The top singles performers of the pro tour are always prime candidates for becoming our Player of the Year. In some years, however, we honor other forms of excellence -- in doubles perhaps, in the winning of the Davis Cup, or for an unusually worthy achievement in a single event or sequence.
But throughout this tennis year, 2013, it was the top tier of singles players who won most of the world's attention. Among the men, three superstars alternated in achieving long winning streaks. The wonderful on-court runs and the overall on-court magnificence of the three -- Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray -- requires that one of them emerge from our deliberations as our male honoree for 2013.
A Year of Streaks
Novak Djokovic ruled in January, his eminence confirmed in his conquest of Australian Open 2013. It was Novak's third consecutive triumph at Melbourne Park, and it extended an unbroken run of match victories that began in late 2012 and eventually included Novak's first 16 matches of 2013 -- a total of 21 straight wins.
Novak's streak ended with a close loss in March at Indian Wells, where the eventual tournament winner and our new Il Primo -- the sport's immediate king-of-the-hill -- was Rafael Nadal. Rafa had recently returned from long absence owing to knee trouble, and he was now carving a sequence that would include consecutive triumphs in tournaments at Sao Paulo, Acapulco, and Indian Wells. His match-win streak reached 19 when he attained the final at Monte Carlo. But in an unexpected turn there, it was Djokovic who defeated Rafa in the final round.
Rafa promptly began another unbeaten run by sweeping the rest of the primary clay season, capturing Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and Garros -- a total of 22 consecutive match-wins. It was at Madrid, where Djokovic was present but lost early, where Rafa regained the Il Primo mantle lost at Monte Carlo. Rafa confirmed that distinction at Garros by defeating Novak in a five-set semi-final. But despite Rafa's superior results in 2013 through Garros, Djokovic remained the world #1, as Nadal had been sidelined during late 2012 and thus was currently well behind in the official rolling-12-month tally.
Meanwhile Andy Murray was signaling his readiness to challenge upward. Andy won the hard-court Masters 1,000 in Miami, then faded in the clay season, and reappeared in winning the historic grass tournament at Queen's. His greatest triumph soon followed, at Wimbledon 2013, where Andy became the first Britisher to capture the home-country Slam since Fred Perry in 1936. Andy defeated Djokovic in a final-round match of patience and baseline power. The grass had been unusually slippery during the tournament, and there had been an inordinate number of falls, some producing injuries.
Murray's reign as Il Primo was short. Rafael Nadal regained our unofficial honor by winning Canada and Cincinnati during the summer, and the Spanish megastar extended his new winning run to 17 by capturing U.S. Open, defeating Djokovic in an intense four-setter that turned to favor Rafa in the late going.
With Andy Murray now sidelined for back surgery, Rafa now extended his current streak to 22 with five more wins -- one in Davis Cup and four at China Open in Beijing. But Rafa's run ended in Beijing in a final-round loss to Djokovic. Novak thus again became our Il Primo, even as, in a curious reversal, Nadal simultaneously surpassed him as #1 in the official rankings, Novak having held that honor throughout 2013 to date.
Now it was Djokovic's turn to launch what would become the year's longest winning run. After his loss to Rafa at U.S. Open, Novak captured Beijing, Shanghai, and Paris Indoors for a total of 17 straight match wins. With the Year-Ender in London and the Davis Cup in Belgrade yet ahead, Novak's newest streak was still alive.
Both Nadal and Djokovic moved through the round-robin phase in London without defeat. Nadal next faced a dangerous semi-final opponent -- Roger Federer. Roger was six years older than Rafa, but Roger remained trim, strong, and slightly advantaged by the indoor hard court.
Many of the exchanges bordered on the unbelievable, both Nadal and Federer showing extreme quickness in getting to the corners in answer to severe attack. Both men returned with equal power to an opposite corner or sideline. The strong offensive and defensive abilities of both dazzled all watchers.
