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April 26, 2011
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||EXPLORE THE TENNIS NET:
Risers and Overachievers of 2011
by Ray Bowers
The early months of 2011 offered a quality and ferocity in pro tennis action that often made it hard to believe that the game had ever been played at higher level.
Foremost was the success of Novak Djokovic, who swept the three prime early-year events -- Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami. The tall Serbian star, 23, remains yet undefeated this year, having won 26 Slam and main-tour matches. His 2011 victories included three over Federer, who had won their previous three meetings, all in late 2010.
Novak also scored two wins over Rafael Nadal -- both split-setters, in the finals at Indian Wells and Miami. Through much of the late going in Miami, Nadal had been clearly the stronger amid high heat and humidity, but Rafa faltered inexplicably in the last few minutes of the deciding tiebreaker. Never before had I seen Rafa with hands on knees between points, as if fatigued or perhaps hurting.
Throughout his dazzling run, Djokovic's relentless, forceful stroking, mainly from back court, along with his marvelous court agility and swiftness, provided a balanced offense and defense that no opponent could match. There was, too, a rediscovered serving effectiveness by Novak not seen for a year or so, plus remarkable accuracy and deception in executing drop shots and lobs.
Novak remained sidelined in April because of knee trouble, missing the early clay events in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Rafa won the tournament in Monte Carlo, as expected, for the seventh straight year, though he was tested in the semis by Andy Murray, who answered Rafa's heavy deliveries with remarkably easy, well-controlled power, and often forced play with rocket thrusts to the corners sometimes followed by accurate drop-shots. At the start of their third set, there were several games of indescribably brilliant play by both men, where the tide only grudgingly turned to favor Rafa.
Nadal then won the final at Monte Carlo and the final at Barcelona one week later, in both cases defeating David Ferrer in difficult straight-setters. David's power and mobility are close to matching Rafa's, and he regularly was the more aggressive hitter in their long exchanges. Disadvantaged against most opponents in natural power and height, at 5-9, Ferrer's recent rise in the rankings provides an important sub-plot in the season.
Nadal remains indisputedly the world's best clay-courter, but opponents like Djokovic, Ferrer, and Murray are close, while Federer and Soderling are only a little further behind. That Rafa will sweep Madrid and Rome in coming weeks is likely but not assured.
To summarize 2011 to date, here are the leaders in the in the year-to-date standings (compiled unofficially here as of 25 April):
- 1. Novak Djokovic, 4,500 ATP ranking points
- 2. Rafael Nadal, 3,190
- 3. David Ferrer, 2,560
- 4. Roger Federer, 2,170
- 5. Andy Murray, 1,570
RISERS AND OVERACHIEVERS IN MEN'S TENNIS
But if the sport's familiar megatars commanded the top honors of early 2011, the times also featured the doings of several lesser stars -- relatively unfamiliar players whose results well surpassed past performance. Some such overachievers were probably only temporary headliners, whose magic might be expected soon to fade. But most of them, especially the younger members, were almost surely true risers -- destined to maintain their new level and perhaps continue their upward climb.
Here, as a baseline for interpreting each player's recent performance, we start with each player's pre-2011 best-ever official ranking -- a value representing his historically best success on the pro tour over a 12-month period. (For many younger players, the best pre-2011 ranking came at the end of calendar 2010, representing a performance period January-December 2010.)
We then compare each player's baseline ranking, above, with his current ranking in the 2011 year-to-date points race, the latter representing his performance during January-April 2011. The ratio of the two rankings, -- i.e., his "past-present performance", or 3p, ratio -- then measures each player's 2011 level of play against his previous best level.
Of the 88 players in our study population, 23 show better performance for 2011-to-date than for any pre-2011 12-month period. Here are the leaders whose 2011 achievements most exceed their best previous levels. (Shown are each player's age, height, pre-2011 highest-ever rank, 2011 year-to-date rank, and 3p ratio.)
-- #1. Milos Raonic, age 20, height 6-5. Was #156 in Nov 2010 and is now #11 for 2011-to-date (3p ratio 14.19). Having barely reached age 20, this strapping Canadian-grown youth with the crushing serve and strokes won world attention at Australian Open 2011. There, he emerged from the qualifying rounds to win three matches in the main draw -- a total of six consective victories, including wins over Llodra and Youzhny and ending with a four-set loss to top-tenner David Ferrer. Raonic's success then continued in indoor events in America, where his huge edge in power against nearly all opponents lifted him to the crown at San Jose and a runner-up finish at Memphis, where he defeated Fish before losing to Roddick. It was indeed a storybook debut at the game's top levels.
