Djokovic earns top marks early
The following grades for notable ATP and WTA players encompasses play from January until the end of March:
Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, Milos Raonic, Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters and Dinara Safina
Clearly, Djokovic has been the most impressive player of the first quarter, going undefeated and nabbing titles at the Australian Open, Dubai, Miami and Indian Wells. He's brimming with confidence and is a much-improved player all around. But now he's going to No. 1 Rafa Nadal's beloved clay and still must show he can hang with the Spaniard in endless rallies.
Give huge credit to Del Potro for returning from wrist surgery and actually making a difference, winning Delray Beach and reaching three other semifinals while playing at only 80 percent of his ability. The 2009 U.S. Open champ is sure to be a Slam contender this summer.
While young Canadian Raonic faded after a red-hot start to the season, he's already shown that his ultra powerful game is backed up by a winner's mentality. If he stays healthy, the 20-year-old should end the season in the top 10.
When her head and heart are in the game, which they weren't at Indian Wells or Miami, Clijsters is without a doubt the best player on tour, which she showed in winning her fourth Grand Slam at the Aussie Open. She's hurt again but is focused on preparing assaults on the two majors she hasn't won, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and will be favored in both of them if Serena Williams doesn't return at the All England Club.
I'm going to give Wozniacki an A-minus, largely because of her mental meltdown in the semis of the Aussie Open against Li Na. Yes, the No. 1 is still immature in some ways and has a fair amount of improving to do within her game, but she showed herself to be remarkably resilient after her Melbourne nightmare, winning Dubai and Indian Wells and beating a slew of decorated veterans along the way. She is now much more of a legitimate Grand Slam threat than she was at the start of the year.
While former No. 1 Safina hasn't put up big results this year, she has put up at least a few good results, as opposed to last year when, saddled with a back injury, she had zero confidence, and the start of this year, when she considered quitting after being double-bageled by Clijsters at the Aussie Open. Now, Safina seems healthy and motivated, and while it's unlikely she'll ever reach No. 1 again, if she gets her A game going she'll march straight back into the top 10.
Rafael Nadal, Robin Soderling, David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka, Nicolas Almagro, Mardy Fish, Victor Troicki, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Kei Nishikori, Ryan Harrison, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Andrea Petkovic, Marion Bartoli, Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Shahar Peer and Rebecca Marino
There are lot of results to chew on here. Nadal said he was reasonably pleased with his play at Indian Wells and Miami, where he lost three-setters to Djokovic in each final. But while he played very impressively at times at both events, he still stands too far back to return a second serve, his backhand slice floats too much and his serve is up and down. Still, he'll enter the clay-court season as the huge favorite in every tournament he plays.
I've never really believed in Soderling's chances to win a Grand Slam, and while he had a very decent start to the year, nothing he's done has caused me to change my mind. He's just too stiff of a player.
Ferrer might just be the hardest-working guy on tour, Wawrinka has become a much better fighter (except when he's playing fellow Swiss Roger Federer) and Almagro just keeps pocketing clay-court victories. Fish is now the top-ranked American for the first time, not because he lacked talent before but because he was too lazy. Not anymore. Troicki has become a solid all-round player, while talented youngsters Dolgopolov, Nishikori and Harrison are now on career tracks on which they should be competing for major titles in the next seven years or so.
I wish I could give Azarenka an "A," but I can't. Had she competed like she did in winning Miami anytime before that I might have, but she's still inconsistent. Now she must show she can stay the course.
We all knew Sharapova could fight and rip groundies and returns, but what we didn't know is that 2½ years after her shoulder surgery, she is still chasing her toss around. Frankly, even though she's back in the top 10, if she can't develop a hard, consistent serve she won't win another Slam. If she does, her fourth major title could come at Wimbledon.
Ivanovic has made tremendous progress since last summer, and I'd be surprised if she didn't re-enter the top 10 by midsummer. Jankovic has steadied her mind under her new coach, Andrei Pavel. Petkovic has emerged as one of the most entertaining personalities on tour and has forepower, and Bartoli always seems to show up when you least expect her. I love watching Radwanska play when she's not just being creative but is going for her shots. Kvitova has Slam-winning potential but is still very immature. Mattek-Sands has done a fine job trying to hold up U.S. women's tennis while the Williams sisters are absent, and Peer has rediscovered a style that suits her. While most of Canada is ga-ga over Raonic, pay close attention to Marino, one of the biggest young servers in the WTA.
Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Tomas Berdych, Fernando Verdasco, Jurgen Melzer, John Isner, Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Vera Zvonareva, Venus Williams and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Federer has set the bar so high for himself that it's extremely difficult to give him more than an average grade when the 16-time Grand Slam titlist hasn't won a title since opening 2011 with a win at Doha, even though he's reached at least the semifinals every time out. But are three decisive losses to Djokovic and another to Nadal worthy of a man who believes he can get back to No. 1 again? No. Moreover, is being stubborn in his approach to playing his main rivals the right way to go when clearly he's getting his butt kicked from the baseline? Double no.
Roddick talks up his positive results a great deal and did play well at Memphis and Brisbane, but in the year's three biggest tournaments — Australia, Indian Wells and Miami — he lost early to Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet and Pablo Cuevas. That's simply not top-10 tennis, which is why he's fallen to No. 14.
Verdasco looks borderline burnt out to me, Melzer is aging quickly, and Tsonga and Monfils might never be fully healthy again. Isner confounds me because it's so clear he must improve his backhand and return to become a top-10 player, yet he seems to be regressing in both areas. I cannot get a good read on why Cilic is playing so passively or erratically.
Zvonareva remains the world's No. 3, but her only real excellent result was winning Doha over Woznaciki. Zvonareva let down in Australia and at Indian Wells and Miami. While consistent, she has failed to take the next step to win a major.
The reason I'm giving Venus Williams a "C" is because she came back too early from injury this year even when she was told she was taking a risk. She then injured her hip in Australia and hasn't played since. At the experienced age of 30, she must make better decisions.
Pavlyuchenkova is the highest-ranked teenager on the WTA who does well in smaller tournaments and then gets worked over at the bigger ones. The training wheels are off and it's time for her to back up her contention that she's a future No. 1.
Andy Murray, Sam Querrey, Lleyton Hewitt, Nikolay Davydenko. Li Na, Alisa Kleybanova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Melanie Oudin
Murray did look outstanding going into the Aussie Open final, where he was beaten up by Djokovic. And had this been last year, when a consequential mental slump was more acceptable, I would have given him a "C," but it's a year later and going 0-3 after the Aussie Open while looking dispirited and without any clear career path is unacceptable. He needs to toughen up.
I can't think of one tournament this year where I've thought, "Wow, Querrey is really making progress." I think he cares about his results to some degree, but that might not be enough to make him a top-10 player. Former No. 1 Hewitt is hurt again, and while he's without question one of the sport's great warriors over the past 12 years, he needs to retire. He can't stay healthy for more than a month anymore. Former No. 4 Davydenko is simply fried physically and mentally.
Li was incredibly entertaining and lethal in winning Sydney and reaching the Aussie Open final, but she has fallen apart since then, going 0-4 on her beloved hard courts. Melbourne might have been her last great event.
Kleybanova is a terrific ball striker. But her conditioning is suspect, and while it remains so, it will prevent her from becoming a prime-time player. Two-time Grand Slam champion Kuznetsova has gone on another mental walkabout, and this time, she might not return to greatness. I'm getting the impression Oudin needs a new coach: It's been more than year now since she been able to string together a few impressive wins, and she's way better than her No. 75 ranking.
Samantha Stosur, Ernests Gulbis
It might seem a little harsh to give the sixth-ranked player in the world an "F," but I can't find one positive in Stosur's game or performances this season. She bombed out of the Aussie summer, bombed out of Fed Cup, did nothing at Indian Wells or Miami and even seems to have lost confidence in her money shot, her forehand. She's way better than she's been playing but might not have the self-belief of a true champion.
Gulbis, 22, is an amazing shotmaker but seems to have a rich kid's mentality. He doesn't work hard enough, doesn't compete that well and has poor shot selection. He's still ranked No. 31 but is spiraling out of control.