December 09, 2011

With the Davis Cup final behind us, the men's season is officially in the books. The players get a nice, long break (what, three weeks isn't enough for you?) to rest for 2012. Since the holidays are a time for reflection, writers look back on key stories from the men's season that was.

Jon Wertheim: Will Djokovic once again win more than 90 percent of his matches, earn more than $11 million, take three majors and compile a 10-1 record against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal? Perhaps not. But -- barring injury, which, granted is no small conditional -- there's little to suggest he can't sustain this level of excellence. His game translates to all surfaces. If one component of his game fails him, he has plenty of other weapons at his disposal. His fitness, once so shaky, has, with great abruptness, become an asset. He's younger than the players who pose the biggest threat and, right now anyway, he is swelling with confidence. He has taken up a long-term lease -- first month free! no security deposit required! -- in the head of his most likely rival, Nadal. In keeping with a persistent theme: the plots in tennis can change with blinding quickness. Less than 12 months ago Djokovic was an alternative party candidate in a two-man race. But right now, how do you bet against him keeping the top spot?

Bruce Jenkins: I can't see him repeating such a surreal winning percentage, but it's entirely possible that he could win three majors again. The list of worthy challengers tends to dwindle at the Grand Slam level, and I doubt if any of the impressive young prospects are ready to dominate, so Djokovic will be up against the usual suspects. Andy Murray's game seems forever misplaced (great at the wrong times, inadequate when it counts), and I can't help but recall his dispirited performance against Djokovic in the Australian Open final. Federer still has to show that he can sustain a championship-worthy run for two solid weeks -- a drought that will reach two full years if he doesn't win the Australian. Nadal has to overcome barriers both physical and mental against Djokovic, and his remarkably candid admissions don't seem to have helped. The obstacles remain, quite real and daunting. I see Djokovic finishing 2012 with his No. 1 ranking intact, assuming he spends this "offseason" (such as it is) healing that troublesome shoulder.

Richard Deitsch: Oh, he's the real deal, and barring injury, he'll be one of the top players in the world for many years. He's 24, he's learned to get the most out of body, and best of all, he has zero fear of the top players. Djokovic was 10-1 in 2011 against Rafa and Roger in 2011, and rolling Nadal and Federer time and time again isn't a fluke. Like all top players, Djokovic will have to manage his schedule smartly. Sure, it's near-impossible he'll have the same success next season, but the Djoker is going to be winning titles for some time.

Bryan Armen Graham: I don't see why it's not sustainable. He's still on the uptick, while his rivals seemed to take a step back in 2012 -- Federer's late-season resurgence notwithstanding. That includes six straight victories over Nadal, all in finals, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He quietly finished the year with a 6-4 record after the U.S. Open, leading many to speculate that he already had his eye on 2012. Smart move. He's opened as the betting favorite at the Australian Open, where he's the smart pick to defend his title.

Roundtable: WTA year in review

Courtney Nguyen: Can Djokovic go 70-6 and win 10 titles next year? No. Can he stay at No. 1 and win three Slams next year? Absolutely. This wasn't a fluke breakout for Djokovic. He's been knocking on the door for three years and it was only a matter of time for his game to pick up incrementally and for Federer's and Nadal's to drop ever so slightly. That seems to be the margin of difference these days.

Wertheim: This citation usually goes to a player profligate with his talents (Ernests Gulbis? Gael Monfils?) or perhaps a world-beater who can't quite shake the injury bug (Juan Martin del Potro?), not the guy who finishes second in the rankings. But, regrettably, we have to go with Nadal here. A year ago, he was the toast of tennis, having won the last three Majors of 2010 and looking like a decent bet to win a Grand Slam this year. While his year was stellar by most standards, it fell well short of expectation. It wasn't simply that he won "only" one major, failed to solve the Djokovic riddle, battled his usual litany of injuries and characteristically faded in the fall that truly made his season a disappointment. It's that Nadal's supernatural intensity was seldom in evidence. When Nadal is resigned to asserting, "I [have a] little bit less passion for the game, probably because I was a little bit more tired than usual," we have some serious concerns.

