Sunday, December 27, 2015

Some Predictions for the 2016 ATP Season (Part 2)

Grigor Dimitrov will be closer to his 2014 form:  In 2014 Dimitrov looked like the next big thing in men's tennis  He had his much awaited breakthrough year, spending time in the top 10 in the world and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon.  For a guy who improved every year since turning pro, the natural progression seemed to be that Dimitrov would start competing for grand slam titles in 2015.  Instead, for the first time in his career Dimitrov had a serious regression, and finished in the low-twenties in the rankings.  He was a non-factor at most big tournaments, and his backhand remained a weakness.  Some thought experimenting with a new racquet was the problem, others thought his focus was away from tennis, or that he wasn't ready to deal with the bigger spotlight 2014 brought.  But whatever the cause, 2014 was clearly a wasted year for the Bulgarian.  Most of the issues Dimitrov dealt with last season should be behind him, and he should be extremely motivated to prove 2015 was a fluke.  He's still remarkably talented, and can play with less pressure and attention in 2016.  Expect Dimitrov to finish the year a lot closer to 10 in the world than 30.

Jack Sock will end the year as the top ranked American:  John Isner has been carrying the torch for American men's tennis over the last several years, and generally maintains a ranking between 11-20 in the world.  While Isner had a strong 2015 (finishing at 11), 2016 may be the year Isner relinquishes his spot as the top ranked American.  Don't expect for Isner to have a big drop in the rankings, but it looks like Jack Sock is ready to take the next step.  Sock ended 2015 on a tear, and has fixed many of the deficiencies in his game that held him back early on.  Sock looks like he belongs on court with the top ATP players, and his game should be ready to compete with the world's best.  If he can stay healthy for the whole year (which has been a problem in the past), Sock should be able to finish just outside the top 10 in the world rankings.

Marin Cilic will be back:  2015 was a tough year for the 2014 US Open Champion, as late 2014 wrist problems hampered his preparations for the year.  Cilic never really got on track, though he still managed to reach the semis of the US Open and quarters of Wimbledon.  Now that he's had a full off-season to rest and train, Cilic should be ready to return to form in 2016.  He won't have the Big Four's consistency week in and week out, but a healthy Cilic could easily steal a Masters title or make a couple of deep runs in grand slams.  After a year in which he finished at 13 in the rankings, a final ranking in the 6-8 range is a reasonable expectation for the upcoming season.

Ernests Gulbis will return to the top 25:  There's no denying that 2015 was a disaster of a season for Gulbis.  He finished 2014 in the top 15 in the world, and at one point dropped outside of the top 100 in 2015.  There were times where it looked like he couldn't beat a club pro, and his bizarre forehand form (which appeared to help in 2014) began to look like a cheap gimmick.  While there's not much evidence to suggest Gulbis will return to form in 2016 (except a couple of decent results toward the end of the season), Gulbis generally does the opposite of what everyone expects.  If we have high expectations going in for Gulbis he generally disappoints, and when we write him off he tends to become relevant.  Now that no one is taking Gulbis seriously, things seem to be lining up exactly how Gulbis likes them. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Some Predictions for the 2016 ATP Season (part 1)

Andy Murray will win his third grand slam title:  Murray has accomplished nearly everything a tennis pro could ask for (grand slam champion, Olympic gold medal, Davis Cup title), but the knock on him is that as good as he's been he "only" has two grand slam titles.  Look for Murray to capture his third major in 2016, though he may need a slip up by Djokovic along the way to make it happen.  Murray has worked his way up to number two in the world, and will benefit from avoiding Djokovic until the finals at every big event.  While Murray will be a threat at every major he plays, Wimbledon stands out as his best bet to get it done.  Australia should also present a good opportunity if he can ride the momentum from leading Great Britain to the 2015 Davis Cup title.

Dominic Thiem will reach the next level:  Thiem has been on everyone's radar for a while now even though he's just 22.  He finished 2015 at number 20 in the world, and won multiple 250 level tournaments.  However, he wasn't much of a factor at the bigger events.  This isn't particularly unusual for a younger player, but Thiem should be ready to step up his results at Masters and grand slams in 2016.  With a powerful game that resembles Stan Wawrinka's, Thiem has the point ending power and versatility that seems necessary to challenge for slams in today's game.  With all the physical tools he needs, Thiem's mental toughness and focus will determine how far he goes in 2016.  Expect Thiem to be more comfortable on tour and in the bigger events after his experiences over the last couple years, and a spot in the top 10 seems ascertainable for the talented Austrian.

Alexander Zverev will become the game's top young player:  The 18 year old ended 2015 just outside the top 80 in the world, but he was a bit overshadowed by fellow teen Borna Coric who finished nearly 40 spots ahead of him in the rankings.  Don't be fooled by the current rankings discrepancy, as Zverev seems better suited to reach the game's top level.  While it's hard to see Coric not becoming a perennial top 10-15 player, his lack of a weapon and average forehand are potentially worrisome.  Zverev has no such weaknesses, and has world class power.  Further, he moves well for his height, and his ground strokes should only become heavier as he bulks up.  While there's several talented young players on the ATP Tour, Zverev seems like the best bet to win a grand slam title.  He may already be known by serious tennis fans, but it won't be long until he's more of a household name. 

Young American men will surge up the rankings:  2015 was a promising year for the young Americans, notably Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson and Tommy Paul.  Others such as Noah Rubin, Ernesto Escobedo, Stefan Kozlov and a few others also showed some positive signs.  Now that this group has some exposure to what life is like on the pro tour, many of them should be ready to take the next step.  That will mean different things to each of them based on their varying talent levels, but Fritz, Tiafoe, Paul and Donaldson should all have their sights set on a spot in the top 100.  After a full off-season to train following a year in which many of them just turned pro, expect big things from this talented group in 2016.   

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Time to Make Davis Cup More of a Team Competition

Every year the Davis Cup title (at least theoretically) goes to the top country in men's tennis.  But for what's supposedly a "team" event, very little emphasis is placed on the whole "team" part.  This year's champion is Great Britain, who has one superstar in Andy Murray and only one other singles player in the top 100.  It's kind of hard to take the tournament seriously when a country like Great Britain can be deemed the best in the world, when they're essentially a one-man show. 

Great Britain to no fault of it's own merely took advantage of the Davis Cup format, which basically requires no depth of talent for the participating countries.  Given that one stud singles player (i.e. any member of the "Big Four") can win 2 out of the necessary 3 points in any given tie, very little else is needed to advance.  This may be great for the countries with superstars up top, but it's hard to say this is the best way to determine which country reigns supreme in men's tennis in any given year.

The whole ATP season is designed to recognize the top individual players in the world, so it simply doesn't make sense that the premier team event in men's tennis is so "individual" based.  To truly determine which is the best country, it would make more sense if each country has to use three or four singles players, as opposed to just two.  (Perhaps keep the current format but only let singles players play once, so that a country has to us it's 4 best singles players).  

The country that would have likely benefited the most from a more "team" friendly format over the last decade would have been France.  Most tennis analysts would acknowledge France has been one of the strongest countries in men's tennis over the last decade with the likes of Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet, Simon and a host of others, but they don't even have one Davis Cup title with this crop.  Despite all their talent and depth, their lack of a sure fire number one option has kept them from winning a title.  But does anyone really consider Great Britain "better" than France when it comes to men's tennis?  It becomes fair to ask whether the problem was France and its inability to get the job done at the biggest moments, or whether France just found themselves stuck in a format that isn't really designed to reward the best "team".    

Some might argue Davis Cup struggles with garnering ratings and support enough as it is, and throwing out the fourth best player from Canada against the fourth best player from Belgium isn't going to help in that regard.  This may be true, but there has to be a way to make the competition more about recognizing the best country, and not just the country with the best player in any given year.  As many others have suggested, making Davis Cup an every other year event may be the solution toward boosting ratings and overall interest, and if fans are more excited about the event in itself they may not care as much about seeing some lower ranked players.  One way or the other, if the event is truly supposed to recognize the country with the best team, the format should be such that actually having a good "team" is a prerequisite to wining.