by Matthew Laird, Special to Tennis-X.com
The first thing that I would like to make note of in my review of the past year in tennis are some of the fresh, new faces on the ATP and WTA tours over the past year. These are the people who made their first splash in the 2009 season, and we will almost certainly be seeing more of them in the future. Most of them are young players, just starting their careers on tour, but there are a few who have been around for a while and are just now coming into their own. Here are the best debut and breakout performances of 2009:
10. Milos Raonic: This 19-year old Canadian played just a single ATP level match this year, and only two challenger level matches. He lost all three. But his ATP match was memorable enough to get him a spot on this list. He played world number 10 Fernando Gonzalez in the first round of the Montreal Masters, after having beaten top-100 players Gabashvili and Llodra in the qualifiers. Against Gonzalez, it was Raonic who played like the tour veteran. He hit 20 aces to 3 double faults, won more points overall than Gonzo, and generally handled the pressure of the situation surprisingly well. He did win a couple of futures tournaments this year, and I think he has a bright future ahead of him, if he can play like he did in that one match.
9. Bernard Tomic: The up-and-coming Australian is among the youngest players on the list. He was born in 1992, holds a couple of junior grand slam titles, and is already 6’4”. After receiving a wild card to the Australian Open this year, he won a thrilling match against Potito Starace, winning three out of four sets in tie-breaks. Unfortunately, the rest of his year was more noteworthy for the controversies Bernard was involved in rather than his results even though he won the U.S. Open junior title at Flushing Meadows. He’s a player to watch, without question. He has a lot of potential, and he could be the heir to Australian tennis, which hasn’t had a contender come up since Lleyton Hewitt.
8. Grigor Dimitrov: This Bulgarian probably has more buzz around him than any other junior player on the men’s side, due in no small part to the praise that his coach has given him in the press. According to Peter Lundgren, former coach of both Federer and Safin when they were young, Dimitrov is better than either was at that age. He certainly has an immense amount of talent, but the 18-year old has yet to put his game together on a consistent basis. His best results in 2009 were a win against Tomas Berdych and taking a set from Rafael Nadal at Rotterdam, back in February. He has also won two junior grand slams, which is often but not always an indicator of future success. But we’ll see how he matures in the next three years or so, since he’s only 17. He’s definitely a player to watch.
7. Laura Robson: Robson is the WTA’s equivalent of Dimitrov. She is unbelievably good for her age, but she has trouble consistently using her talent over the course of an entire match or tournament. That said, Robson does have more concrete evidence of her talents than some other up-and-coming players. She is only 15 years old, but her record on the WTA tour is 18-14. She’s one of the most talked about juniors on the women’s side, partly because she’s a British player. Much as Andy Murray had to deal with (and eventually came to appreciate) the expectations of the British tennis media, Robson will have to work with the pressure of the most success-starved nation of tennis fans on the planet.
6. Thiemo de Bakker: This 20-year old Dutch player has been picked by some as the male newcomer of the year, and he may be a good choice. Even though he was only 3-6 in ATP level matches, he tore things up on the challenger tour, winning 25 matches and four titles, all of them on clay. He won the junior Wimbledon title a few years ago, and he fits the build of what many tennis prognosticators are calling the future of the game: tall and rangy, like Juan Martin del Potro or Marin Cilic. In 2009, he managed wins over Gael Monfils, Rainer Schuettler, and Xavier Malisse. A fine year, but it just barely brought him into the top 100 (he’s currently at 96) and he didn’t make a dent at the ATP level. I’m surprised that the 6’4″ de Bakker did so little on faster hard courts, but del Potro won his first two titles on clay as well. If he can develop his game on hard courts, he’ll have a spectacular future.
5. Josselin Ouanna: This Frenchman is a bit older than other players on this list at 23. But he hasn’t done much worthy of note up until this year, when he made a small splash at the French Open by beating Marat Safin 10-8 in the fifth set and then making it through the qualifying tournament at the U.S. Open as well, where he lost to Fernando Gonzalez in the second round. Oddly, Gonzalez had also beat him at the French. There’s no shortage of French players at the top tiers of the game, but Ouanna may be knocking at the door in the next year. He’s a great talent, and after years of struggling in the challengers and futures, he may be ready for a breakthrough. He may have finished this year outside the top 100 (he peaked at 88), he has the game to make it back into the top 100, potentially even the top 50, in the year to come.
