Maturing Djokovic set to shine next year: 2010 season review
And so 2010 ends much as it began, with the same four men muscling out the rest for tennis’s top spots, just as they had done the year before.
Rafael Nadal is world No1, as he was in 2008. Last year, it was Roger Federer -as it had been in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
That may surprise nobody: One or other of the super duo has filled the No1 spot since November 2003. What might be more of a surprise is that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have now filled numbers three and four for the third consecutive year-end – and that shows impressive consistency against challenges from both old and new.
And clinging to their top-eight places from last year are Andy Roddick and Robin Soderling. However, 2010 did bring some unexpected absences, not least the slide of the 2009 WTF champion Nikolay Davydenko out that elite band for the first time since 2004. He was forced to withdraw from the tour with a wrist fracture, and has struggled to make it back.
Even more of a shock was the withdrawal of the youngest of 2009’s London eight, Juan Martin Del Potro, from all but three tournaments this year. He, too, has contended with a chronic wrist injury and succumbed to surgery in May. He now stands way down the rankings at 259, so his comeback, which begins in Sydney next month, will be a long and hard one.
And will Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ever be free of the injuries that have plagued his as yet unfulfilled career? He is now out of action with a knee injury and faces another uncertain year.
There were yet more top-20 players destined to feel the cut of the surgeon’s knife and a dramatic drop in their rankings in 2010: Fernando Gonzalez -11 to 68 after hip surgery; Tommy Haas -17 to 375, also undergoing hip surgery; and Lleyton Hewitt -22 to 54 after a second bout of hip surgery in two years.
On top of that, Radek Stepanek slumped from 12 to 62 after contracting glandular fever while Gilles Simon slid from 17 to 42 because of major knee problems.
But while the cat’s away, the mice will play – and the absence of a clutch of stalwarts opened up space for the flowering of some fresh names -and not just from the youngsters.
The qualities they brought with them also refreshed the game itself: maturity, single-handed backhands, and serve and volley tennis making a resurgence via the charismatic tennis of many popular faces.
Michael Llodra won in Marseille and Eastbourne and reached his first Masters semifinal in Paris. Juan Carlos Ferrero took back-to-back wins in South America and another title in Umag, though the 30-year-old has since undergone knee and wrist surgery.
Mikhail Youzhny reached the finals in Rotterdam, Doha and St Petersburg, won titles in Munich and Kuala Lumpur, and made the semis of the US Open. He was bidding for a place at the WTFs when a back injury forced him to retire from the Paris Masters in the first round, but he turned up at the O2 to join the fun anyway, and perhaps to celebrate ending the year as the top Russian for the first time in his career.
Ivan Ljubicic won his first Masters title in Indian Wells, was runner-up in Montpellier and passed the 400 mark in tour-level matches.
And Mardy Fish, determined to make one last effort to the top of his sport, lost weight, trained hard, and broke into the top 20 for the first time in his 10 years as a pro, winning titles at Queens, Newport and Atlanta, and reaching the Cincinnati Masters final.
But what of the seasons for those who continue to target the Swiss-Spanish dominance?
Murray ended the year with one of his finest matches, almost beating Nadal in the semifinal of the WTFs with a spirited performance that bodes well for next year.
In January 2010 he became, in Melbourne, the first Briton in 72 years to reach the finals of two Slams. His loss to Federer in Australia, though, hit his confidence and he endured some poor results through the spring, with back-to-back opening round exits at Miami and Monte Carlo.
He made up for lost time on the autumn hard courts by beating Federer in both the Toronto and Shanghai Masters finals.
He is expected to announce his choice of new coach at the start of the next season, and his tennis target will be to go one better in Melbourne. A truly confident Murray might just do so.
Djokovic, the WTF champion in 2008, advanced to a highly-anticipated show-down with Federer in the London semis but could not get a foothold against the Swiss man’s best tennis of the tournament.
The Serb, though, will certainly win more titles -and the Australian Open might be his best prospect. He ended this year just a whisker behind Federer and Roddick in win rates on hard courts. He reached the quarter-finals or better in all four Slams, and made the final of the US Open. He won two titles from four finals and also -fleetingly -reached No2 for the first time in his career.
This year has seen a maturing both of the character and the tennis of the Serb, and if he leads his country to Davis Cup victory this week, he will be brimming with confidence, too.
After reaching the semis in 2009, and riding high on his first Masters title in Paris, much was expected of Soderling in London, but Murray left him floundering in his first match while Federer filleted him like a fish in his third.
But Soderling has had another year of progress under the calming eye of Magnus Norman. He has worked on his mobility, attacks the net more readily and is quicker around the court. He has been rewarded with two titles and three other finals this year, including his second Roland Garros final in a row. His Paris Masters win took him to a career high of No4, albeit for just a couple of weeks.
All the more surprising, then, that Soderling has just announced a split from Norman. But make no mistake: The Swede is here to stay.
David Ferrer has been a resurgent force in 2010 but he looked like an also-ran in London. He does, though, end the year as the No2 Spanish player, ahead of Fernando Verdasco, for the first time in two years, and in the top 10 for the first time since 2007.
Indeed for a man who talked about retiring at the end of this season, it has been a very successful year. He won two titles and reached three more finals -the most recent just a month back in Valencia.
Ferrer is popular, gritty, dedicated and modest. He also maximises every ounce of his talent. He will probably never climb higher than his current ranking but he surely deserves his successes as much as any man on the tour.
Roddick’s three-match loss in London was a sorry conclusion to his eighth consecutive qualification for the year-end event. Yet his consistency and persistence is without parallel. He is the only active player apart from Federer to finish in the top 10 for the ninth straight year and to win at least one title for 10 straight years.
In 2010, he enjoyed success with the Masters title in Miami and a finals finish in Indian Wells. By the late summer Masters, though, he had contracted glandular fever, and fell out of the top 10 for the first time in four years.
Does he have another year-end place in him? It is looking increasingly unlikely, but no-one has more fighting spirit than Roddick.
The second half of Tomas Berdych‘s season -after reaching his first Slam final at Wimbledon -saw a dramatic falling off of the form that took him into the top 10 without winning a title all year. Between Wimbledon and the O2, he won just eight matches in 11 tournaments. He will now have to work hard to find the physical and mental durability that mark the top men from the rest. He found it, briefly, in 2010. We wait to see whether he recovers his self-belief in 2011.
Names to watch in 2011
The old guard: David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis are both former top 10 players, both are recovering from long periods sidelined by injury, and both made their marks during 2010. The Argentine rose from 160 in March to 27, on the back of fewer than a dozen outings. Baghdatis has risen from 150 to 20 in a year and a half 18. Both can light up a tennis court with their all-court fireworks, but fitness will be the key.
The maiden-winning men from Kazakstan: Andrey Golubev won his first title in Hamburg and was runner-up in Kuala Lumpur; Mikhail Kukishkin won his first title in St Petersburg. Both were around the 130 mark this time last year, and they now stand at 36 and 59 respectively.
And as if to pick up on the success stories of the older men this year, these youngsters play attacking tennis, can dominate the net and Golubev even has a Federesque backhand. So for new blood in the top 20 in 2011, keep an eye in particular on the classy blond from Kazakhstan.