Ten Predictions for Pro Tennis in 2013

28 Mar

Three months into the season, I thought it would be fun to lay down some predictions of how professional tennis might look at the end of 2013. The ATP Tour has already seen a lot of exciting action this year –the return of Rafa, the dominance of Djokovic, and the ascension of some new names into the sport’s highest rungs. With nine months in front of us, where are we headed, and what are some of the most surprising developments we will see? This list is high on risk and low on cliché. It embraces obscurity while shunning the headlines. My predictions aim to engender impassioned debate among tennis fans everywhere. I hope you enjoy!

1. For the first time since rankings began, no American will finish inside the top 20. The retirement of Andy Roddick last September and Mardy Fish’s injury around the turn of the year deposed these two perennial powerhouses from tennis’ highest rung. The slow decline of John Isner in the opening months of 2013, coupled with Sam Querrey’s resurgent but unsteady play, mean that the decline of American tennis that has been underway since Andre Agassi’s retirement in 2006 – or even before – will probably finally register decisively in the rankings. For a country that twenty years ago had five men inside the top ten, the failure to place even one player inside the top twenty would represent a tremendous decline.

Isner

2. Bulgarian sensation Grigor Dimitrov will finish inside the top 20 (by the end of 2014, he’ll be inside the top 15, and by 2015, the top 10). Why pay any attention to this obscure, 21-year-old from Bulgaria? When people tell me that a player has a similar style to, and the physical gifts of, Federer, my ears perk up. But when I watch that player and have those reports confirmed, I am down right enthralled. That is how I feel about Dimitrov. It has taken some time, but the prodigal youngster, who has engendered high hopes far beyond his native country, is finally beginning to settle into his  big game and learning to use more effectively his dynamic one-handed backhand, which he can use for power or to create angles, with spin. Despite a disappointing, early exit at the Australian Open after reaching his first tour final the previous week, in Brisbane, and some close but ultimately unsuccessful brushes with taking-out top-ranked players, the Bulgarian is poised for success in 2013, a year during which I expect him to win his first title and attain solidify his status as one of the game’s top up-and-coming players.

Dimitrov

3. Somdev Devvarman will become the second Indian to crack the top 50. Who’s Somdev? The 27-year-old Indian native is one of college tennis’ greatest all-time players (Steve Johnson of USC is almost certainly the undisputed leader, here), having captured back-to-back NCAA titles during his junior and senior years at Virginia. But, despite his craft and impressive speed, the Indian’s slight, 5’11, 160-pound frame was expected to prove a serious liability for him on Tour, and not much was expected of his pro career. Still, after languishing on the Challenger circuit for a couple of years, Devvarman had a break-thru year in 2011, winning 20 matches and becoming a regular fixture at tennis’ biggest tournaments. A shoulder injury sidelined him for all of 2012, but Devvarman has come back with a vengeance in 2013, utilizing his “protected ranking” to participate at ATP-level events, and win first-round matches at 6 of his first seven tournaments, including a third-round finish at the World Tour Masters in Miami, tennis’ biggest competition outside of the majors.

Devvarman

4. Richard Gasquet will replace Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as the highest-ranked Frenchman. To give you an idea of how talented Gasquet is, I would not that, when he and Rafael Nadal, who is roughly the same age, broke onto the pro circuit in the early 2000s, most tennis analysts believed Gasquet would have a more successful career. Ten years later, and there is no question – Rafa’s triumphs have been almost incomparably greater. He has hovered inside the top 15 for most of his career, won nine titles, and reached the semis of Wimbledon in 2007, before bowing-out to Federer. And the talent that generated such high-hopes for the Frenchman is still very much in-place. He has arguably the most powerful one-handed backhand on tour, and can hit winners from nearly any spot on the court. When he is “on”, Gasquet can beat any player on the planet. He has every shot in the book and good touch around the net, giving his game a dynamism that makes him a threat on any surface. The prospect of meeting Gasquet in the fourth-round of a major sends shivers down the spines of those at the top of the rankings. I have been saying  for some time now – without success – that Gasquet would break through and win his first major. For now, I’ll temper these expectations and just predict that he will surmount Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – who has seen his results, while still good, taper off a bit thus far in 2013 – as the top French player. (Look out, though, for my boy Gilles “Chicken Legs” Simon as an outside threat, here!)

