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2009: Roger passes Pete; Rafa, DelPo win majors

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In a year in which Rafael Nadal was supposed to cement his place atop the men's world rankings, it was Roger Federer who forced a shift in power by winning half the majors and finishing as world No. 1, again. And surprise U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro could be the next player ready to make his move towards No. 1.

Nadal headed into 2009 as the top-ranked player on the globe, which came as no surprise considering he was the reigning French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic champ. And he got off to a very fast start for the year by capturing his first-ever Australian Open title, which he did by outlasting Federer in a five-set showdown in Melbourne.

But, in surprising fashion, the year was mostly Federer's, in terms of Grand Slams, after that.

Some thought that Federer's days of dominating were likely over, but the super Swiss proved that talk to be premature, as he reached the top of the rankings once again en route to finishing atop the ledger for a fifth time in six years.

Roger Federer became the men's all-time Grand Slam king and returned to the top of the rankings.
The Basel native's biggest headlines came in Paris and Wimbledon.

Federer tied the legendary Pete Sampras for the men's all-time record in Grand Slam titles when he captured his first-ever French Open championship back in June. Nadal was the heavy favorite heading into Paris, but the strapping Spaniard shocked the world by losing to free-swingin' Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round at Roland Garros. It marked the reigning four-time French Open champ's first-ever defeat at the world's greatest clay-court event, which promptly opened the door for one Mr. Federer.

After finishing as the runner-up to Rafa in Paris the previous three years, Federer finally broke through in Paris (perhaps with a tremendous amount of help from Soderling) to secure that very elusive first French title in 11 tries.

Roger defeated Robin (Soderling, that is) in the French Open final to equal Pete's Grand Slam mark, and, in the process, he also became only the sixth man in the history of our great sport to complete a coveted career Grand Slam and the first one to do so since Andre Agassi completed his 10 years earlier.

We'll get back to Andre later.

On to Wimbledon.

There were several big stories to come out of the Big W in 2009, with none being bigger than Federer's sixth title there in seven years. The highlight of the tournament came when the Swiss icon outlasted Andy Roddick in the match of the year, a marathon five-set epic, which turned out to be the longest-ever final staged on the venerable Centre Court, in terms of games played (77), in the storied history of the event. It also marked the longest final in Grand Slam history, period.

Rafael Nadal battled injuries this past season and managed to reach only one Grand Slam final in 2009.
Federer prevailed 16-14 in the war of attrition that was the fifth set, just after capitalizing on his first and only break of the massive-serving Roddick in the 4-hour, 16-minute heavyweight fight. Federer's tremendous victory made Roddick a three-time Wimbledon runner-up (all at the hands of the formidable Swiss); returned him to the top of the world rankings; and sent Roger past Pete as the men's all-time Grand Slam king, with an unmatched 15 such titles.

The 28-year-old Federer also became only the third man in the last 30 years to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year, joining Nadal (2008) and Bjorn Borg (1978-80).

Did You Know?: Federer is the only men's player in history to have been ranked No. 1 every week for three consecutive calendar years.

Federer would go on to reach all four major finals in '09, which is something the remarkable Swiss has done in three of the last four years. He also holds that crazy record by reaching 22 straight Grand Slam semifinals.

Amazing!

Federer played in seven finals overall in 2009, winning four and losing three.

And Federer also made some big news off the court by marrying his long-time girlfriend Mirka and becoming the proud father of twin girls.

That's one busy guy.

Back to Rafa.

The six-time major titlist Nadal opened his year by securing his first-ever Aussie Open championship by outlasting Federer in the final. But that would be his last Grand Slam hurrah of 2009.

Rafa battled knee and abdominal injuries this past season, with a knee injury forcing him to withdraw from Wimbledon the week before the world's most prestigious tennis event got underway. The disappointing pullout guaranteed there would not be a repeat of last year's Federer-Nadal final for the ages at SW19.

Prior to the Wimbledon withdrawal, Nadal made his biggest news of the year, unfortunately for him, by losing to Soderling in Paris, where he was slowed by some sore knees while seeking an unprecedented fifth straight title there. It marked one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport, and was probably the biggest upset of the decade in men's tennis.

Nadal opened the year at No. 1, but is currently back down to No. 2, a position he has held, behind Federer, for the better part of the last five seasons.

Novak Djokovic led the tour in match wins, but failed to reach a major final this year.
On a more positive note for Rafa, he did manage to win five titles while reaching eight finals in 2009 and capped his injury-marred campaign by helping Spain capture its second straight Davis Cup title last week.

