In the calm pre-AO days, I was curious how the no. 5-8 players (Ferru, Berdy, DelPo, Tsonga) would fare at the first Slam of the year. We’ve now reached the point at which the draw has been narrowed down to 4: for the second consecutive year, the top 4 seeds advanced to the SF. The notable difference this year is that Ferru has taken Rafa’s spot. Quite fittingly (but maybe not predictably), Ferru is the only player of the currently no. 5-8 ranked players who are still left in the draw. What can we say about the no. 5-8 ranked players, based on their AO performances?
Ferru: Ferru built on his incredible 2012 season with a dramatic comeback win over his compatriot Nico in the QF. For the record, Nico was the better player for the first two sets and he served for the match three times. Ferru was there for the taking. However, Nico’s combination of nerves and the seemingly inevitable cramping/injury that followed, effectively shut the door on his chances. Ferru, to his credit, picked up his level of play in the 5th set, which is what winners do (sometimes, the tennis gods have a way of illustrating that lesson in excruciatingly painful detail).
In any case, Ferru will play Novak in the SF (H2H is a respectable 5-9 in Novak’s favor), while Nico suffered a tear in his left abductor and is doubtful for the R1 DC tie. Ferru will move up to the no. 4 ranking (displacing Rafa, who is now no. 5).
Novak has looked razor-sharp so far, which places the burden squarely on Ferru’s shoulders. Ferru should channel the form he showed at the WTF in ’11, where he last defeated Novak (remember Ferru’s famous racquet shrug after winning?)
Ferru occupies an interesting position: He is clearly ahead of Berdy, DelPo and Tsonga, yet he’s generally not as successful as they are against the likes of Novak, Fed and Muzz in a big tournament. In that sense, he’s the opposite of former no. 5 Robin Soderling, who was capable of pulling off a big upset at a Slam, yet was still vulnerable to the big-hitting games of Berdy, DelPo and Tsonga. It will be interesting to see if Ferru can break the mold against Novak in the SF.
Ferru will also need to defend his Golden Swing points as Rafa will soon make his awaited comeback. The crucial question is whether or not Ferru can secure his top 4 seeding at Slams/Masters throughout the year, or whether Rafa will reclaim that position in time.
Berdy: Berdy defended his AO QF points, after losing to Novak in four sets. Last year, Berdy played a memorably high-quality match in the QF against Rafa. Whatever expectation there was for a follow-up this year was shut down when Novak came out strong against an UFE-ridden Berdy. A brief lapse in Novak’s focus gave room for Berdy to find his game in the 2nd set. However, Berdy was still a touch too erratic for Novak in the 3rd and 4th sets.
Quality-wise, I’d rate Berdy’s match last year against Rafa much higher than this year’s QF. As it is, he maintains his no. 6 ranking and he gains a slight cushion ahead of DelPo (due to the points DelPo will lose after his R3 loss this year). Berdy had two upset wins in 2012. He defeated Muzz in Monte Carlos and Fed at the USO QF. While his DC trophy may have sparked discussion of a possible resurgence from the big Czech, he’s started out the season playing a bit erratically, although he was consistent to his ranking at the AO. At least he hasn’t moved backwards.
DelPo: DelPo played surprisingly flat against a zoning Chardy in R3, which led to a big upset when the unseeded Chardy staved off DelPo’s comeback to win in five sets.
To Chardy’s credit, he backed up his upset over DelPo with another small upset over 21st-seed Andreas Seppi. Side story: Chardy suffered a long protracted legal battle with his former coach, who had sued him for unpaid wages related to a contract Chardy signed when he was 18 y.o. The legal battle was an off-court distraction that took Chardy back to the Challenger tour, as he contemplated ending his career. So it’s nice to see Chardy reaching his 1st QF at a Slam (even if he did fold quite quickly and predictably to Muzz).
Mats Wilander, who is a connoisseur in the delivery of withering criticisms, made strong comments about DelPo’s performance in Melbourne:
“For Del Potro, I can’t say too much regarding his season. I don’t think he’s found his reason for playing tennis this year.”
We must learn to take Mats’s quotes with a grain of salt. I understand the sentiment of his statement but I’d wait until RG before questioning whether DelPo has a crisis of the heart and mind regarding his “reasons for playing tennis.” Remember, Mats is the guy who once questioned Fed’s anatomy after Fed endured a thorough loss to Rafa at the 2006 RG final.
It’s a testament to DelPo’s consistency in 2012 that his R3 loss was as surprising as it was. He’d reached 3 QFs and a R4 at Slams, with his only losses coming at the hands of higher-ranked players. What happened at the AO this year? DelPo played fantastic tennis in R1-R2, only to have a drop of form in R3, in contrast to previous Slams, where DelPo seemed to play better in the later rounds. Perhaps he will better calibrate his level of play at future Slams, in order to avoid early upsets.
DelPo has to regroup his form quickly, as he has a big chunk of points to defend on indoor HCs (Rotterdam F, Marseilles title, Dubai SF). He maintains his no. 7 ranking, although Tsonga is starting to close in behind him
Tsonga: Of the players ranked no. 5-8, Tsonga perhaps delivered the greatest performance so far at AO. His QF against Fed (which he lost narrowly in five sets) was a lovely display of attacking tennis.
While Tsonga has always had the talent and the shots to challenge the top players, his lack of consistency was a big problem in 2012 (he went 1-15 against top 10 players). His new partnership with Roger Rasheed (formerly Lleyton Hewitt’s coach) seems to be paying early dividends, as Tsonga started 2013 looking fitter and more focused. He hit 66 winners in the match.
Tsonga served superbly in his match against Fed, with extra points for the brave second serve he used to save MP in the 5th set. Some of the baseline rally points he won showed a sense of purpose that was perhaps missing last year, while his BH seems to have improved. He did make a critical error in the 3rd set TB at 4-5, when he ran around a BH to hit a lame FH that opened up the court for Fed to hit a BHDTL.
To Tsonga’s credit, he kept his resolve after losing the 3rd set TB to win the 4th set and force a decider. It was a high-quality match and one that will keep fans focused on his progress this year. DelPo in particular will need to keep track of Tsonga’s progress (he defeated Tsonga last year in Marseilles, en route to a title, although he later lost to Tsonga in Rome, which gave Tsonga his lone top 10 win in 2012).
If Tsonga wants to become a top star, he will need to take a few PR classes: His comments on female tennis players are both unnecessary and misguided.
In summary, Ferru is carrying on quietly and dangerously (and has moved up a weight class, as he will soon be world no. 4), Berdy is still (as-ever) an open question mark, DelPo is a slightly more volatile stock than he used to be, and Tsonga is probably what people would call a “buy.”
For DelPo, the hope is he shakes off this early upset and keeps aiming for a SF at a Slam in 2013 and a strong showing at the Masters. Tsonga reached the SF at Wimby last year, courtesy of a slightly soft draw. If DelPo keeps playing consistently to his ranking, he can keep knocking on the doors, despite this early setback.