Is Grigor Dimitrov’s return to the Top 10 in 2017 a foregone conclusion?

Grigor Dimitrov’s early season form has made him a sure candidate to challenge the Top 10 (Zimbio.com)

Now that the dust has settled from the Australian Open, some of the rankings have a more fixed look to them, whilst some players positions are under threat from those who have enjoyed a good start to the year.

Yesterday Jack Sock stated his intention to challenge for a Top 10 position in the Emirates ATP rankings. Yesterday I assessed the current security of the current Top 10 (week of 27th February,) and identified Marin Cilic, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as the most vulnerable members, with Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka possibly under threat later in the year.

However, if Cilic, Tsonga, or any of the others are to relinquish their Top 10 positions, then it means someone beneath must improve to oust them. This article is dedicated to examining players who could be considered in the frame, and assessing their capability to challenge.

  1. Grigor Dimitrov (ATP ranking No.13): Probably the favourite of most in the tennis community to break back into the Top 10 in 2017, after a sensational start to the year. After picking up his first title in nearly three years in Brisbane, and a semi-final run in the Australian Open where he came close to defeating Rafael Nadal, Dimitrov was already the in-form player of 2017. Add in his first Sofia title earned this month, and a quarter-final run in Rotterdam, and 2017 looks impressive already for a player who failed to pick up a title in 2015 or 2016. Much of Dimitrov’s improvement in his game and self-belief can be attributed to his new coaching team, which consists of former Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych coach Dani Vallverdu. Vallverdu has experience in assisting high-profile stars, and Dimitrov looks settled with him after mixed spells with Roger Rasheed and Franco Davin. Dimitrov did not go past the fourth round of any slam in 2016, including first and third round exits in Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively. This leaves a lot of room to improve and relatively few points to defend. Dimitrov in his current form could be in the Top 10 within a matter of weeks, and could and possibly should be looking not just for a Top 10 ranking, but his first place at the ATP World Tour Finals as well.
  2. David Goffin (ATP ranking No.11): David Goffin epitomises good consistency on the ATP tour without as yet managing a truly outstanding tournament win. He was only once in the final of a tournament in 2016, losing to Nick Kyrgios in Tokyo, but went deep at a number of tournaments. He didn’t play Acapulco last year so could earn up to 500 points were he to win there. Yet the three most important tournaments for Goffin are defending the semi-final points he earned back-to-back at the year’s first two Masters in Indian Wells and Miami. If he manages to defend those points he then has a quarter-final run at Roland Garros to defend as well. If he can emerge from those events having saved all or most of those points, as well as add some titles possibly at 250 or 500 level, then he has a chance, but not a hugely favourable one. His issue remains taking on the Big Four in Federer, Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic. He is 0-15 against those opponents (5 defeats each to Federer, Murray, and Djokovic, he has never faced Nadal). The way the draws at the big tournaments go, he must improve on that record in 2017 to truly be considered a contender.
  3. Tomas Berdych (ATP ranking 14): A consistent member of the Top 10 for much of the last decade, Berdych has struggled to start 2017. He had the poor fortune to draw the lowly seeded Roger Federer early in the Australian Open, accounting for his drop out of the Top 10. Yet the defeat to Federer is not so concerning so much as the manner of the defeat. Berdych was made to look distinctly average by Federer, winning just ten games in the third round encounter. He has few points to defend before Roland Garros, just two Masters quarter-finals in the five events he played before Roland Garros. A quarter-final at the French Open, and a semi at Wimbledon are where the bulk of Berdych’s points are. The danger for Berdych is that the likes of Dimitrov and Goffin seem to have already eclipsed him, whilst one could also begin to make that argument for Lucas Pouille and Alexander Zverev too. If he doesn’t pick up some extra points in those Masters, Berdych could find himself slip further down the rankings before he even has a chance to defend his points in the middle slams. That could lead to tougher matches earlier in the draw than he is accustomed to. Overall, Berdych likely faces more of a battle to maintain his Top 15 ranking over 2017 than look back towards the Top 10.
  4. Alexander Zverev (ATP rank 20): A little further down the rankings but with the capacity to make up ground quickly, is the nineteen year-old German Alexander Zverev. He has already won a title this season in Montpellier, taking down the likes of Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in impressive fashion. He also took Rafael Nadal to five sets in the Australian Open third round. He is looking more and more like the finished article. Zverev also has relatively few points to defend at slams (not going past the third round in any last season). If he can improve his ranking to avoid any of the top stars until the Round of 16 before the French, then he must be favoured to go deeper this time. His close match with Nadal suggests he is now ready to compete regardless with the Top 10, and his wins over the likes of Gasquet and Tsonga suggest he can back up good wins. There are few negatives with him he serves big, moves well, and is consistent on both wings. He is not as tour weary as some and has the achievable goal of the Top 10 in his sights.
  5. Lucas Pouille (ATP ranking 15): Isolated as a young French talent, with most of his compatriots around him in the Top 100 the wrong side of the thirty, Lucas Pouille represents possibly the only French hope of a generation. The French public have much to be excited about though, as at 23, he is perfectly poised to make a run for the Top 10. Incredibly, this time last year he was forced to qualify for the Dubai tournament. As a result, he has few points to defend until the clay Masters, with semi-finalist points to defend in Rome, and a quarter-final to defend at Wimbledon. The Metz title and a US Open quarter-final also account for most of his points, with few deep runs at other tournaments. Pouille already has shown a capability to peak for slams, with two quarter-finals at that stage in 2016. With a more favourable seeding likely this year, and opportunities throughout the year at other events, Pouille looks a strong contender.
  6. Jack Sock (ATP ranking 18): Finally, the one whose comments started this discussion. The United States would love another player to break the Top 10. With John Isner the last to do it, and Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish the last pair to consistently hold down that ranking, the US has been devoid of positions at the top of the rankings for some time. Some of Sock’s numbers look very nice, especially starting 2017. Two titles in Auckland and Delray Beach, after Raonic retired hurt before the final, Sock already has more titles this year than in the rest of his career put together. Yet Sock has only twice in his career reached the fourth round of a slam. Some might say that that gives him a great opportunity to build points this year and it does. Yet at 24, he has had enough time to grow into the five set contests, and the lack of a slam quarter-final at this stage of his career is a slight question mark. However, he has never been ranked as high as No.18, an if he improves on his third round showings from last year at Indian Wells and Miami, could set himself up for a very high seeding at Roland Garros.  His game in theory translates well to all services, with clay and hard court titles to date. A contender to improve on his current ranking of No.18 certainly, but may just fall short of the Top 10 in 2017.

There are further contenders, such as Gael Monfils and Juan Martin del Potro, but the injury records of both these players leaves me pessimistic as to their longevity over the course of the season. Del Potro certainly could peak and reach a slam final, but that would likely be the only way he could climb so high, as his cautious attitude in protecting the wrist means he plays far fewer events than most of his competitors. Monfils plays more events when fit, but with this one of the mercurial Frenchman’s longest spells without serious injury makes me believe another is not far away. Monfils needs a season free from injury to even have a chance of competing for a Top 10 ranking, and I do not believe he can manage that.

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