A week after the lights turned off at the year’s final major, we assess the five best performers among both the men and the women during the most important eight weeks of the season.  Hoping to be as objective as possible, we ranked both categories solely according to win-loss records.  After each entry, we forecast each player’s performance at the majors in 2011.

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1) Nadal (25-1)

En route to claiming a career Slam, Nadal became the first player in the Open era to win three consecutive majors on three different surfaces.  Most impressively, he regularly elevated his game with the level of his competition, erasing any trace of first-week fallibility with an emphatic second week.  In his three major semifinals and three major finals this year, the Spaniard surrendered just a single set.  Crucially for his confidence, Rafa’s title runs included victories over three of his leading tormentors during his 2009 slide:  Soderling, Murray, and Djokovic.  As he attempts to complete a “Rafa Slam” in Melbourne, his most significant concern might be his knees.  After a similarly spectacular surge in 2008 led to a lean 2009, though, the Mallorcan magician now schedules his appearances more sparingly and heeds the demands of his body more attentively. We expect Nadal to win Roland Garros and one other major in 2011.

2) Federer (20-3)

For the first time since 2004, an entire Slam season passed without a Federer-Nadal collision, and the explanation lay as much in Roger’s decline as in Rafa’s ascendancy.  In all of his Slam losses this year, Federer captured the first set before letting the momentum seep away with uncharacteristically unfocused tennis.  Nevertheless, he lost only to elite foes at this year’s majors  and still intimidates most of his adversaries with the aura of his accomplishments.  Fluid and fearless, his performance in the Australian Open final demonstrated his uncanny ability to summon his best tennis for the grandest stages, while his US Open victory over Soderling showcased his ability to adapt to adverse conditions.  As Nadal begins to encroach upon the GOAT debate, moreover, Federer may shed his complacency and unleash one last majestic surge.  But how much longer can he rely on his reputation to hold off the Fallas of the tour in early rounds, when his competitive desire burns less brightly?  We expect Federer to win one major and suffer one pre-quarterfinal loss in 2011.

3) Djokovic (19-4)

Exiting the Australian Open and Roland Garros with uninspired quarterfinal losses, Djokovic rediscovered his game at Wimbledon and his swagger at the US Open.  At both of the year’s first two majors, he squandered multiple leads before succumbing in five-set epics that exerted too severe a toll upon his fitness.  Nearly upset in the first round at both of the year’s last two majors, the Serb resolutely rallied to survive and then briskly dispatched his next several opponents with seamless, meticulous all-court tennis.  Ever inclined towards the dramatic, Djokovic should seek to replicate this efficiency at future majors in order to preserve his relatively fragile body.  Waxing steadily throughout the summer, his self-belief reached unexpected heights in his US Open semifinal against Federer, arguably the best men’s match of the Slam season.  Although his participation in the Davis Cup final will truncate his offseason, the highly patriotic Serb could gain an additional momentum boost for next year by securing this title for his country.  We expect Djokovic to win one of the hard-court majors in 2011.

4) Murray (16-4) / Tsonga (12-3)

A most unlikely duo, the scowling Scot and the sunny Frenchman alternately dazzled and disappointed their adherents.  Through six rounds in Australia, Murray accumulated stellar statistics and looked likely to capture his first Slam, but these expectations were sharply deflated with his limp performance in the final.  Although equally limp in the semifinals against Federer, Tsonga showcased his athletic brilliance in a blazing five-set shootout with Almagro before somehow finding the energy to outlast Djokovic in another five-setter a round later.  Typically dormant on clay, the Scot and the Frenchman exited Roland Garros without laurels but did reach the second week; in fact, Tsonga attained a bit of distinction as the last member of his nation in the draw.  At Wimbledon, they collided in a memorable quarterfinal that Tsonga probably should have won.  Leading by a set and by a mini-break in the second-set tiebreak, however, he startlingly failed to put away a floating volley and faded thereafter.  That match proved the end of Tsonga’s Slam campaign and might as well have been the end of Murray’s.  After a routine loss to Nadal in the semis, the world #4 endured a second straight first-week loss at the US Open.  (Maybe it’s time to select a new favorite major, Andy.)  We expect Murray to reach two Slam semifinals and Tsonga to reach one Slam semifinal in 2011.

5) Soderling (14-4)

A year after scoring the greatest upset in tennis history, the Swede delivered a worthy sequel by snapping Federer’s Slam semifinal streak.  Few players are more ruthless and seemingly invincible when playing at their best, and a confident Soderling possesses greater belief against the top four than anyone else outside that lofty category.  Throughout their four-set Wimbledon quarterfinal, Rafa looked much more anxious against Robin than the score would have suggested.  So why is Soderling still searching for a first major?  When lacking in confidence, the Swede can lose to anyone, as was illustrated by his first-round loss at the Australian Open and his near first-round loss at the US Open.  Relishing the villain’s role, he may derive greater satisfaction from marquee upsets than from pursuing titles.  As his quarterfinal loss to Federer in New York showed, moreover, he struggles to cope with any external adversity.  We expect Soderling to defeat Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray at a Slam in 2011 without capturing the ultimate prize himself.

