How the Mighty Fall (and climb back again)

There’s a common story among tennis players: They rise, they fall, and rise again. Equally common are the causes: Injuries, unsteady nerves, waning confidence, as well as the inevitable, physical decline. But even the top players who are seemingly born with the best DNA can experience moments when they unexpectedly fall hard. It isn’t just how or when players fall that matters most, but rather, how they respond to it, both physically and mentally.

Roger Federer: The Old Goat

Based on his recent form (and results), will 29-year-old Roger Federer be considered “over-the-hill” if he drops to No. 4? Hardly. But, for a player who remains at the top of the tennis world and is revered as the greatest player of all time, how can anyone be sure if he’s past his peak? Could the tip-off be when he is only able to reach the quarters of a masters or a Grand Slam? Can failed attempts to re-capture the No. 1 position be the sign? Or, is it when he consistently loses to a much lower ranked player that confirms the inevitable? 

Aside from Federer’s on-court duals (or, duopoly) with Nadal, he has been virtually unstoppable for the past eight years. Which is why it is surprising that Federer has been on the losing end of his last three matches against world No. 2 (and his latest rival) Novak Djokovic, fueling the debate about Federer’s future. Another problem for Federer: Being in the top three, there’s more room to go down than up. But rest assured, when the seeds of Federer’s decline have been planted, we’ll know it, and he’ll know it. For now, let’s enjoy his mastery of the game.

Judgement Call: Federer could take a page from Kim Clijsters’ play book and just play the Majors and a few other big tournaments. He’d never lose and would be able to maintain a top three ranking.

Li Na: Trailblazer in a Slump

No. 6 in the world and can’t win a match? That’s the situation that Li Na is currently in. The 2011 Australian Open finalist and the first Chinese player in tennis history to crack the top 10 has now had a five-match losing streak since the Australian Open final. Li Na has suddenly become consistently inconsistent, with little explanation for her slump. Can she rebound in Stuttgart? Her record on clay isn’t great (0-2), but she was a runner-up in Estoril twice (’05-’06).

Judgement Call: As the defending champ at Birmingham, the grass court season could be the time when Li Na can break out of her slump and get back on a winning track.

Juan Martin del Potro: Just a Matter of Time

Many were at a loss for words when former world No. 4 and US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro announced in 2010 that he would be having wrist surgery, which could have kept him out of competition indefinitely. After a nine-month absence, the 22-year-old has made an impressive comeback, advancing to the semis in San Jose and Memphis, and winning Delray Beach. He has climbed back from No. 236 in the rankings at the start of 2011 to No. 46, and is likely headed back to the top 10 by the summer hard-court season.

Judgement Call: Juan Martin still looks a bit tired after matches. Hopefully he can pace himself a bit better in between matches and tournaments. As they say, you don’t know if you’ve done too much, too soon until it’s too late.

Maria Sharapova: The Summit is in Clear View

The former No. 1 and winner of 22 singles titles is as close to being “back” as she’s ever been, and has returned to the top 10 for the first time since 2008. Maria Sharapova's shoulder surgery in 2009 was a significant setback for her, but Maria’s never-give-in, never-give-up mentality has served her well over the past two years…well enough to make a successful climb back to the No. 9 spot. Speaking of serves, we all know that there is more to a player’s arsenal than just a serve. However, Maria’s serving problems have been holding her back, and were likely the main cause of her loss to Victoria Azarenka in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open.

Judgement Call: It’s not clear if Maria’s serving problems are physical, mental, or a combination of both. If she can get beyond that, we may be seeing her raise the Venus Rosewater dish once again at Wimbledon.

Mardy Fish: Version 2

Few people can call Mardy Fish an underachiever these days. But there was a time when he was just that. Mardy enjoyed a stretch of great results during 2003-2004 (when he was consistently ranked in the top 20), but has had streaky results since then. Dealing with multiple injuries hasn’t helped much, keeping him out of the game for extended periods, and causing his ranking to plummet. Now at age 29, he’s the No. 1 ranked American (at No. 10), passing Andy Roddick (who has fallen outside of the top 10). Despite his new career-high ranking, Mardy is no stranger to top 10 opponents. Over the past few years, Mardy has been tested by some of the giants of the game, and won. Most notably, Roger Federer, whom he beat at Indian Wells in 2008. “I think people can tell that I’ve changed my work ethic (physically and mentally) in the past two years,” said Mardy in a recent interview. His next goal: playing in the semis of a Grand Slam. He has made it to the quarterfinals of the US Open (2008) and the Australian Open (2007).

Judgement Call: Mardy’s success over the past nine months makes me wonder: Can he keep up his momentum in 6 or 7 five-setters over a fortnight, or will he be overpowered by the bigger, more resilient players? This could be a true test for him.

Serena Williams: Is the Climb Too Steep?

For many years, Serena Williams was at the pinnacle of women’s tennis, and has been an undeniable force on the big stages, amassing 13 Grand Slam singles titles in her 16-year career. She’s had her fair share of injuries, but has always managed to rebound, and come back stronger. Weeks have turned into months since Serena last set foot on a tennis court (Wimbledon 2010). We all know the story of her foot injury (no need to repeat), as well has her recent health scare from a pulmonary embolism and subsequent hematoma. But Serena’s indefinite absence from competition is making her fans and the media a bit antcy (not to mention her sponsors). It remains to be seen if Serena can, or even will rise again. If her health holds up and she wants to play tennis again, it’s all up to her. The DNA will always be there.

Judgement Call: If Serena chooses to stage her comeback at Wimbledon, can she rise to the occasion? If not, something tells me she isn’t the type to retire while the world is watching her game in decline. She’s not wildcard material.

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