1. Rafael Nadal—Last four events: Miami (quarterfinalist); Indian Wells (winner); Rotterdam (runner-up); Australian Open (winner)
His quarterfinal loss in Key Biscayne—in a third-set tiebreaker and against a top 10 player, no less—shows that he’s not winning week in and week out the way Federer was in 2005-06.
It’s doubtful that bothers our current No. 1, though, as he’s taken two of the big three hard court prizes so far this year and the clay season is just beginning.
2. Andy Murray—Last four events: Miami (winner); Indian Wells (runner-up), Dubai (quarterfinalist), Rotterdam (winner)
For the moment Murray is ranked No. 4; cut that number in half to get a better idea of his stature in the game right now.
No one aside from Nadal is putting forth results as consistent, and as consistently stellar as the Scot. Very soon he’ll be No. 3, and threaten for No. 2.
Fans and pundits are abuzz, wondering when he’ll break through in a major, and which one that will be.
3. Novak Djokovic—Last four events: Miami (runner-up); Indian Wells (quarterfinalist), Dubai (winner), Marseille (semifinalist)
Miami was a step in the right direction for the Serb, as he overcame his nemesis Tsonga, and then beat Federer for his biggest win since the summer.
Still, the gap between No. 2 and No. 3 on this list is a huge one, and Djokovic no longer resembles the confident player who last year said he wanted to be No. 1.
The good news, however, is that after May he has a lot fewer points to defend.
4. Roger Federer—Last four events: Miami (semifinalist); Indian Wells (semifinalist), Australian Open (finalist), Doha (semifinalist)
He’s been invincible against anyone not ranked in the top four, but the great Swiss has not won a sanctioned tour event since October, and is 0-4 against Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic in 2009.
His statement about being relieved by the end of the hard court season may have been surprising, but perhaps understandable; the coming of the clay season brought an uptick in his form and his results last year. He’ll need that just to stay No. 2.
5. Andy Roddick—Last four events: Miami (quarterfinalist); Indian Wells (semifinalist), Memphis (winner), San Jose (semifinalist)
So great is the gulf between the top four and the rest of the tour that Roddick can consider one title and a pair of close losses to Nadal and Federer a strong start to the year.
New coach Larry Stefanki has Roddick looking slimmer and competing harder than he has in years.
His clay court results last year were respectable (at least before his back injury in Rome) and this year he’ll be looking to match them.
6. Juan Martin del Potro—Last four events: Miami (semifinalist), Indian Wells (quarterfinalist), Memphis (quarterfinalist), San Jose (quarterfinalist)
Top-ranked Nadal is still prone to bouts of bad form after extended periods on hard courts, and all credit to the towering Argentine for taking advantage in the Miami quarters.
In doing so, he scored the biggest win of his career and moved his ranking up to a career-high No. 5.
In the semis, however, Murray illustrated the same thing Nadal did in Indian Wells and Federer did in Australia; del Potro is not yet ready to win a Masters Series event, much less a major.
7. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—Last four events: Miami (quarterfinalist), Indian Wells (R32), Marseille (winner), Rotterdam (quarterfinalist)
Isn’t one supposed to pay his dues before his major breakthrough?
He’s currently No. 11, but by winning two titles in 2009, and consistently reaching the latter rounds of events, last year’s AO runner-up seems out to prove that he’s not going away.
Too bad his Miami loss to Djokovic ended his four-match win streak against the Serb, while revealing that he’s still error-prone.
8. Fernando Verdasco—Last four events: Miami (quarterfinalist), Indian Wells (quarterfinalist), Australian Open (semifinalist), Brisbane (finalist)
He’s played sparingly compared to his fellow top-tenners, but it’s taken the biggest guns the game has to knock Verdasco out of the big events.
The next step for him will be to prove that he can beat a top five player who isn’t sick.
9. Gilles Simon—Last four events: Miami (R16), Indian Wells (R32), Dubai (semifinalist), Marseille (semifinalist)
The widely expected breakthrough season for the smooth Frenchman has thus far not come to pass.
Positive signs ahead; he won two clay court events in Casablanca and Bucharest last year.
Negative signs ahead; he went 3-6 at all other clay events, including a straight set embarrassment in round one of Roland Garros.
Which is a better indication of the spring ahead?
10. Gael Monfils—Last four events: Miami (R16), Indian Wells (R64), Acapulco (finalist), Marseille (R32)
Believe it or not, for Monfils, results such as these represent consistency (relatively defined).
At least now it seems newsworthy when he loses. Unfortunately, after his run to the semis of Paris last year, he might actually face (gasp!) pressure to perform from French fans.
One can only guess how Mr. Combustible will react.
Outside Looking In
David Ferrer—Last four events: Miami (R16), Indian Wells (R16), Dubai (finalist), Rotterdam (R16)
Lacking much in the way of firepower, the 5’ 9" Spaniard’s determination, tenacity, and return of serve once carried him to the world’s No. 4 ranking.
These days he’s still hanging around, but not getting as far as he once did. At least he probably has Davis Cup success to look forward to.
Radek Stepanek—Miami (R16), Indian Wells (R64), Memphis (finalist), San Jose (winner)
His Masters Series results were underwhelming, but the most unconventional player in the top 20 (currently No. 19) had some good results indoors, and is no slouch on clay.
After two blowout losses so far this year, he’ll probably be praying not to land in Verdasco’s side of the draw any time soon.
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