Three months into the season and it is already clear that things may not go according to predictions made at the start of the year and surprises could well be in store. In January, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal were firmly perched in the top four places in the ATP rankings while David Ferrer was some way behind on fifth spot.
The stage seemed set for another year of dominance by the top four with the one interest possibly being whether there would be a shift as far as the quartet was concerned. Murray had ended the season strongly by winning the US Open – the first British Grand Slam singles winner since 1936 – and the Olympic gold in London in front of adoring fans and he looked to be the dark horse.
Now as the season shifts into top gear and the players move over to Europe for the clay court season Murray has taken the early lead. His title triumph at the Miami Masters has put him at the No 2 spot in the latest rankings behind Djokovic.
It’s not the first time that Murray has been at that position. He was the world No 2 in 2009. His rise means that Federer is down to No 3 while Ferrer has taken over the No 4 slot. Fellow Spaniard Nadal back from injury that saw him miss the end of the season last year is currently at No 5. So there is a palpable change in the order and there are still eight more months to go.
The change at the order is best exemplified by the fact that for the first time since November 2003 neither Federer nor Nadal is in the top two. Their long and intense rivalry through the first decade of the new millennium has been the stuff of dreams but of late there is little doubt that first Djokovic and now Murray has been the player to watch out.
But then one can never write off either of the two all time greats and come Roland Garros and Wimbledon both Federer and Nadal will be right up there trying their best to win the titles that have mattered the most to them.
Now the dark horse would appear to be Ferrer who pushed Murray close in a three set final at Miami. The Spaniard was stricken by cramps in the final set tie break which he lost 7-1. And in the heat and humidity of Key Biscayne Murray too had his problems but he chose not to receive treatment for a twisted ankle to avoid prolonging the endurance test.
But Ferrer who has slowly worked his way up in the last couple of years could well be the man to watch out for. Even on Sunday during the Miami Masters final he was one point away from taking the title and it was only through a Hawkeye replay call when match point down in the final set that Murray survived. It could well have been Ferrer’s third title of the year and besides two this season he notched up seven tournament victories in 2012 to confirm his rising stature.
Djokovic may be perched at the top but he will have to be on his toes for the others are catching up. Proof of this came with his fourth round defeat at Miami at the hands of veteran Tommy Haas. The German who turns 35 this week handed the world No 1 only his second defeat of the season.
Djokovic was two time defending champion besides winning at Miami also in 2007 and while a couple of defeats may not exactly signal a decline in the Serbian’s game it only goes to show that he cannot take anything for granted in this highly competitive field.
Nadal for his part has put behind last year’s knee injury and in winning the season’s first ATP 1000 Masters at Indian Wells on a hard court proved that with the clay court season coming up he will be the man to beat. A seven month break in this fiercely competitive field can trigger a career ending slide but then Nadal is Nadal, perhaps the most aesthetic and athletic player on the circuit.
He will turn 27 during the French Open where he has won seven of his 11 Grand Slam titles. It must also not be forgotten that Nadal holds a 19 - 10 advantage over Federer who holds the all time record of 17 Grand Slam titles, three more than the next best, Pete Sampras.
Nadal could well be playing some of his best tennis as evidenced by his wins this year. At the end of the victorious campaign at Indian Wells he had a 17-1 win loss record, his best start in any year. The triumph gave him his first hard court title since 2010 and a record 22nd title in an elite Masters event. He had previously shared the record of 21 with Federer.
At Indian Wells he touched peak form for on the way to the title he had to quell the challenge from defending champion Federer in the quarterfinal and then got the better of world No 6 Tomas Berdych in the semifinals before finally overcoming seventh ranked Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, the 2009 US Open champion, in the title clash. Incidentally Del Potro stunned Djokovic in the semifinal ending the Serb’s 22- match winning streak and this came on top of a quarterfinal victory over Murray so he is clearly on his way up.
Oh yes, it’s going to be great ATP season with the leading players eager to show that they still belong there while those hot on their heels will go the whole haul in a bid to dethrone them and take over at the top.