January 1, 2020

2020 Vision: Just One More Thing...Or Four

Okay, I lied. I said yesterday would be the last in my series of 2020 outlook posts, but turns out I have a little more left in me. So I decided to kick off this year with a couple predictions -- some wild and outlandish, others more predictable...or at least attainable. And all are things I'm looking forward to big time in 2020. Sure, there's no reason any or all of them should come true. But if there's ever a time to declare with complete confidence something that may never happen, it's at the dawn of a brand new decade.

#1) Someone not named Rafa, Roger, or Novak wins a Major

To be fair I started laying the groundwork for this in my first post in this thread, so I might as well get the ball rolling on it. But instead of looking at some of the new hot shots on the scene -- the handful of youngsters in the top ten who've already made solid showings on the big stages. But instead, today, I'm going to look at a couple other contenders who, admittedly long shots, have the talent that can bring home the prize.

Let's start with Juan Martin Del Potro, who of course already knows what it's like to taste Grand Slam glory. But since that miraculous day in 2009, his career has had some real ups and down. Plagued by one injury after another, it feels like he's spent more time off the court than on in the past decade. Still, he always seems to claw his way back to the elite ranks -- the 31-year-old (when did he get that old?!) has fallen out of the top two hundred twice after being sidelined, even dropping to quadruple digit rankings in 2016, but plowed himself back into the top ten both times. During his comebacks he's picked up more than a few titles, even winning the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and reaching the U.S. Open final in 2018. He's currently in recovery again, though -- a knee injury taking him out of action since this past June. We don't yet know when he'll get back to work, but when (if?!) he does, you can bet he'll come out fighting and could do some damage -- hopefully to the favorites, and not to his own body.

My other choice comes from the other end of the spectrum -- ten years younger, much less experience -- but scads of raw talent nonetheless. American Frances Tiafoe first hit my radar during the 2016 U.S. Open when, ranked #125 at the time, he took John Isner to five sets in the first round. Isner and five sets wasn't so much of a surprise -- he's gone the distance 30 times, and has lost most of them, which seems excessive -- but the then-teenager's shot-making was. And he's built on that strength in the years since. He picked up his maiden title in 2018 in Delray Beach and slugged his way to the quarters in Melbourne this past season, notching wins over Kevin Anderson, Andreas Seppi, and Grigor Dimitrov in the process. He's still on the outskirts of the sport's very best -- at #47 in the world, he's got some work to do to be seeded at the Majors -- but it's often this tier of players that can really break through. Maybe not in Melbourne, but something tells me we're going to be seeing a lot more of Tiafoe this year. And besides, it's about time an American brought back a title.

#2) Vika re-enters the top ten

These days, former world #1 Victoria Azarenka has been more of a force on the doubles court than in singles -- she made the final at the U.S. Open with Ashleigh Barty and claimed a title in Acapulco with Shuai Zheng -- but she's still out there fighting for solo glory. While she hasn't won a trophy since Miami in 2016, she had some solid wins this past season, beating the likes of Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, and Angelique Kerber, and made her way to the finals in Monterrey. She's currently ranked #50 in the world, about where she was at the start of the year, and she doesn't have a ton of points to defend in the early part of the season. And while she pulled out of the Australian Open for "personal reasons", sparking rumors of retirement, her camp insists she'll be back on court later in the year. So if she can get some momentum on her side early, there's no telling how high she can climb.

#3) The next big thing emerges

We had our share of youngsters crash the party this year -- from Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, to Bianca Andreescu and of course Coco Gauff -- reminding us of those days when teens ruled this sport. And as the field of veterans age it's only going to become more plausible for these guys and gals to take over. So let's look at some of the possibilities.

Nineteen-year-old Dayana Yastremska was the woman who made it highest up the rankings this year, thanks to titles in Strasbourg and Thailand. And those trophy runs were no walks in the park -- she beat Caroline Garcia and Aryna Sabalenka for the former, and Garbiñe Muguruza for the latter. She's even scored some wins at the Slams, reaching the fourth round in her first Wimbledon main draw. Now ranked #22 in the world, the Ukrainian is no longer the obvious underdog in her matches, and so may get the benefits that come with seeding. But she'll also be more in the spotlight so pressure will be on her to deliver. But a couple good performances could go a long way in establishing her spot in the top ranks.

Another teen who did a lot to prove her mettle in 2019 is American Amanda Anisimova, who won the U.S. Open as a junior in 2017. She also won her first WTA title this year, getting the trophy in Bogotá as the sixth seed, but she didn't have to face anyone ranked higher than #138 in the world. Her bigger successes, though, came on the bigger stages -- she took out Sabalenka and Lesia Tsurenko at the Australian Open and reached the semis at Roland Garros by beating Sabalenka again, as well as Simona Halep. The eighteen-year-old slowed down a bit towards the end of the season, only playing three events after Wimbledon and winning just two matches, so she's going to have to defend the majority of the points that got her to #24 in the world early on in the year.  Whether or not she can withstand the pressure, she certainly seems like she has what it takes to stick around for some time.

But my top pick to really upend the status quo may be the lowest ranked teen in the top hundred. Anastasia Potapova was once the top-ranked Juniors player and 2016 Wimbledon Girls' champ over Yastremska. Currently ranked in the nineties, and a bit off her career high of #64, she only played a handful of WTA-level main draws this year. But she shocked Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, and while she lost her first match at the U.S. Open, she more than held her own -- and impressively kept her cool -- against technical underdog but clear crowd favorite Coco Gauff. She'll still to qualify for most of the big events, but given the way she's played under pressure, and the talent she's clearly shown, I imagine she'll earn her way into those draws in short order.

#4) A reckoning for John Isner

I mentioned above how we shouldn't be surprised to see John Isner be pushed to fifth sets by his opponents, but let's take it a step further. For a player who's so long been the top-ranked American in the sport -- he's closed out every year since 2011 in the top twenty -- he struggles to break serve of most players and contests tiebreaks in more sets than he should (more than 700!), especially given the fact that he's consistently one of the best servers out there. He has the highest career Serve Rating of any ATP player, has won more service games than anyone save Ivo Karlovic, and fires off an average of more than 18 aces per match (third all-time). But he's only won ten percent of his return games (Roger Federer, meanwhile has won 27% and Rafael Nadal 34%).  As far as the Majors go, his legacy will forever be that Wimbledon first round in 2010 and never his actual successes -- he's made only one Slam semifinal in 45 tries and, no surprise here, went 50 games in the deciding set, which this time he lost. His opponents, even the low-ranked ones, are slowly but surely figuring out how to play his game and take more points off his serve than they give up, and that will eventually catch up to him. And I wouldn't be surprised if that happens sooner rather than later.

Okay, now that's it, I promise. And just in time too -- the 2020 season officially kicks off tomorrow across Australia with the inaugural ATP Cup. And the first Grand Slam of the year is only a few weeks away, so keep coming back for coverage of all the action!

No comments: