After the first grand slam of the year is now completed, and now that Roger has once again showed that he is the dominant force in tennis, we can look at who will be the main challengers to Roger in the coming months. A grand slam normally gives a good indication of who the top players are at the moment. Last year Del Potro made a big statement when he won the US Open, and now Andy Murray has also made a statement by reaching the final of the Australian Open. So lets look then at who is Roger’s main rivals these days:
1) Del Potro
Winning the US Open last year was no fluke from Delpo. Many people think that Roger played a bad match that day, but I am of a different opinion. I don’t think he played a bad match, but I do think there was one or two points on which decided the match, and on those points Roger was not as sharp as he usually is. It was an emotional year for Roger and I just think he was a bit mentally tired, which Delpo took advantage of very well. The window of opportunity for Delpo was still extremely small. Delpo showed in the Masters Cup later in the year that it was not a fluke win, when he beat Roger in the Masters Cup again. He also gave Roger one hell of a tough match in the French Open semi-finals earlier in the year, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he got tired, the result may have been different.
I think Delpo has the kind of game that can give Roger a lot of problems. In their last three matches Roger has really looked uncomfortable against him. This is because Delpo can literally overpower anyone, even the GOAT. The guy has the biggest game I have possibly ever seen. He has a big serve, maybe the biggest forehand the game has ever seen, and he doesn’t hold back on the backhand either. He has the heavy artillery to put the best of them under huge pressure, as he showed by making short work of Rafa in the semi-finals of the US Open. I mean he blasted the best defender in the game right off the court. Having said that, he did disappoint me a bit at the Australian Open. He was a different player from what he was at the US Open. It just looked like the pressure of being a grand slam champion got to him.
But he is also just 21 years old, and I still expect him to win many slams in the future. He just has to learn to deal with the pressure of being a favorite at the slams, in which case he will once again become a thorn in Roger’s side. For Roger’s sake I hope that doesn’t happen to soon, because he is one guy that can stop Roger from winning the grand slam this year. He is very dangerous on clay, and I definitely see him being a French Open champion in the future. It could even happen this year, but then he would have to go back to the relaxed, free flowing player he was before the Oz Open this year. The only thing that can stop him from being a multiple slam winner and a thorn in the GOAT’s side, is himself. I have always thought that he is mentally very strong, and I think it’s just a case of learning to deal with the pressure of being the favorite at slams for him to become a consistent threat.
I think in the future Delpo may just become The biggest threat for Roger. He is one of the new breed of young players who are tall and can hit any player off the court when they are on. I’m a little worried for Roger because I don’t think he has found a way yet to beat Delpo when he is on. Roger’s first serve percentage drops against Delpo because he has such a long reach on the return. From what I have seen, it’s very hard to ace him or get free points off the serve, which is an important part of Roger’s winning strategy. I think Roger feels so much pressure on serve against Delpo, which is why he starts missing first serves. People who don’t know any better thinks Roger lost the US Open final because he was not making many first serves, but there was a reason he didn’t. Delpo but immense pressure on him with his returns and started dominating the rally right away.
With Rafa not what he used to be, I think Delpo has the potential to become Roger’s main rival in the future. I think when both these players are at their best you have the potential for one hell of an encounter, like we saw at the US Open, although like I mentioned before Roger was just a little mentally tired after an emotional season.
Andy Murray has taken a while to settle, and that is no surprise with all the pressure that his been thrusted upon him by the Brits. He will soon turn 23, and it has been a slow but steady improvement from him over the years. You could see from his tears at the Oz Open final ceremony, that it has not been an easy road for him. But slowly but surely he is closing in on his first grand slam title and becoming a big threat at the majors. Like Roger said, Murray happens to play in a very tough era, and had it not been for Roger himself, Murray may already have had his first slam title. Roger also said that Murray is too good not to win a slam. I think Murray will eventually win a slam, but it may still take some time. Roger has shown once again Down Under that he will still be very tough to beat in the slams for some time to come.
But by making the final of the Oz Open and giving Roger a tough match, I think Murray has made a statement and will be one of Roger’s main rivals in the future. There is still room for improvement for Murray though. As you know, I predicted that Murray would feel the pressure in the final again, and even though he played pretty well, I think he could have at least salvaged a set out of the match. In key moments Murray missed some easy shots and was not attacking enough overall. He still has some way to go if he wants to put Roger under the kind of pressure that Delpo has been doing. Murray’s strength is his ability to make his opponent play his game and he feeds off their weaknesses. He does not have the big game that Delpo has that can put Roger under constant pressure. The match will always be on Roger’s racquet when they play, which is bad news for Murray.
Even if he played as attacking as he could against Roger and took all his opportunities, it’s still very doubtful whether he could have beaten Roger in the Oz Open final. When Roger is playing well he is just a better player then Murray. Simple as that. And that is of course no shame. Only Rafa has really been able to beat Roger in the slams on a consistent basis, and that was mostly on clay. Roger has now won the last three matches against Murray, which is pretty satisfying for me as a fan. After trailing 6-2 in head-to-head meetings against Murray at one point, Roger has now pulled it back to 6-5. Murray will be a tough rival for Roger in the future, but mostly on hard courts. And even then it will be hard for him. I think he has a better chance in the best of three set format, where Roger doesn’t always bring his best game. In the slams it will continue to be hard for him.
