Much is being made of the rigours of the ATP schedule, and their impact on the current crop of young players on the tour. So it’s a really interesting time to highlight the progress of some of the not-so-young faces gracing the early tournaments of 2009.
There seems to be a rejuvenation in some players who’ve seen a year or two around the top ranks of the game, and this is adding a nice variety and an extra interest, particularly as the top two sit it out on the sidelines with injuries.
Radek Stepanek has now made it to the semis in Memphis hot on the heels of two ATP titles this year already. What’s more he won the doubles title in San Jose as well as the singles. Not bad at 30.
He broke back into the top 20 last week and, with few points to defend, is likely to continue to climb the rankings in the coming weeks. If his form continues, and he stays injury-free, he could do could do very well from the remainder of the hard-court season.
Not always a popular player—he lacks the gracious style we have come to expect from the more media-savvy players—he nevertheless produces, and always has, an exciting brand of all-court tennis, and is never less than a challenging opponent.
He will fare less well once the clay season begins but, as in 2008 when he was a late wild-card addition to the Masters in Shanghai, he may have a further resurgence in the latter part of the year.
Approaching his 27th birthday, Tommy Robredo is also hitting some of his best form with a win and a semi already under his belt on the south American clay. He’s also made the final in Buenos Aires. So sitting comfortably at 17, and with few points to defend until after Easter, he too could continue his upward trajectory.
He’s another man making an equal impact on the doubles tour, with win and semi places at the same tournaments as his singles successes, and has been rewarded with his top doubles ranking, at 25, in his career.
Robredo is also an asset to the aesthetics of the game. He is a fluid and elegant mover, able to bring enough variety of game to excel on clay and to make an impact on hard courts. Indeed, surprisingly for a Spaniard, his formative years were on the hard surface.
This is now his ninth year in the top 30 and he looks as though he’s still hungry for the challenge. Is a top 10 place beyond him? Probably, but that may depend on the fitness of the rest once we hit the clay season in earnest.
Robredo’s semi victory in Buenos Aires was against another fast riser in recent weeks, Jose Acasuso. He, too, has had a good start on clay this year, with one final and one semi to his name already.
With few points to defend in the first half of the year, he could climb a good many more places than the six of last week. Of course, at just 26, he’s one of the younger “oldies” to keep an eye on!
David Nalbandian is defending his title in his home country so stands to lose ranking points if he fails to win, but he has still been able to celebrate his 300th match win on the ATP tour. He also has a win at Sydney under his belt.
Now 27, Nalbandian seems to have been near the top of the rankings for years, though it is three years since his career high of No.3.
He’s one of those thrilling players—a little like Marat Safin—who has more talent than the vast majority of his opponents yet, temperamentally, seems destined not to fulfil that potential.
He has a variety of shot and touch that most of us can only dream of, making him a champion-beater on any given day. But he is just as likely to collapse into an also-ran, and that’s a real pity.
Fitness has been a constant question-mark—maybe stamina is a more accurate word. One feels that if he went all-out on his endurance and conditioning, he really could hit the top five again. Maybe he should take a leaf out of Andy Roddick’s book.
It’s now nearly six years since Roddick held the top ranking spot, yet at 27 he is throwing himself with renewed energy into improving both his fitness and his tactical game.
A new coach and physical regime have already taken him from ninth to fifth in the rankings, and he’s bidding for another 500 points in Memphis. He’ll need those to defend the 500 he will lose by missing Dubai, where he won last year. But you have to be impressed by the commitment and sweat he is willing to expend after so many years in the top 10.
With that sort of application—and his bucket-load of natural talent—Nalbandian could still challenge for the top six places, too.
That age of 27 seems to be working its magic on several other players who have also been around the block a few times.
Mardy Fish suddenly broke through at Melbourne last year and is on the verge of a top-20 spot.
Feliciano Lopez is also 27 and well within striking distance of his top-ever ranking of 20.
Further down the table, the likes of Albert Montanes, Julien Benneteau and Marc Gicquel have all made substantial upward progress, and all are the “mature” side of 27. Meanwhile, the elegant and creative game of Michael Llodra has taken him, at the age of 29, to the Marseille final and a few more places up the ranks.
Of course, best and highest of all, the 27-year-old Roger Federer will hope to claim the top spot back this year—back-injury permitting.
It’s been remarked on many times before, but for someone with so many years at the top—and the huge number of matches that entails—he has sustained remarkably few injuries. Even compared with the others in that “27 or more” bracket, his injury record is exceptional: a credit to the regime and the team he has stuck with throughout his career.
Most of these men matured a little later than the current rising stars—in their 20s rather than their teens. Many have a varied game that sits comfortably with a variety of different surfaces, so they can win points across a whole season.
It will be interesting to see whether the slow-maturing style of the likes of Andy Murray, Giles Simon and Fernando Verdasco allows them to continue to challenge for the top when they approach their late 20s.
If their focus and desire stay as strong as Federer’s, Roddick’s and Stepanek’s, I think it will.
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