As the season on the gridiron quickly comes to an end in the cold of the American winter, the year on the tennis courts is just about to heat up in the scorching temperatures of the Land Down Under. The first major of the year, the Australian Open, is just hours away from commencing, and there are so many questions that a lot of tennis fans have going into what may become one of the more unpredictable seasons in recent memory.
Can Martina Navratilova steer Aga Radwanska to her first major title from the coaching box in an instantl? Was Eugenie Bouchard’s 2014 a flash of future greatness or just a flash in the pan? Who will be the next man outside of the Big 4 in the men’s tour to win a major? And what would you do if you ruled the tennis world to improve the game? (Don’t you like it when we give you a scenario where you would have full control?)
To answer those queries, and a few other burning questions that we have going into the new year, our tennis experts on A Lot of Sports Talk, Gabe Gonzalez and Brad Wilber, peer into their crystal balls and provide us their outlook and predictions to what should be an exciting year from one end of the globe to the other.
If you have any thoughts about the story, or want to make your own predictions for 2015, provide your commentary below in the Facebook window or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you, as always.
So Martina Navratilova is now in Agnieska Radwanska’s corner as a coach. For someone who has only reached one career Grand Slam final, can Aga’s 2015 be described as “Grand Slam or bust?”
Gabe: My understanding is that Martina will only be helping Aga with Grand Slam preparation. I’m not sure that such a limited relationship can have a major effect, but the year has started off very well for Aga. She had her first ever win against Serena at the Hopman Cup, and her teammate, Jerzy Janowicz, told the press that Aga was the reason for their mixed doubles success, telling him where to serve and where to stand for each point. I don’t think she needs to win a Grand Slam in 2015, but she needs to, at least, get close again. Her weaknesses are her frail body, her unintimidating serve, and her inability to end points quickly. I think Martina could definitely help in all three departments. Aga strikes me as an intelligent person, and she seems to have gotten to the point where she knows she needs help. Aga already is the most flexible shotmaker and the most dogged receiver out there. If Aga 2.0 also has the strength to last in tough matches and the serve to get her some free points, I do think she can win a Grand Slam. She’s only 25, just a year older than Martina when she had her career transformation.
Brad: Teaching herself to red-line her game more often will reestablish Aga as a threat. I don’t usually recommend that a player go for MORE winners, but I do in her case. One gets the sense that she almost finds put-aways boring, but winning more matches probably would generate some excitement! Aga is the consummate shotmaker, as Gabe says, but sometimes her approach to points seems too improvisational to me. She delights in discovering these geometrically resplendent angles on the fly, but yet she’s lost the first set 6-3. She could use a few tried-and-true patterns she plays to, and who better to show you the wisdom of can’t-miss patterns than Martina? Martina is a very cerebral player, and I think her emphasis on “playing smart” could find a receptive audience in Aga. I’m with Gabe here: not Grand Slam or bust, but Aga needs a splashy result in a major. She needs to be this year’s Eugenie Bouchard.
Right around the time Martina partnered up with Aga, we saw a few other former notable players who also became coaches (Lindsay Davenport for Madison Keys, Justin Gimelstob for John Isner). Is it safe to assume that Martina will have the biggest impact on his/her protégé, or could I be missing something with some of the other new coaches?
BW: I’m not convinced that any of these coaches will spend enough time with the player to have lasting impact. I have the most faith in Martina’s ability to distill and impart her genius quickly. Justin Gimelstob seems a little hyperverbal to be a great sounding board, and “John Isner tennis” is a casserole of three or four ingredients instead of 12. It’s not the kind of game where you introduce a dash of this or that. But, then again, if somebody could just get him to have quick trunk rotation on the return of serve! …
GG: Who knows? On the men’s side last year, we had Boris Becker lining up with Djokovic and Edberg teaming up with Federer, plus a mid-season alliance between Amelie Mauresmo and Andy Murray. Of those three, the only one that stands out as having made a difference is Edberg. Federer started serve-and-volleying, for one thing. With the three you mentioned, Martina is working with the best raw material, and Martina has a vast knowledge of the game, not just as a singles player, but teaming successfully with many other players (including Chris Evert) to win Grand Slam doubles titles. She can communicate and she can lead. It will come down to chemistry with the two of them. Madison Keys is still so young (19), and we have not seen her full potential. It’s good that Davenport, another tall player, is mentoring her. Lindsay had a long, tough slog to the top of the tennis rankings. She overcame physical and mental obstacles. She seems no-nonsense and friendly. She could offer a lot to Keys. I don’t know enough about Keys to know if she has that killer instinct that the top players have. Davenport didn’t really have it, either, so that may be a missing link. As for Justin Gimelstob, he would probably be the last person I would hire as a coach for someone. He was never a top player (career-high singles ranking of 63), although he has two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with Venus Williams. He seemed an undisciplined, unfocused player to me. But, there’s no denying that the American players love him. Maybe he will be there to keep Isner’s spirits up throughout tournaments. Isner, at 6-10, has always been all about the serve. He’s 29 now. It’s kind of late in the game to revamp your game. His performance at the Hopman Cup, last week, was okay, but he didn’t play anyone that good. Still, he’s ranked No. 21, and he should be higher.