Service breaks came fairly often, as the excellence of both players was higher in serve-returning than in serving. As Nadal gradually forced his way into the lead, Roger dared not let up in his attacking lest Rafa promptly seize command during points. Occasionally a very heavy forehand by Roger brought a winner, but too often they produced errors by Roger. Toward the end of the affair Roger came into forecourt more frequently, but that tactic only made the scoreboard worse.
Roger's tennis year thus ended. He had often played extremely well during 2013, but there had been only one tournament victory (on grass at Halle). He now ranked outside the Big Four, replaced by the new #3, David Ferrer, with Murray at #4 for the year.
The other London semi was played at somewhat lower severity. A patient and confident Novak Djokovic was content to deliver blows that were only moderately forcing, relying on his superb court-moving skills to deny Stan Wawrinka's more-powerful thrusts -- thrusts that too often ended in an unforced error by Stan.
Thus the two principal actors of the year met once again in the London final, 11 November. Nadal had won three of their five earlier meetings in 2013, but Novak had won the most recent, at Beijing, and had won the two 1,000-point tournaments of the autumn, indoors in Shanghai and Paris, where in both cases Nadal had been knocked out prior to the final. The pre-match edge seemed with Djokovic.
The show-down followed the pattern seen in Djokovic's win over Wawrinka. Novak's ball-striking was again moderately forcing, pounding the sides and corners but almost always well inside Novak's margin of safety. Meanwhile Novak held off Rafa's heavier and more forceful blows, extending rallies by means of his own superb movement, his defenses blanketing his own side of the court, extending rallies and requiring Rafa to take greater risks.
There were many breathtaking, extended rallies, often showing the athleticism of both men. Rafa led in producing outright winners, but Rafa's unforced errors came uncharacteristically often. The affair ended in straight sets, leaving no doubt that Novak's tactics and execution had earned fully his victory.
Davis Cup final -- Serbia vs. Czech Republic
Four days after his triumph in London, Novak Djokovic took the court in Belgrade. The Serbian Davis Cup team was without its second-best and third-best singles players. (Tipsarevic was out with heel injury and Troicki was under suspension.) Two singles wins by Novak seemed possible, indeed probable. But without a second singles player of the caliber of its missing stars, Serbia's best hopes for the needed third win lay in the doubles.
The first-day's singles were split, as expected, won by Djokovic and the Czech leader, Tomas Berdych, respectively. Almost surely the third-day singles would also be split. Thus it would be the doubles, played the second day, that would determine the verdict.
The brilliant veteran Nenad Zimonjic led the Serbian doubles pair. Back in April, Nenad's partner in defeating the Bryan twins had been Ilija Bozoljac, 28, tall and strong at 6-4. Still, most watchers judged that the Serbs should, indeed would, replace Bozoljac with the vastly more talented Novak Djokovic.
The decision came only a few hours before the match. Fatigue from his long tennis season argued that Novak should sit out the doubles in order to assure his defeating the powerful Berdych in third-day singles. Novak had rarely played doubles in recent years, and the pair Djokovic-Zimonjic had lost their last two Cup matches, including to the current Czech pair Berdych-Stepanek in 2010. There was hope too that Bozoljac could repeat his past Cup performances when he and Zimonjic defeated the Bryans and narrowly lost to Canada's Nestor-Pospisil.
But that was not to be. Bozoljac-Zimonjic lost the doubles, the Czechs exploiting the weaker Bozoljac. Then on Sunday Novak defeated the unrested Berdych to equalize the meet, two wins all. Soon afterwards the fifth match went to the visitors, when Serbia's Duran Lajovic, 23, proved helpless against the quicker and more experienced Stepanek, whose varied game was at its best. Davis Cup 2013 went to Czech Republic, three matches to two.
Djokovic or Nadal?
Thus the year ended with Nadal still officially #1. But it was Djokovic who finished the year as Il Primo with 24 straight victories, who was clearly the better player at the end. One or the other had dominated throughout as our Il Primo except during Murray's short tenure. Which one deserves to be our male Player of the Year?
