Thoughts on '13: Five Players With Something to Prove
This week, Peter Bodo and Steve Tignor will offer their thoughts on some themes for the 2013 season, which begins next week.
Most great tennis players, and great athletes, will tell you that they always have something to prove when they go out on court, no matter what they’ve already achieved. That involuntary drive to succeed is what made them so good in the first place. After 10 NBA titles, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics said he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it one more time, because each win felt like the first. His fellow basketball legend Michael Jordan said that having a new live audience every night motivated him to show them what he could do, even if they had seen it a thousand times on TV.
For tennis players, the desire is perhaps more pronounced and primal. Whatever you’ve done in the past, there’s a competitive instinct that takes over and makes you to beat the person on the other side of the court, today. Even Marat Safin, a great athlete who could have been much greater, decided at the 2005 Australian Open that he wanted to prove, to himself mostly, that he wasn’t a one-Slam wonder. Mission accomplished; if only he had needed to show us more.
That said, as we enter 2013, there are tennis players who have more to prove than others. Here are five of them who should feel like making a point, whether it’s to themselves or their doubters or their rivals, in the new year.
I don’t doubt that the Czech slugger is dedicated and works hard, but is her fitness and conditioning as good as it can be? Martina Navratilova has criticized her on that front in the past. Kvitova was a Grand Slam winner in 2011, but was shut out last year, and her ranking dropped six spots. She is typically seen as lacking in consistency and killer instinct. But I wonder if those problems could begin to be solved if she was a step quicker to the ball, and if she knew she could hang with her opponents in longer rallies physically. Maybe going for broke wouldn’t feel like a necessity, or even the best option. The game’s two current No. 1s, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka, each say that their confidence, and their ranking, rose when they got into the best shape of their careers.
In the olden days—say, 2005—we might have said that, if Raonic had designs on being the Next Big Thing, this was a make-or-break type of year. The Canadian turned 22 on December 27; most multiple Slam winners of the past had nabbed their first—or, in the case of Rafael Nadal, their fifth—major by his age. But this isn’t the olden days, and Andy Murray just showed us that a new tennis life can begin as late as 25 now.
Still, Raonic has been on everyone’s horizon for two full seasons. He’s shown that he can win with his serve, to the point where he’s currently ranked a career-high No. 13, which is hardly a disappointment. The question is where he takes the rest of his game from here. He did a lot of rallying and played a lot of defense in 2012. In that, he’s following in the (much faster and more flexible) footsteps of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But at 6'5", that’s not how Raonic is going to join them at the top of the rankings. Can he show us a different way to win in 2013?
I first saw Tomas Berdych on a side court at the U.S. Open nearly a decade ago. I thought he would become a Grand Slam champ. He was the smoothest big-man baseliner I’d seen, and at the time he seemed to have a calm and focused demeanor. Not long after, he upset Roger Federer at the Athens Olympics.
Eight years later, the 27-year-old hasn’t won a Slam, and his calm exterior that day obviously hid a nervier interior. Is this the year when those two things change? Berdych begins with a career-high No. 6 ranking and a shiny new Davis Cup title. He also says that Andy Murray’s U.S. Open win has made him believe that there might be a breakthrough waiting for him.
We’ll see. Berdych’s M.O. has been to pull off one big win, but not two; to surprise, but not to triumph. He even left clinching the Cup to his teammate Radek Stepanek last month. Nevertheless, as far as his game goes, the Grand Slam potential I saw at the Open so long ago remains.
To return to basketball for a second, one of my favorite fables of motivation concerns the 1960 NCAA champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Jerry Lucas was the star of the team, a fact that drove another starter, John Havlicek, to have a Hall of Fame NBA career. That in turn drove a benchwarmer on the Buckeye team, Bob Knight, to become more famous than any of them as a coach.
The point is, personal motivation works, and this one is personal for Watson. At the London Olympics, fellow Brit Laura Robson was chosen over the higher-ranked Watson to be Andy Murray’s mixed-doubles partner. Murray and Robson went on to win silver medals, an achievement that helped springboard the 18-year-old Robson to a fourth-round finish at the U.S. Open. Meanwhile, Watson watched, and stewed, and waited for her chance. In the fall, Robson became the first British woman to reach a WTA final in 24 years, at Guangzhou. Three weeks later, Watson, who is 18 months older than her friend and rival (and Fed Cup teammate), went her one better and won the Japan Open. Watson begins 2013 ranked No. 49. Robson is right on her heels, at No. 53. That should be a spur, in a good way, to both.
Expectations are hard, as Isner learned in 2012. He spent the first part of the year proving that he can beat anyone, then spent the second half not doing it. I think it’s a good sign that he has made what must have been a tough call and parted ways with his friend and coach Craig Boynton. His new mentor, the USTA's Mike Sell, doesn’t have the track record of, say, Brad Gilbert. But at least Isner recognized that, at 27, time is of the essence for him, and that a new voice could help.
All of the U.S. men have their limitations. Isner’s most glaring are his return of serve and his record in best-of-five-set matches. But his finest performances in 2012 show that he has the most big-win potential of any American at the moment. Where there is promise, there’s something to prove.
More Thoughts on '13
Bodo: Which Slam Will Surprise?
Tignor: Five Phrases To Leave Behind
Tignor: Players We Want To See More Of
Bodo: Who Will Regain Their Former Form?
Tignor: What's At Stake For The Big Names?
Tignor: Five Players With Something to Prove
Bodo: Which American Men Will Step Up?
Bodo: Which U.S. Women Will Step Up?