There are certain players in the game that are always a threat to the top players, regardless of their ranking status. In the 1990s, Peter Korda, Karol Kucera and Richard Krajicek were not consistently ranked high, but their mercurial natures did not prevent them from upsetting Sampras and Agassi on the biggest stages in the world.
Korda was ranked 16th when he knocked out Pete Sampras at the 1997 US Open. Kucera was outside the Top 20 when he beat Sampras and Agassi when they were defending their Australian Open and Roland Garros crowns, respectively.
Krajicek wasn’t in the Top 10 when he thumped Sampras in straight sets at Wimbledon and finished his career with a combined 9-8 head-to-head record against Agassi and Sampras.
On the other hand, there have always been relatively high ranked players who are quite benign on the big stages. Today, there’s a few players lurking around the top that are hardworking athletes, but when they come up against the elite crop, they don’t seem to have much of a chance. David Ferrer, for instance, never looked like a legit threat at the recent ATP Tour World Finals.
There’s no question that there are a few other players currently ranked low, that the top players rather not face at the Australian Open than David Ferrer (7), Mikhail Youzhny (9) or Jurgen Melzer (11).
While Ferrer and company are established players who can hang with the best, they don’t have the game or the big match temperament to consistently challenge a Djokovic or Federer at, say, the Rod Laver Arena.
On the other hand, there is a player like Nalbandian, who shuffles in and out of the Top 10 like Mike Tyson in and out of prison. But Nalbandian thrives on the big stage and is only marginally less menacing than a boxer, which has less to do with his surly attitude as his meticulous point construction.
I compiled a list of other big time players, currently ranked outside the Top 10, who have shown the temperament and game to cause at least two big upsets in their career. Players like Querrey and Monfils may well go on to be bigger threats next year, but this list only includes those who have shown their lack of fear on the big stage—even if for short periods.
Current Rank: 73
Biggest Upset: Beat (2) L. Hewitt, Wimbledon 2003
The Russian roulette brand of tennis that Karlovic plays has earned him victories over the likes of Federer, Djokovic, Roddick and Safin. But it has also made him a very inconsistent performer, despite his giant-killing ability.
Perhaps the best evidence of that came in his maiden Grand Slam match, when he knocked out top seed and defending champion Lleyton Hewitt at the 2003 Wimbledon. He’s had a disappointing run in Slams since, racking up aces at a far more impressive rate than victories. In 2009, he served a record 55 aces in a lost cause against Hewitt at Roland Garros.
His Slam record appears to reflect on his lack of fitness, as a poor fifth set record (3-12) at odds with his record in deciding sets (60-62) would suggest. Both records are subpar to be fair, but he was 5-0 in deciding sets (and 2-0 if fifth sets) in 2010 before a foot injury curtailed his season.
That shows improvement, as do two second-week appearances in his last three Slams. He looked particularly good the last time he was seen at Wimbledon, when he reached the quarterfinals. Grass suits his game well too.
Aside from possibly the biggest first serve of all time, Karlovic, like most Croats, possesses good touch at the net. His slice stays low enough for him to pounce and spread his fangs at the net, and his forehand can unleash brutal power. The problem for him is getting into position, and that may be tough to resolve when returning from a foot injury.
But let’s hope he recovers, because I think Karlovic makes tennis exciting. Aside from his three losses to Federer and Nadal, he is 4-3 in Slams against Top 10 players. What’s not to like
about seeing a top player on the Wimbledon Centre Court, playing Russian roulette to survive?
Current Rank: 49
Biggest Upset: Beat (9) A. Roddick, US Open 2010
The bespectacled Serb, with an interest in Nietzsche and a flair for court centrals, is an enigma; have a look at this video and then at some of the fearless matches he’s played and tell me he isn’t. Clearly, he has a lot of talent, and he relishes the big stage.
Tipsy took the game to Federer at the Australian Open a couple years ago, eventually falling 9-7 in the fifth. He hasn’t been shabby at other Slams either, having beaten Safin at Roland Garros and scoring memorable wins over Roddick at both Wimbledon and the US Open. And yet, he still hasn’t made it into the second week of a Slam or cracked the Top 30.
I expect him not to make any giant strides in 2011, just as I expect him to take measured swipes at any giant he encounters in a Grand Slam. That’s Tipsarevic in a nutshell.
Current Rank: 34
Biggest Upset: Beat (3) N. Djokovic, Roland Garros 2009
Kohlschreiber is the sort of player who is unheard of for weeks on the circuit only to emerge at the second round of a Slam on Centre Court, going toe to toe with a star player. While there are plenty on the circuit who can claim to have scared a top player at a big stage, Kohlschreiber has claimed two prized scalps in Slams to date.
