A Tale of Two Wrists

Tennis matches are elegant affairs of graceful geometry, but tennis rankings are blunt things of low arithmetic. A guy wins more stuff, he get more points, his ranking goes up. The concept isn’t taxing, although the ramifications and the subtleties are numerous, as is inevitable for any system with this many moving parts. If you’re a certain kind of fan it’s all pretty enthralling, although it’s not the kind of expertise you can successfully unleash at parties, even tennis parties. Believe me.

That said, here’s a list of the players who’ve lost the most points in the last calendar year. Do not recite at parties:

  1. Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)    -6605 pts
  2. Nikolay Davydenko (RUS)    -3275 pts
  3. Novak Djokovic (SRB)    -2275 pts
  4. Fernando Gonzalez (CHI)    -2150 pts
  5. Radek Stepanek (CZE)    -1830 pts
  6. Tommy Haas (USA)    -1745 pts
  7. Roger Federer (SUI)    -1405 pts
  8. Andy Murray (GBR)    -1270 pts
  9. Gilles Simon (FRA)    -1270 pts
  10. Tommy Robredo (ESP)    -1260 pts

There’s plenty of fascinating information here – three of the Big Four are there; will Haas or Gonzalez return? – but it’s the first two I’ll focus on for the moment. These are the two who finished 2009 at the top of the heap, form-wise, slugging it out in final of the Year End Championships. Heading into 2010, the signs were ominous for their peers . . .

Juan Martin del Potro

Now that the giant Argentine has buggered his wrist, there is no shortage of commentators keen to point to his forehand, with its deft little flourish on the backswing, and insist that a breakdown was inevitable. Funny thing is, I don’t recall anyone saying anything before he injured it. No one was shy in foretelling doom for Nadal’s knees before they imploded. The way the Spaniard moves, the fierce endeavour in every point; it was merely a matter of when. del Potro’s wrist, though? Not so much. It must be a conspiracy of silence, since everyone just knew it was going to break down, and no one uttered a word. 20/20 hindsight and all of that.

Regardless, it was mortal blow for a gentle young guy storming his way into the elite. del Potro’s absence has been tennis’s loss, and contributed in no small way to perpetuating the Fedal duopoly. We’ve been assured he’ll return for the Australian Open (he has accepted a wildcard for Sydney). I don’t doubt he will be, but the lingering question will be whether his wrist, like Kuerten’s hip, will ever fully recover. He is now ranked 257.

Nikolay Davydenko

When Davydenko won in Doha back in January, overcoming both Federer and Nadal for the second straight tournament, there was a strong argument to be made that he was the best tennis player in the world, at least over three sets. He’d won his last five matches against the two greatest players of the era, and his performance in winning the World Tour Finals the previous December had been so complete that del Potro had complained it was like playing against a Playstation 3 on hard mode. Davydenko was installed – correctly, I thought – as one of the favourites in Melbourne.

Roger Federer knew better. He knew that in Grand Slam play, character is destiny. They collided in the quarterfinals, in one of the more bizarre encounters in a year replete with them. Davydenko came out firing, taking the ball earlier and crisper than seemed technically possible. He flat out murdered Federer in that first set, and Federer wasn’t playing badly. Somehow, enduring this onslaught, the Swiss looked unruffled. He knew something we didn’t. Up a break in the second, it happened: Davydenko collapsed. Federer took the next 13 games, and that was the match.

The following month in Rotterdam, Davydenko fell heavily on his left wrist. Although he continued to play through it for another month, an MRI scan at Indian Wells revealed a fracture, and he was effectively out until Halle, where he played despite doctor’s orders. In no way has he been the same player since. Post US Open, usually his time to shine and earn, he has compiled a 7-7 record, and has departed the top 20. At 29, he hardly has age on his side, although his self-professed love of the money will doubtless see him push on until he can push no longer.

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