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Christmas Roundtable: Predicting the ATP Season in 2014

Dec 24th 2013

As 2013 came to a close, some contributors of Tennis View Magazine sat down for a Christmas discussion to dish on all things seafood and singles. We look back on an eventful and potentially game-changing season for the ATP, thinking about what it means for the season to come. We gaze into Roger Federer’s future, David Ferrer’s lack of belief, and more. And what pre-Australian swing ATP roundtable would be complete without Bernard Tomic?

David Kane: We can start by talking about ATP predictions? I imagine the Big 4 and whether 2013 meant its dissolution is a big question on a lot of fans’ minds.

Nicholas Nemeroff: I definitely don’t think that 2013 meant the end of the Big Four by any means, in the sense that I don’t think that an outsider will break into the Big Four. With that said, depending on whether or not Federer is able to bring the goods next year, we might start talking about it as the Big Three as opposed to the Big Four.

DK: With Federer taking only one of the last 12 majors, is our respect for Federer’s accomplishments why we’ve continued to call it a Big Four? And what about the announcement that he’s expecting another baby? Welcoming a third child might indicate that he’s winding down his career.

Roger Federer

NN: Obviously, 2013 wasn’t the best for Federer. And, while he did start to show some better form near the end of the year, beating Juan Martin Del Potro twice and stretching Novak Djokovic to three sets twice, it’s going to be tough for him to beat Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal at the majors. While Federer definitely can hang with the other members of the Big Four in a best-of-three match, best-of-five seems to be an uphill battle. I personally wouldn’t read much into the announcement of the third child.

Victoria Chiesa: If Federer is on the fringes of the Big Four, can anyone realistically step up? I feel like this would be a good time to tie in what Ferrer said about not thinking he can win a major. Even with Federer “declining” and question marks surrounding Murray and his return from back surgery, the rest still don't think they can do anything.

DK: But does that comment reflect on the field as much as it reflects on Ferrer? Are there any outside the usual suspects who might have the belief Ferrer might lack?

NN: Absolutely. I believe there are plenty of guys out there, like an Ernests Gulbis or Jerzy Janowicz, who believe they can beat anyone in the world if they play at their peak. The problem is that someone like Gulbis can go out one day and play lights out and come back the next day completely flat. Consistency is what separates the boys from the men.

VC: Exactly. It comes down to whether or not you believe that the Gulbises and the Janowiczes can sustain that level match to match and tournament to tournament. I personally don't, at least not right now. They haven't exactly had a good track record.

DK: I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more surprising semifinal runs from that group of men and fewer Big Four lock-outs. They have the talent, but as you both said, who trusts them to string together seven matches in 14-odd days? I would be more keen to look towards the ATP’s beleaguered B-squad of Del Potro, Tomas Berdych, and perhaps even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It’s been a couple of months since we’ve seen the Frenchman, but he looked in killer shape in a photo recently tweeted with Murray.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray

NN: I think the word “surprising” sums up the situation pretty well. If someone like Janowicz reaches a major semifinal, it’s a surprise to us. For the top guys, reaching the latter stages of majors has become an expectation. The goal is to reach the latter stages frequently enough so that it isn’t a surprise.

VC: Nearly everyone we've discussed is above or close to age 25. The narrative is beaten to death, but do you realistically see anyone born after 1989 making noise in 2014? 1990-born Janowicz aside, of course.

DK: Kei Nishikori was born *in* 1989, but with his frequent injury layoffs, he strikes me as still an early 20-something in tennis years. This past year, he had a strong spring, but faded in the fall. Coincidental alliteration?

NN: The only one who I see doing anything notable is Dimitrov. He’s definitely the real deal for me. While the comparisons to Federer may be pushing the envelope quite a bit, he’s got the strokes and plays an all-around game that is becoming increasingly valuable in an age where it helps to have more options to end points.

VC: I would love to buy Dimitrov stock, but there are a lot of reasons why I'm still hesitant. Fitness, for one thing. Can he hang with the best over five sets? He's reached the third round of a major once. I'm still not sold on his ability to take advantage of an opportunity if it arises. Crashing out to the Joao Sousas of the world in slams doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.

DK: In all seriousness, 2014 will be a big year for Bernard Tomic. He is starting in his home country and really announced his presence at the beginning of last year with that win over Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup. But home-court pressure will be on him from the get-go. He may have yet to fall before he climbs back up.

NN: I actually was just going to ask about Djokovic. Do we expect Novak Djokovic to have a better season in 2014 than he did in 2013?

Novak Djokovic

DK: Djokovic’s last two seasons have been exercises in refining his specialties. Starting broadly in 2011, he’s been cutting back his periods of success down to bookended dominance. He was very good at the beginning and at the end of last year, but was decidedly “meh” in the middle. If not for some of Federer’s more surprising upsets, we would be talking more about Djokovic’s premature losses to Tommy Haas (Miami) and Dimitrov (Madrid). I would even venture to argue that he ended on a high note as much because of the fact that some of his best tournaments are placed at the end of the year as because of his improved form.

