Commentary

The three players to watch in 2014

Federer, Tsonga and del Potro at crossroads as another season begins

Updated: January 7, 2014, 3:01 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The false narrative is the haven for the lazy. Unfortunately, it occupies some serious real estate. One false narrative in tennis is that nothing changes. Sure, it is true that three players -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- have won 32 of the past 35 Grand Slam titles and two players, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, have won the other three.

On the secondary layers of the game, however, which exist so very near the top of the sport, change is the constant. Players have the breakout year (John Isner, Juan Monaco, 2012), then have to go back and do it again. Others are in a constant battle with the mirror to determine if their games have plateaued (Janko Tipsarevic?). Tennis is a game of points defensed and earned, confidence gained and shattered. In 2013, I referred to three players as "the Vulnerables," guys for whom the year would prove pivotal. They were David Ferrer, Isner and Tipsarevic.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Will Russell/Getty ImagesJohn Isner really didn't make any strides last season. Has he reached his plateau?
As a refresher, here is the ATP top 20 from Dec. 31, 2012:

1. Novak Djokovic
2. Roger Federer
3. Andy Murray
4. Rafael Nadal
5. David Ferrer
6. Tomas Berdych
7. Juan Martin del Potro
8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
9. Janko Tipsarevic
10. Richard Gasquet
11. Nicolas Almagro
12. Juan Monaco
13. Milos Raonic
14. John Isner
15. Marin Cilic
16. Gilles Simon
17. Stanislas Wawrinka
18. Alexandr Dolgopolov
19. Kei Nishikori
20. Philipp Kohlschreiber

Ferrer had won a career-high 76 matches in 2012. He finished a career-high fifth. He had won his first-ever Masters 1000, in Paris. No one outside of the Big Guys beat him. Ferrer wiped out Murray at the French and was inches from doing so at Wimbledon. He had expended so much energy and had crossed the magic threshold of age 30 that if ever there was candidate for slippage, it was Ferrer.

All Ferrer did in 2013 was increase his ranking to third, reach his first-ever major final and continue to be hell on anyone who played him. He wasn't as unbeatable as he was in 2012, and there were some surprising losses toward the end of the year (Florian Mayer, Joao Sousa), but Ferrer was terrific in 2013, as always.

Isner only had a bad year on one condition: If the projection for him was to catapult toward being a consistent top-5 to top-8 player. He wasn't. He fell to 14th, which is where he began the year, which suggests that Isner may have plateaued. Where he is -- a top-15 player who is a nightmare for anyone who plays him -- is a pretty good place to be, but Isner is plague by the same demons: He cannot return nor break serve enough to be a great player.

For the past three years, Isner has ranked first or second in service games held, generally from 90 to 92 percent, but the top four players in return games won -- Nadal, Djokovic, Ferrer and Murray -- break 31 to 34 percent of the time. They also happen to be, in that order, the top four players in the world. The ATP ranks only the top 47 in that category, and Isner is dead last, winning just 12 percent of his return games. Isner's story is one of a plateau because his results haven't improved, but more important, because the numbers behind them haven't.

Then there is Tipsarevic, who squeezed as much out of his body as he could, by redeeming a fantastic junior career by finally reaching his potential as a pro. He was vulnerable because like Ferrer, he is an undersized, maximum-effort attack player. But unlike Ferrer, the Serb isn't as steel-willed. Tipsarevic reached as high as eighth during the year, played three matches in the World Tour Finals, then faltered badly in 2013, going 20-24 on the year, fighting injuries and mostly himself. Tipsarevic was knocked out of tournaments in the first or second round a stunning 17 times; as a result, he tumbled to 36th in the world. With his recent withdrawal from the Australian Open, he will lose fourth-round points and likely fall out of the top 50.

(As an aside, by the end of 2013, Monaco had dropped from 12th to 42nd, and Dolgopolov fell to 57th, but those sad stories are for another day.)

This year, the Crossroads Three are Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer, and to start 2014, here are the ATP year-end rankings from 2013:

Dec. 31, 2013

1. Rafael Nadal
2. Novak Djokovic
3. David Ferrer
4. Andy Murray
5. Juan Martin del Potro
6. Roger Federer
7. Tomas Berdych
8. Stanislas Wawrinka
9. Richard Gasquet
10. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
11. Milos Raonic
12. Tommy Haas
13. Nicolas Almagro
14. John Isner
15. Mikhail Youzhny
16. Fabio Fognini
17. Kei Nishikori
18. Tommy Robredo
19. Gilles Simon
20. Kevin Anderson

Every year, there are fashionable picks to make waves on the tour. Last year, it was Isner, Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov; this year, now fully healthy, it is del Potro. The Argentine is truly the most dangerous player other than Murray to challenge the big three. Now, del Potro -- he of the 2009 US Open title and maybe the biggest forehand in the game -- looks healthy enough to be the dangerous one at a major, for being ranked fifth means one of the big boys will have to play him in the quarterfinals.

