With Rafael Nadal set to return in February after the longest injury layoff of his career, well in time for his favorite claycourt season, the dynamics of men’s tennis is far from what it was in January 2012.
Nadal was at his peak at this time last year, with Djokovic breaking him at his peak in the Australian Open Final. Nevertheless, these were two athletes at the top of their games, taking tennis to the next brutal physical level- with Murray just starting to hit his straps. Federer was always around, but still falling victim to Nadal in the majors. There was a bit of a gap between the top 2 and Federer/Murray.
Fast forward to 2013, and Djokovic and Murray are now the new gruesome twosome at the top, irrespective of the rankings. Federer is again not too far behind, but he is falling way too often in the final 4 of the Majors. Nadal, though, has not been in the picture- and with him coming back, this could mean a few things:
First, Murray won’t have his draw so easy anymore. He will have to face Nadal again sometime, and when he does, it will be interesting to see if he can ever overcome the mental block that he faces against him. Nadal is the only player with a winning record against the top 3 right now, and his arrival could change dynamics- depending on what kind of tennis he wants to play. If, miraculously, he is back to the gritty, unrelenting bull that we know and missed so much- Murray could be the one facing a problem/crisis again. He is finding it hard enough to beat Djokovic right now, and beating Nadal- who is, at his best, what Djokovic strives to become- could mean that Murray will have to wait a while for his next Slam win. One thing we know, for sure, is that it isn’t going to be at Paris.
So with the Australian Open done and dusted with, we have 3 Slams to go in 2013. The 3 slams, you can bet your money on this, will be won by two of the players we’re talking about. The Aussie Open is always the best chance for a wildcard like Tsonga or Berdych or Del Potro or a flash in the pan like Baghdatis to run away with a lone major title. But they’ve not succeeded, not for years, to win the first Slam of the year- with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer winning 33 of the last 35 Slams between them. There’s no reason to think why 2013 will be any different- so let’s just talk about how the next 3 Slams can be divided between 4 of these players.
The French Open, at the end of May, held at Roland Garros- normally means only one thing. Rafael Nadal. Except for 2009, he has won here every year since 2005. Last year, Djokovic did come close to hitting him where it hurts the most. But Nadal pulled through, at the cost of his body and soul.
In 2013, I’m putting my bet on Novak Djokovic. He dominated Nadal on clay in 2011, and there’s no reason why he can’t do it with questions over Nadal’s fitness this time. It will be down to how fast Nadal can muster enough energy to play his usual unbeatable claycourt tennis, and the Masters events will be a good indicator of that (Rome, Monte Carlo and Barcelona).
Prediction: Djokovic will win the French Open by beating Murray as well as Nadal on the way.
Federer suddenly seems like the World No. 1 all over again at this time of the year. He struggled a bit to win the title last year, and he could struggle even more this year- with Murray looking a lot more confident than 2012. Still, my bet is, once again, Novak Djokovic. 2013 will be the year that 2012 should have been for him. But after returning back to earth last year, the Djoker could well be unbeatable at the Majors this year. He will beat Murray on the grass at Wimbledon, but beating Federer could be tougher. Still, his fitness is what counts with the courts being so slow nowadays- and he will be able to outrun Nadal after his return.
End of August. The last slam of the year- and the only Slam with a tiebreak (by default, giving Murray a chance to choke a little more). Murray will defend his title, and we will have a good idea about where Nadal’s career is heading by now. If Nadal manages to get back to his best by August, a lot of which will depend on his French Open performance, then Djokovic could face the best of all the 3 players- because even Federer will be hungry to win his final slam after turning 32.
But no Olympics could mean that Djokovic has more time to prepare, and even plan his schedule around winning the US Open again. He will, in all likelihood, become only the second player after Rod Laver to win all 4 Slams in a year, in 2013.
This could be a momentous year, and anything less than the above prediction, could mean an upset- and a shakeup that won’t be boring to watch at all.