Out with the old, in with the Novak?

As Djokovic defeats Federer for the second time in a row, could there be an upset at the top end of the tennis table in 2011?

After crashing out to the Serb in the semi finals of the Australian Open last month – his second Grand Slam semi defeat by Djokovic in a row – Federer was quick to quieten any talk of a revolution in the men’s game.  “They say that very quickly” he asserted.  “Let’s talk in six months again.”

Well one of those months has now passed and, if anything, a changing of the guard looks more likely.  Djokovic displayed yet more determination to sweep the Swiss aside in straight sets, 6-3 6-3, in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Saturday.  He dug deep to come back from a break down in the second set and secure his third straight title at the tournament. 

But while the impressiveness of Djokovic’s form can’t be overlooked, neither can the apparent deterioration of Federer’s.  Since he ended 2010 with a deserved Barclays ATP World Tour Finals trophy in London, and began 2011 with another win in Qatar, the serial champ has hit something of a slump.  A bumpy road to the semis in Australia was blocked by a superior Djokovic, and in Dubai his usual class and efficiency were replaced by crass errors.  But if he wasn’t able to return the Serb’s serves, he could still hit back at sceptics: “Things are over in a hurry sometimes in best of three set tennis,” he reasoned.

With Federer and Nadal having ruled the rankings for a good half decade now, it’s all too tempting for tennis fans to consider that a coup might be about to take place.  Since winning the first of his sixteen Grand Slams at Wimbledon eight(!) years ago, Federer has hit heights to more than justify his reputation as, probably, the greatest player there has ever been.  But in the last couple of years his priorities have undoubtedly shifted.  Marriage, fatherhood, charity work and turning 30 in August will all have an affect on his appetite for more titles in the years to come.

The imperious but injury-prone Nadal is a much tougher tennis tyrant to overthrow.  After a slow start, the world #1 dominated the clay court season and went on to claim three Grand Slam titles in 2010.  But there are chinks in Rafa’s armour.  As with last year, the hard courts of the Australian Open proved tough on his unreliable legs and he has sat out of the circuit since he suffered a hamstring injury in his quarter final against David Ferrer.  It will be interesting to see how he comes back at Indian Wells in a couple of weeks, but his continuing physical inconsistencies and occasional mental lapses will give hope to those after his crown.

So who are the most likely successors to the throne?  Djokovic surely has to be first in line.  With his 100% match record this year still intact and his self belief seemingly growing by the week, his years as bridesmaid to Federer and Nadal’s bride and groom (or groom and bride?) could soon be over.  He still has some distance to catch up with the Rafa but with less than 100 ranking points currently separating him from the Swiss, the #2 spot is well within his reach.

A quiet man who has also been causing a stir this year is Robin Soderling.  Aside from a surprising fourth round defeat to Alexandr Dolgopolov at the Australian Open, the Swede has won all three of the other tournaments he has played this year.  Soderling has reached the last two French Open finals – losing to Federer and Nadal respectively.  It will be interesting to see if he can take this year’s title in a few months time.

Elsewhere, David Ferrer has had a fine start to 2011; defeating Nadal to reach the semis of the Australian Open and winning in both Auckland and Acapulco.  Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych also continue to hover around the top end of the rankings, though neither has a 2011 title to his name yet.

While Roger may be more reluctant to concede the crown, Rafa has said to the Spanish media that their reign is under threat: “For sure I think this monopoly ended some time ago.  There are many players ready to challenge now.”  There are indeed – but the challenge has already begun.

Martin McGale

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