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December 15, 2014
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Player of the Year 2014
by Ray Bowers
"... for all he's done, for all he's achieved, for the way in which he's done it."
Tennis Year 2014 saw the long dominance of the men's Big Four considerably weakened. Injuries were partly responsible, especially those of Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, while Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were also at times troubled. Whereas since 2005 Big Four members had won every Slam rendition except one, that changed drastically in 2014, as follows:
--Brett Haber, Tennis Channel,
comment during Federer vs. Gasquet, 23 November 2014
-- Australian Open, Stan Wawrinka
-- Garros, Rafael Nadal
-- Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic
-- U.S. Open, Marin Cilic
There was no Slam triumph in 2014 for Roger Federer, but it was yet another distinguished year for Sir Roger, who in reestablishing himself at the game's highest level consistently occupied the world's center stage. Federer's remarkable performances in a year in which he turned age 33 made Roger a leading candidate for selection as our Player of the Year in men's pro tennis.
Tennis Server Players of the Year
Player of the Decade
Player of the Century
Twelve months ago Roger finished the year as world #6 after ten straight years in the top three including five years as #1. There had been only one tournament triumph for Roger in 2013 crossed by difficult injury problems, especially with his chronic back. That Roger's career had passed its zenith seemed obvious.
But in January 2014, Roger gave notice to the contrary. At Australian Open Roger won his first four matches, all in straight sets. Against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger seemed at his all-time best, attacking relentlessly, boldly forcing his way forward, winning 35 points at net compared with Jo-Wilfried's 11. Then in the quarter-finals Roger defeated Andy Murray, himself off recent back surgery, again amid determined attacking by Roger.
Roger would lose in the semis to Rafael Nadal who in turn would lose to Wawrinka in the final, Rafa having hurt his back early in the match. A few weeks later Federer won the tournament in Dubai, defeating Djokovic and Berdych. A close loss to Djokovic followed in the final at Indian Wells, another to Nishikori in the quarters at Miami, and yet another to Wawrinka at Monte Carlo. But the many strong performances to date had brought Roger back inside the world's top four.
At Wimbledon Roger again had trouble with the heavy hitting of countryman Wawrinka, Roger losing the first set but managing to prevail after winning a thrilling tiebreaker in the second. Then in the semis, it was vintage Federer, outclassing young opponent Raonic in all realms except in first-serving, Roger winning in straight sets. Then came the magnificent Wimbledon final, where both Federer and Djokovic played at their highest levels. It ended at 6-4 in the fifth set, Djokovic winning after producing a remarkable 65% point-winning percentage against Roger's second serve. The greatness of both men seemed confirmed.
Roger was now world #3, still climbing. During the summer he reached the final at Toronto, then triumphed at Cincinnati. At U.S. Open he narrowly escaped the sizzling rocketry of Gael Monfils in five sets, but Roger then battled through to the semi-final round, where he lost to eventual-champion Cilic. Roger's climb resumed in October when Roger won the tournaments in Shanghai and Basel, as he now returned to world #2 ranking.
Then came what was probably Roger's most spectacular performance -- his demolition of Andy Murray in the round robin at the World Tour finale in London in November. I cannot recall ever seeing Roger, or anyone else in recent times, playing as aggressively and forcefully as Roger in winning the first eleven games of the affair. Murray was crushed utterly. I admired Roger's well-disguised yielding of the twelfth game out of respect for his long-time rival.
But the long year was taking its toll. On semi-final Saturday in London Roger narrowly defeated nemesis Wawrinka in a split-set semi-final ending in a tiebreaker. Then shortly before the scheduled final-round meeting with Djokovic, Roger withdrew, citing a back injury that had happened against Wawrinka.
Federer, Wawrinka, and Davis Cup 2014.
Roger's remarkable rise to challenge Djokovic for #1 despite their six-year age difference was not the only historic achievement by Roger in 2014. At the start of the year Roger publicly committed himself to bringing the Davis Cup to Switzerland, a potential achievement that remained the only significant omission in Roger's career resume.
