Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Heart of the Season

by Conroy

I last wrote about tennis three months ago after Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the longest grand slam final [1] in tennis history to claim his third Australian Open title. That result was a continuation of last year when Djokovic won in Melbourne and went on to dominate the season, claiming titles in just about every tournament he played through the U.S. Open, winning three grand slams, ten titles overall, and defeating Rafael Nadal six times along the way [2].

But 2012 isn’t turning out to be another 2011. Novak Djokovic remains number 1, but 2012 hasn’t started out as another year of dominance. Instead, the top three players – Djokovic, Nadal, and Roger Federer – have amassed remarkably similar results:

2012 Record
Win %
Grand Slam Titles
Masters 1000 Titles
Other Titles
1.    Novak Djokovic
2.    Rafael Nadal
3.    Roger Federer

Djokovic has the big crown with his hard won Australian Open title, but each of the three men have claimed one of three Masters 1000 titles played this spring, and Nadal and Federer have picked up additional titles [3]. They’re records are strikingly similar with each man losing just three matches through the first four months of the season (which makes Djokovic’s run last year, where he didn’t lose his third match until mid-September, all the more remarkable). What’s more, of their nine combined losses, four have been to each other [4].

These results tell me two things: (1) the top-3 men remain head and shoulders above the rest of the tour, certainly when it comes to the winning the big matches, and (2) as we head into the heart of the tennis season, the race for number 1 in 2012 is very much up for grabs.

We’ve reached the start of four frantic months of major tournaments, starting with the Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome and followed by the grand slams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Then after a very brief respite there will be the London Olympics [5], the Canada and Cincinnati Masters 1000 events, and finally the U.S. Open.

Last year, with the notable exception of Roland Garros [6], this stretch belonged to Djokovic, where he won five of the seven major tournaments played, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and claimed the number 1 ranking. What will this same stretch bring this year? I don’t make predictions, but I foresee a few possibilities (listed from most to least probable):

Djokovic Retains the Number 1 Ranking
One perspective would hold that Djokovic has nowhere to go but down. After winning so much last year anything less than a repeat performance would see him bleed rankings points and come back to Nadal and Federer. And indeed, if Djokovic fails to win at least one of the three grand slams this summer (and probably one or two of the other big tournaments) he’ll likely lose his top ranking.

However, the bottom line is the Serb has won the biggest tournament played this year (Australian Open) and arguably the most prestigious tournament after the grand slams (Miami). He lost in the finals of Monte Carlo to Nadal and the semi-finals of Indian Wells to an inspired John Isner. These results don’t indicate someone who has lost their focus or game. In my mind he’s a 50-50 bet to win Roland Garros, and believe me he’ll be focused and motivated in Paris a month from now as he goes for the career grand slam and four consecutive grand slam titles [7]. The same can be said for Wimbledon and he’s a clear favorite at the U.S. Open. Djokovic has a lot to defend, but there are not enough reasons to think he'll fail to win enough to stay at the top of the rankings and add to his grand slam title count.

Nadal Regains the Number 1 Ranking
It’s unsurprising that Rafael Nadal regained his winning ways once he got back on red clay, triumphing dominantly in his last two tournaments at Monte Carlo and Barcelona (for the eighth and seventh time, respectively). He beat Djokovic for the first time since 2010 at Monte Carlo (a result this writer predicted – I have witnesses), which got a huge monkey off his back and has to give him a lot of confidence heading to Roland Garros. I predict (okay, sometimes I make predictions) that Nadal and Djokovic will play again in the next couple of weeks at either Madrid or Rome, and if Nadal can backup his Monte Carlo win then he’ll have to be considered the favorite to win at Roland Garros for a record seventh time.

Unfortunately for Nadal, winning a Roland Garros won’t get him back to the top of the rankings. The Spaniard will have to overcome the Serb (and Federer) at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Nadal can do it, he’s a hell of a competitor and he’s won both tournaments before. Still, beating Djokovic on a really big stage is something Nadal will have to re-prove. He has the ignominious distinction of being the only man to lose three consecutive grand slam finals, all to Djokovic of course. Until he turns that around, he won’t be reclaiming the top ranking.

Federer Regains the Number 1 Ranking
The casual fan may not realize that after last year’s U.S. Open the player with the best record, most tournament titles, and whose accumulated the most rankings points is Roger Federer (40-3, 6 titles, 4,855). The 30-year-old is off to his best start since 2007 – when he was still the dominant number 1 – and he will have his opportunity to get back to number 1 this summer. But to do it he’ll have to overcome Djokovic and/or Nadal at two of the three grand slams. Winning one grand slam almost certainly won’t be good enough.

Federer can do this, but he’s been utterly unable to solve Nadal at Roland Garros, losing to him there five times in the last seven years (keep in mind that his one Roland Garros title in 2009 came when he didn’t have to play Nadal). I don’t see that changing this year. And Federer might have to beat both Djokovic and Nadal, which on slow clay at this point in time seems like too tall a task. So then to get back to number 1 Federer would have to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I think this is possible, he’s been just as good as Nadal and Djokovic at the U.S. Open the last couple of years (holding match points against the Serb in the semi-finals each of the last two years), and if he plays well at Wimbledon he can add to his collection of six winner’s trophies. The problem is that his two rivals are playing just too well. Federer has a decent chance to win one grand slam but winning two will be very difficult. He might be back at number 1 come September, but it’s a long shot.

What I don’t see happening is someone else stealing the thunder of these three, especially at one of the grand slams. Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner, or any of the other guys hanging around the Top 10 are certainly capable of winning, but hey, after seven years of watching Federer-Nadal-Djokovic win 27 of the last 28 grand slams, when it comes to someone upsetting the established order, I’ll believe when I see it.

I’ll return to tennis sometime after the French Open to evaluate how things are trending over this busy summer and then again after the U.S. Open to discuss which of my possibilities came true [8].



[1] By time, not by number of games (see the 2009 Wimbledon final where Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set).

[2] All in high stakes finals no less.

[3] First Federer won three straight titles in Rotterdam, Dubai, and Indian Wells, then Djokovic won in Miami, and finally Nadal triumphed in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

[4] Djokovic lost to Nadal in the Monte Carlo final, Nadal lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open final and to Federer in the Indian Wells semi-final, and Federer lost to Nadal in the Australian Open semi-final.

[5] Even though this writer doesn’t believe that tennis should be an Olympic sport. The Summer Olympics is a spectacle and should be for sports like swimming and track and field where spectators may be interested at the novelty of seeing a “rare” event. Tennis, like basketball and soccer, has its own tour and own major events. But the ATP, WTA, ITF, and IOC all disagree with me. And moreover, the event seems to mean a lot to the players. Just consider Roger Federer’s emotional reaction to winning the doubles gold with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka four years ago at the Beijing games.The London Olympics did secure the coup of having the tennis event played at Wimbledon, which is pretty cool.

[6] Where Rafael Nadal won for the sixth time in the last seven years.

[7] Something that hasn’t been done since Rod Laver won the calendar year grand slam in 1969.

[8] And if someone else does rise up to win a grand slam and challenge the Top 3, I’ll be happy to say I was wrong.

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