And in a blink the 2014 season is upon us. After a month or so of total shutdown during which we saw a flurry of high profile coaching moves, the tennis landscape remains pretty much unchanged with the top guys still on top as we enter the new year and further distance the sport from the heralded Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal period.
Now led by surprise new coach Stefan Edberg, Federer, though, is still around. But at 32 is he really still a force at majors? We know current No. 1 Nadal will be. Knees or no knees, count out the Spaniard at your own peril!
And what do we make of Andy Murray? Is he the 2014 X-factor? After missing the last two months of 2013, the Scot is healthy again after undergoing surgery to fix a chronic back ailment.
But to me this season will come down to two players: Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro.
After a patchy spring/summer, Djokovic ended 2013 in the best possible way winning his last 24 matches including the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup. Yes, he’s also added a bigger-than-life persona in Boris Becker to his growing entourage, but to me the German won’t factor in much. Novak’s good enough as it is, so what’s Becker really going to bring to the table besides poker tips? As I’ve said before, Novak needs mental guidance and I just don’t think Boris is the answer. That said, it won’t matter. It should still be the Serb’s year.
Nadal is of course Djokovic’s biggest threat but another guy who could make a run at the top is Del Potro. Finally over that wrist injury and now 25, which to me is the sweetspot age in men’s tennis, I really expect we’ll see the very best of Argentine this coming year and the next. I just hope his body holds up. And it did for much of 2013 when he closed the year with two titles and a runner-up during the last 45 days of the season.
That momentum, those tough calls with Djokovic and wins over Nadal and others, should propels him out of the block quickly making him a serious, immediate threat in Australia.
Taking a bigger step back and looking over the entire men’s tennis plate, I don’t see many major changes. So status quo once again. Though it appears David Ferrer has hit his peak while Tomas Berdych continues to be content with a second tier rank.
If healthy, JW Tsonga is the only guy I can see breaking into that Top 5.
As for the young stars, risers like Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov have shown some signs of life and the ability to win big matches, but I’m not ready to move them into Grand Slam contention just yet. Bernard Tomic has about as much talent as anyone, however can the Australian get out of his own way? At just 21, he might still be a year or two away from reaching that potential.
I do, however, like Jerzy Janowicz and Kei Nishikori to climb higher, maybe into the Top 10. And watch out for Vasek Pospisil. Might he be a better pick than his better known countryman Raonic?
I think a couple veterans will return to making noise. I’m talking about Fernando Verdasco, Jurgen Melzer and my man Gael Monfils who I believe will all be ranked higher a year from now. And also Marin Cilic who’s coming back from a doping suspension. It’s going to be a tough road but the Croatian is a Top 10 player and by the end of the season I expect him to be knocking back on that door.
Among those on the slide I would include 30 somethings Tommy Haas, Mikhail Youzhny and Tommy Robredo who enjoyed a terrific 2013.
But the problem is for any of the vets or the youngsters, is the game is so top heavy right now. If you are not in the Top 6, your path to Grand Slam glory will likely take you through a Del Potro, then a Nadal and finally a Djokovic. And if not Del Potro then it’s Murray. If not Nadal it’s Federer. If not Djokovic it’s Berdych or Tsonga. And to me that just makes it too tough for anyone to really break though next season. But eventually it will happen…
With that, here’s how I see the Top 10 in 2014.
1. Novak Djokovic
Carrying the momentum from the end of 2013, I think Novak sails to the Australian title then – I’ll actually go on a big limb here – wins the French Open completing the career Slam. And maybe adds the U.S. thereafter. The key is whatever was bothering Novak in the meat of 2013 he’s seemed to have it sorted and that’s a good sign: problem solving.
2. Juan Martin Del Potro
I love how the Argentine finished 2013 but I’m still wary of his ability to put together a complete season. He knows how to win. He has the game. He’s at his peak age of 25. He just needs that frail body of his to hold up, that’s the great unknown. But I think at Australia and the US Open he very could be adding to his Grand Slam haul.
3. Rafael Nadal
After blistering start and an unbelievable summer, Nadal cooled toward the end of the year. And that gives me pause. As I said before, Nadal’s surprising turnaround on hardcourts was due in part to Murray’s injury, Federer’s aging and Djokovic’s swoon. Federer’s still a geezer, but Djokovic seems to have his head right now. Murray’s back, literally and I think Del Potro and Tsonga will factor in as well. Plus, after beating him in Monte Carlo Djokovic should have won that French Open semifinal. Yes, we are finally seeing some cracks in the King of Clay. And those darn knees…I think they’ll make headlines once again.
4. Andy Murray
A back injury always carries with it a lot of risk. But I think Murray rebounds nicely and with a healthy back (remember he won Wimbledon without it being 100%), I think he’ll play consistently enough to push Djokovic for the top spot. Lendl will make sure of that.
5. Roger Federer
As I’ve said before, Father Time is undefeated in the history of mankind. And not even Stefan Edberg nor a longer racket will help Roger win that battle. But a late season turnaround gave Federer fans the hope they long needed after a very dismal 2013 campaign. So that should carryover. While I don’t see a big move (up or down) in the rankings, I think we’ll see some more consistent results out of Roger and maybe one more magical run provided his back holds up.
6. JW Tsonga
The Frenchman is another guy who’s just snakebit by injury. If Tsonga can keep his body together he could make a Top 5 push because he’s that good of a player on just about any surface.
7. David Ferrer
I think the decline finally begins for the indefatigable Ferrer. David had a great 2013 highlighted by his first Slam final at the French Open and a pretty strong finish during which he quietly reached three straight finals before ending the year on a 4-match losing streak. Under new coach Altur, I expect Ferrer to continue to rack up wins over the lesser guys, the problem is as usual with those above him. And this year there will be more.
8. Tomas Berdych
A dispirited finish to 2013 – just one Top 10 win (Ferrer) since Cincinnati – signals to me that the 28-year-old Berdych has probably seen his best days. He’s still a danger on any surface, I just don’t know how much heart and passion he really has to make the most of his talents. Of the many guys making big name coaching changes, I think Berdych would have benefited the most by latching on to one of those champions. Perhaps, though, being a champion isn’t a goal of his.
9. Milos Raonic
I get the feeling instead of a rocket ship rise it’s going to be slow-and-steady ride for Milos. The Canadian who just turned 23 a few days ago I think finally makes a Slam quarterfinal and sets himself up for a big run in 2015.
10. Stan Wawrinka
After the very best season of his career I expect Stan to hold a Top 10 ranking thanks to his renewed belief and better seeding at the Slams this season. The Swiss who arguably had a better 2013 Grand Slam season than Federer, came oh so close in two heartbreaking 5-set losses to Djokovic. While I don’t expect him to climb those hurdles in 2014, he’ll be a welcome factor once again.
So there are my Top 10. Injuries, as always, will play a big role, and I really believe this upcoming first month in Australia will tell us all we need to know on how the season will go.
As for my early Grand Slam predictions:
Australian Open: Djokovic d. Del Potro
French Open: Djokovic d. Nadal
Wimbledon: Murray d. Federer
US Open: Del Potro d. Murray
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