Archives for December 2015

Top 32: Djokovic was near perfect; Murray consistent, must get better

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No. 4

Stan Wawrinka

In some ways, it’s all about the majors, isn’t it? At the Aussie Open, the then defending champion had reached the semifinal against Novak Djokovic who he had beaten him last year in five classic sets. He was ready to do it again, as in 2015, he had won the fourth set. Wawrinka could fly away in the fifth set. But instead, he quickly crashed and he lost 6-0 in the fifth. Bizarre-o.

Emotionally, Wawrinka can get down on himself. He is a terrific player, but on court, he can drop down into the basement. In February, he won Rotterdam, but then he slipped, for nearly three months. Somehow though, he walked on to Roland Garros, he breathed again and he began to rip the ball, knocking out Gilles Simon, Roger Federer, Jo Tsonga and Djokovic in the final in four sets. He hit winner after winner, jumping high, and smoking his powerful one-handed backhand. Once again, he had risen and he truly believed that he could out-slug anyone and that he did.

The 30-year-old Wawrinka has won two Grand Slams, and given that his conditioning has improved a lot over the past three years (credit to his coach, Magnus Norman) that he will have a legitimate chance to win another one in 2016. Yes, as he admits, he can go in and out, and he could have been calmer when he went down against Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon (9-7 in the fifth in the quarters), and he could have woken up against his good buddy Federer at the US Open. He looked pretty good during the fall, winning Tokyo, but he lost against Rafa Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer.

Will Wawrinka be more consistent, all year long? That is doubtful, but when he begins to lock in, he can run past anyone.

No. 3

Roger Federer

Five years ago, if the great Federer was unable to win a major, then he would have been heavily criticized. Not now though, as he is 34 years old, and so few fantastic competitors were able to reach two Grand Slam finals, which in a sense, he had a standout season.

Yes, he struggled a bit, being shocked by Andreas Seppi at the Australian Open and Stan Wawrinka overwhelmed him at Roland Garros. However, he knocked out Andy Murray at Wimbledon in the semis, and against Wawrinka, he out-stroked him in the semis of the US Open. Those were gigantic contests. Without a doubt, Djokovic is better than he is now, but in both finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, Federer had chances and if his backhand was more consistent and if he was more forceful returning his serves, he might have been able to win at least one of those matches. ‘Rog’ would have raised a trophy and would have had 18 Grand Slams. Imagine that.

However, Federer only has won 17 Grand Slams (a record by the men in singles) and that is just fine. He was close enough, he will have a chance to do it again in 2016.

Here’s reality though: He has slowed down just a little bit and his serve is excellent, but he cannot overpower the big boys. The right-hander still has the quickest, most powerful and most accurate forehand of all time. It is almost not even close [except with the 14-time champ Pete Sampras]. The amount of his variety is phenomenal, and over the past two years or so, he improved a lot at the net, thanks to his now ex-coach, Stefan Edberg, who loved to charge the net all the time. Federer has an amazing lob, overhead and drop shot.

The Swiss says that he will try to add some new tactics in 2016. He can become impatient, and he can fall off when he isn’t gripping the racket correctly.

Federer won six titles in 2015, which is pretty good. In 2016, he will start at Brisbane (he won last year). Will he be trying a few new tricks? I bet he will, winning or losing. I doubt that Federer will win another major, but he could if he is the right draw and he is feeling it every minute. One way or another, watching Federer will put together another dramatic season.

No. 2

Andy Murray

Props to Murray for helping Great Britain to win the Davis Cup, going undefeated at the singles and the doubles. Heck, if Andy decided to play doubles at the Grand Slam with his lefty brother Jamie, they could win a slew of crowns. But for now it’s all about the singles and in 2015, he was pretty good, but not spectacular.

Sure, he played terrific in winning the ATP Masters 1000 Madrid and Montreal, and he won the ATP 250 at Munich on clay, and the ATP 500 at London/Queens on grass. He scored a win over Nadal in Madrid, and he upset Djokovic at Montreal. But…overall, he lost against Djokovic six times this season, including at the Aussie Open final and Roland Garros; he lost twice against Federer in the semis at Wimbledon and Cincy; and he went down against Nadal in the ATP Finals round robin. Oh, and let’s not forget that the two-time Grand Slam Murray lost to Wawrinka in the ATP Finals in a round robin.

At the very least, Murray was pretty consistent, which is why he is ranked No. 2. He is very smart and he has a lot of variety, which is why he schools the young players.

However, if Murray wants to win more majors then he has to pick it up. His backhand is incredibly steady and powerful, he can crack it wherever he wants to. His forehand is a little stiff, and he needs to loosen it up and he needs to go down the line more. His first serve has improved tremendously over the years, but his second serve can be weak. Murray can chip back his returns, anytime time, anywhere, and he can softly throw in drop shots. Murray is super solid, and he is very efficient at the net, when he wants to come in, which isn’t very often.

He is 28 years old and in the next four years or so, he will have a legitimate chance to win a few more majors, but in order to do so, he has to take more risks, and he has to move forward all the time against the other Big Boys. In 2016, will he be able to disturb Djokovic and out-hit him? We may find out shortly at the Aussie Open final once again.

