In 2010 five players claimed their first career ATP titles:
John Isner (Auckland), Ernests Gulbis (Delray Beach), Andrei Golubev (Hamburg), Viktor Troicki (Moscow) and Mikhail Kukushkin (St Petersburg).
Here are ten of the leading contenders looking for their maiden crowns in 2011.
The bespectacled Serbian grunt-master remains a complete enigma. At his best he can trouble anyone. At his worst, well he just looks like he would rather be anywhere else than on a tennis court. In 2010 he had some stunning wins on the big stage, beating Andy Roddick at the US Open and winning both singles rubbers in his country’s Davis Cup semi-final victory against the Czech Republic. In the run of the mill tour events however, he had little impact and completely bombed in his lone final (v Segiy Stakhovsky in s’Hertogenbosch). Although his commitment to tennis is always questionable it’s hard to see someone so talented remaining sans title too much longer and the Davis Cup triumph could be the confidence booster he needs.
Now entering the latter stages of his career, the 29-year-old Frenchman has been among the highest ranked title-less players for the last number of years. In 2010 he lost his fourth career final, to Michael Llodra in Marseilles, but a wrist injury cut his season short and forced him to miss the other French indoor events, which are undoubtedly his best hope of picking up a trophy. Unfortunately for the stylish baseliner, time is running out and his lack of stamina is always going to cost him in the latter stages of events.
The Italian dirt-baller has reached three finals in his career including Umag in 2010 where he lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero. He undoubtedly has the ability to pick up one of the lesser trophies on the red clay of Europe so long as he doesn’t get too distracted by the ongoing legal action he is taking against the ATP over the six week betting suspension he received in 2008. He’s been ranked as high as 27 in his career but like Benneteau he’s approaching the end of the line and his options are obviously limited by the fact that he is utterly hopeless off the clay. Having said that I have a sneaky suspicion he could pick up a Casablanca or a Bucharest in 2011.
The Young Guns:
The 19-year old Bulgarian is currently the highest-ranked teenager in the world and if he can continue to progress at the same rate he has done for the last six months we should be seeing him in the latter stages of ATP events pretty soon. In 2010 he picked up Challenger titles on clay and on outdoor hardcourts. He also reached a final indoors in Orleans so that kind of versatility really increases his options. It also helps that his incident in Helsinki where he was fined for shoving an umpire seems to have been swept under the carpet. Not really surprising given the player’s connections.
If the young Aussie had the talent to go with his ego he’d be a slam contender but nothing in his results suggests he’s ready to make the step up from the minor leagues. New coach Mario Tudor should help but the man who helped Goran Ivanisevic to a Wimbledon title will be playing second fiddle to the player’s father, John. Although his backhand is already a major weapon, Tomic still moves like a junior and it is hard to see him breaking through to compete for ATP titles just yet. Hopefully by the time he does, he won’t be some damn dislikeable.
The Lithuanian had a superb end to the 2010 season and became the youngest member of the world’s top hundred when he won the Helsinki Challenger in November. He also won a title on grass in Nottingham but his unwillingness to test himself out on clay is a major concern, with Roland Garros the only event he entered on the dirt in 2010. He is also small by the standards of the modern player at just 5’9 so it remains to be seen if that will hold him back. I’m a sceptic for now but would love to be proved wrong.
The best bets:
Istomin appears to be something of a late bloomer which isn’t surprising given that a car crash when he was 15 kept him out of the game for a full two years. He reached his first career final in New Haven where he lost out to finals master Sergei Stakhovsky. Christened the “Poor Man’s Kafelnikov” by Peter Fleming, with his powerful game he looks to have a great shot of picking up a hardcourt title somewhere in 2011. His performances at Wimbledon, where he beat Stanislas Wawrinka and took Tomas Berdych to five sets suggest he could a contender for one of the lesser titles on that surface too.
Thiemo de Bakker
The Dutch number 1 spent part of the off-season training with Gil Reyes in Vegas so expect him to have packed on about 10kg of muscle by the time he starts 2011. In 2010 he was solid on all surfaces with semi-finals in Barcelona and New Haven his best performances. His most impressive displays came on the dirt so if the off-season has helped his strength and endurance he has a great shot at picking up a title somewhere on the red stuff in Europe. A lot will depend on his schedule though as he tended to avoid the less illustrious clay tournaments in 2010
Aleksandr Dolgopolov Jr
The effeminate Ukrainian spent much of the year as the youngest player in the top 100 and impressed on all surfaces with his superb movement and variety. However, he was also dogged by inconsistency with a semi-final on the grass of Eastbourne his lone appearance in the last four of an ATP event. For a player who admits that he struggles with the physical demands of the tour, the key to making his breakthrough is likely to be fitness. If he can sort that out then he can go a long way in the game and certainly get a maiden ATP title under his belt.
Yen Hsun Lu
This guy makes the list here simply because at number 32 he is the highest ranked player without a title in men’s tennis. However, truth be told, “Randy” (as he named himself) has never ever looked like picking up a title and owes his ranking to his stunning run to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. He’s already among the most successful players of all time on the Challenger circuit with 13 titles, but it’s hard to predict an ATP level title for a player who has never even reached a semi-final on the main tour.