The first big tournament of the US Open Series is just a week away and the top players in the world will have had their opportunities to relax, rethink and work on their games.
A lot of talking will be done and a lot of walking may well be done—but for certain players, actions will have to speak louder than words.
Here are the top 10 players that will need to improve their games or risk dropping off the pace.
Canadian Milos Raonic began his season this year with a bang. His booming serve and a seeming aura of invincibility in that area led him to defeat some of the best in the world and win his first title on tour. His form even prompted John McEnroe to label him "the real deal" on Twitter.
Such was his serving prowess that when he defeated Fernando Verdasco in the SAP Open final and in another tournament the very next week, the Spaniard, a former top 10 player, recollected the match this way:
"For me that's not a real match in tennis. I hope to play soon against him in clay court to show him what it is to play tennis, and play rallies, and run, and not [just] serve."
Some tennis pundits felt that Raonic could only perform well on an indoor court (which equates to perfect conditions)—by winning his first title in San Jose, an outdoor tournament, he debunked that. Other pundits were suspicious about his all-court game— it was felt that he could not play half as effectively on clay and perhaps on grass.
In this regard, they were proved right. Raonic failed to launch at the French Open as he exited in the first round. He suffered a similar early round exit at Wimbledon, losing in the second round. After Wimbledon, Tennis Canada announced that Raonic would be out for 6 weeks having underwent hip surgery.
In a week's time, the big US Open Series tournaments will commence and tennis will return to Raonic's favored hard courts. The Canadian will be looking to regain his mojo.
After an epic tussle with David Nalbandian at the Australian Open earlier this year that lasted over four hours and showed us the kind of tennis and form that got Lleyton Hewitt to the top of the game, we haven't heard as much of the gutsy Australian formerly ranked No. 1 but now ranked 164th in the world.
Injuries and the resultant lack of consistency have plagued him over the last few years and both have had a detrimental effect on his career. After the Miami Masters earlier this year, Hewitt was forced out of competition for 3 months due to surgery on his left foot.
On returning from injury, Hewitt competed in Halle and the Aegon Championships in London, but did not get very far in either. At Wimbledon, he lost to Sweden's Robin Soderling in the second round. Hewitt was two sets up on the world No. 5 and looked to be on his way to winning the match—ultimately though, he failed to convert his chances.
Hewitt is not exactly known for his prowess on American hard courts, but he would still expect a great deal from himself. Good performances will see him enter the top 100 and perhaps break the top 50 by the end of the year—to play in the big tournaments, he will need to climb up the rankings and so this is an important hard court season for him.
Two years ago, pundits the world over were wowed by the promise evident in Marin Cilic, a relative youngster aged just 20 at the time. It was thought he would become the next Goran Ivanisevic, who incidentally was the man who found Cilic when he was just 15-years-old.
Asked a couple of years about when he thought Cilic would become a force to be reckoned with, his coach Bob Brett claimed that Cilic would come into his own by the time he is 24. A late bloomer, in other words.
This prediction worried me. Rarely, if ever, is a player going to be successful in the slams if he is only reaching the echelons of the game at 24. It is a known thing that you have got to grab the bull by the horns at a much younger age.
Cilic lost to Nadal in straight sets at the Australian Open—a poor performance considering how Nadal was playing at the time. He had a poor clay court season earlier this year, performed similarly badly at Wimbledon and yesterday continued a trend of losing big matches by losing his second final this year in his defeat at the clay court tournament in Umag.
If Marin Cilic is ever going to deliver on the promise he showed earlier in his career, he has got to start now.
When compared to his performances in previous years, Stanislas Wawrinka's 2011 has been pretty good. He won a hard court tournament in Chennai at the start of the year and performed the best he ever had at the Australian Open, reaching the quarter finals.
He equaled his best performance at the French Open, reaching the fourth round but his performance on the grass courts weren't quite up to scratch.
Wawrinka reportedly divorced his wife of one year who'd just given birth, to concentrate on his tennis as he felt he hadn't much time left in the sport. A little strange? Well, yes.
Nonetheless, to avoid the 'pains' of hindsight, he may want to start doing well again.
He achieved a career best result last year in reaching the quarter finals of the US Open beating Andy Murray on his way, he'll want to replicate that sort of form.
It seems these days that Fernando Verdasco is forever stuck trying to repeat his 2009 season.
His epic Australian Open run that year, culminating in that unforgettable five hour plus marathon match against Rafael Nadal, will live forever in the minds of tennis lovers all over the world.
After witnessing the level of tennis he was able to play during that tournament, his form after 2009 has never quite added up. Watching him perform as a shadow of his old self, reduced to been unable to accept losses, we are left wondering where the Verdasco we knew has gone.
