As the ATP and WTA tours prepare for the combined tournaments in Rome and Madrid, a surprising number of quality players are finding it hard to get traction in 2021.
There can be any number of reasons for this: loss of confidence, flagging motivation, injury, a breakdown in technique, even just plain (bad) luck of the draw. Perhaps the pandemic has played a part for some as well, as French iconoclast Benoit Paire claimed recently, in a series of unfiltered remarks targeting his sport.
“We are playing in a sad atmosphere,” Paire said after a first-round loss in the Monte Carlo Masters lowered his 52-week record to 2-16.
Speaking of the lack of fans and atmosphere, he added, “Winning or losing in such conditions, I don't care. I no longer have the spark. . . . I am perhaps the only one to say it. [But] tennis is no longer bringing me anything good."
While few of Paire’s peers have shared his negativity—at least publicly—you have to wonder if some players aren’t more susceptible than others to pandemic-related lethargy, and how that may be impacting their performance. It’s a question to which we may never have a firm answer.
What we do know is that recent times have been challenging for some very good players. So let’s look at some who really need a few wins to shore up their reputations:
No. 4 Sofia Kenin (7-7 in 2021)
The meteoric rise of the 5'7" 22-year-old Floridian was as smooth as it was surprising. Now, it’s complicated.
Kenin's troubles began in February at the Australian Open, where she was defending champion. The No. 4 seed was belted out in the second round by Kaia Kanepi, 6-3, 6-2. In a teary press conference following the loss, Kenin admitted, “I couldn't really handle the pressure.”
Kenin’s problems were compounded by acute appendicitis, which required surgery just four days after the loss. Kenin has won just one match since then, a hard-fought three setter over No. 107 Andrea Petkovic. With her lack of size and power, Kenin has lived by her wits, relying on a versatile repertoire of strokes, strategic acumen, and the mental toughness that comes with something that has been in short supply for Kenin recently—confidence.
No. 9 Karolina Pliskova (9-7)
She’s almost 30, has been ranked No. 1 in the world, and carries one of the most devastating serves on tour. But Pliskova’s search for the validation provided by a Grand Slam singles title is currently headed in the wrong direction. She's posted back-to-back wins in just two of seven tournaments this year (all but one on her best surface, hard courts), and hasn’t beaten anyone ranked in the 30s or better.
It has to be a particularly frustrating blow, given that Pliskova had high hopes for 2021 back in November, when she hired highly touted coach Sascha Bajin. Pliskova’s 82 aces are currently just ninth-best on tour. She may be best on fast surfaces, but her career record on clay is excellent (116-86) and she has captured some hefty titles on the dirt, including the Italian Open.
No. 11 Belinda Bencic (8-8)
It sometimes seems that this countrywoman of Roger Federer (her partner in two successful Hopman Cup tournaments) has been with us for almost as long as the 39-year old ATP icon. That’s because Bencic, now 24, was a much-heralded prodigy for over a decade.
Ranked as high as No. 4 (in February 2020) Bencic hasn't beaten a Top 30 opponent this year. In her case, fluctuating fortunes are nothing new, thanks partly to injury (including left wrist surgery in 2017) along with uninspired play. She is an extremely clean and powerful ball striker—Federer himself has expressed admiration for her serve return—with an excellent grasp of strategy and a great talent for disrupting the normal rally patterns.
No. 18 Johanna Konta (2-4)
Ever since she reached the semifinals at the 2016 Australian Open, this rangy, 5'11" right-hander with aggressive groundstrokes has been looked upon as the potential savior of British women's tennis. That goal seems as distant now as it ever has, with Konta—who will turn 30 in May and has ranked as high as No. 4—still slipping in the rankings.
Following an outstanding 2019, Konta won just one match at the three majors staged last year. She’s had bad luck this year, too. Konta was obliged to retire during her first-round match at the Australian Open with a pulled stomach muscle. Konta has never fully exploited her powerful serve by backing it up with a more aggressive, forward-moving game, but she’s a hard worker who might still improve.
No. 22 Elena Rybakina (7-8)
A late bloomer in the juniors, Rybakina wasted no time when she hit the pros in mid-2019 at barely 20 years of age. By the end of the Covid-interrupted year, the Moscow-born right-hander (she emigrated to her adopted country of Kazakhstan) had played more finals (5) than anyone else on the WTA, and won the second-highest number of matches (29).
Rybakina hasn’t been able to sustain that pace. Other than a nice run that took her to the final at Strasbourg during the restart last fall, Rybakina has struggled to contend despite having all the qualities to succeed in today’s game. She’s powerfully built and knows how to transmit it to her strokes, and she’s an excellent mover for a player of her size. And her serve is deadly: she led the tour in aces in 2020 with 192.
