Updated: March 21, 2012, 8:19 AM ET ESPN.com
Just to clear up any confusion, this is 2012. We fully understand if you, our loyal fans, were confused, considering Roger Federer
is winning week after week -- after week. The fabulous Fed followed up his titles in Rotterdam and Dubai with a convincing display at Indian Wells. Why the sudden burst of precious tennis this year for a guy nearing (gasp!) 31 years of age? And, conversely, what does this mean for the top dogs, Novak Djokovic
and Rafael Nadal
? Will this trend continue at the Sony Ericsson Open or will order be restored? We'll try to set the record straight.
Is Roger Federer the world's second-best player right now? Howard Bryant:
With a 39-2 record since losing to Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open, having won six of his past eight tournaments, you could argue he's the best. Let's make the distinction between "playing the best" and "being the best." Federer is the former, Djokovic is the latter. Federer's next big tests will be large: Can he beat Nadal on clay or Djokovic at all? And can his game hold up against Djokovic or Nadal over five sets? He is, though, fewer than 1,000 points behind Nadal for world No. 2. Greg Garber:
You mean after Victoria Azarenka
, right? Absolutely. He might be 30, but he looked pretty frisky at Indian Wells. The guy is on a 15-0 streak with three tournament wins and is a ridiculous 39-2 since last year's U.S. Open -- no one, not even Azarenka, can say that. Fed seems to have found a comfortable place in his advancing age and No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who have won the past eight Grand Slam singles titles, better be at their best in the three remaining Slams. Joanne Gerstner:
As of now, it looks that way. Novak Djokovic still has to be considered a step above Federer and Rafael Nadal. But Djokovic has shown that he's not playing at the same untouchable level of last year over the past few events. Federer has done what he does best: stayed cool and played precise and cerebral tennis. He still has all the shots and can deliver when it counts. When Federer doesn't outthink himself, he's still the king. Kamakshi Tandon:
If Miami is playing as quickly as reported, you could even make a case for him as the best -- two matches lost since the U.S. Open and six titles in eight events. At the same time, he lost the biggest of those matches -- the Australian Open semifinals. But anyway, first, second, third -- it doesn't really matter, because these three are so close together right now. They're consistently getting to semis and finals and meeting each other, so it all comes down to who wins those matches. And as we've seen, that's very much dictated by confidence and conditions. Ravi Ubha:
In the best-of-three set format, no. He's No. 1. How can anyone say otherwise? He's been untouchable since last fall, crushing Rafa twice. If Federer could move up the French Open to next week (he's almost that powerful, no?), he'd likely do it. That said, look at the last three majors. It's been the Novak and Rafa show, and Nadal proved in Melbourne in the best-of-five set format, again, that he has Federer's number. Roger knows he'll ultimately get judged this year on his play at the Slams, not what he does in Basel, Dubai, Indian Wells, etc. Matt Wilansky:
If Federer beats at least one of the big two in Miami, then yes. But let's not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. He's riding a three-tournament win streak, but only Indian Wells can be classified as a major accomplishment. There's no question at all that he's playing his best tennis in more than two years, but in order for us to label him as the second-best player, Federer has to fare exceptionally well in Miami. The good news, for Federer, is that he is playing with the kind of aplomb that lifted him to all those Slam titles.
