Before we’ve even headed into the new year, the ATP and WTA Tour have already begun the 2008 tennis season. The men are spread out over 3 events (Doha, Chennai, Adelaide) and the women feature in two small tourneys down under (Auckland, Gold Coast). Five tournaments have gone underway before we’ve officially hit 2008. Where else than in tennis?
I got an automated e-mail from Eurosport this morning alerting me about their first tennis broadcast of the new season. December 31, 12:30 CET: ATP Doha (Day 1). I feel a slight rush. A brand new tennis year is about to start. I turned on my TV during lunch and there it was: live tennis. The first match of the season? Igor Andreev vs Thomas Johansson. Hardly an encounter to get excited about, but after a one-month drought of watching tennis, the mere sight of seeing that little yellow ball fly over the net again becomes a treat. We all know that tennis has too short an off-season, but for me, a month is all it takes to get my batteries reloaded. I am refreshed. Now we’ll see if the players can say the same thing.
Roger Federer is still enjoying some time off, but Rafael Nadal is already back in action, playing in Chennai. In 2007, he lost in the semifinal to Xavier Malisse, who went on to win the tournament before running into a long-term injury. The X-man returns to India trying to get back to the Top 30 in 2008. Novak Djokovic is not defending his title in Adelaide, the Serb is playing the Hopman Cup alongside Jelena Jankovic. Serena Williams is also playing the team event. The other elite women are laying low for opening week.
So with the new season now officially on its way, what can we expect from the Olympic year? Here’s a look at the men’s game. I’ll have a post on the ladies tomorrow.
The top dogs
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic
All eyes will be on Roger Federer again in 2008, as he aims to complete his career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, win a record sixth-straight Wimbledon and claim his first Olympic Gold medal. Oh, and there’s that record Pete owns. Federer needs two Slams in ’08 to tie Sampras’ 14 majors, and will surpass him if he equals the performance of his last two years, in which he won 3 big ones each. I think at the end of the year, we’ll have a tie between Fed and the Pistol. Then there’s Rafael Nadal. Does he, or does he not have a chronic foot injury? He does have at least a couple other chronic problems: failing to win a major outside of clay and flunking the second half of the season. 2008 will be make or break time for Rafa, as he needs to find a way to beat Federer at a Slam outside of Paris and meanwhile has to fend off the challenges of players coming up behind him.
That brings us to Novak Djokovic. The Djoker was seriously burned out at the end of ’07 after a career year and now starts a season where people will expect big results at every event from the No. 3 player. Can Djokovic cope with the pressure of having to defend his performances from last season, and become a true contender for the top spot? Nole has a great desire to be the best and always believes he can win, no matter who he plays. This is a champion’s attitude, and it’ll win him big trophies in the future. It just might start in 2008.
Young ones to watch
Murray, Monfils, Del Potro, Gulbis
Andy Murray finished 2007 ranked No. 11 without winning a single match on clay and missing Wimbledon. Whether or not his split with Brad Gilbert was a good move remains to be seen, but if he stays injury-free, Murray should be a lock for a Top 5 position. The Scot has a similar belief in his game as Djokovic has, but he has to learn how to control his anger and not let matches slip away too easily. Sometimes he doesn’t focus enough. When he does, he’ll be a threat to the Top 3.
Gael Monfils will be 22 years old in September. He reached a career high ranking of 23 last year, but has the potential to become a Top 5 player. I’ve always considered Monfils to be more talented than his countryman Richard Gasquet, but injuries and a lack of smartness on court have held the crowd-pleaser back.
Juan Martin Del Potro ended 2006 as No. 92 and moved up almost 50 spots to No. 44. The 19-year-old Argentine needs to learn how to play the big points and get more out of his monster serve and he’ll be a lock for the Top 20.
Best remembered for his 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 trouncing of Tommy Robredo at the US Open, Ernests Gulbis moved up nearly 100 positions in 2007 to No. 46 before falling back to his current No. 61. The Latvian has the ability to completely outhit an opponent, which he did against Robredo, but he hasn’t won too many matches at the big events yet. Will have to follow up his US Open run in 2008 and reach a consistent level.
Roddick, Davydenko, Gonzalez, Haas, Ljubicic, …
Believe it or not, Andy Roddick has become a veteran at the age of 25. He has now won a Grand Slam, reached two Wimbledon finals and brought the Davis Cup back to the States. He actually finished as year-end No.1 once. That’s a very respectable record, though we all know he will never become an all-time American great. Or it would have to be because of his Davis Cup performances if he wins it a few more times. Roddick has gotten the most out of his career so far. He just doesn’t come close to matching Federer for talent and that is why he gets slapped in the face every time he faces the Swiss. Credit the Rod for trying though, he always fires himself up before facing Federer and says he believes he can win.
Roddick will probably never win another Slam. I don’t see him returning to the Top 3, either. Comparing Roddick to these other veterans, it’s actually quite unfair to list Andy among the Davydenkos, Gonzalezes and Ljubicices of this world. Neither of them owns a single major. However, Roddick is not much more of a threat at the Slams these days than Davydenko, Gonzalez or Blake. Sure he might be a dark horse at Wimbledon, but to win the event? Roddick has been surpassed by Djokovic and Andy Murray will probably be next. Neither of the veterans will be Grand Slam favorites in 2008. Most of them will decline.
The wild cards
Nalbandian, Hewitt, Ferrer
Everybody loves David Nalbandian. Everybody hates him too. His jawdropping backhands, his inexplicable losses. The Argentine is like a South-American version of Marat Safin, but where the Russian is no longer a potential Top-5 player, Nalbandian could still rank among the best. After his whopping end to 2007, all eyes will be on Nalby to see if he can finally win his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. It just might be that for Nalbandian his best years are still ahead of him.
The latter can definitely not be said for Lleyton Hewitt. Rusty will never be the No. 1 player in the world again, and his chances of winning another major are almost non-existent, too. However, I do believe that if Hewitt doesn’t run into more injury problems, he’ll return to the Top 10 this year.
To round off this post, let’s not forget about David Ferrer. Were it not for his excellent year-end performances, the Spaniard would hover in the veterans group. However, with his semifinal showing at the US Open and of course his first big final at the Masters Cup, Ferrer has become a player to watch for 2008. How far can this grinding warrior go? I find it hard to believe that Ferrer will end the year as high as his current No. 5 ranking. But he has suddenly proven to himself that he can beat the top players and his confidence level is now higher than ever. Who knows, we may be in for two dazzling David’s this coming year.
Happy new year everyone. And here’s to a great tennis season.
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