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December 9, 2011
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Tennis Server Player Of The Year 2011
by Ray Bowers
The Big Four in men's tennis have been a closed group ever since Andy Murray became a member in 2008. Year 2011 was the fourth in succession that Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray held the top four places in the year-end standings. There was one big change, however, as Novak Djokovic took over the top position, breaking the pattern since 2004 where either Federer or Nadal finished as #1. Federer and Tsonga met in the recent year-end finale in London, Roger winning, even as Jo-Wilfried's strong play suggested that the Big Four's dominance might be weakening. It was indeed a year of drama, especially at the Slams.
FIRST TRIMESTER 2011
As the new year 2011 began, Rafael Nadal stood at #1 atop men's tennis, having won three of the four Slams of 2010. Rafa's bid for four consecutive Slam crowns faltered in the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park 2011, however, when Rafa, troubled by a left hamstring injury, lost to countryman David Ferrer. Novak Djokovic became the champion of Australian Open 2011, defeating Federer in the semis in three ferocious, dazzling sets. Djokovic then beat Andy Murray behind ruthless power and consistency to the lines backed up by the young Serbian's superb defensive and countering skills. Andy, who had been runner-up last year at Melbourne Park, had beaten Nole in their three preceding meetings.
Djokovic then won the 500-Series Masters event in Dubai in February, beating Federer, and also the 1,000-Series events in Indian Wells and Miami, winning split-set finals over Nadal in both cases. Then with Djokovic not competing, Rafa won the clay tournaments at Monte Carlo (1,000 Series) and Barcelona (500 Series), losing only one set (to Murray) in the two events.
Tennis Server Players of the Year
Player of the Decade
Player of the Century
The tennis year's first trimester thus ended with Djokovic well ahead for the year to date. Nadal remained first in the official, rolling-12-month rankings.
Year-to-date rankings, April 24:
Next came two 1,000-Series events, both on clay -- one in the modern complex in Madrid, the other at the Foro Italico in Rome. Djokovic and Nadal met in the finals of both events -- the long-standing king of clay against the game's newest megastar who was still undefeated in 2011.
Both Djokovic and Nadal are excellent servers, but both are absolutely superior as serve-returners. Thus there were many breaks of serve at Madrid, where the 2,000-foot elevation and relatively fast-bouncing clay surface seemed to Djokovic's slight advantage. The greater margin, however, lay in Nole's backhand two-hander, whether directed to a cross-court angle or disguised down-the-line. Especially impressive was Djokovic's determination not to yield in the longer and most arduous exchanges, which, incredibly, equaled and sometimes surpassed Rafa's usually impregnable resolve. One week later in Rome, the winner again was Novak, where damp and cool (i.e., slow) conditions swung the edge to Nole's flatter and more penetrating rocketry.
Despite Djokovic's recent victories, our indicators still made Nadal the favorite to win at Garros. Rafael indeed became the winner, but the verdict came not in a head-to-head meeting with Nole but rather from split-set, fierce battles pitting the two in turn against Roger Federer. With each of the three men producing his magnificent best, Roger nosed out Djokovic but was then broken down at the finish by Nadal. It was Rafa's sixth Garros triumph.
Much of the action at Wimbledon took place under closed roof, but the high theater persisted. Tsonga lost the first two sets but then defeated Federer in five. In the semis Rafa beat Murray while Djokovic defeated Tsonga. Bothered by a foot injury in the final against Djokovic, Rafa played a decidedly attacking game, but Novak's superb defensive and countering ability proved unbreakable. Both semi-final matches and the final at Wimbledon were four-setters.
Year-to-date rankings, August 7:
Djokovic won the Canadian, beating late-career riser Mardy Fish. Novak then withdrew midway in the final at Cincinnati with arm/shoulder trouble, Murray collecting that crown. Then at the year's fourth Slam, U.S. Open, once again, as at Garros, the Big Four all reached the semi-finals.
The Federer-Djokovic semi became another classic. Novak lost the first two sets, closely, then -- as in their 2010 semi at the same event -- survived two adverse match points, both of them decided in memorable manner. Then with Roger's freshness now past, Novak ran out the victory with relentless perfection. Meanwhile Nadal beat Murray in four, thus setting up yet another Djokovic-Nadal final. The winner was Djokovic, again in four sets amid relentless rocketry by both men and superb defensive and countering ability again by both. At the finish it was Rafa who faltered physically.
