by Matthew Laird, Special to Tennis-X.com
While 2009 was an exciting year for tennis on the ATP circuit, and many players enjoyed their best seasons ever, some players did not play as well as they could have, due to injury, mental fatigue, or other, more unusual factors. I’m looking at you, Gasquet! These are the top ten players who were once among the elite, or knocking at the door, who have slipped in the rankings over the past year. I have confidence that most of these guys will be back, and they are all players to watch in 2010.
11. Richard Gasquet (Career high #7, 2009 ranking #52) The bonus eleventh member of this top ten list, “baby Fed” missed most of 2009 not because of injury, but because of a positive drug test for cocaine. He has now been completely cleared and exonerated, so he has all of 2010 to make up for his underperformance in the past few years. While he was once hailed as the future of French tennis and made it to number 7 in the world, he is now the seventh-best player just from his country. Look for him to make a strong showing in the new year.
10. Mario Ancic (Career high #7, 2009 ranking #95) This former top-ten player was the last person to beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon before Rafael Nadal duplicated the feat in the 2008 final. The big-serving Croat suffered a bout of mononucleosis a few years ago, and the lingering effects have been hampering his tennis career ever since. He’s managed to have a few months of success at a time, but the fatigue of playing and traveling seemed to be too much for him to handle. He peaked at number 7 in July of 2006, but he hasn’t been inside the top 20 since May of 2007, and he hasn’t played a full year since 2005. He hasn’t wasted the time, though, since he used his time off to get a law degree in 2008. I think 2010 might be the year he can finally kick the effects of his illness and get back to his consistent best. He should give us a few more good years before he heads off to practice law full time.
9. Donald Young (Career high #73, 2009 ranking #194) Donald Young has been talked about for so long, it almost seems like if he hasn’t made a splash by now, he probably missed his chance. Fortunately for The Donald, this is nonsense. Despite being in the conversation for so long, he’s only 20 years old, and some players take more time to develop their skills or their attitude. Young had a spectacular junior career with two grand slam junior titles to his name and the record for the youngest junior number 1 of all time. So there’s no doubt that he has all the talent he could want. It could be the physicality of his game that he has to work on, or it could be the pressure of living up to his potential. I do have confidence that he will figure it out, and this could be his year. He has some more time to put it together, but he doesn’t have forever.
8. Sam Querrey (Career high #22, 2009 ranking #24): You may question Querrey’s placement on this list. He didn’t have a bad 2009, by any means. In fact, it was his best year on tour, in which he went 40-22 and reached four finals, as well as winning his second title. However, while he was gearing up to finish the year strong in the Asian hardcourt swing, he had an extremely unfortunate accident: he fell through a glass table and seriously injured his right arm. He had to cut his season short just when he was poised to break into the top twenty for the first time. He’s started playing again recently, and he should be fit in time for the 2010 season. Here’s hoping that the big-serving American doesn’t have any lingering effects from the injury and can pick up his career right where he left off.
7. Jarkko Nieminen (Career high #13, 2009 ranking #88) While not a particularly well-known player, the Flying Finn has been a stalwart pro in the top 30 for the last five years, nearly breaking into the top 10. He’s the only Finnish player to win an ATP tour title and make it to the quarterfinals of a grand slam. After half a decade of solid performance, day-in and day-out, injury forced him off the tour this year from April to August, and hindered his play both before and after his hiatus. This dropped him to number 122 for a week and forced him to play challengers to try and regain his ranking. He finished the year strong, making it back to number 88 in the world while winning a challenger event in Great Britain and making a final in Austria. There’s no reason to expect that he won’t be back at the top of his game early in 2010.
6. Mardy Fish (Career high #17, 2009 ranking #55) Mardy Fish had a fine start to the year, winning a tournament in Delray Beach and making a final in Memphis, but his performance was hampered by injury from March onward, and he was ultimately forced to end his year early when he pulled out of the U.S. Open and all subsequent tournaments to undergo surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee. This problem had been plaguing him for a few months, so it was definitely a wise decision. After Wimbledon, he had played in three tournaments and a Davis Cup tie and he managed only one win. Since he has had some time to recover from his surgery, Fish has a good chance of making a strong showing in 2010.
