December 18, 2011

The 2011 Tennis Spin Awards: The Men

It's not often that the men's Tour brings us many surprises -- for the past eight years the game has been dominated by two guys, and any chink made in the armor was short-lived.

That all changed in 2011, though, as the tide shifted from the old to the new guard. But despite this being the "Year of Nole" there were plenty other stories -- both good and bad -- worthy of note. And so it's time to honor the men with their first maybe-annual Tennis Spin Awards to celebrate their accomplishments on the ATP Tour.

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Least Follow-ThroughGreatest Letdown
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

There were a lot of new stars to emerge on the tennis scene in 2011, and a couple guys really took the task of launching their careers to heart. Some were more successful than others, of course, but all made a real play against the sport's elite.

The Nominees
Ryan Harrison might have had his more impressive year in 2010, when the now-nineteen year old beat Ivan Ljubicic in the first round at the U.S. Open and very nearly took out New Haven champ Sergiy Stakhovsky a few days later. He had a few nice wins this year, most notably Milos Raonic in Indian Wells and Viktor Troicki in Shanghai, but he also had some very close calls against the super-elite -- he scored a set off Robin Soderling at Roland Garros and took David Ferrer to a fifth at Wimbledon. He still has to qualify for a lot of tournaments, but since cutting his ranking from #173 at the start of the year to top-eighty now, he's certainly put himself on the right track.

Australia's Bernard Tomic made his way slightly higher up the rankings, jumping nearly 170 spots to end the year at #42. He scored a couple upsets in Melbourne, but really made a statement at the All England Club where, as a qualifier, he ran straight to the quarters, beating veteran Xavier Malisse, Nikolay Davydenko and Soderling on the way. He just eked out a winning record on the pro Tour, too, and actually won more matches than he lost at the Majors. With his hometown Slam just around the corner -- as long as he keeps his other records clean -- he may be able to harness the crowd's support and make an even bigger statement early next year.

The Winner
And while both these guys put on a show for us in 2011, I don't think anyone had opponents quaking in their sneakers quite like Milos Raonic. The six-foot-five qualifier stormed to the fourth round in Australia, dismantling twenty-second seed Michael Llodra and tenth seed Mikhail Youzhny. In just four matches he racked up more aces than anyone else that tournament, and he was quick to show it was no fluke. Less than a month later, he beat Fernando Verdasco for the San Jose title, an opponent he bested again on his way to the Memphis final. Unfortunately an injury he suffered at Wimbledon kept him out of the game a for few months and he's still trying to get his game back, but a rise as high as #25 in the world -- from barely in the top three-hundred a year earlier -- tells me he'll be a formidable foe for some time to come.

Most Improved

It's not always easy to make a big statement on Tour when you're not one of the super elite -- especially when the men's game this year was overshadowed by the super-dominance of one player and the late-season surge of another. But outside the top five, plenty others toiled away on courts around the world, and for some of them the efforts more than paid off.

The Nominees
Florian Mayer has been around for about a decade, and though he first cracked the top hundred in 2004, a pesky finger injury took him out of the game for a bit and pushed his ranking as low as #450 in the world. Things turned around for him in 2011, though, as early season wins over Marin Cilic, Viktor Troicki and Nicolas Almagro got him deeper into tournaments than he'd been in some time. He still hasn't made a big dent at the Majors, reaching the third round in just one this year, far from a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon in '04, but he did make the fourth round in Shanghai with wins over David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal and claimed his first ever title in Bucharest -- quite an accomplishment at age twenty-seven. Though he ends the year just inside the top twenty-five, he did make it as high as #18 in the world in June and could push higher if he can stake a claim during the clay court season.

Similarly impressive was the performance of little-known Spaniard Marcel Granollers. Largely overshadowed by his compatriots, the twenty-five year old quietly became the sixth man from his country in the top thirty. He beat Michael Llodra and Stanislas Wawrinka in Miami and took out three higher ranked players to take the title in Gstaad. His upsets continued in Valencia, where he defeated another three seeds to claim his third career trophy and earned enough points to bump him to a year-ending ranking of #27. That could get him seeded at the Australian Open, not bad for a man who was in triple digits at the start of 2010.

The Winner
And while these guys both put themselves on the map in 2011, Janko Tipsarevic discovered himself a whole new world. The Serb had been ranked in the top hundred for five years, and though he'd scored some big wins over top players -- Fernando Gonzalez at Wimbledon in '07, Andy Murray in Dubai last year -- he'd rarely followed up one success with another and often lost to players ranked well below him.

