Predictions for the 2014 tennis season
Peering into the crystal ball, which, in keeping with tennis, is not standardized from event to event.
• No player outside the Big Four will win a Grand Slam. The concentration of power would offend Paul Volcker. If any other global industry saw one of four institutions so thoroughly dominate the marketplace -- divvying every Major singles title, save one, since early 2005 -- there would be an investigation. But not only have Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer rendered every colleague a journeyman; there's no suggestion their oligopoly will end in 2014. We can debate whether they're that much better than the others; or whether the "others" are deficient. But there's little to suggest that the other guys (Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, neither of whom have been beyond the fourth round of a Slam? David Ferrer, who's 10-46 against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic?) are ready for the Big Boys.
• A year from now, Roger Federer will be ranked higher than he is today. Yes, we know the case against. Federer is older than Gardnar Malloy. As a committed father, he is shopping for Go-Gurt and Applesauce Crushers while his rivals are running wind sprints. His back is sore. His racket is small. He lacks a guru from the 1980s. He has won one Grand Slam in the last 47 months. The vectors tend to go in one direction: once athletes move beyond their primes, the downward slope is constant.
Here's what Federer has going for him: he is still Roger Federer, blessed by the tennis gods. He still moves gracefully. He still can tinker with his schedule. He can regain self-belief. He can still discharge his duties better than all but three men on the planet. Write him off at your peril.
• Serena Williams will continue to ride high. The notion that "30 is the new 20" has already hardened into conventional tennis wisdom. And while Williams' chronological age is 32, that doesn't quite paint an accurate picture. All those years that she played sparingly, drawing criticism from the WTA and the hidebounds? She's getting that time back now. All those matches she waltzed 6-0, 6-1 in 53 minutes? Again, it pays dividends. Serena doesn't just play better tennis than the rest of the field; she competes better. And until that changes, it's hard to see her losing her edge.
• Maria Sharapova will regain some of her mojo (but not all). Last year was thoroughly forgettable for Sharapova. Losses and injuries were compounded by some uncharacteristic unforced p.r. errors, not least her bizarre shotgun coaching marriage with Jimmy Connors. Sharpova missed the U.S. Open and the fall season on account of a shoulder injury and won just one matched since the French Open. Yet she enters the new season healthy, rejuvenated, and in the company of a new coach (Sven Groeneveld). Her competitive instincts have never been in question and -- as we saw last year with Nadal -- these mini-sabbaticals have a way of helping the player. She still needs to solve the Serena Riddle that has vexed her for a decade now. But Sharapova will re-enter the conversation.
• Marion Bartoli will return. It's become as predictable as time, tide and gripes over the lack of a roof at the U.S. Open: players -- especially female -- who retire, reconsider their decision. Bartoli, of course, won Wimbledon last summer, one of the more inspiring stories of 2013. A few weeks later, sacre bleu! (Or Sock-re bleu?) She announced her retirement.
Bartoli always seems to regard conventional wisdom as a personal affront. And part us applauds her for staying true to her instincts and calling it quits when others would be renegotiating racket deals, booking exhibitions and otherwise cashing in on their new found status. But, Bartoli has too much good tennis left to stay on the sidelines. And it's hard not to notice: she's still ranked No. 13.
• Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker will bid each other auf wiedersehen by the French Open. It makes for a pretty good reality show conceit: tennis stars of the 80s try and dispense their magic on players today. The Surreal Life meets the Ultimate Fighter. For all the recently announced pairings, none was stranger than Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic. While both are thoroughly unobjectionable -- pleasant, sporting, genial -- on their own, their Venn diagram would seem to have little overlap. Culturally, temperamentally, philosophically. Maybe this is a case of opposites attract. Maybe this is one of those romantic couples who confound the outsiders -- "What do they see in each other?" -- but make it work. Says here, Becker and Djokovic cordially part ways, by, say the end of the clay-court swing.
• Tennis will fall prey to more anti-doping contretemps. This is based more on common sense than a suggestion the sport is a cesspool. But consider the circumstances: you have an individual enterprise with incentives to cheat, especially when it comes to accelerating recovery. You have more injuries than ever (see below). You have players seeking incremental advantages, reading instructions that are often not in their native tongues. And a banned substance list that includes everything from recreational drugs to anti-hair loss medication.