Who was the star of the show in tennis in 2010? Rafael Nadal, without a doubt.
Entering the season under a cloud of uncertainty, Nadal achieved one of the finest years in the history of the sport. He reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and completed his Grand Slam collection at the age of 24. Nadal's main rival, Roger Federer, dipped. Well, that was inevitable given his past.
Nadal leads the way in our grading of the men's elite.
And just a word on the rationale: It's all relative.
Rafael Nadal (A): Nadal had the type of 11 months Federer produced in 2004, 2006 and 2007, winning three majors. He surpassed Fed, though, by claiming three in a row in a single season. After the backhand slice, volley and more aggressive approach from the baseline, his serve was the next part of his game to improve. If he's healthy in 2011, can we discount similar results?
Roger Federer (B): The good news for Federer was his title at the Australian Open, marking an eighth consecutive campaign with a major. The bad news? His semifinal streak at Grand Slams ended in Paris, and, further, he failed to reach the semis at his beloved Wimbledon. He lost four times after holding match points, too. But Federer remains as hungry as ever, and his partnership with Paul Annacone has already produced results, evidenced by Sunday's win over Rafa in the ATP World Tour Finals.
Andy Murray (C+): Another year finished, and another year without a major for Murray. Time isn't exactly running out, but still. When the pressure is off, Murray excels. When it's on, he flops. The latest example came at the year-end championships, when the Scot crumbled against Federer before playing Rafa extremely tough.
Novak Djokovic (C+): Like Murray, Djokovic disappointed. When will the Serb win Slam No. 2? Djokovic went a combined 1-6 against Nadal and Federer, and 7-12 versus top-20 foes, excluding the charged-up atmosphere of the Davis Cup. Beating Federer at the U.S. Open was great, but Djokovic took just one set against the Swiss in three subsequent encounters. Not so great.
Andy Roddick (C): We can't be overly harsh in judging Roddick. He was flying in the spring, almost achieving the Indian Wells-Miami double. But Roddick was never right physically after being struck down my mono during the European clay-court swing. Roddick did well just to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
Robin Soderling (B-): Soderling proved he was no fluke. He goes down in history as the guy who snapped Federer's outrageous semifinal streak. Has the imposing Swede hit his ceiling, however? Soderling was outclassed by Nadal and Federer in their head-to-heads after Roland Garros. According to reports from Sweden, Soderling will cut ties with coach Magnus Norman in the offseason.
Tomas Berdych (B): Berdych started to live up to his potential, first at the French Open. Vitally, he backed it up at Wimbledon. His effortless groundstrokes, when on, overpower most opponents. The tall Czech struggled with heightened expectations post-Wimbledon, yet he ensured a strong conclusion to 2010 by testing Nadal at the year-end championships.
Nikolay Davydenko (C): Davydenko might be haunted for years by that match against Federer at the Australian Open. Crushing Federer, up a set and a break, he collapsed, going AWOL in the next hour. He later broke his wrist, an injury he didn't recover from. Davydenko's ranking has slipped outside the top 20, signaling his first year-end finish outside the top 10 since 2004. Thankfully for him, Davydenko has few points to defend in 2011.
Marin Cilic (C+): Cilic began the season so well, reaching a maiden Grand Slam semifinal in Melbourne and defending his titles at Chennai and Zagreb. He was drawing a few comparisons to Juan Martin del Potro. The towering Croat flopped badly thereafter, though, and his forehand is a real concern. However, given his work ethic and determination, the 22-year-old will get things right.
Juan Martin del Potro (N/A): Del Potro's serious wrist injury wasn't good for tennis. Minus the injury, the lanky Argentine would have posed a serious threat to Nadal and Federer -- more so than Murray and Djokovic. Instead, del Potro was limited to six matches. The wrist might be fine physically, but how long will it take for the 22-year-old to recover mentally? His ranking has dropped to 259th.