4. Carsten Ball: The other possibility for the next Australian tennis phenom is this aptly-named young player, the son of former tour pro Syd Ball, who peaked at 63 in singles and 22 in doubles in the 70s. Carsten did not have a spectacular year, but he did have a spectacular tournament. He went through the qualifying and made it all the way to the final at Los Angeles. He hadn’t dropped a set until he ended up losing to Sam Querrey. Since he had lost the week before, that in a Lexington challenger to a player ranked outside the top one thousand, the fact that he then beat four players in the top hundred is just spectacular. He also made it through qualifying at the U.S. Open before losing to Novak Djokovic. As a tall, big-serving lefty who can move well, he has an immense amount of potential. If he can recreate the form he demonstrated in L.A., then there should be a great future for Carsten.
3. Michelle Larcher De Brito: You’ve probably heard about the 16-year old Portuguese player, but probably not because of the quality of her play. The most notable thing about her has thus far been the fact that she is a shrieking reincarnation of Monica Seles, but with the decibel levels amped up a bit. She’s also a Nick Bolletieri protege, and several of his other players seem to have this problem. Sharapova, for example? It’s a shame that this is the biggest story when she plays, because it ignores the fact that she is the most successful Portuguese women’s tennis player of all time and that she made it past the first round of three of the four majors this year at such a young age. Her career record is 45-39, which is almost unbelievable for a 16-year old. Either she needs to tone down her grunts so that people pay more attention to her game, or she needs to get some better results – a slam semifinal might just make people forget about the noise she makes.
2. Thomaz Bellucci: This young Brazilian player gets my vote for newcomer of the year. He started 2009 with a fairly good ranking, but it was based almost entirely off his excellent play on the challenger tour. In 2009, he finally started to have some excellent results at the pro level. Up until this year, his record at ATP events was 4-16. In 2009, he went 21-18 and made two tour finals, losing in Costa del Sauipe and winning in Gstaad, beating Beck, Andreev, Kiefer, and Wawrinka along the way. He ended the year by winning a challenger event on his home soil, bringing his year-end ranking all the way up to number 36 in the world. He’s a solid player who reminds me a bit of Novak Djokovic, but it remains to be seen if he can improve on his 2009 campaign.
1. Melanie Oudin: I don’t have to say much about Oudin, after all the ink that has been spilled about her this year. After her breakout performances at Wimbledon (fourth round) and the U.S. Open (quarterfinals), she is an absolute lock for the WTA award for most impressive newcomer and has become something of a household. She’s a very solid and exciting player, even if her style of play isn’t scintillating. Her personality has been what’s brought her all of this attention so far, in addition to the fact that her success was a textbook Cinderella story. Now that she’s expected to do well, her first full year on the tour as a known quantity should be fascinating. Since there hasn’t been a new American contender on the women’s side from the U.S. since Serena came on the scene, Oudin will have to shoulder a great deal of expectation. But I believe that she is up for the challenge.
Finally, there is one player who has been on the tour for years, but no one except the truest die-hards would have even heard of him. The bonus number eleven on this top ten list goes to the player who had the best breakout performance on a big stage after years of toiling in the minor leagues.
11. Daniel Koellerer: A veteran by the standards of the other players in this list, but even though Koellerer is 26, he never broke the top 100 until this year. In his previous six years on tour, he had played only 12 ATP tour-level matches. This year, he played 27. He never played in a grand slam until this year, and he made it to the third round at the U.S. Open, where he lost to eventual champion Del Potro in four tight and enthralling sets. He has a competent game, but he is undoubtedly among the best showmen and craziest tennis players to make it into the top 100 over the last twenty years. You never know what he’s going to do on the court. His antics are immensely fun to watch, and I really hope he has a better year in 2010 just so we can see more of him on big stages.
There are many other players who I could have included and may very well have breakout years in 2010. There’s no way to know who will put together the combination of shot-making, fitness, and mental fortitude to become a force at the highest levels of the game. Just to name a few who didn’t make my top ten, you should also be on the lookout for Gianni (pronounced “Johnny”) Mina, Chase Buchanan, Jack Sock, and Devin Britton in the next couple of years.
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