The achievements of the two were almost equal. Rafa won two Slams, Novak won one, was runner-up at two, and won the Year-Ender. Both had two superb runs of success. Rafa's came in the spring sequence through Garros and then in the summer through U.S. Open. Novak's came early in the year including Australian Open and then in his sweeping of the late-year events. They met six times in head-to-head meetings. Both won three times, Nadal winning the two played in Slams. Djokovic was clearly the world's Most Valuable Player (MVP) in Davis Cup 2013.
Both were far ahead of all others in the final official rankings. Rafa's slight lead was especially noteworthy considering his initial disadvantage in missing Australian Open. The mandatory inclusion of a zero-point score at the Open as one of Rafa's official "best-18" scores was a severe early handicap. But there was another feature in the official tabulation that worked to hurt his rival, Djokovic, as follows:
Unlike Fed Cup results among the women, Davis Cup successes are given weight in the official (ATP) ranking scheme, helping Novak's ranking-point total for the year somewhat. But there were two ways where the official scheme failed to recognize fully Novak's strong Cup performance in 2013, as follows:
(1) The official rules provide an extra ranking-point bonus to a player who wins eight meaningful (i.e., "live") singles matches in Davis Cup play without loss during the given year. Novak won all seven of his live matches during 2013, without loss. But he had no opportunity to play the required eighth meaningful match, as Serbia swept the first three matches in first-round action against Belgium, leaving no live matches to be played on the third day. Thus Novak had no chance of winning the 125-point bonus. The rules also award bonus points to a player winning seven meaningful Cup matches during the year provided his team wins the Cup. Novak indeed won seven but Novak missed 100-point bonus because Serbia failed to win the Cup. Both denials seem unfair.
(2) Without the bonuses, Djokovic received a total of 460 ranking points for his seven singles victories in Serbia's Davis Cup bid. We thus note that the typical ranking-point reward for the year's top player in Cup competition is about that of the winner of a 500-Series main-tour tournament, or about one-fourth the 2,000-points awarded for capturing a Slam. Note that a Cup MVP plays as many as eight best-of-five-set matches compared with seven needed in winning a Slam. The Cup play is usually in front of feverishly intense galleries and, like Slam matches, often on worldwide tv. I would therefore applaud a future decision to increase point rewards for Cup wins, perhaps rewarding the Cup MVP comparably to winning the 1,500-point Year-Ender. Doing so in 2013 would have lifted Novak's final ranking-point total well above Rafa's.
Our Player of the Year decision boils down to how strongly we value Djokovic's contribution in Davis Cup play, especially the events of that final weekend in Belgrade. Clearly, for example, if Djokovic at Belgrade had played and won the doubles with Zimonjic and then gone on to defeat Berdych on Sunday, that monumental achievement would have required us to lift Novak over Nadal regardless of Rafa's #1 ranking.
The full picture in Serbia's decision against using Novak in the doubles remains unclear. Still, even though Serbia failed to win the Cup, in my opinion Djokovic's unofficial MVP laurel remains unquestionable, his achievement greatly undervalued in ranking points.
Our male Player of the Year for 2013 is therefore Novak Djokovic, with citation as follows: (1) for his two magnificent runs that opened and closed the year, (2) for his finishing a close second to the year's official singles champion, and (3) for his contribution as MVP in the conduct of Davis Cup 2013 amid his nation's near-winning of the Cup.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Last month we named Serena Williams our female Player of the Year. We now seek our overall Player of the Year, deciding between Serena and Novak Djokovic.
In the previous 15-year history of our selections, we picked the male candidate ten times, the female five. Twice before, Serena has been our overall choice -- in 2002 at age 21 and in 2012 last year, when she was chosen over the male nominee, doubles artist Mike Bryan. Novak Djokovic was our male nominee once before, in 2011, when he won three Slams.
Our final choice as overall Player of the Year is seldom easy, as both nominees always show wonderful credentials. Our choice for 2013 is the mercurial Serena Williams, 32, whose domination of all opposition in sweeping Garros, U.S. Open, and the Year-Ender was complete. Her powerful serving and stroking, coupled with her magnificent athletic mobility and mental strengths, once again carried her to the heights after severe physical setbacks. Her success in 2013 -- winning two Slams and the year's #1 ranking -- echoed fifteen years of past greatness and strongly indicated that Serena's pursuit of higher glory is far from finished.
