It was just a few years ago when Andy Roddick use to offer a lighthearted bellyache here or there about being born in the wrong tennis era; the Era of Roger Federer. Fast forward to today and imagine the cruel hands that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have been dealt. Not only do they have Roddick’s Federer, but they also have Mr. Rafael Nadal.
With Nadal at his very best and Federer still in his magical fiefdom, is there a tougher thing to do in tennis than to win a men’s Grand Slam or even get close to a No. 1 finish on the ATP. If your name isn’t Nadal or Federer that’s been the case and will likely continue to be the norm in 2011. And for 98% of the Top 100 there’s a certain unfairness in having to compete against not one but two of the greats of the game.
But hey, for us fans it’s great times.
Despite the Nadal-Federer double-gauntlet, for players like Murray and to a much lesser degree Djokovic, the expectations and pressures remain on them either winning a Slam (Murray) or getting No. 2 (Djokovic).
And then there’s the true X-Factor, Juan Martin Del Potro, who makes his comeback from a serious wrist injury that truncated his 2010 season. With the JMDP now near or at (hopefully, fingers crossed) 100%, can the Argentine giant can back into the 2011 conversation, or is he another year away?
Before I get into what I think may happen with DelPo and the other contenders, I have to give credit to both Nadal and Federer, particularly Federer. A few years ago I would not have thought Roger would be at the high level he was last year.
Maybe it was new coach Paul Annacone’s influence or just the continued reverence shown from his foes, but Federer’s post-Wimbledon season was as good as anyone’s.
And after a gloomy to start to 2010, Nadal got his ailing knee right and then somehow set the tennis world ablaze. Incredibly, just a year removed from what looked like a serious knee issue that would haunt his year, maybe career, Nadal returns to Melbourne next week as a legitimate favorite to complete his “Rafa Slam” and win a fourth straight Major.
So the storylines are again familiar: Can anyone break the Nadal-Federer Top Two stranglehold? Can Murray finally breakthrough? Is Djokovic, who gets so close and plays so well at times, ever going to pocket another Slam? And of course between Nadal and Federer, who’ll get the top prize and finish No. 1?
It really boils down to a two player race among four players. Here’s my breakdown here’s my prediction for 2011 Top 10:
1. Rafael Nadal
Under Annacone Federer has clearly found some added life in his tennis game, and while it’s not necessarily evolving, it has taken a more aggressive turn. Still, if Nadal stays healthy – we know he’ll be motivated – I don’t think Federer can beat him consistently enough to regain the top ranking in 2011 (and with it break the Pete Sampras record).
Nadal will likely dominate again on the clay and while he might not repeat at the US Open I think Wimbledon and the Australian Open are still in his sweetspot.
Speaking of sweetspots, Nadal who turns 25 this June, is really in the heart of the age range (24-26) when tennis players hit their full stride. Scary, I know, that he may now ne entering his peak zone. So I’ll expect two Slams, a bundle of other Masters titles to give Rafa another No. 1 finish.
2. Roger Federer
No real surprise that Federer will finish second to Nadal, again. After all it was Nadal who spent all those years in waiting at No. 2, now it’s Roger’s turn to play bridesmaid.
That said, back in July even a second placed finish seemed far-fetched. But as I said, credit to Federer for signing Annacone and reigniting his game.
Arguably no one had a better second half of the season than Federer who lost just three times – in two of those he held multiple match points – and capped the year with a convincing London Finals win.
So Federer’s confidence has to be soaring to start 2011 and I think he’ll be quick out of the gates once again in Melbourne and continue as a threat at the remaining three Majors, likely capturing at least one, maybe two in his title haul.
3. Novak Djokovic
The Joker also had a very strong finish to 2010. After a feeble summer showing, Novak was virtually reborn at the US Open against Troicki, and then the Serb carried that momentum to a Davis Cup title for Serbia to end the season.
Djokovic says that he’s growing as a person and that he’s learned to better deal with the pressures of playing against Nadal and Federer which is a positive. But I need to see that belief translated on court before I can put him any higher.
He has the game but with Djokovic what’s between the ears is often the determining factor. Add to that his wishy-washy serve which we’ll be under the microscope in Melbourne.
4. Andy Murray
The clock is ticking and the pressure mounting on Andy Murray’s quest for that maiden Grand Slam. Unfortunately for Murray, we may look back at the 2010 Australian Open final as the best chance he’ll have at that win.
And that’s because in Melbourne this year Nadal is better than he was year ago at this time. So, too, is Federer and I’ll add Djokovic to that list as well. And that’s not good for Murray who quietly had some good results the second half of 2010 (he beat Federer to win Montreal and Shanghai). But until he gets over the hump in a big-stage final I’ll remain suspect.
And being semi-coachless I don’t think is good thing for the talented Scot. Had he stuck with Brad Gilbert I think he’d be a Grand Slam champion by now.
That was the easy part (1-4), now the tough part (5-10).
