How Tennis' Top Stars Changed Their Image in 2013
The 2013 season still has a few months left, but with the Grand Slam events in the books, tennis' star players have pretty well established whether their image will change as a result of this year's performances.
Some, such as Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, have enhanced their image. Some, like Roger Federer, have seen their images take a tumble. Still others, such as Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova, leave an ambiguous impression as their 2013 seasons come to a close.
We look at six male stars and six female stars and consider how 2013 has affected their tennis reputations.
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Unless Roger Federer makes a dramatic turnaround, 2013 will be remembered as the year the Big Four became the Big Three.
Federer was no longer a major force in men's tennis this year, failing to reach the finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 2002, when he was 21. It was the continuation of a decline for Federer, who had won only one of his last 11 Grand Slam events heading into 2013.
His inclusion with Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal as the four players who owned men's tennis has ended, as Federer has fallen well behind the other three. Federer is 0-6 against top-10 players in 2013 since his victory over then-No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open in January.
Federer's 17 Grand Slam titles, a record for a male, secure his place as one of tennis' greatest players. The Tennis Channel ranked him as the greatest of all time.
But, at age 32, his results are getting progressively more disappointing. He had reached at least the quarterfinals of 36 straight majors before he failed to make it that far in both of his most recent Grand Slam events. Losing in the second round to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon and in the fourth round in straight sets to Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open illustrate his slide. He has won those two events 12 times combined.
Federer has reached the finals of just two of his 13 tournaments in 2013 and won just one.
Despite the decline of his current image, Federer retains the title of greatest player of all time in many minds. But Nadal is rapidly catching up.
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Because of injury and illness, Venus Williams' 2013 season has shown she is unlikely to recapture the success she had on the courts several years ago. However, at age 33, she remains one of the most recognizable names on the women's tour.
She can still beat any player on a given day, although her activity is limited now. It's debatable whether she can still win the seven consecutive matches needed to win a Grand Slam event. The U.S. Open was a prime example. Williams beat No. 14-ranked Kirsten Flipkens decisively 6-1, 6-2 in the first round, then lost to 56th-ranked Jie Zheng in the second.
Now she is more noted for her perseverance and ability to perform at a high level despite injuries and an affliction known as Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain. A back injury limited her activity leading up to the U.S. Open, making her victory over Flipkens more impressive.
Williams has played nine singles tournaments in 2013 and did not reach the finals in any of them. She is ranked No. 61 and won the last of her seven Grand Slam titles five years ago.
She remains one of the world's best doubles players, winning Wimbledon last year and getting to the U.S. Open semifinals this year.
If she regains her health, Williams is still capable of beating the best players and performing well in the majors. But her image now is that of a tough, talented competitor who is overcoming obstacles rather than someone trying to recapture the No. 1 ranking she owned 11 years ago.
Juan Martin Del Potro
Juan Martin del Potro remains on the cusp of stardom because he owns a Grand Slam title and was ranked as high as No. 4 in 2010. His 2013 season has provided hints that he's capable of regaining the form that enabled him to win the 2009 U.S. Open. He seems like a player on the verge of recapturing past glory if injuries don't get in the way again.
Del Potro had dropped completely out of the picture following his wrist surgery in 2010, causing him to fall out of the Top 400 in the ATP rankings.
But he regained a foothold in the Top 10 last year, and his ranking rose to No. 6 this summer before sliding back to No. 7. His semifinal berth at Wimbledon and his past success on hard courts indicated he might be a factor at the 2013 U.S. Open as his rebirth continued.
Del Potro does not turn 25 until late September, and his 2013 season suggests he could become an elite player again if his wrist cooperates.
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Maria Sharapova has re-emerged as an elite player the past three years after slipping out of the picture a few years earlier.
However, her struggles through the summer of 2013, which were exacerbated by a shoulder injury that kept her out of the U.S. Open, have relegated her to a distant third behind Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in the women's pecking order.
Sharapova started the year well. She got to the semifinals at the Australian Open and the finals of the French Open, where she beat Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals and held her own in the finals against Williams, who had dominated their previous meetings.
Sharapova was ranked No. 2 in the world at that point. But she has won just one match since. She lost in the second round at Wimbledon to Michelle Larcher De Brito, who was ranked No. 131, then lost in the first round in Cincinnati to Sloane Stephens. She has not played since.
