- Joel Drucker
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As the clay-court season gets under way, followed rapidly by Wimbledon, perhaps what's happened in the first three months of 2007 will shape what's to come. Perhaps. Here are four notable occurrences:
1. Roger Federer has more homework than usual
It's one thing to lose in consecutive tournaments, but to go down to the same opponent is cause for head-scratching. Moreover, Guillermo Canas is precisely the kind of grinder Federer must beat if he's to win at Roland Garros.
After losing to Canas in Key Biscayne, Fla., Federer looked a tad disconsolate and even vexed about life at the top. "I have a feeling sometimes players play better against me than they would against other players because they have less to lose," Federer said following his second loss to Canas.
He's probably right, but there's also a stylistic matter. Like Rafael Nadal, Canas is such a great retriever that one hopes Federer begins conceiving his clay-court strategy in new terms.
So what's Federer's homework assignment? To win big on clay he needs to get his nose dirtier than usual, looking for ways to judiciously deploy slice backhands, vary the patterns of his service returns and, as the points wear on, make his way into the net.
2. Serena Williams is shaking up the entire tour
The return of Serena Williams has sent a lightning bolt through the WTA Tour.
Williams' wins at Melbourne and Key Biscayne have been magnificent displays of tenacity and increased tactical wisdom. To have routed Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in the Australian Open final could well have been interpreted as an aberration. But to do so again in Key Biscayne (6-1, 6-1) was revelatory. Williams exposed the Russian's poor movement and increasing lack of confidence when serving.
"When you feel that you need to hold serve against someone like her and someone that's serving so well, I think that puts a little bit of extra pressure on your serve because you know that you have to hold your serve," Sharapova said after losing to Williams in South Florida. And with a shoulder injury keeping Sharapova off the tour until mid-May, it's hard to see her using Roland Garros as little more than a tuneup for Wimbledon.
Justine Henin held two championship points against Williams at the Sony Ericsson Open and will be in fighting form throughout her best time of year: the clay-court season. A mutual respect exists between Henin and Williams that's far more sporting than what occurs between Williams and Sharapova. Henin versus Williams is strictly a battle between the lines, something we can only hope to see more of in the coming months.
Williams this year has shown exceptional focus. Now, having worked her way into fighting form, will she sustain her interest and passion for the balance of 2007?
"You want her to have the great career a player with her skills deserves," tennis analyst Mary Carillo said.
3. This could be the year for America's Davis Cup team
It's been 12 years since the U.S. won the Davis Cup -- an unsurpassed drought. While at one level this speaks more to the ascent of tennis nations, the inconvenient truth is that America's top players, Andy Roddick and James Blake, will likely be the first to admit they're not worldwide dominators in the manner of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and even Jim Courier. Roddick and Blake struggle with exceptional difficulty on clay. The team did well to win the first round on the dirt on the road against the Czech Republic, but invariably, whenever the the U.S. team hits the road, it can expect to play on clay more often than not.
But the ball took an odd bounce in the quarterfinals. Sweden's upset of Argentina means the U.S. will not have to travel to the red clay of Latin America for September's semifinal. The U.S. has a much better chance of beating the Swedes on any surface and reaching the final, where it will likely host defending champion Russia. A player-friendly surface and an impassioned hometown crowd could prove pivotal.
"It was unbelievable to have this atmosphere here," Blake said following last weekend's win over Spain in Winston-Salem, N.C. "The first day I said in my first press conference how much it meant to me to have those people cheering for me and to get me over this so-called slump, to give me the confidence."
4. The men's game: More contenders than the '08 presidential election
No single man has emerged as the one most likely to threaten Federer's reign. Even if Federer doesn't win in Paris, even if he takes a few losses throughout 2007, it's uncertain at this point who's got the right mix of skills and experience to topple him from his perch atop Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Nadal's win at Indian Wells was his first since June 2006. Though the young Spaniard is now headed into his beloved clay-court season, it's unclear if he's making enough technical and tactical changes to be a year-round threat.
Roddick has the desire, but again, losses to Federer at last year's U.S. Open, the semis of Australia and a first-rate butt-whipping at Nadal's hands in Indian Wells showed he's not yet the leading contender either. Tommy Haas, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian have come up short too often to inspire confidence. Former No. 1's Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt are headed toward midnight. At Wimbledon, Mario Ancic has the game, but doesn't post enough results year-round.
And so we're left with the young hopefuls, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, each skilled but maybe, just maybe, a bit green and not used to playing such high-level tennis week in and week out.
For all the hiccups Federer's had early this year, it's hard to see anyone coming too close to him in 2007. Whoever's ranked second will in some senses be closer to No. 10 than No. 1.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.
Federer won the Australian Open, again. So, too, did Serena. Joel Drucker looks at the first three months of 2007 in an attempt to project the rest of the season.