Ferrer brings his game, and not just his forehand, more consistently every week than del Potro. Del Potro beat Murray and Djokovic before losing to Nadal in the Indian Wells final. Del Potro beat Federer in Basel. He crushed Nadal in Shanghai, making him the only player on tour to beat all four.

But since winning the US Open, del Potro has reached the semifinal of a major only once, his epic five-set loss to Djokovic at Wimbledon last year. Injuries are the biggest reason del Potro is at the crossroads of greatness and plateau, but it isn't the only explanation for lackluster losses to Lleyton Hewitt in the second round of last year's US Open or a third-round loss to Jeremy Chardy at the Australian Open or the fact that a player of his considerable weapons has never won a Masters 1000 tournament. (He's reached three Masters 1000 finals, two in 2013.)

In 2012, when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost four match points in a stirring quarterfinal loss to Djokovic at Roland Garros, it was heartbreaking for the French contingent but also uplifting -- because it showed that Tsonga was more than just an entertainer, that he was able to slug it out with the very best and not blink, even though he lost. The loss seemed to have the potential to be defining. A month later, Tsonga went a step further on his favorite surface, losing in the Wimbledon semifinals to Murray, a regrettable match for Tsonga because the bad tactic of recklessly charging the net against one of the most precise defensive players in the game cost him the tournament.

Still, Tsonga was ranked sixth in the world and had made it to at least the quarters in consecutive majors. He looked as if he might be the fashionable player who would finally ascend. Then Tsonga returned to his space as perhaps the most maddening, enigmatic talent this side of Tomas Berdych. He did not show up to Flushing Meadows in 2012, getting demolished by Martin Klizan. But in 2013, he lost a five-setter in Melbourne to Federer, then beat the Swiss in straights in the Roland Garros quarterfinals only to take a ruthless beatdown from Ferrer in the semis. At Wimbledon, Tsonga suffered left knee tendinitis in his second-round match against Ernests Gulbis and missed the next three months.

Tsonga is now 28. He is now six years removed from his only Grand Slam final, a 2008 loss to Djokovic in Melbourne, the same year he won his only Masters 1000 title. He's also creeping into -- if he has not already entered -- the stage where the mind and body slowly begin to part ways. Injuries are always the best reminder of this.

Tsonga is in that dangerous place where Berdych eternally finds himself -- an underachiever. He hasn't even reached a Masters final since losing to Federer in Paris in 2011. Tsonga won one title last year, a 250-level event in Marseille; he reached only one other final, losing to Gilles Simon at Metz. He's simply too good a player to have that kind of output.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ferrer
Marwan Naanmani/AFP/Getty ImagesIt's safe to say David Ferrer has exceeded all expectations in 2014.
Tsonga parted ways with coach Roger Rasheed, and he is now 10th in the world. Although Tsonga hasn't fallen out of the top 10 since Aug. 29, 2011, he is in danger of being passed by young guns like Raonic.

It is hardly a news flash that Federer is at a crossroads. It is still stunning to see him ranked sixth and to know he won just one tournament last year (Halle), was beaten by Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon and parted ways with coach Paul Annacone.

Federer never seemed to recover from playing consecutive five-set matches in Melbourne last year against Tsonga in the quarters and Murray in the semis. Nadal beat him four times. He lost to Daniel Brands and Federico Delbonis. Federer changed rackets in midyear, lost badly to Tommy Robredo at the US Open and all the signs pointed to a player whom time had come to claim.

But if anyone could be a comeback player, it would be a 17-time Grand Slam winner. Federer has had an offseason to tinker. He is working with six-time major winner Stefan Edberg.

He started the year losing the final in Brisbane to Lleyton Hewitt, and the fact remains that against the top players last year, Federer was 3-6 in matches that went three or more sets, which is hardly a recipe to win seven five-set matches. However, the refrain of "he's still Roger Federer" will wear ever thinner when he is playing ordinary tennis and losing to ordinary players. A solid Australian Open would go a long way to restoring Federer for the long season ahead.

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