Milos came to Canada in 1990 at age three with his parents from his birthplace in former Yugoslavia. He learned tennis in childhood and excelled in his new homeland's youth tennis programs. As a pro his rankings turned sharply upward in the second half of 2010, a time that included Davis Cup appearances and his successful emergence from the qualifying rounds into the main draw of U.S. Open.
Milos's spectacular 2011 results faded after his successes in January and February. There were losses to still-younger Ryan Harrison at Indian Wells and Somdev Devvarman at Miami. But his thunderous ace-striking prowess (he leads the pro tour in total aces for 2011) and his mighty forehand, often delivered inside-out, establish that his future is bright, especially on fast courts. He also showed ability on clay, winning two matches at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona in April.
It can hardly be questioned that Milos is a riser of the highest promise and is certainly not a temporary overachiever. Further development in his already excellent musculature and height seems possible.
-- #2. Ryan Sweeting, 23, 6-5, Was #109 in Nov 2010 and is now #27 for 2011-to-date (ratio 4.04). Born in Bahamas and having moved to Florida at age 12, Ryan spent his teen years training and competing toward a pro career. He won U.S. Open juniors in 2005 and played for University of Florida in 2006. After turning pro he climbed into the second and then the first hundred in the pro rankings, competing often in Challengers and main-tour qualifying rounds. He appeared summers here in Washington, where he seemed a remarkably mature teenager against established stars.
His jump in 2011 featured a run of victories in qualifying matches to reach the main draws at Australian Open 2011 and in five subsequent tournaments in the United States. In early April he won the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston. His 2011 victims included Querrey (twice), Monaco, and, in a difficult three-set final in Houston, Nishikori. Against his younger Japanese opponent, Ryan played a forceful game behind a strong serve and forehand, overcoming tiredness in the late stages to close out a second-set tiebreaker.
-- #3. Ivan Dodig, 26, 6-0. Was #86 in Nov 2010 and is now #22 for 2011-to-date (ratio, 3.91). Born in former Yugoslavia and now representing Croatia, Ivan broke into the sport's top hundred in 2010, when despite his supposed preference for clay courts he won his way through the qualifying rounds and also won a first-round main-draw match at all three nonclay Slams. His climb continued at Australian Open 2011, where he was the only player to win a set from the tournament's eventual champion, Djokovic. He then won Zagreb Indoors, split sets in losing to Soderlng at Miami, and defeated both Soderling and Raonic enroute to a semi-final meeting with Nadal in Barcelona. There he lost one-sidedly to Rafa, though he showed strong serving and forehand ability in stretches. At age 26 -- i.e., slightly past the usual point of peak results -- his rise has not been extreme enough to promise future threat to the topmost few, but further upward movement by Ivan seems certain.
-- #4. Alex Dogopolov, 22, 5-11. Was #40 in Jul 2010 and is now #14 for 2011-to-date (ratio, 2.86). Ukraine-born, son of an ATP pro, Alex has shown not only the quickness and speed suggested by his slender physique but also astonishing power beyond proportion to his height. Like Raonic, Dolgopolov announced himself on the world scene at Australian Open 2011, where, unseeded, he won five setters against Tsonga and Soderling and, worn somewhat from these efforts, then lost in the quarters to Murray in four sets. His crowd-pleasing style and manner stayed in view in February and March amid a nice set of wins along with well-played losses to Nadal and del Potro. Preceding his 2011 successes had been a strong upward run in 2010, including reaching the third round at Garros. Alex seems unquestionably among the riser group. He scores slightly better on hard courts than on clay.
