Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Australian Tennis is Finally Looking Up

When Australia dominated men's tennis with the likes of Laver, Emerson, Newcombe, Roche and Rosewall, Australians must have felt like they would never run out of champions.  For whatever reason, Australia's dominance came to a close by the 1970s, and the country has seen particularly hard times throughout much of the 2000s.  Other than Lleyton Hewitt (who hasn't been a grand slam threat since the early 2000s) there simply wasn't much for fans of Australian tennis to get excited about.  This has clearly changed in the last couple of years, as there are now several young Australian players with bright futures.  Below is a look at perhaps the four brightest prospects Australia has to offer.

Nick Kyrgios:  Kyrgios is one of the most promising young players in the game, and has already shown he belongs at the top.  He has a huge game, lots of charisma and loves the big stage.  The key for Kyrgios will be finding consistency week in and week out on the ATP Tour.  He hasn't yet shown he can compete consistently throughout the year with the best in the game, though he does raise his game at the biggest stages.  His backhand and mental game could use some work, but there's no doubt he's a fighter.  Consistency should come with age, and Kyrgios appears well on his way to the top of the game.

Thanasi Kokkinakis:  Kokkinakis isn't yet as well known as Kyrgios, but don't be surprised if this soon changes.  Tall and armed with a powerful serve and forehand, Kokkinakis possesses all of the tools to succeed in today's game.  He's already in the top 150 in the world and is only 18.  It won't be long before he breaks the top 100, and it doesn't look like he'll stop there.  He knocked out Gulbis in round one, and this is just the first of many times we'll be hearing from Kokkinakis this year.

Bernard Tomic:  Tomic has been around for a while, but he's still just 22.  After going through personal issues for the last few years, Tomic appears to be back and focused on his tennis.  He looks like he's filled out a bit and appears to have added some pop to his crafty game.  Tomic likely realized it was time to pick it up, or else he'd soon be passed by his younger countrymen.  It's not clear if he's going to be more than a top 25 player, but he has the talent to be if he wants it.

Omar Jasika:  Jasika is the reigning US Open junior champion, and at 17 years old is by far the furthest away from making it on the pro tour.  However, the lefty does possess plenty of talent, and has given Australia reasons to get excited.  While his ranking is only in the 500s, he appears to be playing well above this ranking so far in 2015.  He reached the final round of qualifying at the Australian Open, and will be a player worth following in 2015. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

What are Nadal's Updated Chances at the Australian Open?

Heading into the Australian Open it seemed like Rafael Nadal was almost as likely to lose first round to Mikhail Youhzny as he was to make a deep run.  He ended 2014 in a deep slump and was unable to even finish the season.  His start to 2015 hadn't been any better, losing the only match he played.  However, after dispatching Youhzny with ease, Nadal may be around in Australia a lot longer than many people thought. 

Nadal's draw is very manageable, with Tim Smyczek awaiting in Round 2.  While he would likely have to go up against his nemisis Lukas Rosol in round 3, ever since Rosol won Winston-Salem he has barely beaten anybody.  Richard Gasquet or Kevin Andersen would follow, with the big-hitting Andersen presenting the tougher matchup.  However, Andersen's lack of mobility could be tough to overcome in a matchup against Nadal.  Berdych would be the most likely quarterfinal opponent, and the last time Berdych won this matchup Andre Agassi was still on the tour.  It may be as good of a time as any for Berdych to stop the streak, but until he actually does so it's hard to have much confidence he can pull it off.