Gasquet

5. At 35 years of age, Tommy Haas will end the year as the top-ranked German. Though I swear I made this prediction beforehand, Haas just knocked-off #1-ranked Novak Djokovic, in a fairly routine 6-2, 6-4 victory, the latest achievement in a remarkable comeback that has seen the German climb from the depths of ATP-level tennis to the top-20 in less than twelve months. Early last year, Haas’ career appeared to be fizzling out. He entered 2012 ranked outside the top 200, suffered a series of early round exits, lost in the semis of a challenger event (pro tennis’ Triple A circuit) in March, and failed to qualify for a low-level event, in Houston, in April. However, German turned things around during the spring, clay-court season. The turning point came in late April, in Munich, on his home soil, where Haas used the support of a friendly German crowd to win three matches en route to the semi-finals, including a win over world #5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Haas carried this momentum into the French Open, where he stormed thru three rounds of qualifying and won two matches in the main draw, before falling to Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the round of 32. The most conclusive sign of Haas’ resurgence came two weeks later in Halle, Germany, in a grass-court tune-up for Wimbledon, where the then-34-year-old stunned Roger Federer to capture the title. Haas used this momentum to tally-up impressive results over the duration of 2012 – including reaching the finals of an ATP event in Washington, D.C., and the quarter-finals of Masters Series events in Toronto and Shanghai. The old guy’s found a new wind, and while he won’t threaten to finally capture his first major at one the year’s remaining slams, Haas could tack on a few more titles to a stellar career that has already seen plenty of them.

Haas

6. Marin Cilic will finish in the top ten and qualify for his first ATP World Tour Finals. The 6’6” Croat broke onto the pro scene in 200x amidst much fanfare. Along with 6’6” Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro (Delpo), Cilic was acclaimed by myriad tennis watchers for striking the ball more cleanly and powerfully than they had ever seen. But while Delpo’s career quickly went north, with the South American Giant cracking the top ten and claiming his first major title at the U.S. Open in 2009, Cilic’s plateaued in 2010, when he achieve a career-high year-end ranking of 14, before falling to 21 at the end of 2011. However, the Croat finished strongly in 2012, ticking his ranking back up to 15, and has begun 2013 in top form, capturing the title on his home soil in Zagreb, Croatia, in March, and breaking-thru for a straight-sets win against world #8 Tsonga in Miami, where, as of this writing, he was poised for a quarter-final showdown against second-seed and world #3 Andy Murray. Although most comfortable blasting from the baseline, Cilic has a dynamic game that makes him a threat on any surface. Expect him to put up solid results during the clay-court swing, including in Paris, at the French, before shining on the faster surfaces over the second half of the year, when I expect him to compete for serious titles and go deep in one or more majors. Cilic’s year-end ranking will also benefit from the ATP Tour schedule, which finishes the season on indoor courts, the ultra-fast nature of which caters nicely to Cilic’s big serve, big forehand one-two punch.

Cilic

7. Milos Raonic will become the first Canadian to reach the top ten. I’m expecting big (huge!) things from Raonic during the grass and hard-court seasons. His performance so far this year has been pretty good, but he’ll need to seriously step up his play – with a big result at Wimbledon and maybe a Masters Series title during the summer – to have any shot at cracking the top-ten. Fortunately for Raonic fans, I think he can do so. In fact, with his big game – a huge serve and point-ending forehand – I can see him going very deep (like, the finals) at Wimbledon and can definitely imagine him bringing home his first ATP Masters 1000 title on his home turf this August in Montreal. Success at Wimbledon, a title during the run-up to the U.S. Open, and then a solid finish at Flushing Meadows itself would position the 6’5” Canadian well for a brush, if fleeting, with the top ten.

Raonic

8. Novak Djokovic won’t win the grand slam. Although the Serb has thoroughly dominated the men’s field this year, is playing great tennis, and is in perfect physical shape, he still loses inexplicable matches – see #5 above, on his Djoko’s perplexing loss to Haas in Miami) and shows signs of mortality. That isn’t acceptable if one wants to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the calendar grand slam (that is, win all four majors during the same calendar year). The challenge with majors, like March Madness in college basketball, is that they are single elimination. A player can play at their peak in throughout the tournament, but then let down for a single match and be sent packing. At the highest level, even momentary lapses in concentration can leave a player in a big deficit, and, while Novak is better than 99 percent of the field at playing from behind (indeed, he seems to revel in it at times), even he sometimes fails to climb all the way back (as witnessed in his match with Haas this week and, more prominently, during his battle royale with Andy Murray in the final of last year’s U.S. Open, where Novak battled from two sets down but fell in the fifth set). I actually think Djokovic will win his first French Open this year, perhaps taking down Rafa en route to the career grand slam (to wit, having won each of the four majors at some point during his career), but I see him slipping-up at some point along the line, perhaps to a big-serving Raonic at Wimbledon, or to an in-form, groundstroke booming Del Potro in New York at the Open. The Serb may have a year for the ages, and he’ll certainly finish at number one, but I don’t think the stars will align for him to pull-off the Full Laver.