How concerned are we now that Novak Djokovic has gone title-less in his past two events? Bryant:
Not very. There's a reason why a 41-0 streak to start a season had been done only once. It's really, really hard. Andy Murray
-- whom he lost to in Dubai -- is, in Djokovic's own words, his toughest opponent. And John Isner
, who beat him at Indian Wells, played the match of his life, serving 74 percent on first serves, banging 20 aces to no double faults and hitting 140 on the radar gun multiple times. With all that, Nole still lost his serve only once and two sets went to tiebreaks. All of Djokovic's game is still intact, and so is the goal of winning the French -- and possibly all four slams. Garber:
In a big-picture sense, not terribly. I think you could see this coming. When Roger Federer started winning titles, he was hungry to win every time he stepped on the court. Eventually, he learned to conserve energy and focus on the majors. Rafa, too, seems to have figured this out. Last year, Djokovic was unconscious and broke down at the end of the year from exhaustion. After winning the Australian Open, I think he'll mark his time through Miami and the early clay-court season, aiming to peak at Roland Garros. Gerstner:
Not concerned at all about Djokovic. He's allowed to lose a match or two, and I am sure the rest of the tour is appreciative of him not vacuuming up every title in sight. It's been more of a matter of Djokovic forcing his opponents to raise their tennis to their highest level in order to have any shot of beating him. John Isner played beautifully at Indian Wells to defeat Djokovic. So give some credit to Djokovic's opponents -- they've had to be brilliant in order to get past him. Tandon:
A Slam and a couple of semis would look pretty good if he hadn't set such high standards last year. It felt all along that he would be able to sustain that level for another season, so this isn't a big surprise. But even if he is back to normal, it looks like a new, improved normal -- toe-to-toe if not better with Nadal and Federer, rather than a step behind like in the past. The losses just mean that now Miami becomes key. If he doesn't win that, either, things start looking a lot more open. But as Federer said after his win in Indian Wells, "For the moment, Novak is the best player." Ravi Ubha:
Federer did indeed create a monster. With expectations so high, when he dipped slightly a few years ago, there were those who were quick to press the panic button. And now after Djokovic didn't win in Dubai and Indian Wells, some are saying the Serb is in a mini-crisis. Let's fully evaluate him after the French Open and remember that best-of-three sets is one thing, and best-of-five is quite another. Djokovic, however, isn't winning as many free points behind his serve, nor is he returning at his best. Not a good combination. Wilansky:
Djokovic can't win every match, but a loss here and a loss there can start to weigh on you. Djokovic won 43 straight matches (dating back to 2010) because he believed and because he had his opponents beat before walking on the court. Don't underestimate what even a slight loss of faith will do to a player. Federer recently admitted a losing battle with confidence has affected his Slam performances. And there's only one tonic to get back on track: win.
Can John Isner thrust himself into the serious Grand Slam conversation? Bryant:
Not yet. There is a huge gap between Murray at No. 4 and David Ferrer
at No. 5. Isner showed against Federer his game is just not precise enough when he's not blasting aces. He needs to clean up his overall game around the big serve -- especially when he tries to force the action from the baseline on his backhand. If he's having an average or below-average serving day (just four aces and one double but 21 unforced errors against 15 winners versus Fed in the Indian Wells final), he can easily be outlasted by the more consistent players. When he can win consistent baseline and neutral-ball rallies, look out. Until then, he will be scary but not a lock. Garber:
If that means reaching a semifinal at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, yes, it's possible. You have to feel happy for the kid. He played four years at Georgia, helped the Bulldogs win an NCAA team title, turned professional and -- at the age of 26 -- has climbed into the top 10 for the first time. He's beaten Roger Federer (Davis Cup) and Novak Djokovic (Indian Wells) in the past two months and displayed a pretty solid all-around game to go with his killer serve. He is easily America's best male player right now and, with the confidence he gained in making the IW final, I think he'll play well this summer. Gerstner:
Absolutely. He's always had the serve, and now the confidence and hard work are showing in the other parts of his game. His groundstrokes, especially the backhand, are looking more dangerous. And it's always fun watching Isner come to net, as the prospect of lobbing over a 6-foot-9 player forces opponents to really go for a special lob. Isner has the tools, and if he keeps improving, he will be in the conversation at Wimbledon for sure. Tandon:
Not seeing it yet. Just asking the question shows how far he's come, though. It's been a steep road from questionable pro material, to latest giant server, to longest-match-ever winner, to newest member of the top 10. Problem is, it only gets steeper from here. He's shown he can beat anyone pretty much any time, even if, at 6-foot-9, it's funny to call him a giant killer. But winning seven best-of-five matches and beating them at a Slam is a different level. Following up last week's final with a deep run in Miami would be another big step. Ravi Ubha:
Does Isner have the potential to win a Grand Slam title? Absolutely. With that serve, a lot is possible. And what might get lost in the shuffle (because of the serve) is that Isner is a very good competitor. He's now beaten Djokovic and Federer, and he took Rafa to five sets on dirt. But for Isner to go deep at a major, he can't afford to waste his energy prior to the business end. It cost him, for instance, at the Australian Open this year and last year at the U.S. Open. Wilansky:
Let's not get too ahead of ourselves. Isner has produced top-10-worthy wins -- which is why he's now in the top 10. But to win a Slam, it probably means beating at least two of the big four whales. It means Isner will have to sling that serve with precision for up to five sets and dictate rallies off both wings. Isner has shown more than enough moxie during crunch time, but whether he can sustain that over multiple matches against the elite is a pretty big ask. So can Isner reach a quarter or semi? Yeppers. Can he win the whole shebang? Not yet.
