Thursday December 8th, 2011

Juan Martin del Potro fell to as low as No. 485 in the rankings this year before climbing all the way back to No. 11. (Julio Munoz/Zumapress)

Another Thursday, another Toss. Last week, Courtney Nguyen and C.W. Sesno took on the ATP World Tour Finals and how just important the event is toward a player's legacy.  In one of the biggest landslides of the The Toss' history, more than 81 percent of the readers voted that it matters quite a lot, with the top eight guys providing the toughest competition year in and year out.

This week, we'll take a look at the potential re-rise of a once-top-five player whose run at the top was halted by a major injury.

Today's Toss: Will Juan Martin del Potro break into the top 4 of the rankings in 2012?

Courtney Nguyen: Rafael Nadal's comments after Spain won the Davis Cup -- where he said Juan Martin del Potro would reach the top four next year -- were notable on two counts. First, it was quite a vote of confidence to say that Del Potro, who spent most of 2011 climbing his way back up to No. 11, would break into the top four next year, especially given the stranglehold Roger Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have held onto the top spots over the last three years. Second, his comments raised an inevitable question: Who exactly did Nadal think Del Potro would displace?

Taking these questions in reverse order, I think it's obvious that the odd man out, as he always seems to be, is Murray. The Scot will come off his best year yet, at least as it comes to Slam performance, and he was able to finish firmly in the top four despite the fact that he virtually disappeared between the Australian Open and the European clay season, exiting in the first round of Indian Wells and Miami. Murray will have plenty of points to defend at the Slams, but he'll also be able to gain some ground in the rankings in the early part of the year.

So can Del Potro catch him? Given Robin Soderling's announcement on Wednesday that he won't be playing the Australian Open due to the lingering effects of mono, I think Del Potro is the best bet out of all the men in the field to crack the Top 4. His ranking is high enough so as to not meet the top players until the later rounds at Slams, where he'll be able to make up ground on points. His third-round clash with Djokovic at Roland Garros and fourth round match against Nadal at Wimbledon came unfairly early.

That being said, the question isn't whether Del Potro can crack the top, it's whether he will. On that question I'm less confident. While the big man showed flashes of his former self during his valiant Davis Cup performance last weekend, his consistency concerns me. He needs to get stronger in his legs and improve his fitness so that he can get himself into a balanced position to unleash his forehand, and given the short off-season and the impacted schedule next year due to the Olympics, I'm not sure he'll be able to get his mind and body where it needs to be to grind out the season in full flight.

C.W. Sesno: Honestly, I got the impression Nadal’s comment was more consolatory toward the obviously doleful Del Potro and the Argentines. But still, it makes for a fun debate. First, I agree with you, Courtney, that consistency (and the confidence that comes with it) is the biggest question mark. His results this year were quite streaky.

After a disappointing second-round exit from the Australian Open, the 6-foot-6 Argentine plummeted to No. 484 in the world rankings. But it didn’t take long for Del Potro to show signs of his 2009 self. He followed his crash-out in Melbourne by reaching the semis or better in five of six of the following tournaments, including titles in Delray Beach and Estoril. His losses in that stretch were all to formidable opponents: Fernando Verdasco, Andy Roddick, Nadal and Mardy Fish. Del Potro had climbed back to No. 32 by the first week in May, a respectable ranking for the only player to have won a Grand Slam outside the Big Three since 2005.

But, as you say, he caught some tough draws because of his ranking, with losses to Nadal in the third round of the Madrid Masters and fourth round of Wimbledon and Novak Djokovic in the third round of Roland Garros. At the U.S. Open, he couldn’t find his feet in two tiebreakers and lost to Gilles Simon in the third round. Now ranked No. 11, look for Del Potro to get some help from the draws and make deeper runs at the majors.

And since you (correctly) say Murray is the odd man out, and thus more likely to be the one ousted from the top four, let’s use the current No. 4 for a numerical look at the ground Del Potro needs gain. Murray leads Del Potro by 5,065 rankings points after one of the best years of his career. But, tough draws or not, Del Potro crashed early in the Slams and accumulated just 405 rankings points this year -- compared to 3,360 for Murray who reached the semifinals or better in all four.

