasota, but you should definitely visit Mosaic. … it's Moroccan/French with great cous cous! Highly recommend it!"

We think the restaurant is actually called Mozaic.

Can't you just picture tourism folk in Sarasota using Sharapova's declaration on a huge billboard?

There's more to British tennis than that Scottish guy

She's no Grand Slam threat, but Anne Keothavong is proof that Brits apart from Andy Murray can play.

The 25-year-old rose to 48th in the rankings this week, thus becoming the first U.K. woman to find herself in the top 50 since Jo Durie in 1993.

The cash cow that's the Lawn Tennis Association finally doing something right, you say? Maybe not.

Keothavong is adamant her progress was stunted by the governing body early in her career.

"If I knew what I know now, I could've been in the top 50 years ago, but I was influenced by some unprofessional people," Keothavong said. "I still believe there are unprofessional people working at the LTA, and it saddens me because I want to see British tennis get even better."

The showman is reeling

He's got the game to mix it with the elite, but Marcos Baghdatis is finding out getting back to the top isn't easy.

The Cypriot's ranking sits at No. 100 -- actually up six spots -- and he lost three of his past four matches heading into this week; Baghdatis got smoked 6-1, 6-2 in under an hour by ever-improving Californian Sam Querrey in Memphis.

His ranking too low to compete in Dubai, Baghdatis is plying his trade at Florida's Delray Beach International.

Also outside the top 100 at some point in February were ex-Grand Slam champions and No. 1s Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Even Ivo struggles on serve

Ivo Karlovic, the 6-foot-10 Croat with the mean delivery, held serve 90 percent in 2008, trailing only Roddick, and led the pro tour in aces.

But he had a strange day in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, this month.

In a three-set loss to tricky Frenchman Michael Llodra on speedy indoor hard courts, Llodra broke him three times. More telling, however, was that Karlovic won a measly 35 percent of points behind his second serve, 20 points below his 2009 average.

Completing the wackiness, he nevertheless tallied 25 aces.

Opponents generally don't like facing Karlovic, but Llodra probably doesn't mind -- he's unbeaten in their three tussles.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.