Roundtable Part I: Analyzing ATP and WTA storylines from the season so far
With the first three-plus months of the 2014 tennis season behind us, I've asked Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand, Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover, Erik Gudris of Tennis Now and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times to reflect on what's happened so far, and look ahead to what's to come.
What has been the most significant development, result or storyline so far?
Erik Gudris: It's been a busy first quarter that gave us Stanislas Wawrinka's first ever major title, Novak Djokovic bouncing back to win the Indian Wells/Miami double, Serena Williams winning Miami though giving us a few unexpected losses and the recent surge of some young WTA players all with bright prospects moving ahead.
Lindsay Gibbs: For me, the most significant development by far has been Wawrinka's victory at the Australian Open, and the somewhat unpredictable nature of the ATP. (Relatively speaking, of course.)
Ricky Dimon: The biggest development, result and storyline is Serena failing to win the Australian Open and any one of the ATP's Big Four failing to win in Melbourne. That was a shocker of a start to 2014. Runner-up for second biggest development is Juan Martin del Potro missing the rest of the season due to wrist surgery. Winning the bronze medal is Djokovic pulling off the Indian Wells-Miami double (despite not having his 'A' game).
Ben Rothenberg: The story out of the first quarter of the season is unexpected champions, Wawrinka and Li Na, in Melbourne. However the first quarter closed with completely expected champions in Miami, as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams won the titles there. So is it business as usual? Probably, but the business might be on a more part-time schedule than usual.
Courtney Nguyen: I'm on the same page as all of you: So far 2014 has been about the surprises, and as Lindsay says, that's just relatively speaking. Serena still has two titles, Djokovic won both Indian Wells and Miami, and Nadal reached a Grand Slam final not on clay. But set those results aside, and it's been all about the secondary players on the Tours like Wawrinka, Li and a host of exciting new names we get to talk about all the time, like Grigor Dimitrov, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Eugenie Bouchard. Fun stuff, I think.
Gibbs: I'd also say that Bouchard's emergence has been big, and it will be interesting to see how she brings her momentum to clay, which I believe is her worst surface. Also, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are both struggling on the WTA with injuries and consistency, which certainly opens things up on that tour.
Wawrinka's big win: Trend or fluke?
Nguyen: Let's start with the ATP side of things. Do you guys really buy into this idea that Wawrinka's win changed the tenor of the locker room, and that the ATP B-list has been suddenly infused with belief? I'm not sure I do.
Dimon: Of course not. Dolgopolov beat Nadal in Indian Wells (he never got enough credit for that, by the way), but that was obviously the exception as opposed to the rule. The Indian Wells final was Djokovic and Roger Federer despite both struggling somewhat and Miami was Djokovic-Nadal. Same ol', same ol'. Fabio Fognini (yes, he has climbed to B-list) showed barely more belief against Djokovic than Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in the semifinals! The early stages of Monte Carlo, too, suggest that outsiders still know they have no chance against the elite.
Rothenberg: I wrote that exact story in Indian Wells, when only one of the top-six men's players made the quarterfinals. Then it was a Djokovic-Federer final in the desert, followed by a Nadal-Djokovic final in Miami. So while there may be more belief (tough to quantify), that is not yet translating to a complete toppling of the old guard, by any stretch.
Gudris: I'm not sure I believe it either. I keep reading that Berdych believes more he should win a Grand Slam and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga believes -- in his mind -- he probably should have won Melbourne, it's hard seeing any of the B-list actually make that next move unless everything comes together for them.
Rothenberg: It's like the what Maria Sharapova said about Camila Giorgi after losing to the young Italian in Indian Wells: It's consistency that distinguishes the best from the rest, not talent.
Gibbs: I do believe things have changed, but if some don't take advantage of this newfound boost during clay season, it will go out the window. Players such as Dimitrov and Milos Raonic need to keep moving forward, or else the status quo will return. (That is, if you even think it ever left.)
Gudris: Dimitrov and Raonic still have time on their side. Guys like Berdych, Tsonga and those that are in the middle of their career have to find that extra something a lot sooner rather than later.
Nguyen: That's the question, Lindsay. Has anything really changed? The "surprise" results are actually so... explicable. Andy Murray's not back to 100 percent, so he's not there as a roadblock and neither is David Ferrer, who used to be the ATP semifinal bouncer. Federer's playing well, but for all that talk, he still just has one ATP 500 title this season. Novak lost to the eventual champion in the two tournaments he didn't win (and they weren't bad losses).
