Merry Christmas and happy holidaze, everyone! The hectic Yuletide Party Season has cut down my Challenger Tennis 12 Days of Christmas profiles to one-per-day instead of two. But I think you’ll all agree that I’m sufficiently long-winded in this one, and that you’ll not be  left wanting when you’ve finished today’s feast. So let’s stuff ourselves with today’s ponderous profile, shall we?

Confession: I think I’ve seen nearly twenty Henri Kontinen matches in my lifetime. And I can’t say enough about this guy’s game (although I will attempt to). For my money (and I have very little), Henri is a surefire Top 50 player; and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were Top 5 two or three years down the road.  But it’s not just me saying that; some Top 50 pros, like Michael Berrer and Jarkko Nieminen, have gone on record saying Henri is a future Top 20 player.  And they have a lot more money than I do.

Though Michael Llodra has certainly done his part this year to ward off any non-believers, those who still think serve and volley tennis is dead and buried would do well to see Henri Kontinen play. Armed with a huge serve and a feel at the net that recalls, dare I say, Stefan Edberg (I dare say it!), Henri has a style of play rarely seen in the ATP today. With his one-handed backhand, his always-looking-to-attack attitude and the touch at net when he gets there, it’s actually quite difficult not to make the lazy Edberg association as you see the blond-haired flying Finn careening about the court. And though Kontinen isn’t necessarily a pure serve and volleyer – he picks his spots, depending on surface obviously, but plays a lot of S&V on grass – he has an all-court game in which he’s itching to get to net at the first opportunity that his flat and penetrating groundstrokes can provide him. Having to see so many players using “hit and retreat” tactics and forgoing short ball invitations to net all season long makes watching Henri’s game style such a refreshing change of pace.

OK – enough of me spinning my introductory wheels; let’s get down to the resume, here. Henri, aka HenKon, Henkka, Kone, The Kontinental Soldier, The Jark Shadow, Henk, etc., is a former Junior #4 and French Open boys’ doubles champ (with Christopher “Rug Rat” Rungkat) who perhaps most famously was the 2008 Wimbledon Boys Singles runner-up to Grigor Dimitrov.

Henri began 2009 ranked #1,818 and finnished it at #288, accomplishing his meteoric rankings ascent even while overcoming a wrist injury that kept him out for 3 months. After starting his 2009 campaign in March, he was able to post a 41-19 record in his first almost-full year on the men’s tour. Consequently, Henri gained the most ranking spots among all ATP pros in 2009. To top it all off, he was also a Davis Cup hero, winning not one but two live fifth rubbers.

So everything looking up, right? Wrong.

Injuries and inconsistency plagued Henri throughout 2010, and as a result he tread tennistical water this past year. The 20 year-old (and 5 months) from Helsinki ended up playing 12 fewer matches than he did in 2009. He badly injured an ankle training for Davis Cup in South Africa this summer, and this ailment really hurt him as he limped through the rest of the season. (He was able to take time, however, to go to an oversized Pretoria petting zoo. So. Silver lining? Probably not.)

Yes, Henri won 13 straight matches upon his return (taking two Futures titles along the way), but his ankle and leg woes wore him down as he ultimately hobbled to a 6/7 conclusion.  He got into a worrisome pattern at the end of the year, too, appearing to go away in some final sets and making meals of matches he should be otherwise feasting on, but I don’t know how much of that is attributable to his ankle, leg, or other ailments. Although he went a respectable 31/17 in the matches he was able to play, the player who picked up the most ranking spots in 2009 picked up only 18 more in 2010, ending it ranked #270.

Perhaps all this is what led him to tweet, after a rough R2 loss to Matt Ebden at the Loughborough Challenger in November: “so sick of this year…can not wait for 2010 to be finished.”

Alas, more heartbreak soon followed, as he lost 2-6 5-7 to Matthias Bachinger in a Salzburg Challenger R1. “It’s tough to win matches when one moves like a fat elephant,” he wrote in what might be the tennis tweet of the year. (As an aside, I can think of few players as funny as the Finn; though he can be moody and petulant at times (I can relate!), I feel it would be good for the tour if someone with his kind of smarts and silliness were to make it to the highest level.)

And though he went on to take the doubles title in L’borough with Freddie Nielsen and teamed up with his mentor and self-professed idol, The Jark Lord Jarkko Nieminen, to make the finals in Helsinki, he lost that one too in another heartbreaker, 6-7(17)* 6-0 7-10 to Dustin Brown and Martin Emmrich. “what an ending to the season……,” he wrote in his penultimate tweet of 2010 (to date).

Happily for Henkka, this year only has six more days in it. That said, 2011 needs to be a big year for him. The only two players whom I consider to be his peers, Ricardas Berankis and Dimitrov, have left him behind in the past year (although he still leads the way in all widely-circulated internet-posted buggy pictures). 

The good new is: there’s still plenty of time – even with his “lost year” of sorts, Henri is still the 13th-youngest player in the Top 275. And if Kontinen is healthy and happy in the new year, I think he can make the same kind of splash in 2011 that Ricardas and Grigor made in 2010. Though I have no idea what his schedule is in the new year – Henk, if you’re reading this, be a doll Finn and drop your sched into the comments section, won’t you? – or what his state of health/fitness/being is heading into this new year, he has no points to defend until the end of February; so he can make up a lot of ground in a little time if he hits the ground running in ’11.

Anyway, that’s enough of my words-and-pictures gobbledygook. Let’s watch some videos, huh? Here’s a nice little Wimbyvid showing bits of his match against Grigor:

I think Henri would approve more of the aural accompaniment in this next video, as he’s a big house music fan whose been known to get into “proper music” arguments with his coach, Peter Carlson, and the Jark Lord, who prefers rock. This here is from a 7-6(2) 3-6 7-5 win over Marco Crugnola at the Stockholm Open in October ’09. It’s also a perfect depiction of how I view most matches on my computer. Check out the amazing point at the 4-minute mark, as they start the 10th game of the 3rd set. Oh, and Henri is in a red shirt at the beginning of the clip, then changes to blue. Don’t be fooled!

Finally, the best quality video of his tennis that I could find – probably the high point of Henri’s year, as well; another heroic Davis Cup victory in a live fifth rubber, this one a five set thriller over Michal Przysiezny in Poland:

My goodness, this is a ridiculously long profile. I’ll shut up now. Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

*not a typo