After two weeks of reviewing 2012, we begin to look ahead to the 2013 season today. Here are five players who should surge and five more who should plummet in the rankings.
Milos Raonic: He’s already on the verge of the top 10, rising from outside the top 30 at the beginning of 2012 and finishing at No. 13. There were early signs that this might have been Raonic’s year, as he consistently pushed the likes of Roger Federer into tight three-set matches in the first half of the season, seemingly on the cusp of finally notching that signature victory to announce his status as a consistent threat to the top guys. But the 21-year-old-Canadian, not unlike John Isner, repeatedly found himself on the wrong side of razor-thin matches.
“I’ve been sort of knocking on the door,” Raonic said after losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 25-23 in the third set in the second round of the Olympics. “Hopefully, next time around I can sort of kick it down and make the most of it, really try and sort of find my way through this. If I can get through one of these, it just opens up a lot more doors. The difference is just going to come down to how I deal with the big points.”
The big-serving Raonic, who led the tour in service games won, proved he had the weapons and fitness to grind through a long season and continue to improve. His primary issue is his return game. That will spell the difference in 2013. I like Raonic’s maturity, hunger and willingness to learn. He’s still the baby of the ATP Tour, at least when it comes to the top 20. I’d be shocked if we didn’t see him at the World Tour Finals next year. 2013 Projection: Top 8.
Venus Williams: Betting on Venus to better her current ranking of No. 24 isn’t exactly playing with house money. Venus made it clear that her 2012 comeback was motivated almost entirely out of a desire to play the London Olympics. With that carrot gone, what can we expect from her in 2013? I think her late-season decision to play one more tournament in Europe in hopes of being seeded at the Australian Open in January spoke volumes. Venus could have easily skipped the remainder of the season after the U.S. Open, but she hopped on a plane to Luxembourg to play a low-level WTA tournament and actually won it. That was her first title in two years. The feat made her a virtual lock for a seed in Melbourne. Venus isn’t just basking in her Olympic glory. The hunger is still there, and she knows that even if she’s playing in a physically compromised state, she’s still one of the best. 2013 Projection: Top 12.
Jerzy Janowicz: He’s in the top 30 thanks largely to one result, a runner-up finish at the Paris Masters. A big hitter with good hands, Janowicz’s ranking will get him into the main draw at the bigger tournaments and leave him seeded in most of the mid-level ATP 500s and 250s. That’s a cushy safety net he should be able to enjoy throughout the year. He’ll come up against lower-ranked players in the early rounds, as opposed to being drawn immediately against the top 10, which is what happened this year as he worked to raise his ranking. Given what we saw from the 22-year-old Janowicz in Paris, where he upset Andy Murray, Janko Tiparevic, Gilles Simon and two other top-20 players, there’s so much to like about his big-hitting game. The question is whether the 26th-ranked Janowicz can bring that level consistently in larger tournaments. Because his success came so late in the year, we didn’t get ample time to gauge his longevity. But you don’t put together a string of quality wins without people raising a brow. 2013 Projection: Top 20.
Grigor Dimitrov: At 21, he’s the youngest man in the top 50 (No. 48) and with loads of room to improve. I like Dimitrov’s decision to split with the Mouratoglou Academy and move to Magnus Norman’s academy in Sweden. The Bulgarian’s talent is obvious, but he needs people in his corner who will put heavy emphasis on his fitness and mental tenacity. The Swedes are just the guys he needs in his ear. If he can get fitter during this offseason and develop more of a killer instinct, he won’t be embroiled in these epic three- and five-set matches that actually or effectively knock him out of tournaments early. 2013 Projection: Top 25.
Sloane Stephens: It’s all upside for the 19-year-old, who proved once again in 2012 that she’s a big-stage player. Her best results consistently come at Grand Slams, which means her focus next year has to be on bringing that level of intensity week in and week out. The grind of the WTA Tour can wear you down. I’m not sure that the 38th-ranked Stephens has gone all-in on doing what it takes to maximize her natural talent. But there’s no denying her abilities — she may just be the best pure athlete after Serena Williams in the top 50 — and it’s just a matter of discipline. We haven’t seen the best of her yet, but I suspect we’ll see more of it next season. 2013 Projection: Top 25.
Angelique Kerber: I should know better than to doubt Kerber after the year she put together, climbing to No. 5 and playing solid tennis from first ball to last. But she’ll have to defend points on a near-weekly basis, and we really haven’t seen Kerber deal with that kind of pressure. It’s all fun and games when you throw caution to the wind and are out there with no idea how well you can actually do at any given tournament. Now she has a standard and a target on her back. Next year will feel very different. 2013 Projection: No. 10-15.
Janko Tipsarevic: It was a strong effort from Tipsarevic to back up his breakout 2011 to finish in the top 10 (at No. 9) for the second straight year, but it came at a price. Tipsarevic rolled into the World Tour Finals exhausted and confessed that he had to learn to manage his schedule better in 2013. But if he does play less to protect his body, can he really hold his ranking? Tipsarevic played 26 tournaments this year, not including two Davis Cup ties, and more than one-third of his points came from winning or doing well at lower-level events. If he curtails his schedule and gives up those easy points, can he do well enough at the larger events to make up the difference and remain in the top 10? I’m not so sure. 2013 Projection: No. 12-20.
Juan Monaco: It was a career year for the Argentine, who reached a personal-best No. 10 before closing at No. 12. Can he replicate a year in which he won four titles and made his first Masters 1000 semifinal? That’s a tough ask. He’s a solid dirtballer who has the ability to win any clay tournament that doesn’t include Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer, but it was an exhausting year for Monaco that could have carry-over effects in 2013. 2013 Projection: No. 25-30.
Fernando Verdasco: It really wasn’t that long ago that Verdasco was the talk of the town, with the tools to become a top-10 staple. Who knows what happens to Verdasco’s career if that epic five-set Australian Open loss to Nadal in the 2009 semifinals broke his way. But the Spaniard has been an afterthought for much of the last two years, and at 29, he’s starting to fade, ending the year at No. 24. It looked like he might have found something to build on after beating Nadal on Madrid’s blue clay, but his year continued to stall after that. He still has the weapons to pull off any upset on any given day, but Verdasco’s been all over the place mentally. 2013 Projection: No. 35-40.
Sara Errani: The sixth-ranked Errani will deal with the same pressure as Kerber, but her ability to maintain a top-10 ranking is more difficult given the height of her results this year. It’s easy to forget that Errani not only made the French Open final but also advanced to the U.S. Open semifinals. Can she match that in 2013? I just don’t see it. 2013 Projection: No. 15-20.