Does Roger Federer completing his tennis résumé with the Davis Cup win by Switzerland mean anything in terms of his play for 2015?
Gabe: Not that it needed saying, but getting that achievement just reinforces that he is still a force. Don’t underestimate him. He almost lost his first round match in Brisbane and then ended up winning the tournament, while, in Doha, Nadal and Djokovic exited before the finals. Whether Federer can win seven matches and get another Grand Slam under his belt is another story. I think he could win one in 2015. I don’t think his issue is beating Djokovic, Nadal, or Murray. It is that other tier of players (Tsonga, Monfils, Raonic, Wawrinka) that will cause him trouble.
Brad: Right. Roger seems to have no trouble summoning his “A” game against Djokovic, for example. It’s getting to Djoker without expending a ton of energy, and the gauntlet of players waiting in the 16s and the quarters that is tougher. That’s not to say Roger has trouble psyching up for those earlier matches — I don’t think the modern era has ever seen anyone like Roger for sustained desire to play. But, at times, he does have short lapses against the young-gun players and then seems a bit surprised when it’s a set all, 4-all. As for the Davis Cup win, it certainly doesn’t seem like it has become like “the last puzzle piece” before retirement. Even if Roger wins another major this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if that just makes him want to play more.
Federer, of course, is part of the Big 4 (along with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray), which has collectively shown more cracks than any time in their reign. Are we nearing the end of the Big 4 era? Has it already ended?
BW: Yes, I think it’s effectively ended. Andy Murray will have a tough time having a breakthrough in a major because he could draw #1 or #2 seeds in the quarters, likely all year. When Murray urgently needed to rack up big points last fall to qualify for the year-end championships, he played like a man possessed (in a good way), and Gabe and I both felt then that well-defined goals like that would be one thing that might keep him from continuing to trend downward. That and an implacable personality as a coach. Post-Lendl, he has regressed into playing some emotionally undisciplined and tactically flabby matches. The other Big 3 still seem pretty solid to me. Nadal could have a loss or two in his comeback, but if he’s pain-free, he won’t suffer a streak long enough to affect his ranking.
GG: It should have ended, but there is a lack of consistency among the others (David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori). Nadal, with all of his injuries, has tried his hardest to let others in! Of the pretenders to the throne, Nishikori seems most eager to seize it, but he’s also had a few injuries.
No American woman without the surname of Williams has finished a year in the Top 10 of the WTA Tour rankings since Lindsay Davenport in 2005. Please tell me there are reasons to be hopeful that changes for this year. Are there any?
GG: Does it make you feel better to know that many of the top 10 players live and train in the United States? Or, that Venus Williams could get back into the Top 10 in 2015? That’s about all I think you can expect. The non-Williams contingent is Varvara Lepchenko (No. 30), Madison Keys (No. 33), Sloane Stephens (No. 34), and Coco Vandeweghe (No. 37). It’s a very big stretch to envision any of them in the Top 10 at the end of the year. But Keys could have a break-out year, and Stephens could return to form under Nick Saviano (Eugenie Bouchard’s former coach). But, Top 10 in 2015 is not on the horizon.
BW: No, I don’t think so either. In this particular stretch of tennis history, I think you need that much more innate hubris to have a steady upward climb. Self-belief bustin’ out all over. Not just the standard “I think I can play well,” “I’m working very hard,” “we’ll see what happens out there, she’s a very good opponent.” The Americans are not quite there yet. Very few players these days are able to play an uninterrupted schedule. As soon as a second-tier player has two or three good weeks in a row we are just waiting for the inevitable injury default. And while many will have to start from square one mentally after these physical setbacks, you look for that extraordinary personality who does not have to reset and can pull confidence from somewhere other than her latest results. It not just the Americans who don’t have that.
Two of the four major winners on the ATP Tour in 2014 were first-time grand slam champions (Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic). So if you were in Vegas, and the line on new Grand Slam winners on the ATP Tour in 2015 was at 1.5, would you take the over or the under?
BW: I would take the under. If we do have a new winner, it will absolutely be Nishikori or Raonic. They are the ones who strike me as being in full flight now, maintaining total control of their gifts week after week and playing smart matches. Andl, hey, let me take a leap and pick Nishikori to win Roland Garros this year – he uses the extremes of the court well enough to hit winners on red clay, maybe enough winners to beat a Nadal who is a little off.
GG: I am not a betting man, and I am risk averse, so I would take the under. I see Djokovic winning two (Australian Open and Wimbledon), Nadal winning one (French), and one (US Open) up for grabs. But, even as I write that, I think, Djokovic looks so-so at the start of the season, and Nadal is getting older.
**Part 2 of Opening Serve: Genie Bouchard’s staying power, Serena Williams’ staying power and ways to change the game for the better.**
[Cover photo (Kei Nishikori/Milos Raonic) courtesy of Koji Watanabe/Getty Images AsiaPac]