Tennis players drop off the radar fairly quickly when they stop swinging the racket, which is the down side of the enormous amount of attention they receive when they're taking big cuts that chop down quality rivals. Case in point: the three "mystery players" of 2011.
It tells you something about the health of the game when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Caroline Wozniacki and Novak Djokovic can command so much attention that we forget all about Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Juan Martin del Potro.
That trio has a grand total of 21 singles titles. del Potro has one Grand Slam title, earned at the U.S. Open in 2009. Henin and Williams are veterans closing on 30, which creates certain, obvious challenges. But nothing in their most recent forays on the pro tour suggests that they have lost much of their lethal punch -- at least not physically.
The triumvirate played a grand total of 18 tournaments in 2010, which for a working stiff such as, say, world No. 7 David Ferrer barely amounts to a half season's worth of work (Ferrer played 25 events in 2010). And only one of the three, Williams, added to the group's major title count. Williams won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2010. Henin won two lesser events. del Potro won none.
So it would hardly be shocking if del Potro and either Williams or Henin wind up ranked No. 1 in the world 2011. By the same token, the hardships they've endured leave open the possibility that none of them will even finish in the top 10 of their respective tours, and each of them may have a specific vulnerability.
Henin's shortcoming may be emotional. As dedicated as a nun to her order, she shocked us with an abrupt "retirement" in the middle of 2008 but returned early in 2010 and quickly zoomed back to No. 12. But critical -- and sometimes puzzling -- losses to her main rivals, including Kim Clijsters and Williams, may have soured her. The silence has been deafening since Henin quit for the year after sustaining a partial ligament fracture in her right elbow in the course of a three-set loss to Clijsters at Wimbledon. You have to wonder if Henin's heart is still in it to the requisite degree.
Williams' fatal flaw may be diminished drive. She sliced open her foot in a Munich, Germany, restaurant shortly after she won Wimbledon in July, but what at first seemed like an inconvenience (if one that required 18 stitches) soon became a nasty albatross.
Given that Williams was already on a tennis player's version of a crash diet (while healthy, she'd already cut back to just six tournaments in the first six months of the year), she's playing rankings (and seeding) roulette and facing the prospect of returning with journeyman status and no match play for almost a full year. Somehow, I don't get the feeling that she's willing to beef up her ranking the old-fashioned way -- by collecting points at smaller events. This is a big personality with a "go big or stay home" mentality.
del Potro's vulnerability seems to be mental. He abandoned his efforts in the Australian Open last year because of a bad wrist, and since then his camp has declared more return dates than Elton John has made farewell tours. The only thing more disappointing than all those deferred comebacks has been the way del Potro played when he did finally re-emerge. He played two matches this fall, both first-round losses (in Thailand and Japan).
After being bombarded in the Japan Open by Feliciano Lopez, 6-3, 6-0, del Potro abruptly pulled the plug to circle the wagons and prepare for 2011. This big fella may have been knocked for a loop in more ways than one when he beat Federer to bag his New York major, and one has to wonder if he has the poise and confidence to reach comparable heights again. The "One-Slam Wonder" label is as much a part of tennis as the dominant champion.
Let's not diminish the critical role injury has played for all three players, but let's recognize that there's nothing "business as usual" when it comes to any of these players. Everyone loves a mystery, and the trio will bring plenty of it to the new year.