2013 is clearly behind us, but it’s worth taking a glance back at some of the successes and some surprises at the top of the tennis world. Just when it looked like Mr. Novak Djokovic and Mr. Andy Murray had ascended as the two top players in the sport, dethroning Mr. Rafael Nadal and Mr. Roger Federer, with a one-two finish at the 2013 Australian Open, Mr. Nadal defied the odds and came back after a seven month respite, and rather amazingly achieved top form quicker than anyone had a right to expect. He not only achieved it, he maintained it, and continued it for the rest of the slam season and was the year end No. 1 player on the ATP tour, winning two out of three of the Grand Slam events he played, including his record eighth title on the red clay of Roland Garros and his second US Open victory. In doing so, he removed Novak Djokovic from his pedestal, defeating him at the Roland Garros semifinal and the US Open final.
It was not only in majors where Rafael Nadal had success. He won 10 titles and was a finalist in two others out of 13 events from February to September, his only misstep being a first time first round exit in a major at the Wimbledon Championships to Steve Darcis, No. 135 in the world. That shock loss, after the previous year’s second round shock loss to Lukas Rosol, had many people wondering if Rafa had again suffered some injury. But he quickly recovered from the slippery turf, and returned with a vengeance, recovering his form on the hard courts of North America and captured the rare triple in the Canada and Cincinnati Masters series and the US Open trophy. He finished the year very respectably, albeit without a title, making two semifinals, and two finals including the season ending tournament at the World Tour Finals in London where he lost to a resurgent Novak Djokovic.
Though the Return of Rafa was undoubtedly the story of the year, the highlight was probably Andy Murray’s Wimbledon Championships triumph, the first one by a gentleman from Great Britain’s soil in 77 years when Fred Perry won the event. After winning, Mr. Andy Murray also received the rank as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). Andy defeated a game Novak Djokovic in the final who had just endured a titanic struggle with the Tower of Tandil, Mr. Juan Martin del Potro from Argentina. With this win, Andy basically said he had achieved his ultimate dream. Unfortunately for him, later in the year, after being unable to defend his 2012 US Open title, losing to an improved and confident Stanislas Wawrinka, Mr. Murray, OBE, left the tour for back surgery.
Novak Djokovic started 2013 in fine form, winning the Australian Open for the third consecutive, and fourth time in all, over Andy Murray. Though he would not win another major, Novak was very consistent the whole year. He won six other titles including three of the Masters 1000 series in Monte Carlo, Shanghai, and Paris, and continued his run at the final event of the year at the World Tour Finals in London. He made two other Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, and lost a close match in the semifinals at Roland Garros to Rafael Nadal. It was an excellent year by anyone’s standards, even if somewhat disappointing to his fans.
Roger Federer perhaps had the most surprising and disappointing year of the “Big Four”. After his outstanding run in late 2011 to the summer of 2012 where he won nine titles, including Wimbledon and extended his weeks at No. 1 to 302, Federer only captured the Halle title in 2013, was ousted in the second round at Wimbledon by Stakhovsky, and to Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open, and only made one semifinal early at the Australian Open. But in retrospect, should we have been surprised? Federer clearly said 2013 was going to be a transitional year at the start. Not many bothered to ask what that meant, but it was evident that he was going to ease up somewhat from the year before. Also, he suffered a back injury rather early in the season at Indian Wells, which he said bothered him until around Hamburg, just before the US Open, preventing him from playing well and perhaps more importantly, training properly. But for his fans, and fans of tennis around the world, he did not leave the tour. He was still playing events, drawing crowds and audiences on television, perhaps realizing just how important he is to the tennis world. So one has to credit him for sticking in there, even when the going was tough and while taking a lot of criticism. By the end of the year, Roger had slipped from No. 2 to No. 6, and many people were saying he was in full decline and were even calling for him to retire, again. But Federer said he was happy playing, enjoying the tennis life, his health was better, and that he expected 2014 to be a much better year. This writer, for one, will never count Mr. Federer out as long as he plays. He’s simply a magician on the court, and at his best, can still beat any player in the world. Those moments may not come as often as they once did, but one believes his remaining time on tour should be cherished like the last bottles of vintage wine from the cellar, to be sipped slowly, filled with memories of past glory, savoring each of his remaining better performances until the end of his career.
Other notable player performances of 2013 have to include those of Mr. Juan Martin del Potro who challenged the very best during the year and won four titles and was a semifinalist at Wimbledon losing gamely in a close five set match with Novak Djokovic, which may have been the second best match of the year. The best match of the year was likely the fourth round of the Australian Open between Mr. Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic, where the Swiss No. 2 had the best performance of his career, and was so close to winning, but was finally beaten 12-10 in the fifth and deciding set by the No. 1 player in the world. Wawrinka would later make the semifinals at the US Open after beating Andy Murray in the quarterfinals, but was again beaten by Djokovic in a hard fought five sets. Stan only won one title, but obviously played consistently throughout the year to earn his placing in the World Tour Finals in London among the best eight in the world, where he made it to the semifinals, losing again to the eventual winner, Novak Djokovic.