Now, keep those numbers in mind as we look forward to 2012. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say both Murray and Del Potro lose in the quarterfinals of all four Slams. They’d each get 1,440 total rankings points, thus Murray would LOSE 1,920 points while Del Potro would GAIN 1,035. That’s a 2,955 swing in Del Potro’s favor, and all of a sudden Murray (5,460 total points) only leads Del Potro (3,350) by 2,110 points. Of course, reaching the quarters of a Grand Slam is no picnic; I’m just trying to illustrate the possible mobility within the rankings system.

Another big swing could come in the Masters 1000 events, of which Del Potro only played in five this year. Murray, on the other hand, played in all nine Masters Series events and is defending 3,020 points. Del Potro accumulated only 630 and was slapped with zero rankings points for not playing Paris or Shanghai. As such, he will gain significant ground simply by showing up and winning a match at the remaining four.

The rankings can be confusing, but the bottom line is, Del Potro has proven the wrist injury that kept him sidelined hasn’t completely knocked that monster of a forehand out of its holster. It’s a question of consistency and whether or not he can keep his big frame healthy. If he does, and he’s able to play with the confidence to know he can beat any player on any given day, I wouldn’t be shocked if his climb up the rankings puts him in the top four for a stint.

Nguyen: Ugh. You and your darn numbers. You're absolutely right. There are quite a few spots, even outside of the majors, where Del Potro can pick up points. One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the two men who hold the number two and three spots, Federer and Murray, capitalized heavily during the fall season, with Murray grabbing points in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, and Federer running the table at Basel, Paris and the World Tour Finals. Del Potro, on the other hand effectively took the fall off to prepare for Davis Cup. If neither Murray nor Federer can back that up their year and Del Potro still has the drive and fitness to gun through that part of the season, we could see a major point swing at the end of the season.

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But here's a question for you: Is there anyone other than Del Potro who legitimately has a shot at breaking into the top four next year? I'm still waiting for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to figure out a way to be a tick more consistent, and he has a good opportunity to make a push for the top four during the first half of the season. He suffered a surprise loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third round in Melbourne and had a horrible run through the spring U.S. hard-court season, losing in the second round and third round of Indian Wells and Miami, respectively. He followed that up with a mediocre clay-court season before finding his form on grass.

Sitting at No. 6, he's just over 3,000 points behind Murray. Things could get interesting if Murray falters in Australia. Then again, Murray has virtually nothing to defend in Indian Wells and Miami, so any attempt by anyone to gain points on him there is unlikely.

Poor Andy. I feel like no one has any faith in him. So I will say what I said before: Sure, I think Del Potro could catch him, but I honestly don't think it will happen next year.

Sesno: I really do hope Tsonga can make a run for it. He can be such an exciting player to watch when he’s on his game and utilizing his tools, but his lack of consistency can be frustrating, to say the least.

Tomas Berdych is another guy who could gain some serious ground at the majors. Berdych got the boot in the Melbourne quarters from eventual champ Novak Djokovic, but then tanked at Roland Garros (first-round loss), got handed a straight-set ticket home from Fish in the fourth round of Wimbledon and retired in the third round of U.S. Open. But I don’t see Berdych as the one to do it, mainly because he has a lot of points to defend in the Masters events (1710) and I’m not sure his ground-and-pound game stacks up well for multiple deep runs at the majors.

Current No. 5 David Ferrer should get some consideration, for more reasons than just being the closest in the rankings points. I often think Ferrer doesn’t get enough credit for the player he is. The dude is a robot, a total workhorse who never seems to tire no matter how hard he’s pushed. He also took a hit in the points department this year for not playing all the requisite Masters Series events, so he could replace two zero-pointers if he plays in Rome or Canada. He’ll also close the gap if he makes it past the fourth round of Roland Garros (which he should on his best surface) or Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

But here’s the real problem with my approach to this debate: As much as I love speculating on the mathematically possible, in the end, it’ll all come down to how the Top 4 -- mainly Murray -- play in 2012. Quite frankly, I don’t expect Murray to drop off enough for anyone to pass him. What I do expect is for there to be a much smaller point gap between Nos. 4 and 5. At the close of this year, Murray leads No. 5 Ferrer by 2,455 points, the biggest differential by far since he’s staked out a spot among the top 4. After  Del Potro’s breakthrough 2009, he ended the year just 245 points shy of Murray’s No. 4 spot and briefly passed him for three total weeks in 2010, before the wrist injury sparked the rankings spiral. Stay healthy, stay strong, big man. You can get back there. At least that's what the numbers tell us.

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