Last year, as the season was about to start, there were no shortage of sports writers and tennis commentators who were writing Roger Federer's obituary.
They said the young guys were hungry and coming too fast. They said that Nadal was the new king after, the year before, having won not only the French (as usual) but also taking Wimbledon and the Olympic Gold.
Then, as the tournament progressed, it seemed just like old times as Roger and Rafa advanced through their halves of the draw to meet yet again.
Then, after Rafa won that match, the cries of the Federer demise became even louder. And the cheers for Murray to rise up and take Roger's place as Rafa's main rival grew louder. This guy (Murray) was going to win a slam this year, they said. Turns out, he didn't even play in one.
Rafa was of course going to win in Paris. This was a foregone conclusion. The only question would be which player other than the supposedly washed up Federer would play him there.
As we all know, there was a lot of bad guesses by the media types with all of this. And I say that to frame what's being written about now and say that while many theories seem plausible, anything can happen. So, I'm going to take a crack at it too knowing with full awareness that I will probably be wrong. Here goes...
If he can get healthy, Rafa will be the favorite. However, there are two things he will lack forevermore when it comes to playing in Paris. First, the players no longer see him as unbeatable on clay. This was a huge weapon for Rafa.
What goes along with this is that Rafa also knows what it is like to taste defeat on the red clay of Paris, and that's just as important.
But he's got the game for clay, and the will to win. I do see Roger and Djokovic as his primary contenders, and Verdasco could be a sleeper.
Roger will be favored here. The guy plays so well on grass, and the drop shot he has added to his game recently is especially nasty on grass, as it just thuds and stops.
Murray will do well here, and will probably make the semis or finals again, but I firmly believe that Andy is going to have to get this monkey of his off his back in a two step process.
I don't think he will both win his first slam and win Wimbledon in one fell swoop because the pressure is so high in front of the home folks, and he has shown it buckles him. I think he will win a hard court slam first and Wimbledon later in his career. But he will eventually do so if he stays healthy.
Look for Roddick again as he is SO hungry to win another slam, and he would prefer that it not be the US Open, but one of the others. Australia is gone for this year, and Roddick is middle of the pack on hard courts anyway...but he has a good grass game.
It's really hard to pick a dark horse here because the last six finals have only featured three players: Federer six times (winning five), Nadal and Roddick three times each.
Nadal has never done well here. His best result is the semifinals. He's done that twice, and been annihilated both times. And Roger has been a fixture, having been in the finals for six straight years (winning five).
But this one is the most wide open of the bunch. After two seasons of losing weight, working with Stepanki, and being a training machine, Roddick will be beyond hungry, but desperate by this time.
If he fails to win a slam in his eigth try since he considered retirement in December of 2008, I think he may consider it again. He's got a good life in Texas, with a supermodel for a wife, and celebrities among his friends.
Murray and Djokovic have both fared well here before, and they are mostly hard court guys (Djoker can play on clay pretty well too). DelPo obviously does his best on hard court.
For some reason, I don't see Federer here. I know it's always trendy to pick against Federer because one day he won't make it and then the naysayers will finally have their one opportunity to say they were right for a change. However, I've never been one of the naysayers, and have never picked against Roger.
I've been right all this time. And I have a nagging feeling I'll be right about this one too.
I'll go with Murray over Djokovic in the title. DelPo is a strong possibility too, but he has gotten rather injury prone as he has begun to play more matches due to lasting longer in tourneys. That is the wild card with him.
Year End No. 1
If Murray wins the US Open, performs admirably in the Masters Series events (which he typically does), and Federer loses either Wimbledon or Paris, I think it could be Murray. Otherwise, I look for Federer again. But he has a lot of points to defend so it will be dicey.
Nadal will continue to be bedeviled by his knees. While it was a hamstring at the Australian, it continues to always be something. Many injuries or strains happen when one is adjusting to another injury or trying to avoid aggravating an old injury I'm not so sure that isn't what happened in Australia.
Somehow, being out four weeks just doesn't pass the smell test for a hamstring to me. Uncle Toni and crew are masters of hiding what we, the tennis public, really wants to know, and instead setting up Nadal with can't miss situations.
They make it appear that if Rafa loses, it was expected, so it's no big deal, but if he wins, he just conquered so much adversity. But I think we're not getting the whole story here.
If nothing else, Rafa's retirement in Australia tipped his hand that their new approach in his camp is "better to lose the battle than the war." This "better safe than sorry" approach is not how he became dominant, and has resulted in exactly one win over a top 10 guy since his return.
So he either plays his game, which puts his knees back into a funk, or he adjusts his game, which means he is not going to dominate again. For this reason, I only listed him as a contender in Paris. Until I see otherwise, I think we are back to pre-2008 Rafa where he wins Paris, but doesn't win anywhere else.
I've already mentioned that the fire might just burn out for Roddick if he doesn't win a slam this year. But there are some others that might just hang it up this year. Like Safin, who called it quits in 2009, there are a number of players who came on the scene in the mid-late 90's that are getting up there in tennis years.
A couple of them have won majors and have had endorsement deals and are stars in their home countries, which will afford them a very leisurely retirement life that might look all the more tempting after this year.
Therefore, I predict Lleyton Hewitt will take a bow this year. I would not be at all surprised to see Tommy Haas exit stage left either.
And James Blake has been relegated by his ranking to the outer courts, and cannot be loving that situation right now. If he has a serious enough injury, he might decide that he would rather not rehab it this time.
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