Predicting the outcome of tennis matches can often, in the ATP, be a straightforward affair; the dominance of the top players often predetermining the final places in tournaments and slams, if not the eventual winner. This time last year, I made a judgement on the placement of the "big four", suggesting that the final standings in the ATP would be Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal. Through nothing more than sheer luck I predicted a second wind for Federer, a potential US Open for Murray and a clay court domination and injury stresses for Rafael Nadal. 2012 ended up like this:
Novak Djokovic / 12920
Roger Federer / 10265
Andy Murray / 8000
Rafael Nadal / 6690
David Ferrer / 6505
Tomas Berdych / 4680
Juan Martin Del Potro / 4480
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga / 3490
Janko Tipsarevic / 2990
Richard Gasquet / 2515
Here's what to the coming year may hold for the ATP top 10.
1: Novak Djokovic
2012 was never going to be as all-conquering for Novak Djokovic as 2011 was. As he philosophised prior to the ATP World Tour Finals in November, it would always be tough to repeat the triple-slam achievements of his breakthrough season. Still, he came close, taking 6 titles, 1 slam and the coveted #1 ranking, which he held for most of 2012. Indeed, he became the only active player (outside Roger Federer) to win back-to-back year end #1 rankings. And now that Djokovic has completed the feat twice, he will have played through the emotions both of achievement and consolidation that should make him stronger in 2013.
As much as the pack will chase, the top ranking is again very much Djokovic's to lose. He proved in 2011 that he could take the season when the rest of the top 4 were fully fit, and in 2012 he did the same despite some deflating performances and a resurgent Roger Federer. 2013 should, with the depleted field immediately behind him and the retiring of old rivalries, be a consolidation of his standing as the best in the world.
His style of play, the metronomic defence and the pinpoint accuracy of his double-handed backhand, have carried him through many of the trials of the previous two seasons, while he has also been the main exponent of supreme athleticism and diet-driven fitness to develop a new breed of marathon men who are transforming the sport today. Making 3 slam finals in 2012 gives Djokovic a lot of points to defend over the course of the season, but the one that slipped away from him, Wimbledon, could be the biggest triumph of his third straight World #1 season.
2: Roger Federer
I'm fairly sure that at the beginning of 2012, and certainly for large parts of 2011, former World number 1, and pretender to the title of Greatest of All Time, Roger Federer, was being written off by tennis journalism as on a slow slide to Nalbandian-esque mid-table mediocrity. That the past year has seen the Swiss man's best season in two years, encompassing a 17th Slam title at Wimbledon amidst 6 trophy occasions throughout the year, silenced his critics to the point of flipping their concerns, querying instead how long he can go on and when (not if) he can turn 17 into 18.
Still, despite his successes in 2012, which saw him tie Djokovic for the second highest trophy count on tour, something about the way he has been playing, particularly in the latter stages of the season suggest that this year will be the true barometer of Federer's longevity at the top of the ATP tree.
Perhaps the most significant indicator for Federer came in the final of the World Tour Finals. Facing Djokovic, Federer generated opportunities to capture both sets, breaking the Serb early to lead the encounter. But on both occasions the resilience of his opponent pushed him out of contention, as Djokovic answered Swiss genius with relentless returning. Federer was forced to try to shorten the points, rushing the net to keep the rallies from lengthening, and as such he was undone by Djokovic patiently waiting for the right moment to attack.
He may have been runner-up at the WTF, but 5 best-of-3 set matches in 6 days revealed the limitations of Federer's stamina, particularly when faced with the challenges of Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro. Over the course of a slam, which involves 7 best-of-5 set matches over 14 days, the off days will prove more significant for the Swiss player, particularly as he reaches the final stages of the tournament. He might still be the best shot-maker on tour, but his ability to compete in a tournament populated by players 7 years his junior may be the thing that stands in his way of adding to his 17 slam trophies this year.
3. Andy Murray
Technically it is now Andy Murray OBE, the Queen honouring the Scot in her New Years Honour List for a phenomenal season. It has taken some time for Murray to finally make the leap from being the best tennis player Great Britain has produced for 70 years and also the unluckiest, born into an era of Federer-Djokovic-Nadal supremacy, to being the first first Brit to stand on the turf of Centre Court on Men's Finals day in 74 years, and the first British man to lift a Slam trophy since 1936.
It all began at the All England Club on the 8th of July, when Murray took his place in the historic final and for a set and a half proved the better player. But just as it began to appear that British dreams of victories would be jolted into the present they slipped away again and the fairytale was denied its happy ending once more. But it was the outpouring of emotion from a previously stoic Murray that proved enough to raise his standing amongst the national press and spectators as they shared his burden of competing amidst the three-way rivalry and the yoke of expectation from the legacy of Fred Perry.