Dimon: I know this subject has been dissected more than a frog in a sixth-grade science glass, but let's keep in mind that it's quite safe to say Wawrinka would not have won the Australian Open without that, um, assist from Nadal's back.
Nguyen: High five, Ricky. It's apparently Swiss blasphemy to even dabble in that theory, but I am willing to risk the wrath of the Lausanne chapter of the Knights Templar. If Nadal didn't pull up lame on that fateful Sunday I think this season looks very different.
Gudris: Wawrinka's win was the most pleasing and most disappointing result so far due to Nadal's injury. Wawrinka battled his own nerves late in that match and closed it out, but that would have been a far different battle if Nadal was 100 percent.
Rothenberg: It's not massive, but Federer's uptick is not meaningless. He was trending down hard in 2013, so these early signs of life were important to stop the bleeding. I mean, he lost in straights to Tommy Robredo on Louis Armstrong Stadium at the U.S. Open. Dark days.
Gibbs: Federer's uptick did begin last year, so it's not surprising that after a good offseason he's found consistency again. Still, it's certainly worth noting, especially since Murray is struggling and del Potro is out.
Nguyen: Federer has undoubtedly looked great this season. I could totally see him having his baby after the French Open and then winning Wimbledon just because convenient and heartwarming narratives are fun. And he's very good at crafting those.
Dimon: The jury will still be out on Federer until Wimbledon (unless he wins the French Open, which obviously isn't going to happen). His results have been relatively solid, but not to the extent that anyone is going to forget about his losses to Robredo and Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon last year. He will get a free pass on clay for any upcoming losses to Nadal, but Wimbledon will be critical.
Rothenberg: Looking at it from a few months out, I think Federer would be a favorite at Wimbledon against anyone... except Nadal, obviously. If he loses to Nadal in another Wimbledon final, especially something people call a classic, I would keep him away from sharp objects for a while.
Gudris: Can Federer actually challenge Djokovic and Nadal on clay? I'm inclined to think not. But at least his multiple losses to the B-list or even C-list appear, for the most part, to be over for now.
Gibbs: I think it's significant to note that the entire ATP has looked less-than-dominant this season. Even when Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have been great, they've rarely looked unstoppable like they have in the past. That's the biggest difference to me. There's opportunity there if someone will step up and take it.
Nguyen: I agree. I find myself tuning in to more early round matches than I used to simply because I don't feel comfortable assuming Novak, Rafa or Roger will cruise. It's almost like ...the WTA.
Rothenberg: This feels like an interregnum in the ATP, when no one is at their career peak. (WTA, too, for that matter.) It's a bunch of fading (slowly) stars and brightening stars, but no one in full shine.
Nguyen: So who has shone the brightest?
Rothenberg: Not grading on a curve, it's Djokovic and Serena. Grading on a curve, I'd say Dimitrov, Dolgopolov, Venus Williams and Bouchard.
Gibbs: I concur with Ben, with a nod to Dominika Cibulkova as well. She has had some shining moments for sure.
Nguyen: No love for Li? Undefeated through her first two tournaments, wins the Australian Open, and has career best results with the semifinals in Indian Wells and final in Miami Come on.
Rothenberg: Has she beaten a top-10 opponent this year? She's done a good job of taking care of business, but I'm not sure she's earned any real gushing this year, despite the wins.
Gudris: Ben, winning Grand Slams is all about survive and advance. Just ask Marion Bartoli.
Nguyen: Li hasn't lost to herself this season. That's a hell of a lot harder than beating a top-10 player not named Serena.
Dimon: Not grading on a curve, Li and Wawrinka.In the grand scheme of things, all that matters are Grand Slams. Grading on curve, Genie, whoever that person was who beat Serena in Charleston [Jana Cepelova], Dolgopolov and Roberto Bautista Agut.
Rothenberg: Totally agree on Bautista Agut, Ricky. As Missy Elliott says at the beginning of "1, 2 Step," "The Princess is here!"
Dimon: Grading on a steep curve I would say Dominic Thiem, but we may not hear from him again until after the clay-court season.
Gibbs: That curve is turning into Mount Everest, Ricky.
