November 19, 2012

With the Davis Cup final now in the books, the sanctioned tennis events of the season are over. It was a memorable year on the ATP Tour. Andy Murray finally broke through for his first major, at the U.S. Open; Rafael Nadal won a record seventh French Open title before falling in a historic upset at Wimbledon and succumbing again to a knee injury; and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic exchanged the No. 1 ranking.'s tennis writers reflect on the ATP season that was. (Click here for the WTA roundtable.)

Who is your ATP Player of the Year→

S.L. Price: Djokovic. Murray's accomplishment is so appealing, so satisfying, not least because we were all so sure that he had the goods to win a major: The least we could do for not making us look like fools is hand him the POY. But to me Djokovic's season is as impressive as his magnificent 2011, because there was no surprise, no streak, nothing exhilarating to it; this was the work of a supreme professional. Novak truly ground it out in 2012, stealthily kept his eye on the prize, never got discouraged by Federer's resurgence or Murray's arrival. Nadal, remember, seemed to supplant Federer and promise an extended run at No. 1, only to wither under Novak's incredible '11 assault; Djokovic's "letdown" included a win in one of the truly great matches in history, the '12 Australian Open final, and then a lasered, 75-12 consolidation replete with Masters Series titles, two more Grand Slam finals and message-bearing wins over Murray, Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro to finish off the year. It wasn't that intriguing, as narrative, but end-to-end his was the game's best performance.

Jon Wertheim: Cold reason, of course, says Djokovic. He started the year No. 1, ended No. 1, won as many Slams as anyone else (one) and distinguished himself at the year-end event in London. But my gut and heart -- coupled with a reluctance to admit I was wrong here -- says Murray. If you've been following the sport, even at a casual level, you know both the immense pressure he shoulders and the close-but-not-quite theme of his career. Until this year. At Wimbledon, Murray reaches the final, can't surmount Federer and dissolves into tears. He returns to the same court, faces the same opponent four weeks later and wins this time, taking a gold medal at the London Olympics. Then he wins the U.S. Open, claiming his first major and snapping Britain's losing streak, what had previously been tennis' answer to the Chicago Cubs' futility. Assuming we can award "storyline points" when considering this honor, Murray takes it.

[PHOTOS: Every ATP champion of 2012 season]

Bruce Jenkins: I've been making Murray's case since mid-September, but the notion seems a bit awkward now. Djokovic finished as the No. 1 player and he did so with a flourish, winning the year-end championships, so who can argue against that→ Only someone who wishes the tennis calendar made a bit more sense. In a sport with actual seasons, and the good sense to shut down after the most important events, Murray would be a hands-down winner. He had the greatest impact when it mattered the most, and he forced his name into the men's-elite conversation. Unfortunately, tennis has no regard for closure. Serena Williams finished 2012 with the No. 3 ranking because it's about the entire year, not the headlines. The sport is an outright marathon, but don't think 26 miles -- this is more like running from Oregon to Nebraska. Even Brad Gilbert, who loves the game unconditionally, once lamented, "How can you miss a sport when it won't go away→"

As a result, these coveted honors -- world ranking, Player of the Year -- have as much to do with Madrid and the month of November as the Grand Slam events. So credit Djokovic for winning this marathon, convincingly, in a manner reminiscent of Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors in their relentless, year-round pursuit of world domination. He is definitely the man.

Courtney Nguyen: Djokovic. I understand the argument for Murray, as 2012 will be remembered as the year he finally broke through and, as Jon lays out, the narrative for his season -- the tears! The triumph! The Fred Perry Ghostbusting! -- made the second half of the season one to remember. But numbers matter, and when you stack up Murray's year (as opposed to a dreamy three months) next to the No. 1's, naming him ahead of Djokovic is just ... wrong.

We were waiting for Djokovic to crash and burn in 2012 after his massive 2011 season. Everyone knew he couldn't meet those expectations, and yet his performance was gauged against it regardless. Under that specter, Djokovic showed his quality week in and week out. He could have gone negative after Nadal got the better of him on clay, Federer on grass and Murray at the Olympics. But he remained resilient and finished his year with six titles, including a win over Murray in the Shanghai final and victories against both Murray and Federer at the season-ending championships. He's the only man to make three Slam finals this year, tied Federer for the lead in Masters shields with three and retook the No. 1 ranking at the end of the year.

