After a topsy-turvy 2020 season that included unprecedented postponements, dramatic defaults and historic triumphs, what could 2021 hold in store? Read on for a preview of the top names in the men's tennis game, divided into tiers from top contenders to also-rans. Every player's name is preceded by their ranking to start the season.
Tier 1A - The still-goating GOATs
(1) Novak Djokovic - Djokovic went 41-5 in 2020, capturing his eighth Australian Open title along the way for his 17th Grand Slam win. He didn't suffer a loss until defaulting against Pablo Carreno Busta in the fourth round of the US Open and was later blown out by Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. Djokovic is three Grand Slams shy of the men's singles record of 20 shared by Nadal and Roger Federer, and he's clearly the man to beat on hard courts and grass until further notice. He has been particularly dominant down under, so Djokovic will be the heavy favorite at the Australian Open.
(2) Rafael Nadal - Nadal lost a five-set thriller to Dominic Thiem in Australia and skipped the US Open, so with Wimbledon canceled, his last opportunity to tie Federer's record in 2020 came at the French Open. The King of Clay seized that opportunity by capturing his 13th Roland Garros title. He's the undisputed GOAT of clay-court tennis, but Nadal's no slouch on other surfaces. He has won the US Open four times and reached the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon five times apiece, winning three of those 10 finals. Nadal's more in line with the Tier 1B players than Djokovic on hard courts and grass, but he's by far the greatest threat to Djokovic's No. 1 ranking, and it would be a supreme disappointment if Rafa doesn't overtake Federer for sole possession of first place with a 21st Grand Slam title in 2021.
Tier 1B - Title contenders at every slam
(3) Dominic Thiem - This could be the year Thiem establishes himself as part of a new Big 3 along with Djokovic and Nadal, and while some may argue that he's already there, Thiem still needs to show that he's capable of winning a Grand Slam with both Novak and Rafa in the draw. The 27-year-old Austrian captured his first career Grand Slam title at the US Open with Nadal absent and Djokovic having defaulted earlier in the tournament, but he's unlikely to be handed such a golden opportunity again in 2021. There's little, if any, daylight between Nadal and Thiem on hard courts at this point in their respective careers, and Thiem also gives Djokovic a run for his money as the world's second-best clay-court player. While he went 2-0 against Nadal in 2020 and has won three of four against Djokovic dating back to the 2019 French Open, beating them back-to-back is a much taller order, but that's likely what it will take as long as Thiem remains third in the rankings.
(5) Roger Federer - Federer comes into the season ranked fifth after missing most of 2020 following a pair of knee surgeries, but he was rolling along prior to the injury, as his four most recent Grand Slam results consist of two semifinal runs, a quarterfinal exit and a loss in the 2019 Wimbledon final, when Federer blew two match points against Djokovic. Though Federer's now 39 years old and hasn't won a Grand Slam since the 2018 Australian Open, he'll focus the majority of his energy on the major tournaments and can't be written off on the biggest stage. The eight-time Wimbledon champion will be an especially tough out at the grass-court slam, where Federer's aggressive style is most effective.
(4) Daniil Medvedev - After giving Nadal all he could handle in the 2019 US Open final, Medvedev failed to replicate that success at the Grand Slam level in 2020, but he still finished as the world No. 4 and capped the year with a title at the ATP Finals, which included victories over Djokovic, Nadal and Thiem. The Russian will turn 25 in February, and he's still fine-tuning his game, as Medvedev has the offensive skill to take control of points but often defers to his defensive abilities in big moments by backing up well behind the baseline and retrieving. Andy Murray had the same tendencies early in his career, and he finally found the aggressiveness to capture his first Grand Slam title at the 2012 US Open at age 25. Will Medvedev follow suit? Even if he doesn't, Medvedev in his current form is capable of reaching a level not seen outside the four players listed above him.
Tier 2 - Hoping to break into Tier 1
Barring injuries, I expect these three players to continue to round out the top eight.
(7) Alexander Zverev - Zverev has been a mainstay in the latter rounds of Masters for a while, but he had perennially underachieved at Grand Slams prior to last year. Despite a crisis of confidence with his serve, Zverev put his Grand Slam struggles to bed in 2020, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and falling to Thiem in the US Open championship match. Those two best results both came on hard courts, but the 23-year-old German possesses a mix of power, variety and movement that should lead to success on all surfaces. The issues preventing Zverev from joining the tier above are almost exclusively mental.
(6) Stefanos Tsitsipas - Like Zverev, Tsitsipas has a tendency to get into his own head, which can hold him back at times. The hot-headed Greek is capable of the occasional meltdown – like his US Open loss to Borna Coric in which Tsitsipas let six match points slip away – but Tsitsipas already has two Grand Slam semifinal appearances under his belt at age 22. He seems to lack belief against the top players on the biggest stage at times, but the resolve Tsitsipas showed to battle back from a two-set deficit against Djokovic in the 2020 French Open semifinal before ultimately falling in five should help him grow in 2021.