As good as Federer has been as of late, if it's Federer vs. Nadal in the semis it's still an extremely problematic matchup for the Swiss.  If Nadal is in good enough form to make the semis, he'd have a good chance to prevail with his usual strategy against Federer.  Moreover, Nadal should only get better as the tournament goes along.  He's been lacking match play, and should get more comfortable with each passing win.  It may not have looked this way before the tournament started, but it's not hard to see Nadal once again taking the court on the final Sudnay.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What the Australian Open Means for Men's Seeds 6-10

Andy Murray: Murray will be looking to carry over his improved play from the end of 2014 into the Australian Open.  He's got to be happy to see Djokovic in the other half, although he has a potential tricky Round of 16 matchup against Dimitrov.  If he gets past that, he'd likely have Federer in the quarters.  A semifinal showing or better would let the tour know Murray is back to contending for slams after his down 2014.  With a loss to Dimitrov or Federer, the questions of when Murray will return to his championship form will only grow louder. 

Tomas Berdych:  If Berdych were to somehow break through and win the title, he could finally shed the label of being one of the most talented players of his era to not win a slam.  No one is expecting him to do so, although the semis seems very realistic given his favorable draw.  Unless Nadal somehow finds his top form in time, Berdych seems like the best bet to come out of his quarter of the draw.  If he gets that far he'd be in for a tough semifinal against Federer, Murray or Dimitrov.  A loss in the semis would be disappointing but largely expected given Berdych's history.  Seeing Wawrinka and Cilic win majors in 2014 must have been tough for Berdych, and he'll look to erase any jealousy with a grand slam title of his own.

Milos Raonic:  Raonic had the misfortune of landing in Djokovic's quarter, and he has never been able to beat the Serb in 4 tries.  However, Raonic has been on a tear since the beginning of the 2014 season and seems poised to take the next step this season.  If he can upset Djokovic in the quarters, he'll no longer be thought of as just a big hitter who isn't quite ready to compete with the Big Four.  A loss to Djokovic could be spun positively as part of the growth process, but it would be a big missed opportunity. 

David Ferrer: Ferrer received a pretty favorable draw, and will be looking to show he is still relevant at the slams.  He already won a 250 level tournament this year and looks to be in good form.  However, his days of consistently reaching the quarters and semis of slams may be drawing to a close.  He still is able to beat the players he is supposed to beat, but beating guys in the top 10 at majors isn't going to be getting any easier for Ferrer.  If he can't get through Nishikori in the Round of 16, many will conclude his best results may be behind him. 

Grigor Dimitrov:  It won't be easy for Dimitrov to get past Murray and Federer, as he will likely have to do in order to reach the semis.  He's had some success against Murray, but has never beaten Federer and recently got blown out by the Swiss.  Dimitrov has a lot to gain with a strong showing, as the tennis world has been waiting for him to break through for some time now.  His 2014 season was by far his best on tour, and it's hard to imagine him not being a top 10 player for the next several years.  With a grand slam title under his belt, the endorsement opportunities and media attention placed on Dimitrov would increase exponentially.  If he goes down to Murray or Federer it won't be particularly surprising.  He's still young and there's no reason to believe he won't keep improving.  However, at some point he needs to make the jump from being a borderline top 10 player to a true grand slam contender.  2015 seems as good of a time as any, as he is entering the prime of his career.  If he can't get out of his quarter of the draw it certainly won't be a disaster, but it will be clear he still has some work to do before he's truly at the level of the guys ranked above him.

What Does the Australian Open Mean for the Top 5 Men's Seeds?

Novak Djokovic:  By winning the Australian Open, Djokovic can send a clear message to the rest of the tour that his slam "struggles" are behind him and he's still a level above everybody else.  As good as he's been the last few years, Djokovic knows he should have a few more grand slam titles in his bag.  With Nadal unlikely to be at his best, Djokovic has to believe he has a great chance to take home the title.  He has a decent draw, the surface favors him and it's his most consistent grand slam tournament.  Anything short of the title will be a big disappointment for Djokovic, and will create more questions (fair or not) about why he keeps letting major titles slip away when he's clearly the best player.