A month later, the fever of a spectacular Olympic performance by Team GB spurred Murray to a decisive turnaround on the grass of Wimbledon as he faced Federer once again in the final of the Olympic tournament. But this time he pushed home his advantage to claim the gold medal for his country. It was a significant boost to his confidence and laid the foundation for a greater success at the US Open in September, breaking the British jinx and affirming his place in the pantheon of greats in this decade.
2013 could well yield a new dynamic within the ATP, as the Federer-Nadal rivalry departs and the Murray-Djokovic era takes its place. Both Djokovic and Murray will have a good shot of making three of the four Slam finals this year (French Open the exception), provided the draw is kind to both men and they meet only in the last match. With his improved serve and consistent all-round game, Murray is the player who could prevent a Djokovic domination this season.
4. Rafael Nadal
Little has been seen of Rafael Nadal since the second round of Wimbledon, when Lukas Rosol made the unthinkable reality by defeating the Spaniard and paving the way for Murray's first ever slam final on home soil. Blaming serious knee problems, Nadal has only surfaced to confirm his withdrawal from subsequent tournaments. Inevitably this means that Nadal can win big in the points race in 2013 by capitalising on deep runs in the latter half of the season, but this is dependent on him staying fit long enough to defend his clay court victories from spring 2012 and not further aggravate any injuries that may abbreviate his season once again.
This is the big proviso. And with this week's withdrawal from the Australian Open, which will see Nadal drop out of the top 4 for the first time since May 2005, it could be that the seriousness of his knee injury may prevent the Spaniard from competing on hard courts at all during the first half of the year, and may even dent his chances of securing an 8th Roland Garros title in May.
All of this is speculation, though, as the extent of Nadal's injuries and even the reasons for his withdrawals are subject to conjecture and unable to be answered until he actually competes again. A fit Nadal will always be unbeatable on clay, but with little match-fitness, the return to form could be much-delayed and may not occur in time for his French Open title defence.
5. David Ferrer
In 2012 David Ferrer took 7 titles, one more than either Djokovic and Federer. He was also the only player outside of the current top 4 to claim a Masters 1000 event. With Nadal's withdrawal from next month's Australian Open, he will crown his spectacular year by ascending to #4 in the world.
However, despite his obvious achievements in 2012, it is hard to see the Spaniard do much beyond the clay courts of Europe and South America. It is unlikely that he will pose a serious threat to Djokovic, Murray or Federer in Melbourne, Wimbledon or Flushing Meadows. But should Nadal fail to return in time to defend his Roland Garros title, Ferrer would be the player most likely to surprise at this major. Fairly dominating the smaller clay events in 2012, a Rafa-sized hole could see Ferrer repeat in this season, potentially adding it with his maiden slam final on the red clay of Paris.
Indeed, Roland Garros could turn out to be the tournament most likely to surprise this year, its uniqueness leading to a wider field of potential finalists and champions should Nadal fail to be fit in time. Ferrer is the player in the best position to capitalise on his Davis Cup teammate's absences.
6. Tomas Berdych
One of the more enigmatic players on the ATP, Tomas Berdych proved at the US Open that he is capable of big victories and big upsets as he ousted Roger Federer from the competition at the quarter final stage. Unfortunately, the World #6 also proved that he is prone to extreme bouts of unpredictable awfulness as he succumbed to a first round defeat at Wimbledon, the highest profile "casualty" at that stage of the event.
Such inconsistencies go a long way to explaining why the 27-year-old has been around the top 10 for the past two years, but has failed to make good on any of the promise his ballistic tennis suggests he is capable of. With only 1 slam final to his name, a forgettable rout at the hands of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, the suggestion is that Berdych has yet to tame his flaky temper and on-court mentality to allow them to aid his progression to a significant victory. And even though he has shown greater maturity of late, it would be foolish to predict that 2013 would see a Berdych breakthrough at either a Masters 1000 or a Slam. What could be his legacy for the season, which will probably see him retain a top 10 spot, could be a reputation as a giant-slayer within tournaments. Capable of beating any of the top 3 on a very good day, but prone to only having one of those good days in a row, Berdych could cause upsets for other players to capitalise on, and may prove a dangerous competitor in the draw sheet in the coming season.
7. Juan Martin Del Potro
If any player on tour at the moment sums up the phrase "What if?" it's the Tower of Tandil, Juan Martin Del Potro. Achieving a breakthrough in '09 at the US Open, the Argentine suffered a career-threatening wrist injury. After surgery and a long climb back up the rankings, it was only last year that he began to see a return to the form needed to sustain a top 10 ranking.
In possession of a giant serve and a thumping forehand, these weapons should be enough to dismantle the majority of players on tour, particularly on the faster hard courts and the fast grass of Wimbledon. However he struggled at times last year, most notably at Wimbledon last summer, where his speed around the court was exposed as a vulnerability by David Ferrer, perhaps suggesting that one more year would be needed before he could truly be considered a contender again. For even though he secured victories over the top 3 (Federer at the Year End and Djokovic in the Olympic bronze medal play-off), there was always the suggestion that he would be unable to sustain this threat over successive matches.
