The 7 Most Likely Candidates to Break the Big Four's Stronghold on the Game
A year has passed and positions have been swapped, but the four names at the top of the rankings are still the same.
In tennis lingo, they are simply known as the Big Four.
No player outside the Big Four has been able to make it into the top three since Djokovic climbed up the rankings in late 2007, and with a few exceptions in the form of Robin Söderling (11 weeks) and Juan Maritin del Potro (one week), no one has been able to make it to the fourth spot, either.
Now that is called dominance.
Looking ahead to 2012, do we see any likely upsets of the current order? Do we see anyone with enough potential and consistency to break their dominance at the top of the rankings?
It's hard to bet against the Big Four, but here are the likeliest candidates to break into the big men's league. Even if they only make it for a week, it will still be a tremendous accomplishment.
A couple of things that are in their favor?
The oldest-ever World Tour Finals champion is—surprise, surprise—getting a year older and will turn 31 in 2012. He has shown that he is still better than anyone outside the Big Four, but how long can that continue to be the case?
I'm not betting against him, but at some point Father Time will have to catch up even with Roger Federer.
Moreover, Nadal seems spent mentally and physically. Is it just a rough period after some tough losses, or is the Spaniard with the many miles on his legs about to go into his own slow decline?
I wouldn't bet on it, and I don't expect it to be the case, but I wouldn't rule it out completely, either.
Finally, with the way the Big Four is looking right now, it wouldn't be completely unlikely that one of them would have to take some months off to heal an injury. It would be unfortunate, but with the gruelling game three of them play and Federer's advanced age, it is not completely unlikely.
Enough said—on to the pretenders to the top of the tennis hierarchy
Milos Raonic, the Man with the Serve
Newcomer of the year Milos Raonic showed some great promise early on this year.
He even had people compare him to the great Pete Sampras.
He started the year ranked 156th and finished at 31st, compiling a 31-19 record in the process.
What the Canadian does have running for him is a serve as good and big as they come and a forehand to go with it.
While his big serve has been appreciated plenty, he deserves equal praise for his clutch play and strong mentality.
Raonic is a closer, and he shows an almost-abnormal maturity on the court.
He's been set back by injuries for parts of the year, but he should be ready to put in another great start to the year.
He turns 21 this month, and it would be a good time for him to make his breakthrough.
What goes against him? Well, apart from the consistency of the Big Four, you have to factor in that the Canadian is pretty much a newbie to the tour. He played his first ATP Tour clay matches ever this year and is still on a learning curve.
Moreover, while his hold game is excellent, his return game needs vast improvement, as he won 16 percent of them this year (other big servers like Isner and Roddick won 13 and 22 percent respectively).
Chance of breaking into the Big Four next year?
Less than 10 percent.
Bernard Tomic, the Australian Kid
Bernard Tomic is another "newcomer of the year" player, and he rose from 208th to 42th with a less impressive 16-15 win-loss record in the process.
But whoever saw Bernard Tomic push Novak Djokovic to four close sets at this year's Wimbledon cannot be in doubt about his ability to play the game with the big guys (watch his winners here).
A couple of months later, he also took Federer to four sets on grass in their Davis Cup tie.
The kid has got talent, and plenty of it. Possibly more than anyone else in the next generation.
He only just turned 19 in a sport that is increasingly hard to break through in as a prodigy.
But Tomic's got the serve, the forehand, the slice and the backhand to make it to the top of the game. He also has no fear and immense trust in his own abilities—and that rare ability to go for his shots on the most important points (again, watch that Wimbledon quarterfinal).
While 2012 may be too early for Tomic to make it all the way into the top four, I would be surprised if he doesn't make it up there at some point.
Chance: Less than 15 percent.
David Ferrer, the Eternal Grinder
While the two previous slides represented the next generation, David Ferrer is part of the former.
He turns 30 next year and should really not be playing his best tennis right now. But he is.
At 29, he is still improving and with his work ethic, you can expect him to be there if any of the Big Four slips.
He's beefed up his serve and hold game and remains one of the best returners on tour.
I've often underestimated him, but what Ferrer does extremely well is to be rock solid in almost every single match he plays.
That ability ensures that he seldom loses matches he should win and is ready to take advantage if a superior opponent is a notch below his best.
He beat Djokovic and Murray in straights at the World Tour Finals and beat Nadal at the Australian Open.
In all of those cases, you could put an asterisk. But the fact of the matter is that lesser players wouldn't have been able to finish the job. Ferrer is.
While I doubt he can improve his own game that much further at this point (he could surprise me again), he is very likely to hang around and take advantage if somebody slips. He's been fourth (back in 2007), and with some luck, could do it again.