Bryan Armen Graham: If players were stock, you'd have taken a loss on Djokovic this season. He was a mortal 8-8 against the top four, after going 11-2 against the same group a year ago. Maybe it's unjust that Djokovic's 2012 season is bound to be overshadowed by his stratospheric 2011 campaign, but that's the historians' problem. The 25-year-old Serb had a year most players would have gone Faustian for: a Slam, two Slam finals, three Masters titles, the ATP World Tour Finals trophy and the year-end No. 1 ranking. Leave it to the romantics to tab Federer (who unforgettably reclaimed No. 1 when no one though he could) or Murray (who ended one of the most mythical droughts in sports): Djokovic as Player of the Year is a no-brainer.

Is Federer the greatest of all time→

Price: Yes. Until further notice, this argument is over.

Wertheim: Yes. To the point that the discussion is pretty much moot. By most every conceivable metric, he is the best. He holds the record for most records held. Qualitatively, his case is even stronger. No one has played at his sustained level of excellence. By winning Wimbledon, he not only increased his haul of Slams -- the primary measuring stick for a player's greatness -- but he also showed that he has the competitive resolve to match his talents. For more than two years, he failed to win a major. Ignoring cries that the sport had passed him by, ignoring the annoyances of age, he won again, playing as well as ever for the final hour of the final match. In addition to the title, Federer took over the No. 1 ranking. And as far as the GOAT discussion, this was the deal-sealer.

Jenkins: I put him right there with Rod Laver, and because I was fortunate enough to watch Laver -- both in person and on big-event telecasts -- I'll never leave him out of this discussion. He had all the shots, he was great on every surface, and he was a fierce, classy competitor. Those qualities fit handsomely into any era. Give Laver today's equipment, and he's still an all-time great, still a cut above the rest as a player and a man.

As Federer solidified his grasp on Wimbledon dominance, Laver could hardly contain his admiration. Here was the same brand of champion, only faced with a deeper men's field, more variety in the Grand Slam surfaces and a greater test of hand-eye coordination. Modern-day tennis looks like a video game when measured against those classic films from the '50s and '60s. In the case of both men, however, there are no flaws, no "what ifs" on the résumé. For my money, they go down as equals.

Nguyen: He's the greatest player I have ever seen swing a racket. That I know with absolute certainty. But I haven't seen everyone who ever swung a racket and that's where my analysis gets muddy. I've read books, talked to experts and watched grainy video footage of the all-time greats, but all we're really left with is numbers and that warm, gushy feeling in your gut.

Graham: He's the greatest of my lifetime. That he was able to reclaim the No. 1 ranking past the age of 30 -- a feat that seemed impossible a year ago -- only solidifies the case. The eggheads may pick Connors and the oldheads may pick Laver, but Federer is my choice.

Has Andy Murray officially joined the elite→

Price: Well, inasmuch as winning one major puts you in the elite. I'm one who believes that the U.S. Open is the most consistent marker of greatness: Win it, and you're likely to be historically significant. But if the winning stops there -- calling Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro -- then all kinds of questions get asked. I certainly think that getting to the Wimbledon final and winning the London Olympics are indicators that apply uniquely to him -- both accomplishments are so heavily weighted for a Brit that the normal assessment doesn't apply -- and taking New York put him into the elite conversation. But it almost goes without saying: He's got to win a couple of more. And thus the Wimbledon pressure continues, full force.

Wertheim: Definitely. Previously, Murray was fourth for a reason: He wasn't the equal of Nos. 1-3. Sure, he could win Masters Series events, reach Grand Slam finals and beat everyone on occasion. But the breakthrough was elusive. On the other hand, he was better than No. 5 on down. By winning both an Olympic gold medal and a major, he suddenly reframed his career and is now a Hall of Famer.  At some level, we should take our cue from Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. If they are comfortable accepting him into the Big Four fraternity, we should be too.

