Young and old golfers vying to dismantle Tiger’s hold of the PGA

January opens a new chapter to all our lives, but it is a sign of renewal for some of our favorite pastimes as well. The PGA tour started their 2009 play on the isles of Hawaii as they begin their annual West Coast swing of the golf season. Golfers young and old are scrambling to establish themselves on the tour before the #1 player in the world comes back to work in late March.

Many believe that Anthony Kim has the attitude and game to compete with Tiger Woods this season. Camilo Villegas was a star in waiting during his first two years on the tour and blossomed during the 2008 FedEx Cup playoffs with two tournament victories. Both players have become the poster boys for the youth movement on the tour, but their success will be measured by tournament wins, especially capturing multiple major titles.

Defending FedEx Cup champion Vijay Singh did compete in the first tournament of the season, but will sit out the remainder of the West Coast swing. He will have knee surgery to repair a torn cartilage and is expected to miss five weeks of action. Sergio Garcia still remains the best player on the tour not to have won a major title. He tied for second place in the PGA Championship last year and has finished with a top-five finish in three of the last four British Opens. Unfortunately for Garcia, no trophies are given to the runner-up. And then there is the dilemma of Phil Mickelson.

Lefty had won a major tournament in three consecutive years before losing the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot with a double bogey on the 18th hole. Since then, Mickelson has not won a major and more importantly his round play has been inconsistent. Lefty in his last 10 major appearances has missed the cut twice and finished a combined 80 shots out of the lead. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and golf swing guru Butch Harmon has been brought in to assist Mickelson in regaining his stroke for the coming season.

What would a PGA tour preview be without a Tiger update? Well, he began hitting balls at a driving range in December and declared himself better than ever. Though he told Craig Sager at the Orlando/Boston game last night that his game just isn’t there yet. No one in the Woods camp will confirm his exact return date, but the official statement is that Tiger is ahead of his rehabilitation schedule after reconstructive knee surgery in June. It is safe to assume that Woods will compete in tournaments prior to the start of the Masters in April. But one thing is for certain, once Tiger returns, he will be ready to win.

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Is greatness slipping away from Roger Federer?

The record book will show that Roger Federer won the 2008 U.S. Open Men’s Championship over Andy Murray. But something is missing. His dominance in the sport hasn’t been noticeable this year. Let’s just face it; Roger Federer is not Roger Federer anymore.

Wait a minute, a terrible year? How many players on the men’s tour would take a semifinal appearance at the Australian Open, two finals appearances at the French Open and Wimbledon, and a Grand Slam victory at the U.S. Open, all in the same year?

Is Federer dominating? No. We are not used to seeing him struggle in the early rounds. What use to be a brisk workout for him has now become nervy five-set encounter. Federer’s brilliance ultimately prevails, but never once does he look like he’s in control of the match.

So what has changed in his game? Well, Federer is not setting up balls for the kill shot that usually keeps his opponents’ off-balance. Balls that have rocketed off his racket in the past are now just dribbling over the net as a return or an unimpressive point. Instead of ripping through sets, he is now winning a series of mini-marathons.

The last set of his semi-final match against Novak Djokovic on Saturday was reminiscent of the old Federer. He regained his cross-court backhand that, in years past, would go by his opponent like a shortstop reaching for a line drive off a hitter’s bat.

Maybe Federer won’t return to the #1 ranking, and maybe he’s not a sure thing anymore on the tour. His dominance is slipping. But Federer did remind everyone this weekend at Flushing that he still has a few bullets left in his racket. Was this a return to greatness or just a brief glimpse of the past?

Only time will tell.

Reign Man: Federer beats Murray for 5th straight U.S. Open title

No matter what was said or written about his recent play, Roger Federer knew he had one more chance to salvage a disappointing season. After missed opportunities in the French Open and Wimbledon finals, Federer easily defeated Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 on Monday evening to win his fifth consecutive U.S. Open Championship.

Murray didn’t feel fatigue contributed to his straight set defeat. Instead, he felt his defense stance behind the baseline was no match for Federer’s offensive game. And the final numbers do not lie about his dominance in every facet of this final. Federer accumulated a 36-16 advantage in winning shots, a 7-2 lead in service breaks, and winning a point on 31 of 44 trips to the net.

Murray had less than 24 hours to prepare for the men’s finals after defeating the World’s #1 player Rafael Nadal in a rain-interrupted semifinal that concluded late Sunday afternoon.

Federer became the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920’s to win this tournament five times in a row. He also upped his Grand Slam tally to 13, which puts Federer one behind the men’s record holder Pete Sampras.

U.S. Open Men’s Final Preview: Roger Federer vs. Andy Murray

Andy MurrayAs much as it pains tennis enthusiasts to miss out on another Federer/Nadal showdown, this match with Andy Murray will still contain the passion and close competition of that rivalry. Murray has a reputation of being one of the most disliked players on the tour. People say he’s petulant, argumentative, and that he likes to talk a little trash before a match. Nobody expected him to come this far—his lanky physique and penchant to helplessly huff and puff late into matches have caused critics to write him off as one who lacks what it takes to win a Grand Slam. To say that Great Britain has high hopes for Murray is an understatement. Fred Perry was the last Brit to win a Grand Slam, way back in 1936. It’s true that Murray has beaten Federer two out of their three meetings, but it has never been under the pressure of a Grand Slam final, which Federer has won 12 times to Murray’s zero. Despite Nadal’s absence, there’s still plenty at stake here. Andy Murray has a chance to get his first taste of dominance, and this is Federer’s opportunity to reclaim it.

The match will air today at 5 PM ET on CBS.

U.S. Open Women’s Final Preview: Serena Williams vs. Jelena Jankovic

Serena WilliamsIt’s been six years since an American-born woman has played in a U.S. Open singles final. That match featured one of the earliest showdowns between the Williams sisters. At just 21 years of age, that was Serena’s second U.S. Open championship. Now, close to her 27th birthday, she’s gunning for her third against Serbian Jelena Jankovic. Though Jankovic has advanced to three Grand Slam semifinals this year, her match tomorrow against Serena will be the first Grand Slam final of her career. The two have the most powerful serves in the game, a skill which can produce numerous unforced errors by their opponents. Both are patient and able to sustain extended volleys as well. If Serena can consistently rush the net and get ahead early, she’s the favorite. The key to Jankovic’s success will be her placement; if she can pinpoint her crosscourt volleys and keep Williams on the run, we’ll have a new U.S. Open champion. Either way, we’re guaranteed a new #1 ranked women’s player.

The match will air Saturday at 7 PM ET on CBS.

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