Chance: Less than 25 percent.
Robin Söderling, Is the Big Swede Ready for a Comeback?
Robin Söderling hasn't had one of his luckiest years.
He hasn't played a match since July and has suffered a wrist injury, and now he has mono.
That essentially puts a big question mark over his 2012.
Still, he's ranked 13th due to four titles in the first half of the year and made quarters at the French, where Nadal got a much-needed revenge over his 2009 conqueror.
The big-serving and big-hitting Swede has the game to bother anyone, and he's shown he can be a consistent World No. 5 with a few stints at No. 4.
Can he find back to his former level after a wrist injury and mono? It's possible, but as the game is not in a standstill, he will likely need more.
While the Big Four can all be said to be more or less complete players, Söderling is more of a one-trick pony. He can hit the ball hard, and he can hit it harder.
Still, when he does that well, there's little that can stop him.
Expect the Swede to make a comeback into the top 10, but it will be hard for him to make that final step into the top four again.
Chance: Less than 20 percent, given his unsure health condition.
Tomas Berdych, Is This His Year?
Tomas Berdych is immensely talented.
Few would argue against that.
The seventh-ranked Czech beat Roger Federer at the 2004 Olympics and repeated the feat at the 2010 Wimbledon, where he made the finals.
This year, he's been more anonymous, but he's been consistent enough to make enough quarters and semis to be ranked seventh in the world.
This year's World Tour Finals showed us glimpses of his talent as he almost took down Novak Djokovic and won his group by beating David Ferrer in the last match.
As with Söderling, Berdych's got good heavy ground-strokes and a massive serve. But his mobility is better, and so are his volleys.
Berdych's return game is also better than most would expect, as he is the 12th-best returner on tour this year—one place below Federer.
Berdych is one of those players who can get into the zone and hit you off the court.
If he can do that enough times in 2012, he can become a top-four player. However, he hasn't always shown enough resolve in the big moments, and that will have to change if he is to improve his ranking further.
Chance: Less than 35 percent.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Flashiest Player on Tour Is Ready for the Next Round
If you weren't a fan of Tsonga before the World Tour Finals, I hope and suspect you are now.
The Frenchman is as kind as they come off the court and as penetrating and powerful with his shots as they come on the court.
As with the two previous players, Tsonga has a massive serve, a massive forehand and a good backhand (that he can hit very, very big as well).
But he has also got exquisite touch to an extent where you would have to regard him as one of the best volleyers on tour.
The way he played at the net against Rafael Nadal was nothing short of stunning.
Since he made his 2008 Australian run to the final, beating Murray and Nadal (6-2, 6-2, 6-2) in the process, I've regarded him as a likely top-five player.
He's currently ranked sixth, which is his highest ranking ever (he was also 6th in 2008), but you have got to like his chances to advance further up the ladder.
2011 represents a rare, more or less injury-free year for Tsonga, and since he split with his coach in the spring, his game has bloomed.
While he lost both his matches to Federer at the World Tour Finals, he played well enough to win both of them. And he actually leads Djokovic in their head-to-head.
At the World Tour Finals, I asked Tsonga how good he felt he was when he was playing his best. Did he feel close to unbeatable when he was in the zone?
No, but he felt that he "could play with anyone."
I think he's proven that, and I hope for another injury-free Tsonga season. He can improve further in choosing his moments to attack and just rally, but he is as close to the Big Four as they come.
Maybe he is not their equal in terms of consistency, but his top level is not too far below, if at all.
Chance: Around 50 percent.
Juan Martin Del Potro: Is He Finally Back?
Remember there was a brief period of time when we talked about the Big Five, not the Big Four?
Juan Martin del Potro was the reason for that.
The gentle giant (as he is often called) has been climbing the rankings this year from 485th after the Australian Open to 11th now.
As impressive as that is, quite a few of us had expected and hoped for even more. After all, del Potro is the only guy outside the Big Three (Murray not included here), who's won a slam, so naturally he would be a contender at the slams again?
Not quite yet. While he pushed Novak and Rafa at the French and at Wimbledon, he fell to Giles Simon early at the US Open.
He's showed good signs and early promise, but the second half of the season on the American hard court was not quite as successful as one could have expected and hoped for.
Nevertheless, Delpo is back—or almost back—in the top 10 and should be more than ready and motivated to continue his climb further next year.
And as opposed to many of the others just outside the Big Four, Delpo has showed he has the mind of a champion, such as when he took down Rafa and Roger in succession to win his maiden US Open title in 2009.
Chance: Above 50 percent.
With this many pretenders and a top four at the top of their game one things seems sure—2012 sure looks like another promising tennis year.