With the 2010 tennis season just about in the books, Matt Cronin takes a look at the future prospects of the some most intriguing names on the ATP tour:
Rafael Nadal: Nadal won’t walk away from the ATP finals in London feeling too bad about himself — as he reached the final for the first time — but losing the third set to Federer 6-1 should give him reason for pause. It was the first time in three years that he allowed the Swiss to totally dictate to him, and if he’s deadly serious about completing his “Rafa Slam” at the 2011 Australian Open, he must take control of the points early like he did in the second set of his 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 loss.
Still, he had his best season in 2010, winning three majors (the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and four other notable crowns. There is little to quibble with in Nadal’s game, but even he would admit that there’s more to come. His first serve has improved immensely speed wise, but he needs to vary it more. He’s comfortable using his backhand slice, but he floats it too much. He could also return more aggressively and get more comfortable approaching the net. Other than that, he’s still rightly the most feared player on tour and will be the favorite heading into Australia. No player relishes a three-out-of-five set battle more than he does.
Roger Federer: The Swiss could not have asked for a more outstanding end to the season when he won the ATP World Tour Finals, beating No. 1 Nadal, No. 3 Novak Djokovic, No. 4 Andy Murray and No. 5 Robin Soderling in the process while losing only one set. His work with his new co-coach, Paul Annacone (Pete Sampras’ former coach) has really paid off: he has more confidence standing toe-to-toe with Nadal off his weaker one-handed backhand side; he’s coming to net more and is confidently putting away volleys; and he’s moving forward in his return games and adeptly attacking the ball.
The 16-time Grand Slam champion is truly a wonder at the age of 29, always trying to improve and rarely doubting himself. Now, after scoring just his second win over Nadal in the past eight tries he can go into the Aussie Open and attempt to defend his title without consistently worrying twhether he still has the tools in his arsenal to defeat the Spaniard. Given how well his body has held up over the years, he might just have two great seasons left in him.
Novak Djokovic: The Serbian’s season isn’t over yet as he and his countrymen will contest the Davis Cup final against France in Belgrade this weekend. Leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup crown would put a large cherry on what has been a moderately successful season for Djokovic, who scored a critical upset of Federer at the U.S. Open before he gave Nadal all he could handle in the final. But other than that, he was disappointing at the majors. While the third-ranked Djokovic did become more aggressive in the second half of the season, he must firm up his serve and trust his forehand and net game more if he’s going to find a way past Nadal and Federer on a consistent basis, both of whom beat him in London.
Andy Murray: It’s getting to the point where Murray’s career is becoming a series of near misses. He and Nadal contested what was by far the best match of the ATP finals and even though Murray played near his best all the way through, he still fell in a heartbreaking third-set tiebreaker.
There are so many things to like about the 23-year-old’s game when he’s on and focused, but he’s also capable of going on mental walkabouts like he did in his round robin loss to Federer. If he manages to find a coach during the offseason, further work on his sometimes-loopy forehand is in order, as is adding speed to his second serve. But really, his Slam-winning game is already there, it’s whether he can stay focused and calm during the big moments that will determine his 2011. If he doesn’t win a Slam next year, his fan base will have reason to panic.
Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych: I’m lumping these two together because their games are quite similar, as were their improved 2010 results. They are both tall and strong powerballers who can beat anyone on a great day, but because of their mediocre movement and defense, are also vulnerable to upsets and are lesser all-around players than the so-called Big 4.
French Open finalist Soderling showed himself to be more mentally resilient as he had a very decent second half of the season, while Berdych nearly disappeared after reaching the Wimbledon final. Expect the Swede to hover around the top 5 next year, and also expect Berdych to check out for a while as he contends with his newfound (and not desired) notoriety.
David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco: It’s hard to see either veteran Spaniard making another huge push in 2011. Ferrer finished the season at No. 7 and was clearly exhausted in London as he was bullied in three matches. Verdasco just missed the cut and spent most of the fall straining as he overplayed during the year.
Ferrer is a gritty player who has made the most out of his career, but he’s quickly aging. Verdasco has more weapons, but is erratic and doesn’t appear to have the heart of a champion. Nadal might end up looking for another Spanish backup player next season, possibly in the form of a youngster such as 22-year-old Pere Riba.
Andy Roddick and the Americans: Once again, Roddick was the sole American to qualify for the 8-man ATP World Tour Finals and once again, he couldn’t come through and win the title. That’s not for lack of effort, but the American’s 2010 reality says that he’s getting hurt much more than he used to, and while he can still occasionally pull off big victories over the other elite players, he’s also more vulnerable to being outhit from the backcourt now, hence his losses to Nadal, Berdych and Djokovic in London.
Props to Roddick for finishing in the top 10 again, but if his coach, Larry Stefanki, doesn’t find a way to convince him that he has to take a lot more risks against the top-5 players, he’s going to have no chance to win that elusive second major.
Veteran Mardy Fish and relative newcomers John Isner and Sam Querrey all made progress this year and finished in the top 25, but all have holes in their games that must be plugged up if they are going to be major impact players in 2011.
The questionable youngsters: Let’s start by stating that if 2009 U.S. Open Juan Martin Del Potro returns to form next season after missing almost all of 2010 with a wrist injury, the 22-year-old will immediately be a top 5 factor, but no one knows whether he will or how long it will take.
Other than that, no player under the age of 23 consistently impressed all year. Both Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis showed flashes of greatness and then ended their season with the label “head case” written all over them. The tall Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker can rip the ball, but is very inconsistent. Lithuanian Richard Berankis packs a lot of punch in his 5-foot-9 inch frame and is the youngest member of the top 100 at the age of 20, but his lack of size may play against him.
Former junior No. 1 Grigor Dmitrov of Bulgaria is an impressive physical specimen but the 19-year-old has struggled returning from injury. Canadian Milos Raonic, 19, also has talent, and Aussie Bernard Tomic is loaded with potential if he can find a way to properly utilize his gifts. American Ryan Harrison is developing a fine all-around game at the age of 18, but he’s not exactly wracking up even minor titles.
The jury is out on all those players and the next great one who’ll be able to challenge Nadal and Federer might be still playing the juniors.