Looking back, it was an amazing year. It started off with the 6 hour final Down Under between Nole and Rafa. Then there was the continuation of the amazing resurgence of Roger, including another Wimbledon and ultimately regaining the number one ranking. By the end of the year, Djokovic had reestablished himself as the king of the hill. Yes, each of the top four had won a major, but in crunch time, it seemed Novak was almost always just a little bit tougher than the rest. Certainly, the emergence of Andy Murray as the premier pretender to the throne was a major story. So many of us saw the potential and were waiting for it to happen. But at the end of the year, as close as Andy was to usurping Novak at the Tour Finals in London, he did seem to really be just a pretender. You have to respect the toughness and consistency that has come to be almost a trademark trait for Djokovic. He shows no fear. He just plays. And he believes. Always.
The saddest part of the top of the men’s game was the loss of Nadal for what turns out now to be more than 6 months. It seemed he had finally adjusted to the new level Djokovic had imposed as he raised La Coupe des Mousquetaires one more time. He would challenge again. But 2 1/2 weeks later he was gone, at the hands of Lukas Rosol. Yes, Lukas Rosol and no, you have barely heard of Lukas since. Rosol won 4 more main tour matches on clay in July, failed to qualify at the US Open and won 2 more main tour matches in Moscow. He did win a challenger in Bratislava in his final event of the year in November. It seems that final set against Nadal was just an aberration. Too bad. It was something to behold. We have to think it left a burning sensation in Rafa’s mouth as he tried to swallow that defeat. Rafa didn’t play that badly in the fifth: 77% first serves at an average of 115 mph, seconds at 95 mph, won 14 of 20 first serve points, 4 of 6 second serve points and allowed just one break point. Pretty good. And just 2 unforced errors. But Rosol did have that break point; and he converted. Rosol made 20 winners including 7 aces in the final stanza while making just 2 unforced errors. On grass! And then Rafa was gone. No one thought it would be for this long.
Then there are the rest. Ferrer stands apart at number 5 just 185 points behind Rafa; he will take over number 4 equaling his career high with Nadal losing 1200 points at the Australian. Pretty awesome for a 5′ 9″ 30 year-old journeyman in a giants’ sport. At 5′ 11″, Tipsarevic is the only other player under 6′ 1″ tall in the top 10 and the only other player under 6′ tall in the top 17. In the heat on Oz’s slow courts, he stands a good chance to break through to a slam final for the first time. He finally won a Masters 1000 in Paris. He’s not going to go away for a couple more years. Many observers think David is a little boring, but I would love to see him rewarded for all his hard work with one major title. It validates much of the good things tennis stands for. On the other hand, his difficulty points out the importance of creativity and the willingness to take risk. Nevertheless, there have been many less deserving and less relatively skilled major champions. If, for whatever reason, one of the players ahead of him has an off day, there is no one more likely to put up the performance capable of turning that opportunity into a monumental upset. But if it’s going to happen, it better happen soon.
What about Del Potro, Berdych, Tsonga, Tipsarevic and Gasquet who round out the top 10. Berdych and Tsonga are both 27 with their bodies going on 35 from lugging around those 200 lb frames. Berdych is not going to get any faster and Tsonga is too fragile. Tipsarevic, as cerebral as he seems to be (beauty will save the world!), just doesn’t seem to play with enough creativity to get to the next level. Gasquet, well, he’s just French. I don’t know what that means, but he is just French! And one who was suspended for a French kiss at that! And he’s only 26, but he’s already been on tour for 11 years; he won his first Masters 1000 match at Monte Carlo in 2002 at age 15!
The one player of this group who really has the potential to challenge the top 3 or 4 is Del Potro. He just turned 24 in September and finished the year very strong with two wins over Federer and also put up a stiff challenge for Djokovic in the London semis winning the first set. He also deprived Djoker of the bronze medal after losing a marathon 19-17 in the third semi to Federer in the Olympics. Somehow, I just think he is too nice a human being. At crunch time, I don’t think he is mean enough to get the upper hand on those top guys, and they know it. In addition, it’s very tough to play long 5-set matches with a 6′ 6″ body. If he starts serving as big as John Isner, then it’s perhaps a little different story. But as big as he hits the ball, his points are not as short as Isner’s. He does move really well for a big guy, but it takes a terrific toll. As amazing as his play was in winning the 2009 US Open, Federer served just 51% first serves that day and made 11 double faults. Both players broke 5 times, but Del Potro managed to win both tie-breakers. That’s one Federer must really feel he let get away. He has the best chance of the second 5 of hurting the top players, but I don’t think he will ever make the top 3. I say top 3 because two years from now, Federer and Ferrer will have to fade a little and Del Potro will be just 26 and right in his prime. On the other hand, if Nadal continues to struggle with his knees, he may be gone too.
Who’s coming? I don’t know. Raonic, Isner, Cilic, Dolgopolov and Nishikori will threaten for second 5, but they can’t compete with the top 5 right now. (I know I skipped over Almagro and Monaco, but it was not by mistake.) Raonic and Isner give away too much on the backhand side. Dangerous, but they just aren’t fast enough. I thought maybe Isner would show a little more growth and development the second part of this year, but I just didn’t see it. As for Raonic, he may yet surprise, but I’m really worried about his speed. They are both at the top of the serve stats and the bottom of the return stats. Milos is just 22 so perhaps I am being a little hard on him.
Dolgopolov is the one who might really develop, but he would have to have a religious experience or something to change his whole mindset. It’s important to enjoy what you are doing out there, but he needs a major sit down with someone like Kobe Bryant. Or any of the top 5 players in the world! The right coach might be able to help him make the transformation. He just turned 24. He’s got a good 5 or 6 years of playing his best tennis, but he’s not going to realize his potential without a major change in focus. Physical talent, he’s got it. Mental and emotional stability and strength to make the next step, who knows. As for Nishikori, he is another small, fast player. He is making way too much money in Japan and Asia to maintain the necessary focus to overcome the obstacles that are in his way, namely all those big players in front of him.