-- #5. Bernard Tomic, 18, 6-4. Was #208 in Dec 2010 and is now now #75 for 2011-to-date (ratio, 2.77). Our formula makes Tomic our top teenaged riser. Born in Stuttgart of Yugoslavian descent, Bernard moved to Australia at age 3 with his parents. He achieved considerable success in international junior play in the early age divisions, and in 2008 became the youngest player in the Open Era to win the Australian juniors (18's). After moderate success in Challenger tournaments and in qualifier rounds of main-tour events, in 2010 he won his three qualifying-round matches at Wimbledon and also scored a main-draw win at Queen's. His jump in the rankings for 2011 stems from two main-draw wins at Australian Open (followed by a loss to Nadal), and a single main-draw win at Indian Wells.
Controversies have arisen involving Bernard and tennis officialdom that led to rumors that Bernard's father might move the family away from Australia. The tall youth remains Australia's hope for a new home-grown champion capable of winning major crowns on the world scene.
-- #6. Kevin Anderson, 24, 6-8. Was #58 in Oct 2010 and is now #23 for 2011-to-date (ratio 2.52). Born in Johannesburg, Kevin played three years at University of Illinois. His height correctly marks him a hard-court player foremost. His surge in 2011 includes winning the tournament at home-town Johannesburg, where he beat former college rival Devvarman in the final. He won three matches at Brisbane 2011, splitting sets in losing to Roddick, and although unseded, he reached the quarters at Indian Wells.
-- #7. Pablo Andujar, 25, 5-11. Was #71 in Dec 2010 and is now #30 for 2011-to-date (ratio 2.37). Born and grown in Spain, Pablo has been almost exclusively a clay-courter for most of his pro career. He won two matches on the hard courts at Miami 2011, beating Verdasco before losing to Kevin Anderson. He won the April 2011 ATP event on clay in Casablanca and played Almagro closely in losing at Barcelona.
PREDICTIONS -- THE NEXT 12 MONTHS
Our exploration has emphatically conveyed the suddenness and dimension of the rise of Milos Raonic, whose 3p ratio soars above all others. As by far the outstanding riser of early 2011, Milos seems already close to penetrating the game's elite.
How well can our method actually betell the future?
Our tacit assumption has been that 3p and related numbers should be interpreted in conjuction with player age, in the belief that a younger player showing sudden rise in performance is more likely to continue improving than an older one. Also, in addition to adjusting for age, a further, smaller adjustment should be made for a player's physical height, as below-average height tends to limit a player's potential for improved ranking.
Here, we use such a scheme to predict how well each of our seven 3p-selectees will fare in the coming 12 months. Shown below are predicted 12-month rankings exactly 12 months from now. (Also noted for perspective is each player's present 12-month ranking.)
- Milos Raonic, predicted late-April 2012 ranking, #9 (presently ranked #27).
- Ryan Sweeting, predicted ranking #24 (presently #66).
- Ivan Dodig, predicted ranking #23 (presently #44).
- Alex Dogopolov, predicted ranking #13 (presently #20).
- Bernard Tomic, predicted ranking #53 (presently #174).
- Kevin Anderson, predicted ranking #22 (presently #34).
- Pablo Andujar, predicted ranking #41 (presently #48).
Our method thus predicts that one year from now Raonic will rank inside the top ten, Dolgopolov inside the second ten, and Sweeting, Dodig, and Anderson inside the third ten. Of our seven nominees, Dodig, Dogopolov, and Andujar represent European nations. Two represent North America, while two represent nations of the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps suggesting a weakening of Europe's dominance in today's pro game.
WOMEN'S 2011 RACE
With Serena Williams still sidelined from last summer's foot injury, Kim Clijsters in late January 2011 seemed to have established herself atop the women's game, having added the Australian Open crown to her exceptional late-2010 laurels. It seemed amply clear that if Kim could produce her best tennis, her forceful power and her excellent court movement would prevail against any opponent.
But Kim did not compete during February 2011, and she won only two matches at Indian Wells in March before falling behind and retiring with shoulder trouble. Returning the next week at Miami, Kim survived five adverse match points against Ana Ivanovic and then performed listlessly in losing to Victoria Azarenka. She then announced her withdrawal from all events until at least May, citing shoulder and wrist injuries. A subsequent offcourt ankle injury further clouded her return.
Several experienced stars bid to assume the top place. China's Li Na, 29, played spectacularly well in Australia but thereafter scarcely won a match. Meanwhile Vera Zvonareva, who extended a strong January into a tournament victory at Doha in February, subsequently failed to move upward, losing to Azarenka in the semis at Miami and losing closely to Stosur at Stuttgart in late April.
