In the final article of our offseason series, we look forward rather than backwards and unfurl a series of predictions for the season to come.  Will we go 11 for 11 in ’11?

1) Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

2) Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

3) Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

4) Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Novak Djokovic celebrates Davis cup HAIRCUTS! NOVAK DJOKOVIC, TEAM SERBIA CELEBRATE DAVIS CUP FINAL VICTORY

5) Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

6) Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

7) Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

9) Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

10) Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

***

Trying not to contradict anything that we said above, we now present the Slam champions of 2011.  Rest assured that we didn’t just pull names out of a hat.  We pulled them out of Serena’s mysterious cast.

Australian Open:  Djokovic, Clijsters

Roland Garros:  Nadal, Stosur

Wimbledon:  Nadal, Serena

US Open:  Federer, Sharapova

Happy Holidays!  After celebrating the first Christmas of this blog, we return next week with a Hopman Cup preview and more.

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