• What The Deuce

Federer falling, Murray on the move in first quarter

April 9, 2013
Roger Federer has been battling a back problem in recent weeks © AP

With the first quarter of the ATP Tour season completed, here is how the top men have fared following one grand slam and two Masters 1000 events:

1. Novak Djokovic: Slight loss

After a strong start, the top-ranked Djokovic did not continue dominating the way he was expected to during his favorite time of the year, getting upset at both the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Sony Open in Miami. He was error prone and looked bothered during those losses, and there was also tape on his elbow at Indian Wells. He also picked up an ankle injury during the Davis Cup victory over USA, and there will be a close watch to see how he recovers for the clay season - all leading up to his main goal of the year, the French Open.

But by any standard except the one he has set of himself the last two years, it was a good quarter overall - he won the most important title, the Australian Open, and also got a win in Dubai.

2. Andy Murrray: Gain

Murray's goal is to move up the rankings by doing better in the Masters Series events this year, and a win in Miami is a good start. It took him up to No. 2, and while there is little prospect of catching up to Djokovic over the next few months, he has maintained his form well after winning the US Open last year. Even though he would have wanted to do better in the Australian Open final against Djokovic, there have not been too many missteps so far this season.

3. Roger Federer: Loss

His most impressive performance during this period was withstanding the onslaught of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open quarter-finals, but Federer has not been the same since winning that match in five sets. He was inconsistent and serving poorly in Rotterdam and Dubai and was clearly hampered by back trouble during his last two matches in Indian Wells.

Federer is renowned for his ability to stay injury-free, but the back seems to be flaring up more often, so staying healthy will be a big priority for the 31-year-old for the rest of the season. Whether he anticipated problems or not, he did schedule himself a long break between Indian Wells and his first clay tournament, which should be a chance to rest and recover.

4. David Ferrer: Gain

Coming so close to winning Miami will sting, but Ferrer's battle against Murray was a welcome change from his previous two blowouts when facing the big four - an ugly 6-0 6-2 defeat against Rafael Nadal in the Acapulco final and a dismantling by Djokovic in the Aussie Open semi-finals.

His almost apologetic reaction to the Miami defeat also won people over: "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he told the large Spanish-speaking crowd that was cheering him on - and he reclaimed the No. 4 ranking he had lost to Nadal two weeks earlier. Add an Australian Open semi-final and two titles, and it has been an extremely solid showing.

How will Rafael Nadal get on during the clay court season after making a fine return from injury? © AP

5. Rafael Nadal: Gain

If expectations were high for Nadal's comeback, the Spaniard managed to even exceed them. A final and two clay titles to kick off his return was impressive, but then again, he is the King of Clay for a reason. But then turning around and winning his first event on hard courts in nearly a year, and a Masters Series, no less? That got the attention of people.

His victory at Indian Wells was helped by some fortunate events: a hobbled Federer, Tomas Berdych not at his best and a tiring Juan Martin Del Potro in the final. But his quick match-by-match improvement and growing confidence bodes very well ahead of a return to the clay.

6. Tomas Berdych: Unchanged

It has been mostly a period of opportunities missed for Berdych, who is trying to take the next step and start challenging the big four for big titles. The Czech did get a win over Federer in Dubai but did not do much against a tired Djokovic at the Australian Open, a still-adjusting Nadal at Indian Wells, and then bowed out to Richard Gasquet in Miami. However, he has managed to stay consistent, which has not always been easy.

7. Juan Martin Del Potro: Gain

His back-to-back three-setters against Djokovic, Murray and Nadal at Indian Wells might be the most impressive series of matches anyone has played this season. Though Del Potro did not have quite enough left to close the deal against Nadal in the Indian Wells final, his performance signalled that the 2009 US Open champion may be finally ready to recapture his form prior to surgery on his wrist.

The bad news is that the wrist has been troubling him a little again, and he has been up and down. He made a strong start at the Australian Open but then produced a puzzling five-set loss. The Argentine lost in the first round of Miami after Indian Wells, but did earlier win a title in Rotterdam and reach the semi-finals of Dubai. Overall, a promising beginning.

8. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Loss

Like Federer, Tsonga has struggled after that brutal five-setter at the Australian Open. Deflated by the defeat, he had a few opening-round losses before rebounding to win the title in Marseille in front of the French spectators. But he has not done much since.

9. Janko Tipsarevic: Loss

After winning Chennai to start the year, Tipsarevic retired through injury at the Australian Open following back-to-back five-setters and has apparently been playing with it since. That may not have been a good decision, because he did not win any matches until Miami, and it also did not give him much chance to recover. He did, however, skip the Davis Cup to rest this week.

10. Richard Gasquet: Gain

Back in the top-ten, the uber-talented but erratic Gasquet has had some great weeks this season, winning two titles and reaching the semi-finals in Miami. He was up a set against Murray in that last-four encounter, but as so often happens, he could not close the deal (an ankle injury played a role). Let us see how he follows up on this good start to the year.

Other notables

Ernests Gulbis has been the biggest surprise on the men's tour so far, shaking off his long slump and rising almost 80 spots after going on a tear that included winning Delray Beach and reaching the fourth round of Indian Wells as a qualifier.

No one has lost more spectacularly than Stanislas Wawrinka, who took Djokovic to five sets in Australia, played a seven-hour doubles match in the Davis Cup and almost took out Swiss compatriot Federer at Indian Wells.

The feel-good story in Miami was Tommy Haas, who defeated Djokovic and made it all the way to the semi-finals. And now at 35, he is back in the top 15. And Kevin Anderson is back in the top 30 after good showings at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, even with elbow surgery in between.

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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