VC: I think Djokovic is incredibly motivated to win Roland Garros, and that will be his primary goal in 2014. Most people will argue that he could have done it this year if Pascal Maria wasn't at least halfway competent at his job. Does he want it too much? Possibly, and that can always be a detriment. I'm also hesitant about this Becker hiring. We already know that he can run circles around the field when it comes to fitness, and he's pretty good at the actual tennis part too. What exactly can Becker bring to his game?

DK: I know it means fewer comically delayed Twitter reactions for us. All good things must come to an end, I suppose.

NN: For Djokovic, I think the next couple of years are going to go a long way in determining his legacy. In 2011, he recorded one of the best seasons in tennis history. He won three slams, was 10-1 against Federer/Nadal, and didn’t lose his first match until May. In 2012 and 2013, he won the Australian Open and three Masters Series 1000 titles. If you told Djokovic after 2011 that entering 2014, he would only have won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, he would have been mortified. I really think 2014 will be a redemption year for Djokovic. In no way do I think he is pleased with the way 2012 and 2013 turned out, and he will certainly be expecting to win more than one major. But, if he were to only win Roland Garros next year, I think he would take that.

VC: Death, taxes and Rafael Nadal in Paris. If Djokovic is going to win Roland Garros, odds are nearly certain that he's going to need to go through Nadal to get there. What can we expect from Djokovic's biggest rival in 2014, after he vastly exceeded what many expected in his return from injury?

Rafael Nadal

DK: Something that’s eluded him for injury-related reasons since 2009: success in Australia. Barring the last few weeks of the year, Nadal was far more impressive on hard courts than anything he did on clay. Why? Because where we knew he could run the table on clay, the jury was out, especially after Wimbledon, as to whether post-injury Rafa was a one-surface wonder. But the courts in Australia are slow enough for Nadal to dictate play in the way he did in Indian Wells and Flushing. With all the pressure on Djokovic for a four-peat, a win here would solidify the shift in power established in 2013.

NN: I think the slow surface in Australia has its advantages and disadvantages for Nadal. For one, it being slower reduces the effectiveness of his topspin and makes it easier for his opponents to take Nadal’s forehand off the rise. In the same breath, it makes it much harder to take it to Nadal. Being hyper-aggressive tends to be the strategy that beats him, but if the court is playing slower he will have much more time to play defense. As far as the Roland Garros discussion is concerned, Rafa undoubtedly deserves to be the favorite entering any tournament on clay, but I don’t think Djokovic receives enough credit for what he has done against Nadal on clay. Federer has only ever beaten Nadal on clay twice. In 2011, Djokovic did it in back-to-back weeks in straight sets, a truly remarkable accomplishment. He also ended Nadal’s eight-year title streak in Monte Carlo, again in straight sets. On top of that, Djokovic was six points from beating Nadal at Roland Garros this year. I wouldn’t be so certain about Nadal in Paris in 2014.

VC: I'm penciling in Nadal for two majors, if I'm being quite honest. However, I can't necessarily say where. I think he has a great chance at all of them. I was on a cruise during Wimbledon's Wacky Wednesday, and having finally caught up on everything that happened while I was cut off from society in the Atlantic, I still do not understand the loss to Steve Darcis. In 2014, I think Nadal will be eager to put his last two disappointing Wimbledon campaigns behind him. I also think we'll finally get a Fedal match at the US Open, even if they have to move it to Court 13. We're long overdue.

DK: A rousing discussion of #men, you guys. Final thoughts? For my part, I’m looking forward to a slightly less stable ATP in the same way we look forward to the arrival of a quirky relative for Christmas dinner. The finals may still feature the Nadals and Djokovics we’ve come to expect, but the level of excitement at the biggest tournaments might be extended before the second weekend should the young(ish) guns step up.

NN: I’m really looking forward to see how Federer and Djokovic will fare in 2013. Both have a lot to prove and should be extremely motivated to silence their critics. In regards to the young guns, I think they may have to wait a few more years before they start to make some serious noise at majors and even Masters 1000 tournaments.

VC: As I said earlier, I would love to see a changing of the guard on the ATP sooner rather than later, but I don't think there are going to be consistently impressive performances from that group in 2014. Also, Andy Murray? Minor back surgery is an oxymoron if I've ever seen one, and Australia is going to be telling regarding Murray and his health next season.

Andy Murray

DK: It was a strange year for Andy Murray. As much as this year could have been all about him and his historic Wimbledon win, he was either literally off the court during the clay and indoor swing or a non-factor at the US Open after a fairly limp loss to Wawrinka. I think the layoffs were smart. He’s in it for the big titles, and over-taxing his body to go for ranking points seems counterproductive at this point of his career. 2014 looks like it might be the most exciting year of it yet.

NN: Totally agree, David. At this point, I think Murray has been extremely fortunate to have avoided Nadal in every deep run he’s made at a major other than the 2008 US Open and the 2010 Australian Open. He’s lost to Nadal six times at majors and in the two majors he’s won, Nadal was absent in the 2012 US Open and lost on Day 1 at Wimbledon this year. If Murray wants to keep winning majors, he’ll likely have to start beating Nadal at majors. By “majors,” I mean Australia, London, and New York because we all know he has almost no chance of taking down Nadal at Roland Garros.

Thus ends our ATP chat. Tune in before New Year’s for a discussion on the women’s game as we start the 2014 season.