World's top-ranked players continue to move up in history
Amid a generation of unimaginative players accustomed to only power tennis, it was a pair of iconoclasts who claimed the crowns at the U.S. Open. Roger Federer and Justine Henin, both ranked No. 1 in the world, rolled into the final Grand Slam of the season as under-the-radar favorites. During the fortnight, they proved that if executed correctly, style, variety and footwork can still match raw power.
On Saturday night's final, Henin was merciless in a 6-1 6-3 win against newly minted world No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2004 champion. Despite serving relatively poorly, the pint-sized Belgian yanked her opponent east and west, humbled Kuznetsova's best shot, the forehand, and showcased the kind of touch and court sense last seen from Martina Hingis. As Billie Jean King remarked during the match, Henin is no doubt the best pound-for-pound player tennis has ever known.
Admittedly, Kuznetsova was not playing the kind of tennis that wins Slams, as she often splayed into Kim Clijsters splits. But there's a reason why Clijsters retired earlier this year with a solitary Slam and Henin has now claimed seven trophies of the valuable currency in history books.
It's not just Henin's resume that makes her extraordinary, though. She only knows how to play with intensity in the way that 2006 champ Maria Sharapova can only hit at full speed (Sharapova lost in the third round). But despite the intensity, Henin recognizes the importance of not needing to win every single point. She's not afraid to double fault, and she even seemed to lose four straight points on purpose when Kuznetsova was serving at 2-5 in the second so that she would be able to serve for the match. When a player can play with such arrogance and certainty, they've reached the level of a true great, the kind that the history respects.
The same held true for Federer, as he took on the most promising talent of the next generation, Rafael Nadal included. Novak Djokovic's game on the Sunday final was as sharp as his imitations of fellow tour players. Taking advantage of poor serving and loose points from Federer, Djokovic had five set points in the first set and two in the second.
Unfortunately for the 20-year-old from Serbia, his opponent simply played the big points better. Six years younger and, at the time, 11 Slams fewer, Djokovic could only watch as the Swiss master sneaked a straight-sets win, 7-6 7-6 6-4. Federer hardly played his best in the final, as he sprayed serves and groundstrokes, but his mediocre performance proved more than anyone else could handle.
Federer's qualities have been raved about continually since his dominance began – he moves effortlessly, he has the best forehand in the game, he is chasing the title of greatest of all time...praising Federer is like praising Einstein; this level of brilliance needs no elaboration.
Djokovic, however, was this year's revelation. When he reached the French Open quarterfinals in 2006 and claimed to have been dictating play against defending champ Nadal despite trailing significantly in the score, most fans wrote him off as young gun with a bigger ego than forehand. Those skeptics have been vigorously proved wrong this year, as Djokovic reached two semifinals at the majors before arriving at the U.S. Open final.
It is becoming more and more apparent that Djokovic is a more complete player than Nadal, though both players are works in progress. Watch Djokovic's forehand and marvel at the violence of his body's rotation as he strikes the ball; Nadal hits a big forehand too but it just doesn't have the same "oomph" quality as the ball leaves the racket strings. Djokovic serves bigger than Nadal too and is the superior player on the hard courts, the primary surface of modern tennis.
Djokovic wasn't the only breakout at the tournament, though, as the youth of the women's tour were out in full force. Agnieska Radwanska, Agnes Szavay, Tamira Paszek, Shahar Peer and Victoria Azarenka all made at least the fourth round, and upset Maria Sharapova, Nicole Vaidisova and Martina Hingis in the process.
For tennis purists, these new faces of tennis should be exciting, as many of the youngsters show a keener eye for variety. They can take heart that Henin and Federer are still the top performers in the game. And meanwhile, for mere tennis fans, Novak the "Djoker" can do a mean Nadal imitation.
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