Djokovic

9. Andy Murray or Juan Martin Del Potro will capture their second major; Tomas Berdych will (yet again) fail to win his first. Enter the second-rung. As referenced above, Andy Murray got his first taste of major title glory last fall in Flushing, and he is no doubt hungry for more. Murray has always had the game to capture tennis’ biggest tournaments. What he lacked was the mental stamina to keep his cool in pressure moments. Coach Ivan Lendl – who, like Murray, suffered a slew of losses in losses in major finals before capturing his first grand slam title) – has brought calm and relative serenity to the Scotsman’s on-court existence. Plus, having gone all the way last September, Murray now knows what it takes to succeed. He could have easily lost his cool and went down in flames to Djokovic, after the Serb fought off a seemingly insurmountable two-set deficit to level the match. Instead, he kept doing what he had done to take a big lead in the first place, and calmly went the distance to claim his first major victory. Expect him to recreate this steady brilliance again, in 2013, and don’t be surprised if he does it on his home grounds at Wimbledon, a triumph that would rank as one of the pro game’s most exciting in recent memory, set the British public into a frenzy, and endear the Scot to UK tennis watchers forever. (An ancillary prediction is that a Murray Wimbledon title would likely result in his being knighted; Sir Andrew Murray has a nice ring, doesn’t it?)

Murray

As for Delpo, I can imagine him pulling thru at the U.S. Open. The guy knows how to win there, having drubbed Rafael Nadal in the semis in 2009, before winning a five-set thrilled against Fed in the next match. After battling his way back from a wrist injury that sidelined him for all of 2010, the Argentine giant has finally returned to the game’s elite, and is flirting with cracking back into the top-five. I’m not sure if he’ll do that, but I do expect him to have a rip-roaring summer on the North American hard-court circuit, capturing at least one Masters Series title, most likely in Cincinnati, along the way, before making a deep run at the U.S. Open that could see him take home his second major title.

Delpo

As for Berdych, I think we’ll see him continue to disappoint, in terms of breaking thru at a major. By many accounts, the Czech has already exceeded expectations during his career, having reached the Wimbledon final in 2010, where he lost in straight sets to Nadal, and remaining a regular fixture in the top-ten. Now at a career-high of #6, some have begun to wonder if this is the year Berdych will finally go all the way at a slam. I don’t think so. While his huge ground strokes and serve can make minced meat of absolutely any player on a good day, Berdych’s game is too inconsistent to maintain top-form over an entire fortnight. More importantly, I don’t think he could bring the goods in three successive matches to take down a, say, Nadal-Murray-Djokovic combo, which is likely akin to what he would have to do to win a major. Plus, Berdych has shown in the past that his temperament is not well-suited to the near-serenity one must maintain to outlast the game’s best time and again. His refusal to shake Spaniard Nicolas Almagro’s hand at the 2012 Australian Open was a real low, and it’s tough to see Berdych finding the mental fortitude necessary to sustain a run thru to the end of a major.

Berdych

10. (Though it pains me to say so) Roger Federer will finish at #4, his lowest year-end ranking since 2002. I am a die-hard Fed fan – indeed, he’s my favourite athlete of all-time – and have passionately, at times defensively, defended him in recent years against the growing audience of those who said his time at the top of the game was coming to an end. I  laughed at the nay-sayers when he took down Djokovic in the Wimbledon semis last July, rejoiced with Fed loyalists when he defeated Murray two days later in the final, to add another major to his already record-setting haul of 16, and proposed a toast to the great Swiss champion eight days later, when the ATP rankings placed him at number one for a record-setting 286th week. All that said, I think it’s final time for him to make his fade. Djokovic and Murray seem to have a pretty good lock on numbers 1 and 2 (even though Fed is, for the moment, clinging, just, to the second spot), and I get the sense that a resurgent Rafa is going to continue racking up the wins and resume his post among the game’s top three. And even if Rafa doesn’t get there, I can see Delpo performing well enough on all surfaces during the rest of the year, including reaching one or two major finals (and maybe winning one), to barge his way into the game’s top triumvirate. Only time will tell if this is truly the final act for Fed (after all, let’s keep things in perspective, folks: falling to #4 wouldn’t exactly constitute a total meltdown), but I do sense that 2013 will touch off a phased decline for the great champ.

