I’ve recovered from my trip to Brazil, the flu, and an over-full stomach, and now I’m ready to get back to my exhaustive obsession with the world of tennis.

Starting with, of course, those terrifying year end lists. It’s not just that I’m startled to see another year sneak up on me much, much faster than I imagined possible – the worst part is realizing I’m not much closer to some of my dearly held goals than I was at the beginning of the year, it’s the task of predicting the future of tennis players who’s psyches may not be up to the task of being the next big thing.

Who’d thunk that Juan Martin del Potro would bust out and win four straight events and have the nerve to stand up to David Nalbandian by putting the year end championships ahead of the Davis Cup as if there were all the time in the world for Argentina to win its first Cup? In del Potro’s mind, there probably is plenty of time.

Del Potro is my pick for the ATP most improved player and here are the rest of the top 13 categories. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I want to talk about the prospects for Andy Roddick’s new coach, Larry Stefanki. Can he bring something new to Andy’s game? But let’s go through them for a few minutes.

1. ATP player of the year. Rafael Nadal absolutely. And I’m willing to bet that this is his highlight year, particularly with the Olympic gold medal thrown.

2. WTA player of the year. This is tough because no one dominated and Jelena Jankovic is the weakest number one we’ve had in terms of slam credentials. But Jelena wins it because she was by far the most consistent player while everyone else was either injured or unable to deal with injury – Ana Ivanovic’s thumb injury affected her confidence as much as it did her thumb, or unable to win a final – Svetlana Kuznetsova lost all five finals she played this year.

3. ATP match of the year (I know, I know, but maybe some people may disagree). The Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But I will say this, I still think the 1980 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg with that 18-16 fourth set tiebreak was better.

4. WTA match of the year. I’m picking the Wimbledon final between Serena and Venus only because it’s so good to see them go toe to toe in a slam final again.

5. ATP most improved player. JMDP. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gets an honorable mention.

6. & 8. The WTA most improved player. Dinara Safina without a doubt. And whoever it was that surrounded her with so much positive support that she positively busted out of her former insecure and self-lacerating persona, deserves the WTA coach of the year award.

7. ATP coach of the year. You know what, I’m giving it to Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle, because I don’t think he gets the props he deserves. Rafa’s game had improved every year and surely Toni deserves some of the credit.

9. Player who abused the medical timeout rule the most. This was just a weak attempt on my part to bring up the subject of Novak Djokovic because he didn’t fit into any other category, and he’s known for racking up impressive lists of injuries which don’t seem to keep him from winning matches. Maybe the category should have been “Player who most got in his own way, ” because Nole managed to piss off the US Open crowd after Roddick teased him about his injuries, and he persists in being in your face arrogant. Still, I have him winning at least two or three more slams if he would just grow up.

10. ATP player who is most likely to drop far down the rankings next year. People have been picking James Blake but I think he’s still got another year or two in the top 10 or 15 before he sinks. He’s thirty years old but he doesn’t have a lot of miles on his body. I’m more concerned about David Ferrer’s confidence and, even though I’ve been wrong about him the past two years, David Nalbandian’s motivation.

11. WTA player who is most likely to drop far down the rankings next year. Far is a relative term. If you started the year at number two and ended the year at number eight, that’s a big drop. For that reason, my pick is Kunetsova because Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova will be back next year and Serena Williams and Venus Williams are now regular tour members.

12. ATP Player who is most likely to rise far up the rankings next year. I’m with Jenny on this one. Marin Cilic is now the number one player in Croatia and he’s up to number 22. He’s got a pistol whip of a forehand and great movement. He’s got so much game that it still might take him a year or two to reach the upper regions, but I’d put my money on him.

13. WTA Player who is most likely to rise far up the rankings next year. Agnieszka Radwanska is a teenager, she’s in the top ten, she played in the year end championships. She’s my pick and does she look like Dinara Safina’s sister or what?

While Andy Roddick’s recent coach, Jimmy Connors, was getting himself arrested for failing to disperse after getting into a tiff with the police at a UC Santa Barbara basketball game – this happened, by the way, before the game had even started, Andy’s new coach, Larry Stefanki, was figuring out what possible changes he could bring to a veteran’s game.

As you could guess by now, the number one priority is Roddick’s return of serve. Tennis players today are vastly improved when it comes to return of serve. Federer is right at the top and Nadal is not far behind. And I remember watching Rik De Voest, who’s now ranked number 154, return Andy’s serve pretty handily at the Los Angeles ATP event and thinking that Andy was in trouble.

But he’s not. He held serve 91% of the time this year and that’s the best percentage on tour. In an interview with tennis writer Charlie Bricker, Stefanki didn’t exactly talk about Andy improving his return of serve as much as changing his attitude:

Confidence is built on the right mechanics and having the right philosophy in your head. Andy, especially on second serve returns, needs to get more aggressive. Not necessarily going for everything, but not just sitting back and returning the ball.

And this too:

He’s not a David Ferrer 5-foot-9 roadrunner. You’ve got to take more risks and unless you do you’re not going to create that presence you want on the court.

First of all, if you’re not a good returner, at least act like one. No standing way off in the hinterlands to return serve – as Roddick used to do awhile back. Players can smell fear a mile away and nothing buoys confidence like fear in an opponent. Bunting a second serve back into the court falls into the same category. It’s not the same as backing up, but it’s passive at the very least.

And, if you’re deficient in a particular skill, you have to take more chances. That should be easier for Andy than many other players as Stefanki also pointed out. If your serve is deficient and you take chances by going for winners, you could easily lose your serve. If your ground strokes are deficient and you aim for the lines, you’ll run up unforced errors. But Andy will hold his serve 9 out of 10 times; he can afford to take a few whacks at second serves.

Works for me. Andy ended the year at number 8 but he was number 6 when he went into the year-end championships. If he ends 2009 at number 6, that would be a major victory considering the emergence of Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and del Potro.

Andy dropped out of the year-end championships with an ankle injury and he missed some tournaments this year with a shoulder problem. Athletes are like cars. Once they start having problems, it’s often downhill from there. For his sake, I hope he’s got a few more years on him because he’s a guy who does as much with what he has as any other player out there, and I appreciate that.

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