No. 1

Novak Djokovic

Did the Serbian put together the best season ever? No, not quite, but he was darn close, winning the Australian Open, reaching the final at Roland Garros, winning Wimbledon and the US Open. And let’s not forget that he also won a series of ATP Masters 1000: Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, Shanghai and Paris. Did we forget that at the end of the year he also won the ATP World Tour Finals. Throw in Beijing on an ATP 500, and the 28-year-old had won 11 titles. Wow. It’s not like he put together a bunch of small events, but he decided that he could beat down all the best competitors. He overcame Federer at Wimbledon and the US Open finals when the great Swiss tried to mix him up, fool him, somehow out-hit him. He over-powered Murray in the Australian Open final, when he was stronger, faster and more concentrated. He was steadier and more aggressive against Nadal – four times in 2015 mind you – upending the Spaniard for the first time ever at Roland Garros. And yes, Wawrinka shocked him in the Roland Garros final, when the Swiss was in a zone and he became nervous and he couldn’t get over it.

But so what? For a few days afterward, he was down on himself. He has yet to win Roland Garros on clay, and maybe he never will, but he was very close and when he reaches the finals once again, he can lift up his chin, stare right at has foes, scream, and touch the lines like he will never miss them.

Djokovic has won 10 Grand Slam titles , which is terrific, but he still has work ahead. Federer has won 17 Grand Slam titles, and Nadal owns 14 Grand Slams, so in order to catch them, he will have to continue improve and stay healthy, just like he has since 2011, when he stepped up, he stopped pushing the ball and he began to truly believe in himself.

Look at how much better he has become: back in 2008, when he won his first major at the Australian Open, he was super quick and steady, but his forehand wasn’t very forceful, his serve was a bit weak, and he didn’t love to coming to the net. But he kept on working and now, he his is nearly perfect. His two-handed backhand has always been legendary, his return is phenomenal, knocking massive serves that he can poke very deep; he is swinging his forehand down the line and crosscourt whether its flat or heavy topspin; and he is very efficient at the net. We all know that he never gets tired, he never gets hurt, and even when he isn’t playing well, he manages to find a way.

Back in 1969, Rod Laver won all four Grand Slams. Since then, none of the males have been able to do that, but a few have been to win three majors in a year such as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Can the Serbian do it in 2016? Maybe, because mentally he has shake it off in Paris before he raises the trophy, but at the very least he will be a significant favorite at the Aussie Open, which he has won five times. In order to beat Djokovic, you have to wear him down, somehow, someway. Exactly how, every one has to significantly improve to even get close to him. Right now, Djokovic is domination.

Top 32: Serena triumphs again; is Sharapova really improving?

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Top 32, Nos. 4-1

No. 4

Maria Sharapova

Did Maria have a great year in 2015? No, admittedly, she did not, but it wasn’t a bad year for the former No. 1 and given that she was hurt most of the summer and part if the fall, it was a very decent season. She won Brisbane over Ana Ivanovic; she reached the Australian Open final and lost a tight contest against Serena Williams; she won Rome by beating Victoria Azarenka and Carla Suarez Navarro; she reached the semis of Wimbledon, but Serena was nearly perfect and took her down; she won three matches in the WTA Finals and beat Simona Halep, Aga Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta before she lost against Petra Kvitova. However, in the Fed Cup Final, the Russian turned the tables and overcame Kvitova (which the Czechs won anyway).

Without a doubt, the 28-year-old Sharapova wants to win more majors and big tournaments. Of course the five-time Grand Slam champion has struggled against Serena for the past 11 years — not winning a thing – but she has been able to take down everyone else, and that is pretty darn good. Even though Sharapova was unable to win a Grand Slam this year, she has improved somewhat significantly now. She is no longer afraid to come to the net — which has taken her a solid 12 years while working on it – she is now more comfortable throwing out a drop shot, and she can even slice here and there with her ferocious backhand. She has always had one of the powerful forehands and backhands, she will crush her returns when her foes are popping it up, and physically, her body is substantially stronger and she can play for hours without becoming exhausted.

Can Sharapova win another major in 2016? Of course she can, but she has to continue to improve, like she must change-up her serve and not be so predictable, and she needs to discover which way her foes are trying to fool her when they are serving, especially against Serena, who tricks her all the time. Other than that, if she is healthy, she will go super deep every time out.

No. 3

Garbine Muguruza

Finally, one of the young players had risen and the Spaniard cracked the top 5, and then she ended the season at No. 3. She had a fine fall after she was nervous for a couple of months when she had reached the Wimbledon final and for the first time, the whole world had finally noticed her. After she woke up and realized that she could lock in when she was on the court, she wasn’t hearing the fans chanting at her name. Muguruza concentrated well and she attacked all the time.

This year, she overcame a number of the fine veterans: Radwanska, Caro Wozniacki, Angie Kerber, Pennetta and Kvitova. She managed to hang in when she lost against the mighty Serena in the Wimbledon final.