Thus the top place was left to the newer generation of tennis women, in particular to the near-superstar who seemed able to win matches against any of her contemporaries. Having led in the 2010 final standings, Caroline Wozniacki then finished second at Australian Open 2011, won the Premier Five tournament at Dubai in February, and won the Premier Mandatory at Indian Wells in March. Caroline then lost a fourth-round match in Miami, beaten by the more forceful and similarly error-free play of Andrea Petkovic. But despite this defeat, Caroline would next win the clay event in Charleston and then reach the final at Stuttgart, contributing to her first-place lead in both the 2011 year-to-date and the rolling-12-month rankings.
A contemporary and past rival of Caroline's, Victoria Azarenka, 21, by winning the Premier Mandatory at Miami in convincing fashion, moved into significant contention in the WTA standings. Victoria would then win the clay event in Marbella, Spain, the very next week, but would retire with shoulder trouble at Stuttgart against Julia Goerges. Still, Caroline and Victoria, it appeared, were destined for many years of close contention ahead. Their meetings are appealing by their contrasting styles -- Victoria the harder and more aggressive hitter, sometimes stormy in disposition, while Caroline is the more patient in her stroking, the less edgy in manner.
Easter Sunday in Stuttgart brought some of the season's highest drama, where the dampish indoor clay proved ideal for Julia Goerges. The tall German star was able comfortably to attack Caroline's less-than-potent deliveries, thereby producing crushing forehands and accurate backhands which -- along with Julia's superb serving -- would overpower Wozniacki.
Here were the 2011 year-to-date standings, as announced by WTA (as of April 25).
RISERS AND OVERACHIEVERS, WOMEN
- Caroline Wozniacki, 4,051 WTA ranking points
- Kim Clijsters, 3,030
- Vera Zvonareva, 2,276
- Victoria Azarenka, 2,057
To identify and rank the top risers and overachievers among the women, we employ the same formula used earlier for the men. Of 57 women in our population, 21 showed improved ranking for 2011-to-date over previous best ranking. Again shown are player age, height, best 12-month ranking prior to 2011, current year-to-date ranking for 2011, and 3p ratio of the two last values.
-- #1. Andrea Petkovic, 23, 5-11. Was #32 in Dec 2010 and is now #8 for 2011-to-date (ratio 4.00). Born in Bosnia, daughter of a tennis pro, Andrea came to Germany with her family at age six months. Entering the pro game at an age older than most newcomers, she moved upward rapidly, entering the world's top hundred in 2009 . A baseliner with a strong ground game, she calls clay her favorite surface. Her 2011 rise on hard courts stemmed primarily from excellent results in Australia and a fine run at Miami, where she beat Wozniacki and Jankovic, both in three sets, before losing to Sharapova in the semis. (She had beaten Maria in Melbourne.) In defeating World #1 Wozniacki, Andrea was the more aggressive player, but she afterwards explained that she had resolved to tone down her attacking to await favorable opportunities to strike. Wozniacki, however, later defeated Andrea on clay at Stuttgart.
A fresh personality in the sport, Andrea performs a short Petko Dance after wins. Her ability to continue improving seems clear, and she must assuredly be deemed among the game's potential champions.
-- #2. Peng Shuai, 25, 5-8. Was #31 in Sep 2005 and is now #10 for 2011 (ratio 3.10). Shuai several times since 2005 came close to bettering her earlier career-high ranking without success. Injuries and illness indeed caused further downward results in 2010. Her break-out upward came in the first four months of 2011 in a year-to-date run that reached a W-L record of 30-9 through Charleston (including 5-0 in qualifying-round matches) and included wins over such higher-ranked stars as Jankovic, Schiavone, Kuznetsova, and Li. In defeating Australian runner-up Li Na at Indian Wells, Peng established herself as China's top player and enhanced China's claim to greater recognition in women's tennis.
Shuai's mid-career jump would ordinarily not signal likely further advancement to the very top level. But with women's tennis now seemingly depleted at the top and given her demonstrated ability against top-level opponents, a Slam crown seems conceivable albeit unlikely.