(8) Andrey Rublev - Rublev has as much pure firepower off the ground as anybody on the planet, but he's yet to match the Grand Slam success achieved by peers like Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas. The 23-year-old Russian reached the quarterfinals in two of the three Grand Slams he played in 2020 and made the Round of 16 in the other, so Rublev is consistently beating the players he should beat. The next step for him is becoming more competitive with the players ranked ahead of him on the biggest stage, but Rublev's best tennis is still ahead of him.
Tier 3 - The rest of the top 25
This next batch of guys can make deep runs in the right circumstances and are capable of upsetting the players above when things go right, but they won't realistically contend for any major titles barring a major stroke of luck or career-defining hot streak. Less than 700 ranking points separate No. 11 Gael Monfils from No. 22 Cristian Garin, so one big week can drastically alter your spot in this tightly-knit pack. I'm listing them below in order of how bullish I am on their 2021 outlooks:
(14) Milos Raonic - Raonic has the best chance of displacing one of the eight players above him. The big-serving Canadian has battled injuries in recent years but was previously a mainstay in the top 10, peaking at No. 3 in 2016, when he made the semifinals in Australia and the final at Wimbledon. He seemed to be nearing a return to pre-injury form in 2020.
(9) Diego Schwartzman - Schwartzman makes up for what he lacks in height with heart, as the 5-foot-7 Argentine players a gritty, aggressive baseline style similar to David Ferrer in the early-mid 2010s. He finally broke through to his first major semifinal at the 2020 French Open, and Schwartzman should be a fixture in the second week of the 2021 majors.
(18) Stan Wawrinka - Wawrinka has three Grand Slam titles under his belt, but he may not have another such run left in him considering he turns 36 in March. Still, no top player wants to see the Swiss shot-maker in their section of the draw, as Wawrinka's still capable of producing the form to top anybody on any given day, and he's one of the few players who truly believes he can beat any member of the Big 3 when he steps out on the court with them.
(19) Grigor Dimitrov - Dimitrov's like a more volatile, less successful Wawrinka. The 29-year-old Bulgarian has tremendous shot-making ability and has reached the semifinals of every slam except for the French Open while peaking at No. 3 in the rankings in 2017. Wawrinka didn't win his first major title until he was nearly 29, so maybe Dimitrov can also put together his deepest run at this age.
(10) Matteo Berrettini - Berrettini has become a fixture in the lower half of the top 10, though the big-serving Italian is a step behind his most prominent next-gen peers. Still just 24 and with a 2019 US Open semifinal appearance under his belt, Berrettini's more than capable of putting together another deep run if things break right, especially on faster surfaces.
(21) Felix Auger-Aliassime - Auger-Aliassime has been viewed as a top prospect for a while, and he'll look to put together his most consistent campaign to date at age 20. The 6-foot-4 Canadian got his best Grand Slam result at the 2020 US Open with a run to the Round of 16, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him push through to at least one major quarterfinal in 2021.
(12) Denis Shapovalov - Shapovalov has grown up in Auger-Aliassime's shadow despite being one year his senior, as the consensus has always been that it's only a matter of time until Felix surpasses his friend Denis. That chip on his shoulder has helped fuel the fiery Shapovalov, who has the shot-making ability off both wings to give anybody trouble when he's on. This could finally be the year Shapovalov is eclipsed by Auger-Aliassime, but he won't go down easily, especially if he can find a bit more consistency from set to set and match to match. Like his countryman, Shapovalov notched his best career Grand Slam result at this past US Open, reaching the quarterfinals.
(24) Borna Coric - It feels like Coric has been around forever, so it's easy to forget that he's still just 24. He climbed as high as No. 12 in the rankings in late 2018 before a back injury derailed his 2019 campaign. Coric regained form late in 2020 with a run to the US Open quarterfinals and should carry that momentum over into 2021.
(15) Pablo Carreno Busta - Carreno Busta became best known for being on the other end of Djokovic's infamous US Open default, but the veteran Spaniard put together a phenomenal second half of the season after the COVID hiatus, reaching the US Open semifinals and French Open quarterfinals to match his best career result at each slam, having also made those rounds in 2017.
(13) Roberto Bautista Agut - Like Carreno Busta in 2020, Bautista Agut made a major semifinal (Wimbledon) and a quarterfinal (Australian Open) in 2019. His all-court game will make RBA a tough out at every major tournament.
