By Matt Cronin
By winning the Olympic gold medal and the US Open, Andy Murray fully legitimized himself as a member of tennis’ "Big 4." The 25-year-old Scot still does not have the resume of No. 1 Roger Federer (17 Grand Slam titles) No. Novak Djokovic (5 majors) or No. 4 Rafael Nadal (11 Slams) but what he does have is a clear shot at 2012 Player of the Year (POY) honors. Murray is the only one of the Big 4 not to have won that official ATP award, let alone an unofficial one as chosen by writers or the one that exists in the minds of hardcore fans.
This week, Federer, Djokovic and Murray are playing in the Masters Series Shanghai (Nadal has been injured since Wimbledon). All of them are scheduled to play the Masters Series Paris/Bercy at the end of October and then the ATP World Finals in London. The results of those tournaments will play heavily into Players of Year honors and from my look at it, Murray needs to step up more than Federer and Djokovic to gain the honor. Nadal is very doubtful to play the ATP Finals so his statistics will more than likely remain static. Here’s a look at each member of the Big 4, where they stand and what the need to be able to be the circuits main man this season.
In some ways this has been a disappointing year for the Serbian as he only won one major (the Aussie Open) as opposed to 2011 when he won three. But he has still been the most consistent member of the group and has rarely played a stinker of a tournament. Not only did he best Nadal in a record setting five-setter in Melbourne, but he won two Masters Series crowns at Miami and Canada and just defended his ATP 500 title in Beijing. He was the runner-up at Monte Carlo, Rome, Roland Garros, Cincinnati and the US Open. He reached the semifinals of Indian Wells, Wimbledon and the Olympics and the quarters of Madrid.
Yes, he would have liked to have gotten over on Nadal in the French Open final, played better against Federer at the All England Club and certainly against Murray in the fifth set in New York, but all in all, except in Madrid (which by the way was the only 2012 tournament he hasn't at least reached the semifinals in when he fell in the quarters) he’s been in title contention at every other tournament and no one else can say that.
But if Federer or Murray takes two out of the next three big tournament crowns and he doesn’t manage to win one, they could end the year with a more impressive resume. Federer is the man he’s chasing for the top spot and he needs to knock him out every time they meet. If Djokovic can win his second ATP World Final and either Shanghai or Paris/Bercy, he will become a very legitimate POY.
The Swiss has won a tour best six titles this year, which is pretty remarkable considering that he’s 30 years old (I know, I know, 30 is the new 20). He grabbed his first Slam in two and half years at Wimbledon, won Masters Series crowns at Indian Wells, Madrid and Cincinnati, and also grabbed titles at Dubai and Rotterdam. He was able to hang the Olympic silver medal around his neck and also reached the final of Halle.
But…this is not the Federer of old when he played lights out nearly every single tournament. This is a Federer who was overpowered by Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals of US Open, was quickly worn down by Djokovic in the Roland Garros semis and was bullied by his nemesis Nadal in the semis of Melbourne. He took a shocking loss to John Isner in a Davis Cup World Group tie at home, was stunned by Andy Roddick in the third round of Miami, a player whom he had owned, and was crushed by Murray in the final of the Olympics just three weeks after he faced him down in the Wimbledon final.
But even if Federer doesn't win Shanghai this week, then he moves indoors to play his home country tournament in Basel and then Paris and London. He has shown himself to unquestionably be the tour’s best indoor player, so if he can defend those three titles (he went undefeated during the indoor swing last fall) then he should rightly take home POY honors.
Even if he wins at least two of the three indoor tournaments, that should get it done, as long as one is the ATP Finals or that Djokovic doesn't win at London's O2 Arena.
There will be those scribes (mostly British) who will say that Murray is already the POY because he won two of the year’s five biggest tournaments, but to me, the Olympics is only slightly more important to some players than the Masters Series are, and the ATP World Finals is bigger as it's the elite eight going toe to toe, so he has ground to make up as the only other title outside of the Olympics and the US Open that he won was an ATP 250 in Brisbane.
He did play very well in his five-set loss to Djokovic in Australia (which was prelude to how good he was about to become), but he was underwhelming in the quarters of Roland Garros where David Ferrer had his way with him, he lost in the first rounds of Indian Wells and Queens, the quarters of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and suffered third round losses at Rome, Canada and Cincinnati. He did reach the finals of Dubai and Miami, and the semis of Tokyo last week, but unlike Djokovic and Federer, he did not visit at least the semifinal nearly every time out.
For Murray to gain POY honors, he is going to have to win two of the three events in Shanghai, Paris and London and hope that neither Federer or Djokovic win the other, as doing so would still put their year above his, just like they are now. There is a reason why he's currently about 3,500 points behind Djokovic and about 2,000 behind Federer in the ATP points race: because they have the words “Final 4 Lock” stenciled on their foreheads and he does not yet.
If the season ended today, Nadal would have to be given at least a little consideration as a POY candidate as he won a record seventh Roland Garros title, a record eighth Monte-Carlo title, a record seventh Barcelona crown and his sixth title in Rome. He reached the final of the Australian Open, and the semis of Doha, Indian Wells and Miami. After his win over Djokovic in Paris though, his season was pretty much history as his knee began to hurt and he lost early at Halle, and then was stunned by No. 100 Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon. He also fell in the opening round of super quick Madrid prior to Roland Garros.
Title wise, he is right there with Djokovic with one Slam a piece, two Masters Series each and an ATP 500 crown. He’s still up on Murray but is behind Federer. Up until his second round loss at Wimbledon, the Spaniard’s season looked as good as anyone’s. But that loss and his being unable to compete at the Olympics or the summer US Open series takes him out of POY contention unless…he comes back at the ATP World Finals and wins it (which is a long shot as he doubtful even to play, let alone that he is not a great fast indoor hard court player) and he helps Spain to another Davis Cup title.
Should that occur, then the tennis world will have a lot more to talk about POY-wise, and maybe have to go and examine the guys head to head records against each other this year.
One thing is for sure: this is the first since 2003 when US Open champ Andy Roddick won official ATP POY honors and three other guys won Slams that there is healthy debate where more than two players factor into the discussion.
And that makes the end of the 2012 season a whole lot more fun to pay attention to.