Ranking the elite men’s tennis players going into 2019

By DANIEL LANDY | September 20, 2018

Novak_Djokovic
CARINE/CC BY-SA 2.0 Novak Djokovic is poised to have a strong 2019.

Another exciting Grand Slam season on the ATP Tour just wrapped up, with Novak Djokovic securing his 14th career Slam at the U.S. Open. While there are still several notable tournaments coming up before the end of the calendar year — the Paris Masters, the Shanghai Masters and the ATP Finals — the end of the Slam season is as good a time as any to examine the current landscape of the sport’s elite players.

Before I get into my top 10 heading into the 2019 Slam season, I want to stress my excitement for tennis’ forthcoming Slam season. 2018 was yet another brilliant entry into tennis’ golden age, as the four Slams were once again swept by the three most accomplished players of this generation: Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In 2019, the intrigue surrounding the sport will only elevate, as the likes of Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka all figure to be back at full strength after dealing with various injuries over the last year and prior.

Several players who fell just outside of my top 10 include Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin, John Isner, Milos Raonic, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. These players have great skill sets but have yet to exhibit consistent success during the sport’s most significant tournaments. Do not be surprised if some of these players make major strides towards the sport’s upper echelon next season.

Kicking off the list at number 10 is Kevin Anderson, who in his early thirties is playing the best tennis of his career. Anderson has been a runner-up in two of the past five Slams and his powerful serve makes him a legitimate threat to knock off any player on the tour in any given match. I do not foresee him winning a Slam in 2019, but I do expect him deliver more noteworthy performances in high-leverage matches — akin to his five-set come-from-behind victory over Federer at Wimbledon in July.

The number nine spot belongs to Marin Čilić, who has exhibited the ability to consistently reach the latter stages of Slams. Since winning the U.S. Open in 2014, the Croat has reached at least the quarterfinals eight times, at least the semifinals three times and the finals twice. However, he does tend to struggle against other elite players late in tournaments, which keeps him from achieving a higher position on this list.

Nishikori, the man who edged Čilić in a thrilling U.S. Open quarterfinal match earlier this month, comes in at number eight. After missing the end of last season and the beginning of this season due to a wrist injury, Nishikori has worked his way back into tennis’ top tier. He has demonstrated progressive improvement throughout the Slam season, reaching the fourth round at the French Open, the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the U.S. Open. Furthermore, his losses in these tournaments came to Dominic Thiem and Djokovic, highly respectable opponents. Expect Nishikori to continue to improve this fall and winter. He should enter next year as a strong candidate to become a first-time Slam winner.

Andy Murray takes the number seven spot, after finally recovering from his hip injury to the point at which he was able to return to the ATP Tour this summer. Murray was a second round casualty at the U.S. Open, which was the only Slam in which he competed this year. However, expectations should not have been high, considering his time back on the tour had been relatively brief. Murray will now be able to dedicate the next several months to continuing his rehabilitation and should be back at the height of his powers by the time the Australian Open comes around in January.

Stan Wawrinka edges out Murray for the sixth spot but is in a very similar situation to the Brit. Wawrinka, who like Murray is a three-time Slam champion, spent much of 2018 recovering from injury — in his case, a knee injury. While Wawrinka did appear in all four Slams this season, he was not himself for much of the year. He showed glimpses of his old self this summer — knocking off Dimitrov in the first rounds of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — but was unable to  advance deep into the tournaments. However, as he continues to work his way back, he will rekindle the consistency required to be a formidable slam contender.

The first spot in the top five goes to Thiem, who looks like he may be the youngster that finally breaks through and wins a slam in a sport dominated by elite veteran players. Thiem’s best bet will be at the French Open, at which he was a semifinalist in 2016 and 2017 and a finalist this year. 

However, his top-tier play is now starting to extend beyond the clay court, as evidenced by his impressive showing at the U.S. Open. 

Thiem fell to Nadal in the quarterfinals but did so in arguably the most tightly contested match of the tournament. 

It is certainly tough for young players to get to the top of the tennis world — especially for a player whose best surface is the same as Nadal’s — but as Thiem continues to improve, it will only be a matter of time before he finally hoists an elusive Slam trophy.

Coming in at number four is Federer, who, while certainly still one of the game’s best, is coming off a disappointing finish to his Slam season. Federer got off to a great start in 2018, winning his second consecutive Australian Open. However, after sitting out the French Open — in order to prepare for the rest of the season — Federer was unable to deliver another Slam title. 

He blew two sets to love lead against Anderson in the Wimbledon quarterfinals and was then stunned by John Millman in the fourth round at the U.S. Open. Federer is still one of the game’s best, but his recent premature Slam exits keep him out of the top three of this über-competitive list.

Juan Martín del Potro earns the number three spot, after reaching his first Slam final since winning the U.S. Open in 2009. While he ultimately fell to Djokovic in this year’s U.S. Open final, del Potro looked strong throughout 2018’s final Slam, as well as throughout the season. The issue with the Argentine is never his ability to perform when he is on the court but rather his ability to stay on the court. 

He is a fragile but powerful player. His struggle to avoid injury will likely persist going forward. However, he is healthy right now, and when he is healthy, he is one of the best players in the world.

Despite his unfortunate withdrawal the U.S. Open, Nadal still takes the number two spot on the list. Nadal retired from his semifinal match against del Potro, citing tendonitis in his knee. 

This withdrawal should not detract from his strong season overall this year, though. His tour-leading return game win percentage and his ATP-high five tournament victories are two of many indicators that he is a still one of tennis’ best. 

Tendonitis does not figure to be an injury that will keep the Spaniard out for an extended period of time. When he does return, expect him to return to the extremely high level of play at which he has performed throughout his illustrious career. 

And last but not least, Djokovic claims the number one spot, after winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Djokovic’s return to the top of the sport this season is truly inspirational. Until Wimbledon, he had struggled through two years of injuries and defeats. 

However, he looked arguably better than ever on his way to winning the last two Slams. It is not easy to reassert one’s dominance as a part of such a competitive crowd, but in emerging victorious twice on tennis’ biggest stage, Djokovic has managed to do just that.

With these 10 players at the forefront, tennis is in very good hands for the foreseeable future. Expect to see more of the same exceptional play from the game’s best competitors next year and beyond.

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