Roger Federer:  Federer enters the tournament playing as well as anybody, and is certainly capable of winning his 18th grand slam title.  His chances will be better if he doesn't have to play Nadal in the semis, though no one would be shocked if Nadal doesn't even make it that far.  Winning the title will officially make Federer's latest comeback complete, and would arguably be one of his more impressive grand slam titles.  Federer knows he let a great chance slip away at the US Open, when all that was left in front of him was Cilic and Nishikori.  In a sense, Federer is in the part of his career where everything he accomplishes is just a bonus, so it's hard to say a loss would be devastating.  He may not be levels above the field like he once was, but Federer would love to show the tour that at age 33 he is still the man to beat.

Rafael Nadal:  None of the top players have more questions surrounding them than Nadal, and it's hard to imagine Nadal has a whole lot of confidence heading into the tournament.  He lost his only match of the year to world number 127 Michael Berrer, and the end of his 2014 was no better.  Given his lack of match play over the last few months (he had to shut his 2014 season down early) and dip in form, Nadal has probably lowered his expectations for the Australian Open.  No one doubts Nadal's ability to come back strong from a long layoff or injury, but winning the Australian Open may be asking too much too soon.  The tournament seems to be arriving before Nadal is truly ready, and fans shouldn't read too much into a poor result. 

Stan Wawrinka:  The defending champion would love to show people his 2014 title was no fluke, and he seems to have moved past his slump from the second half of 2014.  Winning his second slam title would greatly change how he is perceived, as no one could say he was a one-slam wonder.  No one should criticize him if he goes down to Djokovic in the semis, or even Nishikori in the quarters.  However, a loss before then would send his ranking spiraling downwards and raise the question of whether he is still a top 5 caliber player. 

Kei Nishikori:  Nishikori reached the finals of the last grand slam tournament he played, and is good enough to take the next step.  A title would get rid of any doubts that he has reached the highest level of the game.  He didn't put up much of a fight against Cilic in the US Open finals, but shouldn't be as overwhelmed next time he reaches a grand slam final.  He knows he is capable of getting through Wawrinka and Djokovic since he did it at the US Open, but doing it in back to back majors will be no easy task.  A loss before the semis would be minor setback, but shouldn't have a long-lasting impact. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Should Juan Martin Del Potro Switch to a One-Handed Backhand?

Juan Martin Del Potro has finally returned from a serious left wrist injury that kept him out for most of the 2014 season.  While it's nice to see him back on the tour, he has indicated he still has some pain in the wrist and doesn't yet have the feel back in his two-handed backhand.  The wrist has obviously made progress or he wouldn't have returned, but some have suggested he switch to a one-handed backhand if it continues to give him trouble.

If it does become an ongoing problem, the idea that he make the switch shouldn't be immediately discarded.  He's already 26, and has missed a significant amount of time with injuries over the last few years.  If there's something in his power he can do to prevent more of his career from slipping away, it should at least be given some consideration.  This doesn't mean switching to a one-hander will be easy or is something he could definitely pull off, just that it's worth a look.

Some may argue the one-handed backhand is a shot that takes years to develop, and there's no way someone can pick it up at age 26 and hope to compete at the highest level on the ATP Tour.  Furthermore, making the change involves more than just the stroke itself, as it affects a players court positioning, footwork and overall style of play. 

There's no question it's a complicated stroke, and would take countless hours on the practice court to develop.  While many junior, college and professional players with two-handed backhands mess around with hitting a one-hander in practice (and often hit it fairly well), this doesn't mean it would hold up in match play against top professionals.  However, with enough practice, it is isn't crazy to suggest someone as strong and talented as Del Potro could learn to play the shot.

Jo Wilfried-Tsonga has occasionally turned to a one-handed backhand in his matches and has seen some success with it.  There's certainly a difference between hitting a one-hander occasionally when the situation calls for it and using the shot consistently.  However, it shows it isn't completely unprecedented for two-handers to utilize a one-handed backhand in matches. 