Nguyen: You're no longer on a curve, Ricky. You're in freefall.
Dimon: No, it only turns into Everest when we start mentioning Donald Young's relative success in 2014.
Rothenberg: Steve Johnson. Dude has risen from No. 160 to No. 68 so far in 2014. Also, the fact that Bradley Klahn was able to become the No. 2 American despite only having three tour-level wins in his career is fairly... remarkable. #merica
Gudris: Two names that jump out for me are Marin Cilic and Ana Ivanovic. Random I know, but Cilic did have that good run in February reaching three finals and winning two titles. Ivanovic won Auckland, had her biggest win vs. Serena in Melbourne and then wins Monterrey. We also can't forget the Bryan Brothers who still keep winning titles and never get enough press. They're closing in on 100 titles now.
Dimon: Dimitrov's performance so far is one of the most underrated storylines for the ATP. His run to the Acapulco title was positively epic, but Dolgopolov stole his thunder in Indian Wells. Also, he lost great matches to Gulbis and Nishikori in Indian Wells and Miami that kind of halted his momentum. An even more underrated storyline: all things Murray, especially his split from Ivan Lendl. On the women's side, the most underrated storyline is Serena's new Signature Statement Collection at the Home Shopping Network.
Gudris: You think the Murray-Lendl split is underrated? Maybe for you Ricky, but in the U.K. it was equivalent to a member of the Royal Family dying.
Dimon: Gulbis' broken-racket count is also underrated. The simple fact that it doesn't have an official count by Greg Sharko automatically makes it underrated.
Nguyen: Also, I think Fed Cup has been largely ignored this year, yet the first round was crazy drama with the Czechs fighting off mother nature, illness and the Spaniards, and Petkovic rising like a phoenix from match point down to beat Cibulkova and basically book Germany's spot in the semis. Now you have two unpredictable semifinals with Australia-Germany and Czech-Italy this weekend.
Rothenberg: That's Fed Cup's problem, though. It always happens when people aren't in the mood to pay attention to tennis. Under the radar so much that it's pretty much underground.
Dimon: Fed Cup and Davis Cup will always be underrated. Both have been wildly entertaining in 2014. Of course, I still think Kazakhstan still should have been automatically advanced past Switzerland. With the Kazakh's effort and the Swiss' (mainly Wawrinka's) shocking display of tennis, the home team should probably have declined its semifinal invitation and let Kazakhstan go in its stead.
Gibbs: I think the struggle of the Frenchmen -- Tsonga and Richard Gasquet especially -- hasn't been covered enough. Both have been non-factors for most of the year.
American tennis: Ouch.
Rothenberg: You know who has had a craptastic 2014? Every American man not named John Isner -- almost a complete top-to-bottom disaster. (Except Steve Johnson, who is a legitimate ATP Most Improved candidate under Craig Boynton.)
Nguyen: Honestly, it's unfair to give the American women too much a pass here if we're going to knock the guys. Apart from Serena and Venus, the U.S. women have not done much. In a related note: I miss Jamie Hampton.
Gudris: Part of it is the learning process for the younger players, but have to think upcoming clay season won't do them any favors.
Rothenberg: Eh, Christina McHale has had a nice year so far, and she made her first WTA final. Madison Keys has been rising steadily but slowly. Sloane Stephens, obviously, is her own conversation at this point.
Gudris: Sloane is her own Ph.D thesis in sports psychology at this point, Ben.
Gibbs: I feel like with the exception of Sloane and Keys (who is having some growing pains, but still hanging in there), none of the American women besides the Williams have a very high ceiling. Expectations are being met, if not surpassed. The American men don't have elite ceilings either, but Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, etc. haven't even lived up to modest expectations. They've somehow moved backwards.
Dimon: It's not like even Isner has been that great. He went into the Auckland Open with an injured ankle and had the title handed to him on a silver platter by Bautista Agut (and a few others). He also got a great draw in Indian Wells (Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round? Ernests Gulbis in the quarters? Wow). Big John's play has been mediocre, and he has made some shocking scheduling decisions, too, considering his health -- or lack thereof.
Rothenberg: I hope you're not comparing Ernests Gulbis to Roberto Bautista Agut, Ricky. DO YOU?
Dimon: I do not. If I did, and you told him, Gulbis' next broken racket would be a result of my crushed skull. Click here to read part II of the roundtable.