Fall brought 1,000-Series events in Shanghai and Paris. Murray won the former for the second straight year, Federer won indoors in Paris. Then in the season's finale in London, it was Tsonga's superior weight of shot in both serving and stroking that nearly prevailed. But Sir Roger produced enough serving and mid-court/forecourt brilliance to win the first and third sets, each by margin of one service break. It was Federer's sixth time as champion of the year-ending event, and it allowed Roger to regain third place in the 2011 race, Murray having taken that place after good results earlier in the fall. The win over Tsonga was Roger's 17th straight match victory since his loss at U.S. Open, and it completed an undefeated (16-0) record indoors over Roger's full year.
Was the Big Four becoming fragile? As runner-up in London (and also as semi-finalist at Wimbledon earlier), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga showed himself the player most ready to penetrate the top group. Meanwhile Ferrer, Berdych, and Tipsarevic (substituting for Murray) also showed wins at London over one or more of the Four, though injuries probably contributed to the reversals.
ATP final standings for 2011:
TENNIS NATION OF THE YEAR
One year ago in choosing our Pro Tennis Nation of the Year for 2010, we selected the small country of Serbia, the year's Davis Cup champion. The selection broke a run of eight straight years where three other nations -- Spain, Russia, and U.S.A. -- had taken turns in earning the award.
Spain's males again created a fine resume for 2011. Nadal, Ferrer, Lopez, and Verdasco all contributed singles wins in the Armada's march to the Davis Cup trophy. In the final-round victory over Argentina, played before spirited and good-natured galleries in Sevilla, Nadal contributed two singles wins for Spain, while Argentina's first-time doubles pairing Nalbandian-Schwank produced a fine doubles victory for the visitors. The first-day's match between Ferrer and del Potro was the most closely contested, the Spanish player's rock-solid defenses and some critical backhand passing shots causing the attack-minded del Potro to produce the greater number of errors. It was Spain 3, Argentina 1.
Meanwhile the Spanish men won more matches than any other male contingent at two of the Slams (Australian Open and Garros) and at four of the nine Master's-1,000 tournaments. Spain's women were much less successful but contributed one worthy achievement -- promotion from World Group 2 to become one of the eight World Group nations for Fed Cup 2012. The promotion resulted from a head-to-head team victory over France behind two singles wins by Martinez Sanchez. Weighting the Davis Cup triumph heavily, we grade Spain's candidacy for our award: A Minus.
As usual Russia was at or near the top on the women's side. The Russkayas won the most matches at Australian Open, Garros, and U.S. Open as well as at eight of the nine Premier Mandatory/Premier Five tournaments. The Russian women also reached the Fed Cup final. But with neither Sharapova nor Zvonareva in the line-up, they lost closely to Czech Republic in the late-year showdown. The Russian males meanwhile showed less success, though the team managed to escape relegation from Davis Cup World Group when Youzhny and Tursunov won third-day singles matches in a come-from-behind win against Brazil. Russia's candidacy: A Minus.
Czech Republic also brought strong credentials, especially considering that nation's small size. The Czech women's contingent finished in second place at three of the Slams and in third place or better in seven of the Premier Mandatory/Premier Fives. Czech Republic captured Fed Cup 2011 behind its superstar, Petra Kvitova, defeating the Russians in Moscow. Throughout the year the Czech women showed strength in doubles, placing six individuals in the year's top thirty doubles performers -- more than any other nation. Among them was Kveta Peschke, a member of the world top-ranked pair, and Lucie Hradecka, who with Peschke won the deciding doubles match to defeat Russia in the Fed Cup final.
Meanwhile the Czech males, led by top-tenner Tomas Berdych, avoided relegation from World Group by winning their playoff meeting with Romania. In August, Tomas's Cup team-mate Radek Stepanek, playing brilliantly behind relentless net attack, defeated Monfils to win the Legg Mason tournament here in Washington. Radek was wonderfully perceptive and responsive in his several press interviews during that event. Crowning the Czech resume, however, was the towering figure of young Kvitova, 21, champion of Wimbledon 2011, who last month became our female nominee as Player of the Year. Czech Republic's candidacy: A Minus.
The men from U.S.A. won the most matches at Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and three of the Master's-1,000's. Mardy Fish penetrated the world's top eight late in the year, while in doubles the Bryan brothers won Australian Open and Wimbledon and finished the year as the #1 men's pair. John Isner made a strong late-year surge toward the top group and also joined Bethanie Mattek-Sands in carrying the Yanks to victory in Hopman Cup. The Americans fielded a potent Davis Cup line-up, but the U.S. won only the doubles in the second-round meeting with a Spanish team that lacked Nadal. Meanwhile with the sisters Williams mainly on the sidelines there was little American success in women's singles, though Serena made the final at U.S. Open. In women's doubles, South-Africa-born Liezel Huber, now of U.S., finished as 2011's #1 performer. In Fed Cup action, U.S.A. suffered relegation to World Group 2, losing to the rising German team on Stuttgart clay. U.S.A. candidacy: B.
Argentina was Davis Cup runner-up. Germany won World Team Cup on clay behind Mayer, Kohlschreiber, and Petzschner, and produced a strong group of rising female stars. Small-nation Serbia again won disproportionately large honors, its male contingent finishing in the top three at two Slams and three Master's-1,000's and reaching the Davis Cup semis, losing to Argentina in the absence of Djokovic. Candidacy grade for each of these nations: B Minus.
The margin is extremely narrow, as our letter-grades show a three-way tie at the top. We deem that the edge over Spain and Russia belongs to small-nation Czech Republic, which thus becomes our Nation of the Year in Pro Tennis. It looks like a rising tide ahead for the Czechs.
TOP MALE RISERS OF 2011
Here, each player's improvement in 2011 is measured numerically by dividing (1) his best-ever ranking prior to 2011 by (2) his ranking for full-year 2011. Two players score at the very top -- both of them under age 21, both former childhood emigrants from Europe to new homelands with their parents.
Bernard Tomic, 19, 6-4.
best ranking prior to 2011, #208
ranking for 2011, #41
This tall and slender Aussie has good power in serving and stroking but, more importantly, has also shown superior skills in control, deception, and variety in long exchanges. After a fine career as a junior and then competing mainly in ATP Challenger events, Bernard began 2011 at world ranking #208. He won twice in main-draw action at Australian Open 2011, winning a place on our late-April watch list of predicted risers. He rose further at Wimbledon, where he emerged from the qualifying rounds to win four main-draw matches, defeating Davydenko and Soderling, becoming the youngest quarter-finalist at Wimbledon since Boris Becker. In Davis Cup action in September Bernard, not yet 19, defeated Wawrinka and lost in four sets to Federer in Australia's 3-2 loss to Switzerland. Tomic then compiled a winning record in the ATP tour sequence in the Far East.
Milos Raonic, 20, 6-5
best ranking prior to 2011, #156
ranking for 2011, #31
Tall and strong at 198 pounds, this Canadian riser turns 21 in late December. Unlike Tomic, Raonic's strength is in his extreme power, both in stroking and, especially, in serving. After rising from the qualifiers and defeating two seeded players to reach the fourth round at Australian Open 2011, Milos won the indoor event at San Jose in dazzling fashion and reached the final at Memphis, delivering an almost incredible 129 aces at the latter event. He then scored well in Europe, winning twice at Monte Carlo, twice at Barcelona, three times at Estoril, and winning his first match at Wimbledon before retiring. A damaged hip then required surgery, and although his return came surprisingly soon, his ranking went from #25 after Wimbledon to #31 at year's end.
(The ten top risers of 2011 are listed at the end of this essay.)
WATCHING OUR WATCH LISTS
Late last April, in a variation of the above calculation, we used results from 2011's first trimester (adjusted for age, height, and statistical regression) to identify likely risers ahead and predict their future ranking twelve months hence. Primarily we looked at players inside or approaching the top hundred.
Both Raonic and Tomic, discussed above, were among the seven players predicted most likely to rise. Also listed was South African Kevin Anderson, then age 24, who was predicted to attain ranking #22 one year hence. Since the prediction, Kevin has improved moderately, performing at #33, including wins over Murray at Montreal and Roddick at Beijing. Meanwhile Ukraine-born Alex Dolgopolov, predicted to attain #13, has also improved, having performed at #23 since the prediction, including a final-sixteen appearance at U.S. Open along with a win on clay over Ferrer at Nice.