The quest for the Cup began in January when the Swiss team comfortably defeated a Serbian team without Djokovic. Then In April in Geneva, Kazakhstan proved more difficult when visiting player Golubev won his first-day singles against Wawrinka and Golubev-Nedovyesov won the second-day doubles against Federer-Wawrinka. But the Swiss Big Two, Federer and Wawrinka, came through to capture both third-day singles matches, thereby avoiding elimination from the year's Cup play. Then in September came a meeting against Italy, again in Geneva, where the Swiss Big Two won the needed three matches in singles. What remained was the Cup final, held 21-23 November on indoor clay in Lille, France.
Meanwhile the advance of the deep and experienced French team had been even more theatrical. In February France's Tsonga-Gasquet played impressively in defeating the Australian teenagers Kyrgios and Kokkinakis plus Hewitt. Then in April against Germany the French squad managed to recover after losing both first-day's singles. All four team members contributed. Benneteau-Llodra won the doubles and Tsonga and Monfils both won in third-day singles. Four months later, in September, Tsonga and Gasquet combined in defeating Czech Republic, the Cup champions in 2011 and 2012.
The final-round meeting in Lille between Switzerland and France produced Cup competition at its magnificent finest. The huge gallery, said to have been the largest in Cup history, gave vigorous support to the host team throughout, but there was also plenty of noisy encouragement from the red-clad Swiss sections. Oddly, all four members of the French team listed residence in Switzerland.
Wawrinka defeated Tsonga to start matters. Jo-Wilfried had seemed the stronger in winning the second set, but the power of Stan's ground game, especially his potent backhand one-hander, prevailed. Then Federer, whose time for recovery from his back trouble in London and for readjusting to clay from hard-court play had been almost non-existent, was scorched by the sterling power and court speed of Monfils. Thus the doubles loomed as critical for both squads, especially for the Swiss given how well Monfils had played against Roger on the first day.
So it was up to Roger and Gasquet, who replaced an arm-injured Tsonga, to face off in the fourth match of the rubber. The slow-bounce court seemed to Gasquet's benefit, increasing his ability to set up for his severe ground strokes. Both players hammered away with abandon. But it was now Roger Federer, with two matches behind him wherein to find his timing, who discover his best tennis. Gasquet constructed many points well. But Roger was invincible, consistently pushing his opponent to difficult positions, finishing points with his abandon of old.
Federer and Wawrinka thus brought the Cup to Switzerland for the first time. Both gave credit publicly to the whole squad of supporting personnel. Roger said his concluding victory was for the whole team. But it was also a precious addition to the career resume of Roger.
For his year-long return to high place in the men's game, and for his huge role in the Swiss Davis Cup triumph, Federer starts our list of Player of the Year male finalists.
CANDIDATES WAWRINKA AND DJOKOVIC
But what of Wawrinka, whose role in the Cup triumph had been as necessary as Roger's? (Stan's W-L mark in meaningful Cup singles matches during the year was 4-1, Roger's was 6-1. As a pair, Federer-Wawrinka were 1-1 in Cup doubles.) Stan outperformed Roger by winning a Slam, in Australia. Their three head-to-head meetings during the year were all close, but Federer won two of them, though Stan held several match points before losing to Roger at the London year-ender. Otherwise, however, Roger clearly outshone Stan. Wawrinka finished the year at rank #4, behind Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal.
And what of Novak Djokovic, indisputably the year's champion as #1 in the points race? In the sixteen years since the establishment of our award, the year's #1 male player in the rankings had been chosen our male Player of the Year eight times. As the tour champion, Novak Djokovic therefore ex-officio joins Federer and Wawrinka as members of our short list of finalists. Novak won Wimbledon 2014, and he added the crowns from the London finale as well as four of the year's nine Masters-Series tournaments.
