Thursday, November 26, 2015

Who Exceeded Expectations on the ATP Tour in 2015?

The following is a look at a few players on the ATP Tour who exceeded their expectations heading into the 2015 season:

Novak Djokovic:  Djokovic had ridiculously high expectations heading into the year, and he more than exceeded them.  Any questions about why he seemed to let some grand slam titles slip away were put to rest, and he continued to rocket his way up through the record books.  Winning 3 grand slams and 6 Masters titles is nearly impossible to achieve, and in doing so he destroyed any notion that the "Big Four" as we have come to know it still exists.  Djokovic came within one match of winning the 2015 Grand Slam, and would anyone really be surprised if he pulls it off in 2016?    

Benoit Paire:  Benoit Paire ended 2014 ranked around 100 in the world, and at one point early in 2015 nearly fell down to 150.  A once promising career seemed to be slipping away, in part based on injuries and a questionable mental game.  However, Paire managed to show some serious resolve and grinded his way all the up to 19 in the world at the season's end.  He showed more mental toughness along the way than most of us thought he had in him, notably fighting off match points to knock out Nishikori at the US Open, and winning 4 consecutive 3 set matches against tough competition to reach the finals of the 500 level Japan Open.  Paire put himself in a great position to take off in 2016, and will definitely be someone to watch going forward.

Hyeon Chung:  19 year old Hyeon Chung increased his ranking by over 100 spots in 2015, and finds himself just outside of the top 50 in the world.  He's part of a talented group of young teenagers getting ready to make their move on the ATP Tour, and will look to continue his rise in 2016.  Most of Chung's ranking points came in Challengers, and he didn't do much at the ATP level.  This isn't unusual or overly concerning for a teenager trying to break through, but Chung will need to fare better against ATP level competition in 2016 or he risks taking a step back.  Regardless of where he goes from here (and the bet is he'll adjust and be ready to make another jump next year), he took a major step forward this season.

Bernard Tomic:  Tomic started the year outside of the top 50 in the rankings, and quietly ends the year with a spot in the world's top 20.  Just when it seemed like the off-court drama surrounding Tomic would derail his career, he seems to have righted the ship in 2015.  While he's long been projected as a future star and it may seem strange to say a 23 year old Tomic "exceeded expectations" with a mere top 20 finish, it just shows how far he had fallen.  Tomic likely benefited from reduced attention given the emergence of other young Australian stars- notably Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, and should just be entering his prime in the next few years.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Some Thoughts Following the ATP World Tour Finals

Djokovic continues to win when it matters:  Roger Federer may have beaten Djokovic three times during the 2015 season, but Djokovic dominated this rivalry when it mattered most.  Just as he did at the US Open and Wimbledon, Djokovic was able to top Federer in the finals here despite a loss to Federer in the round-robin stage.  Djokovic completed one of the finest seasons in recent memory (if not tennis history), and at the moment lacks a serious rival.  Maybe Nadal or Murray will make adjustments and become better equipped to deal with the world number one in 2016, but if not look for Djokovic to be almost as dominant in 2016.  If Djokovic doesn't win at least 2 majors next year it will be a pretty big surprise, and Djokovic probably thinks he has a somewhat realistic shot at wining all four. 

A disappointing showing for Murray:  Based on Murray's previous comments it's clear his end of the year priority was winning the Davis Cup title rather than the ATP World Tour Finals.  He was afraid he'd be worn down from the event, and wouldn't have enough time to practice on clay before the Davis Cup finals.  After Murray's lackluster performance in the group stage he didn't even make the semifinals, so at least he'll have plenty of time to get ready on the clay.  Murray simply got blitzed by Nadal and fell to Wawrinka in a match that decided who would reach the semis.  (He did have a win over Ferrer, who went 0-3 at the event).  Murray was consistent throughout the year and will end 2015 as the number two player in the world, but once again he got knocked out of an important tournament earlier than many expected.

Nadal continued his good form:  Nadal had been heating up heading into the ATP World Tour Finals, and should be mostly encouraged by his performance.  He swept his matches in the group stage, before falling to Djokovic in the semis.  Nadal may not believe he can compete with Djokovic at the moment, but he's got to think he can return to number two in the world in 2016.  He just beat Murray and Wawrinka indoors, Federer will be another year older, and there's not many other obvious challengers.  There were plenty of down moments during the year for Nadal, but a strong World Tour Finals should boost his confidence heading into 2016.