Del Potro could likely still compete at a high level without his one-handed backhand being a weapon.  So long as it wasn't a huge liability, he could dominate with his serve and forehand, and run around his backhand side (like many do already) whenever possible.  He could use his backhand slice to handle the more uncomfortable shots, and come over the top on shots that are easier to handle.  Many players with one-handers get by with slicing most of their shots anyway (i.e. Feliciano Lopez), so at the very least Del Potro could employ this strategy.  Lopez is top 15 in the world and hits a one-handed top spin backhand about as often as David Ferrer serves and volleys. 

Obviously Del Potro would only consider the switch if his left wrist continues to give him real problems.  Even if it's not perfect right away, there would be no reason to risk making the transition unless he's looking at missing another significant chunk of time.  However, if he is facing another prolonged absence because of the left wrist, it may be time to hit the practice court with the sole focus of developing his one-hander.  It's doubtful anyone would confuse his backhand for that of Wawrinka or Gasquet, but the idea shouldn't be dismissed as quickly as some would like you to believe.     

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

If Emerging Rivalries Develop the WTA Tour Could See Bright Days Ahead

It's no secret that tennis thrives when there are great rivalries at the top of the game.  While Serena has had stretches where she's struggled with injuries or a loss of interest, she hasn't had a true rival on the WTA Tour for nearly a decade.  Everyone acknowledges Serena's greatness, but there comes a point where people grow tired of any one person's dominance. 

If Federer had maintained his 2003-2006 dominance for five-ten more years, some may have continued to marvel at his greatness.  However, many more would have tired of seeing him win all the time.  Having Nadal and Djokovic around made Federer more compelling, and through no fault of her own great rivalries is something Serena's career (and accordingly the last decade of the WTA Tour) largely lacked. 

The WTA Tour has some potential rivalries that could develop in the next few years, and would really benefit if they come to fruition.  The worst thing that could happen post-Serena is a period where majors are won by random players who are rarely heard from again.  However, this seems unlikely given that there are plenty of talented players waiting in the wings.  It also doesn't appear like any of the younger stars are going to come close to approaching Serena's singular dominance, so there's a chance some serious rivalries begin to emerge.

Eugenie Bouchard versus Simona Halep would be easy to promote, and is the most natural emerging rivalry.  It's got the natural contrasts, players of similar ages, and lots of talent.  Both are already solid top ten players, but it remains to be seen if they can separate from the pack.  It's not too late for Wozniacki and Ivanovic to get back to the top, but it seems unlikely they'll start regularly challenging for majors.  Sharapova is still only 27, so it's not too late for her to develop a brief rivalry with someone over the next few years if another player reaches her level.

American fans will be hoping Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Lauren Davis and Christina McHale can jump to the next level, and if so tennis in the US would be in good hands for years to come.  However, for rivalries amongst this group to really gain traction beyond serious tennis fans they'll all need to rise fairly significantly in the rankings.

Regardless of who it may be, the WTA Tour would really benefit from one or two strong rivalries at the top of the game.  It's something that's been missing for too long in a sport that's had some great ones over the years.  It's not realistic to expect another Navratilova vs. Evert, but it's not too much to hope for a rivalry that can grasp fans' interest for the next several years.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Is John Isner Just Getting Started?

John Isner has finished every season since 2010 inside the top 20 in the world.  While it doesn't seem like he has been around very long due to his days playing college tennis, he is nearing 30 and is now a well established veteran of the ATP Tour.  He may not have turned into the savior of American tennis people were looking for, but he has been best the US has to offer for the last five years.  American tennis fans have started to move on to younger generations, but there is no reason to believe Isner will be going anywhere in the next several years.

Perhaps the best player to turn to for purposes of analyzing Isner's future is his fellow big serving "giant", 6 foot 11 inch Ivo Karlovic.  Karlovic is nearly 36 years old, and still going strong inside the top 30 in the world.  Karlovic recently defeated world number one Novak Djokovic, showing age has little effect on his game.  This isn't overly surprising, given that he was never known for his athleticism or scrambling ability.  However, it still must be encouraging for Isner to see that Karlovic is able to compete with the best in the world well into his mid-thirties.

