Thoughts on '13: Which Slam Will Surprise?

Sunday, December 23, 2012 /by

This week, Peter Bodo and Steve Tignor will offer their thoughts on some themes for the 2013 season, which begins next week.

One outstanding feature of the ATP tour in 2012 can be considered a mixed blessing: There were no great surprises when it came to the Grand Slam finals, or even the champions.

The year started with Novak Djokovic fending off Rafael Nadal for the Australian Open title, thereby continuing to improve on his unexpectedly brilliant record against Rafa in 2011. But then Nadal earned some payback at the French Open—hardly a surprise, considering his history there. And could anyone have been surprised by a Roger Federer win at Wimbledon, where he’s been nearly as dominant over his career as Nadal has been at Roland Garros?

The closest thing we had to a surprise men’s Grand Slam champion last year was Andy Murray’s breakthrough win against Djokovic at the U.S. Open. But is it really shocking that the four-time finalist finally punched through on his favorite court at his favorite major, under the guidance of a new coach who happened to be one of the greatest U.S. Open performers in tennis history?

The lockdown established by the Big Four is particularly noteworthy because of how prolific three of them have been for so long, which has kept any number of contenders ranked below them from making a breakthrough. The situation is different in the WTA, but not by all that much. The popular theory that the absence of a business-as-usual, Steffi Graf- or Martina Navratilova-grade dominant players leaves the majors up for grabs is not very convincing—not with Serena Williams in the house.

Still, very few people would have predicted a Maria Sharapova vs. Sara Errani final at the French Open, and that was really the only shocker of the women’s Grand Slam season. The only other even mild surprise at the major finals was Agnieszka Radwanska dinking her way to a spot opposite Serena in the Wimbledon closer.

Put it this way: the WTA “Big Three” does a pretty good job shutting out the pretenders.

All of which raises the question: What are the chances that we’ll see a surprise champion at one or more of the majors this year? Let’s consider the 2013 majors from a men’s and women’s perspective, even though a lot may change as the weeks and months of the new year roll by.

Australian Open (Defending champions: Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka)

On the men’s side, we know so little about what kind of shape Nadal’s knees and confidence will be at. And as good as Federer is, he’s 31 years old, the heat Down Under can be a major factor, and he’s been eliminated at the semifinal stage the past two years. With Djokovic on track to be top-seeded and Federer positioned at No. 2, a gritty contender like David Ferrer or an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (a former Oz finalist) could break through to the championship round, especially if Federer and Nadal are on the same side of the draw.

On the other hand, both Djokovic and Murray love this surface (Djokovic is a three-time champ, and Murray a runner-up in two of the past three years), so I don’t really see a Tsonga vs. Tomas Berdych in this one.

When it comes to the women, Azarenka demonstrated how much she likes the early hard-court season last year, and the drive to her first Grand Slam title was greatly aided by a fourth-round loss by Serena Williams. Stat to keep in mind: Since 2003, Serena has never lost at the Australian Open two years in a row (she missed the event in 2011, so we won’t count that).

Williams leads Azarenka in the head-to-head by 11-1, and Sharapova by 10-2, so her greatest enemy appears to be the confluence of age, fitness, and physique—this is a woman with a lot of muscle and bone to move around. But it’s hard to imagine one of the Big Three not winning in Melbourne, although you can’t discount a potentially rejuvenated Li Na (now coached by Carlos Rodriguez).

French Open (Defending champions: Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova)

The idea of Nadal losing at the French Open has been all but unthinkable for years now, but the only time he lost at Roland Garros, problematic knees played a part. And he’s dealing with the same sort of problems right now.

Things would get extremely interesting if Nadal’s knees don’t hold up as well as everyone is hoping, because while Federer has been the towering No. 2 on clay for most of Nadal’s reign in Paris, Djokovic seems to have eclipsed the Swiss star. Meanwhile, Murray still remains a question mark on clay.

The real question, of course, is who outside the Big Four might shock the tennis world, and my gut feeling is that if Nadal cannot continue to dominate on the terre battue, we could very well have a first-time French Open champion. We all remember that Tsonga had match points against Djokovic at last year’s tournament, and Ferrer knows that his time to win a big one is expiring. Berdych also has had his moments in Paris, as has Juan Martin del Potro.

