Monday, December 28, 2009

The 9 Most Inspiring Tennis Players of 2009

Inspiration. Now we are getting to the heart of the matter...because when you think about it that is why we play. And that is why we watch. Because we want to be moved...because we want TO MOVE...because we want to believe that anything is possible.

They say in sports you can't flick inspiration on and off like a switch. They say you have to just HAVE IT. But it sure looks to me like the best of the best can produce it. They can't necessarily flick it on and off at will, but they can summon it, they can invite it, and harness it when it comes.

It is a sense. A sixth sense.

And it is an art.

What is success in tennis? And how can you most effectively achieve it? When must you strike, and when must you be content to wait? In times of fatigue, where does genius come from? It times of strife, where do the great ones find the impetus to act?

Inspiration, as we all know, stems from a belief.

The top 9 most inspiring players of 2009 inspired busloads of belief in us all.

Most Inspiring Player #9: Gael Monfils

What is the knock on Monfils, and why does there have to be a knock? Gael is the quintessential showman and he brings the crowd to life with his theatrics. But he doesn't do just that. The guy absolutely throws himself around the court. He stretches, he lunges, he sprints, he slams, he pirouettes, he shadow-boxes, he waves his arm and bounces up and down - well, you get the picture...

La Monf is a rare and precious commodity in tennis - he is a veritable sight to behold. He is very close to a breakthrough and only needs a little more mental grit to be a true Slam threat.

Most Inspiring Player #8: Melanie Oudin

Melanie Oudin could just as easily be ranked #1. The way she went from relative obscurity to being a viable Slam consideration was more than phenomenal. Wow. This fiery kid could be the real deal, so stay tuned...

Most Inspiring Player # 7: Radek Stepanek

You have to give it up for the old-school. Radek is not quite Fabrice Santoro stylistically, but man is he ever effective. He plays a delightfully daring brand of tennis - it features classic grips and strokes and it sometimes looks like he is stepping out of a time machine to play these modern-day baseline addicted droids.

And then, - HE WINS! How does he do it? He's clever as heck, that's how.

Most Inspiring player #6: The Bryan Brothers

Ok, I do realize that two people does not fit into the category of "player". But for Bob and Mike Bryan, I'll make an exception. They may be a team on paper, but in reality they are one. And to watch them is to be energized. They are chest-bumping, high-fiving, maniacs out on the court. Two positively charged balls of energy that are rarely if ever in the wrong place at the wrong time. How can you not get inspired to play tennis after watching them?

Most inspiring player # 5: Rafa Nadal

Sometimes love inspires us. And that is what many of us feel for Nadal. He has ushered in an era of physicality in tennis that gives the sport a new cachet in terms of athleticism. Tennis is no longer a country club sport played in sweaters and white linens. And Rafa is the personifaction of that ideal.

His vast and unconquerable physical presence has set the bar so high that even he is having trouble being himself. As he struggles we love him even more for who he is, and for his humanity. And the love inspires us.

Most inspiring player # 4. Victoria Azarenka

Inspiring players come in all shapes and sizes. Victoria Azarenka may be one of the smallest on the list, but man is her desire big. That is the word that most quickly comes to mind when I think about what the feisty Belarusian represents. She represents the notion that great tennis comes from great desire. Azarenka embodies the physical nature of the sport. She prowls the baseline with such verve, and she hits with the same vigor and contempt for the ball that Monica Seles used to have. Her high energy up-tempo brand of play seem destined for bigger things - if she can learn to control her emotions.

Most inspiring player # 3: Spain

Spain is a player because they all play for one collective ideal. Their 4th Davis Cup title of the decade was a moving display of camaraderie for the Spaniards. It wasn't just about mind-numbing awe-inspiring clay court tennis. It was a true homage to the beauty of national togetherness. Nationalism can be a beautiful thing when it serves its function. To inspire the many to become one stronger unit. Spain has cornered the market when it comes to this - it was obvious that the players on the benches were as important as the players on the court when they defeated the Czech Republic.

Most inspiring player # 2: Kim Clijsters

What she did is still blowing my mind to this day. KIMPOSSIBLE! She just snapped her fingers and made it happen. One day coloring books with Jada, the next, a decisive victory in a Grand-Slam final over Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets. The comeback itself was to be expected - but winning a slam on the first try? Beating both Williams Sisters in New York? Wow.

Most inspiring player # 1: Roger Federer

He's always been inspiring, but this year Roger Federer inspired us differently. This time around, it wasn't just about pure tennis artistry. This year it was about struggle and strife, and overcoming hurdles. Roger was down and out in March - you could literally feel it - and it was hard to come to terms with. Maybe this wasn't really happening, we thought. But we had seen it! Roger was off. His play was uninspired and downright confusing. And it hurt us to see.

But never mind all that. Federer went back to the woodshed and claimed what we all know is rightfully his. He worked on that damn serve until he was sure it wouldn't fail him in the slams. And he rested up, so when it was time for the Slams he'd have fresh legs. (Give Mirka some credit for that.)

In the end Federer blasted off into tennis immortality, and David Foster Wallace's clever title was as fitting as ever: Federer as Religious Experience.

Roger inspired us in 2009 by being the whole package. The beautiful game, the sinister concentration, the graceful presence, and the stellar decorum. He has it all, and it all inspires us, probably because in him we see a glimpse of perfection that we can all aspire to.