In the fall, the 22-year-old reached the final of Wuhan, she won Beijing and then she won three matches in the WTA Finals before she finally fell, going down against Radwanska 7-5 in the third. Really, she can legitimately beat anyone when she is on fire and she isn’t missing the ball. She can smoke her forehand and backhand crosscourt and down the line; her first serve is powerful and, unlike many of the young players, she can come into the net and handily put it away. She is always smiling and laughing which is terrific.

Muguruza still has to continue to improve over all, and if she isn’t getting too frustrated when it isn’t her day, she certainly will go super deep and win a couple more huge titles – the Premier 5 once again and possibly winning her first Slam in 2016.

No. 2

Simona Halep

It is so hard to figure out where Halep is going: will she win a major for the first time in 2016 and reach No. 1, or will she fall back?  Over the past two-and-a-half years the Romanian has been a darn good player. She is super competitive, she is incredibly fast and she is very steady. When she is feeling right, she will go for everything, especially her down the line. She can mix up her attack, she can spin it around and she has a tremendous drop shot.

The good news is that when she wasn’t deep into her head and becoming way too emotional, then she can drop off her game, just like at the majors in 2015. She did very little at the Aussie Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but at the US Open, she was so close to winning it all. She out-lasted Azarenka in a classic quarterfinal, and then in the semis against Pennetta, the Italian was much more confident while Halep quickly folded her tent.

Outside of the majors, she put together a number of tournaments: winning Dubai, Indian Wells, the semis of Miami when she nearly upset Serena, and she reached the final at Toronto (she fell versus Belinda Bencic in the final) and another final in Cincy (she lost again versus Serena and it was fairy close). In the fall, she was so-so at best.

Now it’s all up to her. There are times when Halep pushes the ball and there is no way that she can win a major if she does that. She has all the keys, it is whether she can relax and simply go for it. Will Halep win a Grand Slam in 2016? We will find out quickly because Halep loved the hard courts and the Australian Open is wide open.

No. 1

Serena Williams

No one is perfect, not Serena or anyone else, ever. But Ms. Williams played about as well as she ever has, winning three Grand Slams at 2015, beating just about everyone, taking down Sharapova in the Aussie Open final, running past Lucie Safarova at Roland Garros final, and out-hitting Muguruza at the Wimbledon final. She also won Miami by crushing Suarez Navarro, and she won Cincy by overcoming Halep.

When Serena was healthy, she was completely locked in and lethal. She knew what to do all the time. She knew when she wasn’t playing all that well  and then she would decide to change it up. Intellectually, the now 34-year-old would think deep into her brain and she understood how she would disturb her foes.

Look at Paris, which was one of the most difficult tournaments of all time: She was up and down, she was spraying the ball and she was frustrated, but she wasn’t going to go away, and she managed to win five three-setters. Many other player can fold, but she refused to go away and Serena out-thought them once again.

Look at Wimbledon because that wasn’t easy either. In the third round, she was up against Britain’s Heather Watson. Serena was down in the third set, and Watson was playing better than she ever had, but Serena was calm, she took a deep breath and edged her 7-5 in the third. She had to beat her older sister, the five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, and she took her in straight sets, serving and returning absolutely huge. She yanked the aggressive Azarenka in three tight sets. She wanted to make sure that when she faced off against Sharapova in the semis that if she would attack her immediately and that’s what she did. In the final against Muguruza, she knew that the ‘kid’ is dangerous, but that didn’t really matter, all she had to do was to be more solid when the big points came and she won it once again.

However, at the US Open, she had finally began to feel tremendous pressure because the whole world were thinking that she was going to win all four majors in one year. She was no longer calm, and while she was composed enough to beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Venus and Madison Keys, once she came out on court for the semifinal against Roberta Vinci, her eyes were glassy and she was all over the place. She was not being patient, she was erratic and Vinci played wonderfully, beating Serena 6-4 in the third. The extremely upset Serena was gone, deciding not to play for the rest of the year.

Serena owns 21 Grand Slams now. If she doesn’t win at least another major title in 2016, that would be stunning, because since 2012, she has been dominating, grabbing almost every significant tournament and beating every top-10 competitors time and time again.

Was 2015 Serena’s best season ever? No, not for me. She ‘only’ won five tournaments and withdrew from three events. In 2002, she won three Grand Slams and eight titles: Scottsdale, Miami, Rome, RG, Wimby, the US Open, Tokyo and Leipzig. Back then, she was faster and healthier.

When Serena arrives at the Australian Open, she won’t have played in four months (she will play at an exo at Hopman Cup). Clearly, she wanted to rest her body and her mind. She is the favorite every where she goes, but in 2016, if she is going to tie the greatest player ever Steffi Graf at 22 Grand Slams (she won 109 career titles while Serena currently has 69 titles), she must be happy on court once again. If she does, when she eventually retires, she will be called the greatest player ever.

Top 32: Rafael Nadal is ‘only’ No. 5, Nishikori has to be healthy

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The top 32, ATP Nos. 8-5

No. 8

Kei Nishikori

The youngest player in the top 10, Nishikori has years ahead, but is he finally ready to win a major? Possibly, but he has to get a little bit better than that. The Japanese might be the fastest player out there, and he is very forceful with his forehand and his backhand, but mentally, he can become disturbed on court when he isn’t hitting the right way. He does have a fine first serve, but his second serve is marginal, as is his net game.

