Can Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, Nadal challenge dominant Djokovic as Australia beckons?

The likes of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, David Ferrer and Andy Murray are already deep into their preparations for 2016

Marianne Bevis
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No sooner have presents been unwrapped, turkey eaten and champagne downed than the tennis road-show is on the march towards a new season.

For already, long before the New Year has been toasted and optimistic resolutions cast aside, the elite of tennis—from family men Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, to newly-wed David Ferrer, to soon-to-be-father Andy Murray, to footloose Rafael Nadal—are deep into their preparations for 2016.

They do not start with a clean slate, of course. The top eight cannot impact on their rankings enough to affect significantly the seedings for the fast-approaching first Slam of the year, the Australian Open. But the coming fortnight, packed with five ATP 250 tournaments, two high-quality round-robin events, and a big-name, six-man, quarter-million-dollar exho in Abu Dhabi, offers the chance to put those training blocks into practice, fine-tune tactics, and sharpen match-play.

Pre-season talking points

Federer, after a thriving two-year partnership with Stefan Edberg, bid farewell to his childhood idol and took on old friend Ivan Ljubicic, all while playing three cities during the IPTL and assorted training sessions in Dubai.

Andy Murray, between winning the Davis Cup and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year trophy, welcomed back Amelie Mauresmo, played a bit of “Tiebreak Tens” at the Albert Hall, and fitted in some IPTL around his Dubai training block.

David Ferrer got married—though only the most alert fans would pick up the news from this private man—and changed his racket—a rare and bold switch of brand after almost 15 years on the tour.

French players began to break a nation’s heart as one by one they succumbed to injury before a single tour match was played: No9 Richard Gasquet is out of the Australian Open with back problems; No10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who struggled through one match in Abu Dhabi with a taped right arm, withdrew from the rest of the event; and Gael Monfils pulled out of the Hopman Cup with a leg injury.

Comings and goings among the over-30s

There were farewells from a plethora of 30-somethings: Jarkko Nieminen, Mardy Fish, Robin Soderling and—still to come through an emotional Australian swing—Lleyton Hewitt all won titles, all at some time faced surgery or illness, all will be missed.

Meanwhile, other over-30s enjoyed one of the best end-of-seasons ever, with four filling places among the eight at the World Tour Finals, six filling the top 11 rankings at the start of the 2016, and the 26-year-old Nishikori the only man under aged 28 in the top 12.

And when it came to Grand Slams, it was over-30s who proved the biggest thorn in the side of the most dominant player of the 2015, Djokovic. The world No1 was denied a clean sweep of Majors by Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros, and three of his six losses came to Federer, twice in title matches. He also faced Federer in two of his Grand Slam victories, two Masters victories and in the World Tour finals title match.

Breaking the top-five stranglehold

So the big questions, as 2016 gets under way, are not so different from those that announced 2015—or almost any year in the last decade: Who can ripple the waters among the top five players, not just in Grand Slam titles but in finals? After all, only two other men have won from 40 titles, and only 12 times has a name other than ‘the five’ appeared in a possible 80 slots.

Who can claim a Masters title, when all but six in the last seven years have gone to the same five men—and Ljubicic, Fish and Andy Roddick have since retired?

And core to these same questions lie still more particular ones.

It’s Djokovic—and then the rest

Who can make a dent in the near-perfect performance of Djokovic? In 2015, he won 11 titles from 15 consecutive finals, all at Grand Slam or Masters level bar two 500s—an 82-6 run; with almost twice the ranking points of the second man.

He has been notable in the off-season, too, in not playing since winning his fifth World Tour Finals trophy. He withdrew from a scheduled appearance in the IPTL, and prepares for his Australian Open defence in Doha—the last tournament in which he lost before the final.

He shows few signs of either mental or physical weakness, so the field must look to the few who have made inroads for inspiration: the Swiss.

Federer still fresh, still formidable

The 34-year-old father of four was, until the latter stages of 2015, second only to the mighty Serb, just as he had been until the London finale in 2014. He ended both seasons with 11 finals, taking five and six titles respectively, and seven times last season he and Djokovic were the last men standing.

So the Swiss man’s increasingly forward-moving game clearly has some answers to some Djokovic questions, and with a change in coach and a revamped schedule that focuses on grass and hard courts at the expense of clay, he has clear-sighted targets for 2016, too: Winning big at key events.

Murray making his move

The Briton has rarely looked happier than in the last month. It seems that Davis Cup victory, imminent fatherhood, and the return of much-admired coach Mauresmo have worked their magic.

Murray may be feeling the love, but he has not beaten Federer since the 2013 Australian Open—has won only one set in the intervening five matches. And while he was one of a rare band to beat Djokovic in 2015—claiming the Montreal Masters—Murray otherwise carried a 10-match run of losses back to 2013.