GIANT-KILLER IN TORONTO
The fading of the Big Four seen in the Slam triumphs of Wawrinka and Cilic was even more bluntly expressed at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, 4-10 August 2014. There Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, seeded #13, won six consecutive matches to capture the tournament, losing only a single set enroute. Most amazingly, Jo-Wlfried's run included victories over three Big Four members -- Djokovic, Murray, and Federer. (Rafael Nadal had not entered the tournament.) Another victim was Grigor Dimitrov, also a member of the world's first ten. In winning the final match against Federer, 75 76, the powerful and athletic French star dominated convincingly with his potent serve and forehand.
The difficulty of winning a tournament in the presence of the Big Four had been sometimes discussed earlier. An outsider seeded in the range #5-8 in a major tournament, for example, would probably have to defeat two of the Four in succession. For a player seeded #9-16 (like Tsonga at Toronto), three such upsets would be needed -- a feat generally regarded as almost unachievable. But Jo-Wilfried did just that in an unprecedented display of success against so-well-entrenched elites.
Jo-Wilfried's giant-killing in Toronto was assuredly the most remarkable one-tournament achievement of the year -- a single-week triumph of a dimension meriting strong Player of the Year consideration.
RISER OF THE YEAR
Our computer can provide an order of rank among the year's top risers. The calculation used here compares each player's results during tennis year 2014 with those of his previous best-12-month period.
1. Alex Zverev, age 17, height 6-6 (Germany)
2. Thanasi Kokkinakis, 18, 6-5 (Australia)
3. Roberto Bautista Agut, 26, 6-0 (Spain)
4. Borna Coric, 18, 6-1 (Croatia)
5. Dominic Thiem, 21, 6-1 (Austria)
6. Kei Nishikori, 24, 5-10 (Japan)
Strong mid-year results lifted our top-listed candidate here, Alex Zverev. Having just won the Braunschweig Challenger, Germany, on clay, the tall youth swept through to reach the semis at the main-tour (500 Series) clay tournament in Hamburg, where he defeated four opponents all ranked in the world's top hundred. A loss to Ferrer by one-sided scores followed, and Alex's other results during 2014 were not especially impressive, but the arrival on the world scene of the Hamburg-born youth, playing in his home city, could hardly be ignored.
But the most eye-catching rise of the year was that of a more-established star, listed sixth, above. Kei Nishikori's climbed steadily during the year despite intervening back, foot, and hip injuries. It began rather quietly, Kei successfully defending his #16 seed at Australian Open, thereby improving from official rank #17 to #16. A triumph at Memphis Indoors lifted him to #15, and he further climbed to #12 after beating Ferrer and Federer at Miami. He triumphed on clay at Barcelona and reached the final at Madrid to reach #10 in May.
A splendid runner-up finish at U.S. Open then jumped him to #8, and further rise to #6 came with successive tournament wins at Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. He ended the year with successive semi-final finishes at Paris Indoors and the London finale, losing to Djokovic at both places and placing his final rank at #5.
The magnitude of his year-long rise, especially his strong finish, compel Kei Nishikori's selection as our Riser of the Year. The brilliant Japanese star hereby joins the four nominees already named here as short-list candidates for our award.
Twice in past years, a doubles superstar has been chosen our male Player of the Year. Jacco Eltingh was chosen in 1998 and Mike Bryan in 2012, both entirely from success in doubles.
Here were the Slam-winners in men's doubles, 2014:
-- Australian Open, Lukasz Kubot and Robert Lindstedt
-- Garros, Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin
-- Wimbledon, Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock
-- U.S. Open, Bob and Mike Bryan
But if four different pairs captured the year's Slams, there was little doubting the year-long superiority of one of them. During 2014 Bob and Mike Bryan won a total of ten tournaments, including the London finale, U.S. Open, and the Masters 1,000 events at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Cincinnati, Shanghai, and Paris Indoors. They were also runners-up at the most prestigious doubles event of all, the Wimbledon doubles. It added up to a point total more than twice that of the second-place pair, Nestor-Zimonjic.
For the Bryans, now age 36, it was their tenth year as world #1. Recognizing that their magnificent doubles career, which had lifted immeasurably the pro doubles game both in its popularity and how it is played, is probably nearing its end, we whole-heartedly honor them here.