Ferrer's days playing this event may be over:  Ferrer is one of the best competitors in tennis, but he was clearly overmatched by the superior competition at this event.  He's been a staple in the top 8 for the last several years, but is vulnerable to sliding back next year.  He'll turn 34 during 2016, and his physical game won't get any easier to play as he gets older.  It won't be for lack of effort, but don't be surprised if Marin Cilic or Milos Raonic steals Ferrer's spot at the ATP World Tour Finals in 2016.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ATP World Tour Finals Field Far Too Predictable

The ATP World Tour Finals is supposed to provide an exciting and conclusive end to the ATP season, but once again excitement for the event seems to be greatly lacking.  Even the players contest matches looking like they'd rather be somewhere else, i.e. Wawrinka against Nadal and Nishikori against Djokovic.  While there aren't many easy solutions, it's becoming clear that some new blood is badly needed to add intrigue to the event.  Seeing the same players compete year after year has become far too predictable, and the event takes on the exact same feel as year's past.

The average age of this year's contestants is extremely high, as Nishikori is by far the youngest player at 25.  Everyone else is at least 28, and you have to go all the way down to 14 in the world to find anyone younger than 25.  While there's a lot of young talent on the way up, the current group of teens and young twenty-somethings is still at least a few years away from challenging for spots in this prestigious event.  

It's certainly not a problem on its own that there are several veteran superstars in the top 8 in the rankings.  The "Big Four's" dominance over the last decade has clearly been good for tennis, and they're some of the most marketable athletes in the world.  But seeing the same matchups over and over again simply takes a lot of the luster away.  While it used to be must see TV whenever there was a matchup amongst members of the "Big Four", it just hasn't had that same feel in recent years. 

What tennis could use is at least one or two legitimate young challengers to the "Big Four's" dominance.  Imagine how much more exciting it would be if there was some 20 year old who was pumped about being there and could actually stand toe-to-toe with the best players in the world.  This could be Kyrgios, Coric, Zverev or whomever else in a couple years, but for tennis' sake it's a shame there isn't someone like that ready to compete at this event now.    

Maybe in 5 years when the "Big Four's" reign is officially over we'll be longing for the days when there were four global superstars to headline the event.  It's hard to imagine the tour won't suffer at least a temporary decline in popularity when they're no long around.  But that doesn't mean we can't wish there was a little more variety at the top of the men's game.  Sports are often at their best when there's a newcomer trying to challenge a veteran who's attempting to hang on to power for a little bit longer (i.e. the Federer/Nadal dynamic from several years ago).  If men's tennis is lucky, it's a dynamic we'll soon get to experience again before several "more of the same" World Tour Finals pass us by.   

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Way Too Early Predictions For the 2016 World Tour Finals

As we get ready for the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals comprised of the top 8 players in the world, here's a way too early prediction of what the 2016 field will look like (assuming everyone stays healthy- except for Juan Martin Del Potro, in which case we have to see it to believe it):

The sure things:

Novak Djokovic:  In all likelihood, Djokovic won't be as dominant in 2016 as he was in 2015.  While it's not easy to see who will challenge him, Djokovic won so many slams and Masters tournaments this year that it will be a nearly impossible task for him to have the same amount of success next year.  But unless he trots out in 2016 sporting a flashy new one-handed backhand just to make things interesting, he's finishing 2016 well inside the top 8 (and very likely once again at number one).

Andy Murray:  Murray is simply too consistent and good on every surface for this to even be a question.  He's settled in at number two in the world, and should stay in the two-three range for much of 2016.  His focus for 2016 will be on adding another major to his total, as he can't be thrilled with having the same amount as Stan Wawrinka.  With Federer and Wawrinka getting up there in age, Murray will be in a good position to pounce should Djokovic have a rare slip up along the way.

The almost sure things:

Roger Federer:  Were it just for his performance in 2015 Federer would be in the above group, but he will be turning 35 during 2016.  It's possible that whenever Federer does decline it happens swiftly, and Federer won't give himself much room for error with the limited schedule he's likely to play.  Given his incredibly high level of play over the last year or two Federer is a risk to take a slight step back in 2016.  But even if the consistency isn't what it was (losses at the end of this year to Isner and Albert Ramos-Vinolas are a bit troubling), he should post enough strong results at the big events to finish well inside the top 8. 

Rafael Nadal:  Even in a year when Nadal was widely assumed to be struggling, he still managed to finish around 5 in the world (pending the ATP World Tour Finals).  Nadal started playing well toward the end of the year at a time when he's struggled in the past, and this is encouraging for his prospects in 2016.  Even if Djokovic is in another league, Nadal should rack up plenty of points on the clay to challenge for a spot in the top 4, let alone the top 8.      