Just behind Federer and Nadal rests Novak Djokovic. The talented Serb led the tour by reaching no less than 10 finals this year, going 5-5, and paced the circuit with 78 match wins. He landed in four Masters tournaments finals, but only managed to win one of those. Two of the three Masters finals losses came against Nadal, with the other coming versus the mighty Fed.

Unfortunately for Djokovic (with the exception of the U.S. Open), he didn't play his best tennis at the Slams, as he failed to get past the quarters in Australia (Roddick), bowed out in the third round in Paris (Philip Kohlschreiber), and suffered a quarterfinal setback at Wimbledon (17th-ranked Tommy Haas). He somewhat salvaged his Grand Slam season by making the semis in New York, where he gave way to Federer in a straight-set, yet quality, affair.

Djokovic closed out the year as one of the hottest players on tour, but can he take that next step (to get past Roger and/or Rafa) next season?

The No. 4 player in the world, Andy Murray, was probably a bit of a disappointment this year, which seems weird to say considering he led the ATP with six titles after reaching seven finals and was second only to Djokovic in match wins, with 66.

Murray was expected to make a run at No. 2, and perhaps even No. 1 this year, but didn't quite that done, in large part due to a less-than-stellar showing at the majors. Sure, he made it to the semis at Wimbledon, where he was the talk of the tournament before and during the fortnight, but many thought he would appear in his first-ever Wimbledon final and perhaps even win it, especially with no Nadal on hand and Roger possibly ripe for the picking.

Note: A British male hasn't captured the Wimbledon title since 1936 (Fred Perry).

But Murray crashed out against Roddick in the final four at the All England Club on his way to finishing the year at No. 4 -- the same position he started in. Murray did actually get up to No. 2 at one point, surpassing both Djokovic and Nadal during the season, but when the '09 smoke finally cleared, he was back at the starting line.

Andy Murray piled up six titles in 2009, but was mostly disappointing at the Slams.
Murray's biggest disappointment came at the U.S. Open, where the Brit got drilled by towering 14th-ranked Croat Marin Cilic in the fourth round. Murray may, or may not, have been battling a wrist injury in Flushing, but there was really no excuse for that lethargic 5-7, 2-6, 2-6 spanking that day.

The 22-year-old Murray was also disappointing at the Aussie Open, where he succumbed to Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round. And he bowed out against another Fernando, the world No. 11 Gonzalez, in the quarterfinals at the French Open.

Another Note: Murray is currently the only member of the Top 5 without a major title.

At No. 5 is the 6-foot-6 "Tower of Tandil" del Potro, who made one of the biggest tennis headlines of the year by coming from behind to stun Federer in the U.S. Open finale and become the tallest Grand Slam winner in history. Federer was the reigning five-time champ at the time and hadn't lost in New York since 2003. It marked the 21-year-old Argentine's first-ever major final, and, obviously, his first-ever Grand Slam title.

Del Potro finished the year with three titles in five finals, and capped his campaign by reaching the lucrative final at the season-ending World Tour Finals in London, where he was unable to get past resurgent Russian Nikolay Davydenko.

Juan Martin del Potro stunned Federer in the U.S. Open final and looks like a serious contender for No. 1.
The sky could be the limit for the very-hard-hitting and very-hard-working JMdP.

Speaking of Davydenko, he finished the year at No. 6 and continues to be a fixture in the men's Top 10. The speedy Russian was a perfect 5-0 in his '09 finals, with his biggest wins coming in London and at a Masters event in Shanghai, where he stunned Nadal in the final. The consistent Russian surprised all three of this year's Grand Slam champions -- Nadal, Federer and del Potro -- en route to his unlikely title at the World Tour Finals. Davydenko had been a brutal 0-12 lifetime against Federer before making the trip to London.

Davydenko has now placed inside the Top 10 the last five years, including four straight Top-5 finishes from 2005-08.

Roddick came in at No. 7 this year, which was highlighted by his outstanding run at Wimbledon. He came close to winning his first-ever Wimbledon title back in July, but Federer proved to be too much for the American in the final there for the third time in six years.

The 27-year-old Roddick also appeared in the semifinals at the Aussie Open, where he lost to Federer, and had his best-ever showing at the French Open, where he reached the fourth round before falling to French crowd favorite/world No. 13 Gael Monfils.

Unfortunately for A-Rod, he wasn't the same player after that Federer loss at Wimbledon, punctuated by a stunning third-round setback against fellow huge- serving American John Isner at America's Open.