The one guy who really excited me at the end of last year was Jerzy Janowicz. I think he will be a new member of the top ten 12 months from now. Beyond that it is hard to say, but he showed me as much as anyone else last year with his run in Paris beating 3 top 20′s and 2 top 10′s including Murray before losing to Ferrer in the finals. I think he’ll be close to the top 16 by the French and therefore a legitimate threat to make the quarters or better of all the majors. He has nothing but challenger points to defend until Wimbledon and he’ll be seeded in all the Masters 1000s. Moreover, his game is wonderful. A great blend of power and touch and a willingness to finish points at the net. At 6′ 8″ I think he moves better on a tennis court than anyone else I’ve seen over 6’5″ tall. I think he will be one of the big stories of 2013.
As for the Americans, I said quite a few months ago that I thought Isner was going to be alone at the top of the American ladder for a couple of years. I still think that is the case. Roddick is gone. Fish has faded out of the top 25 with his heart problems and even if he can get back to full speed, he will now have to face much tougher draws than the wonderful top ten ranking (or at least top 16 ranking) had earned him. Now he will face a top 16 player in the round of 32, or someone who is hot enough to have beaten a top 16 player. He’s got 315 points to defend at Oz(45), Dubai(45), Indian Wells(45) and Key Biscayne(180). He’s skipping Oz and if he can’t hold at least half of these points, he’ll be unseeded in the Masters 1000s and majors as he goes forward in 2013. Sam Querry has been the bright spot. He played very well at the end of the year and recorded a number of wins against top 20 players including Djokovic, Raonic and Nishikori. If he continues to improve he could challenge Isner for the top spot among the Americans, but I don’t see him as a top 10 player. After that, it’s pretty bleak. Baker (61), Harrison (69) and Russell (87) round out Americans in the top 100. Baker is a great story, but an extreme longshot to ever make the top 20; I’m not a believer on Harrison’s mechanics; and Russel is 34 years old. The other young players in the top 200 are Kudla (20 y.o. at #137), Sock (20 y.o. at #150), Johnson (23 y.o. at #175), Young (23 y.o. at #190) and the USTA wild card winner for the Aussie Open, Rhyne Williams ( 21 y.o. at #191). While Kudla and Harrison made it out of qualifying (yes, Harrison was playing qualifying), neither they nor Brian Baker made it out of the first round in Brisbane this week. Worldwide, Rajeev Ram qualified for Chennai, but he also went out in the first round. Perhaps things will look a little better next week when Isner and Querry are playing but at the moment the 2013 tour is under way with 3 events on hard courts and we have no American men beyond the first round in any events. I had hoped Steve Johnson would begin to make a move by now but he is stalled in the bottom half of the second 100. Jack Sock showed tremendous promise at the US Open. He won one challenger and finaled in another this fall, but he hasn’t played another tour level match since the US Open. Those two challengers improved his ranking almost 100 spots, but he’s still just banging on the qualifying door to get in to the party. All the American players in the second 100 will be in the quails next week after the Aussie Open.
The other point I want to make looking back and looking forward is, Federer came very close to holding the #1 year-end ranking. He recorded wins over Djokovic and Murray in major events and won another major. He was 3-2 with Murray including beating him in the last match they played in the semis of London. He was 6-2 with Del Potro, but he lost the last two of those matches in the Basel final 3rd set tie-breaker and the last London RR match that was vital for Del Potro, but meaningless for Federer once he won the second set. And in those losses in the end of 2012, Federer still was showing his unbelievable shot-making skills. He seemed just as fast as ever. But he made too many unforced errors at critical times and let early leads slip away on too many occasions. It didn’t seem that any of his physical capabilities were deteriorating, but his focus and concentration were not up to the task. Did Jordan perform well from the mental perspective well beyond the age of 31? He may have lost a step in a very physical game, but no one suggested that he was less mentally tough at 33 than he was at 28. Is anyone suggesting that Peyton Manning or Tom Brady are losing their mental toughness because they are 36 and 35 respectively. They haven’t even shown much physical deterioration despite all their operations. They are still operating at the top of their game. Did anyone suggest that Nicklaus or Palmer or Player or Watson (competing for a major down to the last hole in his 50′s) had lost their mental toughness when they turned 35? Are major league baseball players signing 100 million dollar contracts after the age of 32? Federer is not losing matches because he is showing signs of fatigue in long matches. He is not losing matches because he is unable to serve as fast as he used to. He is not losing matches because he has a bad back and can’t get to the ball. The few matches he is losing are because he is making unforced errors at inopportune times. He’s in as good condition as just about anyone out there; certainly, condition is not costing him matches. That’s tough to maintain, but he has done it with a lot of very hard work. He has definitely put in the hard yards. There are certainly a lot more distractions in his life than when he was younger, but he actually seems to enjoy all of that. So don’t be too quick to give up on the idea that he can win another major or regain the number one ranking. He certainly has to get back to the steely concentration he showed earlier in the year and seemed to let get away the last couple of months, but he is still physically capable of doing things that no one else can do. I, for one, am hopeful that Team Federer will have everything in order and limit the schedule enough to allow him to apply the necessary focus to his match play. If that happens, there is no reason he couldn’t maintain the form he showed in the beginning of those two final sets of 2012 when he was up a break on Djokovic. And if he can do that, 2013 will indeed be a glorious year for professional tennis. At least on the men’s side. As for the women, we’ll have to leave that for another day.
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