1. Business as Usual at the Top
I noted last year that while it felt like a bit of an odd season for the ATP, it was really incredibly predictable. Each of the top 4 men won the major title that they typically do well at. While Murray’s defeat of Federer is a significant note towards Federer’s incredibly slow but inevitable decline, it was really business as usual. Without Nadal in the top 4, the void was filled by Ferrer, without a doubt the most consistent guy out of the big 4, and the door was essentially slammed in his face by Djokovic. This top 4 thing doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to it’s finish.
2. Azarenka Enters Eliteness
Arguments about the drama aside, both the mental strength and physical strength shown by Azarenka to come through and defend her title really was “the stuff of champions”. When Azarenka’s name used to be mentioned, it was game first and mental strength second. Her collapses against Serena in Australia were the stuff of nightmarish legends. Suddenly, the fact that she’s still number 1 and finding ways to win difficult matches is the story. Very few people are talking about the fact that Azarenka is playing some incredibly top tennis at the moment and smoking the ball with little remorse. Embrace her in the discussion amongst the top, everyone. Vika and her grunt aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
3. Ball Don’t Lie: Jo and Rasheed Works
I’ll fully admit that I am a massive Jo fan. He’s one of those “five tool” guys who can literally do anything on a tennis court. Yet, his overall tactics, and at times, attitude or mental strength tend to fail him depending on the situation. His controlled aggression and ability to get down and find another boost of energy against Federer was refreshing. Jo was fighting and finding new ways to win points. There was a self belief there. Commentators noted that Tsonga said he enjoys working with his new coach because of the language barrier, and he really has to stop and think about what Rasheed is saying. Jo definitely seems like one of those guys who can act a lot without thinking (at times his aggression is insane, other times he looks like he just learned how to play tennis a week ago), and obviously there are a few key things that he is really taking to heart. A balanced Jo is a winning Jo, and I hope we get to see more of that in the clay season.
4. Li Na Here To Stay
I refused to buy into a lot of the Li Na hype being thrown around the past couple of years, mostly because I’ve been largely unimpressed by her game, and her age worried me. It’s becoming very clear that neither of these things are much of an issue, suddenly. Nails missed a lot of time earlier in her career, and the regular wear and tear hasn’t taken it’s toll to the same level as a regular 30-something tennis player. Li Na’s movement has always been her biggest issue, leading to her game to be incredibly erratic at times. It appears to have really improved under Carlos, particularly on the backhand wing which has almost instantly gone from, at times, a liability, to a super weapon. She’s making small adjustments on tough balls to play some defense instead of the one way train of “crush everything possible”. It’s another dimension that her game desperately needed, and will serve her well on the clay of Paris.
5. Andy Murray Still Not Over Final Funk
Listen. Tennis is great for narratives. Murray’s win in the gold medal final was fantastic, and he won the US Open title. But it shouldn’t be ignored that Djokovic played terribly in the first two sets of that final, turned it on, won two sets, and then basically collapsed. Murray failed to break Djokovic a single time in the Australian Open final. If Djokovic, Federer or Nadal played in a slam final, four sets, nearly four hours, and failed to break their opponent there would be serious questions being ask. Djokovic is receiving praise for this win, as he should, but Murray was incredibly impressive, and still lacks an ability to create in sticky situations.
6. Sloane Stephens is Legit
I always had a feeling Sloane Stephens was going to break through before Robson, Watson or McHale. Raw power goes incredibly far in the WTA, and players who can use that power to both 1) hit it inside the lines with some sort of consistency and 2) make decent decisions with it are going to win considerable amounts of matches. Along with the other three, Stephens has a great head on her shoulders, isn’t getting ahead of herself, and seems to be comfortable with the media. She turns 20 in March. Suddenly, she is no longer a “player to watch”. She is a legitimate player who could be knocking on the door of the top 10 before you know it. I think she’s that good.
7. Grigor Dimitrov Needs Some Work
Lordy. Remember when we were all GRIGOR DIMITROV HAS ARRIVED!…? I bit my tongue. The way Dimitrov hits the ball is eerily similar to Federer, and it’s nice to look at. Yes, his face is nice to look at too. But Dimitrov still lacks something essential, and that’s depth. It seems to be getting better, but some good wins in Brisbane does not make a top 10 player. One handed backhands are pretty things, but they need to be effective. Dimitrov’s backhand still hovers around in the Gasquet school of loopy yet ineffective backhands. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of positive signs in Brisbane, and I think he could be poised for a good year, but let’s not all claim him as the next big thing quite yet.
8. Delpo Where Art Thou?
Similar to my Jo love, my Delpo love is well documented. He had a great season last year to get back into the top 10 and really get fully healthy. Now is the time to go for it. He’s been pretty notoriously crap at the Australian Open and this year is along the same disappointing lines. It’s not easy, but an opportunity to challenge the top 4 is definitely there. Delpo is incredibly underrated on clay, and it would be lovely to see him crush some balls and get back into the groove before the hard court swing starts.
9. Azarenka’s Media Skills Come Back To Hurt Her
If you’re reading this, you know what happened with Azarenka and Stephens. Azarenka took a medical timeout which may or may not have been legitimate at a questionable time. Stephens’ coach called it “cheating within the rules”. Afterwards, Azarenka was hammered. Regardless of what you make of it, there is something much deeper to this whole situation.
Some have claimed that Azarenka has been “interrogated” and mistreated by the press. This may be true. It needs to be said, however, that Azarenka has done herself zero favours. I’ve been in those rooms, and I hear things. It’s simple human nature. It’s hard not to love a player like Petkovic, who comes in, gives good answers, and understands that the people in the room are there to do a job, and a job that is ultimately good for the sport that she plays. She once asked at the end of a press conference that I was in “are you guys good?”
Azarenka is largely uninterested in press. She often defers to her support group and is cold and mistrusting of the media. The media is not always the most lovable of group, but they will definitely warm to those willing to help them out. The fact that Azarenka may have been so affected by the media and others calling her out for medical timeout should teach her a harsh lesson about the power of the media and of fans.
10. Tennis Fans and Their Drama
Perhaps this isn’t something learned, but the amount of off court drama that came with this year’s first major was at times staggering. The Azarenka story above, the courts being too slow, players slipping and sliding, Tsonga’s comments… and now, finally, as more information comes out about doping in cycling and baseball, the spotlight somehow turns to tennis. Tennis has come a long way in a short time, along with other sports. The major difference of tennis to other sports is the technology. The rackets players use today have next to nothing in common with the wooden rackets of days gone by. Yet baseball players still use wood, football players still use their feet… Suddenly, the word “superhuman” has come to imply “unnatural”, as if there is no way top tennis players could have come this far so quickly without performance enhancing. A quick look on the changes of tennis’ racket technology, surfaces, and sports science and nutrition on a whole will see that this curve is entirely expected in a sport relatively young in its professional growth. So please, before you start throwing around steroid allegations, particularly those not as familiar with tennis, stop and think for a moment.