It being impossible to separate Bob and Mike in their 2014 results in men's doubles, we here name Bob to our short list, reflecting that Mike had been narrowly picked over his brother two years ago. We note that although both men competed only once in mixed doubles, Bob played and won a mixed-doubles match at Wimbledon 2014 while Mike lost his initial match in the same event. A small margin thus emerges favoring Bob.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Here then are our six male finalists. Their credentials have been sketched above and now restated briefly:
-- Roger Federer -- Late-career resurgence to world #2; many magnificent
performances at highest level; a Davis Cup for Switzerland.
-- Stan Wawrinka -- Australian Open crown; a Davis Cup for Switzerland.
-- Novak Djokovic -- World ranking #1 for the year including triumphs at Wimbledon and at year-end finale.
-- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- Conquered the Big Four in Toronto.
-- Kei Nishikori -- Riser of the Year.
-- Bob Bryan -- #1 in men's doubles with brother Mike, for the tenth year.
The reader probably has already recognized our final verdict. Over and above the many dimensions of the greatness of Roger Federer, described earlier, is the one glimpsed in Brett Haber's comment printed at the top of this column. Haber's words reflected the nonpartisan and heartfelt admiration of Federer's quality echoed by the full gallery present in Lille for that final match of year. Roger's unprecedented achievements on the tennis court have come with a less easily measured but equally profound and habitual exemplification of the human sporting spirit, both on and off court. Federer's decency, integrity, fairness, and generosity, indeed an unfailing manner of nobility, have lifted tennis, indeed all sport, across every level and in every land. That gift to all of us will endure for many years. Roger Federer is our male Player of 2014.
That same surpassing dimension also compels naming Federer our overall Player of the Year. We choose him over our female nominee, named here last month, the talented Belinda Bencic, whose greatest contributions almost surely lie yet ahead. It is the fourth time that Roger, now 33, has received our honor, the first time since 2006.
TENNIS NATION OF THE YEAR
By winning Davis Cup 2014, Switzerland establishes a leading place in our Nation of the Year deliberations, a claim reinforced by the relatively small size of that nation and the rarity of its past international triumphs. The runner-up Davis Cup nation, France, and the semi-finalist nations, Italy and Czech Republic, also add to their current resumes. Meanwhile Fed Cup 2014 went to Czech Republic when that nation behind Kvitova and Safarova defeated Germany in the Fed Cup final. Italy and Australia shared third place.
We next turn to our counts of match-wins by the national contingents at the major tournaments, where the edge among the males goes to Spain. The Armada led in victories at Garros and U.S. Open and was second-best at Australian Open. France led at Australian Open and Wimbledon and was second at Garros. Of the nine Masters tournaments, Spain's males won five, France's two, USA's two.
Meanwhile the USA was the most successful in the same measurements among the women. The American females led at Australian Open and U.S. Open, and were second to Czech Republic at Wimbledon. A three-way tie resulted at Garros among Germany, Spain, and Russia. In the nine next-level tournaments, USA won four and tied with Italy at one. Russia and Czech Republic each won two.
France, led by Tsonga, won Hopman Cup. Team honors at Asian Games were divided among China, Chinese Taipei, and Kazakhstan.
Switzerland's main credential for our award -- the Davis Cup trophy -- was enhanced by our selection of two Swiss players, Federer and Bencic, as male and female Player of the Year. A pleasant and unusual symmetry thus emerges among our Player and Nation of the Year awards, where all rest on similar measured and intangible achievements. Switzerland's overall credentials thus stand ever-so-slightly higher than those of the several other leading nations. Our 2014 Nation of the Year in pro tennis is Switzerland.
BELLYACHE OF THE YEAR
Until the 1960's the server in tennis had to keep a least one foot on the ground. Nowadays, the leg-driven upward launch that accompanies the service motion of many servers produces extra height and extra velocity. The modern service-jump usually ends with at least one of server's feet landing on or inside the baseline. The jump is interpreted to be in compliance with the ITF rules of tennis, even though the rules state: "During the service motion, the server shall not change position by walking or running..." Wording elsewhere in the rules makes clear that the modern jumping is allowed -- though it surely entails a changing of position from behind the baseline to a new position onto or inside it.