Rafa has been plagued by injuries of late, and that is to be expected with his taxing game style and hectic schedule. And it is hard to see how he is going to change that. He can make his schedule slightly less demanding, but he doesn’t seem to learn and he is the kind of player that has to play a lot to stay on top anyway. As far as his game style goes it’s too late to change that, and too hard. So for me it’s hard to see how he will be the threat that he was before. I think come the clay season we may see some sort of a revival, but outside of clay I think it will continue to be hard for him. I keep sticking by this prediction because it is something I have predicted for a long time, long before Rafa started having injury problems. Rafa is a great player, but with his grinding game style it is just very tough to stay at the top. History have shown us this time after time with guys like Chang, Courier and Hewitt.
But you can’t just count him out either as a rival for Roger. I think on clay he will obviously still be a tough player to contend with for Roger, but outside of clay not the threat he was before. As injuries continues to plague him he will keep spending time away from tennis which won’t help his confidence level. There are guys like Delpo, Murray, Cilic, Davydenko, Soderling and other who can beat him now as well, which won’t help his confidence either. In the past it often happened that he got beaten in a tournament before he could meet Roger, and I see that trend continuing unless they start meeting in the earlier rounds, which could well be the case. It looks like Rafa could be ranked 5th come the French Open, which means that we could have a possible Fedal quarter final or semi-final.
This could happen at the US Open as well for instance, where Rafa never made it to the final to meet Roger. I would like this to happen, because it will give Roger a chance to improve his 7-13 head-to-head record with Rafa. Roger’s level hasn’t dropped much since his dominant years, while Rafa’s definitely seems to be dropping. That would give Roger the opportunity to improve his head-to-head record, but at the same time it could make things difficult for him early on in the slams. Rafa will always be a threat to Roger because of their history, one that I hope Roger can improve upon in the future.
Roger has a 13-2 head-to-head record against Davydenko, but Davydenko has won 2 of the last 3 matches against Roger. Even though he lost the most important match at the Australian Open recently, he still gave Roger his toughest match of the tournament. Davydenko is now the same age as Roger, and he is playing the best tennis of his career now. The match in the quarter finals of the Australian Open was worthy of a final. If Davydenko keeps this new found belief in his own abilities up, he can definitely become a big threat in the majors. He can also keep giving Roger problems in the three set format, if Roger does not bring his A game. In the slams it will be harder for him against Roger, as it is for everyone else. If Roger plays like he did in the Australian Open, he is unbeatable for everyone.
In fact if he keeps playing like that he has a very good chance at winning the grand slam this year. The only place that he could probably be stopped in that mode is at Roland Garros by Delpo or Rafa. It will also be interesting to see Davydenko fares on the dirt now. He could be a real threat come the clay season, and could be a real threat at the French Open. Davydenko has shown that he is not scared of the GOAT anymore, and should Roger be slightly off his game, Davydenko will be there to take advantage.
Djokovic has shown some good form during the latter part of the season last year, and he is now the nr. 2 player in the world for the first time. That doesn’t make him the biggest threat to Roger though. Djokovic has beaten Roger only once in a slam, and that was when Roger had mono and was far from his best. The only time I saw Djokovic beating Roger when Roger was actually playing near his best, was in the final of Montreal in 2007. When Djokovic won that match I thought the two of them will have one hell of a rivalry, but since then Djokovic has disappointed me somewhat. I just think that Djokovic lacks a bit in the mental department. Except for that loss in the 2008 Oz Open, Roger has beaten Djokovic with relative ease in the slams. Djokovic himself has not been to the final of a slam since he won the 2008 Oz Open.
To me it just looks like he has stagnated. He is still getting steady results, but nothing spectacular. He doesn’t seem to step it up when it really matters. I think for Djokovic to become a real threat to Roger, he has to work even harder at his fitness and become mentally stronger. Until he does that he won’t stand much of a chance in the really important matches.
So that’s it, the 5 guys who I think will be the biggest threat to Roger for some time to come, and no surprise that they are also the next 5 guys on the rankings behind Roger. The rest of the current top 10, Roddick, Soderling, Tsonga and Cilic, are all great players as well, but I don’t see them being as much as a threat as the guys I have mentioned. We all know about Roger’s record with Roddick, while his record with Soderling is similar. In the semi’s of the Oz Open he showed what he can do against Tsonga, and although Cilic made an impressive run at the Oz Open, I don’t see him being much of a threat to Roger yet. People forget what a strong era of tennis this is, just because Roger is making it look so easy to dominate. Many guys in this era could have won a slam or more slams had it not been for Roger, and to a certain extent Rafa, ruling the slams with an iron fist.
The haters have even gone as far as to call this a weak era, in their desperation to make the GOAT’s achievements less impressive. But pay them no mind, tennis is getting stronger and stronger all the time. It’s becoming more competitive and professional all the time, which makes Roger’s achievements even more impressive. But in the end, if the GOAT keeps playing like he played in the Oz Open this year, rivals won’t mean all that much, because he will keep racking up the slams at will.