In a similar calculation in early August based on second-trimester performance, the new leader was Tomic, reflecting his success at Wimbledon. Also listed were German player Florian Mayer and American Alex Bogomolov. Florian was predicted to attain #15, and has in actuality has achieved rank #16 for the period since the prediction. Alex's predicted rank was #58, and in actuality he has performed far better, at #21. (Approval has been given for
Moscow-born Bogomolov to represent Russia in Davis Cup 2012.)
Of the others listed in April and August, several have shown only small improvement (Dodig, Andujar, Fognini, and Harrison), while two have seen their careers reverse, at least temporarily (Rosol, Sweeting.)
WATCH LIST FOR 2012
Our newest list of predicted risers, just calculated, flows from results in third trimester of 2011. The oldest of our seven selectees is just 23 (Ebden), and all but one (Nishikori) are at least six feet tall. Most are at their best on hard courts, though two (Klizan and Paire) have been primarily clay-courters.
As a group, the seven describe the pattern followed by many emerging pro stars -- first competing as teenagers or at college age in the ITF Futures and ATP Challengers, then as ranking improves, competing in the qualifying rounds of Slam and main-tour tournaments, and finally with ranking now inside the first hundred obtaining direct entry and valuable seeded places for Slams and main-tours. The whole process is seamlessly measured in the ATP ranking system. Our seven selectees, below, are listed here in order starting with the most likely riser in the coming twelve months.
Jack Sock, 19, 6-1
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #549
ranking for 3rd trimester, #108
Back in 2010 this strong Nebraskan won the USTA Juniors at Kalamazoo and the U.S. Open Juniors. (He was the first American male to win the Open Juniors since Roddick in 2000.) After that he scored moderate success mainly in Challenger events. At U.S. Open 2011 he won his first main-draw match before losing to Roddick in straight sets. He also gained notice by winning the mixed doubles crown at the Open with Melanie Oudin. His current official ranking is #382, and his predicted ranking one year from now is #124.
Kei Nishikori, 21, 5-10
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #46
ranking for 3rd trimester, #11
Grown in Japan, Nishikori trained in Florida since age 14. In 2008 at age 18 he won the ATP main-draw tournament at Del Ray Beach and advanced to the fourth round at U.S. Open, beating Ferrer, thereby penetrating the world's top hundred. He missed most of 2009 with elbow trouble and surgery, and he returned to moderate success in 2010, re-entering the top hundred late in that year. His upward climb continued in 2011, with results in the third trimester including semi-final finishes at Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur and with wins over Berdych and a shoulder-troubled Djokovic at Basel. His current official ranking is #25, and his projected ranking one year hence is #13.
Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, 21, 6-0
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #148
ranking for 3rd trimester, #43
This German riser performed almost entirely in Challenger events during 2011, showing excellent results in the third trimester. A left-hander whose record shows strong preference for hard courts over clay, Stebe qualified among the top eight for the Challenger year-end finale in Sao Paulo in November. There, he lost one of his round-robin matches but then recovered to win that indoor hard-court event, defeating a former top-thirty player in the final match. Officially ranked #81, his predicted ranking one year hence is #47.
Martin Klizan, 22, 6-3
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #137
ranking for 3rd trimester, #45
This young player from Slovak Republic has played almost all his pro matches on the ATP Challengers and ITF Futures circuits, mainly on clay, the surface where his winning percentage is highest. His fortunes turned upward in third trimester 2011, when he reached the late rounds in a sustained run of events and won the Challenger event in Genoa. He scored two singles wins in Davis Cup zonal play against Ukraine in September. He was among the eight top point-winners in the year's Challengers, but lost all three of his round-robin matches in the finale at Sao Paulo. Officially ranked #117, his predicted ranking one year hence, #50.
Matthew Ebden, 23, 6-2
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #131
ranking for 3rd trimester, #45
Born in South Africa, schooled in Australia, and now representing that nation, Ebden showed moderate success in Futures and Challenger-circuit play through 2010, along with strong results in main-tour action on Australian hard courts in early 2010 and 2011. He broke into the world's top hundred in late 2011 by winning in the qualifying rounds and then reaching the final sixteen at Tokyo (losing in split sets to Ferrer) and the final eight at Shanghai (losing to Murray). There have also been good results in doubles, including in winning the doubles at Newport 2011 with Ryan Harrson and at Atlanta with Alex Bogomolov. At current official rank of #86, his predicted ranking one year hence is #53.