Yes, he has been able to win a few tournaments – Memphis, Barcelona and Washington – which are just fine. But he wasn’t able to take down the world best. He lost against Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer. At Roland Garros against Jo Tsonga at the quarters, he had a legitimate chance to go further, but he hiccupped.

He is in aggressive person and can hustle, but in 2015, he became hurt again (he is always hurt) and if he wants to go far and win a Grand Slam in 2016, he must be perfectly healthy.

No. 7

David Ferrer

Good for the 33-year-old who keeps going and going. He may not ever be able to win a Grand Slam, but he never quits. Without a doubt, over the years, he should have mixed it up more, returned more aggressively and take over the net, but that is not his way.

In 2015 he won five titles, in Doha, Rio, Acapulco, Kuala Lumpur and Vienna. He wasn’t able to go super deep in the ATP Masters 1000s or the majors, but still, outside of the top 10, he was able to beat back almost all the youngsters.

Maybe in 2016, he will try to change it up a little bit, but that is unlikely because he would rather sit on top of the baseline and whale away until he retires.

No. 6

Tomas Berdych

I am not sure where the Czech is going. Sure, he was fairly consistent in 2015, but is he really going to move ahead? The 30-year-old Berdych has improved over the past 10 years or so. He is smarter; he can be cagey and, while he isn’t that fast, he is pretty strong going baseline to baseline.

He has won 12 titles, and back in 2005, he won the ATP Masters Series 1000 in grabbing Paris/Bercy, but other than that, is he good enough now to win a major? Perhaps, but he is going to have to find a way to overcome the Big 4 plus 1 (Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Rafa Nadal and Stan Wawrinka)? The only way he is going to do that is to consistently rip the ball and charge the net. He will stay in the top 10 in 2016, but that doesn’t mean he will win a Grand Slam unless he truly changes.

No. 5

Rafael Nadal

Here are the positives in 2015 for the 14-time Grand Slam champ Nadal: for the first time in years, he was not hurt, he was fairly healthy, and overall, he was substantially better during the last couple of months. He didn’t win a major or an ATP Masters 1000, but he kept trying all the time, even though he left the ball too short against the other top competitors.

Look, in 2016, if he is much more confident, then he will be more aggressive. When he is facing the other best of the rest, he will get right in their face.

Nadal’s phenomenal lefty forehand can dominate anyone, but his backhand is still a little weak, especially down the line. His first serve has been strong enough, but he can be predictable. The same goes with his return and net play: he can be very effective, but as he says, that is only when he is feeling completely right.

Nadal can win a major in 2016, or even a couple more Grand Slams next year, but he absolutely has to change a little bit if he is going to stop Djokovic, who has beat him every time in 2015. Head to head, they are now 23–23. The Serbian has improved significantly this season, so if Nadal wants to catch him, he must go right at him and get into his head. He has done it before, but now he has to do it once again.

Top 32: Radwanska came alive, Kvitova was OK, Venus never gives up

Flavia Pennetta wants to stick around a little bit longer. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

Flavia Pennetta wants to stick around a little bit longer. Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

The top 32, WTA, Nos. 8-5

No. 8

Flavia Pennetta

The Italian has already retired, which is too bad, because just a few months ago she played better than she ever had, knocking off Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep and her close friend, Roberta Vinci, for the US Open title. In fact, everyone says that she is one of their good friends, which is because Pennetta is one of the nicest people out there – on court and off. The 33-year-old had played for a long time, and perhaps she should have won a major a few years ago, but she could not because she was always fast enough, fairly powerful and solid at the net, but she wouldn’t always go for it. This time though she kissed the lines day after day and now she was able to walk away, into the sunset, with a wild smile for many years to come.

No. 7

Venus Williams

Perhaps that the American Venus will never be able to win another major, but at the very least, for the first time since 2011 when she was seriously ill, she was much more under control. The 35-year-old has slowed down a bit, but her phenomenal backhand and her gigantic first serve became lethal month after month. Yes, her forehand is up and down, and her second serve can be extremely weak, but her net game is substantially better than 10 years ago. We do know that she always battles, and when she isn’t tired, she can take down anyone. This year by winning Wuhan, she bested Aga Radwanska, Carla Suarez, Vinci and Garbine Muguruza. That is about as good as it gets.

Venus has won seven Grand Slams, but she hasn’t won a title since 2008. Does she have a legitimate chance? Perhaps not, but you can’t totally ignore her.

No. 6

Petra Kvitova

The lefty Czech had a decent year, but not a great one overall. When you have won two Wimbledon crowns, you cannot say that she has improved in a year without an appearance in a Grand Slam final. Often she played amazing well one day, but then she disappeared on the next day when she isn’t all right.

In Australia, she won Sydney and declared that she had a real chance to win the AO, but then she was erratic and lost against Madison Keys. In Madrid, she played spectacular by beating Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova to win the title. She thought she could win Roland Garros; then she was stunned by Timea Bacsinszky.

After that, she got sick again (mono) and after that, she was a little slow. Fortunately, her body recovered and she played excellent ball at the WTA Finals, where she beat Maria Sharapova and then fell against Radwanska. In the Fed Cup final, she beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but lost against Sharapova in one of the best matches of the year. However, the Czechs ended up winning the crown. That made her happy, which is good, but in 2016, she has to be healthy and not back off at all.