5. Taylor Dent (Career high #21, 2009 ranking #76) Dent’s current ranking is not an entirely accurate representation of his. While he is at No. 76, he is definitely on the rise. Dent came back in 2009 after having multiple back surgeries which forced him to miss all of 2007, as well as most of 2006 and 2008. He began the year ranked No. 865, and he didn’t break into the top 100 until November. Understandably, it took him some time to get back into his game, but Dent’s massive serve coupled with his serve-and-volley game can be very frustrating to players on the tour who aren’t used to facing that type of player. At the U.S. Open, he played in one of the best matches of the year, eventually winning in a fifth-set tiebreaker against Ivan Navarro. He should find his way back into the top 50, for sure. In fact, he’s got an outside chance of besting his career high over the course of the coming year.
4. Ernests Gulbis (Career high #38, 2009 ranking #90) The young, powerful Latvian is undoubtedly the top contender for underachiever of 2009. After a stupendous breakout year in 2008, in which he made the quarterfinals at the French Open, he disappointed in 2009. He has an unbelievable amount of talent, and yet he won back-to-back matches at only two tournaments all season. I don’t know what it will take to get Gulbis back to form; some speculate that, as the son of a very wealthy family, he lacks the dedication to really compete against the top players of the sport. If so, that’s a shame, because he has the talent to do so much more. On the other hand, if I could have a life jet-setting around the world, playing tennis for a day or two every week, I suppose I would take it. I do hope that Gulbis is unwilling to settle for it, though.
3. Kei Nishikori (Career high #56, 2009 ranking #419) As you can see from the ranking, Nishikori played very few tournaments over the course of the year. From the French Open on, the young Japanese player didn’t play one professional match. And that’s a shame because he had a spectacular year in 2008, winning his first title and beating former world #5 David Ferrer in the third round at the U.S. Open. Nishikori underwent elbow surgery early in 2009, and as a result he missed the rest of the year. Hopefully, he will be fully recovered in 2010. He has an excellent chance to become the biggest Japanese tennis star ever. In fact, the Japanese tennis federation has named him Project 45, which refers to their goal to get Nishikori to 45 in the world, one higher than the highest ranking a Japanese tennis male player has ever achieved. Much like in Britain, tennis is a popular sport in Japan, but they rarely produce top players. I’m sure I’m not the only one expecting Nishikori to get back to the top of his game. Much like Donald Young, he’s only 20, so he has time.
2. James Blake (Career high ranking #4, end of 2009 ranking #44): There have been some tennis commentators who have been calling for Blake to retire during his mediocre 2009 season, but I think that’s absolutely the wrong attitude. While his performance in 2009 was nowhere near his best, he still made two finals and went 24-21. Blake was struggling physically with some injuries as well as mentally with some tough losses. Both problems were exacerbated in the Davis Cup against Croatia, where Blake lost tough matches to Karlovic and Cilic. But take heart, Blake fans. He has always been a streaky player, and there’s no reason to think that he can’t pull himself together in 2010, make it back to the top 20, and win another title or two along the way. Watch for him to have a ‘new coach bounce’ in the early months of the new year as the now 30-yer-old just parted ways with Brian Barker, who he had worked with for more than ten years, for Kelly Jones.
1. David Nalbandian (Career high #3, 2009 ranking #64) The player who might very well be known as “the other Argentine” (after Juan Martin del Potro’s amazing U.S. Open win) missed almost all of 2009 following hip surgery. He is returning to the tour in 2010, and he has the most potential of any player on this list. A grand slam finalist and year-end champion, Nalbandian may be inspired by his countryman’s success. He had the same surgery as Lleyton Hewitt, who has returned in full force, and Nalbandian’s game is less dependent on his lateral movement. It’s likely that he can make it back to the top of the game. One of Nalbandian’s biggest problems prior to his surgery was his fitness. Hopefully he was able to take his time off to work on that. If he did, he should be back in the top 20, potentially even the top 10 again, by year’s end.
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