But he made new push this year, running to the finals at both Delray Beach -- a match he should have won -- and Eastbourne -- where he retired in the third set. Things really picked up after Wimbledon, as Tipsarevic made the semis in Montreal and the quarters at the U.S. Open, his best ever appearance at a Slam. He finally made a breakthrough in Kuala Lumpur, winning the first title of his near-decade long career, and claimed another in Moscow later that month. He was a wildcard at the year-end championships and notched his first-ever win over countryman Novak Djokovic in the round robins. Now #9 in the world, he's a full forty spots higher than where he started the year, and -- more importantly -- a whole heck of a lot more confident in his game.

One to Watch

All these guys saw their star rise markedly throughout the year, but others who haven't yet broken through on the pro Tour used 2011 to set themselves up for what could be an even better new year.

The Nominees
Donald Young was long considered one of the next big stars on the ATP. A former #1 Junior and boys' titleist in Melbourne, he was the youngest player at eighteen to finish 2007 in the top hundred, a year in which he made five Challenger finals -- one of which he won. But he wasn't able to make any consistent headway on the main circuit until this year. He took out Andy Murray at Indian Wells, made the semis in Washington, and beat two seeds on his way to the fourth round at the U.S. Open. He still hasn't won a title, but a trip to the final in Bangkok suggests one might not be that far away.

Rui Machado hasn't climbed quite as far up the ranks as Young -- at #68 he finishes the year nearly thirty spots behind the American -- but he some success on the Challenger Tour helped him jump as high as #59. He claimed four titles in total and caused a few upsets on the main circuit, making the quarters in Costa do Sauipe and even taking a set from Roger Federer in Davis Cup play. He claimed the top non-wildcard seed in the inaugural Challenger Tour Finals, and though he was stopped in the round robins, he claimed enough points to bring him to his highest year-end ranking. He still has a losing record on the big boys' Tour, but expect the Portugal native to cause some more damage in the new year.

The Winner
After starting the year ranked outside the top four hundred and having to qualify for even non-Tour events, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe was the ultimate winner of that first Challenger championship in Sao Paulo. He also scored trophies in Shanghai & Bangkok and notched his first wins on the main Tour, beating Nikolay Davydenko in consecuitve weeks in Germany. Now ranked #81 in the world and the youngest among the set here, he might have the best opportunity to make waves in 2012.

Best Comeback

It's always nice to see a once-great player return to glory after time off -- for whatever reason. Some have to deal with injuries, others with a stretch of bad luck, a couple with personal issues. But despite some big obstacles a few players this year were able to turn around some long losing streaks, and a couple ended 2011 in their best shape ever.

The Nominees
Alex Bogomolov isn't technically a come-"back" -- having only barely cracked the top hundred at the turn of the century, he didn't really have much to return to. But a suspension from the game and a messy divorce kept him off the pro Tour for most of the late 2000s, so his comeback is arguably more literal. Ranked #167 at the start of the year, he beat Juan Ignacio Chela at Wimbledon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati and Andy Murray in Miami. Now #34 at twenty-eight years of age, he's probably playing the best tennis of his career -- kinda makes you wonder where he'd be if he hadn't taken those years off.

One-time top-twenty player Dmitry Tursunov won the first title of his career in 2006, and steadily improved the quality of his play and the stature of his statues over the course of the next several years. But an ankle injury in 2009 forced him to retire in three tournaments during the second half, and ultimate surgery took him out of the game after the U.S. Open. By mid-2010 he'd fallen out of the top five hundred and found himself having to qualify for events like Los Angeles and Bangkok. But he got back on track by the end of the year, making the semis in St. Petersburg, winning a couple Challengers in 2011 and finally taking the title in 's-Hertogenbosch, beating three higher-ranked players in the process. He ends the year at #40 in the world, and with a few solid wins in the first quarter, I wouldn't be surprised to see him seeded at the Majors by the spring.

A little more on the radar was the return of the big man, Juan Martin Del Potro. One of the few players able to break the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal stranglehold on the Slams last decade, the six-foot-six Argentine missed most of the 2010 season after wrist surgery and fell from a high of #4 in the world to #485 this February. But he rebounded quickly, making the semis in both San Jose and Memphis, and trounced Janko Tipsarevic in a Delray Beach final he should have lost. One more title and another final, plus a near-defeat of David Ferrer in the Davis Cup championships, helped him rise up to #11 to end the year. And if he stays healthy he could regain the momentum he'd so unceremoniously lost a year ago.

