04 August, 2011

Blacklabel Tennis Power Rankings - August 2011

Yep, it's that time of the month again.  Welcome to the second edition of the Blacklabel Tennis Power Rankings.  The idea's pretty simple, we'll tell you who the top ten players are RIGHT NOW every month, why they're hot, why they're cold and why you need to pay attention going forward.  Agree? Disagree?  Leave it in the comments.

In all honesty, a lot of the top dogs have been silent since we released the July rankings after Wimbledon, but there has been a bit of movement, including a strong showing by you know who...

1. Novak Djokovic (SRB) Last Month: (1)
Novak Djokovic hasn't done a lot wrong since he took the top post last month.  Sure, he lost his doubles match in a Davis Cup tie that Serbia won anyway and there was that photo, but has he done anything to make us believe he's not the best tennis player on Planet Earth right now?  Nope, I'd say not.  It'll be interesting to see if the month-long break rejuvenates him or saps his mojo.  Every player reacts differently to the time off and the lack of matchplay could leave him vulnerable to an early round upset in Montreal.  Montreal, belle ville though it is, is not the goal, New York, the US Open is. He may not sweep the hardcourt Masters, but at the moment, Djokovic is still the best player on the surface, as such, he leads the Power Rankings.    

 2. Rafael Nadal (ESP) Last Month: (2)
Funny to say this after the guy wins 10 majors and out-toughs the rest of the tour for years on end, but we're about to see what Rafa Nadal is made of.  Having only been consistently tested by Roger Federer and his own body in the past, Nadal faces a new material foe in Djokovic, both across the net and as Nadal himself admits, in his head.  There are a couple of ways a career can go at this point.  Someone who's achieved as much as Nadal would be forgiven for riding the wave as a top player, cashing in his sterling resume and enjoying fame and fortune.  On the other hand, he can look at Djokovic's ascendancy as an affront to his very existence and make another push to get himself back into the rankings penthouse.  Rafa's no Marat Safin.  
Nadal will be looking for a win in Toronto or Cincinnati, and he claims Djokovic's scalp, even better.  The stroke to watch is that lefty serve.  He cranked it up for last year's US Open, famously adding about ten miles per hour and transforming himself instantly into a tougher customer on the hardcourts.  Will he be able to do so again and draw the Djoker into a virtual stalemate with 2 majors apiece?  It's certainly possible.  Let's also remember that the supremely healthy Roger Federer is an anomaly, most players get hurt at some point in their careers.  If, Djokovic finds himself physically unable to perform at any point, a healthy Nadal re-takes the lead. 

3. Serena Williams (USA) Last Month: (10) 
We knew a healthy Serena would be a threat to win everything the tour had to offer.  We just didn't know how soon she would find her game.  Just three weeks after being upended by Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, Serena took her shot at revenge in the Stanford final and won 7-5, 6-1.  It wasn't a cakewalk, Bartoli led early, but once Williams got on a roll, it was all over. Serena romped through a field as deep as any she would face in a major, Anastasia Rodionova, Maria Kirilenko (the only player to give her real trouble), Maria Sharapova and Sabine Lisicki all took their shots before Bartoli.  All were summarily dismissed.  My only question, has Serena peaked too early?  Have we already seen the best ball the American can unleash play this summer?  Who knows? Who cares? Watching Serena play with as much verve ad precision as ever, it's hard to believe the WTA's own grim reaper was literally on death's door this winter.  You watch the matches, you see the blindingly agile and aware tennis, you shake your head and chuckle to yourself, "Only Serena."  Welcome back.

4. Roger Federer (SUI) Last Month: (6)
Want me to be honest?  I was a bit tough on Roger Federer last month.  It was hard not to be, given his uninspiring Wimbledon quarterfinal collapse versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  The facts are that Federer is 39-9 this year; he wasn't won a tournament since Doha at the beginning of January and he's now ranked and regarded behind both Nadal and Djokovic in most level-headed quarters.  He is, though, going into the US Open with strong historicals (five titles means something, right?), his usual break (a month off) and plenty to prove.

Is Swiss finished winning?  I doubt it.  Is he finished winning the big ones?  Better question, one I'm not prepared to definitvely answer.  That said, Cincinnati will be a gut check, as it's a title defense for the ex No. 1.  He's beaten Djokovic, but not Nadal this year and he'll likely have to vainquish both to win a sixth US Open.  If one of those guys don't get to the Flushing final though, would you really bet (much) against Federer winning one match against the other on a fast hardcourt.  I wouldn't.