The key for Isner will be staying healthy and continuing to improve the weaker areas of his game, notably his backhand and return.  A few minor tweaks could make a big difference, since any improvements in his return game would make him an extremely difficult out.  Even if he just maintains the status quo, there's no reason he can't be a top 30 player into his mid to late thirties.  Changes in court speed and string technology may have transformed the game to benefit defensive players, but there will always be a place for someone who can fire unreturnable serves at will. 

Isner may want to consider employing a more aggressive style of play as he enters his thirties, as he has a tendency to be content to rally from the baseline.  This style won't get any easier as he gets older, but it shouldn't be overly difficult for Isner to transition to a slightly more aggressive game.  With the best serve in the world to get him out of trouble, Isner can afford to take some chances that other players can't. 

The attention placed on Isner may diminish in the next several years as younger Americans (hopefully) start to rise up the rankings.  However, barring injury and mental burnout, Isner could continue to post similar results for nearly another decade.  

Which Wawrinka Will We See in 2015?

For a guy who won a Grand Slam tournament, a Masters 1000, the Davis Cup title, and reached two other major quarterfinals, Wawrinka's 2014 was fairly inconsistent.  His highs were phenomenal, but he left several wins on the table that were his for the taking.  Losing to a fatigued Nishikori in the US Open quarters was a tough loss for him to take, and a first round defeat at the French Open to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez was one of the biggest surprises of the year. 

While Wawrinka fell into a slump during the middle to end of the season, he seemed to find his better form during the last month.  He reached the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals, losing a heartbreaker to Federer 7-6 in the third.  He then posted a solid win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Davis Cup finals, helping lift Switzerland to their first title. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise wasn't that Wawrinka struggled at times, but that everyone suddenly expected him to light the tour on fire.  While the Big Four led us to believe only all-time greats can win majors, there have been plenty of stretches where merely very good players won slams by getting hot for a two-week stretch.  It's naive to think everyone who wins a major will dominate week in and week out throughout the year.  Many wanted to hold Wawrinka to the standard of a Federer or Djokovic, but he was never going to transform into the guy who wins nearly every tournament he plays.

Wawrinka won't be expected to win another grand slam this year, but his season should be more consistent than his 2014.  He struggled a bit with his newfound fame and enhanced expectations during the second half of last season, but that will all be behind him in 2015.  His game translates to every surface, and at 29 he is still well in the prime of his career.  If Nadal continues to struggle with injuries, there should be some draws at bigger tournaments that Wawrinka can take advantage of.  He's more suited to playing the role of challenger than favorite, and this is something he can go back to this year.

His ranking will likely fall early in the year given all the points he has to defend, but he'll have lots of chances later in the season to make it up.  His highs may not be quite as high as they were in 2014, but Wawrinka is more than capable of putting together another borderline top five season.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is David Ferrer Due to Take a Step Back in 2015?

David Ferrer has been one of the most unlikely stars of the past decade.  He wasn't a particularly well known junior, and didn't burst onto the scene as a pro.  However, he managed to carve out an exceptional career, despite being undersized and possessing no true weapon besides remarkable fitness.  Whether he can maintain his status amongst the elite in 2015 will be one of tennis' biggest questions in the upcoming season. 

Ferrer finally showed signs of slipping towards the end of 2014, suffering a handful of surprising losses.  He plays a physically demanding style, and as he enters his mid-thirties at some point his body will start slowing down.  It isn't unprecedented for successful grinders to fall suddenly and drastically in the rankings as they get older, i.e. Davydenko.  However, Ferrer still had an extremely productive 2014, making two grand slam quarters and the finals of Cincinnati.  Replicating his success won't be easy, but it doesn't look like he'll fall too far given the lack of threats beneath him in the rankings.

With the Big Four still around and the next generation of Nishikori, Raonic and Dimitrov maturing, spots inside the top 10 won't be easy to come by.  Ferrer never fared well against the Big Four (though who did) and it now appears like he'll soon be overmatched by this next crop, if he isn't already.  They're no longer afraid of him, and should only get better in the next few years.

