This week, Peter Bodo and Steve Tignor will offer their thoughts on some themes for the 2013 season, which begins next week.
Yesterday I talked about five players I’d like to see more often, or at least see have more success, in 2013. Today I’ll turn my attention to the players that we know will be showing up on our TVs in the new year. This era of tennis has already produced its share of all-time greats, and there are a couple others who have a chance to join them up on Mt. Smashmore. (Yes, Mt. Smashmore; you've never visited?) Here’s a look at what’s at stake for the big names in the new year.
The 25-year-old spent 2012 removing an unwanted title from his career resume: Best Player Never to Win a Major. Now that Muzz’s Olympic and U.S. Open breakthroughs have been achieved, could the floodgates open the way they did for his coach, Ivan Lendl, in the mid-1908s? The Czech, who won his first Slam at 24, finished with eight and spent four years at No. 1. Or did Murray temporarily benefit from the absence of his primary Slam tormentor, Rafael Nadal, at both of those events?
Murray likely won’t win seven more majors, and finishing No. 1 even once will be a struggle. A lot will depend on what his competition does. We know Novak Djokovic is going to be an obstacle for years to come, but how strong will Federer, who turns 32 in August, and Nadal, who will always be troubled by his knees, be in 2013 and beyond? For this year, I don’t see Murray riding his Open win to multiple Slam titles or the top ranking. He’ll have to take his chances when they come, which is what he finally learned to do last season.
As far as No. 1 players go, are we convinced that Vika is more like Serena/Maria/Kim than she is Caro/Dinara/Ana/Jelena? After Azarenka’s wire-to-wire stint at the top in 2012, I can confidently say: I’m pretty sure she's in the first category. In her style of play, her recent physical and mental improvement, and her excellence on hard courts, Azarenka looks like a Novak Djokovic in training. She’ll be a major threat at the Australian Open and U.S. Open, and she’ll keep feeling her way forward at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Vika has passed her peers Radwanska, Kvitova, and Wozniacki. Now she needs a win over Serena Williams.
Something to guard against in 2013: A counterattack from Maria Sharapova; Azarenka has mostly owned her, but Maria was very satisfied with her win in their last match, in the Istanbul semis.
With his 27th birthday coming in the spring, Rafa has finally hit that career crossroads so many have predicted for him for so long: How does maintain his place in the game while not shredding what’s left of his knees in the process? The first goal for the new year should be figuring out how to balance his schedule to achieve those two conflicting goals. (I doubt that means, as many have speculated, that he’ll only focus on clay. Nadal has too much desire to win all of the majors not to give them his best shot.)
As for his results, Rafa recovered from both of his previous injury-induced layoffs, in 2006 and 2009, to reach No. 1. The thing to remember about him, even if he struggles through the first four months, is that he’ll always have Monte Carlo. And just in case he doesn’t this time, he’ll always have Barcelona. And Rome. And red-clay Madrid. And Paris.
There is something about Masha, at least in my mind: No matter how well she does, no matter how consistent she is, no matter how long her serve holds up, I still feel like she’s more vulnerable than the other top players to the surprise defeat. Sharapova mostly proved that idea wrong in 2012, and she looks, if anything, hungrier than ever for success even after a decade on tour. Next for her will be trying to do something she hasn’t done in the past: win Grand Slam titles in consecutive seasons. I think she’ll suffer an upset in at least one of them in 2013, but I also think she’ll conquer Azarenka in another. As for the Serena thing, Sharapova did make one set competitive in their last match, in Istanbul. You have to start somewhere.
He has the men’s records for Grand Slam titles and weeks at No. 1. He isn’t chasing the Davis Cup this season, or probably any season. The next Olympics is in 2016. What can Federer do for his legacy in the next 11 months? I can’t think of much—other than not succumbing to the tennis player’s natural aging process, and thus appearing to be mortal, for one more year. That's something, anyway.
She's won everything, but unlike Federer on the men's side, she's not the all-time Slam record holder for women. Considering that Margaret Court is still nine ahead of her, it's almost certain she never will be. But there are still two big names, and numbers, to catch: the 18 majors won by both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Serena is three behind, and there's no current player who's standing in her way of catching and passing Chrissie and Martina. Serena has not traditionally dominated the game for long periods of time, but with her current form, this year could be different. She could also use this season to build her doubles legacy, with her sister Venus. Could they end up being the best in history?
In 2011, Djokovic showed how high he can climb when he dominated two of the game’s greats, Nadal and Federer. In 2012, he showed how steady and resilient he can be by winning another major, reaching all four Slam semifinals, and finishing the season a decisive No. 1. What can Novak do as a third act, in 2013? If he were to repeat what he did last year by finishing No. 1 for a third straight season and winning his sixth major, he would take a step toward the Lendls, the McEnroes, and the Jimbos of tennis history, reliable Hall-of-Famers who recorded at least four year-end No. 1 finishes and won at least seven Slams. That's good company.
Since most predictions simply assume what just happened will keep happening (and thus turn out to be wrong), it would be easy to look at the way Djokovic finished 2012 at the World Tour Finals in London and make him the heavy favorite to rule the tour in 2013. He has already proven that he can run, or very nearly run, the Grand Slam table. I won't make any (likely incorrect) long-term prognostication, but I will just say that, to start the season, all roads lead through Djokovic. Whether he’s serving or returning, the ball, for now, is on Nole’s side of the court.
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?