Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Top 9 Tennis Heartbreakers of 2009

In tennis, the agony of defeat plays as important a role as does the exhilarating joy of victory — the razor thin margins that separate winning and losing in a tennis match are very often undecipherable to the naked eye.

What is it then, that makes the difference in those matches that come down to a few crucial points?

Unlike the inverted finish on the modern forehand or the serve to the body, these difference-making subtleties cannot be practiced. Nor can they be ignored. They can only be summoned by the player who is willing to introduce the heart into the mix.

Sometimes, great victories are won with the heart. But sometimes, the heart is not enough. Even the valiant can fall, and even those who deserve victory can lose big.

The top ten Tennis Heartbreakers of 2009 are living proof of this fact.

Heartbreaker # 9: Zvonareva Vs. Pennetta, 4th Round U.S. Open: Sheer Torture

This match was not for the squeamish. It was also clear proof that tennis can drive you crazy.

When Vera Zvonareva failed to finish Flavia Pennetta in the 2nd set of their 4th round U.S. Open clash, the floodgates opened and a tidal wave of emotional overflow spewed forth from an agitated Zvonareva. At times the match resembled a horror movie more than U.S. Open tennis.

In Zvonareva’s defense, the steely resolve of Pennetta - as she valiantly fought off 6 match points - would have driven most of the WTA mad. Pennetta played each match point with bravado, and eventually evened the match.

When Zvonareva started the 3rd set she was already beaten in spirit. She angrily pulled at the tape around her knees and whacked her feet with her racquet, in between piercing guttural howls. Vera had gone over the edge. Being so close but yet so far is tennis torture. Pennetta finished her off 6-0 in the third set.

After a debilitating ankle injury in the spring, Zvonareva had fought through a significant amount of pain to advance through the draw. She worked extremely hard to get back into action for Wimbledon, and nagging injuries materialized in her knees as she started to favor the ankle.

If you think tennis is a frustrating game, then try playing it with multiple serious leg injuries. Vera did all she could and it drove her mad that there simply wasn’t enough there to do the deal. Great for Pennetta but sheer agony for Zvonareva.

Heartbreaker #8: Isner over Roddick, 3rd Round at the U.S. Open

As if Andy Roddick didn’t have enough tough luck in Wimbledon. As if his loss to Sam Querrey in the Cincinnati Masters wasn’t enough after that.

It was a rough summer for Andy. It got even rougher when Isner came out like a house on fire, taking the first two sets from a surprisingly resigned Roddick.

But Roddick wasn't dead. He stormed back from a 2-set deficit like a warrior on a mission, only to be bamboozled by the crafty Isner in dramatic fashion during a classic 5th set tiebreaker.

Great news for a burgeoning Isner, but this was bitter agony for Roddick, who most certainly deserved better this season.

Heartbreaker #7: Karlovic Serves 78 Aces In Defeat? What?

My heart will forever bleed for a man that serves 78 aces, on clay no less, and still loses the match. In a 5-hour 59-minute epic that took place in Porec, Croatia, the 6’10” Wimbledon quarterfinalist was denied victory, even after breaking tennis’ all-time ace record. The previous high was 55! It was Karlovic who served 55 aces in a French Open loss earlier in the season.

Unfortunately for Karlovic, it probably would have taken 100 aces to bring the wily Stepanek down.

Karlovic, who was stymied on 4 match points in the match, may very well be forever remembered for this match.

Being remembered is nice, but the fact that the memories come attached with a huge loss in a Davis Cup semifinal equals not so nice.

Heartbreaker #6: Serena’s Foot Fault

I don’t know what was more heartbreaking: Serena’s behavior, or the fact that all the loyal fans who sat through a long day of weather related delays did not get to see a fitting ending to the long awaited match.

Let's face it: This was the match of the tournament, and it went wildly awry.

And let's not forget: Serena was the only player to recover from match-point down to win a Grand-Slam in 2009 (against Dementieva @ Wimbledon). She may have been down, but she certainly wasn’t out. When her verbal assault of a USTA official ended the match prematurely, Kim Clijsters was denied the opportunity to win the match on her terms. It was a bittersweet ending that took the focus away – and for far too long, and far too often – from the mesmerizing motherizing play of Clijsters..

There wasn’t anything good you could say about it the way it ended, and it left everybody involved feeling cheated. This was the worst day of the tennis year – hopefully there were lessons truly learned.

Heartbreaker #5: Rafa’s Knees

When Soderling told Nadal not to let the door hit him on the way out of Paris, we were heartbroken. But we relished the idea of watching Rafa pick himself off the canvas and come out fighting like a wild dog at Wimbledon.

Later that summer, when rumors started to fly about Rafa’s health, it didn’t seem real. But when Uncle Toni told the world that Rafa’s knees were would keep him out of The Championships, a collective groan let out from the chests of true blue tennis fans.

How could it be that a Wimbledon Champion would not defend his title for only the second time in 35 years?

Rafa shut it down after a few exhibitions on the grass in England, and dreams of another Federer v. Nadal Wimbledon final were sadly shelved.