Jenkins: I think he needs another major to make it official, for as we learned over the years with Roddick, a singleton just doesn't cut it.  Murray is definitely the fourth wheel, the only player capable of knocking off any member of the Big Three at any time, on any surface. Nobody else in the game has reached that level, so Murray has boarded this two-car train. But the other three guys are up front, dining on chicken Kiev and caviar. Murray's back with the cows and the lumber. How quickly could it change→ Imagine the shift in worldwide opinion if Murray were to win the Australian Open.

Nguyen: Not quite. Yes, he got his Slam and he finally showed this year that he can beat the big boys at major events. So those monkeys are off his back. But Murray will be the first to admit that he has to learn to do it on a weekly basis, regardless of the size of the event or the stature of his opponent. Federer finished the year with seven titles, Djokovic had six and Nadal collected four without playing a match after Wimbledon. Murray→ He won three titles with a 56-16 record. He's still vulnerable in the early rounds of a tournament, which means he has yet to work his way into the heads of the other guys in the locker room. There's still this belief that he can be beaten on any given day -- losses to Jeremy Chardy, Nicolas Mahut and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez don't help the Murray Mystique -- and until he addresses that he'll still be on the outside looking in.

Graham: He had already joined the elite before this season, when he was regarded by many as the Best Player Never to Win a Grand Slam. The glorious formality of this year's Olympic gold medal and U.S. Open exorcism rendered the case for Murray airtight.

How will Nadal bounce back in 2013→

Price: Tough one. I've been sensing mental exhaustion from Nadal for a while now, and of course the continuing question of his health would shred any man's concentration. It's comforting to believe that this enforced rest will recharge him, body and soul, but two factors make me hesitate. First, he's accomplished more than he ever hoped for in this game, and when that happens it's amazing to see how fast the ambition can drain away. Second, Nadal is not Federer. His game is a strain. His greatness extracts every drop of fuel from the physical, emotional and mental tank. It's all a question of need now. How much does Nadal need to be out there→

Wertheim: I'm no doctor and he's been guarded about his status -- as, of course, is his right -- so who knows→ He's finally back on court, which is a good sign, but there are still many question marks. There is an unmistakable sense that this absence is unlike the previous absences. For his sake and also, selfishly, for the sport's, you hope he bounces back. The show is much better when he is in the cast.

Jenkins: Horribly, if he tries to do too much too soon. He's made some dramatic comebacks before, but the process gets a little tougher each year, and only Rafa's people truly realize how much punishment the man has inflicted on his body. I know it's not realistic, but I'd like to see him wait until the clay-court season. All of a sudden, there he is: fresh and inspired, just crushing every opponent in his path. He wins the French, again. The other three guys are healthy, at the top of their games. Wimbledon becomes an event for the ages.

Nguyen: As long as he's healthy, Nadal will bounce back strong. It may take him some time to get his legs under him, but by the time the clay season rolls around I suspect Rafa will be back to his hard-charging self. It's all about health with Nadal and once he has faith in his body and can play unencumbered by doubt, I think he'll be back into the top two by the end of the year.

Graham: His age (26) coming off the latest in a series of knee injuries that forced his withdrawal from the U.S. Open is less of a concern than Rafa's mileage. His hyperathletic, aggressive style, which places massive demands on his muscles and joints, is not built to last. It's been seven grueling years since Nadal broke through at Roland Garros and became the first teenager to win a major since Sampras. He's back on the practice court and preparing for the Australian Open -- where the oddsmakers have installed him as the joint third favorite -- but just because he's made successful comebacks from injury in the past won't make this one any easier. The end may very well be near for Rafa, but let's save the hand-wringing until the results give us reason for concern.

What's the biggest disappointment of 2012→ Biggest surprise→

Price: Disappointment→ Nadal's fade. The tour is better when he's at the top of his powers. Surprise→ Seeing Janko Tipsarevic establish himself as a top 10 stalwart. When he's on, there are few better competitors in the second tier. When he's off, he still provides some of the quirkiest, insightful takes on tennis and the world. The tour is better when he's around, too.