Jenkins: Nadal. Hear me out on this one; Nadal's Davis Cup performance over the weekend was about as inspirational as it gets. But this relates more to the year on tour, where it became clear that Nadal's "A" game -- with the racket and in his mind -- showed distinct signs of vulnerability. It was disturbing to hear him speak of mental letdowns and a sense of futility in certain matches, particularly against the man who ascended to the throne. That simply didn't happen before. He would win every point, or die trying, and we knew it was a constant. He's not so sure about things now. He's run himself ragged over the years, and we may soon witness the residue of the extreme torque he places on his arms and wrists. Perhaps the Australian Open will bring us a Nadal-Djokovic match, certain to send strong messages about the year to come.

Deitsch: Robin Soderling. He finished 2010 as the No 4-player in the world -- including making the finals of the French Open -- but injuries struck the Swede hard in 2011, most notably being diagnosed with mononucleosis after Wimbledon which forced him to miss the U.S. Open. When Soderling did play, the results were mixed. He lost to Alexandr Dolgopolov in the Round of 16 in Australia, was dumped in the Round of 32 at Wimbledon and did nothing during the American hardcourt season. But he did win in Bastad last month, including a straight set win over David Ferrer on clay. Still, he finished the year at No. 13, a major disappointment for someone who many believed could pierce the armor of the Big Three.

Graham: Sam Querrey made two quarterfinals, crashed out of the French Open and missed Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with an elbow injury -- plummeting from No. 17 to No. 93 in less than 10 months. Soderling won four minor events but missed half the year and didn't show much in the majors. Fernando Verdasco was barely there at all. But my biggest disappointment was Andy Murray. Yes, he enjoyed his most successful season results-wise and made significant progress on clay. But it's not just that he lost his biggest matches of the year -- it's the way he lost them.

Nguyen: Hey, remember when Soderling was the only player alongside Juan Martin del Potro who you could count on to upset a top player at a Slam? The Swede came flying out of the gates with titles in Brisbane, Rotterdam, and Marseille, before a foot injury derailed his year. With early-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami and a surprise loss to Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon, Soderling, always dangerous, was simply a non-factor. He shut his year down shortly after Wimbledon due to mono and we haven't heard much from him since. Here's hoping he heals up and is able to compete again in 2012. Men's tennis needs spoilers, and Soderling plays the role well.

Wertheim: Truthfully, after Djokovic, there weren't many. It's still a top-heavy Tour, which is ultimately a good thing. Canada's Milos Raonic was a pleasant surprise, shedding more than 100 ranking points and doing a convincing impression of a top ten player for chunks of the year. Mardy Fish's late-career climb in the top ten was a case of good things happening to good people. That there are two Serbs in the top ten (Janko Tipsarevic is the other) remains a terrific statistical anomaly. Barely a year ago, Alex Bogomolov was giving lessons to Wall St. types, his career done in by a wrist injury. He is now ranked No. 34 and banked more than $500k in 2011 -- an awful lot of private lessons.

We must mention Donald Young, too. As recently as April, he was the standard bearer for clueless entitlement. After that infamous tweet, it was as if the wires connected and he suddenly got it. Making his bones the old-fashioned way, by earning 'em, he ceased relying on wild cards and coddling and simply started winning matches. Projecting likability and humility while playing with flair, he reached the second week of the U.S. Open and finished the year in the top 40. In terms of tennis years, Young is still relatively young. Part of what makes this story so uplifting is that he saved himself from himself; and now has a chance to fulfill the potential that had so many excited for so many years.

Jenkins: Young's performance at the U.S. Open. For one thing, he was an absolute delight. Generally portrayed as a sullen, moody type often at war with the tennis establishment, Young steamrolled into his country's biggest event and made fans by the thousands. It was all so terrific: the winning smiles, the thunderous ovations, and especially Young's realization that there's a world of appreciation out there, beyond his parents' cocoon. I know that Patrick McEnroe -- the man most personally offended by Young's infamous Twitter rant against the USTA -- was pleasantly shocked by the emotional turnaround. Most relevant, of course, was Young's game, and the fact that he kept his slump-shouldered moods to a minimum under duress. I don't think he's big or powerful enough to win a major, but that's quite all right for now. He first needed to win some hearts.