The 23-and-under players finally made an impact, with Canadian Milos Raonic finishing at No. 11. The future also appears bright for Jerzy Janowicz from Poland, who finished at No. 21 and made it to his first major semifinal, at the Wimbledon Championships, finally losing to Andy Murray in four sets. Bulgarian rising star Grigor Dimitrov was close behind him at No. 23 in the world as he became more consistent, going deeper into tournaments, losing in competitive battles to the very best players. Vasek Pospisil, also from Canada, finished the year at No. 32 after starting at No. 125. Pablo Carreno-Busta of Spain finished at No. 64 after starting the year at No. 654. One would likely expect to see more from these players in the next two to four years.
Now it’s a new year of high expectations and hopes. Many players would like to pick up from where they left off last year, while many want to throw out last year and start anew. We have new tennis coaches for some of the top players, highly successful players from the old days, as players have probably been influenced by the Ivan Lendl effect on Andy Murray. They are Boris Becker for Djokovic, Stefan Edberg for Federer, Michael Chang for Kei Nishikori. Not surprisingly, world No. 1 Nadal has not changed, keeping his trusted coach and family member, Toni Nadal. From what we’ve seen so far, it seems that we are in for an interesting year in men’s tennis.
The story of the Australian Open for the men so far has been the scintillating success of Stan Wawrinka, who has continued his fine play from 2013 and defeated no less than No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal, and No. 7 Tomas Berdych in the semifinal to make his first Grand Slam final. The popular Swiss player finally overcame Djokovic in the fifth set 9-7, after losing two tough battles in the Australian Open and US Open in 2013. He has his first chance to win it all on the major stage. One wishes him the best. Some may say that Novak Djokovic may have had too easy a draw up to Stan and was undercooked, but others would say that it was just Stan’s moment.
In the other half of the draw it seems that some things never change. Once again, we have a match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, this time in the semifinal. Federer, who had been dismissed by many as a fading force after his admittedly weak 2013 results (for him), appears to have had a resurgence and is in his best form in at least a year or more. In arguably one of the tougher draws in the tournament, he has emerged from the problematic path relatively unscathed and hardened, dropping only one set. Along the way, he has steadily improved his play, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with whom he had played a tough five-set match last year, in a relatively easy three sets, and Andy Murray, to whom he had lost in the semifinal last year, in a slightly more difficult four sets. His serve has been excellent, only being broken twice along the entire way with a key high percentage of second serves won. He is definitely more aggressive, coming to net 41 times in the Tsonga match with 84% success, and 66 times in the Murray match with 74% success. One has to believe that his additional part-time coach, Stefan Edberg, has been a positive and effective influence so far.
Federer’s play against Murray in the first two sets and nine games was impeccable. Murray didn’t reach a break point on the Federer serve and looked lost as to what to do to turn things around. However, Roger suffered a little hiccup in the tenth game where his first service percentage dipped a bit, Murray stepped up to take full advantage, and Federer failed to serve for the match at 5-4, and failed to convert two match points in the tiebreak to lose the third set. However, it was also encouraging for him to recover from that setback to come back and win the fourth. He changed tactics, and made the match more of a physical effort, extending Murray’s service games, one of them to 10 deuce points, and it paid off as Murray visibly tired as the set wore on. In Murray’s defense, he came into the Australian Open with only two tour matches since he left the tour for back surgery just after the 2013 US Open. He had a very easy first four rounds, facing nobody in the Top 25, and was simply not ready for as tough and determined an opponent as Federer.
Rafael Nadal has come through, albeit not quite as smoothly. Though his initial draw looked tough, it opened up a bit. Bernard Tomic suffered an injury early in their first round match and retired after one set. Then the next top seed in Nadal’s quarter, Juan Martin del Potro, lost to Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round. Nadal’s third round opponent, No. 25, Gael Monfils, didn’t play well at all. Nadal’s fourth round and quarterfinal were rather tight affairs, with Nishikori losing in two tiebreaks and 7-5. In the quarterfinal, Nadal was hampered by a bandage for a blister on his palm, but he played just well enough to win in four sets, winning two tiebreaks, and was fortunate to win the one in the third set where Dimitrov sailed a easy set point long. Dimitrov couldn’t recover after that. Nadal did not look comfortable in the match, hitting many balls short, and was errant with his usually dependable forehand.
One looks forward to their 33rd meeting on Friday. Roger will need to continue to play at the excellent level he displayed in the Tsonga and Murray matches to have a good chance. Has he left his old 2013 form totally behind and brought in a new outlook via his new coach, Stefan Edberg? Rafa will have to improve his level from his last match and when he meets Roger, he usually does. Will he be able to contend with the new, more aggressive Roger? Weather may be a factor as Friday’s forecast calls for relatively cool and rainy conditions during the day, though the rain may be over by the time they play. In any case, the tennis world awaits the latest chapter in their long history. Some things don’t change. But whomever wins will have to face a new player in the final in this new year. One hopes that more new and exciting results await in 2014. May the best players win.