As the tennis season draws to a close, let’s take a moment to reflect on the year that was and look forward to the Australian Open and its tune-ups in January. We’ll do the men today and the women next week.
On the men’s side, it was the season of Rafael Nadal, of course. The Spanish stud came back from a seven-month layoff and questions about the effect of his game on his knee, silencing all critics with a spectacular run in which he captured several clay court titles, including the French Open, (for his second four-peat in Paris and eighth overall title on the red clay, the most ever), then rebounded from a tough defeat at Wimbledon to take the U.S. Open from the man who had beaten him in three straight Grand Slam finals, Novak Djokovic. Even though Djokovic took the Tour Finals in London this month, Nadal will hang on to the number one ranking, marking the first time since 2010 that he will be the year-end number one.
As was discussed in the media before the Tour Finals championship in London, Nadal’s game is not the most suited to the indoor surface that the post-U.S. Open schedule is played on, thus helping to explain the reason that he is yet to claim a title at this tournament. Nadal’s physical style and spin-heavy groundstrokes work best with a surface that allows him to set up and take the ball where he likes it, putting his opponents on the run. The red clay of Roland Garros is perfect for this, the DecoTurf of the U.S. Open perhaps second-best, and the fast, low-bouncing indoor hard courts and grass courts are perhaps worst. (Federer, whose best surface has always been grass, to which these courts bear much resemblance, has won six titles) It was only his second time in the final, but if Nadal has shown us one thing over the years, it is that he can tweak his game significantly, with amazing results.
Amazingly, he once was considered a clay-court specialist and little else. Then he improved his serve, his net game, and starting catching up to those low-bouncing, flatter balls that the grass courts threw at him, and he won two Wimbledon titles. He continued to tinker until he achieved hard-court dominance as well. While he may not have captured a Tour Finals yet, this will not seriously affect his legacy, and what’s more, he is such a relentless fighter that I think it unlikely he doesn’t get one eventually.
We’ll enter the new year with a lot of questions and a lot to look forward to inside the top 10. Juan Martín del Potro can now definitively be said to be back from the wrist injury that sidetracked or bothered him for multiple seasons after his stunning 2009 U.S. Open victory; now that he’s back, the pressure is undoubtedly only going to keep ratcheting up. Look for him to contend for titles.
David Ferrer turned a great performance to reach the French Open final, repeating it will be quite difficult, and I just see too many better players than he on every surface; it will take injury or luck to carry him to a title.
Perhaps the most intriguing player in the men’s draw as the season looks to begin is Andy Murray, who chose to have surgery in an attempt to fix back issues that have plagued him. He took the rest of the season off to recover, and only the Aussie Open tune-ups will tell if he has regained his form. Murray is a three-time finalist in Melbourne, anything less than a semifinal appearance has to be considered a disappointment for him, bearing in mind how close he has gotten to the title there.
Stanislas Wawrinka will look to capitalize on what has been an amazing season for him: a first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, where he gave Djokovic all he could handle, and a good showing at the Tour Finals in London to boot. The problem? He’s 28. I saw him play in Madrid, and there were flashes of brilliance as he was being dismantled by Nadal. When he goes for it, there is almost no one better or who can generate more power (del Potro might get more), but consistency will always be an issue for him. Quarterfinal appearances seem appropriate.
Look for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to continue his strong play coming back from injury. He’s got tremendous groundstrokes and a great touch at the net, though health and consistency have been issues in the past. He’s made one Slam final, and always seems to get bested by more consistent players in the big moments. Jury’s out.
Lastly, we come to the great Roger Federer. It’s hard to imagine him having another great year or even claiming another Slam (though at Wimbledon, who knows). For the first time in his career, questions about his health have actually become relevant. He’s nowhere near as consistent or as quick as he was. And yet he’s still number six in the rankings at time of writing. Lately, he’s made a bad habit of shanking key shots in big moments, something you never had to worry about back in his heyday. However, he seems to not care a fig for the numbers, slightly tarnishing his sterling winning percentage for the right to keep playing. He is doing this simply because he loves the game. Amazingly, he’s still a contender, at least in the Masters 1000 series tournaments, so this is justifiable. Look for his numbers to decline as they have these past few years, and look for heartbreak in big matches, especially on unfavorable surfaces.
From outside the top 10, look for Gaël Monfils to keep working his way back from injury, and if guys like Jerzy Janowicz and Milos Raonic can keep their consistency working for an extended run (like Janowicz at Wimbledon this year), look for them to contend. Otherwise, get ready for more Nadal and Djokovic. I can’t wait.