The ATP World Tour season begins this week as players get ready and tuned-up for the Australian Open, only a short two weeks away. 2011 was, unquestionably, the year of Novak Djokovic. He dominated the sport in a very Federer-esque fashion, utterly destroying his main rival from the year in the process. His 6-0 record against Nadal last year may be just as impressive as his 41 (43 counting Davis Cup) straight wins to start the season.
Lost in Djokovic’s great season, however, is the fact that Federer is still one of the top players in the game. He is no longer as consistent as he once was, but he is still absolutely untouchable on indoor hard courts. Federer may not be favored at another Slam, but you can guarantee that he would be the prohibitive favorite is one was ever played on the same court as Basel. Federer also, once again, made it through a long season injury-free, which will be much more important as he gets into the older ages of his career. As the game becomes more physical and takes more of a toll on the top players, Federer’s seemingly-effortless style will be the type of play necessary to ensure longer careers.
Who to Watch in 2012:
The “Big 4″ have separated themselves from the pack these past few years, and no one has shown any indication that they are likely to join this group. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish have competed with them on certain surfaces, but overall and on the biggest stages, it’s all about Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray. Even Murray, who had been a tad behind the others at the Slams, still consistently won’t lose to anyone outside of those three. And he hired a new coach for this year, Ivan Lendl, who he hopes can bring him up to the level where he can consistently compete with and beat the others.
The others to watch this year are the “young guns” who made waves in 2011. Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov, and Ryan Harrison all showed great fight and ability at times last season. Tomic looks to be the most developed of the three, both in physical talent and in his mental game, and will probably be the first of these three to challenge at a Slam or Masters. Harrison generally has the most exciting matches of the three and always fights, but he has a tendency to throw away games and sets that he needs to get rid of before he can really compete. Dimitrov might be the most talented of the three, but like Harrison needs to work on his consistency and his mental toughness.
And, as always, you have to watch Fabio Fognini whenever you can. How can you say no to the endless entertainment and possible complete epicness that Fognini can always provide.
Who Could Surprise in 2012:
Another young player to keep an eye on, who is a cut above those other three, is Milos Raonic. Raonic burst onto the scene early last year and shot up the rankings. A hip injury at Wimbledon ruined his 2011, and expect him to fall down the rankings in early 2012 as he has a lot of points to defend and may be a bit rusty. Still, he has a massive serve and a pretty good all-around game and can challenge just about anyone in any match. He won’t be competing for Slams this year, but he could definitely surprise some people in them.
John Isner has, probably, the best serve in all of tennis right now. That alone will keep him competitive in a lot of matches. He also has surprisingly good touch at the net and was really making strides at the end of 2011. He was becoming more consistent and finally, after years of talented mediocrity, looking like he could challenge as a top 10 player. I wouldn’t expect him to win Slams anytime soon (though with that serve, just about anything can happen), but you can bet that he’ll pull off some big upsets and wins in 2012.
2 Up-and-Comers to Watch in 2012:
These two may not manage to make huge waves on the World Tour until later in the year, but they’ll have their moments in the spotlight this year. The first is Cedrik-Marcel Stebe of Germany. He rose almost 300 ranking spots on the Challenger Tour this past year and upset Dudi Sela in the Challenger Tour Finals. He is becoming more consistent and really has a strong all-around game. He still has a long way to go to challenge top players, but I think we’ll be seeing him as a dangerous opponent on the main tour by the end of this year.
The other is Canadian Vasek Pospisil. You may already recognize him as he upset John Isner in the first round of Valencia in 2011. He made his professional debut in 2007 and has been competitive on the lower tours since then. He also nearly single-handedly won Canada’s Davis Cup tie against Israel to get into the World Group this year. He rose over 200 spots in the rankings last year and, like Stebe, I think that he will manage to break into the top 50 and pull off a few upsets by the end of this year.
What to Watch this Week:
There are 3 ATP World Tour tournaments to kick off the year, and none of them are nearly as prestigious as Doha. It’s a 250 level tournament that features Nadal and Federer. This is a great chance for us to see how each of them spent the offseason, how healthy they are, and if they’re in perfect form heading into the Australian Open. The draw also features Tsonga (on Federer’s half) as well as several other interesting players, like Ernests Gulbis and Gael Monfils.
Raonic is the 4th seed at Chennai and this will be a great opportunity for us to see what form he is coming off of his injury. Sam Querrey is also recently recovered from injury, so his form will be interesting to see. Also, the Chennai draw contains Fabio Fognini. He’s always cant-miss tennis. Brisbane is Andy Murray’s to win so long as he wants to, though there are some very interesting players towards his end of the draw. This will be a great chance to see how Harrison and Stebe look at the beginning of 2012, though expect both of them to be much better at the end of the year than they are now.
Also, the seedings for the Australian Open will be based off of the rankings from the end of this week. So make sure to see how all of the players in the 30-40 range do, as they are fighting for a seed at the Aussie.