Murray comes of age, Nadal disappears – a mixed outlook for 2013

There’s still the year ending indoor court season to come, where big serving power players finally get a chance to bash the defenders and steal some limelight….IF indoor king  Roger Federer lets them.   Nevertheless, this is the time of the year that tennis generally looks to the year ahead and starts speculating.

The year began with hopes of an encore or better for Novak Djokovic at the slams and ended with the top four splitting the slams between them one each.   Which would suggest a more open men’s draw than in a long time, before you consider that, like 2011, the rest of the top 10 and 20 failed to make any of the Grand Slam finals.  In fact, Tommy Haas beating Federer at Halle, John Isner making the finals of Indian Wells and Berdych at Madrid were among the few highlights for the rest of the field.    It was a year full of contradictions, with some grinding, physical battles at Australian Open and Roland Garros but lots more net rushing and slices at Wimbledon for those who cared to notice.   More like ‘old’ tennis in a way, perhaps, with each slam bringing a different flavour rather than appearing homogenized.

The big news of course was that Andy Murray finally banished his Grand Slam voodoo.   It might be said that it was unfair to hold him prisoner to lofty expectations and as a young player, he was entitled to take some time to find his range.   But it was Murray’s struggle to convert on final appearances that sparked questions about his attitude.   Djokovic, for instance, converted on his first Grand Slam final as did Del Potro.   Murray’s career was beginning to resemble Tsonga’s and Berdych’s when he had been expected to achieve more.

But in a hard fought five set epic at Flushing Meadows, he banished these doubts for good and in the process vindicated his choice of coach.    80s legend Ivan Lendl may have been away from the game for a long time but he did have what it takes to overcome the toughest of opponents on the biggest stage.   Murray had all the shots, he just needed to know which ones to use under pressure.   Murray’s subdued reaction after winning his maiden slam title summed up the measure of influence Lendl has exerted over Murray.   It might make him more boring for audiences to watch, but could help him win more, and more, at the Slams.

I say this because the other big news of 2012 was Rafael Nadal’s prolonged hiatus due to injury.  He is not very optimistic about returning in time for Australian Open 2012 either, so this is his longest break from tennis.   In 2010, he silenced detractors emphatically with 3 Grand Slams on the trot and an improved, devastating serve but circa 2012, it once again appears as if those who cautioned against the physical demands of his playing style had a point.    Or maybe, he was always racing against time, playing with modified shoes to counter congenital problems.   If that is the case, his 11 slams with 7 of them on clay feels like an even more staggering achievement.

But at the moment, he is not going to be there for sometime and that is a crushing blow to the draw.   Nadal’s tremendous fighting spirit brought an element of theatre to what used to be tennis matches.   With Nadal, the point was simply never over till it was really over and players who got passed after a complacent approach or smash volley would have known this rather too well.   While the physical nature of the game today is ‘blamed’ on slow courts and heavy balls, we forget that before Nadal, tennis was not particularly different from what it used to be, with the distinction that Federer seemed to be playing in a different time and space.  It was when  he began to run down Federer winners and convert defensive positions to strike a few winners of his own that a different approach to the game began to emerge.   Djokovic certainly seems to have imbibed some of Nadal’s indomitable spirit and there were glimpses of a Nadal-like urge to retrieve impossible balls in his US Open quarterfinal against Del Potro (by both players, that is).  Perhaps, irrespective of if and when Nadal returns to the game, his legacy is here to stay.

Meantime, Djokovic’s aura of invincibility has taken a knock this year with losses to each of the top three at the slams and also to Del Potro at the Olympics.   At SW19, Federer appeared to roll back the years as he won his seventh title at the venue and regained the no.1 spot.  But his lacklustre display against Murray at the Olympics and Berdych at the US Open brought to mind the low moments of 2010 and 2011.   Perhaps, the reliability of his serve is never going to be what it used to be in outdoor conditions.    But Federer is more respected than feared these days and expect more reversals to sub top four opponents in the years to come.

That is…is the field really open or is it all falling in place for Murray to build a streak of his own, just like Djoko’s in 2011?  On grass and hard court, Murray arguably faced fewer problems against sub-top 4 players and he also has the most reliable serve of the top four at the moment.   It could be his moment…or we might see Djoko reclaiming his turf.   As much as I love watching both of them, I have to say a grand Fed or Nadal comeback looks much more unlikely to me.  Djoko-Murray might be the next big rivalry.   Or, maybe there’s that dreaded ‘unknown quantity’ lurking in the shadows….somebody who might do a Boris Becker on the field.

Plenty of possibilities, some exciting like Murray’s rise and others more saddening like the feeling that the Fed-Nadal era is on its last laps.   I made a prediction for 2012 which failed disastrously.   I don’t mind repeating the mistake for 2013, but even if  I wanted to, I really cannot make a call on 2013.   Whatever happens, it’s NOT going to be more of the same in 2013.



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