Still just 26 years old, Sharapova has re-established herself as a major player on the tour after slipping out of the Top 20 in late 2010. There is every reason to believe she can regain the form she showed in the first half of 2013, but her injury makes her a bit of a mystery at the moment.
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David Ferrer continued to solidify his reputation as a dogged competitor who makes the most of his talent.
His 2013 results left him a good distance behind Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in terms of tennis stardom. But at age 31, he is having perhaps the best year of his career. He attained a measure of fame by getting to a Grand Slam final for the first time, losing to Nadal in the French Open final. He also got to the semifinals of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of the other two majors.
His late-career ascent contributes to his image. At the end of 2010, when he was 28 years old and had played in 32 Grand Slam events, Ferrer had reached the quarterfinals of just four majors and the semifinals of only one. Since turning 30 in April 2012, Ferrer has reached at least the quarterfinals of all seven Grand Slam tournaments, getting to the semifinals in three of them and the finals of one.
Ferrer achieved his career-high ranking in 2013, holding the No. 3 spot for a month this summer.
Ferrer's relentless style and consistency evoke respect, and his success at an advanced tennis age is enhancing his image in the eyes of tennis enthusiasts. However, he does not have the weapons needed to beat the game's elite players and gain world-wide acclaim.
Ferrer's season has enhanced his image as a blue-collar worker who maximizes his ability.
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Despite having a mediocre year and announcing her retirement in August, Marion Bartoli improved her tennis image significantly with two great weeks of tennis in 2013.
She won Wimbledon in 2013, and anyone with a Wimbledon title on her resume receives a sizable boost in stature historically.
The fact that she did not get past the quarterfinals of any other tournament in 2013 may be lost on all but hard-core tennis fans. That Bartoli did not beat any player ranked in the Top 15 at Wimbledon rates only a footnote to the fact that she won the most prestigious tournament in tennis.
There are hints, according to The Telegraph, that Bartoli may return to the tour, at which point her image will be shaped further.
Sloane Stephens has been anointed the future of American tennis because of her work in 2013. Her ascent is becoming a major topic with Serena Williams, the only American male or female ranked among the Top 10, turning 32 on September 26.
The 20-year-old Stephens has seen her ranking rise from No. 38 at the start of 2013 to No. 13.
She seems to play her best in the Grand Slam events, which is the mark of a champion. Stephens beat Williams to reach the semifinals of the 2013 Australian Open. She also got to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the fourth round at both the French Open and U.S. Open. Stephens lost to the eventual champion in three of those majors and to runner-up Maria Sharapova in the French. She matched or exceeded her previous best showings in all four Grand Slam events.
Stephens is the only player in the world who beat both Williams and Sharapova this year.
However, Stephens still lacks consistency in non-Grand Slam tournaments. She lost five matches in 2013 to players ranked outside the Top 50, although four of those came in the first five months of the year.
Other than Williams, Stephens seems to have the best chance of any American player to win a Grand Slam event and become a Top-5 player over the next half-dozen years.
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Andy Murray's results in 2013 have created different images for him in different countries.
In his home country, Murray established himself as an unmitigated sports hero this year when he became the first British male in 77 years to win Wimbledon. The Christian Science Monitor suggested Murray's Wimbledon victory may have been the greatest British moment in international sports since a World Cup soccer match in 1966.
For the rest of the world, Murray's 2013 season was less historic. As the year heads into October, he is clearly No. 3 in the men's pecking order behind Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. And his straight-set quarterfinal loss to Stanislas Wawrinka at the U.S. Open in the year's final Grand Slam event removed some of the glory he achieved by reaching the finals in Australia and winning Wimbledon. (He did not play at the French Open because of an injury.)
Murray climbed to a career-high ATP ranking of No. 2 in April, but is now back to No. 3.
By any measure, Murray has had an outstanding year, and he still resides prominently among the Big Three in men's tennis, along with Djokovic and Nadal. His image in Great Britain reached unprecedented heights this year, but his overall tennis reputation did not change much from the one he established in 2012, when he won the U.S. Open and was a finalist at Wimbledon.