No. 5

Aga Radwanska

Radwanska-15-Stan-TR-MALT5752After losing in the first round of Roland Garros, the Polish player was very upset. For the first four months, she wasn’t played well at all, she was pushing the ball around and she was indecisive. But once she came on grass, she mentally eased it up, she moved forward, and she became to be more creative. All of a sudden, she was back. She was by no means perfect, but she saw what she needed to do. She reached the Wimbledon semis when she beat Keys before she lost against Muguruza. At the US Open, Keys got her back, but in Asia, she won Tokyo by beating Belinda Bencic. In Beijing, she bested Keys once again, took out Angie Kerber and then fell against the aggressive Muguruza. Then in the WTA Finals, she was driven and directed, finally overcoming Muguruza 7-5 in the third set (finally) and besting Petra Kvitova in three sets to win it all.

Admittedly, the 26-year-old said that now, she is really ready to win a major for the first time. Can the small person actually finally do it? I bet she can, in 2016.

The top 32: John Isner got better, but did Jo Tsonga improve?

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The top 32, 2015, ATP, Nos. 12-9

No. 12

Kevin Anderson

The South African really improved this year, adding some new shots, mixing it up and, of course, blasting away with his massive serve. He has been fairly consistent over the season, but he has been unable to knock out the big boys at the majors. However, at the US Open, he out fought Andy Murray and then went down against Stan Wawrinka.

At Wimbledon, he reached the fourth round and he was so close, winning the first two sets against Novak Djokovic. But then the Serbian surged and, in the fifth set, Anderson had some chances but he lost 7-5. Yes, the 6-foot-9 Anderson has had trouble overcoming the top 10 opponents – like falling against Rafa Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Roger Federer, Murray, Wawrinka and Djokovic – but at least he was pretty aggressive and solid. If he locks in early, perhaps the 29-year-old can reach a semifinal at a major and stun another one of the so-called Big Four-plus 1 (Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Nadal and Wawrinka).

No. 11

John Isner

In 2009, Isner cracked the top 10 and reached No. 9, his highest ever. Is he ready to go further in 2016? Why not? The American was not spectacular every week this year, but he has been fairly consistent when he was feeling confident. At Miami, the 30-year-old Isner knocked off Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori before losing against Djokovic. In Madrid, he bested Nick Kyrgios and reached the quarters, when he fell against Tomas Berdych 7-6 in the third. He won Atlanta again; and he reached the final in Washington. At Paris/Bercy, he stunned Federer and then went down against David Ferrer.

Those are the positives. However, the 6-foot-10 man must improve. Without a doubt, first and foremost, he must do something with his return, which really hurt him. His backhand has gotten better, and his volley is more respectable, too. We all know that his serve is mind-blowing, as is his forehand. But if he cannot break, then he has to go to the tiebreaks all the time, and emotionally, that can get him down. That is why he has yet to reach a semifinal at the major. The good thing is he did get better in 2015. During the off-season, if he pushes himself, maybe we will see him surge at Australian Open for the first time. Now that will be a whole lot of fun.

No. 10

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Tsonga IW 12 TR MALT3267In 2008, when the Frenchman reached the final at the Australian Open, I really thought that he was going to win a Grand Slam for sure. Yes, he lost against Djokovic, but still, he was young and he had crushed Nadal in the semis. He was leaping around, he was nailing his forehand and he was dominating the net.

But unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to do it again. He is hurt all the time, especially with his sore knees, and while he can get close – like he did in 2015 when he reached the semis at Roland Garros, overcoming Berdych and Nishikori before Wawrinka whacked him in four sets – he didn’t cross the finish line. At the US Open in the quarters against Marin Cilic, he was right there, but he went down in five sets. He did win Metz, and he reached the final in Shanghai, beating Nadal in the semis and then Djokovic cruised past him.

Just like the other two men above (Anderson and Isner), they can crush their forehands and serves, but there backhands are so-so and they do not return efficiently. At least ‘Jo’ has reached the Top 5 once, and when he is feeling right, he truly believes in himself. But can he go all the way at a major? I am not sure anymore.

No. 9

Richard Gasquet

Here is another 30-year-old player. We have to ask the question: Will the Frenchman even win a Grand Slam, or even a ATP Masters 1000? Maybe, but now, I doubt it. Yes, he has won 12 titles over the years, but he has yet to be able to knock off the highest competitors. He has a wonderful backhand and forehand, he can be creative, and he can hustle, but is just a little bit short. In 2015, he did reach two quarters in the ATP Masters 1000, and he did reach the Wimbledon semifinals once again, overcoming Wawrinka 11-9 in the fifth set. That was a classic. Unfortunately, he was somewhat tired and then he lost against Djokovic. He can be flashy, so perhaps he will change it up in 2016. If he does, Gasquet may push into a Slam final.

