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Dec 07

Five Tennis Players Seeking Solace in 2014

So we’ve nominated our five players of the year who can be content with their efforts.

Now to the more testing end of the spectrum, the five players who haven’t quite found their 2013 going to plan, for various reasons. We’ll exclude the victims of drug naivety and/or negligence, those who have personal problems that go beyond tennis (Frederico Gil) and those who simply found their bodies letting them down, like Brian Baker.

Some of this analysis is of course, clouded by the expectations we put on players thanks to past success or talk of their apparent potential – in other words, there is the appalling danger of getting sucked into the dreaded tennis narrative which washes up achievements onto the sometimes litter ladden beaches of ill-considered context.

Having said that, let’s look at some players who can’t wait for the calendar to reach January, and not just because it means a flight to Noumea.

ULADZIMIR IGNATIK (WR: 343)

Ignatik's career has failed to ignite after junior success (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images North America)

Ignatik’s career has failed to ignite after junior success (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images North America)

Not every junior Grand Slam champion will replicate his or her feat in the seniors, but as we’ve looked at before, the majority will go on to have careers that can at least take them on to the tour.

Uladzimir Ignatik won the 2007 French Open junior title before going to be the runner up at Wimbledon, but six years on, aged 23, he has yet to make a breakthrough into the upper reaches – and could even be seen as going backward.

In February, Ignatik had hit his all time high of 137 – and by Christmas he was down in the 300′s and yet to make a senior Grand Slam.

His powerful game failed to take him beyond a Challenger quarter-final, but there was a little hope as he rounded off the year by winning a Czech Futures title with victory over Karol Beck.

Ignatik’s junior career reflects some of the more ugly side of the youth circuit, with claims of a very strict and demanding parents, plus further, and wholly unsubstantiated, mutterings in the wake of his success. At 23, he is getting a little short of time in the adult arena and he’s being overtaken as his country’s main hope for the future by Egor Gerasimov.

TATSUMA ITO (WR: 155)

Let's go, Ito, let's go (Stanley Chou/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Let’s go, Ito, let’s go (Stanley Chou/Getty Images AsiaPac)

The end of 2012 looked quite bright for Japanese tennis, with three men inside the top 100.

Kei Nishikori was joined by Go Soeda, and Tatsuma Ito, with Yuichi Sugita coming close to making it four. While the quartet all fell back in the rankings in 2013, it was perhaps Ito who suffered the most damaging drop from 79 to 155, forcing him back down into qualification for ATP events and life on the Challenger circuit.

Ito admitted that he was perhaps looking to force things a little by the end of the season and his game of baseline play and flat ground strokes couldn’t make an impact on the main tour in 2013.

The end of the season though, does suggest that Ito can at least make a decent stab of returning to the top 100.

He won the All-Japan title, made the final of the Melbourne Challenger and came through qualifying to lose to Gael Monfils in the Beijing Masters, while compatriot Soeda was putting in a late run to make the main field at the Australian Open.

One of Soeda and Ito will be required to hit good form early if Japan are to beat Canada in their Davis Cup first round tie, even with home advantage.

It remains to be seen if Ito can rediscover those little extras which made him into a top 100 player in 2012.

ANDREY KUZNETSOV (WR: 135)

Kuznetsov's legs get a Wimbledon work out (pic: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images Europe)

Kuznetsov’s legs get a Wimbledon work out (pic: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images Europe)

Some of the expectations that seem to weigh down Uladzimir Ignatik could also apply to Andrey Kuznetsov.

The Russian won the Wimbledon junior crown in 2009 and up until 2013, he had been making a steady progression to suggest that his career was moving on the appropriate upward path for one with such exalted status. His 2012 four set Wimbledon match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga underlined his potential.

But throughout the year, Kuznetsov couldn’t find consistency at Tour level. He didn’t win back-to-back matches at any event and ended up reaching just one Challenger final, at the last event of the year in Tyumen, Siberia.

While that inability to win back-to-back matches might suggest some mental fragility, perhaps the main concerns with the Russian are more physical. He still looks a lightweight among some of the more muscular tour players, with his thin legs  very noticeable.

This leads to the concern that he simply may not have the physical power to push players around at the higher levels of the game, and suggestions that he must somehow find a way to bulk up, which can always come at the expense of technique.

Kuznetsov is also coached by his father, Alex, and has the decision to make as to whether his parent has much more knowledge to impart. Such matters are inevitably delicate, and it feels as if the Russian has reached a key stage of physical and psychological development.

LUKASZ KUBOT (WR: 72)

If it wasn't grass it wasn't fun for Kubot in 2013 ( Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images Europe)

If it wasn’t Wimbledon it wasn’t fun for Kubot in 2013 ( Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images Europe)

It might seem perverse to put a Wimbledon quarter-finalist on this list, but 2013 was two weeks of fun and about 45 weeks of strife for Poland’s serve and volley specialist, leaving him in serious danger of falling off the radar next year.

More than half of Kubot’s ranking points came from that successful fortnight – if you remove them you have a player descending to around the 160 mark.

While his serve and volley game has served him well at Wimbledon before, he’s struggling to have an impact elsewhere. Slower court surfaces can’t help, it would be a surprise if that was the sole factor.

Kubot’s second half of the year struggles were particularly difficult. After his loss to Jerzy Janowivcz, he went all the way through to Vienna before recording another victory on tour, when he was able to take advantage of a somewhat jet-lagged Florian Mayer.

The 31-year-old has twice gone through these crisis periods of dropping out of the top 100 since his first breakthrough in the 2010 Golden swing, and was in that position before his Wimbledon run, so it might just be he has to be very “on” to make his style work.

If all else fails, Kubot still has the return and volley skills to resume what was has already been a very successful doubles career – he was good enough to reach the World Tour Finals with Oliver Marach, but it would be bad news if he can’t add his brand of light and shade to the baseline battles of the tour.

DI WU (WR: 207)

Oh Mr Wu, what will you do in 2014? (pic: Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Oh Mr Wu, what will you do in 2014? (pic: Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images AsiaPac)

There’s usually a nice easy formula if you want to come up with a story about Chinese sport.

It involves heading to a heavily sponsored project where a batch of eager prodigies are being coached by overseas experts. The inevitable pay-off from the reporter involves a warning to the rest of the world about “what happens when they get it right”.

When it comes to to men’s tennis in China though, that remains rather hollow.  Men’s number one Di Wu is stuck outside the top 200, aged 22, after a year where he couldn’t make an impact at the higher levels.

He failed in his attempts to qualify for any ATP tour event, and he was beaten in his wild card appearances at the Australian Open and in Beijing and Shanghai.

While there were some decent performances in Challenger levels, reaching quarter and semi-finals, there isn’t the immediate progression to suggest that either Wu or compatriot Ze Zhang are going to have an impact despite being their country’s two highest ranked players.

***

Agree with the choices – convinced Kuznetsov is ready to spring back? Or am I expecting too much from Chinese tennis? As ever, the comments section below is always ready to be filled by pithy and informed opinion.

1 ping

  1. Tennis 2014

    […] Five tennis players seeeking solace in 2014 | Foot Soldiers of Tennis […]

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