2009, his best season, began with him playing prolific hard court tennis—now, he has the chance to start over. The hard courts are back again.
Moment of redemption?
2010 was Jurgen Melzer's best season on tour by far. He reached a then career high No. 11 in the rankings, he achieved a Grand Slam-best semifinal result at Roland Garros and won his first Grand Slam doubles title at Wimbledon.
He qualified for the doubles at the World Tour Finals in London and defeated two top 3 players in the singles last year (Djokovic and Nadal). He earned a career-high $2,037,084.
This year has not been quite as stellar for the Austrian, but it has not been bad either. He started the season by reaching a career best fourth round at the Australian Open, but he failed to win back to back matches in his next two tournaments.
He was part of the Austria team that was knocked out of the Davis Cup and he reached a career high No. 8 in the rankings—but so far this year he has amassed a 17-14 singles win-loss ratio (not a good ratio and has dropped to No. 18 in the rankings.
Melzer achieved most of his great successes in the second half of last year and will be hoping to reproduce that form. Hard courts are his favorite surface and he'll want to take advantage of the moment.
Like Melzer, 2010 was Tomas Berdych's best year on tour. He finished in the top 10 (he still is in the top 10) and competed for the first time in the World tour Finals. He reached his first Grand Slam final defeating two of the top three players at the time (Federer and Djokovic) en route and earned a career high $2,509,122.
Berdych has not quite performed at his best this year. He has reached six quarterfinals and three semifinals this year, at times losing to players he ought to beat.
After reaching the final of Wimbledon and the semis at the French Open last year, he suffered a fourth round exit and a first round defeat in both tournaments respectively.
He is not known for his prowess on the hard courts, but he has the game to succeed on the surface.
He'll need that game if he wants to keep his place in the top 10 and qualify for the World Tour Finals in London.
2009 and 2010 were supoosed to be great years for Soderling—and in a way, they were.
He reached two Slam finals, got to a career best No. 5 in the rankings and was able to beat some of the best players in the world.
He started winning titles here and there till eventually he started to bandied around as favorite for the biggest titles. He was thought to be Nadal's bogey-man on clay, a Slam contender and a player to avoid when tournament draws come out.
Well, it has not worked quite yet. Nadal has dispelled any wandering thoughts about his effectiveness against Soderling, the top three do not really mind meeting Soderling as he has a poor record against them and it does not help that he lost to 18-year-old Bernard Tomic in straight sets in the 3rd round of Wimbledon this year.
Soderling needs to show that he is worthy to be called the fifth best player in the world—a title that some would feel belongs to Juan Martin Del Potro.
Traditionally, Soderling hasn't done well in the US but he will be looking to improve—he will have to improve as his ranking is at stake.
You be quiet! Your 'genius' needs to improve.
I would say it was the loss to Robin Soderling in 2010 at the French Open that began the downward spiral that has been Roger Federer's career over the last one and a half years.
The Swiss maestro began 2010 in the best possible way, winning the Australian Open title. After that, the hunger and desire to perform seemed to leave him.
Since that win at the Open, he has not won a Grand Slam title in six attempts and he has made only one final—not great stats for a man with his expectations.
Now relegated to a sideshow, long gone are the days when tennis fans cherished and hoped for Nadal-Federer finals.
The order of the day is Nadal-Djokovic and that is simply a symptom of Federer's dwindling powers. With just two just appearances in a final this year—winning in one of them—it is quite clear that Roger will need to step up his game.
Good performances from the world No. 3 have been few and far between so far this year—Roger will be hoping that the hard courts prove to be a happier hunting ground.
In just two words, Nadal's 2011 so far can be defined: Novak Djokovic.
Five losses in five finals this year to the current world No. 1, Serbian Novak Djokovic, cost Nadal his status as number one player in the world, his status as the undisputed king of clay, and his all so important confidence.
There is only so much a guy can take—and Nadal's two losses to Djokovic in Indian Wells and Miami were the final straw. At that point, right there and then when Djokovic converted match point, Nadal was done for.
To be honest, if Nadal met Djokovic right now, I would have no doubt he would lose. Such is the spell that Nadal has been cast under. He lost his Wimbledon title with a whimper, he lost his clay court titles desperately and, to add salt to his wounds, tennis is going to be played for the next four months on his least favorite surface. Just brilliant.
Nadal will have been recuperating and working to redefine his game over the last five weeks—if ever there was a time to rise to display his oft-spoken about mental strength, now is that time.
Improvements are needed—come rain or sunshine, they will be needed.