Stan Wawrinka:  Wawrinka had another strong year in 2015 and currently sits at number 4 in the world.  He's still not the most consistent guy on tour week in and week out, but shows up at enough big events to rack up significant ranking points.  Wawrinka is 30 years old, but should have at least a couple of good years left (even if there's a slight decline).  Even if he continues to have some surprising losses in 2016, it's hard to imagine he won't make enough deep runs at important tournaments to finish inside the top 8.  While it would have sounded unimaginable just a few years ago, Wawrinka is now trying to boost his resume for a bid into the tennis Hall of Fame.

Kei Nishikori:  Nishikori took a bit of a step back in 2015, but overall still had a pretty solid year.  A withdrawal at Wimbledon and first round loss to Paire at the US Open (when he may not have been 100%) hurt his ranking, but he was otherwise pretty consistent throughout the year.  Nishikori will look to improve his performances at the big events in 2016, and it won't be surprising if he does so.  He should just be entering his prime, and has some of the best ground strokes in the game.  If Nishikori fails to finish in the top 8 next year he'd consider it a major disappointment, and it would be a pretty big surprise in the tennis world.

The probables: 

Tomas Berdych:  It says a lot about Berdych that he had a somewhat up and down 2015 but still is currently 6 in the world.  He didn't do as well as he would have liked in some important tournaments, notably the US Open and Wimbledon, but always seems to pick up enough points in smaller events.  Berdych generally seems to finish in the 5-8 range, and until he fails to do so it's hard to pick against him.  Sure there's some younger talented players on the way up who will at some point take Berdych's spot, but the bet here is Berdych makes the World Tour Finals once again in 2016. 

Milos Raonic:  Raonic clearly didn't have the kind of year he was hoping for, and was hampered by a foot injury.  Given that he's not the most mobile guy to start with, any further limitations on his movement is going to cause some problems.  Assuming he's at full strength to begin next year, Raonic should be able to will himself back into the top 8.  He's still got one of the best serves in the game, and has improved his backhand in recent years.  Had he stayed healthy throughout 2015 he probably would have found himself in this year's field, and expect him to finish 2016 around 7-8 in the world.

Just missing out:  David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Can Borna Coric Build on an Up and Down 2015 Season?

Borna Coric is the youngest player in the top 50, and he just concluded a solid if not spectacular 2015 season with his loss to Andy Murray in Paris.  Coric gained a lot of attention at the end of last year when he got a win over Rafael Nadal, and more attention early this year when he destroyed Murray in Dubai.  But even with these marquee victories, Coric learned wins simply aren't easy to come by on the ATP Tour no matter how much promise you have.  He ends the season on a 3 match losing streak and a 25-27 record, but will be in good position to take a step forward in 2016. 

Even though Coric struggled at times, he didn't have that many "bad" losses.  Of course he would have liked to have a better record, but how many 18 year olds are going to consistently beat Cilic, Nishikori, Nadal, Anderson, Wawrinka, Tsonga and the other top guys he ran into nearly every week.  When he finally took a break from the ATP World Tour to play a Challenger towards the end of the year (like most guys his age are doing) he won it without much trouble.  Coric probably figures if everyone has to take their lumps when they first come on tour it's better to do so when you're just 18, and now he'll be able to hit the ground running heading into next season.  

Just because Coric has a higher ranking at the moment than his fellow talented teens doesn't necessarily mean he'll end up being the best of the bunch (the pick here is Alexander Zverev).  There's lots of examples of talented young players coming up around the same time where whoever peaked first didn't end up having the better career (i.e. Hewitt and Federer).  But it's hard to imagine Coric won't at least become a perennial top 15-20 player on tour. 

The biggest thing he needs to do is add power to his forehand.  The forehand is widely considered the most important shot in today's game, and without a dominant one it's extremely difficult to grab a spot in the top ten.  Coric's average forehand tends to sit up with too much spin, and gives his opponents something to attack.  If he can turn his forehand into a weapon instead of a slight liability (and it's not crazy to think an 18 year old still has time to add power to that side), Coric could become really scary.  Don't be surprised if at this time next year Coric is sitting around 25 in the world.         

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Americans Sock, Johnson Take Big Leaps Forward in 2015

Much of the focus on American men's tennis lately (here included) has been on the promising group of American teenagers on the way up.  It's always easy to get excited about the next big thing, and the U.S. has its best crop of emerging young players in over a decade.  But in the meantime, Americans Jack Sock and Steve ("aka Stevie") Johnson have made clear they're worth our attention with their now concluded impressive 2015 seasons. 

Jack Sock had been on everyone's radar for quite some time, as he was one of America's more promising juniors in a while in his own right.  But his first few years on tour weren't much to write home about.  That's not to say they were a complete disaster, but he clearly wasn't ready for life as a top level pro.  He struggled with his fitness, had a questionable work ethic, and lacked a respectable backhand.  Sock started to finally break through in 2014, and took it to a new level in 2015.  With improved fitness, a better backhand and seemingly more comfort being on tour, Sock should finish the year around 25 in the world. 

Sock won his first ATP World Tour title in 2015, posted several top 20 wins, and now has to believe he belongs on the same court with the world's top players.  Whether he can make the jump to the top 10 in the next couple of years will probably depend on how much he improves his backhand, as there's not much else that should hold him back.  Given that he made significant strides with his backhand already, it finally looks like he's made this a priority.  If he continues to do so throughout the off-season and comes into 2016 even stronger off that side, it's reasonable to foresee Sock finishing next year somewhere in the 10-15 range in the rankings.   

For Johnson, it wasn't that long ago he was hanging around 150 in the world.  As good as he was in college, people started wondering if he had the game to make in on the ATP Tour.  Johnson answered all such questions in 2015, and should finish around 30 in the world.  He ended the year on a strong note, and will enter 2016 with tons of confidence.  Johnson's upside probably isn't quite as high as Sock's, but he can certainly become a top 20 player in 2016. 

Johnson's backhand hasn't come as far as Sock's, and he seems to have resigned himself to becoming a "slicer" off that side a la Feliciano Lopez.  This can work to a point, but it's hard to reach a truly elite level without at least a solid two-handed backhand.  Hopefully for his fans Johnson spends his off-season practicing cross-court topspin backhands for about three hours a day.  If he enters 2016 with an improved backhand stroke (even if it's just by a little), he'll certainly be no fun for the rest of the tour to play against in 2016. 

Sock and Johnson may no longer be the shiny new objects in American men's tennis, but it looks like they'll be more than capable of holding the fort down until help arrives.  Seeing the teenagers quickly rise through the ranks also may have pushed them both to improve, as they realized they could soon get passed by if they don't.  With Sock, Johnson and lots of young talent on the way, landing a spot on the U.S. Davis Cup team looks to be a difficult proposition throughout much of the next decade.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Watch Out for Nadal in 2016

For most professional tennis players, a 56-18 record, 3 titles and over $3 million in prize money is a pretty good year.  If you're name is Rafael Nadal, such a year causes people to panic and wonder if your career is beginning to wind down.  Obviously Nadal's year hasn't been what we've come to expect from the 14 time grand slam champion, but it's hardly been the train wreck some people have made it out to be.  More importantly, Nadal is playing some of his best tennis as the year winds down, and this bodes well for the Spaniard in 2016. 

Nadal clearly struggled with his confidence as he returned to the tour at the beginning of the year.  Injuries slowed him down at the end of 2014, and he didn't begin 2015 in his usual form.  He got rolled by Berdych at the Australian Open, lost to Fognini multiple times, and got beaten handily by Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka at different times during the clay court season. 

More concerning than the results themselves was that he simply didn't look like Nadal.  His timing on his usually devastating forehand was off, and it looked like he mis-hit more forehands this year than he had in the previous 10 years combined.  As his confidence faded he stopped hitting out on a lot of forehands, and at times appeared to merely be guiding the ball through the court.

Even without his confidence Nadal managed to grind out what may end up being a top 5 season (he just moved up to fifth in the points race).  While it wasn't what we're used to, he did make the semis of Monte Carlo, finals of Madrid, won Hamburg (a 500 level event), finals of Beijing, semis of Shanghai and finals of Basel.  Nadal traditionally struggles in the post- US Open Asian and European indoor swing, but has been solid over the last few tournaments.  His forehand looked to be returning to form, and this should be worrisome for the rest of the tour. 

Nadal has always rebounded strong from injuries, layoffs and slumps.  He probably won't do so to the same extent as before (don't expect him to win 3 slams in 2016).  But it's hard to rule out the possibility that Nadal returns to number two or three in the world.  Djokovic has clearly passed him by, but with a good training block in the off-season there's no reason Nadal can't rejoin the likes of Murray and Federer.  At some point his body probably will break down, and it's hard to see him going strong into his mid-thirties like Federer.  However, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a couple of great years left.  If he can continue to end his year on a high note, a confident and healthy Nadal heading into 2016 could be a scary proposition for the rest of the tour.