WTA 2015 top 32: Pliskova rises, vets Kerber & Safarova so close

The top 32, 2015: The WTA, from No. 12-9

No. 12

Timea Bacsinszky

The Swiss had almost retired a couple of years back because she was seriously hurt, but she hung in there and in 2015, she flourished. She won Acapulco and Monterrey. She reached the Roland Garros semifinals, knocking off Petra Kvitova before she went down against Serena Williams in three sets. Let’s recall that she was up a set and a break in the second set, and she folded, not just because Serena began to play great, but because she panicked and lost 10 games in a row.

She does move forward constantly, and she can hit from both wings, reaching the quarters of Wimbledon and overcoming Ana Ivanovic in Beijing before going down against Garbine Muguruza in the final. The 26-year-old is not very tall and she isn’t the strongest player out there, but she is very smart and ambitious.


Karolina Pliskova is a player on the rise. Photo: Mal Taam/MALTPhoto

No. 11

Katarina Pliskova

The Czech is so incredibly powerful and when she is feeling right, she can take out anyone and anywhere. She has one of the biggest first serves; she can rip both her forehand and her backhand. She rarely hesitates. However, admittedly, she has played way too much in 2015. Yes, she has beaten a number of terrific players like Angie Kerber, Muguruza, Lucie Safarova and Ivanovic. But she can also be very impatient against the tricky players, like losing against Aga Radwanska and Robera Vinci, who know how to mix it up. Pliskova believes she can go deep at the Slams in 2016. But in order to do so, she has to be very calm and understand where exactly her racket is.

No. 10

Angelina Kerber

The German veteran never seems to get tired. She will play hour after hour, running around, going back and forth and, when she is feeling super confident, she will crush it down the line. However, the reason why she has yet to win a major is because she isn’t aggressive enough. On occasion she will, but when she is facing off against the top 10, she can hesitate. Obviously, the left-hander needs to improve her serve, but if she pushed herself and not become too conservative, Kerber can reach the final at a major in 2016.

No. 9

Lucie Safarova

It has taken Safarova such along time to rise up. And, finally she did, reaching the final at a major for the first time. She upset Maria Sharapova, Muguruza and Ivanovic, before finally going down against Williams in three sets. The 28-year-old Czech was more creative this year, her forehand is stronger and she is more directive. Unfortunately, Safarova got hurt just before the US Open and she was unable to play for six weeks. She managed to come back and play the WTA Final, where she lost against Muguruza and Petra Kvitova, but it was close. Then she bested Kerber even though she was already knocked out of the competition. She was still trying and pushing herself. Without a doubt, if she stays healthy, Safarova will stay in the top 10 in 2016.


The top 32’s, ATP: Goffin better, but must improve all around. Same goes with Raonic. Where’s Cilic?

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2015, ATP from Nos. 16 through 13.

No. 16

David Goffin

Talk about flashy? The Belgian dances around, jumps on the ball, nailing his forehands and backhands down the line. He is pretty decent on the net too, and he can belt his first serves. So why has the 25-year-old gone further yet? He is so-so at the majors, as well as the ATP 1000s. He has lost against Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, and Kei Nishikori – everybody against the top competitors. He just needs to improve all around, that is as simple as that.

No. 15

Gilles Simon

Who doesn’t love Simon when he is on? He is incredibly versatile, he can stroke his shots from behind the baseline, moving forward and smoking the ball, or sneaking to the net and putting it away. The 30-year-old has been in the top 20 for a long time, and nearly six years ago, he had cracked into the top 6, but he was unable to continue and push into the top 5. He had a real chance to reach final at a major. He is a very intelligent person, but he over-plays and he loses early way too much. But he is still young enough and if he truly believes in himself, maybe the French can go super deep at a Grand Slam in 2016. But he has to prove that.

No. 14

Milos Raonic

The Canadian had a rough year, becoming injured in May and after that, he really struggled. He has a gigantic serve, he has a phenomenal forehand, and he hustles. But he must improve his backhand, his volley, and certainly, return of serve.

He is only 25 and he still has miles to go, so there is no panic yet. However, he has to smile more on court, and when he gets it in his face, yell a little bit. Raonic will go back into the top 10, but if he wants to reach the top 5, he has to change it up and add more style.

No. 13

Marin Cilic

Did the Croatian have a decent year? Sure, if you consider that he was still hurt at the beginning of 2015, and had the 2014 US Open champion was fully healthy, then maybe he would have entered the Australian Open and taken down all the big boys.

But since he returned in March, he has played a number of tournaments, but he had been unable to knock off the most significant competitors. For instance, when he played a terrific match and beat Jo Tsonga in five sets in the quarters at the 2015 US Open, but then he went up against Djokovic, who destroyed him.

However, at least he had reached the semis and it appeared that he was going to play even better during the fall. But he did not overall. He did win Moscow over Roberta Bautista Agut in the final, but in the bigger events, he lost to Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal.

Cilic has all the tools, and if he can manage to be healthy all the time, and stay under control, then he will be right there. The 27-year-old will have another chance to win a major again. But in 2016? Hmmm.

With a Little Help from My Friends


Roddick can still dig down and fight. Photo: Andy J. Gordon

There’s nothing that compares to the excitement and anticipation in tennis when it comes to the four majors, and there is nothing more at stake either. Then there are the exhibitions in the sport which, aside from Word Team Tennis, typically occur in the short off-season (December).

