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Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 ATP Tour Preview: The Top 4 Battle to Gain a Mental Edge

Alright. Professional tennis is back. I missed it for the less than two months it was on break. If you are like me it is truly interesting to see the story lines of a season play out. Last year the big story on the ATP Tour obviously was Novak Djokovic's impressive run of wins and just unbelievable season. On the WTA Tour maybe the most interesting story was the three new grand slam champions that emerged in 2011. I think in many ways you will see more of the same in 2012.

Regarding the ATP Tour - the top 4 are the top 4. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have set themselves above the competition. And, while Tsonga, Berdych, Ferrer and Fish to name a few had their moments where they challenged the top 4, in the Slams the top 4 were still dominating. For me the most interesting questions on the ATP tour are this:

Who will step out of the top 4 men to gain an edge this year? 

It is like a horse race with Nadal edging in front in 2010, then Djokovic grabbing the lead in 2011. And, a late surge by Federer has him poised to challenge Nadal and Djokovic. Which of these guys will go back to the practice court and find a way to get better at some atmospheric level? Djokovic clearly found the edge on Nadal in 2011 by improving his serve and getting his groundstrokes to such a level that he can dominate anyone from the baseline.

The big question for Nadal, can he overcome a string of losses to Djokovic and regain his air of dominance? Losing the #1 ranking, Wimbledon and the US Open to Djokovic had to sting Rafa. However, what do we know about Rafa? He will find a solution to the Djokovic block and battle back. I would expect Rafa to win at least one slam, if not two. My prediction is that he will end 2012 with the #1 ranking. The key is his health. For sure winning the Davis Cup has prepared him for 2012.

Will Novak follow up his unbelievable 2011 with an impressive 2012? I think he will. His game is solid and isn't going anywhere. He wins at least one slam, if not two. For sure he is my favorite at the Australian Open. He seems to have a mental edge on the other top 3 players and I think his self belief pulls him through tough moments. Djokovic has a massive amount of points to defend which can be a burden especially when you drop some along the way. It will be important for Novak to stay focused on the big picture and not get hung up on some losses that did not happen in 2011. Adding the Olympics to the calendar in July makes 2012 a very demanding schedule. Djokovic will have to accept losing some matches to win the big ones. It seems unrealistic that anyone can dominate as Djokovic but who knows. It is probably foolish to doubt Djokovic based on what he has exhibited in the past 12 months.

What about Fed? Can he win another slam? I think he can. He proved that in any given match he can raise his game to a level that is good enough to beat anyone. Remember his French Open win over Djokovic? Recently in the slams Roger has seem poised to make another run but he was unable to breakthrough. To me the Wimbledon loss to Tsonga after being up to 2 sets to love had to be disheartening. So, it was great to see Fed finish the season strong. With the clock ticking on his career, and the Olympics looming, 2012 shapes up to be a long season for Roger and it will be interesting to see if he can peak and play his best tennis this summer. The pressure will be there for Roger to win the Olympics and another Wimbledon so he will have to learn from some tough losses last year, and he will. An aggressive Federer will be a very dangerous player.

And, what about Andy Murray? Is 2012 the year Murray breaks through and wins his first slam? I think it is very possible, especially if Murray, like Novak did prior to the 2011 season, finds ways to fine tune and amp up his game. Can you imagine an Andy Murray-Roger Federer Wimbledon final or Olympic Gold Medal Match? Wow, what an amazing situation that would be. However, Murray has to find a way to play his best tennis in big matches. Being 0-for in grand slam finals probably has become a huge burden. Especially the way that Murray lost the three finals, being negative and really struggling to compete with Fed or Djokovic. A positive mindset based on the belief that his game is built to win a grand slam is a must for Murray. He will have to push aside the distractions of being the British hope and not having fulfilled lofty expectations. The responsibility is now on his new coach Ivan Lendl to find a way to get Andy to the next level (he knows a thing or two about mental toughness for sure). The time is now for Murray to get his first, but it will take great perseverance and positive belief. You do not beat Federer, Djokovic or Nadal in a slam final without great confidence. With Lendl in his camp I think Murray is back in a slam final and this time wins.

Will anyone outside the Top 4 win a Slam?

