- Joel Drucker
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The Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., has a spring training-like atmosphere -- a time of hope and anticipation. With the scent of possibility in the air, ESPN.com contributor Joel Drucker takes a look at four players with the potential for even more in 2008.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Speak softly, carry a big stick
Having burst into prominence by reaching the finals of the Australian Open, this 22-year-old Frenchman is making a highly popular North American splash. Fans at the Pacific Life Open are flocking to his practice courts and matches -- the first two took place on the intimate Stadium 2 court -- with high hopes. There's an excitement and raw energy Tsonga brings to tennis that the game has rarely seen. At a big-sized 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he smothers his opponents with physicality, power and speed.
"Like about the guy? What don't I like about the guy?" asked Pancho Segura, the Hall of Fame player and coach often regarded as the greatest strategic mind in tennis history. "First, I like the fact that he's elastic -- his body is supple, agile. He can run, he can attack and his strokes are clean and simple."
Segura's among the many who believe Tsonga's best next step is to improve his offense. Though he covers the court quite well, at times he can play more passive than he should, inadvertently creating defensive situations for himself.
"He should punish more second serve returns, plant doubt in his opponent's head and come to net more," Segura said. The occasional serve-and-volley would also round out his game.
Andy Murray: A beautiful mind
The young man from Scotland may lack Tsonga's physical qualities, but he more than makes up for them with fine foot speed and, most engaging of all, exceptional court management skills -- the ability to mix up spins and paces. Over the past year, Murray's nibbled near the top 10, but a combination of injuries and frustrating results have kept him from making the big next move.
"He's a smart player, an interesting player," Segura said.
In some ways, Murray suffers from the syndrome faced by many players who are clever and guileful but not particularly forceful physically: too many options. The result is a tendency to either get too tentative or lose track of the pragmatic basics on big points.
"He drop shots at the wrong times," Segura said. "He gets away with it a lot, but I think he's smart enough to know you don't want to try those shots at 15-30 or 30-40."
Murray can also display the crankiness of an infant. While over the next three years, he can make himself stronger and add more heft to his game, his tendency to go dark at times is a potential deal-breaker. Call it the artist's temperament, but it's Murray's most dangerous weakness. If he can turn it around and stay more positive and aware of how to deploy his considerable tools, attaining top-10 status by the end of '08 is highly plausible. Remember: Injuries kept Murray out of Wimbledon last year, so he's got no points to defend at his home Grand Slam.
Daniela Hantuchova: Late bloomer?
Currently ranked eighth in the world, Hantuchova played some of the best tennis of her career to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal at this year's Australian Open. Cleanly struck ground strokes off both wings, improved movement and, best of all, increased optimism have at last aided her ascent to a solid place in the top 10.
The question is if Hantuchova has the goods to make a significant jump and be something more than fodder in the final eight. Her work ethic is strong. Less than 30 minutes after Tuesday's 6-1, 7-6 over Sania Mirza, Hantuchova was on the practice court with her coach, Angel Giminez, working on her forehand.
"It's always interesting to watch the emotions Daniela goes through in a match," one longstanding WTA Tour coach said. "She plays better when she gets behind, knows that the other girl will get tight as a result and then Daniela kind of gets through the match. Not always so easy to win this way, but it happens."
Hantuchova's biggest challenges are her court coverage, serve and the recurring tendency to emotionally brutalize herself. "On the serve she tosses too high," Segura said.
And while Giminez has done much to aid Hantuchova's movement, the emotional part is a perpetual struggle. One of the more well-liked women in the game, Hantuchova's rational, sensible persona can undermine her. She sees things too clearly, lacking the illogical optimism and self-imposed blindness that often spurs such greats as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.
Sania Mirza: Harnessing the power
The Indian Icon has long drawn raves for her smashmouth forehand and brazen ability to go for big shots in any circumstance. Many of the points Mirza won versus Hantuchova Tuesday were earned with shots as strong as any you'll see from any current pro. The forehand on the run is particularly impressive, a laser that's penetrating and often terminal.
But at times Mirza's swagger belies inner turmoil -- and technical limitations.
"If she'd spend just a few weeks learning to shorten the backswing on her forehand, she'd be that much more efficient, consistent and every bit as powerful," said Andy Fitzell, a Utah-based tennis coach and researcher here conducting extensive video analysis of all pros. Fitzell also believes Mirza's serve handicaps her. "That high toss causes her to stop the kinetic chain of motion and not really accelerate as much as you'd like," he said.
Added to those technical issues is a bit of inexperience in crunch time. With Hantuchova serving down 5-4 in the second set, love-15 in the game, Mirza created a good chance to come to the net, but struck the approach shot poorly and did an even worse job on the follow-up volley, losing the point and a golden opportunity to possibly level the match.
"You've got to learn how to play those big points well," Segura said. "And you've got to practice those situations a lot. I mean a lot."
Mirza's cause is also not aided by an injury to her right wrist that she says is so painful that it hurts to press the button on an exercise bike. Once she has an MRI later this week she'll determine if it's even necessary to have surgery.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg