"No one here gets out alive..." - James Douglas Morrison (1943-1971)
The above is a partial song lyric taken from the Doors tune "Five to One." More than 40 years after its release, the meaning of the words remain open to interpretation. As a devoted fan of the band, I've blasted the song hundreds of times. Every time I hear it, I think of things constant- death, taxes, the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, Nadal winning on clay, Federer winning on grass.
Save two blips on the radar- Federer grappling with mono in 2008, Nadal and his uncooperative knees on the mend at present- we presume these two and other talented members of the ATP are certain to hang around until the very end of every tournament they enter. We assume they will turn in one top-notch performance after another, contesting an inexhaustible well of championship matches. We demand, and are often rewarded with, consistency.
All well and good, of course, unless you harbor an adrenaline-junkie streak like I do. If you do, then you require a bit of unpredictability while you watch the sport to keep matters interesting. Notice I said a "bit" of unpredictability. Like running the risk of over-salting a bowl of your favorite soup, a little unpredictability goes a long way. When, then, does the very thing that excites you about your prized player cross the line into full-blown exasperation territory?
Consider the names of the semifinalists at the Majors over the last five years. With a few exceptions here and there, the roster usually reads like a familiar short-list of the tennis elite. After the Nadal-Federer Australian Open final in January, I began compiling a catalogue of players whom I thought should regularly be seen during the business end of tournaments, but aren't. For whatever reason, these players haven't been able to string together a collection of decent matches and/or have fallen fast from peaks of former glory.
I give you the "Lost Boys," numerically ordered, as you'd expect, from five to one.
5) Novak Djokovic: "The Grand Slam Champ"
I hesitated to include a decorated player like Djokovic, but with respect to the other members of the Big 4, his 2009 results belie a superior talent.
Hot: 2008 Australian Open champion, 4 Masters Series shields, top 10 since 4/07
Cold: no marquee-titles in 2009, 3rd round loss to Kohlschreiber in Paris, drops to #4 (5/09)
Culprit: toxic cocktail made from early fame, family pressure and health problems
Band-Aid: keep parents Srdjan and Dijana at bay, master the asthma and weather the storm
Forecast: Sunny. With ambition, determination and drive to burn, Djokovic should be able to remain a competitive member of the Big 4.
4) Thomaz Bellucci "The Newcomer"
Some dubbed the 21-year-old Brazilian the "clay-court heir apparent" after pushing four-time champion Rafael Nadal to a 7-5 first set in the opening-round of the French Open in 2008.
Hot: 2008 clay-court Challenger Tour hat-trick, Costa Do Sauipe finals in 2009, top 100 (5/08)
Cold: no access into Monte Carlo 2009, return to cheap seats (World No. 141 in July), first-round losses in last three tournaments
Culprit: high-risk game combined with pressure to fill the shoes of beloved superstar and countryman Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten
Band-Aid: fix erratic groundies, train hard, procure a crackerjack promotional/marketing team
Forecast: Calm. With plenty of time to develop, Bellucci should reach his self-appointed goal of cracking the top 50.
3) Marcos Baghdatis "The Crowd Pleaser"
Save one Rafael Nadal perhaps, the sunny Cypriot possesses the most recognizable asset on the tour- a megawatt smile that inspires and delights tennis fans worldwide.
Hot: 2006 Australian Open runner-up, 2006 All-England club final four, World No. 8 (8/06)
Cold: fall from grace (World No. 148 in July), semifinals drought (Marseilles 2/08)
Culprit: career-crushing injuries and questionable commitment to fitness and training
Band-Aid: monitor diet, training and fitness, take baby steps to ensure forward progress
Forecast: Hazy. Baghdatis continues to battle a body ripe to quit on him, but two quarterfinal appearances in 2009 offer renewed hope.
I hit a roadblock with the next entry. Ernests Gulbis remains a mystery to me- enviably appealing, supremely gifted and wildly inconsistent. If not for the recent extracurricular activities of Richard Gasquet, the 20-year-old would have topped this list.
In short order, I realized I had but two options to ease my mental-itch over the mind-boggler that is Ernests Gulbis: 1) enlist the help of a chilled shot (or three) of Belvedere, or 2) consult an expert. I chose the latter. My colleague, Ricky Dimon, has followed the career ebb and flow of the Latvian since his tour debut in 2005. Please read his in-depth analysis below-
2) Ernests Gulbis: "The Underachiever"
During the French Open, commentator Brad Gilbert called Gulbis "the most disappointing player on tour, male or female, in 2009." And why not? Gulbis has been nothing short of atrocious over the past 12 months, despite seemingly having it all; talent, money (probably too much for his own good), looks, and he even hangs out (probably too often) with WTA star Victoria Azarenka. What Gulbis doesn't have is a semblance of a consistent tennis game. Who knew one player's fortunes (or at least one writer's opinion of the aforementioned player) could change so much in just two years?
Ricky Dimon's blog: Why I am Driving the Ernests Gulbis Bandwagon.
Hot: 2008 U.S. Open fourth round at 19 years old, quarterfinals of both French Open and Cincinnati one year later
Cold: this is not a misprint: has not won back-to-back matches since the 2008 Masters Series Cincinnati. That's right: 12 full months without winning two matches in-a-row. Owns a dismal 11-17 match record in 2009.
Culprit: too much financial security, overconfidence from early success, no full-time coach since February
Band-Aid: hire a full-time coach, don't hit every forehand as hard as possible, find a motivational tool
Forecast: Scattered Thunderstorms. Gulbis has the talent to produce the occasional brilliant performance, but unless he becomes exponentially more consistent, he won't be back in the Top 40 anytime soon.
1) Richard Gasquet: "The Natural"
Simultaneously lauded for his flashy game, incomparable backhand and matinee-idol good looks, the 23-year-old Frenchman, christened "Baby Fed(erer)," possesses more natural talent than most of his contemporaries.
Hot: 5 tour titles, 2 Masters Series finals, 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist, World No. 7 in 7/07
Cold: a dozen early-round Grand Slam defeats, defunct since April (slipped to World No. 32)
Jaw-dropper: facing a 2-year ban after testing positive for cocaine (5/09)
Culprit: malicious mix of media scrutiny, expectation and wavering dedication to the sport
Band-Aid: personal inventory, introspection and time
Forecast: Stormy. With the possibility of tennis exile hanging over his head, Gasquet faces an uncertain future.
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