It's a good time to measure how much traction various players have as we enter a time of year that is absolutely loaded with meaning. Before the month is out, we'll have watched two ATP Masters events, three WTA Premier events, and a good portion of the second Grand Slam event of the year, the French Open. The only caveat is that all the action will be on clay, a surface on which some solid hard- and even grass-court players are strikingly ineffective.
By now, we know who the raging favorites are: the Sharapovas, Nadals, Djokovics, and Azarenkas. But many players will also limp away from May thinking that T.S. Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruelest month, because nothing much happens outside the gardener's world in those 30 days; the honor goes to May. At least as far as tennis goes.
An awful lot can happen in tennis in just a few weeks, never mind a handful of months or, heaven forbid, a two-year period. The other day I looked over the rankings going back as far as two years ago and was surprised by how much I'd forgotten, and how different things were not that long ago. To wit: At this time in 2010, Nikolay Davydenko, Robin Soderling, and Fernando Verdasco were all in the Top 10, and Marin Cilic was knocking at the door at No. 11 while Fernando Gonzalez was No. 12.
At this time last year, Jurgen Melzer was No. 8 and Gael Monfils was No. 10. . . and so forth. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to single out some players who are at risk as they embark on this critical time of the year. Call them the Anti-Ten, because they represent something like a Top 10 of players who have been heading in the wrong direction.
I've listed them in order of current ranking, and in parentheses included their rankings of exactly one year ago. I'll take on the ATP list today and look at the WTA next.
No. 9 Mardy Fish (on 4/25/2011: No.11): The 30-year-old seems to be in the grip of a fairly serious crisis that he doesn't feel very comfortable discussing with the media. It all seems to go back to a late-night episode he experienced after he lost at Key Biscayne about a month ago. He awoke feeling "ill," and the initial diagnosis was fatigue (for which the prescribed cure was rest).
But Fish, who was also diagnosed not long ago with hyperthyroidism, is still unsure when he will return to the tour. And his remarks suggest that he's struggling with something emotional/psychological rather than purely physical. Fish is just 7-6 on the year, and he seems to be feeling the after-effects of 2011, the best year of his career by far. Something strange is going on here, so let's wish him the best of luck—he's rarely a factor at this time of year anyway.
No. 14 Gael Monfils (No. 9): No. 7 as of last July, Monfils is swooning, partly because he's been hampered by injuries (right knee and abdomen) since losing the final at Montpellier (l. to Berdych). "La Monf" began the year with a bang, a finalist in Doha (losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga). But he took a five-set, third-round Australian Open loss to No. 92 Mikhail Kukushkin. His next event was Montpellier, but until this week he's played just three other matches, and neither of the two men he beat (Vasek Pospisil and Sergei Bubka) was ranked in the Top 100. Monfils didn't win more than two matches in a row on clay going into Roland Garros last year (partly because of injury), but he made the quarterfinals anyway.
No. 28 Andy Roddick (No. 12): That third-round upset of Roger Federer in Miami a few week ago had to feel good, but the fourth-round loss to Juan Monaco (who's playing some of the best tennis of his career these days) just 24 hours later must have been sobering. Roddick has nothing to defend in the coming weeks, but if he drops out of that elite 32 seeding group for Wimbledon, it could spell big trouble for the only active American singles player who's been No. 1 and has won a Grand Slam title.
No. 32 Robin Soderling (No. 5): It may not seem fair to include a player struggling with serious injury and illness in this list of at-risk players, but let's not forget that one or another member of the ATP Big Four (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray) has won 17 of the last 18 Masters 1000 titles, going all the way back to Monte Carlo in 2010. The exception is the Paris-Bercy Masters of 2010. The winner: Soderling.
The Swede with the muscular, power-based game has played just one tournament since Wimbledon of 2011, and that was in his native Sweden where he throttled David Ferrer in the Bastad final. After that, he was sidelined with a wrist injury, and then developed mononucleosis. Soderling tried to start at the U.S. Open, but withdrew at the last moment. He was thought to be returning for the start of this year, but he wasn't recovered in time to play in the Australian Open. He was said to be returning at Indian Wells, but withdrew from that. . . then the trail goes cold. We have heard no more.
Does anyone else get the feeling that something is up with this guy, and it isn't good?
No. 35 Jurgen Melzer (No. 8): Almost exactly a year ago to date, Melzer hit his career high of No. 8. But he hasn't won two matches in row since he surprised everyone by winning Memphis way back in mid-February. And that was a quality win on an indoor-hard court, for this clay expert. He survived a tough series of opponents, including ace machines John Isner and Milos Raonic, to secure just the fourth singles title of his career. Always streaky, Melzer needs to find a few Ws on his surface of choice in the coming weeks if he hopes to get back anywhere near the Top 10.
No. 36 Mikhail Youzhny (No. 13): Youzhny's skies cleared earlier this year when he won the title at Zagreb, even though he didn't have to beat a player ranked within 10 places of him. He's won just two matches since then (I'm discounting a win via retirement), and lost to Frederico Gil in Monte Carlo. Youzhny doesn't really light it up during the clay-court segment, but he'd make his own life considerably easier if he got back into that fold of seeded players.
No. 39 Marcos Baghdatis (No. 24): Baghdatis has historically been one of the most off-and-on players on the tour, and he's never lived up to the promise he showed when he reached the 2006 Australian Open final. In his first six matches of this year, he had wins over Ryan Harrison, Kei Nishikori, Dmitry Tursunov, and Juan Martin del Potro. Given that he lost to players ranked lower than No. 25 just three times this year, there's still hope for Marcos.
No. 51 Donald Young (No. 95): Sure, the former prodigy's ranking is nearly half of what it was a year ago (a good thing), but it was at this time last year that Young was flying high (at one point, No. 38), and right now he's locked into a ghastly tailspin. Young Donald has won exactly two matches this year. In his last tournament, Monte Carlo, he won exactly one game off No. 352 Paul-Henri Mathieu. Somebody needs to help kid, and I have a funny feeling it won't be the USTA.
No. 56 Nikolay Davydenko (No. 40): Increasingly prone to injury and now in his 30s, you can almost hear Kolya the Obscure's fingernails rasping as he tries to hold on at the edge of the rankings cliff. Given his proficiency on clay (he's been to the semis at Roland Garros twice and the quarterfinals an additional two times), he can really use some wins. Unfortunately, he's already lost in Munich (his first outing on clay this year) to No. 210 Robert Farah.
No. 76 Sam Querrey (No. 19): What does it say that four Americans are on this list? Sudden Sam has a huge serve, which is why the elbow surgery that caused him to miss three months starting last June was so traumatic. He's been doing most of his damage on the Challenger circuit these days, but has been more or less stuck in gear at around No. 100. Since Indian Wells, though, every match he's lost has been a three-setter, which is a good sign for him.