My tenth and final Player to Watch pick for 2014 is bound to confound, surprise and possibly annoy. After all, there are so many worthy candidates, but only one more can be chosen.
So. Could it be Lucas Pouille, the 19-year-old French lad who gained almost 250 places in the ATP rankings this year and for a brief time was the only teen in the Top 200 alongside 2014 Player to Watch number seven, Nick Kyrgios?
Or is it possibly Filip Peliwo, the 19-year-old Canadian former junior #1 who rose over 250 places in this years rankings and is now training in Spain with Galo Blanco?
Since former US college players who are older than 22 are now allowed under the Colette Lewis amendment of 2013, will it be Tennys Sandgren, the 22-year-old University of Tennessee standout whom we last saw winning the Champaign Challenger and improving his 2013 ranking by almost 50 places?
Howzabout Karen Khachanov, the Russian 17-year-old who shocked the world by making the quarterfinals of the ATP 250 Kremlin Cup, beating Janko Tipsarevic along the way, and raising his ranking a mere 1,458 places this season?
Or Karim Hossam, the 19-year-old Egyptian who climbed over 800 ranking rungs in 2013 and won four Egyptian Futures titles?
The answers: Non. No. Nope. Nyet. And sorry, Karim.
Nay, this year’s final Player to Watch is someone for whom I’ve shamelessly bent my own arbitrary rules, including him even though he’s ranked inside the original “between #150 and #500 in the world” criterion I established for original PTW selection.
So without further adieu, ladies and gentlemen, I give to you
your my final PTW for 2014… Mr. James Duckworth.
What’s my reasoning? Well, for the most part, he’s a player who I love to watch. Therefore: he’s a Challenger Tennis Player to Watch. Simple as that! But hereafter follows his credentials, and why he’s a player you should watch.
The 21-year-old Sydneysider first came to my attention in 2009, back during the glory days of Tennis Australia’s Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs when it was a round robin and Rob O’Gorman prowled the grounds as the original Adrian Franklin, and I enjoyed the event more than I did that year’s World Tour Finals.
In said playoff, Ducky (as he’s formally known) strutted into the spotlight as a cracking (quacking?) 17-year-old, beating then-Australian Brydan Klein and still-Australian Jason Kubler in the first two rounds of the RR.
He didn’t win the wildcard, going down to then-Austraian Nick Lindahl, but he did kick on to make the Oz Open Junior quarterfinals in 2010, where he went down to Gael Monfils’ stunt double Gianni Mina, as well as the semifinals of the Roland Garros boys event, where he lost to eventual champion Agustin Velotti (but not before getting his revenge against Mina, whom he put down 3&4 in the quarters).
2011 saw James claim his first pro title at the Poland F1 Futures, taking out Grzegorz Panfil 6-3 6-4 in the final. He also took titles at the Poland F4, Italy F17, and Italy F23 as he gained 481 places in the ATP rankings and finished the year at #274. In addition, he had a straight sets (two tiebreak) win over then-162-ranked Jerzy Janowicz. ‘Twas a good year to be a Duck.
Duckworth continued to impress at the outset of 2012, using his ATP 250 Brisbane wildcard to good effect in besting Nicolas Mahut 4&4 before worsting Gilles Simon 3&5.
Though he lost the above contest, you can see in that highlight video almost everything I love about Ducky’s game. Equipped with a terrific serve for his 6′ 0” (183 cm) size — especially a wicked kicker on the ad side — he can crank the first ball in flat at upwards of 135MPH (220KPH). Needs to improve on his percentages a bit, but has a live delivery that oftentimes can’t be taught.
A forehand that’s just big enough to be weaponized, a backhand that can vary pace and spin, all-court ability, scrappy defense within an aggressive mindset, and cerebral play are all part and parcel of The Duckworth Experience. His favorite player is the similarly-crafty Andy Murray, whom Ducky characterizes as “an extremely clever tennis player with a vast amount of talent to back it up”.
He notched another tour-level win at the Australian Open (vs. Jurgen Zopp) before taking Top Tenner Janko Tipsarevic on a three-hour, four-set ride and announcing himself to the world stage as never before. “I didn’t really know what to expect from which side he can damage me, go to the net, stay back, so he’s a very unpredictable player,” Tipsy said after the match. “He didn’t wait for my mistake. He didn’t choke. I really had to outplay him.”
Ducky treaded water for the rest of 2012, though, making a couple of semis at the Caloundra Challenger and in Sao Paulo but generally struggling to build on his successful 2011. He did limp to finish line nursing an injury, however.
Happily, 2013 has found him back in fine form, going 45/27 on the year, with two more Futures titles, three Challenger semis and a Lexington Challenger final on his season’s resume. Here he is thrashing some mug named Christian Garin in the finals of Chile F3:
At this year’s Oz Open, he took a memorable five-set win against Ben Mitchell before falling (perhaps even more memorably) 8-10 in the fifth to Blaz Kavcic. He went on to play in the main draw of every Slam event this year, and to win two more ATP-level main draw matches in Bogota and Washington.
The grandson of 1955 Australian Open singles and doubles champ Beryl Penrose, whether Duckworth has the talent to follow his Grams to the very top remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it sure will be a lot of fun watching him try to get there.