We continue our backward glance at 2010 by reflecting upon the members of the ATP who crafted seasons that they (and we) should pause to remember even as the new year rushes towards us.

Nadal:  After the first three months of 2010, the Spaniard’s career seemingly hovered at a crossroads.  Starved of titles for nearly a year, he struggled to find his rhythm deep in three-set losses at Indian Wells and Miami to opponents whom he typically defeats.  But a fearsome charge through a depleted Monte Carlo field struck the spark that Rafa needed to revive his confidence just before the most important segment of his season.  The spark soon blazed into flames as he swept the three clay Masters tournaments for the first time in his career and avenged last year’s loss to Soderling in an authoritative Roland Garros final, one of the most stunning performances in his stunning career there.  Dropping just one total set in the Slam finals that he played, Nadal won three consecutive majors for the first time.  Famously fallible in the fall, he even countered that trend by defeating four top-10 foes at the year-end championships before dropping a three-set final to Federer.  Just months ago, the Spaniard’s career seemed in considerable peril.  By jolting from six majors to nine, he has positioned himself to enter the GOAT debate if he continues to carefully manage his physical condition and his schedule.  Qualitatively, in fact, he already has surpassed Federer by adding an Olympic gold medal and the Davis Cup to the career Slam and the #1 ranking.  The Swiss still has a considerable quantitative edge, but the gap should close swiftly in the next two or three years.

Djokovic:  Even shakier than Nadal early in the season, Djokovic surrounded the Dubai title with premature defeats in Melbourne, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Much more gradual than the Spaniard’s revival, the Serb’s awakening began with a Wimbledon semifinal run and continued with a sporadically brilliant duel with Federer at the Rogers Cup.  His momentum didn’t fully reverse until the US Open, where he swept aside the memories of three consecutive losses to Federer at the year’s final major.  In the most dramatic Slam match of 2010, Djokovic saved double match point before outlasting the Swiss star with the fearless shotmaking that won him the 2008 Australian Open.  Consistent although not dazzling during the fall, he conserved his energies for the Davis Cup final.  Effectively required to win both of his matches against France, the world #3 never allowed the visitors a flicker of hope with two comprehensive victories.  Undefeated in Davis Cup singles rubbers this year, Djokovic claimed that his nation’s first title in this team competition represented the most significant triumph of his career.  Objectively, 2010 fell short of the 2008 campaign in which he captured both the Australian Open and the year-end championships.  But the Davis Cup title offers the Serb a platform upon which to build for 2011.  The off-season’s much-lamented brevity will aid him by not allowing his impetus to decay.

Soderling:  The feral Swede likes Paris in the springtime and Paris in the fall.  For the second straight year, he dethroned the reigning Roland Garros champion in a barrage of bone-crushing groundstrokes.  A first-round flop in Melbourne, he recorded respectable but not remarkable results at Wimbledon and the US Open.  Still too erratic and moody to reach the #1 ranking, Sodering took another impressive step forward with his first Masters 1000 title at (where else?) the Paris Indoors, where the menacing trophy seemed designed specifically for him.  A career-high #4 ranking temporarily settled within the Swede’s mighty paws and might well return there early in 2011, considering his lack of points to defend at the Australian Open.  While Soderling failed to preserve the momentum in his mini-rivalries with Federer and Nadal, he consolidated his status as a permanent top-5 contender following his 2009 breakthrough.  If he can harness his weapons a shade more consistently, a major title lies in his future.

Berdych:  After arid years of underachievement, the Czech appeared to have cracked the code in Miami, where he ambushed Federer in the sort of cliff-hanger that he would have lost in previous seasons.  To his credit, Berdych wasted little time in capitalizing upon that triumph, battling past two more top-10 players in Verdasco and Soderling.  Still, one week does not a champion make, so we remained slightly skeptical about Berdych until Roland Garros, when he dispelled doubts by marching to his first career Slam semifinal.  Falling a set short of the final Sunday, he arrived there just one Slam later after a majestic Wimbledon campaign that toppled Federer and Djokovic consecutively.  Struggling to breathe the rarefied air of his elevated status, the world #6 left almost no impact on the second half of the season, which included a crucial Davis Cup loss to Djokovic.  2011 will play a similar role for him as 2010 did for Soderling.  Can he maintain his lofty position beneath the accumulating pressure of expectations?  A credible debut at the year-end championships suggested that his second-half hangover might lift sooner rather than later.

Ferrer:  Once dubbing himself “the least talented player in the top 100,” the diminutive Spaniard should inspire future stars to maximize their potential.  Rewarded for two ATP 500 titles and a Masters 1000 final in Rome, Ferrer qualified for the year-end championships and finished as the world #7, a remarkable feat considering his indifferent serve and straightforward style.  But he competes far more vigorously than many players with greater talent; his intensity wins at least as many matches as his shot-making.  A disappointment at Melbourne and Roland Garros, Ferrer did not disappoint at the year’s last two majors, where he reached the second week on surfaces unfriendly to his grinding game.  Even more impressively, he extended the mighty Soderling to a fifth set at Wimbledon and Verdasco to a fifth-set tiebreak at the US Open.  Squandering a two-set lead in the latter marathon, Ferrer nevertheless played a starring role in one of the season’s most compelling matches.

