The ATP First Quarter Report Card

Ubitennis reviews the first three months of action on the ATP Tour this year.

Roger Federer (zimbio.com)

Examining the performances of the most notable players from the first three months of the season, as well as their prospects heading into Q2.

Roger Federer
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It was an historic Q1 for Roger Federer. After winning his unprecedented 20th major title at the Australian Open, he decided to play in Rotterdam and regained the number one ranking from Rafael Nadal. Federer had not been number one since 2012, setting a record for the most days elapsed between weeks at number one. He is also the oldest man to ever be number one in the world. Roger went 17-0 to start 2018, the longest winning streak to start a year out of any year in his career. However, Federer ended the quarter on a two-match losing streak, the first time he lost back-to-back matches since 2014. After losing in a final set tiebreak in an excellent Indian Wells final against Juan Martin Del Potro, he was defeated by Thanasi Kokkinakis in his Miami opening round in another final set tiebreak. We won’t be seeing much of Roger in Q2, as he again will be skipping the entire clay court season. A lot can change in three months in the tennis world, but there’s no evidence to suggest he won’t be a top contender to win his 10th title in Halle & his ninth title at Wimbledon.

Juan Martin Del Potro

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Federer may have dominated the first half of Q1, but Del Potro was the best player in the world for the second half. The Argentine started the year by advancing to the final in Auckland, where he lost in a tight final to Roberto Bautista Agut. He then suffered earlier losses in Melbourne and Del Ray Beach. But it was in Acapulco where Del Potro began a 15-match winning streak. That week in Mexico, he bested three top 10 seeds to take the title. Then in Indian Wells, there was the thrilling victory against Federer. He was clearly spent in Miami, yet still managed to make the semifinals. Following so many years of suffering from wrist troubles, Juan Martin is finally playing his best tennis again. He is now hitting over his backhand rather than hitting almost all backhand slices. After some much-needed rest, a healthy Del Potro will be a threat in any tournament on any surface. From now through August, he does not have a lot of points to defend. He should easily ascend to his career-high ranking of number three, and possibly beyond. With such a high seeding at the majors, he should avoid prolonged early-round battles and be fresher at the end of the fortnights.

Marin Cilic

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Cilic has now made two of the last three major finals, accounting himself much better in the more recent one as he pushed Federer to five sets in Melbourne. Marin went just 4-3 over the next two months, and the clay season is not Marin’s strong suit. The French Open is the only major where Cilic has not been passed the quarterfinals, though he did advance to that round for the first time just last year. Q3 is likely the next possible peak time for Cilic, but I’m interested to see how Marin deals with the demons that await him at Wimbledon. In both of the past two years, Cilic suffered devastating defeats at the hands of Roger Federer.

Hyeon Chung

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The winner of the inaugural ATP Next Gen Finals in November has used the momentum from that victory to catapult his career to a new level in 2018. After his big breakthrough at the Australian Open, where he upset both Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic in making it all the way to the semifinals, he’s continued to consistently perform well. Chung has advanced to the quarterfinals at every subsequent tournament. He’s currently fourth in the ATP Race to London. Looking to Q2, Chung has shown he can also play on the clay. Including qualifying rounds, Hyeon had 13 wins during the 2017 European clay court season. I look for Chung to continue to ascend the rankings in Q2.

Kevin Anderson

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Speaking of consistent performers on tour, The South African has rather quietly become one, and currently sits at number five in the Race to London. Aside from his five-set opening round loss to eventual semifinalist Kyle Edmund at the Australian Open, Anderson made the quarterfinals or better at every Q1 tournament he entered. This included winning the title at the inaugural New York Open, where he pulled out three matches in final set tiebreaks. However, he still has a few troubling patterns in his career to overcome. Most notably, he is now 0-10 in Masters 1,000 quarterfinals, which includes losses at that stage in both Indian Wells and Miami. He’s also just 2-9 in Grand Slam fourth rounds, with the US Open being the only major he’s been passed the fourth round. The clay and the grass are not his forte, as Kevin has zero combined titles on those two surfaces. But Anderson will have a higher seeding in tournaments now that he is ranked inside the top eight, so the coming months are a good opportunity to change those patterns.

John Isner

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Isner’s loss in the Bercy semifinals to qualifier Filip Krajinovic back in November must have been extremely disappointing, especially considering a tournament win would have qualified him for his ATP Finals debut. That negative momentum carried over to 2018, as he started the year just 2-6. But everything changed for Isner in Miami, where he beat many in-form players, including three top five seeds, to win the biggest title of his career. And you may be surprised to read that Roland Garros is Isner’s second-best major in terms of winning percentage. He’s twice been as far as the fourth round in Paris, and once pushed Nadal to five sets. He’s also defeated Roger Federer on clay, and advanced to the semis last year at the Rome Masters. The point here is Isner can play on the clay, so I look for John to carry his newfound confidence into strong Q2 results.

Rafael Nadal

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Unfortunately it was a rather quiet Q1 for Rafael Nadal due to hip and leg injuries. The Australian Open was the only tournament he played, and he was forced to retire during the fifth set of his quarterfinal match with Marin Cilic. Nadal is set to return to the court later this week at the Davis Cup tie against Germany. With Federer’s opening round loss in Miami, Nadal narrowly recaptured the number one ranking despite being sidelined. But Rafa has 4,680 points to defend on the clay, including titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, and Roland Garros. Coming off a two-month injury layoff, it’s hard to imagine Nadal can be as dominant on the clay this season. He will most likely drop the number one ranking back to Federer in the coming weeks. The bigger question is this: will Nadal be healthy enough to win an astounding 11th French Open title? Rafa has either withdrawn or retired from every tournament he’s entered over the past five months. While I’m sure he gave his body rest in hopes of peaking on the clay, it’s hard to see Nadal reaching the peak level needed to win seven best-of-five matches in Paris.

Novak Djokovic

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What a bizarre few months it’s been for Novak Djokovic. In his first tournament in six months, he was upset by Hyeon Chung in the fourth round of the Australian Open. He then had a small surgical procedure done on his elbow. Novak returned to the court in Indian Wells, where he looked lackluster, and at times unmotivated, during his opening round loss to Taro Daniel. He arrived in Miami stating he was pain-free for the first time in a long time, but proceeded to lose in his opening round to Benoit Paire. And with the sudden announcement that Andre Agassi has left Djokovic’s camp, with Agassi citing they disagreed “far too often,” Novak’s immediate future is all the more murky. I still believe Djokovic will eventually return to the top of the sport, but it seems it’s going to take much longer than initially anticipated. With Federer on the sidelines, and many of his contemporaries also far from 100%, I’m curious to see if Novak can regain some of his mojo on the clay.

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