At the Net: The year of Rafa and the 'Big Three'
By Scott Riley, Tennis Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's that time of year again, time to recap who had the best season(s) on the ATP World Tour.
It probably came as no surprise that the most-recent Grand Slam stalwarts -- Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray -- put up the best results in 2013.
So here we go.
All Nadal did was return from a seven-month knee-injury/viral-illness layoff and basically dominate the circuit with arguably his best campaign ever.
The 27-year-old Spanish superstar came back in February and promptly landed in a clay court final in Chile, where Nadal was truly shocked by Argentine Horacio Zeballos, in his first of nine straight finals ... seven of which resulted in titles.
By the end of 2013, Nadal had appeared in 14 finals out of his 17 events, garnering no less than a tour-high 10 titles, including a record eighth French Open championship and second U.S. Open title en route to an even 60 career titles overall.
The Mallorcan southpaw also padded his Masters titles record (26) with five more of them, at Indian Wells, Madrid, Rome, Montreal and Cincinnati (three of which came on hardcourts), and he was also a runner-up at the Monte Carlo Masters and the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London. Nadal was the reigning eight-time champ in Monte Carlo before losing to his great rival Novak Djokovic.
Nadal's Grand Slam haul currently stands at 13, with only Roger Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14) ahead of him on the men's all-time majors list. And Rafa has a real shot at reaching Federer's total.
Nadal opened the year at No. 4 in the world and finished on top for his third year-end No. 1 placement in six years.
But he also suffered the biggest upset in the sport when he was shocked by Belgian Steve Darcis in four sets in the opening round at Wimbledon, where the super Spaniard entered fresh off his French Open title and riding a seemingly unstoppable 22-match winning streak at the time.
Nadal ended '13 with an outstanding 75-7 record, including two 22-match winning streaks, and a tour-best tally of more than $12 million in prize money. He dominated the season for about eight months, from February to September, before fading somewhat after the U.S. Open, failing to capture a title over his last four events.
Not too shabby for the Comeback Player of the Year.
Note: Nadal has yet to win the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals.
Business as usual.
Djokovic had yet another stellar season on the ATP, going a fist-pumping 74-9 with seven titles and runner-up finishes at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He dominated the fall season with a season-capping 24-match win streak, including titles in Beijing, at the Shanghai and Paris Masters, and the ATP Finals, where he swept his round-robin matches en route to going undefeated for the week.
The six-time major titlist also nailed down his third straight and fourth overall Aussie Open title, as he appeared in three of the four Slam finals for the year (1-2). He also captured a trio of Masters championships, giving him 16 for his career.
The 26-year-old Serbian hero clashed with Nadal six times during the year (3-3), including four finals (3-1), with the last title bout coming at the ATP Finals two weeks ago.
Note: Djokovic trails Nadal 17-22 in their overall head-to-head matchups, with their 39 encounters marking a record number of meetings between two players in the Open Era.
The world No. 2 Djoker, who started the year at No. 1 before being supplanted by Nadal, piled up just over $11 million in prize money.
Djokovic ended his season with a pair of Davis Cup wins in his hometown of Belgrade. Unfortunately, his efforts weren't enough, as his beloved Serbia lost to the reigning champion Czech Republic 3-2 in the World Group final.
He did it!
Murray's career highlight occurred in July when the native of Scotland became the first British man in 77 years to capture the Wimbledon singles title at the All England Club, where the year before he became a British hero by winning Olympic gold by whipping Federer in the final at the Summer Games.
The 26-year-old Murray may have finished 2013 on the sidelines after undergoing minor back surgery, but before going under the knife, he tallied four titles and a runner-up finish at the Aussie Open. In addition to that massive Wimbledon win, AM also had a big title at a Masters event in Miami.
The No. 4 star, who has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, went 43-8 on his way to $5.4 million in prize money this year.
Murray shut it down for the season in mid-September after leading Britain past Croatia and into the 2014 Davis Cup World Group for a first-round battle with the host United States in San Diego.
The two-time Grand Slam champ has designs on returning to the tour as good as ever next year (which actually begins late next month).
Did You Know?: Murray is tied with the legendary Fred Perry for the most Grand Slam semifinal appearances (13) by a British man.
Ferrer just continues to do more with less. The Spanish grinder checks in at only 5-foot-9 (questionable), 160 pounds (also questionable), but has a great habit of usually beating the players he's supposed to beat. Unfortunately for Ferrer, he struggles mightily against the big dogs -- Nadal, Djokovic and Murray -- or anyone who's ranked above him at the time.
Ferrer's actually currently ranked ahead of Murray, at No, 3 in the world, but that's only because of Murray's inactivity over the last two months.