The Winner
While each of these guys certainly were successful in climbing out of their respective holes, Kei Nishikori far exceeded even his best previous performances. After making the biggest ranking jump of 2008, when he ended the year at #63, elbow injury took him out of the game the following year. He was quick to pull his game together, though, and after a few unranked weeks in 2010, spent enough time toiling on the Challengers' Tour to crack double digits at the start of the year. A run to finals in Houston and Basel -- where he became the only non-top ten player to break Novak Djokovic's game in 2011 -- helped push him to #25 in the world, a comeback that should reassure any player who ever gets sidelined.

Least Follow-Through

For every tale of encouragement, of course, there is one of disappointment. While I'm not ready to write off anyone listed here quite yet, the big bang with which they kicked off the year certainly seemed to sputter out.

The Nominees
Ivan Dodig had a bit of a breakthrough early in 2011. Ranked eighty-first at the time, he was the only man to take a set off Novak Djokovic in Australia. He went on to win his first career title a few weeks later in Zagreb and made the semis in Barcelona with a win over Robin Soderling. After a runner-up trophy in 's-Hertogenbosch helped propel him to a career-high ranking of #32 in the world, though, we haven't seen a lot from the Croat -- he managed a win over Rafael Nadal in Montreal, but also notched eight first-round losses in that time. If he doesn't turn around his game quickly, that ranking will fall quickly in the new year.

Jurgen Melzer made most of his move last year, when the 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist really started racking up the points that brought him to #8 in the world this past April. But though he made a couple nice runs during the clay court season -- the semis in Monte Carlo, quarters in Barcelona and Hamburg -- he hasn't won more than two matches at an event since July and actually posted a losing record on the year. Now out of the top thirty, Melzer is really having his most success on the doubles court -- but it doesn't make me stop wishing for the days he rocked at singles too.

The Winner
Strangely though, the recipient of this award is actually at his highest career ranking as the year ends. Alexandr Dolgopolov stormed onto the scene early in the winter, beating Sam Querrey in Brisbane and stunning Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling in Melbourne, where he was ranked #46. He made the final in Costa do Sauipe a few weeks later and, by the time Roland Garros rolled around, had earned the twenty-first seed. He did claim his first title in Umag, but he also had three separate stretches -- one in each the spring, summer and fall -- where he couldn't win a match. Currently #15 in the world, he'll have a bunch of points to defend from the start in 2012 and, if he doesn't, his time near the top could be very short-lived.

Greatest Letdown

From one set of bad news to another, these players didn't necessarily end their year on a bad note, but they might have expected to accomplish a little bit more in 2011.

American stalwart Andy Roddick had finished every year since 2002 in the top ten until this one. Falling for a couple weeks out of the top twenty, he was able to raise his play enough by the end of the year to finish at #14. He pulled off a solid win over David Ferrer at the U.S. Open and upset Nicolas Almagro to reach the Shanghai quarters, but with his only title coming -- just barely -- in Memphis at the start of the year, the era of his headlining U.S. tennis may be over. And I wouldn't be surprised to see his eleven-year title streak come to an end next in 2012.

The Winner
Now I know I've never been a big fan of Andy Murray, but even I have to admit the Brit had one of the best chances of his career to win a Major this year. It's easy to excuse the fact that he was twice before a runner-up to the great Roger Federer, but when he met what should have been an exhausted Novak Djokovic in the Melbourne final this year, he was probably the odds-on favorite. After that loss he didn't get another win until April, and though he ended the year winning three titles in Asia, injury forced him to withdraw during the London championships. He did have his best performances at the Majors, though, so that first trophy shouldn't be far away, but I'm sure many expected that seal would already be broken.

Biggest Surprise

The Winner
I guess I really shouldn't be shocked to realize Roger Federer is not one to lie down quietly. But the dramatic way in which he turned his year around should go a long way to silence those who thought his career was nearly over.

It's not that he had a bad year by any standard, but after his quote-unquote dismal start to the year -- he only won one title from January through September, and lost the only Grand Slam final he played -- he "tumbled" down the rankings to #4 in the world, his lowest in eight years. With no big trophies on his 2011 mantle and only a month left in the season, he was in danger of marking his least prolific year since 2001.

