Before either Novak Djokovic can finally ascend to No. 1 or Roger Federer return to the highest perch in men’s tennis, Rafael Nadal is going to have to stumble. Until yesterday, the thought of Nadal suffering a “down” 2011 season, looked plausible.
Already in the first 2.5 months of the season Rafa was hit by a flu bug and suffered a leg injury. And since the US Open, which is also the last time he has a win over a Top 10 player in traditional tournament play, Nadal has just one ATP title that coming in Tokyo early last October. However, in the Sunday Indian Wells final against Djokovic Nadal played a terrific first set of tennis.
Similar to his US Open play last September, Nadal was pouding his serve into the 130s MPH cut out the errors we had seen from him earlier in the week. Count me among the people who thought after the first set Nadal wasn’t going to be denied. But credit to Djokovic who hung tough, withstood Nadal’s best and came through in the end winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
You have to tip your cap to Djokovic and recognize his improvement as a player both in his game and between the ears. Just a year ago there was no chance the Serb would have been able to recover from a set down to Nadal in a big tournament final. But thanks to a newfound mental and physical toughness, Djokovic picked himself up, accepted the challenge and it paid off handsomely in the end.
It was a deserving victory for Djokovic who extended his current win streak to 20, 18-0 in 2011. For now, regardless of what happens in Miami, which I don’t think he’ll win, the Serb is the best player in tennis.
But back to the original question, who’ll be the next No. 1, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer? As it usually and rightfully does, the No. 1 ranking goes to players who win Grand Slam titles. And this year you’ll need to hold at least two of them to get the top spot.
After watching Nadal yesterday, despite the loss I think he has to be pleased with the way he played that first set. If he can get his serve back (it did drop a few levels in the 2nd and 3rd sets), Rafa’s going to be very, very tough to beat on any surface.
That said, I don’t think Nadal is going to sweep the final three Slams like he did last year. I still feel like the French Open is Nadal’s tournament. Djokovic is playing his best tennis and is proficient on clay, but to take three sets off Nadal on dirt is still among the toughest things to do in men’s tennis. Yesterday, on his very best surface – hardcourt – Djokovic had to do all he could just to win two sets. So unless Rafa’s battling an injury, suffering from paella poisoning, dealing with a family divorce or a breakup with girlfriend Xisca, for Djokovic or anybody else to beat Nadal in a best-of-five is almost a pipe dream.
So Nadal is looking good through the French.
Still, if Nadal does slip on the clay Djokovic is the guy next in line followed by Federer and then Del Potro as my picks at Roland Garros.
On the grass, right now I still make Nadal a slight favorite over Federer then Djokovic who has never been to a Wimbledon final. If Rafa can bring that amped-up serve to the green lawns he’ll be that much better.
And despite his erratic play of late, I still think Federer can beat anybody on grass and get back to the Wimbledon winner’s circle. Especially if he recaptures that aggressive style we saw him execute in London last November.
But I do think Rafa will play well enough at Wimbledon to maintain his top ranking into the early summer hardcourt season, and that’s when things could get really interesting.
While Federer is going to struggle on the hardcourts, Djokovic should thrive perhaps winning both Tennis Masters events in Cincinnati and Canada. Del Potro will also be a major factor and so too will Nadal and hopefully Murray. And at the US Open, it could be an absolute war with Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Del Potro and maybe Murray all vying for the final Slam of the season.
If Djokovic can play like he has thus far in 2011, it’s hard not to put him as the favorite to win in New York and finally takeover the No. 1 ranking. If this was August he’d be my pick and I think by then he would have accrued enough points to put himself in position to pass Rafa with a title.
As for Federer, I hate to write him off (again) but it’s now looking unlikely that the Swiss will ever get back to No. 1. Not only does he have to deal with Father Time (he’ll be 30 in August and Father Time is undefeated and untied in history!) and the heightened risk for injury as he ages, he now has resurgent Djokovic to beat in addition to Nadal plus Murray and Delpo hovering.
To his credit, Federer’s still playing a good brand of tennis. He’s beating to players he should and this season and in the last 12 tournaments since Wimbledon the only players to defeat him are Djokovic, Murray and Monfils. So at least he’s still going deep in tournaments and losing only to quality foes.
But outside of Wimbledon I don’t think he can get another Slam right now – injuries, slumps and upsets to his top rivals can of course change that.
If not Djokovic or Federer, I think Del Potro is next in line for the top spot. The Argentine’s rapid recovery has really been an encouraging surprise on the tennis scene this year. If he can stay healthy and keep improving he could be back at 100% full strength by the French Open. And if he can somehow grab a French title – if there’s someone who can beat a healthy Nadal on clay in five sets might it be him? – he could run the summer hardcourt table and win the US Open. Ok, that’s asking a lot this season but maybe next year?
And what about the forgotten man, Andy Murray? The Scot who was in the Australian Open is slowly getting pushed out of the mix, isn’t he? With the rise of Djokovic, the return of Del Potro and the continued strong play from Federer and Nadal, there’s hardly any room left at the top for Murray. And I think Andy is starting to come to the realization that with D&D playing so well maybe his best chances to win a Slam are behind him. And it has to be disheartening. Can Murray really beat an in-form Djokovic, Nadal, Del Potro or even Federer in a Slam final? Because the way it looks right now that’s what it’s going to take for him to break through.
The 23-year-old Murray is also in the same age range as Nadal, Djokovic and Del Potro so he’ll likely have to deal with them for the remainder of his career. Plus, there are the young stars like Milos Raonic who figure to get into the Top 10 discussion in the very near future.
However, Murray is about to turn 24 which I believe is the peak age for tennis players (Nadal turned 24 last year and look what happened!). But Djokovic is also turning 24 in May and Delpo will reach that age in September 2012.
So for me, if the top guys stays healthy the sport is about to enter into an incredibly competitive period of tennis with four, maybe five quality Hall of Famers playing exceptional tennis and all vying for the top spot at one time. And right now Djokovic is the man to beat, a statement that may very well be reflected in his ranking six months from now.
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