Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012 Tennis Season Opens and a Resurgent Roger Federer Could Dominate

Djokovic and Federer at the Barclays in London.
The 2012 professional tennis season is officially underway this week, and the top-ranked players in the world are interspersed at three different venues across Asia and Australia. This year promises to deliver excitement from the start, as we pick up immediately on several dramatic storylines that were left open when last season ended, just a few short weeks ago.

In 2011, we witnessed an astonishing juggernaut performance from Novak Djokovic, who were it not for Roger Federer and a bum shoulder, could have easily posted an undefeated season. We saw Rafa Nadal struggle, by his standards, while continuing his French Open and Davis Cup domination. Many of us expected to see Andy Murray finally hoist a trophy at one of tennis’ four majors in 2011. Alas, he made the semi-finals in each event, but won none of them. The anticipated decline of our sport’s greatest player, Roger Federer, appeared to be on schedule last year, until his torturous title drought ended with a fantastic finishing sweep of the final three tournaments of the season.

Monfils and Tsonga
Last year also gave rise to a bounty of talented challengers. The pair of French showmen, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, hardworking Spanish veteran David Ferrer, rebounding Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, and late-blooming American Mardy Fish significantly raised the level of their games. Each of these fierce competitors edged ever closer to the level of play required to firmly position themselves among the elite group atop the sport, but none of them actually did so. By the end of 2011, the fantastic foursome – Novak, Rafa, Andy, and Roger – held tight to their stranglehold on tennis’ premiere events, winning all nine Masters level tournaments and all four majors. It seems likely that this trend of domination by the top four will end in 2012, but with so little separation between the second tier players, it’s difficult to know who will break through first.

Among the myriad of other questions that will be answered in 2012, the most compelling is perhaps whether world #1 Novak Djokovic can rebound from a late season shoulder injury and resume the unbelievable run he had last year. With the possible exception of his French Open loss to Federer, each Djokovic defeat in 2011 was at least in part attributable to the damaged shoulder. Initial indications from the absolute ass-kicking Djokovic delivered last week to Federer, Monfils, and Ferrer at an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi lead us to believe his injury issues are resolved, and that Djokovic can once again reach the level of intensity and focus that led him to utterly dominate the sport for most of last year. While Novak’s performance in Abu Dhabi last week bodes well generally though, a tennis season that lasts more than 10 months will severely test the shoulder, which must endure incredible weekly wear and tear if he is to regain and maintain his 2011 record-breaking form.

Nadal this week in Doha, Qatar

More nebulous questions surround Rafael Nadal, currently ranked second, whose recently announced plans for a six-week hiatus following the Australian Open are evidence that he faces his own lingering health issues. In addition to health concerns, Nadal clearly also needs to mount a mental recovery from the non-stop beatings he received at the hands of Djokovic in 2011. After years of having never lost to Djokovic in an ATP final, Nadal suffered six finals losses to Djokovic last year, including several on his precious clay surface.

With nagging injuries and mental letdowns posing challenges for both Djokovic and Nadal, and with Djokovic having to defend an ungodly number of championships and rankings points from last year, the door is at least cracked open for others to storm to the top of the rankings. 

Murray and his new "boss"
World #4 and perpetual British hopeful Andy Murray has taken a dramatic step to up his game, hiring Czech-born tennis great Ivan Lendl as his new coach. Murray is a physical machine with enormous stamina, who arguably already possesses all the racket skills needed to dominate the sport. The Brit has been victimized by his own anger and mental fragility at key moments in the past though. The addition to his team of the robotic Lendl, an eight-time major champion, should aid Murray in eliminating the moments of fuzzy thinking and lapsed focus that have prevented him from sealing the deal in semis and finals at previous Grand Slam events. That’s the plan, anyway. 

Fed looking strong in Doha.
The player who is perhaps best poised to lunge to the top this year is Roger Federer. While others have expected for years to see Roger walk off the court and into the sunset, Federer is simply still to good to stop. He has proven to be human and beatable in the last two years, but Federer still competes effectively with other players at the pinnacle of the game, and he wins every match he is supposed to win, almost never losing to anyone outside the top ten. Remember who handed Djokovic his first and perhaps most significant loss during his amazing 2011 win streak? I do, and I bet Novak does too.

Since 2008, Federer has spoken passionately about his desire to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where tennis events will be held at his beloved Wimbledon. In addition to the motivation derived from that long-awaited competition, Federer won no Grand Slam events in 2011 and three of the four championships he did win occurred at the tail end of the season. This leaves him with fewer points to defend in the first half of the 2012 season and makes his climb back to the top of the rankings that much easier. With a perfectly managed schedule, good health, a still strong and well-placed serve, and an unmatched arsenal of options in his tennis bag, Federer really is as good as he ever has been. What stands between Roger Federer and a return to the number one ranking is recognition of and respect for the fact that everyone else has gotten better, and a willingness to adjust his own strategy in light of new strengths and skills that the other elites bring to the court. With a few early wins to boost his only slightly sagging confidence, Federer could dominate tennis this year the way that Djokovic did last year.

The 2012 season is underway. Rafa and Roger launch their 2012 seasons this week at the Qatar Exxon Mobil Open in Doha, while Andy Murray leads his charge at the Brisbane International. Novak is giving one last respite to the injured shoulder that ultimately derailed his nearly immaculate 2011 season, but he is expected to be fully ready to swing into action by the mid-January start of the Australian Open.

With so many contenders at vastly different points in their careers, all of whom are overflowing with talent, commitment, and desire, 2012 should be as compelling and fascinating a year in tennis as any year in recent memory.

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