As the tennis season gets underway, Joe Healy takes a look at the contenders to be the ATP player of the year in 2013.
After all of six weeks or so off, the tennis season is back.
Smaller tournaments in Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East started around New Year’s Day and the Australian Open, the season’s first major, starts this Sunday.
I, for one, couldn’t be more excited. I’m always ready for the season to begin again, but this season is different because there hasn’t been a more wide-open season in recent memory.
More often than not of late, there has been a dominant player coming into the season. Most of the time it has been Roger Federer, other times it has been Rafael Nadal and most recently, it has been Novak Djokovic.
But that’s not the case this time around. There are a few players that you can envision ending up as the player of 2013.
Let’s take a look at the players that headline that list and talk about their chances to end 2013 at the top of the ATP Tour.
Just when you think this guy is just about done as a threat to be the top player on tour, he comes back with an incredible season. I have been bullish on Federer as a contender. I thought that even though Djokovic and Nadal may have past him by, there was no way he was done contending for majors. But even I had to admit that time might be running short.
In 2012, though, we got some vintage Federer. He made semifinals at the Australian Open and the French Open, won Wimbledon, made it to the final at the Olympic games and made the final at the ATP World Tour Finals. Along the way, he also managed to get back to #1, breaking Pete Sampras’ record for most weeks as the top-ranked player.
I think it would be silly to predict anything but a similar season from Federer. Maybe he won’t win a major this year, but you know he’s going to give you consistent results. He’s not going to lose early in majors to players he shouldn’t, he’s going to make the semifinals at more majors than not and he’s ranking isn’t going to drop below the top four spots.
More than anything else, Federer really gets how to make his schedule. He carefully picks his tournaments, always keeping travel, court surface and his history at that event in mind. His scheduling has a lot to do with the fact that he has been able to stay remarkably healthy and in good form. There will always be those that complain about how Federer plays a relatively light schedule, but it’s that meticulous schedule-making that puts him in a position to do what he does year after year.
Because of how incredible his 2011 season was, it’s easy to forget how good Djokovic was in 2012. He made the finals of the French Open and US Open, won the Australian Open and the ATP World Tour Finals and he finished the season right where he started it, as the top-ranked player in the world.
But along the way, he showed some cracks. He failed to medal at the Olympics, he lost a set 0-6 to Federer in Cincinnati and he suffered a round of 32 loss to Sam Querrey at a Master’s-level event in Paris. Sure, those aren’t reasons to be down on him, but those things wouldn’t have happened to Djokovic in 2011. In short, Djokovic wasn’t the head case he was before the 2011 season, but he also wasn’t the unbeatable player he was for much of 2011.
For me, Djokovic is the player to beat in 2013. Simply put, he’s the steadiest player in the game right now. He has an all-court game and it doesn’t hurt that his best surface, hard courts, make up half of the majors in a season. Maybe most importantly, he plays well against all of the players that join him at the top of the rankings. Federer has always struggled with Nadal in a way and Murray was much the same against Federer, but Djokovic, at least over the last few seasons, has had his successes against all of them.
Murray was the breakout player of 2012. He won a gold medal at the Olympics as part of Team Great Britain and he won his first major when he took down Djokovic at the US Open. He also ended all the talk that the “Big Four” was a misnomer. He clearly belongs with the top players on tour.
The scary thing for opposing players on tour is that Murray might still be getting better. The skills have always been there. He has long been one of the better defenders on tour and you could see that he was so close to breaking into the elite. What was holding him back was the mental side of the game. He was prone to blowups on court and several occasions, he seemed to want to be anywhere but on a tennis court.
But under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl, things have changed a bit. Murray seems more focused and more dedicated. No longer does he seem to be something of a head case.
If Murray finds a way to improve yet again, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, he will challenge Djokovic to be the player to beat on tour in 2013.
He missed the US Open altogether and all told missed about half of the ATP season, but Nadal’s season was still nothing to be ashamed of. He won the French Open, his pet tournament, and he lost in an epic Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic.
The problem is how Nadal’s 2012 ended. He lost in the second round to little-known Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon and then went on the shelf for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The injuries have to be a concern moving forward. Nadal plays the game in a way that will always make him prone to injuries and that’s all there is to it. Knee injuries like the one that ended his 2012 season have become old hat for him.
With all that being said, I have to admit that I would be surprised if Nadal didn’t return and play like his old self for stretches. The fact that he has chosen not to push himself to come back for the Australian Open is a good sign for his long-term prospects. I’m guessing he returns in time to play a few warmup tournaments on clay and that he is viewed as a real contender at the French Open when that tournament begins.
Looking at the entire season, I think Nadal will be no higher than the fourth-best player on tour, but winning the French Open and staying in the thick of the ATP rankings isn’t out of the question with some smart scheduling on his part.
Juan Martin del Potro
After what we saw from DelPo in 2012, I think it’s safe to say that he is all the way back from the wrist injury that cost him so much time in what should have been the best years of his career.
He made the quarterfinals at the Australian, French and US Opens, he upset Novak Djokovic to win the bronze medal at the Olympics and he won four tournament titles, including a finals win over Roger Federer at Fed’s home tournament in Basel, Switzerland.
If del Potro is going to make a move and challenge to win another major, his time is now. He is nearing the level of play he reached when he won the US Open back in 2009 and the top few guys on tour aren’t as invincible as they have been of late.
The Australian Open will be a good barometer for the big Argentine. Hard courts are his favorite surface and his penchant for ending points early and efficiently will serve him well in the heat of the Australian summer.
What can I say about this feisty Spaniard that hasn’t already been said? He gets the absolute most out of his ability and he gives everyone he plays a ton of trouble, even if the scoreline doesn’t always show it.
Last season was just another typical Ferrer season. He made the quarterfinals or better in each of the four major tournaments, he won seven tournament titles and he went 6-0 in Davis Cup play.
I love Ferrer’s game and I have a ton of respect for everything he accomplishes, but I just can’t see him becoming more than he is right now. He is quite possibly the fittest player on tour and he plays fantastic defense, but he just doesn’t have the firepower to stand up to the best players on tour on a regular basis.
I felt that I needed to include Ferrer on this list out of respect, but I don’t think there’s any real chance that Ferrer emerges as the top player on tour for any stretch this season.