RISER OF THE YEAR
Our search for male Riser of the Year for 2013 begins by creating short list of riser candidates. The primary inputs in the calculation are player results in 2013 (measured in the official year-end rankings) and each player's best-ever 12-month performance prior to this year. Here are the top four:
Short List for Male Riser of 2013
-- Nick Kyrgios, age 18 (Australia), #183 for 2013, previous best #827
-- Vasek Pospisil, 23 (Canada), #36 for 2013, previous best #85
-- David Ferrer, 31 (Spain), #3 for 2013, previous best #4
-- Fabio Fognini, 26 (Italy), #16 for 2013, previous best #32
Teenaged Kyrgios is the purest newcomer to the pro wars on our short list. Prior to 2013 Nick competed regularly in ITF pro events and the Junior Slams, attaining the world #1 junior ranking and winning the 2013 Australian Open Juniors. His trajectory continued upward in pro-tour action thereafter, he winning a first-round match over Stepanek at Garros and recording five wins over second-hundred opponents late in the year. Meanwhile our oldest candidate, David Ferrer, during 2013 penetrated the long-standing Big Four -- ahead of Roger Federer and, by narrow margin, ahead of Andy Murray though the achievement is slightly clouded by Murray's absence for surgery.
The other two listees -- Fabio Fognini and Vasek Pospisil -- bring robust credentials. During the year both improved markedly within the world's top hundred, a range ideally reflecting the concept of our award. Of the two, the tall Canadian Pospisil is the younger -- the fresher in arriving at the upper echelons and thus a truer newcomer than Fognini. For Fabio, greatest activity and success came on clay, but there were also 14 match wins on nonclay surfaces including victories over Llodra, Dimitrov, Seppi, Baghdatis, Hewitt, and Robredo. In contrast, Pospisil scored only on hard courts, recording almost no activity or success on clay.
Fognini brings a light-mannered swagger in his on-court manner along with a variety in tactics that seem to follow his mood, all highly appealing to galleries. The Italian stylist is indeed our choice as 2013's male Riser of the Year.
Last month we named Romanian star Simona Halep, 22, as our female Riser of 2013. In now choosing between Simona and Fabio as our overall Riser of the Year, we compare measurements of their success, as follows. Simona ended the year as the world's #13 woman, having risen from a pre-2013 career-best #37. Fabio ended as #15 among the men from previous best #32. Thus it was Simona who attained the higher level and it was Simona who rose the most, having started her rise from a more distant previous best. The comparison serves to decide the issue. Our 2013 Riser of the Year is Simona Halep.
NATION OF THE YEAR
Success in Davis Cup and Fed Cup team competition has always been an important credential in choosing our pro tennis Nation of the Year. Indeed, in every year since 2004 our chosen honor nation captured at least one of the Cups. Last year's selection, Czech Republic, won both. But this year, in 2013, measurements of excellence are less clear-cut and more disparate in their message.
Primary National Laurels
-- Italy won Fed Cup 2013, and Czech Republic won Davis Cup, but the final-round victories of both, while worthy, were less than compelling because of absences that weakened the runner-up teams (Russia and Serbia).
-- In counting match-wins at the Slams, the male contingent from France led in wins (singles, doubles, and mixed) at Australian Open and Wimbledon. The males from Spain led at Garros and U.S. Open. Meanwhile the males from U.S.A. joined the French and Spanish men in composing the top three nations at all four Slams.
-- Among the women, the U.S. contingent led at Garros and U.S. Open, the Russkayas led at Australian Open, and the Czech Republic women led at Wimbledon. France and Italy both broke into the top three at two of the Slams.
-- Of the nine Masters 1,000 tournaments, Spain's males led the tally at six, U.S.A.'s in two, Canada's in one. Of the nine women's Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments, U.S.A.'s women led at five, Russia's at three, Czech Republic's at one.
