In 2010, five different players captured a maiden title, although history does not record what they did with it after that. Whatever it was, once word got round the locker-room the deed was keenly emulated. In 2011 the number doubled. We can only hope the treatment has been humane, unlike in the seventies, when a captive maiden title might be chained up in a basement for months, and confined to a subsistence diet.
In terms of patterns, I’d love to report that hours of staring at the winners list has yielded a sudden, searing insight. Sadly, there is little to say. Every winner was from a different country. Some winners were virgins in their first final, others veterans in their fifth. I would have laid down money against at least one of them ever claiming a tour trophy, whilst two others were the most notable players without silverware. About all we can usefully say is that all of the events were 250 level, and that the top four did not grace any of them, which has become the sole precondition of anyone else winning. Is it worth mentioning that nine out of these ten players have subsequently achieved their highest year-end ranking? Sure, in much the same way that taking to a group of ten bystanders with a fire hose would result in most of them getting wet.
1. Kevin Anderson – SA Tennis Open, Johannesburg
The SA Tennis Open was only a young event, but the unfortunate alchemy of scheduling and geography conspired to fatally accelerate its life-cycle. 2009 was its heyday, and this year saw a rapid decent first into dotage, and then death. It is perhaps poetic that a local won the thing before the end, and Kevin Anderson is a likable guy and a fine player, but he posted more impressive first-round exits elsewhere this year.
2. Ivan Dodig – PBZ Zagreb Indoors, Zagreb
Zagreb also takes place the week after the Australian Open, and thus also guarantees itself a second-rate and locally-weighted draw (Goran Ivanisevic played in the doubles), but it was still a typically gutsy performance from the tour’s most rumpled player (there should be a trophy for that).
3. Milos Raonic – SAP Open, San Jose
This was not the beginning of the slide for Fernando Verdasco, but it was the point at which it became irreversible. The tipping point can be traced to the moment in the final when a fan yelled out on championship point. Busily essaying any excuse he could find, Verdasco missed what everyone else was seeing, which was that Milos Raonic had arrived.
4. Ryan Sweeting – US Men’s Clay Court Championship, Houston
The general feeling was that this was Kei Nishikori’s final to lose. For pundits this was just an abstruse and cliched idea, but for Nishikori it was a cherished goal, which he duly achieved. Sweeting was left holding the trophy, after playing the most ill-tempered first final I have ever witnessed.
5. Pablo Andujar – Grand Prix Hassan II, Casablanca
There is no category in men’s tennis at the moment that does not include a Spaniard in it, almost as though it is a structural requirement of the sport. (Swarthiest? Check. Dreamiest thighs? You bet. Most macho website? Never in doubt.) Anyhow, back in Casablanca, Pablo Andujar became his nation’s representative on the first-time titlist list, dispatching Potito Starace in a nervously-fought, low-grade final.
6. Andreas Seppi – AEGON International, Eastbourne
Unlike his finalist opponent Janko Tipsarevic, Andreas Seppi falls into the category of a seasoned tour stalwart for whom a maiden title was by no means a given. If the Italian was to break through, Eastbourne, played on grass, was perhaps the least likely venue at which to do it. This was the notorious final in which Tipsarevic retired in the final game, as Seppi served for the title, an example of sour sportsmanship will rightly dog the Serbian for years to come.
7. Alexandr Dolgopolov – ATP Studena Croatia Open, Umag
The high quality final ultimately devolved into a flurry of tense errors, dead net-cords and a busted string, but it was the mercurial Dolgopolov hoisting the unbelievably tasteful and understated trophy at the end.
8. Robin Haase – bet-at-home Cup, Kitzbühel
In his first tour final, Robin Haase became the first Dutchman since Martin Verkerk to claim a tour title, a gap of seven years. Until this point we only had the odd brilliant set to make us wonder why Haase can’t play well all the time. Now we have a whole week.
9. Florian Mayer – BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy, Bucharest
I had waited for years for Florian Mayer to start winning titles, having predicted shortly after his appearance on the scene in about 2002 that he was the next big thing, although I was not so blinkered that I believed he would dominate unopposed. Of course he would be sharing the limelight with Xavier Malisse, whose Wimbledon semifinal was clearly a portent of great things to come, and there was residual buzz about that young firebrand Federer. Nine years later, and my prediction has been borne out, if only in Bucharest. I’m willing to admit I was wrong about Malisse.
10. Janko Tipsarevic – Malaysian Open, Kuala Lumpur
It was becoming ludicrous. Janko Tipsarevic was in the midst of a career year, he’d risen over 30 places into the top 20, and he was still without a a title to his name. I think I’m right in saying it was the most talked about thing in Serbian tennis this year, although I am admittedly not abreast of Jelena Jankovic’s antics. The monkey was finally removed from Tipsarevic’s back in Malaysia, and, unbearably lightened, he soared to the Moscow title several weeks later, and eventually floated into the top ten.