Even the most rabid tennis fan can’t be blamed for not caring about these exos as they are often scripted, and there is no reward for winning matches and/or competing at the highest level. The feeling here is that a tennis exhibition event has but one purpose: to entertain. “Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche” took place at the UCLA Tennis Center this past weekend and featured Sharapova, along with former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, world No.4 and 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori, Mardy Fish American rising stars Madison Keys, Jack Sock, Sloane Stephens, and Shelby Rogers along with Britain’s Laura Robson.

I was intrigued. This was a legitimate card, and the event planners played an even stronger hand by recruiting Fish to replace Michael Chang in the opening singles match against Roddick. This match did not disappoint. While Roddick was rusty, his competitive spirit shone brightly. Fish was only of  removed from playing on the tour and looked as if he had never left the game.

This skirmish between old rivals did not disappoint. I would pay money to watch these former high school buddies play Scrabble.


Host Sharapova was a main draw. Photo: Andy J. Gordon

The match was settled in a deciding set, ten-point tiebreak, in which Fish had to save a match point before closing out the contest. It was tough act to follow, or so it seemed.

The host of the event was pitted against the promising AmericanMadison Keys. While their playing styles and physiques are similar, the comparisons end there. Even though the temperature was plummetingthe level of play did not. It was like deja vu; the match went the distance and Keys also held a match point, but she ultimately came up short and, like Roddick, lost the final set in a match tiebreak. The day concluded with a celebrity hit and giggle doubles match. The tennis was nothing to write about, but the entertainment value of the match was crowd pleasing.

While Sundays matches featuring Sock vs. Nishikori and Stephens vs. Rodgers did not have the same competitive spirit of day one, they more than made up for it with humor and flashy shot making.
The final match of the day was a mixed double match between Sharapova and Nishikori vs. Robson and Sock. Sock demonstrated why he is a Wimbledon double champion and was clearly the best double player on the court. The only double fault that plagued the exhibition was not having microphones on the players, particularly in all the double matches. The event could have served the fans and TV viewers better by simply miking the players. Unless one had a court side seat, most of the good-natured banter between the players was missed. The good news is that it’s an easy fix.

To her credit, Sharapova pulled off the weekend with a little help from her friends.

To catch re-airings of “Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche” go to for times and dates.

Brad Falkner has worked in tennis media since 2002.

The WTA top 32’s in 2015: former No. 1 Ivanovic slides, Bencic could win a Slam (No. 16-13)

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WTA from Nos. 16 through 13

No. 16

Ana Ivanovic

The Serbian is better than that. She reached No. 1 in 2008, winning Roland Garros, and even before that, she took down a number of her contenders, including Venus Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova and Maria Sharapova, among others. She was improving all the time, and hitting her phenomenal forehand as hard as she could. It looked like she would stay inside the top 5 forever.

But alas, she was unable to be consistent enough and, while she has attempted to improve overall and change her tactics, she is still up and down. This season, she woke up at RG, reached the semifinals and went down 7-5 7-5 against Lucie Safarova. She was so close, but yet so far. After that, she tumbled, managing to reach the semis of Beijing, but other than that, she lost very early.

Can the 28-year-old go very deep at another major once again? Sure she can, but to win another one is another question. For the first time, I would say that I would be very surprised. She has a very long road once again.

No. 15

Roberta Vinci

Without a doubt, the Italian played her best season ever by far. With the entire world watching, she stunned the famous Serena Williams in the semifinal of the US Open, not backing off or becoming afraid. She went into the zone. A few weeks later in Wuhan, she knocked out Petra Kvitova and Katarina Pliskova to reach the semis, going down 7-6(7) in the third against Venus. She may have lost, but at the very least, she pushed as hard as she could.

The 32-year-old Vinci says that she will retire at the end of 2016, but the wicked slice backhand could keep her in the top 20 all year-long. Sure, she has been competing for the past 16 years, which is a very long time, but if she is still healthy, maybe she will think that she can go further.

No. 14

Belinda Bencic

If the 18-year-old Swiss hadn’t been hurt early in October, she could have ended in the top 10. However, after Beijing she had to stop, which is good because she is super young and has miles to go. Without question, she is already intelligent and wise, plus she can smoke the ball and mix it up.

She has upset a number of fine competitors over this year, but just one of the tournaments made the fans turned and stared: Bencic beat Genie Bouchard, Caroline Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki, Ivanovic, Serena and Simona Halep to win the Toronto title. Right there, you knew that she is coming incredibly strong. If Bencic is healthy and she improves a little bit, she could win a major in 2016. She is that good.

No. 13

Carla Suarez-Navarro

From February through May, the Spaniard was on a roll. She reached the final at Miami, beating Aga Radwanska and Venus before Serena drilled her. She reached the quarters at Madrid and at Rome, she bested Kvitova and Halep before falling against Maria Sharapova in three sets.

But in Paris, she lost in the third round to Flavia Pennetta and, after that, she went on the boil. She managed to reach the quarters at Birmingham on grass, but then, she lost seven matches in a row. She was done.

However, the Spaniard with a one-hand backhand can dominate inside the baseline. She is super strong, but mentally, she has to be in much more control.

