Thursday December 15th, 2011

Novak Djokovic went 10-1 against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2011, but battled injuries and struggled after the U.S. Open. (Tang Shi/Zumapress)

Last week on The Toss, we took a look at whether Juan Martin del Potro could crack the top four in 2012. Mathematically, the big-hitting Argentine has opportunities to close the gap, with Andy Murray needing to defend his rankings points from one of his best years on Tour. The readers were split but leaned slightly toward thinking Del Potro's injuries are behind and he’ll regain his 2009 form.

This week, we’re looking at the Big Four again.

Today’s Toss: "Buy/Sell/Hold/Slam” -- with the last category being a pick to win one major in 2012 and never win another -- for Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

Courtney Nguyen: I have to confess that I've played this game, in different forms, a lot with my fellow tennis nerds. I've played it on the phone, via podcasts and most recently while standing for hours in the Wimbledon queue. We would try to throw out the most outlandish combinations of players to force each other into impossible quandaries.

That said, playing "Buy/Sell/Hold/Slam" with the top four guys is a pretty easy one, in my opinion, if we're talking about prospective performance in 2012 compared to 2011.

Buy: Rafael Nadal. Yes, it was a disappointing year for Rafa. There's no way to deny that. In case people forget, this was the guy who almost ran the table last year, winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in succession, and he appeared poised (read: healthy enough) to have a legitimate shot at taking his fourth Slam title in a row at the Australian Open. Two things derailed Nadal this year: injury and Novak Djokovic.

A virus and knee injury helped knock him out of the Aussie Open, and by the time he was healed and ready to fire on all cylinders, Djokovic was on an absolute tear. The Serb was playing at an unthinkable level, and yet Nadal still had his chances, particularly in Miami, where he lost the third-set tiebreaker 7-4. Very little separated the two during that epic match, and who knows how the year would have changed for both men had Nadal snapped Djokovic's streak there.

So I find all this worrying about Nadal's ability to "solve" the Djoker riddle a bit overblown. If Djokovic's level drops even just a little bit in the beginning of next year, I think Nadal will be right there to capitalize. He knows he can beat Federer and he knows he can beat Murray. One win over Djokovic early next year could buoy him back up to No. 1.

Hold: Roger Federer. I'm not ready to completely buy into the "Roger Federer is back" narrative that seems to have popped up after his 17-0 run to close out the season. I liked what I saw from him in London, particularly in his clinical display of offense against Nadal in their round-robin encounter.

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Then again, I liked what I saw from Federer for most of the year. It's not that his overall level has dropped. I tend to agree with Tim Henman's assessment that at his best, Federer still might be better than the rest. But when things got tight this year, Federer couldn't regularly summon his "A" game. His propensity to get lazy in movement and shot selection (often fatigue-related, it seemed) at the most inopportune times crippled his Slam campaigns. Well, that and Rafael Nadal. And Novak Djokovic. And “That Forehand.” Speaking of which …

Sell: Novak Djokovic. Contrary to what Gordon Gecko may say, greed is not good. In fact, its kind of overrated. So I'm getting off this white-hot stock while I can. I just don't think that Djokovic can match his form from last year. He was emotionally and physically drained at the World Tour Finals, looking like a man who wanted to be doing anything but holding a tennis racket in November.

I'm not saying Djokovic will come crashing down to earth. It would not shock me if he retains the top ranking and wins a couple of majors next year. But any dip in form, even the slightest, opens the door for the two men who are hell-bent on doggedly chasing him down: Rafa and Roger. Novak finished 10-1 against the two this year, but many of those matches were very tight, highly competitive affairs that were decided by a few points here or there.

If a handful of those points go the other way this year, we're talking about a completely different set of 2011 storylines -- you know, ones that don't involve furious debate about whether Djokovic's season was the greatest ever.

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Slam: Andy Murray. Can we please just give Andy Wimbledon? Yes, this means that he won't win another Slam for the rest of his career and therefore will never be in the running to be one of the greatest players of all time, but hey, isn't that already the book on him?

