As the 2014 season approaches, Beyond The Baseline evaluates 20 top ATP players to determine which ones we’d buy, sell or hold.
No. 1 Rafael Nadal: Can Nadal possibly top his 2013 season, when he reclaimed the top spot and won the French Open, U.S. Open and five Masters 1000 titles? If you were to ask me this question in early September, I would have said “yes.” But after watching Novak Djokovic go undefeated in the fall, including important victories over Nadal at the China Open and ATP World Tour Finals, I’m not so sure. Nadal, 27, will be able to pick up points in January after missing last year’s Australian Open, but then comes the task of defending 10 titles over the next eight months. With Djokovic closing the gap on clay, a French Open title isn’t a lock, either. Verdict: Hold.
No. 2 Novak Djokovic: A season-ending 24-match winning streak put Djokovic 770 points behind Nadal for the No. 1 ranking and showed again that the Serb is better as the hunter than the hunted. Djokovic finished 2013 with seven titles, including his third consecutive Australian Open, but he was having a down year by his lofty standards before the post-U.S. Open run. He was unreliable at the ATP Masters tournaments, with losses to John Isner, Nadal, Tomas Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov, Tommy Haas and Juan Martin del Potro. If the 26-year-old turns that around, which he should, it’ll be a tough, year-long battle for the top spot. Verdict: Buy.
No. 3 David Ferrer: Ferrer finished the season at a career-high No. 3, highlighted by his first Slam final, at the French Open. Can it get any better? Probably not. Ferrer will turn 32 in April, and it will be interesting to see if his decision to play seven consecutive weeks to end the season will have lingering effects. Verdict: Sell.
No. 4 Andy Murray: What now for the 26-year-old after an emotional year featuring his breakthrough victory at Wimbledon? Health is the biggest question for Murray, who had season-ending back surgery in September. If he’s sharp immediately in his return, there’s no reason he shouldn’t contend for his first Australian Open crown; he’s made the final three times. Murray can still improve at non-majors as well. Other than his title at the Sony Open, Murray didn’t make it past the quarterfinals of any other Masters tournament this year. Verdict: Buy.
No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro: The 25-year-old Argentine was the only player to beat Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Roger Federer this year, compiling his best season since his U.S. Open-winning 2009. As long as he stays healthy, del Potro is a good bet for a top-four finish in 2014. Aside from his run to the Wimbledon semifinals, where he lost to Djokovic in five sets, del Potro’s performance at the majors was forgettable. He missed the French Open with an illness and did not advance past the third round at the Australian Open and U.S. Open. I’d bank on him doing better in 2014. Verdict: Buy.
No. 6 Roger Federer: The 32-year-old is coming off his worst season in more than a decade, winning only one title (an ATP 250 event in Halle, Germany), failing to make a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002 and dropping out of the top five. Federer blamed a back injury and poor scheduling for some of his struggles, and he was back on court training a few weeks after losing to Nadal at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals. So much of his 2014 season will depend on how he comes out of the gate in Australia, where he’ll play the Brisbane International to prepare for the Australian Open. A poor showing and the alarms will sound even louder. Verdict: Hold.
No. 7 Tomas Berdych: Despite reaching a career-high No. 5 during a consistent season, Berdych won no singles titles and was rarely part of the conversation. Has the big-hitting Czech, 28, plateaued? Verdict: Hold.
No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka: The breakthrough year is one thing; the follow-up is quite another. Playing at his best level with sustained consistency, Wawrinka surged from No. 17 to No. 8, made the U.S. Open semifinal for his best finish at a major and qualified for his first ATP World Tour Finals. I’m more confident in his ability to replicate his success rather than build on it. This season was just outstanding from the 28-year-old Swiss, and his game has very little margin for error. Verdict: Hold.
No. 9 Richard Gasquet: Building on his work with coach Riccardo Piatti over the last few years, Gasquet returned to a Grand Slam semifinal (at the U.S. Open) for the first time since 2007 and matched his career high with three titles. But Gasquet, 27, split with Piatti during the Frenchman’s first ATP World Tour Finals appearance in six years, and he’s now working with Sergi Bruguera. I have doubts about whether Gasquet can deal with a change in his team while trying to defend his 2013 results. Verdict: Sell.
