If you blinked twice, you might have missed tennis' offseason. That's right, the 2012 campaign has kicked off, and the Australian Open is right around the corner. This week, we'll take a look at some of the notable players and assess their chances of winning. We start with the men's world No. 1, Novak Djokovic.
How will Djokovic's post-U.S. Open slump affect him in 2012?
Greg Garber: It wasn't so much a slump as the onset of general physical and mental exhaustion. For nine months, the Serb played about as well as humanly possible -- then he (predictably) imploded from that monumental effort. He couldn't start or complete four matches in the last four months of last season, and history tells us (hello, Rafa) that it's not easy backing up three major titles the next year. I can't see him dominating 2012 the way he did 2011.
Kamakshi Tandon: Ironically, the success might be harder to deal with than the struggles. His problems after the U.S. Open were due to injuries and exhaustion, so it shouldn't really have any impact. And all the early signs point to a healthy and fit Djokovic. He swept past both Roger Federer and David Ferrer to win in Abu Dhabi last week. Though it's only an exhibition event, it's a good sign than Djokovic looked sharp right out of the gates. He says he's over the back injuries that were troubling him, but the hangover of all those wins last year -- not to mention the pressure to repeat -- is likely to be a lingering challenge this season.
Ravi Ubha: It won't affect him one little bit. He knows the reason why he stuttered -- injuries and fatigue -- and so he won't have any self-doubt. Even running on empty, he almost reached the semis at the year-end championships. Just as crucial, I don't think any of his peers think the slump will affect him. The aura remains. Last year wasn't a fluke. This guy always had it in him. He finally got dialed in mentally, made a few adjustments on court and became fitter.
Matt Wilansky: So much of winning and winning consistently is derived from confidence and aura. Djokovic won the Davis Cup to close out 2010 and parlayed that success into a stunning season in 2011. Now he starts from scratch. It'll be nearly impossible to maintain the mental stamina that it takes to even come close to duplicating 2011. Further, all the pressure is squarely on Djokovic's back. He'll have a hard time making up for his fall foibles.
What's the over/under on the number of Slams for Djokovic in 2012?
Garber: Three times in the past five years a different man won three Grand Slam singles titles in a single year. This has never happened before. The first two guys -- Roger Federer in 2008 and Rafael Nadal in 2011 -- came back the next year to win only one. I'll stick with that math. This year it feels like the playing field has been leveled. Rafa and Roger will find a way to solve the puzzle that was Novak Djokovic last year.
Tandon: Much depends on how the rest of the big four performs, obviously, and if younger contenders such as Juan Martin del Potro can make their way forward. But let's say two. Essentially, the expectation is that though Djokovic won't match last year's feat, he won't fall apart, either. It'll be very interesting to see how he plays this year. In basic terms, Djokovic managed to do what he did last year by playing remarkably well remarkably often. This year should show how much of that was a sustainable improvement and how much happened to be just good form.
Ubha: 2.5. Djokovic has a real shot at winning three Slams for the second straight season, something Federer did in 2007 after nabbing three of four in 2006. Nadal, talking from his own experience, suggested that Djokovic would find it very difficult to repeat his 2011, but I disagree, at least at a Slam level. It wouldn't surprise me to see him go on a tear like Federer. He wants more.
Wilansky: The lowly odds of Djokovic repeating his 2011 accomplishments coupled with a few questions this season don't bode well for him. Plus, let's remember, it took one heck of a courageous shot in Flushing to navigate past Federer in the semifinals. Still, Djokovic is the world No. 1 for a reason. He'll figure out a way to win one Slam in 2012.
Federer or Nadal will have more wins over Djokovic in 2012?
Garber: Have we ever seen Rafa quite so baffled as he was when Djokovic kept beating him in those six 2011 finals, two of them Grand Slams? Nadal was quite open about his frustration and his need to create a solution. This is the same guy who lost to Federer in back-to-back Wimbledon finals and then won the next two All England events he played. With Uncle Toni pushing him, Rafa will rebound. Roger was 1-4 against Djokovic, but easily could have been 2-3. Still, I'll go with Rafa and his learning curve.
Tandon: Nadal, if only because he seems likely to play Djokovic more often. Both will certainly have psychological hurdles when they face the Serb next, with Nadal going 0-6 and Federer 1-4 against him last season. Nadal believes that if he had only won their close meeting in Indian Wells last March, he would have played more freely in their later meetings, and the results might have been different. Federer scored a famous victory at the French Open, but losing the U.S. Open semifinal from two sets up and holding match point had to be a bitter blow.
Ubha: Federer. Assuming they play Djokovic the same number of times, the Swiss has to have the edge. He beat Djokovic in Paris and had him on the ropes at the U.S. Open. He has the ability to hit through Djokovic, unlike Nadal. Not only did Nadal go 0-for-6 against Djokovic in 2011, but he's lost 12 of their past 14 head-to-head sets.
Wilansky: At this point, there really isn't anything Federer can do to make the requisite changes to beat his two cohorts on a consistent basis. Nadal, though, is an indomitable force who, barring injury, will figure out how it all went so wrong last season. And it's only going to take one win over Djokovic for Nadal to recover his missing confidence.