With 2020 in the books (almost), Andy Schooler looks ahead to 2021 and his Ones to Watch in the ATP for the coming year.
I’ve opted to pick my ‘ones to watch’ using a Carol Vorderman top-middle-and-bottom approach. So, my first selection is about an established star who looks capable of making an even bigger impact in 2021 – think Grand Slam and Masters 1000 contender.
The obvious pick following his ATP Finals success would have been Daniil Medvedev. But in many ways, 2020 was disappointing for that particular Russian – until his trip to London he’d actually failed to build on an excellent second half of 2019.
Rublev will be hoping the same fate does not await him. He was excellent after COVID-19 locked down the tour, winning three titles to end the year with five.
None were at the highest level, but I believe that can change in the coming year.
Despite his relatively slender frame, Rublev possesses the power in his serve and forehand which can cause damage against any opponent and there still seems to be plenty of upside to the 23-year-old.
Another factor in his favour is his all-court game. Unlike Medvedev, Rublev has already won titles on hard and clay surfaces and that aspect could certainly help him in ranking terms in 2021 when another top-eight finish can be expected.
One of the biggest effects coronavirus had on tennis was on the rankings, which have effectively moved to a two-year rolling system.
This means the current official world rankings vary considerably to what they would otherwise have been. Norway’s rising star Ruud is a good example.
He enters 2021 at 27th in the ATP list. But had the regular ranking system been in place (ie determined solely by performances over the last 12 months) he’d be 11th.
Even in a world of algorithms, I expect a few errors from the layers, certainly in the early weeks of the season, due to this ranking ‘confusion’.
Ruud could well be one of those players who is over-priced, especially on his favoured clay surface. On it, he was a winner in Buenos Aires, runner-up in Santiago and semi-finalist at the Rome Masters in 2020.
With a big serve to back up a strong ground game, Ruud will likely be around at the business end of the top clay events again in 2021.
ATP rankings vs 2020 points only
Basilashvili 39 (would be 135)
Nishikori 40 (would be 196)
Querrey 53 (would be 155)
Lopez 62 (would be 126)
Verdasco 64 (would be 136)
Pouille 69 (would be unranked)
Chardy 75 (would be 215)
J. Sousa 90 (would be 236)
— enrico maria riva (@enricomariariva) November 8, 2020
If Ruud is one to follow on clay, Humbert is his equivalent on faster surfaces.
The Frenchman won in Auckland and Antwerp last season, on both occasions displaying his strong game in the forecourt.
Not too many players come forward as naturally as he does these days, while his swinging lefty serve is another string to an already-impressive bow. It took him into the top 15 in the list of service games won in 2020, not to mention the last 16 of Wimbledon in 2019.
Humbert beat six top-20 players in the shortened 2020 season, including both Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and that record is not to be sniffed at.
Aside from that Wimbledon run, he’s not made a great impression on the Slams yet but expect that to change in the next 12 months.
He’ll certainly contend for more titles in 2021 and could well be one to follow at some of the bigger events on faster courts, such as Cincinnati and Shanghai.
Sinner’s ability was talked about in tennis circles from a young age.
I remember tipping him up on these pages in Antwerp at the back end of 2019 as a 100/1 shot (he frustratingly lost in the semis) but his 2020 campaign ensures such prices about the Italian are long gone.
Winning 19 of 30 matches in your first full season on the main tour is highly impressive and the fact he finished 13-3, reaching the last eight at Roland Garros and collecting his first tour title in Sofia, suggests he’s ready for a year which could propel him towards the top 10.
Still only 19, Sinner is the only teenager in the top 100. He climbed from 78th to 37th last season.
His forehand is a potent weapon, as is his serve – only three players won a higher percentage of points behind their first serve in 2020.
However, the less-talked-about return side of his game was also impressive and helps show he’s already a strong package with no real weakness. Sinner was seventh for the year for percentage of return games won – one place ahead of Medvedev.
Back to my Countdown analogy and the ‘one from the bottom’ is Alcaraz, the only 17-year-old in the world’s top 400.
He’s already at 141 in the ranking list, up from 492 at the start of the year. The Spaniard was well inside the top 100 on 2020-only form.
The pre-virus part of the season brought him his maiden tour-level win on debut in Rio when, aged only 16, he outlasted Albert Ramos-Vinolas in a three-hour-37-minute war.
After the action resumed, Alcaraz claimed three titles on the Challenger Tour, becoming only the fifth player to achieve that feat before turning 18. With the others being Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Richard Gasquet and Felix Auger-Aliassime, he’s part of an elite club.
He also keeps good company on the tour – his coach is former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.
With his propensity for clay and Spanish nationality almost certain to see him tagged ‘The New Nadal’, Alcaraz will have plenty to deal with in the coming year.
Yet even Ferrero isn’t playing down his terrific talent. “I had a good career,” the former world number one said a few months ago, “but he can do even better.”
Expect to start seeing Alcaraz make an impact at some of the lower-level clay events in 2021.