From the tenor of the most recent debates—the controversy over who is ascending and who is falling in men’s professional tennis goes on and on.
For the sake of allowing a new perspective to shift through the ATP upper realms, let us assume that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been transported to an alien space ship and whisked off to Pluto where they will be forced to teach Plutonians how to play tennis in their sophisticated subterranean world.
Who would be the next best and greatest player to step up and assume the mantle until we could renegotiate for the safe return of our tennis greats—both of them?
Think of the pool of players, listed below, aged 26 and younger as pretenders to the crown by examining their head to head success against one another and their past head to head meetings with Nadal/Federer.
This is how they would be ranked using the established statistical criteria:
(1) Andy Murray
Murray’s winning percentage against the assembled field is a positive 68 percent, while he stands minus four against Nadal/Federer. The Scot is currently ranked No. 4 in the world at age 23, having turned professional in 2005. He broke into the top 10 after Wimbledon in 2008, reaching as high as No. 2 in the world in August of 2009.
Murray has the tools and the intelligence to win a major and establish his place at the very top of the men's game. The statistics place him there. With the best record against his contemporaries, the Scot should be the next No. 1. He just needs to win that first major and convince himself that he deserves to win. A good place to begin would be the U.S. Open in 2010.
(2) Novak Djokovic
The Serb’s winning percentage against the wannabe field is 65 percent, while Djokovic remains minus 11 against Nadal/Federer. Currently ranked No. 2 in the world, 20 points ahead of Roger Federer, Djokovic, now 23, seeks to reproduce his winning ways—those that let him win the Australian Open in 2008 and make the finals of the U.S. Open in 2007.
The Serb has been playing professional tennis since 2003, breaking into the top 10 in March of 2007. He has remained consistently in the top five since June of 2007. Unfortunately, Djokovic has not returned to a major final since his 2008 victory at the Australian Open after dismissing Federer in the semifinals and dismantling Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final.
It would be good to see the Serb return to the finals of the U.S. Open again in 2010—three years is a long to time to wait for a return engagement.
(3) Robin Soderling
Having just turned 25 and currently ranked No. 5 in the world, the Swede’s winning percentage against the other top-ranked men hovers at a positive 56 percent. His head to head against Nadal/Federer is minus 14, having played against the dynamic duo 20 times—considerably more than most except Djokovic and Murray.
The Swede turned pro in 2001 and has been waiting to have an impact on the game. He did just that. Soderling made his mark by defeating Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the French Open in 2009, handing Rafa his only defeat at Stade Roland Garros. Soderling then advanced to meet Federer, falling short in the final. He would also lose against Nadal in the 2010 French Open final. Surprisingly, clay does not seem to be his best surface.
After the 2009 French Open, Soderling shot up to the No. 12 ranking, edging into the top 10 in October of 2009. Much of Soderling’s rise has to do with his new coach, followed by the Swede’s high quality play. Like many just outside the top four, Soderling’s ranking continues to rise as the injured Juan Martin del Potro’s continues to fall. The Argentine remains sidelined with injury.
Hard courts are presumably the Swede’s best surface. His big booming serve should pay dividends at the U.S. Open in 2010. Maybe this will be the Swede’s chance to win his first major in New York.
(4) Juan Martin del Potro
The young and injured Argentine stands at 50 percent against his fellow competitors—winning and losing eleven. His only losing records, however, are against Murray and Djokovic. His head to head against Nadal/Federer is minus five.
Yet many accord the 21-year-old the status as the next best and greatest because he has already won his first major at the U.S. Open last year against Federer in the finals. Del Potro battled for five sets and came back to win against the defending champion.
The 6'6" Argentine has powerful serves and groundstrokes. His movement on the court improved greatly in 2009. Del Potro forced his game to continually improve until a wrist injury sidelined him for most of 2010. The Argentine will not be able to defend his U.S. Open crown in 2010, so it will be hard to judge his place until he makes his comeback. But, do not be surprised to see Del Potro sitting on the top rung some day soon.
(5) Tomas Berdych
The talk is that Berdych has finally found his footing and is a force to be reckoned with from this point forward. Against the field, Berdych, who has been playing professional tennis since 2002, finds himself at 50 percent, winning and losing 15 matches against his peers fighting for that top spot. Against Nadal/Federer Berdych is etched at minus 10.
2010 has proven to be a breakout year as Berdych resumed his place in the top 10. He faced Nadal in the finals of Wimbledon, losing in straight sets but it was his first major final and he fought through Federer and Djokovic to make it into that last match.
There is no reason to assume his play, his conviction, or his chances to win will decrease at this year’s U.S. Open. Berdych has a very good chance to take this championship in 2010.
Fernando Verdasco does not have a positive winning percentage against his peers at the top of the game. He has won only 36.5 percent of his matches, 15 out of 41. His head to head against Nadal/Federer is zero. He has never beaten either in 14 tries.
The Spaniard is 26 years of age and has been playing professional tennis since 2001. Under new coaching and a new training regimen, Verdasco has seen a surge in his rankings. It looks doubtful that Verdasco has what it takes to make a sustained run against the top players because Verdasco does not have enough weapons to defeat top-ranked players consistently.
Right now, the Spaniard is dealing with some injuries. Perhaps the hard court season will rejuvenate his game, but Verdasco does not seem to have the right stuff to climb to the top of the game.
(7) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
The 25-year-old talented Frenchman has never done well against the top tier of players, suffering with a losing 31.5 percentage or just six wins out of 19 matches. Surprisingly, however, Tsonga holds a 5-2 head to head advantage over Djokovic. His head to head against Nadal/Federer is minus seven.
The Frenchman never stays healthy long enough to do well. His injuries have kept him outside the top five because certainly Tsonga has the talent. He probably has more natural athletic ability than any other player in the pack circling Nadal and Federer. But do not expect Tsonga, now ranked No. 11, to improve his professional lot unless he finds someone or something to inspire him to take that additional step necessary to make it to the top.
(8) Marin Cilic
Cilic, age 21, has the most to prove with the least results. 2010 has been his best year in his five-year career. He is currently ranked No. 13. Against the top-ranked players in this pool, Cilic has a losing percentage at only 23 percent, winning only five of 22 contests against his fellow top-ranked pros. His head to head against Nadal/Federer is even—Cilic has played each once, winning against Nadal and losing against Federer.
This year he has made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open, losing to Murray after winning the tournament in Chennai. Cilic followed that up by winning at Zagreb. He made it to the round of 16 at Roland Garros.
Much is expected of the Croat and many believe that he has the necessary game for success making the upper echelons.
It is hard to imagine the field without Federer and Nadal but perhaps it is good to look at their competition to see who might succeed one or both of them at the top.