Tennis

Who will step up to challenge Nadal?

Will Nadal end 2011 the way he ended 2010 – at No. 1?
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Welcome to the 2010 Year in Review. Beginning Dec. 21, in a time frame just shy of a fortnight, FOXSports.com's panel of tennis commentators — Matt Cronin, Richard Evans, Zack Pierce, Addie Rising and Brian Webber — will share their thoughts on the topic of the day. So check back each day to catch one final look back at a memorable year in tennis.

TO CONTINUE OUR YEAR IN REVIEW, WE ASK . . . WHO WILL GIVE NADAL THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE?

CRONIN: Andy Murray. I realize that Murray was a major disappointment to his fan base at the Grand Slams in 2010, because in every contest he lost (to Roger Federer at the Australian, to Tomas Berdych at Roland Garros, to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, and to Stanislas Wawrinka at the U.S. Open), he could have played better when opportunities presented themselves. But be that as it may, for the past three years, he has played the rest of the so-called Big Four (Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic) very tough and scored victories over all of them.

While you can criticize him all you want for playing too passively at times (he does), going to trick shots at absurd moments (he has a habit of that too), he's just too good of an all-around player and too intent on proving himself to be held down much longer. Nadal is certainly the player to beat on every surface in 2011. But the 29-year-old Federer will begin to pick his spots more, and Djokovic never has had one excellent, consistent season and will be tired entering 2011 because of his December Davis Cup heroics. That leaves the soon-to-be-great Scot as the man who will push Rafa the most.

EVANS: There are two questions to ask here: Will Roger Federer maintain his end-of-season form and continue to play like the man who already has claimed 16 Grand Slams and five ATP World Finals titles? And will Andy Murray finally fulfill his promise at the very pinnacle of the game?

Of course, you cannot discount Novak Djokovic after that morale-boosting Davis Cup triumph for Serbia, but I think it will be either Federer or Murray who will push Nadal hardest for the No. 1 spot in 2011.

POLL

  • Who will be Rafa's biggest challenge in 2011?
    • Andy Murray
    • Roger Federer
    • Novak Djokovic
    • Juan Martin del Potro

Self-belief when playing for the highest stakes is really Murray’s only missing ingredient. He knows he can beat Nadal and did so last year on his way to winning the ATP Masters title in Toronto (where he also beat Federer) but a Grand Slam semifinal or final seems to find the Scot trying too hard and doubting himself.

“He gets down on himself too quickly in the biggest matches,” Sky TV analyst Peter Fleming said. “I used to be the same in singles, but when I played alongside John McEnroe I used to piggy-back John’s self-belief system.”

But singles is a lonely game, and Murray knows he will have to draw from within to crack the last rung of that steep ladder.

Although it is not as simple as it sounds, Federer just has to keep on swinging. Defending his Australian Open title will be Roger’s first order of business and he will just take it from there. Hopefully, the two greatest players of their generation — and probably of all time — will meet more often this coming year than they did in 2010.

WEBBER: Let's try some process-of-elimination logic with this selection. While Roger Federer was impressive in his victory over Rafael Nadal in the ATP World Tour Finals and effectively used a more attacking style, Nadal has dictated the terms in the their head-to-head rivalry. It's highly unlikely that, at age 29, Federer will be able to change those dynamics in 2011.

Nadal has been just as dominant against foes such as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. The Spaniard has won 16 of the 23 matches he's played against the Serbian, and he owns a 9-4 head-to-head advantage over the pride of the United Kingdom.

So let's anoint a healthy Juan Martin del Potro as the player who may have the most success against Nadal next year. Before he was sidelined with a wrist injury, Del Potro was on a roll against the world No. 1. The Argentine defeated Nadal in three consecutive matches, including a one-sided, straight-sets victory in the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Del Potro has the power to match Nadal's heavy topspin and covers the court extremely well for a tall player. If he can remain healthy, del Potro may be able to disrupt Nadal's Grand Slam dominance.

Richard Evans and Matt Cronin are tennis writers for FOXSports.com. Brian Webber is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com's tennis coverage. Addie Rising and Zack Pierce are tennis editors for FOXSports.com.

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