Fed

11. (Extra risky, bonus prediction) Rafael Nadal won’t win a major (no, not even the French). I can feel the daggers of a million Rafa fans plunging into my side as I speak the ultimate taboo of men’s professional tennis: the toro from Mallorca may, just may, lose on the clay of Roland Garros. Of course, this has happened once before, when Nadal lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth-round of the 2009 French, but most tennis watchers agree that Soderling’s marked one of the greatest performances, well, ever, in recent tennis memory, and that reproducing will prove extremely difficult, if not impossible. That said, I don’t think it will take a historic effort to beat Rafa this year (more daggers, more side pain). Look, this is how the trajectory of the first half of 2013 is going to go. Djoko will dominate the tour – quixotic losses to old, German journeyman, aside – and head to Paris red-hot. A hunger to capture his first French Open title and, in doing so, the career grand slam would further whet his appetite to do the impossible: beat Rafa on the red dirt of Roland Garros. Although I think Rafa has come back beautifully from a knee injury that sidelined him for nine months following his shocking, second-round loss to Czech Lukas Rosol in the second-round of Wimbledon last June, I just feel that the wear-and-tear of his body, coupled with the peak focus and high-level play from Djokovic will prove too much for the Spanish bull to handle.

Rafa

So, there you have it, folks: my top ten (err, 11) predictions for professional tennis in 2013. I hope you enjoyed. I’m certain you disagreed with at least one. In the end, tennis is like a tax reform proposal from Republicans: sometimes, what’s happening just doesn’t make sense, and it often leaves you feeling empty inside. So, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But, there is one thing of which I am sure: following the ins and outs of the game from here until January 1, 2014, will be a lot more fun than watching John Boehner slog thru the finer points of GOP fiscal policy!

For fun, here are my predicted top-ten year-end rankings:

  1. Novak Djokovic, Serbia
  2. Andy Murray, Great Britain
  3. Rafael Nadal, Spain
  4. Roger Federer, Switzerland
  5. Juan Martin Del Potro, Argentina
  6. Tomas Berdych, Czech Republic
  7. David Ferrer, Spain (it pains me to put Ferrer – who I love and who represents everything good about sport, below Berdych – who I don’t and who doesn’t)
  8. Richard Gasquet, France
  9. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France
  10. Marin Cilic, Croatia

And, for more fun, here are a few additional trends to keep your eye on:

  • The Japanese are coming…With three men inside the top-100 and five within the top-200, Japanese men’s tennis is arguably enjoying its finest moment to date. Kei Nishikori is flirting with the top ten, and a clutch of talented up-and-comers, led by Go Soeda and Tatsuma Ito, are not far behind him. There’s something exciting going on in Japan, and I’m not talking about Abenomics (although that’s exciting, too)!
  • Old dudes can still play…I described earlier Tommy Haas’ late-career resurgence, which has seen the soon-to-be 35-year-old reenter the top 20 and take down the world’s #1 player. But he’s not doing this alone. In 2012, five men over the age of 30 won on the ATP Tour (Federer, Youzhny, Nieminen, Melzer, and Haas), the highest total in a number of years.
  • No Chinese men have cracked the top 100 yet, but that will change soon…You can’t stop demographics. With over 1.3 billion people, rising income levels (and the attendant improved health and ability to invest resources in sport that more income allows), and an insatiable appetite to improve its image in all aspects on the international scene, it seems only a matter of time before China would become a powerhouse in most of the world’s most widely played sports (let’s be fair: China already is a global athletic superpower, now rivaling the United States every four years for total medals at the Olympic Games). It seems like that day will sooner rather than later in tennis. While the highest-ranked Chinese man, Ze Zhang, is still at the rather unremarkable level of 155 in the world, he is only 22, and is joined in the 100-200 range by 21-year-old Di Wu, currently ranked 177. There isn’t exactly a long queue of promising Chinese professionals behind Ze and Di, but women’s star Li Na’s triumph at the 2011 French Open brought tennis insanity to a nation that has historically focused more on ping-pong and basketball. Li is joined by a number of other Chinese players in the upper echelon of the women’s game. My hunch is that their late-blooming male compatriots will come around sooner rather than later. It’s only a matter of time before demographics starts to do its work.
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One Response to “Ten Predictions for Pro Tennis in 2013”

  1. Alex C. Demosthenes April 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    While I agree that Djokovic won’t win the full slam, it looks like his chances for even the French as you predicted took a big hit as he tearfully told reporters that he has a serious ankle injury.

    It really pains me to say that agree with the fact that Federer is sliding…and I don’t think he will win Wimbledon or US Open either. Gasquet as the top French is interesting, but I still think Tsonga will be the guy…or Simon.

    For your extra-risky bonus on Nadal – I would disagree and say he cruises to another French but that otherwise he will spend the year hobbled and out of the game. I mean when he plays and is healthy, he is no. 1 in my view. His body just is only deteriorating more and more and more, which is too bad for him.

    Ive always thought Cilic was on the verge of doing something, but I mean at this point he proves me wrong year in year out.

    For my own wild prediction, I will go out on a limb and say that Mr.Alexandr Dolgopolov will finish the year at around 17-20 and make quarters at US Open.

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