Deitsch: Good question. I'll go off-the-board here and say Nadal's season. Heading into 2011, Nadal was on the fast track to G.O.A.T. and was the clear and dominant No. 1 in the world. But by the end of this year, his invincibility tag had been shattered by Djokovic. Nadal looked -- and I can't believe I'm about to write this -- defeated far too often during the year. Why did this happen? My pal Wertheim says Nadal has been "gobsmacked" by Djokovic and I think he's right. How Rafa responds to the Djokovic next season is the story I'm looking most forward to in tennis.

Graham: Canada's big-serving Milos Raonic crashed the fourth round at the Australian Open (his first), bagged his first title at San Jose and peaked at No. 25 in the rankings in May before a hip injury knocked him out at Wimbledon (where he'd been gaining steam as a second-week sleeper pick). He uncoiled a 150-m.p.h. serve during his run to the Memphis final -- fifth-fastest on historical record -- and he's just 20 years old. Definitely one to watch.

Nguyen: What's more impressive? Winning young or winning old? If it's the former than I tip my toque to Milos Raonic, who came out of nowhere in the first quarter of the year to jump 100 places in the rankings. He made the Round of 16 at the Australian Open, won San Jose, and gave Andy Roddick all he could handle in the Memphis final. You don't often see 20-year-olds physically be able to compete on the ATP tour, but Raonic was the big, tall, man-child who seemed to be able to do it. At least for a while. His body eventually broke down and he spent a chunk of 2011 injured. But that lightning bolt serve and his intelligence and work ethic make me believe this lanky kid is the real deal.

But while Raonic was the "come out of nowhere" surprise, it was Janko Tipsarevic who surprised me the most. Here's a guy that was completely written off as a career journeyman, forever to reside somewhere between the 20s and 40s, destined for a big upset every once in a while but otherwise quite forgettable. A nine-year pro at 27 years old, Tipsarevic hadn't even won a Tour-level title. He was remembered for his tattoos, his glasses, and his reflective, articulate press conferences after he came so close to pulling off big upsets at the Slams. Tipsarevic was hampered by injuries through much of 2011, but he kept grinding away and was finally rewarded in the fall. The man who was the highest ranked player not to win a title finally won one, in Kuala Lumpur, and from there, his confidence soared. He picked up another title in Moscow a few weeks later, and backed that up by making the final in St. Petersburg. With that Tipsarevic broke into the Top 10 for the first time, qualified for London, and beat Djokovic in three sets while serving as an alternate. A 40-spot ranking jump is one thing. But to break into the Top 10 when you've never even had a sniff? That's impressive.

Wertheim: Prior to the French Open, Adam Helfant announced that he would not be re-upping as the ATP's CEO. There were multiple reports that this was a dispute about money. Helfant adamantly denied this; it was simply time for another challenge. So be it. What's followed, though, has been disconcerting. Six months have passed and no successor has been named. Richard Krajieck, the former Wimbledon champ, has been touted as a successor; but factions wonder whether he's fit to be a CEO. There are strong internal candidates, but they haven't satisfied other factions. Ian Ritchie, the well-regarded Wimbledon chief, was ready to sign on but, he, too inexplicably lacked the necessary support. The flacks will say "Why the rush?" But if no other reason than the optics, it sure doesn't look good when the board is so ruptured that it takes more than half a year to fill what should be one of the plum jobs in sports.

Jenkins: Alexander Bolgomolov gaining approval to play Davis Cup for his native Russia. On the surface, this doesn't seem so unusual. Bogomolov's father was a famous tennis coach who moved the family to Florida when Alex was 11, then moved back to Russia in 2003 while his son continued his development here. After several years of estrangement, Alex has re-established contact with his father and feels a renewed connection with Russia. But Bogomolov's decision has rankled American tennis officials and a number of insiders. Noted journalist Peter Bodo called him an "ingrate" for dismissing the years of coaching and financial assistance he received from the USTA. Adding to the intrigue, Bogomolov -- who has dual citizenship -- would have to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, should he qualify for the team, since his lack of previous Davis Cup experience makes him ineligible in Russia. As a 28-year-old player who only recently reached his peak, rising as high as No. 33 in the ATP rankings, Bolgomolov isn't necessarily a difference-maker on the international scene -- but which side is he on?

