We are just over a couple of months into the 2017 tennis season, and it has already been a roller coaster ride. We have witnessed enthralling matches, incredible comebacks, shocking upsets, youngsters showing their talent, older players rediscovering their magic – we’ve had it all.
But amongst all this excitement, what really stands out for me is the current state of uncertainty – the fact that we seem to have no idea in which direction this season is heading! This is not shaping up to be a season of great players in their pomp battling it out for supremacy, as it has been the case so many times in the recent past. No, this is shaping up to be a season of glorious uncertainties, full of emotion, sentiment and expectations. And yes, we are intrigued!
Let’s look at some of the most important storylines to watch out for, for the rest of the season, as well as what we can expect going forward:
The comebacks of Federer and Nadal
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are two of the most popular players ever to have played the game. Having them fit and competing at the highest level is always going to add to the quality and profile of any tennis tournament. But with both coming off an injury riddled 2016 season, neither was expected to make a serious impact at the Australian Open. So seeing a first Fedal major final since 2011 definitely came as a surprise, not just for us, but as they’ve both admitted since, for them as well.
So how much can we expect of these two great champions now?
Well, as for Federer, he’s really always been there among the top 3. It was only last year’s injury induced absence that forced him out of the top 10 for the first time since 2002. Of course, an Australian Open title immediately after a 6 month hiatus was still an amazing and unexpected feat, even for him. But he is 35 now. He has to carefully ration his playing time and practice sessions nowadays. As he has himself indicated, his goals going forward would primarily be to try and be in peak condition for the biggest tournaments. He has clearly proven that on his day, he could beat anyone. Don’t expect him to challenge the likes of Murray and Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking. But do expect him to be a major contender during the grass court swing, and go deep in some big tournaments every so often.
Nadal, on the other hand, has really struggled throughout the last couple of seasons. He has battled with a string of injuries, and really struggled to put together a consistent run of good results. Following his run to the Australian Open final, he said that he felt he was once again “competing at a very high level.” He backed up his Australian Open run with another runners-up performance at Acapulco, and is undoubtedly playing with renewed confidence. At 30, Nadal probably has a couple of decent years still left in him. And he should be heading into the upcoming clay court swing as one of the favourites.
While there is no doubt that neither Federer nor Nadal is at the absolute peak of his powers, they have shown that they still have enough fight left in them to be significant contenders throughout the rest of the season.
Can Djokovic rediscover his form?
At Roland Garros last year, Novak Djokovic completed the career Grand Slam and became the first person since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all 4 major titles. He was world No. 1 with some margin to spare, and looked for all the world that he would end the year at No. 1 as well. How quickly things can change! A shock third round defeat at Wimbledon began a string of results which would be considered well below his lofty standards. He eventually lost the world No. 1 to Andy Murray, after falling to him at the final match of the season.
He started the 2017 season off in fine fashion, winning the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, beating Murray in the final. However this was followed by a shock 2nd round defeat to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open. In his third tournament of 2017, he was upset by Nick Kyrgios in the semi-finals at Acapulco.
Now the question everyone’s asking is, can he get back to his incredible best? Well, there have definitely been some glimpses of his vintage self since Paris last year. He played some very impressive tennis to reach the final in London, a venue where he has enjoyed tremendous success in recent times. However, he was simply dismantled by Murray in the final. In Qatar, he fought through 2 incredibly tough matches in the semi-final and final to lift the trophy. But the 2nd round defeat to 117-ranked Denis Istomin at Melbourne Park has to have come as a big surprise to everyone.
But despite not consistently hitting the dizzying heights of 2015 and early 2016, he is still the world no. 2 and will definitely be one of the favourites in every tournament he plays. Ultimately, it might all come down to peaking at the right time for him this season.
The challenge of the younger generation
The generation of the Big 4 have dominated tennis for a very long time indeed. And not just the Big 4. Even the likes of Wawrinka, Ferrer, Berdych and some others of that generation seem to have been there forever. The immediate next generation has failed to make any real inroads into the very top of the men’s game, with Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic having been the most successful of the lot.
This season so far, some others from that generation, have given us a bit more reason for optimism, primarily Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin. Maybe Dimitrov is finally en route to realizing his much talked about talent.
Still, it seems unlikely that anyone from this generation would reach the heights of the Big 4. They’re not that young anymore, and some of the players from the generation following them are starting to make their mark. The likes of Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios have already made an impression this season. It would be interesting to see the progress of these promising youngsters. Perhaps one of them might have a real breakthrough tournament or even breakthrough season.
There are many other talented youngsters such as Noah Rubin, Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev who are looking to start making their presence felt on the senior ATP tour. The ATP’s “Race To Milan” represents a new and unique opportunity for these young up and coming players – definitely something worth keeping an eye on.
Andy Murray, and the No. 1 ranking
Andy Murray has been in the best form of his life over the last year or so. He reached no. 1 for the first time last year, ending the 2016 season on a 25 match winning streak, including 5 consecutive titles. Unfortunately for Murray, among the few tournaments that he has not gone all the way in over the past 6 months, are the US Open and the Australian Open.
Make no mistake though, on current form Murray is the man to beat. With second ranked Djokovic over 2000 points away, and defending a lot of points in the coming 3 months, Murray looks set to remain no. 1 for some time. It is towards the second half of the season, however, that he has the most points to defend.
So who can challenge Murray for the no. 1 spot? Well, it’s hard to look beyond the rest of the big 4, and perhaps Wawrinka. As things stand, Federer and Nadal are No. 1 and No. 2 on the ATP race, respectively. However, throughout the course of an entire season, Djokovic has to be the most likely candidate. Perhaps, we will get to see another epic fight for year-end No. 1 between him and Murray. Only time will tell.
One of the most open clay court swings in a long time
The European clay court swing will get underway in a little over a month. And it’s going to be one of the most open and intriguing for a very long time. This part of the season has largely been dominated by one man – Rafael Nadal – in recent history. The past couple of seasons, it has been Djokovic who has come into the clay court swing as the favourite. He finally won the French Open last year, having finished as runners-up the year before.
Nadal and Djokovic, with their clay court pedigrees and Nadal’s renewed form, will likely be the 2 primary favourites this time around. Over the last couple of years, Murray has performed exceedingly well on clay. Wawrinka is always a threat on the surface. Although Federer isn’t specifically targeting the clay court season, you just can’t count him out. Last year’s French Open semi-finalist, Thiem, is also extremely adept on clay, and even he might fancy his chances of making a real impression. So will some of the other players including Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils and the rejuvenated Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.
Other players to watch out for
The 2017 season has already thrown up its share of surprises and incredible stories. There are some players that we haven’t yet mentioned, but will be worth keeping an eye on.
Mischa Zverev reached the highest ranking of his injury-riddled career following his quarter-final run at Melbourne Park. With his aggressive serve-and-volley playing style which saw him upset Murray at the Australian Open, he will definitely be a threat on the faster courts. Who knows, with a favourable draw, he might go really deep at Wimbledon.
The sentimental favourite, Juan Martin del Potro is back, having missed the Australian Open to give himself a bit more time to practice and prepare for the season. Having made an inspiring comeback last season, and subsequently notching up wins against Wawrinka, Djokovic and Murray, he is one player who can give the top guys a real run for their money. He already stretched Djokovic to the limit in the round of 16 at Acapulco. Let’s hope he manages to remain injury free for a long time this time around, as that can only be beneficial for tennis.