2013 could be a significant year for the big Argentine, who with the titles in 2012 marked his return to the top ten, a significant foundation for the coming year. With his decision not to play Davis Cup tennis for his country in '13, he will hopefully be able to channel his focus into his singles performances and may be a dark horse for a Masters 1000 or a slam final appearance over the course of the season.
8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
The one player to really disappoint in 2012 was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A semi-final appearance at Wimbledon and two ATP 250 tournaments to bookend the year were the only significant achievements for the effervescent Frenchman who was otherwise absent from the rest of the hard court season when it came down to the business-end of tournaments.
It was a year of missed opportunity for Tsonga. Four match points against Novak Djokovic in the French Open quarter-final saw him put the ball out of play twice to allow the Serb back in. While a laissez-faire R1 performance saw him outhit by the relative unknown Martin Klizan at the US Open, thwarting his final chance of resurrecting a lacklustre season in time for the WTF in London. Perhaps the biggest failure that Tsonga oversaw was the French team's defeat at the hands of the USA in the Davis Cup. Boasting a significant advantage in ranking over a disparate US team, the French lost their quarter final on home clay, when Tsonga failed to defeat the rangy American Jon Isner in the reverse singles rubber on the final day.
A Davis Cup boost could have proved the difference for the Frenchman who for large parts of the season appeared to have fallen out of love with the game, his performance at the O2 in London indicative of his being overwhelmed by the players immediately above and below him. 2013 needs to get off to a good start for Tsonga, to restore his confidence and energy and bring a smile to his face after the disappointments of the year gone by.
9. Janko Tipsarevic
That Janko Tipsarevic finished the season in the top 10 for the second year running is as much of a surprise as his solitary title of 2012. The Serb, who has for many years played second fiddle to the Djokovic express, rarely proceeds beyond the fourth round of majors, yet manages to maintain a high ranking. It is difficult to pinpoint a part of his game that another player ranked 5-10 doesn't do better: Berdych and Tsonga have more power, Ferrer is a better mover and a better clay-court expert, Gasquet has better strokes and shot selection ... Indeed, when expanding out the pool into the top 20 Tipsarevic doesn't stack up well either.
What 2013 holds for Tipsarevic may depend on those immediately below him, the players coming through the ranks to form the next generation of top 10 stalwarts. Should these players realise their potential, Tipsarevic will struggle to maintain his standing in the ATP rankings. It is likely, though, that come December 2013, the Serbian number 2 won't be competing at the ATP World Tour finals in London's O2 Arena, and he may not even be present within the top 15 players in the world.
10. Richard Gasquet
2012 saw him challenge for a top 10 place once again after a steady climb over the past four years through the top 50. Now that he has re-attained a standing similar to that he departed back in '08, he needs to sustain the play level in the face of new challengers below him in the rankings and solid defences from those above him. Should he remain a top 10 player at the end of 2013 and perhaps make an appearance at the WTF (which he last played at in 2007) then he will need to find the motivation to maintain his level of play through the latter stages of a major tournament.
11-13. Three to watch in 2013
For a number of years the ATP has been a fairly stable place, with little in-roads made into the stasis at the top of the rankings. Players who have enjoyed a season of success have, for various reasons, fallen by the way and dropped back into middling successes or injury/illness-induced absence, John Isner, Mardy Fish and Stan Wawrinka, for example. In their wake are a new generation of players who could lay down roots within the top 10 of the ATP by the end of the season.
Hotly tipped for future successes in the coming season are:
Aged just 21, Milos Raonic, who although similar in style to Del Potro, could be the player to make waves amongst the top 10 in 2013. He has promised much in his matches, pushing Roger Federer and Andy Murray to some taxing games, even bettering Murray on one occasion. Finishing the 2012 season at #13, the tall Canadian with the cannonball serve could test the defensive nature of the ATP. He is just one significant run away from being the next big thing within the tour, and needs to claim some scalps in fourth round and quarter-finals to assert his arrival on the tennis map.
2012 was notable for Aussie teenager Bernard Tomic more for his antics off-court than on-. A nation, like the UK, famously reminiscent on past glories and overly-expectant on future stars to deliver successes, Australia have placed a multitude of stresses upon the teen that have caused him to mentally struggle to come to terms with the promise of his talents. A train crash of a 2012 will hopefully have instilled a modicum of maturity into the World #52 and allow him to compete with more decisiveness in the coming 12 months.
Finally, Kei Nishikori could prove 2013's Janko Tipsarevic. He has struggled with injuries over the past year, but a fit 2013 may see him emerge a significant player in the third and fourth rounds of the slams. Although not likely to challenge in the biggest events of the year, Nishikori could prove a good bet for success at the smaller tournaments, adding to his maiden title that he secured in Japan last year.
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