He toughed it out against Roddick over five sets at the 2008 Australian Open and showed no mental fragility in closing out Djokovic at last year’s Roland Garros. He has also troubled Nadal and Federer at Slams, though it appears he lacks the requisite weapons to beat them, especially in a five-set match.
But the German No.1 is a solid competitor, and him being unseeded in Melbourne could mean a delightful contest in the opening rounds.
Current Rank: 372
Biggest Upset: Beat (4) N. Djokovic, Wimbledon 2009
Tommy won’t be playing at the Australian Open courtesy of an injury. He has spent most of 2010 out and will be turning 33 next year. But if you think Haas is done, think again. He has seemed to be done several times in the past, only to come back strong—and arguably stronger.
Haas first made his mark over a decade ago. He beat Agassi at the 1998 Wimbledon and went high as No. 2 in the world in 2002. Injuries cursed him soon thereafter, and he plunged into oblivion like so many others before him. He had a bit of resurgence a couple years later but became largely impotent.
I remember thinking way back in 2005, that his days as a top player were over when Nikolay Davydenko took care of him at Roland Garros like an abusive Pakistani father takes care of his adulterous daughter. Haas was pummeled into submission 7-5, 6-0, 6-0.
But after spending a considerable amount of time languishing around the Top 30, Haas was back in the mix at the end of 2006, reaching the US Open quarterfinal and then the semifinal of the 2007 Australian Open, beating top tenners Davydenko and Nalbandian on the way. But after cracking the Top 10 in 2007, he fell off again.
Seeing Nadal put the beatdown on him at the 2009 Australian Open convinced me that Haas was done and dusted. And then, ranked 63, he was there on his least preferred surface, outhitting Roger Federer at Court Philipe Chatrier as if it was 2002.
He went up two sets to love and had a break point before being beaten by a legendary inside out forehand. Haas went on to lose the match but retained the spark through the summer. He won the prestigious Halle warm up, beating Djokovic in the final and then played like a contender through Wimbledon. He used his grass court expertise to beat Djokovic again, before falling to Federer in the semi final.
Haas probably won’t be a threat in 2011, but who can be sure about that? I’m not betting against him again. I'm certainly rooting for him—he's fun to watch.
Current Rank: 21
Biggest Upset: Beat (4) A. Murray, US Open 2010
Unlike some of the other guys on this list, Wawrinka only really has made one big upset in his career. But he has the game to take it to the big boys and took off the “choker” tag by beating Murray at the US Open this year. Plus he showed a lot of heart in his next two rounds, beating local favorite Sam Querrey in five sets before succumbing to fatigue in his fifth set defeat to Youzhny.
Wawrinka has plenty of game, characterized by his one-handed backhand. Unlike most one-handers though, his epitomizes power more than fluidity—which works when playing against Nadal. Unfortunately for Stan, he always seems to play Nadal close but is never able to finish well.
He remains streaky and unpredictable though, as he showed us again in Stockholm. Wawrinka was the only player this indoor season to really take the game to Federer, but then after being up 6-2, 2-0, he folded.
Nevertheless, his strong performances on all surfaces mean that he can catch fire at any major. And Andy Murray can attest to the fact that the Swiss No. 2 can reach a standard almost as high as the one set by his countryman.
Current Rank: 20
Biggest Upset: Beat (3) A. Roddick, Australian Open 2006
Baghdatis hasn’t been relevant at a Slam since Agassi knocked him out at the US Open in 2006. That was his breakthrough year, and the tennis world expected a lot more out of him. And why not?
At his best, the 2006 Australian Open finalist has a fluid serve that wins many cheap points; he hits a clean ball off both wings, takes it early and doesn’t have trouble changing direction. Plus, he’s not short on finesse either, something that sets him apart from the standard baseliner slugger on tour.
He’s struggled in the last few years because of injuries and lack of fitness, but this year, he showed signs of a recovery. What makes Baghdatis dangerous is that he likes the big stage atmosphere, and apart from his victories over Federer and Nadal this year at Masters events, he’s beaten the world’s third and fourth ranked players at a Slam before.
He may well go on to lose to a Llodra or Niemenen, but he’s just as likely to be fist-bumping his chest in a tense fifth setter against Andy Murray, being cheered on by a raucous Cypriot section at the Rod Laver Arena. We’ve seen it before: the grit, the theatrics, the goofy grin and that sweet down the line backhand.
Current Rank: 13
Biggest Upset: Beat (2) R. Nadal, Australian Open 2008
He’s been a bit of a disappointment. After storming through the field at the 2008 Australian Open, including a straight set trouncing of Nadal, he hasn’t been consistent enough against the big players. Injuries have also played a part in preventing him from realizing his true potential, but just as often, he’s let himself down.
