One of the revelations of visiting a tennis training facility during the nominal "offseason" is that you get a chance to see a range or pro players working on their games instead of battling it out under intense pressure to advance to the next round in a tournament.
Pressure does funny things to players -- and to their strokes and strategies. But in a vigorous practice session, with nothing at stake, you can see the essence of a player's physical assets -- you see their true potential. Want to assign a degree of difficulty to tennis as a game? Just watch a player -- of any level -- practice, and then watch him or her play a tournament match.
Last week at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, I had a chance to watch a slew of players, including Jelena Jankovic, Kei Nishikori, Sabine Lisicki, Ivo Karlovic and Michaella Krajicek. It was a feast for a tennis-starved soul and perhaps a preview for 2009. The tennis crowd knows all about Jankovic, but Krajicek and Lisicki -- a pair of 19-year-olds -- are still under the radar. That could change by the end of the Australian Open.
Krajicek and Lisicki are players cut from similar cloth. They're big, rangy and versatile. Each of them has a serve that reveals one of the most interesting long-term developments of the past decade in women's tennis -- the increasing ability of women to serve big. While Serena and Venus Williams might be Exhibit A for this theory, Krajicek and Lisicki are part of the larger and ever-growing pool of WTA pros for whom the serve is not just a tool. It's a weapon.
Lisicki is a 19-year-old from Berlin, Germany, and in 2008 she didn't even merit a page in the WTA media guide. She started the year ranked -- barely -- inside the top 200, but finished at No. 57. And although she hasn't won a main tour title, she reached her first final (Tashkent) in the fall, losing the title match in a third-set tiebreaker. This woman is 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds and she moves well, so the upside is huge.
Krajicek had street cred as soon as she ventured onto the tour, because she's the sister of former Wimbledon champ (and ace-machine) Richard Krajicek. She showed her bloodlines by reaching the Wimbledon quarters in 2007. Last year she was injury-plagued and forced off the tour with knee problems in early July. She returned to competition in October, and she's demonstrated great resilience on the qualifying trail. She made the final at Bratislava in early November -- ensuring her a place in the Australian Open qualifying event for 2009.
Each of these girls is capable of having a big year. Watching them, I felt I might be looking at the WTA equivalent of the NFL star, Terrell Owens (without the bad bits). The trick, as Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams will tell you, is to show the same stuff in matches as you do in practice. If Krajicek and Lisicki can do that, we'll be seeing plenty of them next year.