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Into the Crystal Ball: Looking Ahead to 2008

Joel Drucker: Special to ESPN.com

If Andre Agassi taught tennis followers anything, it was the danger of making predictions. How many times was it written that he'd never win a Slam, or not likely win another, or certainly never be an impact player?
A wise scholar once said, "Prediction is no substitute for analysis."

Here's what we hope is an informed look at what might be coming down the pike in 2008.

Roger Federer

You can expect Roger Federer's reign to continue in 2008. You can also assume, thanks to Rafael Nadal, it will be difficult for Federer to capture the French Open.

Fed Express continues to deliver -- but not forever
It's been four years on the trot at the top now for the brilliant 26-year-old Swiss. The coronation will continue, and there will be plenty of great tennis coming from this man's racket, but it's also likely that at least half his regal reign is over. It may sound heretical to say this about a man who just won three Slams, but there were a few tiny cracks in Federer in 2007 -- much like a baseball player who went from hitting .410 to .390. He suffered multiple losses to the likes of Guillermo Canas, David Nalbandian and, yes, Rafael Nadal. His Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals were won more by grubbing than zoning. And as for his effort to earn that elusive French Open title, former pro David Wheaton said, "With every passing year, that becomes much harder. Losing to Nadal three straight years in Paris, that becomes a mental hurdle. That French is very much in doubt. I would love for Federer to prove me wrong and win it. I say, you better enjoy him now."

Guard not ready to change yet


Federer's reign can likely continue because it's not quite clear if there's another player graced with the skill and cojones to topple him. Regarding longstanding No. 2 Nadal, ESPN-Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias said, "He's the most physical guy I've ever seen. But will he break down?"

As for Novak Djokovic, the man who leaped from 16 in the world at the end of '06 to his current spot at No. 3, Wheaton said, "He's so technically sound, but I wonder, where's the dominating shot? He's got to be someone who can mow people down."

Others with significant skills have shown a few results but yet to bring it big enough at the Slams. Nalbandian's two Masters Series wins were impressive, but it's uncertain if he's that good for the high stakes tournaments or if his opponents were that tired. As for another sizzling shotmaker, No. 8 Richard Gasquet, Arias said, "I keep waiting for him to have a top-five year, but he seems to break down physically." And on that note, Gasquet just pulled out of the season-opening event in Adelaide with a knee injury.

Solving a problem named Sharapova

Her confidence took a hit in 2007, so 2008 -- the year she turns 21 -- becomes a major growth opportunity.

Despite a down year in 2007, Maria Sharapova is still a top-five player -- and not yet 21 years old.
If indeed her serve was derailed by physical problems, then hopefully they will have healed and she should be spanking the ball as she did in reaching the final of the year-end championships. But beyond that, 2008 will reveal if Sharapova can strut her strengths (power, grit) effectively enough to overcome her weaknesses (movement, lack of variety). At the highest levels of the game, it's more about maximizing assets than dealing with liabilities.

Americans: Davis Cup boost?


For the first time since 1988, an American man failed to reach a Grand Slam final. Might the recent Davis Cup win provide a boost of confidence?

"It would be great if it gave [Andy] Roddick and [James] Blake momentum," said Wheaton, "but the tour can wear you down. By the time it's March and you're working through an early round match at Indian Wells, it's hard to remember all that good tennis played back in December."

Regarding Roddick, Arias sees all sides.

"He's a great fighter; he will never play a match where he isn't into it," Arias said. And yet, Roddick's limitations in such areas as the transition part of the court and at the net could well hold him back. "Once you're in the pros, it's hard to broaden your game."

As for Blake, expect him to continue delighting crowds.

"He has really elevated his game," said Wheaton. "When he's playing well, he can play with anyone, including Federer."

The rub comes when Blake isn't playing well and finds himself scratching for form and self-confidence.

"He plays such low-percentage tennis that I can't see him playing seven good matches," Arias said. "At the U.S. Open, though, he gets the crowd and the energy behind him, so that could be his place. Certainly he has the weapons. But why if you're so fast do you need to go for winners when you're in trouble?"

It's uncertain if such young Americans as Donald Young and John Isner have the goods to build permanent top-50 careers. Young showed vast signs of improvement in 2007, playing tons of Challenger matches to crack the top 100. Isner burst on the scene, aided of course by his monster serve.

"He will always have a chance to win with that kind of serve," said Wheaton.

Gambling: A modest proposal

Arias turned pro in the late '70s. Wheaton finished his career in 2001. Over the course of more than two decades, neither recalls any discussions among their fellow pros about gambling on tennis matches. Right now it's taking tennis into tabloid territory.

"It's very hard to enforce," said Wheaton. "You don't need a team to control the outcome."

Arias' belief is that gambling might be curtailed if the rankings system was reformed. During his career, every tournament counted toward a player's rankings. Currently, that's no longer the case, as the ATP only counts a player's efforts in the Slams, nine Masters Series events and his best five results in other tournaments -- in other words, only 18 events in a time when most players enter in excess of 20 tournaments a year. Perhaps if everything is part of the ranking there will be less incentive for a player to throw a match.
 

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^^ Ha ha I thought so too. I only put it here because there is nothing else to talk about. He's basically saying that Fed will continue but will lose some matches, Nadal will win on clay and we can't say anything about Djokovic yet. It's almost as if he is afraid somebody will come and smack him if he makes an out of the line prediction.
 
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