Thoughts on '13: Who Will Regain Their Former Form?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012 /by

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

Even a pundit who’s as much a critic as a fan can have very little taste for predicting who’s going to crash and burn in the coming year. It’s a little too much like being an IRS agent, or any other bearer of bad tidings. There may be no reaping involved, but the job is nonetheless grim.

So let’s take a different tack here and look at a few players who fell from grace in 2012. Can they regain their form, or even their former glory?

Men

Feliciano Lopez (No. 40): He’s one of two Spanish stars who have struggled mightily in recent months. His pal, fellow chick magnet, and frequent Davis Cup doubles partner Fernando Verdasco had a startling reprise of his 2011 slump, going 32-22 to finish No. 24 for the second straight season.

Alas, Lopez wasn’t quite as able to cling to the edge of the cliff with his fingernails. He toppled from No. 20 to No. 40, despite hitting a career-high ranking (No. 15) just last January. Lopez’s problem may be that he’s 31 and still playing a big, left-handed attacking game with a fair amount of retro serve-and-volley thrown in. That just gets harder and harder to sustain as the years roll by. Plus, changes in technology as well as coaching philosophy have increasingly made tennis a returner’s game.

Bernard Tomic (No. 52): Although his drop from No. 42 is anything but precipitous, Tomic’s decline from the hottest young prospect (he was just 19 and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 2011) into a top contender for Jerk of the Year—hastened by well-chronicled social and behavioral issues—are formidable obstacles for “Tomic the Tank Engine” to overcome.

The Aussie’s problem consists of three elements. First, his own sense of entitlement. (When questioned by police after a fracas a few weeks ago in Gold Coast, he actually said: “Do you know who I am?”) Then there’s the poor work ethic he admitted to at Wimbledon. Last but not least, the thorny relationship with his coach/father John, whom Tomic actually tried to get ejected from the stadium during a match in Miami earlier this year.

Anyone who thinks Tomic’s self-sabotaging ways and dysfunctional relationships can be easily fixed doesn’t know much about human nature.

Gael Monfils (No. 77): He started the year at No. 16 and has been ranked as high as No. 7. The major component in his dizzying descent has been a chronic problem in his right knee (“La Monf” played just one major in 2012, losing in the third round at the Australian Open).

Fair enough. But instead of reports of aggressive rehab and positive vibes coming from his camp (a la Rafael Nadal), speculation among the French is that the 26-year-old is in some sort of crisis, perhaps even suffering from depression. One of his Davis Cup coaches says he can’t reach Gael by telephone, and former Top 10 player Henri Leconte was recently quoted as saying Monfils is “completely lost.”

As our Matt Cronin reported recently, Monfils split with both his physiotherapist and coach (Patrick Chamagne), who offered this chilling comment: “He (Monfils) is hiding, but I would not be surprised if it was a return to hell.”

Monfils’ agent, Nicolas Lemperin, denied reports that Monfils is breaking down mentally and/or emotionally, and said his ticket for the Australian Open is already booked.

Women

Caroline Wozniacki (No. 10): She’s living a very good life as a celebrity, and it doesn’t hurt her Q rating that she’s dating golfer Rory McIlroy, who’s won two major championships. Wozniacki finished No. 1 in the WTA rankings in 2010 and 2011, but is the only player of either sex to pull off that double without having won a single major in her career.

There’s a lot of discussion about Wozniacki’s refusal to change her defensive, retrieving game, and also her stubborn insistence on keeping her father, Piotr, as her coach. My own feeling is that Wozniacki lacks some essential ingredient(s) that are required of a Grand Slam champion, starting perhaps with the requisite drive. She’s become a very popular—and rich—young lady, seems really happy, and being No. 10 in the world isn’t half bad, especially when prize money is just a small portion of your annual income. It will take a much more dramatic decline to provide Wozniacki with the wake-up call some say she needs.

Jelena Jankovic (No. 22): The Serb finished No. 14 in 2011 in what was thought by her fans as just one of those off-years; after all, she was the year-end No. 1 in 2008 and finished No. 8 in the following two years. Jankovic has some of the best wheels in the women’s game—you won’t find a better athlete out there on the WTA—but they really fell off and rolled into the weeds this year.

Although Jankovic got off to a good start (fourth round of the Australian Open, where she lost to then-No. 1 Wozniacki), she crashed and burned shortly thereafter. The low point may have been a loss to No. 208 Melanie Oudin on grass at Birmingham, but at least that was in a final (albeit one at a minor event).

Jankovic freely admits that she doesn’t know where her game is now, and she’s currently without a coach. Anybody who thinks she has the game to do much better is probably hoping she’s working on that coaching situation as you read this, and can find a way to regain the confidence and blithe spirit that were once such conspicuous parts of her game.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (No. 36): “I’m happy we all are alive,” the Russian tweeted in reference to the cruel hoax those Mayans pulled on us. But you almost wish it had been something more along the lines of, “Watch out WTA, I’m all in for 2013!”

Pavlyuchenkova is just 21 years old, and over the past year or two has often seemed to be out of shape—is it baby fat, or that deadly combination of a calorie-rich diet and poor work habits? I can’t answer that, but I will say that this is one of the most gifted women I’ve ever seen swing a racquet. At 5’9” and 160 lbs., and with a serve worth the name, she’s definitely a player for this era. Thus, her big step backwards in 2012 was both surprising and discouraging. Perhaps the mild spine injury she suffered in the fall gets some blame for her swoon, but certainly not all or even most.

It’s hard to tell about Pavlyuchenkova’s future; all I can say is that it appears to be entirely in her own hands. Which may not be a good thing.

Vera Zvonareva (No. 96): Only 28 and a late bloomer, she was a Grand Slam finalist at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010—performances that helped her attain a career high ranking of No. 2. She finished 2011 ranked No. 7, but finds herself struggling to hang in as a Top 100 player. The only word for it is “astonishing.”

Granted, the Russian has suffered from illness and injury issues, but the former has rekindled speculation—fairly or not—that Zvonareva, once known for her self-pity and emotional meltdowns as much as her multi-faceted game, has returned to her former role as one of the outstanding “head case” players of her generation.

But let’s not minimize the injuries she suffered, one of which—in her right, serving shoulder; a terrible place to hurt—has already forced her to withdraw from the upcoming Australian Open. She’ll be losing third-round points by missing Australia, so it’s nearly certain that Zvonareva will be out of the Top 100 by the time that event ends.


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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