With the new season only days (!) away, a panel of tennis writers — Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand, Amy Fetherolf of The Changeover, Erik Gudris of Tennis Now and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times — joined me to preview the ATP Tour in 2014. Click here for our discussion of the WTA Tour.
2014: Coming attractions
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me, everyone. We’ll have tennis again in a week! What’s the biggest question for you as we head into the 2014 season? For me, it’s all about the French Open. Novak Djokovic needs the title to complete the career Grand Slam. He has as good a chance to win in 2014 as he did in 2013, when he led Rafael Nadal 4-2 in the fifth set of their semifinal before losing 9-7. That is, as long as he ignores new coach Boris Becker’s advice on how to play on clay …
Ricky Dimon: The biggest question for me was Roger Federer — plain and simple — until Wednesday, when Djokovic set Twitter on fire by hiring Becker. Now the two big question marks are Federer AND the Djokovic-Becker partnership.
Ben Rothenberg: Who is the real Nadal on hard courts? Is it the guy who ran roughshod over the tour for the first eight months of his 2013 season? Or is it the guy who struggled through the fall with results on the surface much more like the ones he’d had in 2011 and 2012?
Amy Fetherolf: The biggest question centers on the second tier of players in the top 10 — Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Stanislas Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Someone has to break up the Big Four (or Big Two) dominance. Who will it be?
Erik Gudris: One name for biggest question: Roger Federer.
Nguyen: Federer is ranked No. 6, he’s coming off his worst season in more than a decade and he turns 33 in August. Erik, is this a make-or-break year for him?
Gudris: Yes, definitely. If he posts better results throughout the season, including deep runs at the majors, then he will prove he still is in the hunt for the biggest titles. But if next year is more of what he experienced in 2013, then he will likely start considering that the end of his career is nigh.
Dimon: I have a hard time calling a year “make or break” for someone who has already established himself as the greatest of all time. I’ll save make-or-break talk for players of a younger generation who have never done one-seventeenth of what Federer has accomplished.
Gudris: But Federer is subject to way more scrutiny than anyone else on tour. And he certainly doesn’t want to be a bystander at the majors. That’s why 2014 will be a pivotal year for him.
Fetherolf: The biggest factor will be his health. As we’ve learned (and could tell from watching), his back problems made it impossible for him to play well for months. He came into form at the end of the year once he was healthy, but if that back injury flares up again, I expect to see more of the 2013 version of Fed.
Dimon: Does Federer have another Slam title left in him? I don’t think he can ever be counted out at Wimbledon. I see a very small chance at the U.S. Open and absolutely no chance at the other two.
Fetherolf: I don’t think he does, but I didn’t think he did in 2012, either. That said, he always has a shot at Wimbledon.
Nguyen: Well, let’s ask it differently. What’s more likely to happen next season: Djokovic wins the French Open or Federer wins a major?
Rothenberg: The only real question mark surrounding Djokovic’s French Open chances is if he can beat Nadal in Paris. And, let’s remember, he was leading Djokovic 4-2 in the fifth once upon a time, so it hardly seems like an impossible task. Federer, on the other hand, never played anything resembling Slam-caliber tennis in 2013. The much bigger stretch, based on recent evidence, has to be Federer’s winning any Slam.
Dimon: Neither one has a good chance of happening, but Djokovic at Roland Garros is the choice of the two (and this is coming from someone who by no means thinks Federer is done). There is every reason to think that Nadal will be even better at the French in 2014 than he was in 2013. This year he had been playing for only three to four months out of the last 11 entering the clay-court Slam.
Fetherolf: Djokovic has a great shot at winning the French Open in the next year or two — look how close he came this year. Federer is a long shot to win another major.
Nguyen: The top-ranked Nadal finished 2013 with two majors and 10 titles overall. Is he in for a letdown in 2014, or can we expect more of the same?
Fetherolf: Well, let’s put it this way: It would be hard to match or surpass the success he had this year.