What is Rafael Nadal's current state of mind? Bryant:
Nadal hasn't won a tournament in nearly a year, since last year's French Open, but he has made seven finals, losing all to Djokovic. Nadal lost to Federer easily in awful, blustery, wet and cold conditions at Indian Wells and must be accountable for failing to adjust. But Nadal is still a serious force. Because of his grinding style of play and introspective anxiety, Nadal, unfortunately, seems like the best candidate of the top four players to burn out. This question won't be fully answered until the clay season. A poor showing at Miami could be very damaging to his confidence. Garber:
Well, if Novak Djokovic is in his head after winning their past seven matches, I have to believe Fed has crept into that space as well after knocking him off the court in Indian Wells. Rafa always has had an answer for Roger, but he looked defeated early and often in that 6-3, 6-4 loss. Rafa has now lost two of his past three to Fed. The good news? It's almost time for the clay-court season. Roland Garros has been his personal playground. Rafa has won six of the past seven titles there -- but he needs to summon some confidence if he's going to make it seven of eight. Gerstner:
Get the couch out, and let's see what's rolling around in Nadal's head. He's certainly still one of the very best players in the world, but he may be asking himself: Is that going to be enough to beat Djokovic? It'll be quite a psychological hurdle for Nadal, given the past few devastating losses. (Just watch the Australian Open again and see his heart break all over again.) Tandon:
Pretty tired of everyone trying to figure out what his state of mind is, probably. Nadal seems a bit weary of all the negativity surrounding him these days, but being solid rather than spectacular isn't enough, when you've done as much as he has. Last week's loss to Federer was pretty one-sided, with Nadal saying he didn't figure out what to do till toward the end. Just a bit of rust or something more? Miami will provide some indication. But either way, he knows the clay is around the corner. That's something to be positive about. Ubha:
Nadal won't be feeling that bad. Even though he failed to defend some points in Indian Wells, Rafa always looks at a tournament as a whole, not worried about what happened the year before. He hadn't played for a while, then came back to beat someone he fears (David Nalbandian
) and lost to a surging Federer in horrible conditions. What is slightly worrying is that Nadal is looking more irritable on court. His body language was poor against Federer, just as it has been in matches against Djokovic in the past year. We never, ever used to see that. Wilansky:
I can tell you what's going through Nadal's mind: dirty things. As in "Get me to the clay-court season -- and pronto." Nadal's body language was awful against Federer in Indian Wells. Federer, for the record, is the fussy one. He's the one who becomes easily vexed by unfavorable conditions. He's the one you won't see performing cartwheels on slow courts. He's the one who fears Nadal's fat forehand. But it was Federer who looked more relaxed on the court on a day with intermittent rain and heavy winds. Rafa looked agitated from the outset, and that's not a good thing. A change of pace and surface will do him a lot of good.