Time short for 'ceiling scrapers'?

Updated: January 10, 2013, 8:22 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

There's that scene in the 2000 comedy "High Fidelity" where John Cusack's character Rob looks into the camera, resigned to his state in life as a supporting character but never a leading man. He is, of course, talking about why his relationship failed with the beautiful and stunning Charlie, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Cusack's character must reach the hard truth that, when paired with her, he's out of his league:

"The thing I learned about the whole Charlie debacle is, you gotta punch your weight. See, Charlie was out of my class. She was too smart, too pretty, too much. I mean, what am I? A middleweight. I'm not the smartest guy, but I'm certainly not the dumbest."

There are two types of people in this regard: the heavyweights -- the ones with the Zeta-Jones looks and the Federer gifts -- and the rest of us. The heavyweights are the ones who never have to reach that terrible Cusack moment of introspection because they have never faced an obstacle, whether an opponent on the other side of the net or a romantic interest, that was beyond their reach.

Then there are the rest of us. We are the John Cusacks-as-Rob, the ones who look up and see that the ceiling isn't made of glass but lead. We aren't the smartest, but we're certainly not the dumbest. We find out, usually the hard way, that we are not destined to be Rembrandt after all, and that if the Great American Novel is to be written, it won't be by us.

On the ATP Tour, the penthouse is reserved for the elites of Category 1, the ones who live the glamorous life: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and now, joining the club as a full member, Andy Murray. They own the rankings and the seedings and the Grand Slams. Outside of this dynasty, only Juan Martin del Potro (2009 U.S. Open) has won a Slam since 2005.

There are a few important members of Category 2 worth watching in 2013. Let's call them the Ceiling Scrapers, players who will be faced with the dual struggle of not only somehow, some way beating the big guys but also holding on to what they have. These are players who may have to realize, Cusack-like, that this may be as good as it gets.

John Isner

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty ImagesHeavy serving John Isner has had difficulty grasping other important parts of the game.
Ranking: 14
Best Grand Slam finish: QF (2011 U.S. Open)
Best Masters finish: F (Indian Wells)
2012 versus top 10: 4-4
2012 versus top 5: 1-3

At the beginning of 2012, the salivation over Isner seemed a bit nationalistic (Mardy Fish had dropped out of the top 10 because of health issues, Andy Roddick neared the end and Isner became the top-ranked American), but also justified (he beat Djokovic in the semis at Indian Wells, lost to Federer in the final and beat Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Davis Cup play). Isner's big serve and forehand made for a scary, tantalizing combination.

Then he lost in the second round to Paul-Henri Mathieu at the French, and in the first round at Wimbledon to Alejandro Falla. Isner lost his cool and his third-round match to Philipp Kohlschreiber at the U.S. Open, making his deficiencies -- his inability to break serve or win extended points, and his inconsistency with groundstrokes -- seem more apparent than his dangerous weapons.

Davis Cup coach Jim Courier and others questioned his scheduling, wondering if the 6-foot-9 Isner was burning himself out. He fell out of the top 10 by the end of the year and is now in danger of hitting his head on the ceiling. He has changed coaches from Craig Boynton to Mike Sell in an attempt to recapture the momentum he had a year ago.

The new year hasn't been kind. Isner, who will be 28 in April, was creamed by Tsonga 6-3, 6-2 in a Hopman Cup exhibition. Days later, he withdrew from the tourney because of knee tendinitis. And just Wednesday, he annouced his withdrawal from the Australian Open.

Janko Tipsarevic

Ranking: 9
Best Grand Slam finish: QF (U.S. Open, twice)
Best Masters finish: SF (Montreal, Madrid, Toronto)
2012 versus top 10: 2-11
2012 versus top 5: 1-8

Tipsarevic is a terrific story, a player with greatness in his forecast as a junior who struggled as a pro before coming on strong the past two years. He rose from 49th in 2010 to ninth in 2011 and 2012, playing in the year-end Masters at Barclays both years. But he has never been to a Grand Slam or Masters final, and he will turn 29 in June. A grinder without the plus-grade weapons to be a favorite or equal to the top players, he needs all of his consistency to stave off players ranked behind him who hit bigger and can close gaps with their power. He is, however, an interesting comparison to Fish, who made a huge charge later in his career.

David Ferrer

[+] EnlargeDavid Ferrer
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty ImagesDavid Ferrer met members of tennis' Big Four 10 times in 2012 and yet tasted victory only once.
Ranking: 5
Best Grand Slam finish: SF (Australian Open, U.S. Open)
Best Masters finish: Champion (2012 Paris Indoors)
2012 versus top 10: 11-9
2012 versus Big Four: 1-9

Ferrer won 75 matches in 2012, including his first Masters 1000 title, and should never be accused of cheating his talent. But what can he do for an encore? He had that 1-9 mark against the elites, and there is some debate as to whether he resigns himself to his fate as a middleweight (he's 0-14 lifetime against Federer, having won only three sets) or whether he simply lacks a big enough game to fight a heavyweight. After losing 6-0, 6-3 to Djokovic in the Abu Dhabi exhibition last month, Ferrer tweeted, "No options against Djokovic today."

Can Ferrer win a major? It's possible, but he would need tremendous help, either from a weakened or absent Nadal on clay (though Djokovic and Federer are deadly on the surface as well) or from bad weather (Ferrer led 5-2 in the first set of a U.S. Open semifinal against a clearly disturbed and distracted Djokovic before play was halted; Djokovic destroyed him the next day).

Nevertheless, there's no need to weep for these three. There aren't a dozen players in the world better than Tipsarevic, and even fewer are better than Ferrer. Isner has the biggest upside, but it is up to him what kind of player he becomes.

It should also be noted that the Cusack analogy doesn't apply to Tsonga, Tomas Berdych or del Potro, who don't have to bow to the Big Four in terms of the bigness of their games. Of all the championship aspirants on tour (with apologies to today's fashionable pick, Milos Raonic), Berdych, Tsonga and del Potro have the best chance to wrest another major from the penthouse. Charlie, it would seem, is not out of their class.