Rothenberg: It’s going to be a letdown for Nadal in the sense that there’s no way he duplicates specific successes from 2013. I will be shocked (shocked!) if he defends more than two of his Indian Wells, Canada, Cincinnati or U.S. Open titles. It was an outlier of a year, results-wise, and regression to the mean will happen in 2014. But I’m also thinking he’d trade all those titles for one in Melbourne — a victory that would give him the career Grand Slam twice over — which may well happen.
Gudris: The question for Nadal is whether he can maintain the aggression he showed during the North American hard-court season without it tearing up his body. Even if he stays healthy all year long, I expect a lull sometime.
Nguyen: We saw a bit of that lull after the U.S. Open, when he lost to Djokovic twice and failed to win any of his last four tournaments.
Dimon: He won’t have the same success, even though there is a good chance that Nadal will play even better than he did in 2013. Djokovic may be hungrier, Andy Murray will be healthier and del Potro is on the rise again. The competition — and the law of averages — will preclude Nadal from duplicating his 2013 season. Luck (see Djokovic’s French Open net touch) will even out.
Nguyen: Let’s get back to Amy’s question about potential challengers to the Big Three (sorry, Roger). Is everyone’s money on del Potro?
Dimon: Yes. Nobody else is seriously in the discussion for me.
Gudris: Del Potro, in the near future, looks to be the only one. I will double down on the Tower of Tandil.
Fetherolf: It’s definitely the time for del Potro to step up at the Slams again. If he wants to repeat as a major champion, he can’t be losing in the early rounds at hard-court majors to Jeremy Chardy and Lleyton Hewitt, as he did in 2013. He’s got the game for all four majors, and it’s time for him to show it. Reaching his first semifinal at Wimbledon was a promising step this year.
Rothenberg: Who else is even mentionable? Tsonga can still have a miracle run and win Roland Garros one of these years, but he’ll need big-time help from the draw.
Nguyen: Tsonga is the sleeper pick here. It’s easy to forget him because of his injury problems in 2013, but he was right there through the first half of the season. He made the French Open semifinals and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where he lost a five-setter to Federer.
Dimon: The top guys are so good and hog so many points that it will take more than a “miracle” Slam win for someone else to “challenge” or “break into” the Big Three. The problem with everyone else isn’t talent; it’s consistency. Nobody — not even del Potro — can stay healthy enough or play well enough for a long enough period of time to seriously shake up the rankings.
Rothenberg: Speaking of del Potro and the upper echelon, are people even confident he’ll finish 2014 ranked ahead of David Ferrer?
Fetherolf: Del Potro will finish ahead of Ferrer, barring injury. He’s simply at the prime of his career, and Ferrer isn’t getting any younger (or better). Also, Ferrer’s ranking could get ugly when — not if — those French Open final points come off.
Gudris: I can see Ferrer’s finishing in the top 10 next year. Barely.
Dimon: I will buy all of you adult beverages at Indian Wells in 2015 if Gasquet finishes ahead of Ferrer in the 2014 rankings.
Nguyen: I have a very hard time believing that Ferrer is going to have enough gas in the tank for 2014. He played seven consecutive weeks at the end of this season, and his exhaustion showed at the ATP World Tour Finals. How do you recover from that in such a short offseason?
Rothenberg: I feel like this is the same thing people were saying about Ferrer at the end of 2012, or after he got routed by Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, or after he got routed by Nadal at the French Open, or after he lost to Alex Bogomolov at the Rogers Cup. But he’s not going anywhere, you guys. He’s like — wait for it — the Miley Cyrus of tennis.
Nguyen: He can’t stooooooop. And he won’t stooooooop.
Rothenberg: I was asked recently to pick a “surprise” top-10 finisher for the end of 2014, and I came up with Kevin Anderson. So, my question is: How hard did you guys just laugh?
Fetherolf: I could see it. How hard is it really to get into the top 10 these days?
Gudris: It’s not that hard, Amy. As Ricky pointed out, the elite tier sucks up so many points that everyone else can have an OK season and still have a shot come November.
Nguyen: Let’s talk about the youngsters. Is Grigor Dimitrov, 22, the real thing? I don’t mean a future Grand Slam winner or future Fed or any of that premature nonsense. But after beginning to deliver on the hype by winning his first title, upsetting a reigning No. 1 and finishing just outside the top 20, will he improve on his breakout year?