I am also very interested to see who can crack the top 4. But, to answer the question I think it is unlikely anyone will break the Top 4 and win a slam. All four are seriously motivated and have something to prove.
If I had to choose my favorite to do so though it would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. However, can Tsonga display consistency throughout the season and for two weeks at a Slam to breakthrough? I think Tsonga is a real threat at the Aussie. This is the guy that can break through and win a slam. However, lapses in focus and injuries have kept Tsonga from finishing off strong starts. The US Open loss to Federer was particularly surprising. Fed outhit him in every way. Nonetheless, Tsonga has the talent and big game to bring it together and win a slam.

Does Ferrer have the firepower to win a slam? In my opinion Ferrer is just about as mentally tough as any guy on the tour. And you know he is going to work as hard as ever. If Rafa's stranglehold slips on the French look out for Ferrer. Unfortunately for Ferrer it seems at every turn there is another player with bigger weapons. Pulling together seven straight victories against the likes of the top 4, but also Berdych, Soderling, Dolgopolov, and Tsonga has made it too large of a task to overcome. Ferrer is capable of knocking off a top player, remember Nadal at the US Open, but following it up and doing it again has been the issue.

For any of the guys trying to crack through and win a slam there is the barrier of belief. Do they believe they can beat at least two of the top 4? Because that is what it is going to take to win a Slam. The top guys are not going anywhere in 2012 so the rest of tour needs to find a way to compete and believe in the big matches. Certainly Soderling, Berdych, Isner, Cilic, and Del Potro have big enough games but do they have the consistency and health to get it done? Del Potro is not the same yet since his surgery, but I love his game. He needs to get that mental edge back where he believes he can beat anyone.

The guys that are interesting to me because they have the potential but have not found a way to hit with the bigger players are France's Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon. It seems that Monfils has the athleticism to be more aggressive but likes to rely on his movement and defense. Simon is steady and drives his opponents nuts with a variety of shots and a mixture of pace. Neither player however has shown the weapons needed to beat the top 4 in a slam. Can Monfils or Simon develop a weapon and become more aggressive? Do they trust themselves enough to win a Slam? It will be a monumental task for either player.

Finally, don't forget about American top players Fish, Isner, Querrey, and Roddick. Fish and Isner made great strides in 2011 and seem poised to challenge the top 4. Querrey will be coming back from injury so let's hope he can find his form. And, Roddick... Does he have another slam in him? I would love to see it. I think he would appreciate it more than anyone. Again, the question becomes can these guys pull the trigger and make the shots, in a semi and then a final for over 4 hours? That is what it is going to take to wrestle a slam from Djokovic, Nadal or Federer.

How will the Olympics affect the ATP Tour?

Entering the Olympics in to the middle of a jammed US summer swing makes 2012 even more interesting. The Olympics start about three weeks after the Wimbledon final. How will players manage their schedules? What tournaments will they peak for, and which ones will they not attend? Will some players not go to American tournaments and stay in Europe - I bet this will happen. And, how will these adjustments affect their readiness to play at the slams specifically the US Open? It's hard to say. I think what you will see is the top players being very choosy about their tournaments in an attempt to pace themselves in the summer. Take Nadal for example. He plays so much tennis by the time the ATP tour hits July that he needs a break to gear up for the US Open. Likely, Nadal does not come to the US until the Olympics are over. This will give him only a few weeks to gear up on hard courts for the US Open. Rest is probably more important than matches for Nadal, but it does through in the question of readiness for the last slam of the year.

The players will have to battle not only the physical fatigue of a long stretch from the beginning of the clay season to the end of the US Open, but also the mental and emotional fatigue. So, we may see surprises in some of these tournaments. It could be a great opportunity for one of the players outside the top 4 to grab a big tournament win or maybe even the Olympics. Marc Rosset and Nicolas Massu have Olympic gold medals so surprises are common in the Olympics. The top 4 are going to have to pick and choose so opportunities will be there to win Masters 1000 tournaments.

2012 sets up to be interesting because of the battle between the top players. Who will come out on top in 2012? Don't be surprised if the verdict is still out until the US Open final. How great would that be? I look forward to an awesome stretch of tennis between May and September.

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