Over the years my suspicions have grown that allowing the serve-jump is unwise. I recognize that the current interpretation eases problems in judging foot faults and improves overall serving quality. My reservations, however, stem from the harm caused to the player's frame, especially the lower back and lower joints, by the physical shock of thousands of such landings over a lifetime of play and practice. The damage would be at maximum when the landings are on hard courts.
In their readable and informative summary, "Musculoskeletal Injuries in Tennis," by Robert Perkins and Denise Davis, at Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 17 (2006) 609-631 (accessible by article title using internet search engine), the authors wrote that it is the serve in tennis that causes the most stress to the lower back. They include a discussion of degenerative disc changes that narrow the vertebrae separations, though they do not refer to repetitive jump-landings in serving as a cause. Was that point deemed self-evident? Or is it mistaken?
I am convinced that I prolonged my own tennis years by severely toning down my service-jumping a decade or so ago at small cost in serving effectiveness. The back troubles in 2014 of members of pro tennis's Big Four and other active pros reminded me of my change.
Perhaps research on the compression effects of the jump-landing exists that would change my mind. But otherwise, I believe that if tennis is truly "a sport for a lifetime," the rules should be changed to stop or discourage the service jump among players at all ages.
The new year will bring fresh sagas among the pros. A change in the tournament calendar will bring an extra week of grass-court tennis prior to Wimbledon, promising heightened drama for the grass season. Throughout 2015, we will again here track the competition at the top levels, where the Big Four seem increasingly vulnerable to penetration from below. We will also stay observant of risers among the young -- the members of Tennis Generation Next (i.e., pros in their early twenties) and Tennis Generation Future (the teenagers). Our goal remains, to comprehend and appreciate the unfolding drama of current pro tennis, seen in that grand context that is the history of the sport.
Here's wishing a wonderful new tennis year to readers worldwide.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, USA
APPENDIX: NEW WATCH LIST
Here is our men's Watch List XII, listing the seven players calculated as most likely to rise significantly during the next twelve months. The calculations, dated 24 November 2014, compare each player's ranking from his results during Third Trimester 2014 with his previous best 12-month ranking, further adjusted for age, height, and statistical regression. A small adjustment favoring left-handedness is included here for the first time. The selectees are listed in order of age.
Stefan Kozlov, age 16, height 5-10 (USA) Born in Macedonia, Stefan is coached by his father, who operates a tennis academy in Florida. Stefan was runner-up at Orange Bowl in December 2013, and runner-up in the juniors event (18-and-under) at Australian Open 2014. He then reached the quarters at the Garros juniors, the final at Wimbledon, and quarters at U.S. Open, thereby earning ITF world #4 junior ranking. Meanwhile he sometimes competed in Futures and occasional main-tour pro tournaments. His best result came in the Sacramento Challenger in September, where he defeated four pros ranked in the world's top 250 including #99, Smyczek, before losing in the tournament final to Sam Querrey. Current Rank #467, Predicted Target #274.
Borna Coric, 18, 6-1 (Croatia). A week after winning the U.S. Open juniors at age 16 in 2013, Borna took the court in Davis Cup action against Andy Murray of Britain. Borna lost in three straight sets, but the occasion signaled the readiness of Borna, then ranked only in the world's fourth hundred, for high-level pro action. During 2014, Borna accelerated his upward rise mainly in Futures and Challenger events. In April Davis Cup play he stunned world #21 Jerzy Janowicz. That win plus two by Cilic produced the triumph for the Croatians. Third Trimester brought Borna experience in main-tour events along with seven wins over top-hundred stars including Lukas Rosol (at U.S. Open), Gulbis (in Basel) and a possibly ill Rafael Nadal (at Basel). Coric penetrated the top hundred in October. Current Rank #91. Predicted Target #52.