But then autumn rolled around and the tide shifted squarely into his favor. He won his two Davis Cup rubbers and sailed easily to his fifth title in Basel. He followed that up by capturing his first Paris crown, one of the few events he'd never won before, and of course capped off the year with a record-breaking sixth year-end championship. Now riding his own win-streak, seventeen straight matches since the U.S. Open, he'll begin 2012 with the best momentum on Tour and might just achieve the goal of getting back to #1.

Gutsiest Win

The Winner
Commentators called it the shot heard around the world.

Five-time U.S. Open champ Roger Federer was serving at 5-3 in the fifth set of his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic and had built a 40-15 lead -- two match points. After squandering a two-set lead, it finally seemed the Swiss would end the new #1's hope of returning to the New York final. But Djokovic ripped a forehand return of serve so perfectly placed, Fed couldn't even make an attempt to get it -- the slightest change in swing, wind, anything would have sent the winner wide and ended the match there. Of course, Nole went on to win the next point, that and the next three games and the championship two days later.

Coming back from a two-set deficit was gutsy, saving match point against a legend was gutsy, making that particular shot was gutsy. After such a strenuous effort -- both physically and mentally -- I usually wouldn't give a player the advantage in his next match. But Novak Djokovic proved that, when he's in form, he's got everything it takes to face down any opponent.

Doubles Team of the Year

It's hard to give the Bryan brothers, year-end #1's for the fourth time in five years and the winning-est doubles team in history, a second place finish here. Certainly with eight more titles in their trophy case, two of which were Slams, they were one of the most prolific teams on Tour and show little sign of letting up anytime soon. But their opening round loss at the U.S. Open -- the first time they lost so early at a Major since 2001 -- and a relatively under-the-radar year lead me to push them down just a notch and give this award to one of the most surprising teams on the circuit.

The Winners
Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski were the unlikely finalists at the year-end championships, seeded last in London. One of the more loyal teams on the circuit, the Poles have been winning tournaments together since 2003. They were actually Tour trophy-less in 2011, but claimed a Challenger event in Sopot and made their first Grand Slam final in New York, beating both Paes/Bhupathi and Bopanna/Qureshi on the way. And at the Barclays championship, they eked out a nail-biter against Nenad Zimonjic and Michael Llodra and easily handled the Indo-Pak pair to make the semis. Though they couldn't avenge their round robin loss to veterans Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi to claim the title, they at least pronounced to the world there are a couple more teams out there to watch, and so they get this prize just for their "underdog" appeal.

Player of the Year

I don't think there's any surprise here -- though things sure got a little hairy at the end there.

The Winner
Year-end #1 Novak Djokovic was barely beatable for the first eight months of the year. He tromped to the title at the Australian Open, stunned Rafael Nadal on his "home" turf in both Madrid and Rome, and compiled a formidable 42-0 record before finally succumbing to Roger Federer in the French Open semis. Before the year was done he'd claimed ten titles in total, three Grand Slams and five Masters 1000 events, and ripped a hole through the Roger/Rafa stranglehold on the top rank.

The last quarter of the year was a different story, however. A nagging shoulder injury and what must have been a year's worth of exhaustion finally caught up with him -- he retired during a Davis Cup rubber, fell in the Basel semis to Kei Nishikori and withdrew form Paris before the quarters. At the year-end championships, which he'd qualified for back in May, he survived a scare in his first round robin against Tomas Berdych, but lost to both David Ferrer and countryman Janko Tipsarevic after that, ending his stellar season on a slightly sour note.

There's no questioning that Djokovic deserves all the accolades he got this year. But compare him to his contemporaries -- Rafael Nadal who scored eleven trophies in his breakout 2005 year, Roger Federer who claimed twelve in '06 -- and to legends -- Guillermo Vilas held a forty-six match win streak in 1977, and Martina Navratilova once went seventy-six straight -- and we start to come back to earth a little. Hopefully it won't be a quick fall to reality -- with thousands of points coming off his ranking from the get-go, there is the good chance he won't be able to defend all, or even the majority, of them. It would be a shame to see Nole fizzle out after climbing so high. But if he uses the next few weeks off to rest up and get better, he could very well make 2012 "Year Two of Nole".

So there you have it -- my picks for the best and worst of tennis in 2011. Who knows whether players' good luck will continue into the new year, or if the laggards will turn everything around. But one thing's for sure -- they all did their part to make this year a pretty stunning one for the sport.

And if we get action half as good next season, I'll consider us all pretty lucky.

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