It doesn’t take long for those pre-season player forecasts to go stale, does it? One major tournament, a weekend of Davis Cup, and the sport’s landscape is completely altered. Remember when Serena Williams was going to win the calendar-year Grand Slam, and Juan Martin del Potro was about to storm the Big 4?
With that in mind, I’ll spend Tuesday and Wednesday of this quiet week looking at where the game’s more significant players stand after their first big performance at the Australian Open, and what they’ll be facing in the immediate future. Today the men, tomorrow the women.
“You never know”: It’s hard to think of better proof of the validity of that statement than Rafa’s Australian Open experience. For years, it was his knees that were going to do him in. Then, for much of Melbourne, it was his blistered left hand. In the end, just when those two problems were solved and success virtually guaranteed, his back spasmed. What I had thought was going to be an inevitable march to 17 or more Grand Slams now looks like a long, perilous struggle again. For the moment, the physical vulnerability has returned.
The good news for Nadal is that he gained 1200 ranking points in the process, which should be a reminder that his health is still better than it was a year ago. The bad news is that, as of today, he wasn’t sure of the status of his back, or his status for his next event, in Buenos Aires. In 2013, the South American clay circuit was Rafa's ticket back into the game, and back into self-confidence. Will it serve the same purpose after the disappointment in Australia, or will it be too much physically?
Either way, Rafa might want to consider making one change: Not leaping quite so violently high as he gets ready before a match. That can't be the best thing for his back, or his knees, or anything else, can it?
Some bookies are taking bets that Boris Becker will be gone by the French Open. And that’s possible if Djokovic’s results are steadily sub-par. Looking on the bright side, he lost for the first time in four years in Melbourne to the eventual champion, Stan Wawrinka, 9-7 in the fifth set, and he seemed to realize that his luck against Stan had to run out some day. This time Novak faltered trying to close it out, but I’m guessing the memory of his unbeatable tennis from last fall will be fresh enough to keep from taking that rare lapse too seriously.
Next for Djokovic is the lucrative 500-level hard-court tournament in Dubai, starting on the 24th. Djokovic has owned this event—he’s a four-time champ with a 28-3 career record there—but he’ll have his hands full with a loaded draw. Federer, Berdych, del Potro, and Tsonga are all on the entry list as of today. It will be an important event for Djokovic if he wants to feel back on track heading to the States in March. I’d be interested in how a match with Federer there would go.
Murray may already feel as if he’s on track again with his two Davis Cup wins this weekend in San Diego. After his loss to Federer in Australia, and the irritation he felt when his back acted up again, it looked for a second like Murray was ready to pull the rip cord on the team event. He has to be happy he didn’t.
Murray’s next event will, somewhat surprisingly, be on in Acapulco, starting the 24th. Or maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising—Acapulco is a 500, has gone to hard courts, and was won by Nadal last year (Rafa isn’t playing it this time). That should at least give Murray some preparation before Indian Wells and Key Biscayne in March. But it feels like his return to top form will take some time, and that his post-surgery career may remain a work in progress for another month or more. I’ll be curious to see what Murray does in Indian Wells, a tournament that hasn't been kind to him recently. I’ll also be curious to see how his next matches with Federer and Wawrinka go. Murray spent 2013 well ahead of them, but the Swiss duo have sent him out of the last two majors, and will be surely be in his way again soon.
I wrote that Federer turned the page on 2013 in Melbourne, and that turning continued this weekend when he played his second Davis Cup World Group main-draw tie in 10 years for Switzerland. Suddenly, with Federer and Wawrinka scheduled to play again in April, the Swiss are the team to beat. Finally winning a Davis Cup is a goal that should keep Federer focused and upbeat through 2014. It might also affect his scheduling choices; this time, you would think, DC would be the priority.
In Melbourne, Federer did something he couldn’t do in 2013: He beat a fellow member of the Big 4 in Murray. But as Rafa showed Federer in the semis, it’s another leap entirely to beat a member of the Big 2. Federer might get the chance at his next event, in Dubai, where he could face Djokovic, the man who defeated him there in the final in 2011. At the end of 2013, Federer said that, if nothing else, he wants to win tournaments, any types of tournaments, in 2014. As well as he’s played so far this year, though, it's still not looking so easy.
With his title in Australia, Wawrinka becomes just the second player outside the Big 4 to win a Grand Slam since 2005. It also makes him the preeminent wild card for the rest of 2013. If he can beat Djokovic and Nadal at the same major, who can’t he beat? Has he leap-frogged del Potro? Should he be favored against Federer? Stan may not be able to match his two-week run in Australia, but it wasn’t a fluke, either. He had been building to something big for the previous 12 months. And as for the next major, at Roland Garros, he won it as a junior and he still likes clay.
As for the immediate future, Wawrinka has already learned how exhausting success can be. Since his big win, he has pulled out of not one, but two tournaments, in Montpellier and Rotterdam, citing fatigue. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to pull out of a third, in Marseille, in two weeks. Either way, I’m thinking there could be a Wawa letdown until he gets back to European dirt in April.
At 31, with his old coach gone, with his ranking down from No. 3 to No. 5, has the Little Beast finally begun to run himself into the ground, or at least into the nether regions of the Top 10? Either way, he won’t stop running. Ferrer, after losing to Daniel Brands, Rendy Lu, and Tomas Berdych in his first three tournaments in 2013, will begin his assault on South American clay in Rio in two weeks.
Juan Martin del Potro
From breakthrough to breakdown once again. Delpo’s left wrist won’t leave him alone. Since his early loss in Melbourne, he’s been undergoing treatment for it. For now, he remains scheduled to play next week in Rotterdam, where’s the defending champion, as well as in Dubai two weeks after that. It gets harder to hope for the big man.
Now come the hard yards, as they say. Can “Showtime” Dimitrov consolidate his quarterfinal run in Melbourne at lower-profile events in Rotterdam and Acapulco in February? Now that’s he cracked the Top 20 for the first time, can he defend that ranking? We’ll begin to see next week in Rotterdam, where he reached the semifinals a year ago. In the longer term, Dimitrov likes clay—last year he beat Djokovic in Madrid and took a set from Nadal in Monte Carlo. Going from his current No. 19 to a Top 16 seed for Roland Garros would be a nice next step.