No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Next to del Potro, Tsonga has the best chance of breaking the Big Four monopoly on the Slams. He just has to stay healthy. After great runs at the Australian Open (where he lost to Federer in the quarterfinals) and his home Slam, the French Open (where he lost to Ferrer in the semifinals after defeating Federer), Tsonga was slowed by a knee injury. He retired from his second-round match at Wimbledon and pulled out of the U.S. Open. When the 28-year-old returned in September, he made the semifinals or better at three of five tournaments. Verdict: Buy.
No. 11 Milos Raonic: This was another workmanlike season for Raonic, who went 45-21 with two titles after going 45-20 with two titles in 2012. The 22-year-old Canadian, the most consistent player in the ATP’s next generation of standouts, is hoping for even more improvement in 2014; if that happens, expect to see him finish 2014 as the youngest player in the top 10 and to advance past the fourth round of a major for the first time. Verdict: Buy.
No. 12 Tommy Haas: At 35, Haas continued to make up for lost time this season. He reached the French Open quarterfinals and the fourth round of Wimbledon, stunned Djokovic at the Sony Open, won two titles and finished with his highest season-ending ranking since 2007. Improving on that record is a big ask for Haas, who has turned in back-to-back grueling years. I’d be pleasantly surprised if Haas finished next year in the top 20. Verdict: Sell.
No. 14 John Isner: America’s No. 1 still managed to finish in the top 15 despite missing the Australian Open and retiring from his second-round match at Wimbledon. For Isner, 28, to have a big year, he has to find a way to (a) win outside of North America and (b) get through the early rounds of Slams efficiently so that he’s better positioned physically for a deep run. He’s capable of accomplishing both, though there’s still some lingering concern over his knee injury. Verdict: Buy.
No. 16 Fabio Fognini: The talented, temperamental Italian climbed to a career high in the rankings thanks to a strong post-Wimbledon clay-court run that included his first two titles. That’s as good as it gets for the 26-year-old Fognini, who struggles with his consistency over a full season. Verdict: Sell.
No. 18 Tommy Robredo: One of the best and most underappreciated stories of 2013, the 31-year-old bounced back from injury to win two titles and make the quarterfinals of the French Open (where he overcame a two-set deficit three consecutive times) and U.S. Open (where he defeated Federer in straight sets). I don’t think the Spaniard’s 2014 will feature the same highs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a steadier season. Verdict: Hold.
No. 21 Jerzy Janowicz: His run to the Wimbledon semifinals proved that his breakthrough at the 2012 Paris Masters was no fluke. We’re still waiting for the 23-year-old Pole to put it together over a full season, though. A back injury led to a first-round loss at the U.S. Open, and he played only three more tournaments after that. But his explosive game and unpredictability make him one of the most exciting young prospects. He really should be a top-15 player. Verdict: Buy.
No. 23 Grigor Dimitrov: He delivered on his promise this season, winning his first title, upsetting Djokovic at the Madrid Open and playing tough against the likes of Nadal, Murray and Federer. I like his decision to work with coach Roger Rasheed, who figures to focus on Dimitrov’s fitness. The 22-year-old Bulgarian won’t continue to ascend unless he gets stronger in order to withstand the rigors of the season and compete in best-of-five matches at Slams. Verdict: Buy.
No. 24 Ernests Gulbis: A year ago, Gulbis was ranked outside the top 100, he skipped the Australian Open and his mom told him to quit. Now, after winning two titles during a 37-18 season, the 25-year-old from Latvia will be seeded in Melbourne. Gulbis’ talent is undeniable; it’s just about his dependability. If he can sort out his disappointing Slam results — his best finish this year was the third round at Wimbledon — then he’s a lock to keep rising. Then again, that’s a big “if.” Verdict: Buy.
No. 26 Benoit Paire: The 24-year-old Frenchman showed great improvement while surging from No. 47 to a career-high No. 24 in August. The highlight of his season came at the Italian Open, where he beat del Potro en route to his first ATP Masters semifinal. He’s still prone to charmingly petulant outbursts, but hopefully more experience in the upper echelons of the game will mellow him out and help him keep his focus on a weekly basis. Verdict: Buy.
No. 31 Gael Monfils: Are we ever going to see a consistent season from the 27-year-old Frenchman? Probably not. So here’s hoping we can just get an injury-free season. He spent a good portion of the spring fighting through injury and then skipped Wimbledon for personal reasons. For all his memorable performances at the majors, he never made it past the third round this year. That should improve next season. Whether it will improve, your guess is as good as mine. Verdict: Buy.