Stunning! A year that begins with many experts vaulting Rafa into tennis-god status becomes the year of Federer Winning the French and Wimbledon consecutively.

Heartbreaker #4: Elena Dementieva’s Near Miss Against Serena At Wimbledon

The longest Wimbledon women’s semifinal since the Open Era began may have been the most nerve-wracking as well. Elena Dementieva kept Serena at bay for the better part of this 6-7(5), 7-5, 8-6 thriller. It was the quintessential cliffhanger, and one that Dementieva certainly could have won.

This match went way above and way beyond the standards, thanks very much to the inspired play of the svelte Russian Dementieva, who seemed hell-bent on acquiring a signature win that would be on par with her Olympic Gold Medal.

Sadly, when the chips were down, Dementieva fell just shy of the mark. On match point, a courageous foray to the net by Serena got her out of trouble.

Much to Dementieva’s chagrin, Serena's volley clipped the tape and skidded down the open court.

Another slam, yet another heartache for Elena.

Heartbreaker #3: Roddick Comes Up Short At Wimbledon

If he didn’t have such a beautiful wife, I would feel really sorry for Andy Roddick. After a beautifully played upset of the Andy Murray Hype Machine in the Wimbledon semis, Roddick set his sights even higher in the Wimbledon final.

Roddick was 2 out of 20 against Federer, and o for Grand Slams against the Swiss Maestro. But for some reason none of that seemed to matter. Roddick took a firm hold of this match from the onset. He proceeded – in a very confident manner – to outplay the King of grass.

Never before had Roddick played so brilliantly against Federer. Never before had Roddick been the superior baseliner.

On this day, he was. The onslaught was so convincing that Roddick soon found himself holding 4 set points to go up 2 sets to love in the 2nd set tiebreaker.

After 4 squandered set points (Roddick missed a high backhand volley on the fourth that will forever be blown out of proportion) Federer had drawn even by stealing the breaker.

From there Roddick, ever the valiant competitor, did not let up. Just when it looked like Federer was in the fast lane to his 15th Grand-Slam title, Roddick broke him in the fourth game of the fourth set and proceeded to level the match.

But Roddick's heroics were once again destined to be wasted. After two squandered break points in the 17th game of the 5th set, Roddick had seen his last opportunity to seize match.

But Roddick apparently didn't get the memo - they played on for 13 gut-wrenching games. The longest 5th set in Wimbledon history ended with a framed - ugghh - Roddick forehand in the 30th game. A jubilant Federer was crossing the threshold that previously marked the difference between him and a true immortal.

It had to be devastating for Roddick to know that he had played the best match possible - the best match of his whole career quite possibly- and that it still wasn’t enough.

Heartbreaker #2 : Safina’s Head

By the end of the first month the theme of the year was already taking shape for Dinara Safina. PAIN!

After a death-defying run to the Australian Open final, Dinara was brushed aside by Serena in convincing fashion. At the conclusion of the 59-minute 6-0, 6-3 thrashing, Safina stated that she was “nothing more than Serena’s ball girl” for the night.

At the time, the general consensus was that Safina had come out flat and that she would learn from the experience in future Slams. In early June, after enjoying a 15-match winning streak and scoring clay titles in Rome and Madrid, Safina found herself with a shot at redemption.

Again, the theme of the season was hammered home as Kuznetsova capitalized on Safina's lack of gusto.

Was she nervous? Did she not believe in her own imposing presence? Instead of being blessed by becoming the 19th female player to reach No. 1 in the world, Safina seemed cursed by the scrutiny of the media and the scores of others who questioned her legitimacy.

The mental torpor bled into her game. She and her coach, Zelko Krajan, became unglued by the expectations of the tennis world.

An early exit against Petra Kvitova in the U.S. Open was followed by the biggest upset in terms of rankings disparity in the history of the WTA, when Safina lost to No. 226-ranked Zhang Shuai in Beijing.

The year started with the highest of hopes for Safina. But a series of gut-wrenching losses left her frazzled - eventually the pain manifested itself in the form of a back injury that is still hampering her today.

Watching a player of Safina’s caliber betray her own abilities is heartbreaking, especially to those of us who’d prefer to see her slay her demons rather than succumb to them.

Heartbreaker #1: Dethroned: Soderling Takes Out Nadal!

This one rocked the tennis world. Nobody in his or her right mind foresaw this. Suddenly we were left with a crater-sized hole in the men’s Roland Garros draw where we thought Nadal was going to be.

As always, Nadal was humble in defeat. "I have to accept with the same calm when I win and when I lose. After four years I lose here, and the season continues." Words like these, and character like Nadal's, are what makes this shocking turn of events heartbreaking.

It was strange seeing Nadal taken down from his pedestal right there in front of the rowdy French revelers who began screaming their support for Soderling. It was even stranger (don't you think?) that he didn’t get the standing ovation that he so obviously deserved after his run ended. But strange isn't the word - this match was SHOCKING!

All good things must come to an end, but there is no guarantee that it won’t break your heart when it does. Now that 2009's cookies have crumbled, there are many who wished it had turned out differently. Rafa Nadal is certainly one of them.

But the possessor of a brave heart will always get a shot at redemption.

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