Thanasi Kokkinakis, 18, 6-5 (Australia). Big serve, big forehand -- those are strengths of this tall riser from Adelaide, who joins countryman Nick Kyrgios (Watch List XI) in giving Australia the world's most promising pair of teenaged aspirants. Sidelined with back injuries for much of 2012 and also 2013, Thanesi focused on rebuilding his health and strength, meanwhile appearing in Challengers and in the qualifying rounds of main-tour events, attaining world rank #243 at the start of Third Trimester 2014. His upward climb then accelerated, including several wins over top hundred players and split-set losses to established stars Feliciano Lopez and Kevin Anderson. Current Rank #150. Predicted target #81.
Yoshihito Nishioka, 19, 5-7 (Japan). Following wide experience in international juniors events, left-handed Yoshihito rose steadily in transitioning into the pro game during 2014, including a nice jump in Third Trimester. During that period Yoshihito improved his world ranking, initially #250 at the start of the trimester, by nearly a hundred places. His run included three wins over second-hundred opponents (including Kokkinakis, above) in the U.S. Open qualifiers, winning the Shanghai Challenger in September, a win over Borna Coric (above) in Vienna, and quarter-final finishes in the Yokohama and Toyota Challengers in November. As a junior player in 2013, he won the International Hard Courts in College Park, defeating Kozlov (above). Current Rank #153. Predicted Target #104.
Lucas Pouille, 20, 6-1 (France). Success in Challenger and main-tour events in Europe during Third Trimester 2014 lifted Lucas inside the world top 150. The run included dazzling play in the main-tour Paris Indoors in October, where Lucas defeated four opponents, all in the first hundred and all in straight sets, before losing to Federer in two 6-4 sets. There were also several split-set losses to other top-hundred foes during the period. Lucas has trained with the French Federation program at Garros, and his past history shows roughly equal success on clay and hard courts. Current Rank #133. Predicted Target #82.
Jack Sock, 22, 6-3 (USA). A strong Third Trimester, including consistent middle-round finishes in main-tour action following U.S. Open, lifted Jack firmly inside the world's top fifty. A heavy server and striker, Jack also showed watchers here in Washington in 2013 plenty of close-in ability. Selected for our Watch List VI in December 2012, he rose nicely in the rankings thereafter, finishing his 12-month tenure moderately close to his predicted target. Current rank #42. Predicted target #34.
David Goffin, 23, 5-11 (Belgium). Back in July 2012 David, having just turned 20 and already at world ranking #63 after good success at Garros and Wimbledon 2012, appeared on our Watch List V. Victories in Challenger events followed, but after attaining rank #50 at year's end, His rise then reversed. Inactivity after late-year surgery for left-wrist fracture (he is right-handed) dropped him out of the top hundred. His recent climb back to his best-ever ranking of #22 was fueled by success in Challengers, though his late-2014 record shows main-tour wins over Rosol, Thiem, Dodig, Raonic, Coric, Zverev, Kohlschreiber, Nieminen , and Tsonga. David's can be a forceful game surprising for his previously frail physique. Current rank #22. Predicted target #12.
As always, our new list seems exciting in its promise. But injuries and other misfortunes invariably spoil the hopes of some list members. Here is the cumulative scoreboard showing the progress of those males listed on our first nine watch lists measured at the end of their 12-month tenures.
-- surpassed predicted targets, 14
-- improved but short of predicted target, 23
-- regressed in ranking, 25
The tally just above includes the final results of Watch List IX, its term having just ended. Only one member of that list surpassed his predicted target. That was Austrian riser Dominic Thiem, who ranks #39 for his results during his 12- month period of residency, thus bettering his target of #74. Three listees improved but to lesser extent -- Raonic, Cecchinato, and Khachanov. Three regressed -- Pospisil, Klahn, and J. Sousa.
List X, named in April 2014, shows much better results to date, where all seven members show improvement and three seem likely to surpass their targets. As to List XI, named in July 2014, five members show improvement to date, though only two seem on track to surpass their targets.
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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.