At least this way he gets a Slam -- his home Slam, no less -- we never have to hear about him being major-less anymore and we get to see what the British media look like when they have absolutely nothing to complain about. This is a win-win for everyone involved.

C.W. Sesno: If this were ECON 101, I’d be bullish on your tips. Sell high on Djokovic, who’s 2011 season will go down as one of the top three greatest single seasons ever (despite what the post U.S. Open naysayers argue) and seems likely to drop off in 2012, if only slightly; buy low on Nadal, who is coming off an underwhelming year (by his standards) and rides momentum from the Davis Cup final against Argentina into next season.

But it’s as much about the Big Four’s (3.5?) prospects in 2012 as it is their results from the past year, which is why I’m going to go against conventional economic wisdom with my purchases, sales and layaways.

Buy: Roger Federer. It’d be too convenient to say Federer, at this point in his career, is something of a depreciating asset. Like Nadal, the 30-year-old Swiss is coming off a year that fell short of expectations, both external and internal. It was the first year he didn’t win a Grand Slam since 2002. He didn’t win a title until his hometown event in Basel in the beginning of November. But then, he didn’t lose another match all year, blowing through the Paris Masters without dropping a set and sweeping the ATP World Tour Finals against the game’s elite.

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And while I agree with you that, at times, Federer wasn’t able to summon his best in key points, he was the only one who seemed to have an answer for a healthy Djokovic. Federer, of course, snapped Djokovic’s winning streak in the semis at Roland Garros. At the U.S. Open, Federer was one shot away from downing him again before “That Forehand” rattled Federer’s cages and swung the momentum to the surging Serb.

Forget all that. Federer’s game is built to last. But unlike a GMC truck, the level of difference from his competition isn’t insurmountable. I see Federer playing into his mid-30s and winning multiple majors. As far as this upcoming season goes, he’s had his sights set on Olympic gold since a disappointing exit from the singles competition in 2008. He’ll win hardware on the All England Club's grass twice this year, one for flag, and one for self.

Sell: Rafael Nadal. It’s a scary thing when Nadal admits he’s playing with less passion and knows he’s not at his best. And though we seemed to see the exact opposite in the Davis Cup final, where Nadal was unbeatable on his favorite red clay, I still expect him to fizzle a little bit in 2012. He’s already announced he won’t play in the Davis Cup, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a little more time on the sideline to rest for the Olympics. Since it’s passion and mental strength that have made Nadal the indefatigable champion that he is, how can we buy here when the fabric on his best-selling piece is admittedly unraveling?

Hold: Novak Djokovic. Look, the guy is the best player in the world right now, but has an asterisk heading into 2012. You can’t bail on the perfect package: his anticipation and movement are as good as anyone's on Tour; he can slug it out from either side of the baseline and blast shots with pinpoint accuracy. He dominated the best of this era, Federer and Nadal, after dumping gluten from his diet. But then there’s that shoulder.

He looked to be in serious pain in the Davis Cup semifinal against Argentina, almost reduced to tears after retiring against Del Potro in his first rubber with a lower back injury. Then he lost a shocker to Kei Nishikori in Basel, withdrew from Paris before his quarterfinal match and lost two of three round-robin matches at the ATP Finals to close out the year.

I’d like to say he’ll use the offseason for some much-needed R&R. But holy Novak, Batman, we’re less than three weeks away from the start of the 2012 season. That’s not a lot of time to recover from injuries that hampered him since the U.S. Open. Sit tight on this one until he shows his form in Melbourne.

Slam: Andy Murray. I know, I know, you already took Murray here. But I’ll disagree in that I don’t see a Wimbledon title in his immediate future. Unlike the other three quarters of this debate, Murray smartly pulled out of the Tour Finals to rest. He’s been to two straight Australian Open finals, and I suspect a fresh Murray will make it back this year, meet Federer in the final and finally win his first Grand Slam. You decide: Sound off in the comments and vote in the polls to let us know your "Buy/Sell/Hold/Slam" picks.

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