Yes, I’ve read the news, seen the video, digested the comments and heard it from my friends and family that the mighty, or once mighty, Roger Federer is finally finished. But as you can tell from the headline above, I don’t quite see it that way and I’m not buying it. At least not yet.
Based on my research, only one player has ever returned to a year-end No. 1 ranking after losing it, that being Ivan Lendl in 1989 when he took it back from Mats Wilander. This year I think Federer will duplicate that feat and also get his No. 1 ranking back.
Before I get to the how and why, let me say that the level of play in the men’s game right now is awesome. We’ve come a long way from 2006 when we saw guys like Ivan Ljubicic, Tommy Robredo and James Blake embedded at the top our sport. They have since been replaced by rising talents like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray.
And the competition at the very top is the toughest I can remember in the last 15 years. It seems that each passing year we cement another player into upper echelon. It use to be just Federer, then Rafael Nadal came along. In 2007 we saw Novak Djokovic creep into the conversation giving us a solid “big three”. Last year Murray got into the mix leaving the ATP circuit with a very, very strong “Fab Four”. Will we expand and add a fifth this year? It’s possible.
That said here’s my 2009 year-end top 10.
1. Roger Federer
I agree that Roger’s not playing at the same level we saw of him a few years ago, but even at the age of 27 he can still work the magic. And this year offers a sort of fresh start for the man from Basel who doesn’t have to deal with mono – I’m a firm believer he had it – and the Olympic distractions. Plus, with the lower expectations from fans and media, Federer comes into 2008 without the same pressure he has carried in the past. And that should help.
While his play has slipped his effort in the majors are still impressive. Despite his losses in the smaller ATP events Federer still reached the semifinals or better in all four Grand Slam in 2008 – in fact, the Swiss has been to the finals of 13 of his last 14 majors! And remember, this year the new ATP point structure gives even more weighting to Slam results in the rankings, another benefit for Rog who has shifted gears, ala Pete Sampras, by focusing primarily on the majors.
Competition-wise, no question it’s brutal out there with Nadal, Djokovic and especially Murray all capable of derailing the Swiss on any day. The Scotsman of late clearly has had Fed’s number. Heck, he’s got Roger’s cell phone, his home phone, his email, his Skype #, his IM, etc. Whenever Murray wants to dial-up and get to Fed, it appears he can do it. And that’s not going to stop. So Fed will need to avoid Murray as much as possible, although Andy has yet to beat Roger in a Slam when it counts the very most. As for Rafa, well I just don’t see him playing like he did in 2008. So that leaves Fed and Murray for No. 1, and I’ll go with experience right now with Fed finishing on top with a Wimbledon title and possible another at either the Australian Open or US Open. Murray’s going to get his wins, yes, but he’ll need to beat Fed at the Slams and I don’t think he’s ready to do that on a consistent basis.
2. Andy Murray
I didn’t think Murray would mature this quickly, but the kid really has. And more importantly it seems he has really dedicated himself to getting stronger and fitter, vital to being at the top in tennis these days. Credit to him and his team. Murray is also beating the top guys with some regularity now and that too is a great sign. The Scot’s arguably been the No. 1 player on the circuit since Wimbledon last year when his game really took off after Richard Gasquet did his infamous throat clutch. But will Andy win a Slam this year? It wouldn’t surprise me, but my guess is no. I still see him in at least one final, maybe two, and he gets to the No. 2 ranking by playing consistently throughout the season, dominating the Masters events, or whatever they are called now, and staying out of the doctor’s office. But Andy will also have to deal with the new expectations and the pressure from Britain and 1936. It won’t be easy. Murray’s time will come, but just not this year.
3. Rafael Nadal
Speaking of the doctor’s office, I really didn’t like the way Rafa ended 2008 having to withdraw from the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup after another tendonitis flare-up in his much-troubled knees. And I don’t like that he started this season playing an exo and then Doha. I’d rather have seen him rest a little more because he’s going to need it because with guys like Murray, Del Potro, Tsonga, Simon, Gasquet, etc., it’s going to be that much tougher for him to win the bigger titles. I’m not saying he won’t snare a few big ones, but the wins will come at a greater toll on his body. That said, maybe he is feeling healthy an he gets through the year with any troubles, and if he can do that then there’s no reason he won’t maintain his No. 1 spot. And I do see him again ruling the clay and winning the French Open, but there will be no Wimbledon title repeat.
4. Novak Djokovic
The clown prince of tennis really surged at the end of 2008 with his Shanghai title, which will no doubt help offset the points Novak’s dropping when his Australian Open win rolls off the rankings in a few weeks. No, I don’t see him repeating his Melbourne title run nor do I see him holding up any Slam hardware this season, but he’ll be a major player at all the big events once again. He’s just too good a player not to be. And maybe he gets his head straight, works out his image and health issues and really comes on strong. Maybe. Otherwise he’ll again be the garbage guy, the player who cleans up the mess when the top guys like Federer, Nadal and Murray go out early.