5. Juan Martín del Potro (ARG) Last Month: (3)
Del Potro is the first player on the list to have lost a singles match since Wimbledon,  hence the drop.  His falling to a red hot Ernests Gulbis in LA may have been one of those "exception that proves the rule" moments, but it also scuttled his best chance to grab a US Open Series title (and hence, momentum) before the big dogs return next week in Canada.  The Tower of Tandil has always played well on the hardcourts, but the fact is, so do most of the best players.  Each of the "Big Three" has won at least two hardcourt majors and No. 4 Murray has played three major finals on the surface.  Del Potro still has the game to menace anyone, especially on a fast hardcourt and we expect his impossibly fluid forehand to give plenty of opponents sleepless nights.  So, will he have a shot at the US Open?  Of course, but falling to Gulbis proves that Del Potro is not ready to do the one thing EVERY top player does on a consistent basis: Win all the matches he's supposed to win.

6. Andy Murray (GBR) Last Month: (5)
Much like Del Potro, Andy Murray is a player who squandered a chance to grab a little forward momentum in the US Open Series.  I can't imagine he wouldn't have slashed his way through the decimated Washington draw and given the other top dogs something to think about next week in Canada.  As it stands, Murray's done nothing wrong, per se, he's just done nothing right either.  My take on Andy is this: Draws break open for any number of reasons, injuries, illnesses, bad days at the office, and so on.  Right now, the Big Three are clear favorites, in order of ranking, at every major they play.  If they fail to get to the business end of an event, well, why can't Andy Murray win it?  If they do, well, that's why not.

7. Petra Kvitova (CZE) Last Month: (4)
Was pulling out of San Diego the result of an injury or a Wimbledon hangover, literal or figurative?  Although an abdominal pull was cited, we'll never really know.  For the record, we're inclined to believe Petra as we try to take athletes at face value regarding their injuries.  What we do know though is that we haven't seen her since her impressive triumph at SW19.  We also know, to paraphrase Brad Gilbert, that if you don't show up, you can't win.  Our next chance to see Kvitova will presumably be in Toronto, so we'll reserve true judgment until then, but given the extended vacation and the step up in recognition, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kvitova take a step back after hurtling forward to win Wimbledon.

8. Marion Bartoli (FRA) Last Month: (-)
Y'know who's been impressive the last few months?  The eccentric egghead, France's Marion Bartoli.  Her last few results?  Final in Strasbourg, a career best semifinal result at Roland Garros, champion at Eastbourne, her best Wimbledon since that improbable 2007 run, making the QFs and the final last week in Stanford versus Serena.  Across three surfaces, Bartoli has shadow-swung her way to consistently impressive results.  The tough part for her going forward is her minimal positive history at the Open.  Her best run in New York being a 4th round loss.  If Bartoli can keep building positive momentum in the US Open Series though, all bets are off.

9. Maria Sharapova (RUS) Last Month: (7)
Tennis' most famous fighter is increasingly making headlines for leaving her big matches as a punchdrunk contender rather than as a champion.  Her last three tournaments ended with Masha losing a winnable Roland Garros semi versus an inspired Li Na, dropping the Wimbledon final to the newcomer Petra Kvitova and being thrashed by Serena Williams in Stanford.  I'll be the one to say it.  While Maria is famous for her fight, she, and most importantly her serve, have utterly collapsed in the spotlight this year.  With limited, though improved, mobility, Maria will always be hard-pressed to win big matches without the serve that launched her career.  The early signs of the Hogstedt partnership have been encouraging, especially the title in Rome, but Maria is again approaching a critical juncture.  How long can she grind her way back?  Forget the endorsements for a second, this is a woman for whom on-court success came (relatively) fast and furious.  She won Wimbledon 3 years after turning pro, it's been longer than that since her last major victory.  The patience and belief have to be wearing thin.

10. Vera Zvonareva (RUS) Last Month: (-)
She won in Baku.  That's gotta be worth something, right?  How's $37,000; 280 ranking points and #10 on our Power Rankings? 

Keep An Eye On:

Not power brokers yet, but five names to keep on your radar as you're watching tennis this month.

1. Kim Clijsters (BEL) - Remember her?  World No. 2, 3-time US Open champion, Jersey girl.  Is Bree exit 14 or 15?  Still needs to show up on court before she cracks our power rankings.

2. Ryan Harrison (USA) - The cocksure 19 year old American has played impressive ball in the smaller US Open Series events, let's see how he fares against a full-powered field in Canada and Cincy.
3. Ernests Gulbis (LAT)
 - The kid's only 22 (just a few months older than Alexandr Dolgopolov), but it feels like he's a veteran.  Could he finally deliver consistent results?  Can the commentators finally stop talking about his daddy's money?
4. Andrea Petkovic (GER) - On the verge of the Top 10, the German is simultaneously aiming to be the successor to Steffi Graf during matches and Paula Abdul when they're over.  It's been straight up the rankings so far.

5. Fernando Verdasco (ESP) - After a tough year, the Spaniard seems to have found his form on the late season Euroclay swing.  Will it translate to the hardcourts?  Winning can be contagious even across oceans.

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