Melzer:  Few casual fans knew of the left-handed veteran until his implausible semifinal run at Roland Garros, which climaxed with a five-set quarterfinal victory over Djokovic.  Rather than fading afterwards like Ljubicic (see below), Melzer reached the second week at both Wimbledon and the US Open, falling to Federer on both occasions.  The Austrian then ambushed Nadal in a Shanghai three-setter, slapping forehands with uncanny precision and displaying deft technique at the net.  Moreover, he collected the Wimbledon doubles title with Petzschner, creating memories that will warm him through the bitter Austrian winter.  Just outside the top 10 at the season’s conclusion, he still doesn’t represent a legitimate threat at majors or Masters 1000 events, but few contenders other than Federer will want to face him in early rounds.

Gael Monfils Gael Monfils of France during his 1-6,6-7 defeat against  Robin Soderling of Sweden in the final during Day Eight of the ATP Masters Series Paris at the Palais Omnisports  on November 14, 2010 in Paris, France.

Monfils:  The core of a French Davis Cup team that came within one rubber of the title, the acrobatic Frenchman scored victories in that competition over such Davis Cup stalwarts as Ferrer and Nalbandian.  Facing a virtual must-win situation in the first rubber of the final, he defused the dangerous Tipsarevic with exemplary efficiency.  Not unlike Djokovic, Monfils played his best tennis of the season from the US Open onwards, following a quarterfinal appearance in New York with three finals in the fall.  As he did in 2009, the Frenchman electrified his compatriots by reaching the final at Paris Masters.  Saving match points against two different opponents there, his prestigious victims included not only Murray but Federer, whom he never had defeated before.  The numerous detractors of Monfils feel that his bent for whimsical entertainment and relative disinterest in outcomes has little place in tennis.  We disagree, believing that his carefree attitude provides a refreshing antidote to the stoical demeanors so often displayed by the sport’s champions.

Ljubicic:  With one glaring exception, his year proved thoroughly and predictably forgettable.  Yet Ljubicic will remember 2010 for his startling surge at Indian Wells, during which he dispatched Djokovic and Nadal.  Winning his last three sets there in tiebreaks, the Croat relied upon a serve that crashed through this extremely slow hard court with a force that belied his unassuming visage. His first and likely last Masters 1000 title, Indian Wells represented a dome on Ljubicic’s career rather than a foundation for future exploits.  After Federer and other had repeatedly frustrated him at such events, however, he can stroll towards retirement much more contentedly than he could have a year ago.

Baghdatis:  Climbing back into the top 20 after a medley of injuries and dips in motivation, the charismatic Cypriot sometimes recalls Davydenko with his flat, early groundstrokes strikes.  After securing the Sydney title in January, he scored his first career victories over Federer and Nadal, both in tense three-setters that tested his once-suspect nerves.  Still suspect is his fitness, which did not prevent from winning a five-setter against Ferrer in Melbourne but led to his retirement against Hewitt a round later.  The Bag Man still hasn’t learned how to pack lightly.

Michael Llodra Michael Llodra of France during his straight sets victory against John Isner of USA during Day Four of the ATP Masters Series Paris at the Palais Omnisports on November 10, 2010 in Paris, France.

Llodra:  Although his 2010 ended in heartbreaking fashion, he vindicated the ossifying serve-and-volley style with two small titles and a semifinal appearance in Paris.  Before holding three match points against eventual champion Soderling, Llodra upset the resurgent Djokovic and familiar fall fiend Davydenko.  The extremely fast surface in Bercy mirrored his leaping, lunging, darting flair more than anywhere else on the calendar, and the controlled indoor conditions assisted his laboratory-like style.  Defying the stereotypes typically applied to his compatriots, Llodra never fails to expend all of the effort and energy available to him.

American men:  They may have won scant Slam glory for the Stars and Stripes, but the quartet of Roddick, Querrey, Isner, and Fish collected nine titles among them, more than any nation except Spain and an impressive quantity for a tennis power in decline.  Capturing four of those trophies, Querrey trailed only Federer and Nadal in that category, although he has yet to win a tournament of any significance.  Coming within a single victory of the Indian Wells-Key Biscayne double, Roddick won his most significant title since 2006 when he triumphed at the latter event.  Eschewing his beloved carbohydrate-saturated diet, Fish devoted himself to improving his fitness and subsequently reached four finals on grass and North American hard courts.  Outshone in total titles by his compatriots, Isner produced the single most astonishing headline of the year with his three-day hallucination at Wimbledon.  While that match offered little aesthetic entertainment, its rococo statistics and Hollywood-worthy drama ensured that people who didn’t know the meaning of “forehand” or “backhand” knew the meaning of “Isner” and “Mahut.”

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We continue this series with a WTA edition of “seasons to remember” before chronicling “seasons to forget” in both the ATP and the WTA.

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