-- 3. Julia Goerges, 22, 5-11. Was #40 in Dec 2010 and is now #15 for 2011 (ratio 2.67). Tall and strong with athletic physique, Julia has a hitch-free serve of excellent power and variety and an aggressive, firm-stroking court style. Her rise accelerated in late 2010 with wins over Kvitova, Stosur, and Ivanovic, and her strong results continued in New Zealand and Australia this year. She did well on clay indoors at Stuttgart in April, both in Fed Cup for Germany against U.S.A. and then in the next week's tournament, where she beat a resurging Stosur in the semis and then Wozniacki in a brilliant final.
-- #4. Rebecca Marino, 20, 6-0, Was #101 in Dec 2010 and is now #38 for 2011-to-date (ratio 2.66). Born in Toronto and grown in Vancouver, Rebecca has moved rapidly upward since her pro start in 2007. Tall, and strong in the serve and forehand, she played in her first Slam at U.S. Open 2010, where she advanced through the qualifiers to reach the second round where she lost to Venus Williams in two close sets. Her improving results in 2011 against main-draw opponents included a second-round loss at Australian Open in three sets to Schiavone, four wins in reaching the final at Memphis, and two wins before a three-set loss to Makarova at Indian Wells. Her age and physical assets strongly suggest her continuing rise in the next several years.
-- #5. Petra Kvitova, 21, 6-0, Was #29 in Aug 2010 and is now #11 for 2011-to-date (ratio 2.64). Kvitova's dazzling run began in January 2011 when Petra won the crown at Brisbane and attained the quarter-finals at Australian Open. Enroute, there were wins over the likes of Stosur and Pennetta. Then came two important wins in Fed Cup action, leading Czech Republic over Slovakia. Yet another tournament triumph followed, at Paris Indoors, where Petra's final-round victim was Kim Clijsters. This powerful and athletic lefty seemed already among the elite.
But then came disappointment -- early-round losses and then a withdrawal at Doha because of abdominal strain. A big test came at Charleroi in Fed Cup action against Belgium, the latter team weakened by Clijsters's absence but still strongly led by Wickmayer. Petra defeated both Wickmayer and Flipkens to lead the Czech team to its 3-2 triumph.
-- #6. Ayumi Morita, 21. 5-5. Was #64 in Jul 2009 and is now #27 for 2011 to date (ratio 2.37). Two-handed from both sides, Morita won two main-draw matches at Australia 2011 and upset Kvitova at Dubai.
-- #7. Bojana Jovanovski, 19, 5-9, Was #71 in Oct 2010 and is now #31 for 2011-to-date. (ratio 2.29). The only teenager among our promising female group, Bojana scored strong runs at Sydney and Doha 2011. Her credits in 2011 include wins over Marino and Pennetta, and split-set losses to Zvonareva and Cibulkova.
Shown next are predicted 12-month rankings one year hence, in late-April 2012. (The present 12-month rankings are also shown.) The predicting method is the same as that used for the men's predictions earlier.
- Andrea Petkovic, predicted late-April 2012 ranking, #8 (presently ranked #15).
- Peng Shuai, predicted ranking #11 (presently #30).
- Julia Goerges, predicted ranking #14 (presently #27).
- Rebecca Marino, predicted ranking #32 (presently #60).
- Petra Kvitova, predicted ranking #10 (presently #19).
- Ayumi Morita, predicted ranking #26 (presently #54).
- Bojana Jovanovski, predicted ranking #25 (presently #57).
Although the women provide no extreme stand-out nominee comparable to Raonic among the men, our seven female selectees include two predicted into the top ten in the next 12 months and two others into the second ten. Europe provided four of our nominees, the Far East two.
It will be interesting to track our seven male and seven female nominees as they compete in the months ahead. It will also be interesting to compare their actual ranking in late-April 2012 with the predictions just offered.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
FOOTNOTE ON THE PREDICTION CALCULATIONS
To reach the predicted future rankings given in the text we begin with each player's 2011 year-to-date (4-month) ranking. That value is then adjusted for age by multiplying by a fraction where the numerator is the player's present age and the denominator is 24. That result is further adjusted for height by multiplying by a fraction where the numerator is 72 and the denominator is the player's height in inches (to maximum limit of 78 for men, 74 for women).
The above scheme is chosen by guesswork. Empirical data should permit refinement of its details one year from now.
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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.