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1) Serena (18-1)

Had Serena played the US Open, she might plausibly have matched the 2010 achievements of fellow #1 Nadal.  Winning yet another Australian Open, she displayed her redoubtable survival instincts in escaping a hungry Azarenka in the quarterfinals.  Then, she played the starring role in the year’s most engaging Slam final, which renewed her fierce rivalry with Henin and exposed just enough of her vulnerability to appreciate her willpower.  Even on her least comfortable surface, she nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Stosur before the Aussie rose impressively to the challenge.  Cruising through a largely placid Wimbledon draw, the younger Williams sister faced a set point in only one set and eclipsed the tournament’s previous ace record, set by…Serena Williams.  Relying on sparkling shotmaking and steely focus, her game hasn’t aged nearly as soon as her rivals would hope.  While her schedule has shrunk to a tiny handful of non-majors, her motivation continues to soar during the most important eight weeks of the season.  We expect Serena to win Wimbledon and one hard-court major in 2011.

2) Clijsters (13-2)

Measuring by Slam success, the Belgian already has accomplished more in her second career than in her first.  Clearly most comfortable in North America, she moved seamlessly and constructed points intelligently during her second straight US Open title run.  Particularly impressive was her semifinal win over Venus, in which she steadied her nerves and calmly outmaneuvered the American during the encounter’s climactic stages.  Nevertheless, Kim has yet to win a major outside New York, a fact that will undermine her legacy unless corrected .  Although her victory over archrival Henin at Wimbledon must have provided ample satisfaction, her quarterfinal meltdown against Zvonareva perplexed most observers.  Absent from Roland Garros, the Belgian slumped to an embarrassing loss against an admittedly crisp Petrova at the Australian Open.  More adjusted to her comeback now, she may bring greater intensity to early rounds that may seem inconsequential but can become perilous.  We expect Clijsters to reach two major finals, winning one, and suffer one pre-quarterfinal loss in 2011.

3) Schiavone (14-3)

Transcending her reputation as a fabled Fed Cup warrior, Schiavone lost the first set of her Roland Garros campaign and did not drop another set through the rest of the fortnight.  Unlike so many first-time Slam finalists, she delivered a courageous, flamboyant but not reckless performance in the championship match.  Before that miraculous run, however, the Italian reached the second week of the Australian Open and even won a set from Venus with her textured, unpredictable arsenal.  Still soaked in euphoria after the French Open, Schiavone exited Wimbledon immediately but regrouped more swiftly than one would have expected with a quarterfinal run at the US Open.  Losing to Venus again, this veteran still showed how guile and imagination can trouble even the WTA’s most powerful shotmakers.  Although lightning almost certainly won’t strike twice for the Italian, she seems far from content to fade away into a future of polishing her Roland Garros trophy.  We expect Schiavone to reach at least one major quarterfinal and play at least one scintillating match against a top contender in 2011.

4) Zvonareva/Venus (16-4)

Having reached just one Slam semifinal before this year, the Russian suddenly reached consecutive Slam finals in 2010.  Once affectionately regarded as one of the WTA’s leading head-cases, she was the only woman to reach consecutive finals at any pair of majors this year.  Although Zvonareva won just eight total games in the two finals, her fortnights at Wimbledon and the US Open included victories over Clijsters and Wozniacki, catapulting Vera into a career-high ranking of #4.  Achieving only modest results at the year’s first two majors, she should attempt to consolidate her elevated position with solid performances there before the pressure mounts in the second half.  In a year that witnessed widespread struggles among her more renowned compatriots, Zvonareva represented a ray of hope for Russian tennis.  Meanwhile, Venus suffered no first-week upset at any major and came within a tiebreak of her first US Open final since 2002.  While her erratic serve and forehand ultimately undid her at each Slam, they still can carry her past most opponents on fast surfaces and very nearly carried her past Clijsters in New York.  On the other hand, her alarmingly one-sided loss to Pironkova at Wimbledon probably spelled the end of her grass-court dominance.  We expect both Zvonareva and Venus to reach at least one major semifinal but continue to fall short of a title in 2011.

5) Wozniacki (15-4)

Widely noted for her consistency, the world #2 (nearly world #1) justified that reputation by reaching the second week at every major in 2010.  Reaching  the Roland Garros quarterfinals, Wozniacki demonstrated increased comfort on her least favorite surface in a tense three-set victory over dirt devil Pennetta.  In New York, she responded admirably to the pressure of defending her finals appearance and justifying her top seeding.  Although she fell just short of those lofty goals, the Pole-Dane scored one of the most impressive wins of her career over Sharapova, her first victory over a former #1.  Somewhat concerning, however, was the manner of her losses, which ranged from routine (the hard-court majors) to comprehensive (Roland Garros) to horrific (Wimbledon).  Still just 20, the bubbly blonde should step back for a moment and reset her priorities in order to shield herself from the injuries that already have played a role in her career.  Does chasing a fourth consecutive title in New Haven justify reducing her chances in New York?  We expect Wozniacki to reach a second final at a hard-court Slam in 2011.

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Later this week, we return with an article on Tomas Berdych, who fell just short of securing a position in the men’s top-five list.  Will the Czech bounce, or can he be cashed?  Analysis to come…

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