December 17, 2014

The Most Anticipated Returns of 2015

Despite all the drama and excitement we saw on both the men's and women's Tours in 2014, it sure felt like something was missing on the tennis courts this past year. Plenty of high-profile players were MIA for large chunks of the season as injury kept them on the sidelines and, in some cases, caused precipitous drops in their rankings.

But hopefully all that can be reversed in the New Year -- while it may take some time to regain their footing, any one of these guys or gals has the potential to storm back onto the scene now that they're ready for action. And we'll all be better off for having witnessed their comebacks.

7. Janko Tipsarevic

Tipsy is the only player on this list who didn't take the court at all in 2014 -- after losing to world #808 Karen Khachanov in Moscow last fall, and retiring just three games in to Marcel Granollers in Valencia, he went on leave, ultimately needing two surgeries this year to remove a non-cancerous tumor in his left heel. It was unfortunate timing -- the now thirty-year old Serb had started 2013 in the top ten, having beaten higher-profile compatriot Novak Djokovic in Madrid and making his second straight U.S. Open quarterfinal. He even kicked off last season with some promise, claiming his fourth career title in Chennai and reaching a career best fourth round in Melbourne. But he slowed down noticeably in the back half, winning just seven matches between July and October, just one of which came against a player in the top seventy. He's planning a return to action next month, but it's going to be a tough ask for him to run all the way to another crown in India straight out of the gate -- after all, he's never won the same title twice, even when playing his best. But if he gets some much-needed match play early on in the season, there's no reason to believe it will be much longer before he's back in good form.

6. Maria Kirilenko

To be fair, the twenty-seven year old Russian officially launched her return this year, but she hasn't quite yet made the impact you hoped she would, especially unfortunate given how injury struck just as she was hitting her prime. Long relegated to the bottom half of Slam seedings, she's certainly had some success on the singles Tour, but until last year hadn't won a title since 2008. But after a near miss in the 2012 Wimbledon quarters and a trip to the Olympic Bronze medal round, she finally added a trophy in Pattaya City and withstood four three-setters and two top ten victories to make the Indian Wells semis. Just after Roland Garros last year she cracked the top ten for the first time in her career, but a knee injury hampered the rest of her season and took her off the court for the first quarter of 2014. She has played a handful of events this year, winning just two matches through the U.S. Open, but she showed some progress in Seoul, taking out two seeds on her way to the semis. Still she starts the new year at #189 in the world, so she's not going into many matches as the favorite -- but if she's able to reset during the off-season it's more than possible she could change that quickly. She doesn't have a lot to lose, after all, and that could give her the confidence to really shine.

5. Nicolas Almagro

The veteran Spaniard has been a fixture in the top twenty for years and has consistently delivered on clay courts, winning all twelve of his titles on the surface and even notching a win over Rafael Nadal this spring in Barcelona. But despite seeming to have rebounded from an early-2014 shoulder injury which forced him out of the Australian Open -- the first Major he skipped since 2004 -- he had more problems later in the year. He retired with a foot injury during his first round match at Roland Garros and underwent season-ending surgery late in July. Failing to defend points from last fall -- he'd reached the semis in Tokyo and Valencia in 2013 and the quarters at the Shanghai Masters -- he's tumbled to #71 in the world to end the year. That's just high enough to gain him entry to the kick-off tournament in Doha next month, but without the comfort of a seed at this event, pressure will be on to deliver from the start.

4. Alisa Kleybanova

The twenty-five year old Russian has had a rougher time of it than pretty much all her contemporaries. A top-twenty player at her peak, she was diagnose with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2011 and left the game when she was at her prime. She returned the next season, scoring one all-important win in Miami, spent a lot of time getting match play on the ITF circuit and came back to Tour late last year, reaching the quarters in Moscow and stunning Petra Kvitova this past April in Stuttgart. But disaster struck again early in the summer -- after losing in the first round at Wimbledon, Kleybanova missed the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. She's still eager to get back out there, though, as she told Ben Rothenberg last month, and with career wins over players like Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Jelena Jankovic and others early in her career, she's certainly got the talent to come back swinging again. Hopefully this time it's for good.

3. Rafael Nadal

Most of you would probably argue that Rafa should take the top spot in this countdown, but with a standing claim on a handful of titles, a his record ninth crown in Paris, and a year-end ranking of #3, his absence over the past season was more emotionally palpable than it was actual fact. Still, with a boatload of points to defend -- many of which go on the block early in the year -- he's arguably got the most to lose of anyone on this list. And true fans have a right to be worried -- while he did break his streak of first-week exits at Wimbledon, he also notched his first two losses players born in the 1990s and ended perfect records against the likes of Nicolas Almagro, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Stan Wawrinka. And after wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the U.S. Open and an appendectomy kept him out of the year-end championships he didn't have much chance to redeem himself. He'll be back to defend his title in Doha next month, though, and hopefully he'll put up a fight, if not come away with the title again -- after all, nothing scrubs out the bad taste of disappointing results better than a big win when no one expects it.

2. Victoria Azarenka

Like a couple players on this list, Vika has been on and off the court sporadically in 2014, but by marking her first year in six without a title to her name, she'll be more remembered this year for her absences. After failing to three-peat at the Australian Open and suffering a surprising opening round loss in Indian Wells, she skipped a couple months of play with a foot injury, pulled out of the French Open and fell early at both Eastbourne and Wimbledon. She did manage a decent run to the New York quarters, but still fell short of her runner's-up showing the last two years and finally called it quits for the year because of knee issues. She finishes the season ranked outside the top thirty for the first time since 2006, but will get back to work early next month in Brisbane -- and knowing how much fight is in this girl makes me feel like she's gonna make a strong case to cut that number to shreds.

1. Juan Martin Del Potro

Perhaps the most-missed presence on Tour this year, though, was that of the gentle giant Juan Martin Del Potro who suffered his second season-ending injury at the Australian Open. Though he had yet to recapture the glory of his breakthrough Grand Slam win in 2009, he'd spent much of last season gearing up for something big -- he beat Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on his way to the Indian Wells final, narrowly missed making the championship match at Wimbledon and ended the season with titles in Tokyo and Basel. Back in the top five to start this year, he seemed to pick up where he left off, adding title number eighteen to his mantel in Sydney. But after a shocking second round defeat in Melbourne, he sought treatment for a wrist injury -- the left one this time -- and ultimately, officially ended his season in late February, announcing the next month he'd undergo another surgery to fix it. The six-foot-six Argentine was originally scheduled to return to play after the U.S. Open, but he ended up skipping the fall's Asian swing to get back into competitive shape. Instead he'll retake the court in January, kicking off in Brisbane before heading back to Sydney to defend his crown. It's taken a while for him to rebound in the past, so it's quite possible he falls farther from his current #138 ranking first -- but if DelPo's proven anything over the last five years it's that he's more than capable of staging a huge comeback. And my bet's on him to prove himself quick off the bat.

Of course, as is common with any comeback, it could take a while for any of these guys to perform at their best. But many of them have already relaunched their careers with great success, and there's no reason they all can't do it again in the New Year. After all neither the men's nor the women's Tour has been the same without them.

And as the holidays approach it time for all of us to take a bit of a break -- myself included. But rest assured Tennis Spin will be back in full force in the New Year -- and hopefully all these players will follow quickly after that, swinging just as hard as they always have.

'Til then, have a wonderful holiday season, everyone, and Happy New Year!

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