The top two
Rafa went through an outstanding year. Injured for six months in 2009, he had to give up during the Australian Open against Andy Murray because of another knee injury. He began his come back during the American spring season and really started to find his game when he got back on his favorite surface, clay. He won every event in which he appeared, achieving a performance never seen before in winning the four main clay events in the same season: Monte-Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros. It’s worth to notice that he only lost 14 games in Monte-Carlo, an average of 2.8 games per match. Totally relaxed after that, he doubled the stakes by winning Wimbledon. In September, he triumphed at the US Open for the first time. He was able to adjust his game to the surface due to a better use of flat shots and a high-quality serve we had never seen from him before in New York. Then in December, he pushed the success in reaching the Masters Cup final, one of his first really great performances indoors.
What strikes me with the Majorcan is his ability to always adjust to the situation in order to win. He wins the French Open by defending a lot and mainly because of his physical strength, his heavy topspin and his talent for not making unforced errors. In Wimbledon, he succeeds by becoming more offensive and he utilizes the slice on his serve with utmost precision. And then at the US Open he finds more speed on his serve, plays faster and with fewer tricks. He also comes more often to the net. Rafa obviously maintains his athleticism and talent on each surface, but his recent greatness lies in his ability to adjust and fine-tune those to fit his surroundings.
Unlike Rafa, Roger Federer went through a nightmare in 2010. He was top-ranked in 2009, won two majors (including the French Open for the first time) and broke Pete Sampras' all-time Grand Slam record. Then he nearly lost it all: the No. 1 throne, the French Open, Wimbledon and multiple match points in various matches, including in the US Open semis.
Beyond the results, the Swiss looked not really involved in his game, not fit enough – which is usually one of his biggest strengths – and uninspired on the court because of a lack of offense. Feeling he needed something to come back into the fight, he decided during the summer to hire Paul Annacone, the former mentor of Pete Sampras. It was a good decision. Since then, not only have the results become better, but he's brought back the offense, quickness and creativity. He’s now again looking mentally fresh, enthusiastic and dictates the points more than he was during his slump. His excellent second part of the year saved his season. (And let’s not forget this amazing stat for a year called disappointing: he’s now at 26 Grand Slams quarterfinals in a row.
Yet he will have to overcome a huge obstacle this year again: Rafael Nadal. When the Spaniard isn’t there, I have no doubt concerning the Swiss capacity to take back those Grand Slams, but the Majorcan is going to come on his way. Paul Annacone succeeded in his first task: putting the Swiss back into the right path. We’ll now get to see if he finds an answer to help Roger beating Nadal in the main events. Anyway, the year to come looks thrilling from this point of view.
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are the main contenders when it comes to dethrone Rafa and Fed. They complete each other very well because we can say that Murray owns what Djoko lacks and that Djoko owns what Murray lacks.
The Scotsman is so gifted. He can do everything with a tennis ball, he's got a wonderful hand and is one of the best players when it comes to returning serves. His sense of the game is amazingly accurate. Andy also knows how to speed up the game by taking the ball early and to go to the net. He’s also one of the fastest out there.
Yet, in the past three seasons, he doesn’t succeed in fighting at the same level as Roger and Rafa. Even if he beats them from time to time and pushes them to their limit each time he faces them, he lacks too much of the steadiness in his results. In 2010, after his final at the Australian Open, he went through a long struggle until Wimbledon. During the Masters, he delivered an outstanding match against Rafa for the semifinal. (But don’t forget that both events were played at home in London.) He was brilliant this summer, winning Toronto but ended totally out of discussion at the US Open.
Novak Djokovic doesn’t own the same technical skills, but he displays such a will and such a huge ego that prevent him from underachieving. He finally got his serve back: more accurate technically and so more efficient. He’s an amazing athlete, really fit, slender and explosive while being very flexible at the same time. He’s now really focused and ambitious. His second part of the season and his tecome a tremendous competitor. If for now Nadal and Federer are still one step above him, Nole is not that far and ready to strike. If one of the two is struggling in 2011, no doubt the Serbian will take riumph in the Davis Cup are all the weapons he needed to make him badvantage of it.
I’ve always liked Robin Söderling’s game. He’s a great player, having reached two French Open final, but I’ve never thought he could really play a part between Rafa and Roger. His striking strength is obviously above many but his flaws are too big for preventing such amazing players like the Swiss and the Spaniard to take advantage of them. He’s not quick enough on the court and his kind of struggle when it comes to the timing make him too fragile for a whole year's worth of results. But when he’s at his best and when Rafa or Roger isn’t, he’s clearly one of those able to beat them. It didn’t happen at the French Open though. He still needs to improve if he wants to be a threat all year long though.