-- Hopman Cup 2013 went to Serbia, and World Team Cup, the ATP men's team event, was not held, as the Dusseldorf event became a 250-Series tournament for individuals.
A small edge favoring U.S.A. is detectable in the above summary. America's candidacy is also aided by several other circumstances. The Americans competed well in Cup play. (Their males narrowly defeated Brazil in the first round, Querrey winning two singles and Isner one, overcoming an uncharacteristic loss in doubles by the Bryans. Querrey won again the first day against Serbia, while Djokovic defeated Isner. But the Bryans later lost in five sets to Bozoljac-Zimonjic, and Querrey lost in four to Djokovic. Meanwhile in Fed Cup, the American women lost to eventual-champion Italy on Italian clay, splitting the four singles matches when Lepchenko beat both Errani and Vinci. The team verdict awaited the fifth match, the doubles, where Huber-Lepchenko lost to the world #1 pair, Errani-Vinci. Then in April, American admission to 2014's World Group was won by the sisters Williams.)
Other U.S. successes were added by the Bryans, who missed a Grand Slam in men's doubles in a semi-final loss at U.S. Open, and by Serena Williams, the unquestioned women's champion for the year. Among the world's top female risers were Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens.
Several nations not already mentioned showed well for the future. The growing success of young male and female players from eastern Europe continued. Leading examples were Poland's Jerzy Janowicz and the Radwanska sisters along with Romania's Halep. From central Europe came soon-to-be stars Konjuh and Bencic. Eastern Asia too showed increased presence near the top, led by Li Na and Nishikori, while Canada with Raonic, Pospisil, and Bouchard and Australia with Kyrgios were on the upswing.
The future outlook for U.S.A. in pro tennis has stirred doubts. But for 2013, the American pros regain our Nation of the Year mantle, a distinction last won by the Yanks in 2007.
Offered here is our new watch list of risers, computed largely from results in this year's Third Trimester. Several appeared on earlier lists, having continued to rise since inclusion. Shown are each member's official 2013 year-end ranking plus his predicted target ranking for twelve months hence.
Vasek Pospisil, 23, 6-4 (Canada). Born in Canada, Vasek trained for several years in Czech Republic. He penetrated the top hundred in early 2013, and during Third Trimester he won the Challenger in Vancouver, reached the semis at Canadian Open (defeating Stepanek, Berdych, and losing closely to Raonic), and stretched Federer to a close third set in Basel. Using his height well, he has become a powerful server and striker. Currently #32, predicted target #23.
Dominic Thiem, 20, 6-0 (Austria). The son of tennis coaches, Dominic had an excellent international career as a junior. His talent brought good success in pro Challengers, primarily on clay, raising Dominic from the fourth hundred at the start of 2013 into the second hundred at mid-summer. Then in October on an indoor hard court in Vienna, after two fine wins, one of them over #70 Gimeno-Traver, Dominic carried Tsonga to a third-set tiebreaker. He then won the clay-court Challenger in Casablanca. Although he appears the likely Austrian top player, he missed Davis Cup this year amid disagreement with the national tennis authorities. Currently #122, predicted target #74.
Karen Khachanov, 17, 6-6 (Russia). Moscow-born Karen showed moderate success in junior events of 2013, winning the European Juniors in Switzerland and defeating Nick Kyrgios in the Garros Juniors. He was unranked by ATP at the start of Third Trimester and competed only occasionally thereafter, but he scored late-year wins over top-hundred players Tipsarevic, A. Ramos, and Hanescu in main-tour indoor action. Currently #447, predicted target #321.
Bradley Klahn, 23, 6-0 (U.S.A.). A former NCAA singles champion from Stanford, left-handed Brad was a member of our watch list named one year ago. He now starts a fresh twelve-month tenure thanks to a surge in Challenger results in Third Trimester, all on hard courts. His only main-tour appearance during that period came at U.S. Open, where he reached the second round, losing to seeded Feliciano Lopez in four sets. His W-L percentage has been very good, but there have been few wins over top-hundred players. Currently #98, predicted target #52.