(20) Karen Khachanov - Khachanov lost some of his luster last season, as the 24-year-old Russian's development stalled. He moves extremely well for his 6-foot-6 frame and has reached the third round or better in nine of the last 10 Grand Slams, but Khachanov has struggled to break through against high-level competition, with just one quarterfinal appearance to show for all those promising runs.
(23) Alex de Minaur - De Minaur will turn just 22 years old in February and finally had his breakthrough Grand Slam result at the US Open with a trip to the quarterfinals. The Australian plays a counterpunching game similar to that of coach and former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, so he'll rarely be an easy out, though "The Demon" will find it difficult to muster the firepower to take out the game's elite players.
(11) Gael Monfils - Like Wawrinka, Monfils is a relic of the previous generation still hanging around the top 20. The 34-year-old Frenchman still delivers some of the most entertaining tennis around with exquisite retrieving and shot-making ability, but Monfils has reached only one Grand Slam quarterfinal since the start of the 2017 season.
(25) John Isner - Isner battled injuries last season and hasn't made it past the third round of a Grand Slam in the last two years. That said, the greatest server of all time is still an uncomfortable matchup for any opponent and can give anyone trouble if he plays the big points well, as chances are eliminating him will require you to win a tiebreak or three. The highest-ranked American man will hope to rediscover his form from the 2018 season, when Isner reached the Wimbledon semifinals and US Open quarterfinals.
(16) David Goffin - Goffin hits perhaps the most consistent ball on tour and is the preferred hitting partner of many top players, but he just doesn't have the sizzle to beat the top guys when it counts. The Belgian has reached the fourth round in 10 of 18 of his Grand Slams played over the past five years, with three trips to the quarterfinals among those 10.
(17) Fabio Fognini - Fognini's another guy who's in or approaching his mid-30s, but the fiery Italian still produces streaks of absolute brilliance, especially on clay. Consistency has been a problem for Fognini, however, and the longer matches at Grand Slams don't play into his favor. He captured his first career Masters title at Monte Carlo in 2019, but Fognini's lone Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance came way back in 2011. With four trips to the Round of 16 in his last 10 slams played, Fognini can't be written off completely at the biggest tournaments.
(22) Cristian Garin - Garin picks up many of his ranking points by winning smaller tournaments on clay, and he's a great option to pick against in the right circumstances. The 24-year-old Chilean is a borderline top-10 player on clay, but he struggles to beat top-50 opposition on other surfaces. His section of the draw presents a great opportunity for an unseeded player to make a deep run in three of the four Grand Slams, and Garin has made just one third round at a major.
(36) Jannik Sinner - The 19-year-old Sinner announced his arrival as a player to be reckoned with on the tour with a run to the French Open quarterfinals, and his 7-6 (4) loss in the first set of his quarterfinal match with Nadal was the closest anybody came to taking a set off Rafa all tournament. The 6-foot-2 Italian's nimble movement translates especially well to clay, but he should be a force on all surfaces before long, though it remains to be seen if Sinner's ready to make the leap into the top 20 at such a young age.
(29) Taylor Fritz - Fritz should overtake Isner as the top-ranked American in 2021. The 2015 Junior World No. 1 is yet to break through into the second week of a Grand Slam, but he reached the third round of all three slams played in 2020 and is set up for a breakout season at age 23. Fritz's bread and butter are the big serve and big forehand possessed by most top Americans of the past two decades, but his backhand is less of a liability compared to most of his prominent countrymen.
(141) Carlos Alcaraz - It's only a matter of time before Alcaraz becomes a notable name on the ATP Tour. The Spaniard notched his first career ATP Tour win at age 16 last season, and while he begins the 2021 season ranked outside the top 100, Alcaraz should rocket up the rankings before long. While it may take him another year or two to really compete with the big boys, the Spaniard is likely destined for a spot in the top five eventually. He'll make his Grand Slam debut at the upcoming Australian Open.
(119) Sebastian Korda - Sebastian is the son of former Australian Open champion Petr Korda, and he experienced some mild Grand Slam success of his own with a fourth-round appearance at Roland Garros in 2020. Possessing more of an all-court game compared to most Americans, the lanky 20-year-old should easily climb into the top 100 this year, and it would be surprising if he's still ranked outside the top 50 by the end of 2021. The question is how high will Korda's ascent go, rather than whether or not he'll take flight at all.
(41) Kei Nishikori - Nishikori had been a mainstay in the top 10 for most of his prime, but injuries have derailed his career in recent years. A healthy 2021 season should see Nishikori regain a top-20 ranking, and the 2014 US Open finalist appears to be over the shoulder injury that sidelined him late in 2020.
(82) Kevin Anderson, (157) Juan Martin del Potro - While Nishikori is healthy to start the 2021 season, it remains to be seen whether that will be the case for Anderson or del Potro. Both big men are capable of making deep runs in majors when healthy but have been let down by their bodies recently.