The top 32’s in 2015: Who’s hot, who’s not? Tomic & F Lopez, Keys & Wozniacki (No. 20-17)

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No. 20

Dominic Thiem

Only 22 years old, the Austrian Thiem really improved this year, winning four matches in Miami, upending Feliciano Lopez and Jack Sock before falling against Andy Murray on hard courts. On clay, he won Nice by over stroking Nick Kyrgios, John Isner and Leonardo Mayer. After he lost early at Wimbledon, he went back on clay again, winning the title at Umag, and at Gstaad he beat David Goffin in the final. Thiem is flashy and can be very powerful. However, he did very little after August until the end of the season. He lost a lot of close contests and if he wants to go very far, he needs to improve and add more variety.

No. 19

Benoit Paire   

France has so many good players, but can any of them win a major? Hmmm. However, Paire has come out of nowhere beginning 2015 at No. 135 and ended the season ranked No. 19. That is pretty darn good. It took him a while to be able to go toe-to-toe with the elite, but he won three Challengers in France, and during the summer, he kept at it. The 26-year-old won Bastad by beating Tommy Robredo in the final, and at the US Open he stunned Kei Nishikori in the first round. In Tokyo, he bested him again, jumping on the ball and attacking early. But, Paire played too many tournaments – 32 events mind you – and he has to rest once and a while, but if he continues to improve, a top-10 is ripe on the picking.

No. 18

Bernard Tomic

For the first time, the 23-year-old Aussie has been much more consistent. Yes, he can get emotional off the court and he can be emotional when he is upset, but overall, he has improved and he has not given in on court, perhaps that’s the first time since he started out on tour in 2009. He does have a big first serve, he can rip his forehand and backhand, and he is pretty good at the net. However, the reason why he has yet to crack the top 10 is because his second serve is too soft, and, while has a fine slice, he pushes it around too much and he doesn’t attack early enough. Without a doubt, he has a lot of variety, but he doesn’t always dictate and if he wants to be able to knock down the big guns he has to be stronger physically and mentally. If he does in 2016, he can go very deep. How about the 2016 Aussie Final?

No. 17

Feliciano Lopez

Talk about the veterans improving all the time? How about the Spaniard Lopez, who for so many years was good, but not exactly great. Over  the past year, he has become a legitimate top 20. He moves well to the net and can put away his volleys (while nailing 743 aces this year). The 34-year-old reached the US Open, knocking off Mardy Fish in five dramatic sets, and beat Milos Raonic and Fabio Fognini before he fell in four tough sets against Novak Djokovic.

He also reached the finals at two 250s ATPs at Kuala Lumpur and Quito. Sure, he won’t win a major, but he is pretty efficient and in 2016, could find his way into the semis at one of the Slams.


No. 20

Sarah Errani

Two years ago, it looked like the Italian would be a little more powerful, go for her shots and potentially dominate the clay. Not so. While she has been OK this year, she has moved back a little bit. Yes, on hard courts, she did upend Petra Kvitova and Vika Azarenka, which was excellent work, but on clay, she had not be able to rise up in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros. Yes, she beat a bunch of young competitors by schooling them, which is fine, but her second serve is incredibly slow and, while she is a very good volley, she doesn’t come in often enough. In 2016, she will have to if she will ever returns back to the top 5 again.

No. 19

Elina Svitolina

Quietly yet steadily, the Ukrainian cracked the top 20, playing nearly every week, knocking out the likes of Angie Kerber, Lucie Safarova and Genie Bouchard. She is very fast, she rarely gets tired and when she pushes forward, she can kiss the lines. Without a doubt, the 21-year-old still needs a lot to learn. But she is smart and ambitious and, if she progresses, she has a real chance to reach the top 10 for the first time.

No. 18

Madison Keys

At times, Keys had a few tremendous tournaments: at the Aussie Open, she reached the semifinal, knocking out Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams and then fell against Serena Williams; in Charleston, she reached the final and lost to Angie Kerber; at Wimbledon she reached the quarters before she went down against Aga Radwanska in a terrific match; at the US Open, she got some revenge when she beat Aga in the third round, but then Serena pounded her in the fourth round. However, other than that, she did very little. She is one of the strongest young players out there, but she can get down on herself. She gets very frustrated when she isn’t all right, and she consequently sprays the ball. Without a doubt, Keys is good enough to win a major someday, but the 20-year-old has to take a deep breath and realize you can’t play perfectly all the time. If she plugs away, eventually she will become better and better and discover how exactly to play the correct way.

No. 17

Caroline Wozniacki

This has been ‘Caro’s’ toughest year since she began 10 years ago. Back then when she was No. 1 in 2010, she was exhausting nearly every opponent. She was not only super quick, but she never felt tired, she was incredibly steady and nailed her backhand from wherever direction. But now, she has been hurt too much, she has slower, she is constantly struggling about which way she is going and she has been too far back behind the baseline. She always shows up and tries, which is admirable, but if she doesn’t reconstruct her forehand, or become more aggressive on her returns, or charge towards the net, she is never going to win a Grand Slam. The 25-year-old has to change, or she will never reach the top 5 again.