Friday, December 21, 2007

Setbacks and Sugarplums

It's Christmas in Montana. The high today was 27 degrees, and tonight calls for a low of 11 - with the windchill probably dipping below zero. Whether we'll get a white Christmas or not is still up in the air, as some meteorologists call for mere flurries and others saying that we'll get inches over the next few days.

When I was younger, I used to play winter tennis on my favorite surface: snow-packed ice. It sounds crazy, but it was during my wall-hitting days, when I would go out to the alley behind our house and bang the tennis ball against a plaster wall of an old barn that our neighbors had.

The bounce was slicker and lower than any off of a grass court (so I would assume) and in my always-adventurous imagination, I was a professional playing at the "Denver Ice Open", held at Mile High Stadium. The alley had many surfaces: hard (no improv needed), clay (I would use our giant broom to spread the dirt out and sidewalk chalk to draw lines) and classics like snow-packed ice and muddy-puddle court that forced me to avoid the potholes in the alley with every stroke.

The off-season can be as slippery for professional tennis players as my snow-packed icy court was for me, especially for players who are trying to find their footing again. Mark Philippoussis and Jelena Dokic are two players that attempted in this last week to find their stride again, only to face setbacks much worse than any winter wind.

It's been a long and frustrating run for both Aussies. Philippoussis had his brief fling with fame this past year during the showing of NBC's reality show "Age of Love" while Dokic continues to be a tennis tabloid favorite by making grand claims and having a family life more problematic than those Spears folks from Louisiana.

Both Philippousis and Dokic came up limping at an AO wild card tournament in Australia this past week, and while Dokic will seek an entry through qualifying instead of a wild card, this might be the end of the line for the Big Scud, who's seen more setbacks and delays than JFK on a holiday travel weekend.

And then there are those who dance through the off-season with ease, like sugarplums in a dream. Though Roger Federer and Justine Henin each fell short of being named Associated Press athlete of the year, they still garnered accolades from TENNIS Magazine and from their respective tours.

To say that either current world number one shouldn't expect a great year would be preposterous. Federer won three slams in 2007, and showed ruthless resolve in beating his likely challengers (minus a resurgent David Nalbandian) late in the year. As is the case for Henin, who won two of four slams (the Williams family grabbed the other two) and won the "Match of the Year" over a faltering Maria Sharapova at the Season Ending Championships.

And what about so many of those other tennis names with all the talent in the world and the chance to challenge such mighty champions? Venus and Serena. Andy Roddick and James Blake fresh off their Davis Cup win. And what about Rafael Nadal? Such a cast of tennis secondaries could certainly make 2008 an interesting year, but only if they've used their break more for tennis and training rather than setbacks and sugarplums.

So while I'm eating peppermint ice cream and crossing my fingers for a bit of that white stuff to re-create my favorite alley-court surface, the tennis world is gearing up for another year. And while controversy will leave some players to find lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings, other shall feast big and train hard for a year that won't feature the Denver Ice Open, but hopefully will feature some high-quality tennis elsewhere.

No comments: