With one week left till Roger Federer returns to the tour I thought it would be interesting to see how the top 5 of the ATP has performed so far this year. I feel they have each looked vulnerable at times (some more than others) which makes for an interesting upcoming clay season. So without further ado, here’s my take on where things stand as of now.
Rank #1. Novak Djokovic – 26 wins, 2 losses, 3 titles
The reigning world #1 has had a fantastic year. He started off with winning the Mubadala Exhibition, followed by the Hopman Cup where he was runners-up with Ana Ivanovic and then comprehensively defended his Australian Open title, completing a never before three-peat down under. He then played one leg of the Davis Cup and grabbed a title in Dubai for good measure. After that Novak headed to Indian Wells, undefeated till then in 2013. He was the favorite coming into the tournament and in the beginning he did nothing to worry his fans. But then he faced Del Potro in the SFs and despite dropping the first set, Delpo played some fantastic tennis to hand Novak his first defeat of the year. Then came the hard courts of humid Miami which have always been favored by Novak but on a cool windy night he faced Tommy Haas who played age-defying tennis and did everything right. Novak was defeated in straight sets and failed to defend his title. After surviving an ankle injury scare in the Davis Cup QFs he came back strong on his first clay tournament of 2013 to take his first Monte Carlo title, snapping Rafa’s 8 year streak.
Considering that hard courts are his best surface those dips in form were surprising. He had said his goal this year is to win the French Open and maybe that meant his focus was on the clay season and not the hard court season preceding it. Or perhaps he had become a little complacent on those hard courts, thinking he could win without giving 100%. Other than those 2 losses however, he’s had a great year and a perfect start to the clay season. The next two Masters will give us a much better idea of his chances of winning that elusive French Open.
Rank #2. Roger Federer – 13 wins, 4 losses, 0 titles
The world #2 had an awful start (by his standards) in 2013. He started the year cold, coming into the Australian Open without any warm up tournament although that didn’t seem to matter because he played a fantastic Open all the way to the SFs. The back issue was a concern from the Australian Open Tsonga match onwards and so I wasn’t sure how his form would be in Rotterdam. From the start you could tell, this was a sluggish Roger. Whether it was the back, or that he was far away from his family and team, it didn’t feel right. The defending champion crashed out in straight sets in the QFs. He then headed to Dubai where he had a shaky start but then played good tennis till the SFs. He lost the match despite having 3 match points and failed to defend his title. After that Roger flew off to Indian Wells, where, yet again, he was the defending champion. He started the tournament brilliantly, playing the best he had since the Australian Open. Then in Round 3, he injured his back and from then on, it was all downhill. He faced a stiff fight from Wawrinka in Round 4 and could have easily lost were it not for Stan choking at the end. That led him to the QF ‘Fedal’ clash the world hadn’t seen since the SFs of this tournament last year. It ended up being a one-sided affair as Roger could barely move. Post Indian Wells, he went off on his 7 week hiatus so that QF was the last match we’ve seen the Maestro play this year.
Given his performance thus far there is plenty to feel nervous about. Roger has yet to reach a final this year and is the only top 10 player besides Berdych to not win a title. He also still has some points to defend: Madrid and Wimbledon titles, final at Halle and SFs at Rome and Roland Garros. Roger’s situation will remain a mystery till we see whether this time off has helped him like it did last year. Either he will come back fresh and rejuvenated, or he will suffer from lack of match practice; or worse, the back issues could come back to ruin everything. Given his facebook updates we’ve seen however, he seems to be fresh and practicing hard so I have high hopes. As of 29th April Roger is #10 in the race to the ATP World Tour Finals but barring injuries, I don’t see that as a problem. He has many tournaments coming up to win points and if need be he can always add an ATP250 or ATP500 in his schedule. He somehow just needs to remain injury free the rest of the year.
Rank #3. Andy Murray – 20 wins, 3 losses, 2 titles
Murray started off the year well, defending his title in Brisbane and reaching the final of the Australian Open. After that he took a long break to practice and work on his fitness, eventually rejoining the tour at Indian Wells. Things were more or less going to plan till he ran into Del Potro in the QFs. Despite being a set down, Delpo bossed Andy around from Set 2 onwards and finished up clinically leaving Murray to scream at himself and his box. Then he went to Miami, which was conspicuous with the absence of Roger and Rafa. Furthermore, Novak crashed out and inevitably we got a Ferrer-Murray final instead. Neither of them played particularly spectacular tennis but in the end, after a grueling 3-setter, Murray won his first Masters title in over a year and also clinched the #2 ranking from Roger. Next he headed to Monte Carlo where he was expected to do well considering his focus in the off season was to improve his clay court performance. He didn’t get very far in his quest however as he was thwarted in Round 3 by Stan Wawrinka who was in fine form. Since he couldn’t defend his QF points he also subsequently lost the #2 ranking again to Federer.
After playing a very good Australian Open, he hasn’t been at his best, despite taking time off. His performance on clay so far has left a lot to be desired although granted it’s just one tournament. He skipped Barcelona and will join the rest of the pack in Madrid where we’ll be able to see if his clay court play picks up. In the coming years I expect this surface to be his primary target of improvement, especially if he is to target the #1 ranking. It is a long season on this surface and he needs to master it if he ever wants to be at the top of the ATP.
Rank #4. David Ferrer – 25 wins, 6 losses, 2 titles
This man has been ridiculously busy; he has played 8 tournaments already, Doha, Auckland (1st title of 2013), Australian Open, Buenos Aires (2nd title of the year), Acapulco, Indian Wells, Miami and Barcelona. He was having a very good year, not losing before the SFs till he crashed out in Round 2 at Indian Wells. He then came back and played a fantastic Miami Open only to be agonizingly close to actually winning it before Murray snatched it away. After that he pulled out of Monte Carlo with an injury. He came back on tour in Barcelona but promptly crashed out in Round 2 and was unable to explain his loss. He seemed a bit confused and quite upset and I think given his playing activity, he is perhaps tired and burnt out. Unfortunately for him, the clay season is in full swing and given that it is his preferred surface, he would do well to find his mojo quickly. In terms of rankings, not only would Rafa need to reach the final in Madrid and win Rome but David would have to lose the QFs in both in order for Rafa to be ranked #4 before Roland Garros, so he does have a bit of a cushion there. There is an excellent analysis of the ranking scenarios on the Roger Federer Fans website if you are interested: http://www.rogerfedererfans.com/index.html.
Rank #5. Rafa Nadal – 26 wins, 2 losses, 4 titles
Rafa’s year didn’t start till February. After skipping the Australian Open he has played 6 tournaments, 4 of them being on clay. Of the 6 he won 4, Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells and Barcelona and reached the finals of the other 2, Vina del Mar and Monte Carlo. The highlight for me has to be how he won Indian Wells. You could tell how much it meant to him, winning a non-clay Masters, and that too, his first masters since he embarked on his come-back. I would say Rafa’s performance has been stellar for the most part. Those win-loss numbers are crazy good. However, there have been some subtle signs of vulnerability. In Monte Carlo he had a tough 3-setter against Dimitrov and almost let go off the 2nd set against Tsonga, when he was about to serve it out at 5-1. Jo pushed it to a tie-breaker before Rafa was able to come through. In the final against Novak, not only did he have a ton of errors, he also just didn’t seem himself. Even in Barcelona, though he performed better than at Monte Carlo, he had to overcome some slow starts. In my mind, the intensity that is synonymous with Rafa hasn’t been fully there. Perhaps it’s understandable because intensity isn’t something you can get through practice alone, you need that adrenaline pumping competition to bring it out and being away from the tour might have made him rusty.
The thing is Rafa is so damn good on clay he can win titles not playing his best unless he faces an in-form Novak or Roger. But between you and me, the Rafa pre-injury hasn’t completely arrived yet, about 10% still left to go. No reason to panic though, he still has several tournaments before Roland Garros, and while many are considering Novak as the favorite I would never write Rafa off on clay, that too in Paris. I still see him as a favorite in every clay tournament though I think it’ll take more out of him to get each win, especially if he doesn’t get that fighting instinct back. After the French Open he has very little to defend and can pick up a ton of points such that I see him being a real threat to the rankings of not only Roger and Andy but Novak too. The only question is whether he will play all tournaments in the first place.
There you have it – A crash course on the ATP top 5 from January to April, 2013. The Maestro is coming back just in time to join the party and I for one am beyond excited! Regardless of how he performs I’m just glad he’ll be playing again across my tv screen – it’s been far too long and tennis just hasn’t felt right without its king.