December 30, 2019

2020 Vision: Step Up or Sit Down

With just a couple days left to go in the decade, we're at installment #4 of my story lines to watch in 2020.

Now as I've mentioned, there are plenty of new faces on the scene since I last posted regularly, and I've missed the rise and fall of a lot of players -- what happened to Sara Errani, and how did Jack Sock qualify for the year-end finals in 2017?! But there are some players who still seem to be right where I left them three-plus years ago -- hitting the scene with a ton of promise, always among the contenders, but never quite closing the deal. And with careers that started long ago, it feels like it's about time we started to see bigger things from them, lest they kind of just muddle along among the crowd for a long time to come.

Let's start with Caroline Garcia, who blasted onto the women's tour in 2011, nearly kicking Maria Sharapova out of Roland Garros in the first round. She climbed as high as #4 in the world last year, when she was defending big points from titles in Wuhan and Beijing. But these days she's back in the mid-forties, lower even than the double-digit ranks she's occupied pretty solidly for the last few years, and she hasn't beaten a top-ten player this season. Now 26 years old, she's had more than enough time to find her legs on court, yet despite that early promise she's only made it past the fourth round of a Major once in 31 tries. It sure feels like if she's going to make a move, she better get to it soon.

Grigor Dimitrov, meanwhile, had been a more consistent staple in the top ranks of the sport over the past few years, but hasn't quite lived up to the hype we all had at the start of his career. Long ago referred to as Baby Fed, the Bulgarian no doubt has the talent to hit with the best in the field -- he climbed to #3 in the world and has won nearly 30 percent of his match-ups against his fellow elite. But he's also had a couple of dry spells, going two and a half years without a title after taking the crown at Queen's Club in 2014 and again for the last two years, since he beat out a frankly unintimidating draw for the 2017 year-end championship (see above note about Jack Sock). Before this past U.S. Open, Dimitrov had fallen to #78 in the world, his lowest rank since 2012, but then stunned Roger Federer to reach his first ever semi in New York. He's now back in seeding territory for Melbourne, but he's clearly no longer a baby by any stretch -- at the same age (28) Roger had already passed Pete Sampras for total Major titles. So if he's going to live up to the moniker, he's running out of time.

Then there's Nick Kyrgios. I mean, where do I even begin. Clearly full of innate talent, the twenty-four year old far outplays his rank almost every time he steps on court. He's beaten more top-ten players than he's lost to this year, including Rafael Nadal on his way to a title in Acapulco, and he grabbed a set from Federer at the Laver Cup. But that attitude, man. He was fined $138,000 for his meltdown in Cincinnati and was handed a 16-month suspension. He's verbally assaulted his opponents, their girlfriends, the crowds, the officials, and openly voiced his distaste for the sport. And for those reasons I, and a lot of others out there, have a hard time rooting for him. To some extent, that fuels him. But he actually has fewer trophies than I thought he'd amass by this point in his career, and he hasn't gotten past the quarters of a Grand Slam since 2015. And at some point, even the best bad boys have a breakthrough. So it feels like it's about time Kyrgios had his -- if not, then what's the point?

Lastly I have to bring up the struggle of world #2 Karolina Pliskova. Of course, I understand the irony of saying someone ranked so highly, so consistently -- she's been in the top ten consistently for more than three years and has won a title or more every year since 2013, four this past season alone. Still, she always seems to struggle on the big stages. She's only made one Major final and two other semis, often getting upset several rounds before her seeding suggests she should. She also has only one Masters-equivalent title under her belt -- a win in Cincinnati in 2016, right before that solid U.S. Open run, where she beat Serena Williams in the semis. And she can be spotty -- she has losses this year to players you may not have heard of: Kateryna Kozlova, ranked 85th at the time, Karolina Muchova, 68th, and even her twin sister Kristyna, all the way down at #112. At the same time, she's had some really impressive wins -- she repeated against Serena at the Australian Open this year, proving that win in New York was no fluke. I'd just like to see her perform more reliably when it really matters. After all, with four different women winning the Majors the last three years running, it feels like the opportunity is her's for the taking.

Of course, there's no real time limit for these guys to pull off the big win. Caroline Wozniacki went eight years between her first Grand Slam final loss and that title in Australia last year -- a feat that, coming 13 years after she turned pro, some said might never happen. Still, it would be nice to see them put up some results to justify all the hype around them. And there's never a better time than the present.

Remember to check out the rest of my 2020 Vision and keep coming back for more Tennis Spin all year long! Speaking of Woz, we'll all be watching her farewell tour in January. And there are a couple other good-byes...and comebacks on the radar.

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