Joao Sousa, 24, 6-1, (Portugal). To past strong results in clay-court Challengers, Joao in 2013 added balanced success on hard courts as well. He reached the third round at U.S. Open, defeating Dimitrov and Nieminen in five-setters and losing to Djokovic. Starting at the Open, he scored nine wins over top-hundred opponents, including Ferrer, while losing a total of only six matches. The sequence included winning the hard-court tournament at Valencia. He has long trained in Barcelona and now lists residence there. Currently #49, predicted target #32.
Milos Raonic, 22, 6-5 (Canada). Born in Europe, Milos moved to Canada at age three with his parents. In 2007 he was an early enrollee at the National Training Center in Montreal. His devastating serve lifted him to success indoors in early 2011, gaining wide attention, but surgery sidelined him and slowed his rise later in the year. He has since improved his all-court abilities and in 2013 he briefly penetrated the world's top ten. One of the game's most powerful servers and strikers, Milos now appears on our watch lists for the third time. Currently #11, predicted target #5.
Marco Cecchinato, 21 (Italy). Marco's success in clay-court Challengers accelerated in Third Trimester, including wins over Davis Cupper Lajovic, Volandri (who won the Challenger Year-Ender), and several other Challenger stalwarts. In July he scored an interesting win over Dominic Thiem in the final of a Futures event. Marco's only main-tour appearances came at Kitzbuhel and Rome, where he lost in the qualifiers, and at Nice where he won through in the qualifiers but then lost to Fognini in split sets. Currently #165, predicted target #129.
Our sixth watch list, created one year ago, has completed its cycle of life and now requires final review. Five of the seven members improved during the twelve months, but only one surpassed his predicted target level at the finish. That was Bradley Klahn. (Brad also reappears in our newest list, above.) Of the other improvers, two rose more than half-way to their target rankings (Jerzy Janowicz and Jack Sock), two rose to lesser extent (Guido Pella and Steve Johnson). Two members did not improve (Evgeny Donskoy and Grega Zemlja).
The member who reached the highest ranking for the period was Jerzy Janowicz, who was #26 at the outset and finished as #21 against a predicted target of #18. Our class star, Klahn, was #249 at the outset and finished as #98 against target of #152.
Our seventh list, created April 2013, is now two-thirds to its finish. Four members show better rankings than at the outset (Grigor Dimitrov, Alejandro Gonzalez, Frederico Delbonis, and Rhyne Williams), though only one (Dimitrov) seems assured of finishing ahead of his target. As to the July 2013 list, after one trimester only Pablo Carreno Busta is ahead of his predicted target, and the other six have all regressed.
The full cast will begin reassembling in late December, drawn by two weeks of tune-ups in the Pacific and Asian region. The qualifying tournament for Australian Open will start on Wednesday 8 January, main-draw play five days later.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will start the New Year as the official world #1 and unofficial Il Primo, respectively. Andy Murray's timetable of readiness after back surgery remains unclear, but if he recovers fully his chances to join Rafa and Novak as the Big Three atop the sport in 2014 are good. All three are at prime tennis age. Older stars Ferrer and Federer are likely to compete with Berdych and del Potro at the next level, perhaps joined in the world's first eight by a newcomer whether Raonic, Janowicz, or Dimitrov.
Serena will start as both #1 and La Prima. The gap between Serena and the next level is large. Maria Sharapova's recovery timetable, like Andy Murray's, is uncertain, but if healthy Maria could challenge Azarenka as La Seconda. Li Na, Radwanska, and Kvitova should form the next tier, where Kvitova's serving and stroking power give her the greater upward prospects. Still-young Wozniacki, Halep, and Lisicki share riser potential but in 2013 must hold off still-younger heavy-hitters Stephens, Bouchard, Hampton, and Keys, North Americans all.
The level of tennis achieved by the pros advances with every year. The arrival of ever-stronger, better-trained newcomers requires even the superstars to keep improving. The new Golden Age continues.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.