Wertheim: Though this is meant compassionately and not pejoratively, I'd say Nadal. He not only wins the French Open but also beats his nemesis Djokovic in the process. He's making another assault on the No. 1 ranking. Wimbledon is coming up, an event he had won two of the past three times he'd entered. The plot is thick. And then ... he flames out in the second round to qualifier Lukas Rosol, one of the great upsets in Open Era history. And he hasn't played since.

If we want a more traditional underachiever-as-disappointment, a vote here for Bernard Tomic. It's not just that Tomic -- who reached the Wimbledon quarters as a teenager -- put up results like these and is now out of the top 50. It's that his comportment was often lacking. He has often acted like a juvenile. He sometimes offered something less than wholehearted efforts (take a bow whoever coined the nickname: Tomic the Tank Engine). He had a standing date, it seemed, with local law enforcement. The good news: He's young, he'll learn and with any luck, this too shall pass.

Jenkins: In the category of disappointment, I'd have to say the regression among the so-called "next generation."  Milos Raonic hasn't put together the shotmaking or competitive fire to knock off the big boys. Alexandr Dolgopolov answers to conflicting strategic voices in his head. Americans Ryan Harrison and Donald Young have many miles to travel, Young probably left behind for good. Grigor Dmitrov should have taken a larger step by now. Tomic is just a joke, on and off the court. The most satisfied player in this group might be Kei Nishikori, who became the first Japanese player to win Tokyo (obliterating Raonic along the way) and climbed into the year-end top 20.

Biggest surprise→ Rosol defeating Nadal at Wimbledon. We know Nadal wasn't 100 percent, but he was savagely beaten into submission by a  player "zoning" to such an extreme, he looked like a character from The Matrix or Blade Runner. Seriously, it was a performance bordering on the supernatural. I don't know who that was, or how he reached that point, but what a mind-blowing spectacle.

Nguyen: Disappointment: The frustrating continued fall of Ernests Gulbis. The guy is just too talented to end the year ranked No. 139. It looked like he finally figured things out with his incredible first-round upset of Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, where he held his nerve to win in straight sets, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4). But no. The 24-year-old, who was ranked as high as No. 21 just last year, will have to battle his way through the Challenger circuit and qualifying to boost his ranking up to get into the big tournaments.

Surprise: Brian Baker's Cinderella summer. In a year of feel-good stories, Baker's run from April to June was the feel-goodiest of them all. He won the Savannah Challenger to earn a wild card into the French Open; made the final in Nice, France, as a qualifier in his first ATP Tour-level main draw in seven years; reached the second round of the French; and not only qualified for Wimbledon but also backed it up with a run to the fourth round. It was a Hollywood comeback story and so fun to follow.

Graham: Nadal's loss to Rosol, a player with 18 tour wins ever, may be the surprise of the decade. That Rafa hasn't played since, albeit through no fault of his own, is 2012's biggest disappointment. Honorable mention to Baker, who, as Courtney says, improbably offered up one of the sport's most memorable feel-good stories in years.

Bold prediction for 2013

Price: Murray will win the 2012 Wimbledon singles title. 

Wertheim: The four Slams will -- once again -- be won by four different players. The ATP is still terrifically top heavy. But with the emergence of Murray, the re-emergence of Del Potro, the iffy status of Nadal's knees, the presence of Federer and, of course, the constant threat of Djokovic, it's easy to see the four big prizes getting divvied up equally again.

Jenkins: Tomic will play the eccentric Benoit Paire on a day of withering heat during the U.S. summer circuit, and after two hours of incomprehensible weirdness, the court will literally catch fire.

Nguyen: Federer will drop out of the top four. ... Sam Querrey will displace John Isner as the No. 1 American. ... Raonic will finish the year ranked higher than Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. ... Nadal will go undefeated through the clay season. ... At least two Masters titles will be won by someone outside the Big Four.

Graham: Raonic will move into the top 10 and make a Grand Slam semifinal.

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