After playing two close sets with Murray at Wimbledon this year, he absolutely faded. He also barely mustered a fight against Federer at the Australian Open semifinal. But despite all his failings, you have to like the chances of someone who’s beaten both Nadal and Djokovic at the latter stages of a Slam in recent times.
A natural showman, he doesn’t let the magnitude of the occasion bother him—unlike a certain other Frenchman. I was particularly impressed by his performance at Bercy in 2008, when he beat defending champion and indoor specialist David Nalbandian to win his maiden ATP Masters Shield.
Current Rank: 27
Biggest Upset: Beat (2) R. Federer, US Open 2003
Nalbandian has spent a lot of time struggling with injuries the last three or four years. Before that, he was a consistent performer at the Slams. His record of reaching at least the semifinals of all four majors is only matched by three active players—Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
If anyone was skeptical that he didn’t belong in the same category as them, Nalbandian dispelled all those notions when he beat all three to win the Madrid Masters in the fall of 2007. And as if to shake off the fluke tag, he repeated his exploits two weeks later to beat both Federer and Nadal in straight sets to win the Paris Masters final.
There’s no question that Nalbandian has the game to be in the Top Five right now. The doubts over his fitness and focus are another issue. No one else but Murray, and perhaps Federer in god-mode, can make Nadal look foolish from the baseline like Nalbandian can.
What makes him special to watch is that he doesn’t possess an extraordinary amount of power, but finds little gaps on the court to construct points better than perhaps anyone else in the game. His backhand is the most versatile two-hander in the game; a well disguised shot that can be hit for extreme angles or be unleashed for a powerful strike down the line.
His skills at the net are quite splendid for someone who plays predominantly from the backcourt, and his drop shots were once the best in the business. But if some parts of his game have declined—such as foot speed—his returns only seemed sharper as he destroyed big servers Ljubicic and Cilic on the summer hard courts this year.
His hold games can be a problem—sometimes a major one. Against Verdasco at the US Open, he could barely get a cheap point on his serve in the opening set which seemed to deplete his energy for the remainder of the match.
But, since 2008, he’s beaten all of the Big Four at least once. I’m not sure if anyone else has done that. He’s certainly the only one who’s beaten both Federer and Nadal in a Masters final. There’s no question that when the draws for the majors come out, the top players squint for Nalbandian’s name.
Current Rank: 22
Biggest Upset: Beat (2) R. Nadal, Miami Masters Final 2008
Davydenko is the only player alongside Nalbandian and Federer to defeat Nadal in a Masters final, and he’s done it twice (only Federer has beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam final). He has won most of his matches against Nadal on hard courts, and the Spaniard’s camp would be wary of his position in the draw regardless of his low seeding.
The Russian anti-poster boy, with a balding head and a sharp dry wit, is one of the most fascinating men on the tennis court. There are no histrionics, flashy clothes or OCD habits when he steps out there; Davydenko’s all business, but he conducts it in style.
His footwork is one of the best in the game, which allows him to cut off the angles, take the ball on the rise and send it back with enough sting to hit through the sharpest defenses. He’s not the hardest striker of the ball, but his precision and timing make up for it.
Davydenko looked set to threaten the status quo of the Big Four before he got injured early this year, leading to a slump in rankings and a loss in confidence when he returned. Plus, he got a new racket at the end of 2010, which only seemed to hamper his game.
Let’s hope he can work things out for 2011, because at his best, there’s no one quite like Davydenko.
Current Rank: 257
Biggest Upset: Beat (1) R. Federer, US Open 2009
Is there a bigger floater in the Australian Open draw than Juan Martin Del Potro? Sure, the 2009 US Open champion is coming back after a terribly long lay off. But it’s not unprecedented for players to come back after an injury lay off and make a deep Slam run.
Marat Safin had fallen by the wayside in 2003, only to take the Australian Open by storm in 2004, beating Agassi, Blake and Roddick on the way. A similar run from Del Potro may be asking for too much, but he has time to prepare for Melbourne.
It will be exciting when Del Potro returns, because when he was last competing regularly, Federer and Nadal did not look so comfortable. He beat the Swiss twice and massacred Nadal at the US Open.
What’s impressive about Del Potro is his sharp learning curve. He looked hopeless against Federer at the 2009 Australian Open, losing 6-3, 6-0, 6-0. At Roland Garros, he was breathing down the neck of the same opponent, before losing a hard fought five set thriller. Three months later, he showed no fear against Federer in the deciding set of the US Open final.
Tennis has been a touch deprived by the absence of Del Potro. As I’ve said before, it’s fun to see the "Fedal" domination, but it’s more appealing when the likes of Del Potro are around to unnerve the duo.