5. JW Tsonga
I’m going to take a leap of faith flyer on Tsonga. The Frenchman has had his share of knee issues and injuries but if he can return to 100% health – he says he is – and stay healthy(!) I think with his firepower and energy he can play (and beat) anybody when he’s “on” song (pun).
There’s no reason he can’t get that last spot in the Top 5 if he just play a full year without injury.
Despite playing among the fewest events in the Top 20 (20), Tsonga still managed a No. 13 ranking which should set him up for some good draws early on. And that’s important from a streaky guy like this one.
6. Andy Roddick
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the American just keeps going and going. And I think he’ll do well enough this year to finish Top 10 for a 10th (and final) time. Roddick spent part of 2010 on the mend from shoulder and mono ailments, but he comes into 2011 saying he’s renewed, ready and full of life.
Sure, his game has become more of a pusher style, but the serve is still a force and outside of Federer and Nadal, Andy’s got the best attitude on the circuit.
If he can improve upon his 2010 Slam results (shouldn’t be that hard), he’ll move up in the rankings.
7. Fernando Verdasco
Can anyone tell me what Fernando Verdasco did in 2010 to warrant a No. 10 finish? I recall Verdasco, or “Hot Sauce” as he is better known by (nickname first coined on this site), suffering a crushing loss at the US Open to Ferrer, getting destroyed by Nadal in Monte Carlo and flaming out to Davydenko at Australia, but somehow he managed to stay in the Top 10.
He’s must have been doing something right!
Of concern with Verdasco is overplaying, but last year he played just seven matches after the US Open (mostly b/c he lost early) so I think this season he comes in much fresher than last year and with a lot less pressure of having to defend all those points.
8. Robin Soderling
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen Robin Soderling’s best. This year there won’t be another stunning upset at the French Open (unless it’s his own!), nor a third trip to the French Open final. With Magnus Norman watching from home, I think Soderling is officially on the decline.
But his rugged build and power will keep him as a serious factor at most of the events.
9. Marcos Baghdatis
If I can take a flyer of JW Tsonga, then why not one on Marcos Baghdatis? Reports are for 2011 that Bags has dropped some and is fit and eager for a strong season. And that’s a good sign for Marcos who despite wins over both Federer and Nadal in 2010, battled a shoulder and other injuries during the season.
The Australian Open final may be his lone appearance in a Major but, but the Cypriot still has the raw talent and charisma to return to the Top 10.
10. Gael Monfils
It’s been a lengthy waiting with Monfils, but My Man Monfils might be on the verge of a breakout year. Gael finally came through with huge wins over Vedasco, Murray and then Federer at Paris in November. And even though he lost the final I think that trio of victories combined with a solid performance overall the last three months bodes well for the Frenchman in the future.
Now if he can just focus more on his game and fitness rather than on entertaining and showboating, he may eventually get to a Slam winner’s circle.
And that’s my Top 10.
Here’s my Players on the rise:
Robin Haase – Played Nadal tough at Wimbledon, I expect more in 2011 if he he can put together a full season.
Kei Nishikori – Under Brad Gilbert’s wing a possible Top 30 finish?
Richard Berankis – 20-year-old Lithuanian will play his first full season on the big boy circuit.
Grigor Dmitrov – Strong, if not controversial finish to 2010, could make for an interesting season for the talented kid once labeled as the next Federer.
Ryan Harrison – Is the youngster ready to become the next American superstar? Look for at least at Top 70 finish as the climb continues.
Juan Martin Del Potro – He’s just 22 but he sure seems a lot older. If healthy the No. 258th ranked DelPo should roar back into the Top 20, maybe even return to the Top 10 by year-end. Let’s hope!
Players on the slide:
Nikolay Dayvdenko – Seems like age and injury are finally catching up with “pong”.
Ivan Ljubicic – Expiration date coming up?
Tomas Berdych – Nice Acapulco cliff dive imitation the second half of last year.
Marin Cilic – What happened?
Other players to watch:
Americans – I love the American boys John Isner, Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish, but I think they’ll hover in that 11-25 range.
Ernests Gulbis – We saw flashes in 2010, will see more this year or just flame? I leaning to the latter.
David Nalbandian – Always a wildcard, the Argentine is capable of so much more but often falls flat. This might be his last real year.
Richard Gasquet – Arguably the most talented of the Frenchmen, Gasquet has a Top 10 game but a Top 50 head. Too bad the head usually prevails in that battle.
Some 2011 Grand Slam Predictions:
Australian Open: Federer d. Djokovic
French Open: Nadal d. Federer
Wimbledon: Nadal d. Federer
US Open: Federer d. Djokovic
Women’s final top 5:
1. Kim Clijsters – Should win at least two Slams.
2. Caroline Wozniacki – Maybe wins a slam, but will clean up all the smaller WTA titles.
3. Justine Henin – If fully healthy could leap to No. 1, but elbow remains a concern. Still the favorite right now for French.
4. Serena Williams – Foot/health/interest. Too many question marks but Wimbledon still belongs to her.
5. Vera Zvonareva – Has found form but unlikely to win that big Slam title.
And with that, enjoy 2011 people and Happy New Year!
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