5. Andy Roddick
After the Fab Four we really do drop a level, and for me the top cat in the next group this year is going to be Roddick. Andy’s been beaten up and kicked around lately, but I think he makes a strong comeback this year primarily because of new coach Larry Stefanki. Remember how well Roddick played when Brad Gilbert stepped in, or when Jimmy Connors took over (or even when he split from Connors)? Regardless, Roddick seems to get energized when he makes coaching changes and I’m betting it’ll happen again. Plus, he should easily surpass the paltry six Slam wins he had in ’08 this season.
6. Juan Martin Del Potro
I was really impressed with just how well this lanky kid from Argentina played last year. I said above that you could make a case for Murray being the No.1 guy the second-half of last season. Well Del Potro was right there, too, winning 37 of his last 45 matches to finish as the youngest player in the Top 10. JMDP did suffer a crushing setback in the Davis Cup final, but if he can get over that loss and stay healthy, a year-end No. 6 ranking should be well within reach. And in my mind, if there’s one guy that can break into the Fab Four this year I think it’s him.
7. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
I once thought JW Tsonga was just another flash in the pan. A one-slam wonder. But no longer. The kid brought the goods Down Under last year, and then shrugged off a three-month layoff in the summer to recovery from knee surgery by closing the year in excellent form. If he can put together a full season without any physical troubles watch out. But that’s a huge if.
8. Richard Gasquet
Left for dead after his colossal collapse at Wimbledon last year, I think this year Gasquet gets his hands off his throat, feeds off the success of his fellow Frenchmen and plays like he’s capable of playing. The kid is just too talented not be in the Top 10 and really the Top 5. And with his countrymen Tsonga, Monfils and Simon doing their part, I think the pressure and expectations on Gasquet may have abated a bit as the spotlight moves away from him. That should help. Frankly though, among the Four French Musketeers I give Gasquet the best shot at reaching a Major final or winning a Slam this year. Heck, he may even do it in a few weeks.
9. Nikolay Dayvdenko
I know he’s suffering from a bad heel/foot, but because the Russian plays so much tennis missing January shouldn’t be that major of a setback. And who knows, the additional time off may keep him fresher at the end of the year. Dayvdenko is and always has been a consistent work horse type performer who’ll play enough tournaments, reach enough quarterfinals to remain in the Top 10. 2009 should be no different.
10. Gael Monfils
My man Monfils is finally going to crack the Top 10 this year and it could happen in the next few weeks. Yes, it’s going to happen! Remember, last year Monfils missed the Australian Open along with Wimbledon so he’ll have plenty of points to pick up at both events. Of course the Frenchmen will have to defend semifinal points from the French Open, but I think if he stays healthy and focused a year-end Top 10 finish is easily doable.
Other players to keep an eye on:
David Nalbandian – After that devastating Davis Cup defeat, just how intent, how motivated will be on working hard and competing week-in and week-out? If he crashes early in Melbourne he may not finish in the Top 20.
Fernando Verdasco – On the flip side, I’ve always given guys a little bump after the year after they win the Davis Cup, and this season that bump goes to Verdasco. So might Fernando, arguably the biggest underachiever on the circuit, make some additional noise in 2009? His Davis Cup effort was great, but I’m not sold on him becoming a consistent force on the circuit.
Gilles Simon – I don’t think his 2008 performance was a fluke, but it’s hard to squeeze him into the Top 10 right now.
Marin Cilic – Another youngster knocking on the door of the Top 10. He won’t break it down this year but a Top 15 finish will set him up nicely for a big run in 2010.
Ernests Gulbis – We know what he’s capable of, and I think this year he’ll continue to mature and we should see him become more of a fact in the latter part of events.
Kei Nishikori – Another talented youngster but injuries will ultimately tell the tale of how far and how fast he rises.
As for the women, as always it’s a crap shoot. Maria Sharapova’s shoulder is still bad. Serena and Venus Williams play when they want but just not enough to finish No. 1 these days. Sveta Kuznetsova can’t seem to get over the hump and consistently be a factor second week at the Slams. And Ana Ivanovic seems more interested in new beau Fernando Verdasco than with tennis, but we’ll see. That leaves Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina to fight it out for the No. 1 ranking, and I’ll go with my girl Janky who I think will finish on top and do it again by not winning a single Slam. How lovely.
Back to Federer. I really see 2009 almost as a “tweener”, or an in between type of year. With the competition as tough as it is I can’t see Nadal duplicating or exceeding his 2008 results, and I’m not yet ready to hand the circuit over to Murray. So in the absence of another No. 1 threat (sorry Novak) I have to go with Federer. Then again, if Nadal and Murray play up to their level, Fed could easily fall to three if not lower. If nothing else, it should be a great and an exciting year of tennis.
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