No. 23 Madison Keys (2-4)
For years, scores of pundits and commentators hailed Keys as a can’t miss Grand Slam champion. Now, more than three years after she reached her only major final (US Open), the 5'10" slugger is better described as an enigma. She hasn’t won back-to-back matches since the 2020 US Open, and failed to win a set in her four losses this year, despite facing just one Top 25 opponent.
Keys, 26, has always been a feast-or-famine player. She’s overpowering when her massive serve and rocket-propelled groundstrokes are dialed in, but she still has too many episodes of wild inconsistency. She has been mentally fragile as well, which suggests that she really has her work cut out if she hopes to recapture the form that earned her five titles and, in the fall of 2016, lifted her to the No. 7 ranking.
No. 4 Dominic Thiem (5-4)
Thiem might be the biggest surprise on this list. He has played in just four events this year, with lackluster results, and later cited minor injuries and a crisis of motivation as the reason for his absence. He recently told Austrian newspaper Der Standard that while chasing the “big goal” for 15 years (winning a major, which he accomplished in New York last fall) he lost sight of all else. “Other things fell by the wayside,” Thiem said. “And I wanted to change that a little.”
This may not be the worst of times for a Thiem reset. A tireless worker and wizard on clay, the 27-year-old Austrian earned enormous respect as he labored to hunt down 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal. Thiem enjoyed only modest success, though, with Nadal prevailing in the biggest moments, throttling Thiem in the 2018 and 2019 French Open finals. But perhaps that chapter ended on an up note when Thiem won the US Open. He has announced on social media that he’s training again.
No. 6 Alexander Zverev (10-6)
Although Zverev won the title at Acapulco and his win-loss record is decent, the 24-year old German is bookended by two dangerous rivals whose recent form and consistency ought to be troubling to him. Fifth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 7 Andrey Rublev are both an impressive 26-6 thus far this year.
Zverev, 6'6" but blessed with excellent mobility for a man his size, was barely anointed in the Next Gen movement when he left it behind. At just 20 in 2017, he claimed a pair of Masters 1000 titles and leapfrogged to No. 3 in the world. Zverev has kept his place in the high-rent neighborhood, but that long-predicted Grand Slam title has eluded him, and inconsistent production and sometimes shockingly erratic serving make you wonder if he can maintain his payments.
No. 15 Gael Monfils (0-2)
Is it mere coincidence that Monfils and Benoit Paire have a grand total of just two singles wins between them since the game went dark last March due to Covid? Both are Frenchmen with tremendous flair, zealous showmen who play to the crowds. But there have been no crowds for the most part since.
At age 34, Monfils' career is definitely winding down. But failing to post even one win in well over a year isn’t “winding down,” it’s plummeting. Serial injuries have played a significant role in La Monf’s steady decline from his career-high ranking of No. 6, in November 2016. Monfils seems to be marshalling his resources. He withdrew from Monte Carlo and Estoril with a minor calf injury, presumably in order to maximize his chances in the big show at Roland Garros.
No. 23 Karen Khachanov (11-8)
It’s hard to miss this amiable, 6'6" Russian who was just 22 when he climbed as high as No. 8, but he seems to have drifted back and somehow got lost in the Next Gen shuffle. His best win this year was over 36-year-old Stan Wawrinka, whose No. 20 ranking was artificially inflated due to the Covid-related adjustments in the rating system.
Given his atomic serve, burly build and decent mobility, you might expect Khachanov to go on a tear now and then, especially on a hard court. But he hasn’t done so since blasting his way to the Paris Masters Masters 1000 title indoors in 2018. Khachanov has done his best work on clay at the majors, though, with a quarterfinal finish at the 2019 French Open. Khachanov is an enigma, but when that big game jells, watch out.
No. 38 John Isner (4-3)
The only man outside the game’s Big Three to finish in the Top 20 for 10 consecutive years, Isner’s long and often lonely stint as the flag-bearer for a distressed American game appears to be oveer. Taylor Fritz, 23-years old and ranked No. 30, has taken over the mantle.
The most dangerous serve in men’s tennis might still carry Isner deep in some events, the operative word being “some.” At his age, and with a young family, Isner is likely to play selectively. But when you look at the number of tiebreakers he forces, it shows that he will always be dangerous to anyone he meets.
No. 41 Kei Nishikori (8-8)
Does this former model of consistency and diligent effort have at least one more good run left in him? That’s the question hanging over the head of the 5'10", 31-year-old former US Open runner-up, a player who has always punched above his weight class.
Nishikori missed most of 2020 following surgery for a chronic elbow problem. Testing the waters last fall, Nishikori went 2-4 on clay. While his recent results offered some hope, he’s expressed frustration with his lack of a quality that has long been his trademark—consistency.