01 February, 2012

BLT February 2012 Power Rankings

Australia's over but the 2012 tennis year has really just become.  Who came out of Oz on fire and who needs a jumpstart?  Time for a round of Power Rankings.  

1. Novak Djokovic (SRB) Last Month: (2)

Is it me or is 2012 beginning to look a lot like last year?  It is for Novak Djokovic at least.  He came into this Australian swing with some legitimate question marks about his fitness and his state of mind; he left the land Down Under back on top.  Djokovic captured his fifth major and a seventh consecutive win over World No. 2 Rafael Nadal, albeit in a near six hour epic that showed the two players may be on closer terms than they seemed a year prior.  Just seven matches from the Nole Slam in Paris you have to think, wouldn't that be an interesting feather in the Serb's cap?  Federer could be the greatest ever, Nadal could be the greatest clay-courter ever and Djokovic could be the only one of the three to win four majors in a row.  You want to talk Greatest Generation?  Only seven men have captured the career grand slam and Djokovic could be the third to do it in four years...all while beating TWO of the others to get there. Why are we getting ahead of ourselves?  Djokovic beat Nadal on clay twice last year, just saying.  In any event, the next few months are on hardcourts. Djokovic has won the last three majors on the hard stuff...up next, defending the Indian Wells-Key Biscayne double.

2. Rafael Nadal (ESP) Last Month: (3)

There has to be a part of Nadal that's sick of being the second best player on the planet.  Yes, he's logged over 100 weeks as World No. 1, but he's fast approaching 200 in the runner up slot.  On the other hand, one gets the feeling that Nadal prefers to run uphill, have a target, be the hunter rather than the hunted.  He'll certainly have the chance this season to hunt down the already flying Djokovic and gain a measure of revenge for his razor's edge loss in the Australian Open final.  All in all, No. 2's not a bad place to be, especially when you're far and away the player who owns that slot.  Plus, you've got think that Nadal will beat Djokovic again, and soon. 

3. Victoria Azarenka (BLR) Last Month: (7)

If Rafael Nadal had lost to Novak Djokovic in a reasonable amount of time, Azarenka could be No. 2 here.  She flew through her early round matchups and then beat back two of the game's most decorated champions in Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova to claim her very first major (impressively in her first major final).  Azarenka not only won the Australian Open, but she prefaced that success with the lead up title over a crowded field in Sydney.  The Bella Belarussian then comes to the US to face down the Williams sisters in a Fed Cup World Group II tie that just got miles more interesting.

4. Maria Sharapova (RUS) Last Month: (10)

When you lose a major final; sometimes the silver lining is how you lost it (see: Nadal, Rafael).  Sometimes, it's that you were there at all.  For Sharapova, it's certainly the latter.  Literally three years into her comeback from rotator cuff surgery, Sharapova is playing her best ball since she went under the knife.  The Siberian siren reached her second final in the last three majors.  Moreover, she didn't collapse in a blaze of double faults like she did at Wimbledon.  The most problematic part of post-surgery Sharapova's game, a multiyear case of the yips, seems to have abated just in time to give the young gunnettes who want to dominate the tour a little something extra to worry about.  Yes, Sharapova fell with a thud at the last hurdle, but A) she got there, and B) her much-maligned, error-laden performance looked  more a bad day at the office than a potentially career-killing issue with her game.

5. Andy Murray (GBR) Last Month: (6)

Losing to Novak Djokovic again...yes, I know.  However, in the 2011 Australian Open final, Murray was listless, loss and lamentable.  Watching his 2012 Melbourne semifinal, it was clear that this year, he played Djokovic toe-to-toe with no give until the final few points.  This will likely be the rivalry that defines the second half of the (almost) Great Scot's career.  If he can keep getting Djokovic deep into matches, the Serb, like any human, will eventually blink.  Maybe Ivan Lendl will be the spark that gets Murray going, maybe Murray is his own spark and in Lendl he just needs someone who can help him get fired up in the right ways at the right time.  In any event, Murray seems a more confident competitor already and he's certainly closer than he's ever been to the apex of the game in 2012.

6. Petra Kvitova (CZE) Last Month: (1)

Petra Kvitova didn't quite meet expectations on this Australian swing; but for Kvitova those expectations (at least among the tennis gaberati) were for her to both gain the No. 1 ranking and win the Australian Open.  Well, she lost to Na Li in the Sydney semifinal and had a career best semifinal showing at the Aussie Open maintaining the No. 2 ranking.  Not bad, but not the gains some had hoped either.  So Kvitova stock, buy, hold or sell?  I'd still place her firmly in the buy category.  Her results continue to improve.  She didn't take a step backward in Australia, she just didn't take as big of a step forward as some expected.  Also, consider that she left 2011 with titles at Wimbledon, the WTA Championships and the Fed Cup.  That sparkling six month stretch still leaves her with a bigger haul than anyone of her generation.

7. Roger Federer (SUI) Last Month: (4)

It's now been two years since Roger Federer won a major tournament.  The man who won the major prior to Federer was Juan Martin Del Potro.  Unlike Delpo, Federer didn't miss a year with injury, The Swiss has been consistently in the draw, consistently in the quarterfinals, but not hoisting the big trophies.  In fact, since winning the 2010 Australian Open he's only made one major final falling to Nadal at Roland Garros last year.  Yes, he remains the greatest major champion in history by a fair margin; yes, if the top two aren't in the mix on the final weekend, Federer would be a huge favorite over pretty much anyone else in the field.  To wit, his title indoors at the traditionally depleted Paris Masters last fall.  Can Federer still win the big  ones?  Of course.  Will he?  The evidence is trending against him.  

