Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will batle for world number one spot in 2013, says Barry Cowan
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Radek Stepanek... Barry Cowan blogs on 2012's tennis highlights.
Last Updated: 28/11/12 12:38pm
The Serb was virtually unbeatable at times during the last campaign when he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open and reached the French Open semis.
But to back up all that success by winning in Melbourne again, finishing as the runner-up in Paris to Rafael Nadal, taking the ATP World Tour Finals trophy and ending 2012 as world number one for the second successive season is a phenomenal achievement.
Djokovic's transitional game has improved and the net play he has been working on for the best part of four years has borne fruit; he is now a lot more comfortable coming forward on important points.
Novak's serve is also better, which is evident by the amount of aces that he hit, while I also think he has become much more aggressive from the baseline, something you need to have in your arsenal if you want longevity as a defender, which is what the 25-year-old primarily is.
His trophy haul dried up a little in the middle of the year, though, and while that was in part down the form of Andy Murray, Nadal and Roger Federer, I still think there are areas to work on; at times, Djokovic wasn't as clinical or as good in tricky situations as he was in 2011.
Novak often rolled the dice last year and while I wouldn't say he was lucky, things went his way; that can't keep happening and when you then lose a couple of close matches your confidence can diminish slightly.
I reckon that happened to Djokovic and his self-belief was dented enough to make a difference between winning and losing matches, but he has responded to every hit that he has taken and become a better player.
Murray was without doubt the most improved player of 2012 and, of course, ended it with an Olympic gold medal and the US Open trophy.
The Scot had some vital moments this year and two of the most defining actually were in losing situations: his semi-final defeat to Djokovic in the Australian Open and his loss in the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer.
January's display Down Under was massive for Murray's confidence as it showed him he was not that far away from the top guys, while at SW19, in what I feel was THE defining moment of his career, he realised he belonged in big finals.
Andy was incredibly aggressive against Federer and was unlucky to not have taken the first two sets, and that new-found positivity in his play, along with the way he embraced being part of a team environment, helped him win the Olympics and move not two steps forward but 10.
Murray and Djokovic are the best two players in the world right now and I expect their rivalry to be the most prominent one in men's tennis in 2013; I am not ruling out a fit-again Rafa on clay or Roger on any given day, but Djokovic and Murray have raised the bar.
Andy and Novak should be battling for the world number one spot in 2013 and I fully expect Murray, at some point, to seize it.
Nadal will have a shock when he comes back on the hard courts this winter and we will need to hold off on judging him until the end of clay-court season; I think the first two or three months will be irrelevant and we shouldn't write him off if he doesn't pick up wins or trophies in that period.
Federer, meanwhile, is still an unbelievable player but I don't see him beating Djokovic and Murray if they play their best, while I think Juan Martin Del Potro is as far away from winning a Slam as he was 12 months ago.
The Argentine, the 2009 US Open champion, needs top guys to lose to win another Major because I don't think he can beat two or three of them successively in a tournament, and while Tomas Berdych is getting closer, the same criticism could be levelled at him.
The 27-year-old's best tennis is as impressive as the top four's but his worst tennis is far inferior to what Murray, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal produce when they are struggling; you cannot question the Czech's attitude but he is just not as good as the guys above him. That, as a Rafa Benitez would say, is a fact.
The other guys in the second tier - David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Janko Tipsaravic etc - are not going to improve another 25 per cent next year and really get into that top bracket, but someone who could break into the top four is Milos Raonic.
The big serving Canadian has poor weeks but he has shown glimpses that he is ready to step up and if he is consistently aggressive and plays a full and injury-free year I will be very disappointed if doesn't get into at least the top eight and qualify for the 2013 ATP World Tour Finals.
I would also like to say a big well done to Radek Stepanek, whose victory over Nicolas Almagro last Sunday in the fifth and deciding rubber saw Czech Republic beat Spain to the Davis Cup title.
I interviewed the 33-year-old before the doubles event at the World Tour Finals, in which he partnered India's Leander Paes, and asked him what his career highlight was and he said it was still to come. I bet he's tasted it now, though!
I'm not surprised Radek won his all-important match as he has a steely determination and is better on indoor courts than Almagro; he could quite easily have folded after losing the third set to see his lead reduced to 2-1, but his experience told in the fourth as he kept his composure and won.
The Davis Cup was a Grand Slam final for him as he is not going to win a Major and always knew he wasn't; this team trophy is wonderful for Berdych and the rest of the Czech team, but especially for Stepanek, one of the game's characters.