Vasek Pospisil, 21, 6-4
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #155
ranking for 3rd trimester, #65
In a fine third trimester, this tall youth climbed out of the qualifiers at U.S. Open to reach the final 64, beat Isner to reach the final 16 at Valencia, defeated Chela in reaching the final 32 at Montreal, and contributed two singles win in Canada's defeating Israel to enter next year's Davis Cup World Group. Nearly all his past record has been on hard courts, primarily in Challengers. With Milos Raonic, Vasek gives Canada strong expectations for future international success. Current official ranking, #119, projected one year hence, #65.
Benoit Paire, 22, 6-5
best ranking before 3rd trimester, #98
ranking for 3rd trimester, #40
Benoit scored moderate success in early 2011, showing a main-draw win at Australian Open, three more at the indoor event in Rotterdam, and qualifying-round triumphs at Nice and Barcelona. The greater success of this tall, slender native of Avignon, however, came in the third trimester, when he scored a fine run of victories in clay-court Challenger events, winning the tournaments at Salzburg and Brasov, Romania, and capturing multiple victories in several others. His preference for clay is clear. With a current official ranking of #98, he is here projected to reach #42 in 2012.
Probably most of our selectees are unfamiliar to most readers. Will all of them demand greater notice in 2012? Will one or two become diamonds soon to glitter?
MALE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The identity of our male Player of the Year is hardly a surprise. Novak Djokovic, now age 24, captured three of the year's four Slams, losing only at Garros albeit closely to Federer. His run of 41 straight match victories to start the year included a W-L mark of 8-0 against Federer, Nadal, and Murray. Success resumed after Garros, reaching a year-to-date W-L mark of 57-1 prior to Novak's retiring from a match in Cincinnati and 64-2 after his winning U.S. Open. Thus for eight months Nole absolutely towered over the sport. Behind his success were his mobility, power, control, and court craft, all unsurpassed by any other competitor, along with a mental disposition that made him almost invincible as a point lengthened. That Djokovic merits our male player of the year selection is indisputable.
Also scoring high achievement in 2011 was Rafael Nadal, who won his sixth Garros crown, and Federer who at age 30 won seventeen consecutive matches at year's end. Finally, the American brothers Bryan won the doubles at Australian Open and Wimbledon, finishing the year as the world #1 doubles pair for the sixth time.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Choosing our overall honoree is more difficult. The choice lies between our male selectee, Djokovic, and Petra Kvitova, who was named our 2011 Female Player of the Year in this column several weeks ago. The strong, young Czech star, now 21, won Wimbledon 2011 and the year-ending finale in Istanbul, led her nation to the Fed Cup championship, and as world #2 was unquestionably the year's foremost riser in women's if not all pro tennis.
Our past tendency in making this choice has favored the male candidates. In the thirteen years since our award began, the male finalist has been picked nine times, probably reflecting that the era has indeed been a strong one in men's tennis, heightened by the historic careers of Federer and Nadal. In contrast, the women's sport was unfortunately diminished by injuries, even as each new champion's period of dominance seldom prevailed for long among the women.
I greatly admire Kvitova's magnificent success along with her attractive, modern playing style. Her personal manner in every situation has perfectly reflected her rise as a new and young champion. It is hardly to be doubted that long superstardom lies ahead.
But Djokovic's superb first eight months of 2011, where Novak thoroughly surpassed the previous, unchallenged dominance of Federer and Nadal, requires the higher recognition. Novak's was indeed the achievement that will most mark the tennis year. Announced here with full conviction as our Tennis Server Player of the Year for 2011 is Novak Djokovic.
Novak Djokovic (shown here at the 2011 US Open)
is the 2011 Tennis Server Player of the Year.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX -- TOP TEN MALE RISERS OF 2011
Shown are each player's previous-best-ever official ranking as of end of 2010, his official end-of-2011 ranking, and the ratio of the two.
- Bernard Tomic, #208, #41, ratio 5.07
- Milos Raonic, #156, #31, ratio 5.03
- Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, #322, #81, ratio 3.97
- Janko Tipsarevic, #33, #9, ratio 3.67
- Alex Bogomolov, #97, #34, ratio 2.85
- Alex Dolgopolov, #40, #16, ratio 2.50
- Ivan Dodig, #86, #36, ratio 2.39
- Kei Nishikori, #56, #25, ratio 2.24
- Vasek Pospisil, #279, #121, ratio 2.23
- Ryan Harrison, #170, #79, ratio 2.15
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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.