Deitsch: I'll cheat and use this category to honor the deft Gaston Gaudio, who won the French Open in 2004 over Guillermo Coria in all-Argentinean final. Nicknamed "El Gato (The Cat), Gaudio retired quietly in August after a 15-year career that included eight titles. When he was at his best, he was one of the fastest men on Tour and reached a high of No. 5 in the world in 2005. I always liked watching the guy.

Graham: The rise of 19-year-old Bernard Tomic, who became the youngest man in a quarter-century to make the Wimbledon quarterfinals after winning just four Tour matches all year. Tomic climbed from No. 208 in the rankings to a career-high No. 41 at year's end. The mania surrounding the Gold Coast native at the Australian Open will be significant. With a good showing at his home major, a spot in the top 20 is a realistic goal for 2012.

Nguyen: It's hard to say than anything involving Novak Djokovic this year was "under the radar". Everything about his life both on and off the court has been dissected, from forehands to gluten to magic eggs. But I never felt like he got enough credit for how he comported himself this year. Long portrayed as a charismatic guy who never seemed to be able to get out of his own way (from a PR perspective), Djokovic not only pulled all the pieces together on-court, but he finally seemed to figure out how make himself one of the most likable guys without stepping on people's toes or putting them off. When you're in a sport alongside the likes of Federer and Nadal, both of whom have set a spectacularly high bar in terms of sportsmanship and class, you seem destined to fall short. But Djokovic's humility in the face of what he achieved this year, his need to emphasize the team that got him there, and his acceptance of the role of tennis ambassador, all the while staying true to himself (he still did impressions, danced on court, and tweeted videos of him singing with Big Mouth Billy Bass) never got as much play as his gluten-free diet. Commendable stuff from a guy who was once booed off Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Wertheim: 1) Someone other Djokovic, Federer and Nadal wins a Major. True, statistically, it's not exactly "bold" to take the field against three guys. But consider this: one of the Big Three has won every Major (save one) since January of 2005. That was almost seven years ago. In one four events, can't Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Andy Murray or David Ferrer steal a big prize?

2) Tennis will shine at the Olympics. It tends to be an overlooked sport at the Summer Games. As well it should be. Let some of the amateurs soak up the glory and air-time. But next year at the London Games, tennis will held on the grass at Wimbledon and the mixed doubles competition is an easy storyline. Sorry, rhythmic gymnasts and kayakers; when Serena Williams and Andy Roddick are on the same side of the net, it will siphon attention.

3) The Olympics hold tremendous allure for players. When they are over, a good many players will be left to wonder, "What's left for me to achieve?" While Federer will not be among them, a rash of mature players will likely call it a career around the time of closing ceremonies.

4) The U.S. Open will announce creative plans for a covered court. We can dream, can't we?

Jenkins: Two of the most watchable young players in the game -- Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov -- contest a major semifinal. I believe I hear derisive laughter from the gallery, but even the skeptics have to admit: Few sights in tennis are as compelling as Raonic's booming, multifaceted serves or Dolgopolov's groundstroke genius. Maybe I'm predicting this merely because I'd love to see it happen, conveniently ignoring Raonic's unfinished product or Dolgopolov's wandering mind. But what a spectacle it would be. There's a shade of Pete Sampras in Raonic -- fitting, since the man is his idol. I see the impressionist painter in Dolgopolov, a master of creativity behind that poker face. Wherever this matchup may unfold, it's a study in contrast.

Deitsch: Mark it down: Tsonga will win a major next year.

Graham: Nadal, who is 45-1 lifetime at the French Open, will not win at Roland Garros. Instead, Djokovic will become the fifth man in the Open Era to complete the career Grand Slam.

Nguyen: Murray will win his first Slam in 2012 and Federer will win two. It's a gut feeling.

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