Dimon: He’s the real deal. I will tip Dimitrov to win a Slam all day long, but certainly not in 2014 and probably not in 2015. He’s a five-tool prospect like Ernests Gulbis, except with less head-casery and more work ethic. Fitness is a big issue, but remember someone else who, at Dimitrov’s age, dealt with fitness problems and had a habit of retiring from or at least wilting in long matches? Yep, Djokovic.
Rothenberg: The bar has been set really low for what constitutes a breakout season if Dimitrov (who improved from No. 48 to No. 23, didn’t make the second week of a Slam and won one minor ATP 250 title) is the top nominee for “real thing.” I don’t think anybody of his generation has come close to earning true “real thing” consideration — not yet anyway.
Nguyen: With Milos Raonic, 22, pretty well established, I’d tag Dimitrov as the No. 2 of that younger set, even though 23-year-old Kei Nishikori is ranked ahead of him. He just really needs to learn how to win best-of-five matches at the Slams.
Rothenberg: Stat time: Dimitrov is 2-6 in Slam matches that go four or five sets. That’s not going to cut it.
Fetherolf: He should do what Bernard Tomic does — tank a couple of sets to improve his five-set record.
Dimon: Ben, I just hope you aren’t comparing Grigor Dimitrov to John Isner. DO YOU?
Gudris: Will Raonic serve-and-volley his way into the second week of a Slam? (By the way, how many coaches does he have now?)
Nguyen: I hear he’s interviewing Wayne Gretzky as we speak. It’s just a matter of time with Raonic; he works hard, he’s solid and he’s still young. He came awfully close to making the second week at the U.S. Open. And he would have if not for Gasquet and his spongy socks.
Fetherolf: Frankly, I think Raonic has an Isner-like ceiling.
Gudris: We haven’t mentioned Jerzy Janowicz. He could end up as the Janko Tipsarevic of 2014 if these recent injuries don’t subside.
Rothenberg: I agree, Erik. I’d definitely sell Janowicz stock right now.
Nguyen: This foot injury is definitely worrisome. But Janowicz has proved HOW MANY TIMES (twice, actually) that all you need is one amazing run at a big tournament and you’re a top-25 player. So he’ll just keep doing that. Keep calm and Jerzy on.
Say Uncle (Sam)
Nguyen: All right, now for everyone’s favorite topic: American men’s tennis.
Gudris: Oh, dear …
Dimon: Good talk. Now that we have American men covered, next topic?
Rothenberg: Isner had a solid year. His run at the Western & Southern Open, where he beat Djokovic and del Potro to make the final, was no joke. Donald Young, Tim Smyczek and Bradley Klahn are all way up. But Jack Sock, Rhyne Williams, Denis Kudla, Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson can’t be satisfied. So if we judge them off their low 2013 grade as a group, yes, 2014 will be better.
Fetherolf: I disagree with Ben. I don’t see it getting better anytime soon. The future is bleak.
Dimon: Courtney, can it get any worse? The top American, Isner, barely won any matches outside the United States or at the Slams.
Nguyen: OK, yes, Isner couldn’t win much outside #godscountry, but he still finished in the top 15 and had that impressive run in Cincinnati. I always feel it’s a little unfair to let the collective woes of American men’s tennis tarnish his success, especially considering injuries basically kept him out of two Slams. But, gosh, there’s a lot of empty space between him and Sam Querrey and not a ton of young prospects to get excited about immediately.
Gudris: I expect Isner to have another decent season. Perhaps knock off a top-five player or two. Maybe even reach the second week of a Slam. But I don’t expect a huge year for the U.S. No. 1. As for the rest, some good results here and there, but it is still a waiting game as far as who might be the next big thing.
Rothenberg: Harrison, especially, has to get himself back toward the top 70, at least. (He’s No. 100 now.) But if he draws a Big Three guy in the first round of the Australian Open, he should probably retire on the spot. Take a hint from the universe at that point. Querrey, ranked 46th, can’t get much lower. If healthy, he should never be outside the top 30 with his weapons. I would buy him low, for sure.
