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Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Assessing the stars' Slam seasons

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

The tennis season stretches over 11 months, but top players judge themselves mostly how they did at the four majors. With the last Grand Slam of the year now in the books, we take stock of how the big men's names fared on the biggest stages.

Roger Federer: Turning the tide

Federer's Grand Slam season began much as it ended -- a fifth-set collapse in the final. The first was to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in January; the latest to Juan Martin del Potro at the U.S. Open on Monday.

But his reaction couldn't have been more different. In Melbourne, there were tears. In New York, it was, "Can't win them all."

Why the contrast? Everything that happened in between. Forgetting his early-season struggles, Federer took flight in the spring, completing a career Slam by winning the French Open and capturing a record-breaking 15th major at Wimbledon.

Those career landmarks mean this season has to be considered an unqualified success for the world No. 1, even with the near-misses at the other two majors. He also celebrated some milestones off the court, getting married in April and becoming the father of twin girls in July.

Although there was doubtless hidden frustration after the loss to del Potro (those double faults and fifth-set errors were mysterious), his composure suggests down-the-road optimism with all he achieved at age 28. Not a bad outlook after a season that initially looked as though it would be mostly downhill.

Rafael Nadal: Out of luck

Nadal looked superhuman in winning the Australian Open with back-to-back five-setters. But as the season progressed, the Spaniard turned out to be flesh and blood after all. Struggling with knee problems, he lost his first-ever match at the French Open and had to miss out on defending his title at Wimbledon.

When he returned during the U.S. Open series, Nadal almost immediately began having abdominal problems. What began as a muscle strain turned into a small tear by the time he lost 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 to del Potro in the U.S. Open semifinals -- Nadal's worst-ever defeat in a major.

Add to that the family troubles he also endured, and little wonder that Nadal sums up the season as "not very lucky year for me -- a lot of bad things happened."

Still, it wasn't a complete loss: He pocketed his first hard-court major and showed the rest of the way that even if his body isn't superhuman, his will to compete just might be.

Andy Murray: One step back

Murray notes that he's set a new personal best at every major this year except the U.S. Open, but it's unlikely he's looking back at his Grand Slam season with much satisfaction. The personal best he really wanted to set was in New York, where he reached the final last year.

Instead, he was inexplicably listless in a fourth-round loss to the talented but still erratic Marin Cilic, the kind of player the cagey Scot is usually an expert at disassembling. At the other three Slams, Murray was each time bundled out by a big hitter having a good run -- Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne, Fernando Gonzalez in Paris and Andy Roddick at Wimbledon.

He's still going in the right direction and figures he won't peak until 23 or 24, but he was expected to come a lot closer to getting that elusive first Slam this year than he ultimately did.

Novak Djokovic: Two steps back

The fun-loving Novak of old reappeared during his U.S. Open semifinal loss to Federer, producing plenty of smiles and even offering Federer a playful "butts up" invitation at the end of one exchange at net.

Novak Djokovic
Here's where the top names in the game stand after the four majors.

But Djokovic ultimately went down in straight sets, and the fact that this was the highlight of his Slam season emphasizes the Serb's underwhelming performance at the majors this year. His Australian Open defense ended with an abrupt retirement against Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. A wrenching loss against Nadal in the Masters event at Madrid set him back some more, contributing to lackluster losses in the third round of the French and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon.

The 22-year-old hasn't completely fallen off the map, having reached a bunch of Masters finals and recently enlisted the coaching services of Todd Martin to try to get back on track. But after looking like a perennial Grand Slam favorite when he won the Australian Open in 2008, he dropped back to mere "also a contender" status this year.

Andy Roddick: So near yet so far

Roddick's U.S. Open defeat will stick in his craw the entire fall. Though riding a wave of popular support after an excruciatingly close loss against Federer in the Wimbledon final, Roddick found himself stuck in that pattern of narrow defeats all summer, culminating in the narrowest defeat of all in New York -- a fifth-set tiebreaker defeat against John Isner in the third round.

The nature of those defeats may make it difficult to draw positives, but Roddick is at least ahead of where he was at this time last year. The American's goal at the beginning of the season was simply to "get back in the conversation" of Grand Slam contenders, and he certainly did that. Even before Wimbledon, Roddick made the final four of Australia for his first Grand Slam semifinal in two years and made the second week of the French Open for the first time in his career.

But with yet another new generation starting to push through, how many more chances will there be to grab a second Slam title?

Juan Martin del Potro: Great leap forward

"If I want to beat Nadal, Federer, I have to be more aggressive than today. But I need time also," del Potro told your faithful correspondent at the U.S. Open last year.

How long might that be? "Maybe a year," he replied.

That prediction turned out to be as well-timed as some of the monster forehands del Potro struck at the U.S. Open, where he became the first player to defeat both Nadal and Federer on the way to winning a major.

In fact, the arc of del Potro's improvement this year may be best captured by his matches against Federer. He won just three games against the great Swiss in the fourth round of the Australian Open, getting bageled in the last two sets. They met again in the semifinals of the French Open, with del Potro this time going up two sets to one before starting to tire. Their latest encounter in the final of the U.S. Open again went five sets, and this time del Potro hung tough until the end and came away with the victory.

There are now great expectations surrounding the Argentine, who is still shy of 21 years old. As he himself says, beating Federer and Nadal is one thing, being like them is another. Next up is the challenge of backing up his big win with another major, which no one other than Federer and Nadal has done for some time.

The others

Breakouts: Robin Soderling (French Open final) and Fernando Verdasco (Australian Open semifinal) established themselves as regular outside threats at the majors. And did Marin Cilic's U.S. Open run suggest he's ready to join del Potro as one of the emerging new forces?

Pleasant surprises: The veterans have made their presence felt this year. The evergreen Tommy Haas (Wimbledon semifinal) and Fernando Gonzalez (French Open semifinal) showed they're still dangerous when they get on a roll, and former No. 1s Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero seem to be enjoying a bit of a second wind.

Letdowns: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hasn't followed up on his run to the 2008 Australian Open final, while James Blake increasingly looks as though he'll end up as one of the best players never to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. Nikolay Davydenko continues to underperform at the majors.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.