While a successful defense by Sharapova is a distinct possibility on the women’s side, it’s unlikely that Errani will rejoin the Russian at the end. And while Serena has struggled on Parisian clay in recent years, her record on the surface in general is much better than you might think. And you know that after last year’s dramatic, credulity-straining first-round loss to local heroine Virginie Razzano, Serena will be looking for payback.

Azarenka is almost Murray-like in her disposition toward clay, but with Petra Kvitova inconsistent and former champions Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone—as well as former finalist Sam Stosur—seemingly in decline, you have to look to an Angelique Kerber to belt her way, or a Radwanska to finesse her way, to a surprising win if we’re going to have a new champ.

Wimbledon (Defending champions: Roger Federer and Serena Williams)

Even among the steady, bankable Big Four, Wimbledon is something of a wild card. I don’t believe that many people felt Nadal would cement his reputation as Federer’s nemesis on the equivalent of the Swiss icon’s “home turf” (as in, grass). I also don’t believe that many thought that the selfsame Federer would beat defending champ Djokovic in the semis last year.

However, while pretty much everyone thought that once Federer got over the Djokovic hump, he would handle Murray in the final, the 2013 edition of the great British hope may be a dramatically different player from all previous incarnations. But there’s always this about Wimbledon: On any given day, any player with a big serve stands a fair chance to record a resounding upset. Berdych (a former finalist), Tsonga, and big servers like del Potro, John Isner, Milos Raonic and newcomer Jerzy Janowicz all stand a good chance to throw a wrench in the draw, if not necessarily win the title.

When it comes to the women, Serena’s serve on grass is probably the most potent weapon ever seen in women’s tennis. The grass also favors Sharapova’s first-strike instincts, even if it hasn’t fully rewarded Azarenka’s power-baseline game. If Serena is going to make a last stand, or next to last stand, it will be at the All-England Club—unless she has a truly bad day at the service notch.

U.S. Open (Defending champions: Andy Murray and Serena Williams)

Players always like to return to scenes of great success, which is why Flushing Meadows will always have a special place in Murray’s heart. But those hard courts also have a special place in the hearts of Djokovic and Federer, even if their co-conspirator Nadal has been lukewarm toward the Arthur Ashe big house and its demands.

It’s pretty easy to understand why and how the last Grand Slam of the year would bring out the best in any member of the Big Four who hasn’t quite had the year he’d hoped for (look at Murray in 2012), or one who’s built up so much confidence that he’s inspired to make one last, massive push to dominate. To me, the U.S. Open is the least likely of the majors to bestow a W on someone outside the Big Four.

Given that the U.S. Open is Serena’s native championships, I’m a little surprised she’s “only” won there four times (it’s her third best major in the title count, ahead of her one title at the French Open). Sharapova has a good history in New York, and Azarenka is probably still smarting over her loss to Serena in last year’s tense, three-set final. It’s easy to see Azarenka winning this tournament, as it would make such a nice bookend opposite her Australian Open hard-court title.

But much like with the men, I find it very hard to imagine someone outside the usual suspects bagging the last Grand Slam title of the year.

***

So which tournament is most likely to produce a surprise champion—or perhaps just a surprise finalist?

Men: I’m going with Wimbledon. Take Federer’s five consecutive titles (from 2003-07) out of the picture and we’ve had an ultra-competitive tournament recently, and not just because the Maestro is getting older. Djokovic has never had that conspicuous Wimbledon confidence, and while Nadal has felt comfortable in London, it was only when he was relatively pain- and injury-free. Murray will have the usual weight of British expectations, which never really grows lighter. There are enough men with enough tools (even limited ones) to make this event wide open.

Women: The French Open will be up for grabs unless Serena writes one more astonishing and improbable chapter in her autobiography. I don’t trust defending champ Sharapova’s serve, or her consistency. Serena has been relatively ineffective in Paris for a long time, but Azarenka is still figuring out the clay-court game. Look for a first-time French Open champ this year, perhaps a first-time Grand slam champion.


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?

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