Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dead Canary in a Cage?: 2010 ATP Top 10 Predictions

Was the 2009 season the men's tennis version of the canary in the coal mine?

While this past year saw some semblence of a "return to order," as Roger Federer reclaimed the #1 ranking and a bit of his old aura during the European summer, it also was loaded with the sort of signposts that point to major change on the horizon. After a slow start, then strong middle, Federer's (once again) leading role on the tour was pretty much left vacant by the Swiss Mister/New Pop & Hubby, as he pointed to exhaustion being the culprit in his criminally-absent lack of a strong finish. Meanwhile, though Rafael Nadal helped Spain win another Davis Cup in December, his influence on the regular tour waned considerably after his knees forced his exit from Wimbledon following his failure to defend his Roland Garros crown, as the general wear and tear on his body as a result of his ultra-physical game once again made him a 4th Quarter shadow of the player who opened the season by winning his first hard court slam in Melbourne.

While both Nadal and Federer will still be considered the dominant forces on clay and grass leading up to the slams in Paris and London in 2010, might we be facing a very near future in which we could see one -- or even both?) -- overtaken over the course of the season by one of the younger, healthier upstarts who have been gathering titles and confidence over the past twelve months (often by defeating one or both of the Big Two along the way)?

Juan Martin del Potro won the U.S. Open in '09, defeating Nadal and Federer in consecutive days. Novak Djokovic knocked off both during his sterling last quarter of the season, too. Robin Soderling proved to be a big event star, ending Nadal's run in Paris and showing great promise at Wimbledon immediately afterward. Even Andy Roddick nearly mustered a title at SW19 with Federer on the other side of the net. Throw in that slight dip in the big stage prominance of Andy Murray, who led the tour in titles (six) but failed to make a dent in the slams (only advancing to one SF) as he fell behind Djokovic in the season-ending rankings, and the environment would seem to be ripe for a major shake-up at the top of the ATP rankings in 2010.

2004 was the last season that the Federer-Nadal combo didn't fill both the top two spots in men's tennis at year's end. Since the '04 Wimbledon, they've won eighteen of twenty-one slams, and seventeen of nineteen since Roland Garros '05. They could finish on top and divy up the slams once again in 2010, but for the first time in ages a great argument can be made that they could be "had" this season.

At the very least, the canary that is the Federer/Nadal dominance is looking a pit peaked as the calendar is flipped over. The question is whether or not the yellow birdie just ate a bad bag of seed, or if everything REALLY IS about to change.

Here's an early prediction for the year-end 2010 Top 10 (with '09 rank in parenthesis):