The 31-year-old Ferrer notched 60 match wins (60-24) this year, including a pair of titles for an even 20 for his career, and a tour-leading seven runner-up finishes. His biggest runner-up finish came in Paris, where he landed in his first-ever Grand Slam final at the French Open, only to lose to (who else?) Nadal. Ferrer was also a bridesmaid at a pair of Masters tourneys, in Miami and Paris.
He reached at least the quarterfinals at all four majors, including a semifinal showing in Oz in addition to that French finale.
A busy Ferrer appeared weary by year's end, however, dropping his last four matches, including all three round-robin affairs at the ATP Finals.
He still managed to clear more than $4 million in prize money.
JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO
The best big man in the game.
Del Potro is desperately trying to turn the "Big Three" into the "Big Four."
The 6-6 Argentine crusher went 51-16 with four titles and a pair of Masters runner-up finishes in Indian Wells and Shanghai.
Unfortunately for "Delpo," the 25-year-old former U.S. Open champ came up kinda small at the majors, getting past the third round at only Wimbledon. He was a third-round loser in Melbourne, missed the French Open due to injury and lost to ancient Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in only the second round in New York.
Delpo played in probably the match of the year when he lost to Djokovic while competing in his first-ever Wimbledon semifinal, a historic five-set epic that wound up being the longest-ever semi at the All England Club -- or 4 hours, 43 minutes.
The world No. 5 star settled for $3.89 million in prize money.
The end of an era?
Federer appears to have dropped out of the "Big Four," as indicated by his current ranking of No. 6. The former long-time No. 1 was a mortal 45-17 with only one title (Halle) this year. That one title, however, put him in a tie with John McEnroe for third place on the men's all-time list. Only Jimmy Connors (109) and Ivan Lendl (94) have more. (And that's the way it is stay I'm afraid.)
Hampered by back and confidence issues, the 32-year-old Swiss artist reached only two other finals in 2013, including a Masters one in Rome, where he lost to his long-time rival (or should I say nemesis) Nadal.
After reaching the Aussie semis in January, Federer failed to get past the quarterfinals at the year's last three Slams, including a second-round stunner at Wimbledon and a fourth-round setback at the U.S. Open.
The once-mighty Fed's a seven-time Wimbledon and five-time U.S. Open champ.
Federer's prize money was a paltry (for him) $2.8 million. But he still holds the record with just under $79 million in career earnings.
Note: Federer received the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the ninth time and was selected as the ATP's Fan Favorite for a record 11th consecutive year.
The Top 10 was rounded out by two-time Davis Cup champion Tomas Berdych (54-25); the other Swiss, Stan Wawrinka (51-23); Richard Gasquet (50-23); and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (39-16).
The former Wimbledon runner-up and three-time 2013 ATP tour runner-up Berdych helped the Czech Republic capture a second straight Davis Cup championship last week.
Wawrinka was the biggest mover, as he finished the year ranked eighth in the world after opening 2013 at No. 17. He reached his first-ever Grand Slam semifinal at the U.S. Open, titled in Portugal by upsetting Ferrer in the final, and was a three-time runner-up, including a spot in his second career Masters final, in Madrid.
Gasquet, like Wawrinka, also appeared in a U.S. Open semi and may have surpassed Tsonga as the top Frenchman on the circuit. The nifty star captured three titles, giving him an even 10 for his career, and was a runner-up at two other events, including a big Masters one in Toronto.
The oft-injured Tsonga reached only two finals, including a victory on some home soil in Marseille. The other final resulted in a loss, also on home turf, in Metz. After reaching his first-ever French Open semifinal in June, Tsonga went belly up in the second round at Wimbledon and missed the U.S. Open due to injury.
Milos Raonic. The 6-5 Canadian bruiser possesses arguably the best service game in the business, and has been steadily climbing the charts over the last couple of years. The 22-year-old captured titles in San Jose and Bangkok and was a two-time runner-up, including a trip into his first-ever Masters event on some home soil in Montreal.
Raonic, however, needs to pick-up the pace at the Slams, where he's still searching for that elusive trip into a quarterfinal.
I think it's safe to say we won't be seeing any American Grand Slam glory from the likes of John Isner, Sam Querrey, Tim Smyczek, Michael Russell, Donald Young, Bradley Klahn, Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock, Denis Kudla, etc., with only Isner (No. 14) and Querrey (46) even ranked inside the Top 50.
For the second time in 12 months, Radek Stepanek won a fifth and deciding rubber for the Czechs in a Davis Cup final, with his latest heroics coming against little-known Serb Dusan Lajovic this past Sunday in Belgrade. Last year, "Steppy" clinched the Czech Republic's first title by beating Spain's Nicolas Almagro on home soil in Prague.
The 2014 ATP season will swing into action Dec. 30 in Australia, Qatar and India.
Until then, Happy Tennis!
11/18 15:23:12 ET