Roddick appeared in only two more events after that U.S. Open debacle and closed out his year with three straight losses, including one against Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka in Shanghai, where he retired in the first set of his opening match after suffering a knee injury, which wound up being a season- ending one for the former world No. 1 star.

Andy Roddick came close to capturing his first Wimbledon title, but the great Federer denied him once again.
The former U.S. Open champion Roddick, under the tutelage of new coach Larry Stefanki, settled for one title in four finals this year, with his lone championship coming in Memphis.

And Roddick, like Federer, became a newlywed in 2009, as the Nebraska native married his model girlfriend, Brooklyn Decker.

The aforementioned Soderling wound up having a career year, as he cracked the Top-10 for the first time, finishing as the No. 8 player in the world. He picked up a title in Bastad in his native Sweden, but, of course, his biggest highlight came in Paris, where he shocked Nadal on his way to his first-ever major finale.

Soderling just missed out on winning 50 matches for the first time in his career (49-21) and was clearly one of the top players on tour in the second half of the season.

The Top 10 is rounded out by Verdasco and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the 2008 Aussie Open runner-up who tallied a trio of titles this year. Verdasco battled his countryman Nadal in an epic five-set Aussie Open semifinal loss 11 months ago and was a member of Spain's Davis Cup championship teams the last two years. The loss to Nadal in Melbourne was one of the best matches of the year.

Retirements, of course, are inevitable, and tennis lost a pair of stars to them in 2009, as the charismatic Marat Safin and crafty Fabrice Santoro hung up the gear.

Marat Safin played his final ATP match in Paris last month.
The complex Safin is a former world No. 1 who took the tennis world by storm at the beginning of the decade, highlighted by his resounding victory over the great Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open final. The big Russian would go on to win an Aussie Open title in 2005, but is widely regarded as quite the underachiever, since most expected him to win several majors after he burst onto the scene. He had all the tools. Size. Power. Speed. Shot-making ability. But he battled a bevy of injuries and just didn't seem to commit himself to the sport like a Federer, or a Nadal.

Safin played in four career major finals, going 2-2, with the losses coming in Melbourne.

Santoro, who played ATP tennis for 20 years, was known as a magician on the court. He could hit just about any shot, from anywhere, just not with a great deal of alacrity. Unlike Safin, Santoro was not blessed with size, or power, or speed, but, unlike Safin, he gave you everything he had, with his two- handed arsenal of spins and slices, and just overall chicanery.

The scrappy Santoro, who turned 37 this week, placed inside the Top 100 18 times, just one year shy of a record held by Agassi, but he only ever reached one major quarterfinal (the 2006 Aussie Open).

Note: Santoro played 20 of the 24 men who have held the No. 1 ranking (since 1973) and the diminutive Frenchman was a lopsided 7-2 lifetime against a seemingly-superior Safin and went 3-4 versus Sampras and 3-3 against Agassi.

Fabrice Santoro sliced-and-diced his way to six career titles over a 20-year span on the circuit.
Not too shabby.

Back to Agassi.

One of the biggest tennis headlines of the year occurred off the court, when Agassi put out his tell-all book, "Open: An Autobiography," where he portrayed himself (back in the day) as a tennis-hating, wig-wearing, drug- taking/drug-test-lying lost soul.

With all of that uncomfortable information out there, can he still be embraced as a beloved international sports figure? In a world like ours...you bet your denim shorts he can, but I know I'll never be able to look at him again without picturing that voluminous mullet of a wig being held in place by an army of clips on the day of the 1990 French Open final, which Andre lost to Ecuador's Andres Gomez.

That's alright, Andre, we still love ya!

Question: Who is the best player over the last 35 years not named Federer, Sampras or Borg?

A) Jimmy Connors B) John McEnroe C) Ivan Lendl D) Andre Agassi

I'll have my answer down the road.

On to 2010.

Looking into my crystal ball (actually a tennis ball sitting on my desk), I see Federer winning the Oz Open; Nadal rebounding at Roland Garros; Federer repeating at Wimbledon; del Potro repeating in New York; and Federer finishing as the year-end No. 1, again.

Now having said all that, if Nadal can somehow avoid the knee issues, he would probably claim more than one major and perhaps even make a return to the top of the rankings.

And I don't know about you, but I would love to see another Federer-Nadal French Open final, another Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final, and a first-ever Federer-Nadal U.S. Open final. This rivalry is just too good to pull for anything else, isn't it?

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley


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