10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, FRA (10): injuries have been keeping the 2008 Australian Open runner-up down, but he still managed to go 3-0 in finals and finish in the Top 10 in '09.
9. Andy Roddick, USA (7): was last season's Wimbledon final his last best chance to win another slam? Close losses to Federer and del Potro last summer might have dented his big match confidence enough to take away whatever good he accomplished with his new physique and more varied game.
8. Marin Cilic, CRO (14): the Croat defeated Nadal in Beijing, but he's yet to have a great slam run (a QF at the U.S. Open was his best in '09). The Croatian men have tended to rise in London, though, so he might be worth watching there this summer.
7. Nikolay Davydenko, RUS (6): was his Masters Cup title a prelude to him finally being a major player in the slams? Yeah, probably not. Still, his 5-0 finals record and wins over Federer and del Potro en route to the MC title was mightily impressive for a player who'll likely never get his due unless he pulls a slam out of his bag.
6. Robin Soderling, SWE (8): he was at his best in the slams, especially when he ended Nadal's 31-match RG win streak in Paris. He'll have much to live up to in 2010.
5. Andy Murray, GBR (4): his six titles speak to his in-season consistency, but is it possible that he might have missed out on a small window during which he SHOULD have ended all that "no British man has won a slam since Fred Perry" talk? He lost in his final two meetings with Federer in '09, and was surpassed by del Potro and Djokovic down the stretch. The trip up Murray Mount to a slam title surely looks steeper now than it did a season ago.
4. Novak Djokovic, SRB (3): he's yet to live up to his '08 Oz title promise again in a slam, but as the Big Two's stranglehold lessened in '09 he got stronger in the season's closing months. Djokovic defeated Federer three times last season, and took out Nadal three consecutive times in straight sets during the back half of the year. His time could come again in Melbourne.
3. Roger Federer, SUI (1): a horrid start, a grand middle and a nonexistent end made for a very uneven '09 campaign for the old/new #1 in men's tennis, who pretty much put a period at the end of his career legacy with his Roland Garros/Wimbledon two-fer last summer. Federer's still capable of winning a slam or two, but the season-long dominance of old looks to be gone for good (which might mean he fails to catch Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks in the top spot, as he'll be twenty-two weeks from matching it as play begins in Week 1. Anyone can beat him on a bad day now. Much like with the late-career Venus Williams, his SW19 performance will tell the tale of whether or not his '10 is successful.
2. Rafael Nadal, ESP (2): even with his triumph in Australia, 2009 was a trying year for Nadal both on (thanks to his knees) and off (largely due to his parents' divorce) court. Maybe the Davis Cup title sent him into the offseason ready to bust heads and take names again in '10, but maybe the grinder of old will never be again. Could Nadal maintain his place at the top of the sport by changing his game enough to ensure that his career won't flame out far too early because the physical nature of his game prevents his body from lasting long enough to have a long career? Maybe. But there IS a question, and that might be enough to open the door for doubt... about him in the mind of his opponents, and himself. Still, I think it's more likely that Rafa will return to #1 than Federer will be able to hold onto it in 2010.
1. Juan Martin del Potro, ARG (5): hey, why not? I was going to pick Nadal #1 and del Potro #2, but I figured, "Why not just let the canary die in 2010?" So, there it is. Surely, his defeat of both Nadal and Federer en route to his U.S. Open title speaks well for what the Argentine is capable of accomplishing this season. He became the world's best hard courter in '09, and the high-level version of his game would seem to be able to be transferred to other surfaces, as well. At 21, he hasn't yet reached his prime. If he does in '10, he might just rise above everyone.

Sam Querrey, USA (25): 1-4 in finals last season, if he could just turn around a few of those results he'll be closing in on the Top 10.
Gael Monfils, FRA (13): really, who knows what to expect from Monfils? But you'd never dare ignore him.
Fernando Verdasco, ESP (9): he's not likely to top his career year of '09 in 2010.
Richard Gasquet, FRA (52): cocaine kisses for everyone! The Frenchman's talent is much like that Miami club incident -- the evidence says he might be legit, but something keeps you from fully committing to the notion of it all.
Gilles Simon, FRA (15): he took a mini-step back in 2009.
Jeremy Chardy, FRA (32): after grabbing his first title in '09, the youngest of the Frenchies is ready to rise.

AO: Djokovic d. del Potro (Alternates: Nadal, Soderling, Federer)
...the Serb was on fire late in the season, and has won in Oz before. del Potro knows how to win a slam now, though... and he won't have to worry about Dick Enberg trying to keep the microphone to himself again.

RG: Nadal d. Federer (Alt: Soderling, Davydenko, Djokovic)
...was '09 just an aberration, or the beginning of the end of Nadal's Paris hegemony? Sometimes it happens that fast.

W: Federer d. Nadal (Alt.: Roddick, del Potro, Cilic) it should be? Still, Roddick's near-win in '09 means that a first-time SW19 champion could be crowned at the All-England Club in '10.

US: del Potro d. Nadal (Alt.: Murray, Federer, Djokovic)
...only the strong survive and thrive and NYC. Of course, Nadal getting even this close would likely have to be the result of some re-thinking of his usually-grueling pre-North American schedule which usually leaves him a longshot at the Open.

All for now.


Blogger Kumar said...

Interesting post. However, I must say I think del Potro will only dazzle briefly in 2010. He doesn't look like a week-in, week-out kind of dominant player to me. Still, I could be wrong. Also, del Potro is unlikely to ever do too much damage at Wimbledon. The low bounces drive him nuts, and he was beaten soundly by Hewitt this year. It should be a great season, though.

Tue Dec 29, 02:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger riley said...

after seeing murray in the recent australian open i think he will be the one to watch this year ahead of del potro and djokovic, on the other hand i think federer is bck to his best, but murray will be there or there abouts in all competitions this year he's 22 still a youngster but his determination will take him far this year.
my 1-5 at the end of the year is as follows

#1 federer
#2 murray
#3 nadal
#4 djokovic
#5 del potro
thanks for reading and for any replies

Mon Feb 01, 04:06:00 PM EST  
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