8. Kim Clijsters (BEL) Last Month: (N/A)

It was a tough Aussie swing for Aussie Kim.  The Jersey girl from Exit Bree injured her ankle in Brisbane, had to withdraw; then re-injured her ankle at the Australian.  I guess if the makers of Plexicushion are looking for a celebrity endorser, they might do well to pass Clijsters by.  In any event, while she couldn't win her 5th major in Australia, Clijsters put in a strong performance reaching the semis of both tournaments.  It's an interesting position for Clijsters.  As the light at the end of the tunnel is increasingly bright, will her competitive fire burn comparatively?  We ask, especially if she has to spend a lot of time on the trainer's table.  On the other hand, will she, sooner rather than later, go toward the light (from Jada's playroom)

9. David Ferrer (ESP) Last Month: (5)

You realize there are more than four guys playing competitive ATP-level tennis, right?  I mean, maybe not if you only see the final weekends of the majors, but they're out there and David Ferrer is the best of the rest.  The speedy Spaniard played a solid Australian Open, but then he was housed at the end of his quarter versus Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-6, 6-1...oof.  Ferrer, who will turn 30 in June, has a narrative similar to that of Federer today.  He's certainly good enough to win if there's a week when the Big Four falter (or don't show up).  Look for him to try to make his mark between the big events, and whenever the big boys have a lapse.  

10. Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) Last Month: (N/A)

People compare Agnieszka Radwanska to five-time major winner Martina Hingis...remember how many majors Hingis won in her second career, after the rise of what Mary Carillo dubbed "Big Babe Tennis?"  None.  Remember, her top ranking in her comeback?  No. 6, that's also where Radwanska ranks this week.  So why do we rank Radwanska so high here?  Radwanska is certainly good enough to be a transitional figure.  Kvitova and Azarenka have emerged as the young gunnettes to beat; Sharapova seems to be back in the mix at the majors and there's still Wozniacki to contend with.  The missing link for all of them is consistency.  Radwanska is the kind of player who can give anyone trouble on a bad day, even though the matches aren't often on her racquet (as evidenced in her first round win over Bethanie Mattek-Sands).  A lot of days against inconsistent players, even power players, what she does well (making her opponent hit another ball) will be enough.

The Blacklabel Buzz List 
(not quite Power List, but worth keeping an eye on this month):

1. Kei Nishikori (JAP) - Now a top 20 player for the first time.  Project 45 now feels like ancient history for the Japanese superstar who blasted past Shuzo Matsuoka's prior high-water mark of No. 46 for Japanese ATP players.  His run to the quarterfinals at this Australian Open is his best majors performance thus far, but he seems to be building the consistency to play at this level on a regular basis.  Not to mention, we think playing mixed doubles with Kimiko Date-Krumm may have imparted upon him a wealth of knowledge that will serve him very well going forward.

2. Bernard Tomic (AUS) - Tomic or Raonic?  Raonic or Tomic?  Coming out of Australia, Tomic is the more buzzworthy of the 6'5" wunderkinds.  He knocked off two seeds, Fernando Verdasco and Alexandr Dolgopolov before being shown the exit by World No. 3 Roger Federer.  Why do we love this kid?  Well, as meek as Samantha Stosur was in slipping out of Melbourne, Tomic was bold.    He took to the pressure of playing as the Aussie No. 1 as if he had done it his whole life.  Not to mention, he has a rebellious streak that may shake up the nice guy stranglehold at the top of the game.  As much as we love the nice guys at the top now, it's nice to have a bit of variety in personality too.

3. Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) - When an authority as knowledgable as Martina Navratilova pegs a player as a future slam champion, we take notice.  When that player beats Serena Williams in a major, we take even more notice.  Ergo, Makarova.  The 23 year old Russian is now ranked just outside the top 40 following her run to the 4th round of the Happy Slam.  The problem is, this is almost exactly where she was this time a year ago before a disastrous 4-13 stretch after reaching the 4th round of both Australia and Roland Garros.  Maybe she's learned a thing or two since then?  

4. Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) - Weird eh?  She drops from 1-4 int he WTA rankings and suddenly she's buzzworthy?  Yup, Wozniacki should be playing with a chip on her shoulder and that makes her dangerous.  She's 4-2 head-to-head over the new No. 1 Azarenka, 3-2 over Kvitova and keep in mind, there's not another major on the horizon four four months.  So why can't Caro make hay while the sun (doesn't) shine?  The pressure's off to some degree without the rankings albatross around her neck; if she starts swinging away (and puts herself in a positive coaching situation, seeing as Piotr's already ousted Ricardo Sanchez), why can't she have a strong month or two before we turn our eyes to the European clay?

5. Venus Williams (USA) - The elder Williams sister is one of the greatest champions and (with baby sister Serena) stories of this era.  Given the diagnosis of Sjogren's syndrome, her advanced age (for a tennis player) and diminishing results, we have to assume Venus won't be playing much longer.  Our call: enjoy the next few times we get to see her on court.  We certainly won't be the ones to usher her off the stage, she's earned the right to do that herself.  We will however urge fans (and "haters" alike) to give Venus her due as she prepares for her next chapter.  Again, she's earned it.


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