The key for Ferrer will be not getting passed by the players currently ranked in the 11-30 range.  Fortunately for Ferrer, there aren't a whole lot of serious threats amongst this group.  It's not exactly brimming with young talent, consisting of the likes of Roberto Bautista-Agut, Feliciano Lopez, Tommy Robredo, John Isner, Fabio Fognini, Gilles Simon, Julien Benneteau, Leonardo Mayer, and a host of others unlikely make a move toward the top ten.  It's not hard to imagine Ferrer holding off this group for another couple of years.  Ferrer's days well within the top ten may be over, but a severe drop-off in the near future doesn't seem likely.

It may finally be time for Ferrer to consider playing a reduced schedule, but this doesn't seem likely since he already entered both Qatar (winning the title) and Auckland before the Australian Open.  He likely suffered toward the end of 2014 because of all the matches he'd played, but this seems like a risk Ferrer is willing to take.  Resting his body with a focus on peaking toward the slams has never been Ferrer's style, and it looks like he's going to put himself through another demanding season.  Expect Ferrer to finish just outside of the top ten, and to leave fans impressed once again by another extremely solid season.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Tour Veterans That Could See Their Rankings Jump in 2015

When Roberto Bautista-Agut began 2014, he was a relatively unknown Spanish player ranked outside the top 50 in the world.  He may have a ways to go before shedding the unknown label, but he is beginning 2015 at number 15 in the world.  While he wasn't a threat to win the biggest tournaments, he had an extremely successful year that seemingly came out of nowhere.  Since enough attention gets placed on young stars likely to make the jump to the next level, here is a look at some players 23 or older who could pull a Roberto Bautista-Agut in 2015 and rise from outside the top 50 to inside the top 25. 

Pablo Carreno Busta:  Another three name Spaniard, Busta will look to make a big jump following a somewhat disappointing 2014 season.  Busta garnered some attention from his breakout 2013 season, in which he seemed to win every futures and challenger level tournament he played.  Based on the ranking points he gained from all his wins at the lower levels, Busta played most of 2014 on the ATP Tour.  He largely struggled against the tougher competition, and failed to make much of an impact at ATP level tournaments.  However, with a full year on the ATP tour under his belt, Busta should be more prepared to handle the level of competition he'll face in 2015.  Lots of players struggle when they first make the move up from playing challengers, but this should all be behind Busta in 2015.  He'll begin the year at 51 in the world, but look for him to finish 2015 much higher.

Federico Delbonis:  Big things were expected from the Argentinean when he first started to make a name for himself on tour a few years back.  He recorded a win over Roger Federer on clay in 2013, but since then hasn't produced many noteworthy results.  Now 24, the big lefty should be ready to make his move after the experience he gained on tour the last few years.  His best results come on clay, and Delbonis should pick up enough ranking points on the surface to make his way up the rankings.

Jan-Lennard Struff:  The big hitting 24 year old German saw his ranking climb from outside the top 100 at the end of 2013 to inside the top 60 in 2014.  Another rise in 2015 wouldn't be surprising, as Struff seems to be on the right track.  His results were a bit spotty in 2014, and he needs to improve his consistency week in and week out.  However, he plays a big game and can crack the ball off both wings.  Unlike grinders whose games don't need much seasoning, Struff appears to be the type of player who will thrive from his mid-twenties on as he fully develops his game.  Struff may be a bit of a wildcard, but a big jump wouldn't be overly surprising in 2015.

Donald Young:  At age 25, Young may be about to enter the best stretch of his career.  His failure to live up to the enormous hype has been well documented, but he did finish 2014 just outside of the top 50 in the world.  He now plays like he belongs on the ATP Tour, and is still young enough to have a very productive career.  He no longer has to deal with heavy expectations, as American tennis fans searching for the next big thing have moved on to the next generation.  Young should have his sights set on the top 25, and his ranking has been moving in the right direction since early 2013.