Dimon: Isner has a huge opportunity to gain points from January through March. The 26-year-old was a disaster for the first three months of 2013; he didn’t win a match during the Australian summer, he missed the Australian Open and he won only six matches in six hard-court tournaments before winning the Houston title on clay in April. He was hampered by injury, too. Isner should be in the top 10 for the start of crunch time in late spring in summer, and that confidence should set him up nicely for another trademark summer run (except this time with success at Slams).
Gudris: He has a huge opportunity. But Isner has to do something, anything, outside of America to assure himself a long enough stay in the top 10. Maybe Australia?
Dimon: It’s too hot for Isner in Australia (not kidding). The French Open is his chance outside the States, but marathon matches in the early rounds are his albatross. He has to reverse that trend to make noise at Roland Garros.
Gudris: Yeah, but in France, they speak another language. At least in Australia, Isner will feel more at home.
Dimon: Erik, keep in mind that the Carolina Panthers still could be in the playoffs during the Australian summer. Isner will be distracted and hopeless.
Rothenberg: Isner will get hot at a Slam at some point in 2014. And, remember, without that fluke injury at Wimbledon, he had an amazing shot at the semifinals.
Dimon: Is the U.S. even going to beat Great Britain on the baseball field?
The Murray meter
Nguyen: Which, of course, brings us to Mr. Murray. Does it matter what Murray does from here on out? He reached the peak of his own Everest and he’s the King of Britain. He’s admitted that nothing in his career will top winning Wimbledon. So where does he go from here?
Gudris: No, Courtney. Murray could retire tomorrow and still win British sportsperson of the year for decades to come.
Rothenberg: If David Ferrer is the Miley Cyrus of the ATP (sorry not sorry), Murray is the Celine Dion at this point. Rest on your spectacular laurels, Andy, and do whatever the equivalent of a Vegas show is from here on out. Your people will love you no matter what.
Nguyen: I’m so interested to see his motivation. We didn’t get to see him much after Wimbledon because of his back injury.
Fetherolf: Murray has gotten over the two big hurdles: winning his first Slam title and winning Wimbledon. With the pressure off, and if healthy, I wouldn’t overlook him as a big threat to the Nadal-Djokovic duopoly. He’s made quite a few Slam finals in the recent past, and won two.
Rothenberg: I just think The Andy Murray Movie (hopefully a mad-cap musical) ends with him winning Wimbledon. The rest of his career is just an awkward denouement, really. Which, let’s be clear, is a blessing, not a curse.
Nguyen: I’m really disappointed we never got to see Murray-Nadal on hard courts last year. Looking forward to that one.
Gudris: I’m intrigued to see how Murray fares against Nadal if and when they meet next year. Murray has answered the Djokovic question enough times of late. But Nadal still has been a puzzle to Murray, though he did win their last complete match, in Tokyo in 2011. Perhaps “Muzzdal” will be the must-watch rivalry of 2014?
Dimon: Australia would be an ideal setting for that, on a surface that cannot be any more neutral for the two (relatively slow hard court).
Nguyen: What’s the one thing you’re sure will happen in 2014?
Rothenberg: Besides Becker and Djokovic splitting up? I’ll say an American in the second week of a Slam!
Gudris: Nadal will win the French Open. I’ll also say that we’ll see Wawrinka in the semis of another major.
Fetherolf: I am certain that Djokovic-Becker — Beckovic? — won’t last much longer than Jimmy Connors-Maria Sharapova.
Nguyen: Isner and Gulbis will make the second week of a Slam.
Dimon: There are very few athletes in whom you can trust your life: Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals, Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, Mariano Rivera in a ninth inning and Rafael Nadal at the French Open. Take a ninth French Open title to the bank as next year’s certainty.
Rothenberg: Brady has lost his last two Super Bowls, dude.
Dimon: No, David Tyree made his catch and Wes Welker did not make his. Brady deserved to win BOTH of those games.
Nguyen: Tom Brady touched the net. DEAL WITH IT.
Rothenberg: I agree. He can’t both throw and catch the ball, as Gisele wisely said.