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Victoria Azarenka has developed an intriguing rivalry with Serena Williams, which has defined her year, for better and for worse.
Azarenka has a 2-2 record this year against Williams, who has lost only two other matches this year. At the moment, she seems to be the only player capable of giving Williams a challenge on a consistent basis.
However, Azarenka has a 3-13 career record against Williams, including 0-8 in Grand Slam events. Even though she and Williams have clearly been the best two players in the world this year, Azarenka now carries the image of a second fiddle after starting the year ranked No. 1.
Her three-set victory over Williams in the finals of the hard-court tune-up event at Cincinnati was trumped by her three-set loss to Williams in the finals of the U.S. Open. It was the second straight year she lost to Williams in three sets in the U.S. Open title match.
Azarenka won her second Grand Slam title by winning the Australian Open this year and got at least to the semifinals of all three majors she completed. (She withdrew in the second round at Wimbledon because of injury.) Despite those impressive results, she needs to beat Williams in a Grand Slam event to elevate her image further.
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If you take a look at Novak Djokovic's Grand Slam results for the year, it's hard to imagine his image took a hit in 2013.
But it did.
The problem for Djokovic is that his results in 2011, when he won three majors and was a semifinalist in the fourth, set such a high standard that only near-perfection could have preserved his lofty reputation.
When he captured this year's first major in Australia, Djokovic had won five of the last nine majors. With Rafael Nadal still sidelined with an injury that left his future uncertain, the then-25-year-old Djokovic owned the sport. He figured to be adding quickly to his six Grand Slam titles and moving up in discussions regarding the greatest players in history.
Djokovic subsequently got to the semifinals at the French Open, where he lost to Nadal in a classic five-setter, and reached the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. For anyone else, those results would represent glorious success stories. For Djokovic, they represented a slight step backward, as Nadal replaced him as the sport's king in 2013.
Djokovic has failed to win any of the last seven tournaments he's entered this year, and though he has held the No. 1 ranking throughout 2013, he is likely to be replaced atop the ATP rankings at year's end by Nadal.
Nonetheless, Djokovic, now 26, is very capable of reclaiming his place atop the sport in 2014.
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Serena Williams' year has given her a prominent spot in discussions regarding the best female players in history.
She won two Grand Slam events in 2013, giving her 17 for her career. That leaves her sixth on the all-time list, just one behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and seven behind Margaret Court, who holds the record with 24.
Just as significant is the time span of Williams' dominance. She won her first Grand Slam title in 1999 at age 17, and won her 17th two weeks shy of her 32nd birthday. That gap of 14 years between her first and most recent major title is greater than anyone in the Open Era. Only Helen Wills, who won her last Grand Slam title 15 years after her first, has a greater gap between major titles.
Williams was ranked No. 1 in 2002 at age 21, and is almost assured of finishing 2013 ranked No. 1 at age 32.
With titles in four of the past six Grand Slam events, Williams seems very capable of adding more major titles. She is playing the best tennis of her career at an age when most players' skills have declined appreciably. The potential for future success and her performance in 2013 have put her in contention to one day be considered the greatest of all time.
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Rafael Nadal transformed his tennis image in a span of less than eight months.
When he began his 2013 season in February after a seven-month layoff because of knee problems, there were questions whether he would ever regain the form that earned him 11 Grand Slam titles. By the time he won the U.S. Open in September to capture his second major of the year, he had re-entered discussions regarding the greatest players in history.
Nadal probably still lags behind the likes of Roger Federer and Rod Laver when it comes to rating the best ever, but he is gaining ground quickly and is in position to catch them.
His 13 Grand Slam titles rank third all time, just one behind Pete Sampras and four behind Federer's record of 17. At age 27 and playing the best tennis of his career, Nadal could break Federer's mark.
His 2013 season so far, which includes titles on two of the three majors he entered and a 60-3 match record, rates among the best in tennis history. Only the inexplicable first-round loss to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon is likely to leave his year rated behind John McEnroe's 1984 season and Novak's Djokovic's 2011 campaign.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Nadal's U.S. Open win was that the knee problem that had re-emerged in the third set against Darcis was non-existent in the late rounds at Flushing Meadows. It suggests Nadal can continue to dominate the sport in 2014.