Murray has forsaken ATP tournaments in favour of the team-based Hopman Cup as he prepares to go one better than his final finish at the Australian Open last year, but he showed in his IPTL appearances in Dubai that he is sharp, fit and ready to ride his confidence to success before taking paternity leave.

Unpredictable Wawrinka verve

When the popular 30-year-old Stan the Man is on, he plays some of the most compelling tennis in the top 20: Witness his flourishing final against Djokovic at the French Open, and his repeated five-setters against the Serb at Majors—including at the last Australian Open.

In 2015, he beat Nadal in Rome, was outstanding in winning Rotterdam, was half of one the best Wimbledon matches of the year against Gasquet, and reached his third straight World Tour Finals semi. He made at least the quarters of all four Majors, the semis of two and triumphed in Paris.

But in between, Wawrinka’s form fluctuated. He won four matches in five tournaments after Rotterdam, and was distracted in his first-round loss to Ivo Karlovic in Basel. The same in-and-out form showed this week against Raonic in Abu Dhabi… but expect him to rise to the defence of his Chennai title next week, and to blossom in the hot sun of Melbourne. And yes, his searing power game could once again puncture Djokovic.

The Nadal factor

It has taken the great Spaniard most of 2015 to fully regain his confidence after injury and illness blighted the end of 2014, and at the World Tour Finals, he won all three round-robin matches before losing to Djokovic in the semis. And there’s the rub. The Serb won all four of their matches last year—two on clay—and eight of their last nine matches.

However, in Abu Dhabi, Nadal beat a super-fit Ferrer in a long, testing match, which should prove valuable as he moves to the super-tough draw of Doha, where he may get the opportunity to face an undercooked Djokovic if they make the final. And that could be a huge confidence boost at just the right time.

Threats in the pack

Kevin Anderson broke the top 10 for the first time in October, reached his first Major quarter-final at the US Open, and improves year on year.

Tomas Berdych also reached a career-high No4 in the spring, won two titles from three finals, and was one of the most consistent players at Masters level: just one loss before the quarters, two semis and a final. He also pushed Djokovic close more than once.

Ferrer finished the year at No7 despite not playing from before Wimbledon until the US Open. He goes into Doha as defending champion, looking lean and fit, but his problem is the same as everyone’s: He has not beaten Djokovic since 2011.

Nishikori hit a career-high No4 in March and won three titles, made the quarters of two Majors and four Masters, reaching the semis in Madrid and Montreal. But injuries often hamper his progress: In 2015, he did not play Monte Carlo or Cincinnati and retired in Wimbledon, Halle and Paris-Bercy. But this charismatic shot-maker, who has at some time beaten all seven men ranked above him, is a Grand Slam finalist, and is a danger whenever he is fully fit.

And a few younger players (23 and under) lower down the rankings are also worth watching. It’s hard to say who will rise to the top, but 2016 promises much from Dominic Thiem, Bernard Tomic, Jack Sock, Nick Kyrgios and Borna Coric

Who plays where ahead of the Australian Open?

Week beginning 4 January

Brisbane International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion, Roger Federer
Seeds: 1 Roger Federer; 2 Kei Nishikori; 3 Marin Cilic; 4 Milos Raonic; 5 Gilles Simon; 6 David Goffin; 7 Bernard Tomic; 8 Dominic Thiem

Qatar Open (Doha): ATP 250, 32-man draw
Defending champion, David Ferrer
Seeds: 1 Novak Djokovic; 2 Rafael Nadal; 3 Tomas Berdych; 4 David Ferrer; 5 Feliciano Lopez; 6 Andreas Seppi; 7 Jeremy Chardy; 8 Leonardo Mayer

Chennai Open (India): ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion, Stan Wawrinka
Seeds: 1 Stan Wawrinka; 2 Kevin Anderson; 3 Benoit Paire; 4 Roberto Bautista Agut; 5 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez; 6 Gilles Muller; 7 Vasek Pospisil; 8 Borna Coric

Hopman Cup (Perth, W Australia: ITF event)
Eight national teams each comprising one man and one woman in singles and mixed doubles round-robin format.
Defending champions, Poland
Pool A
Australia Gold: Jarmilla Gajdosova/Lleyton Hewitt
USA: Serena Williams/Jack Sock
Czech Rep: Karolina Pliskova/Jiri Vesely
Ukraine: Elina Svitolina/Alexandr Dolgopolov
Pool B
France: Caroline Garcia/Kenny De Schepper
GB: Heather Watson/Andy Murray
Australia Green: Daria Gavrilova/Nick Kyrgios
Germany: Sabine Lisicki/Alexander Zverev

Week commencing 12 January

Auckland International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion, Jiri Vesely
Top ranked: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Benoit Paire, Fabio Fognini, Ivo Karlovic, Roberto Bautista Agut, Jack Sock
NB David Ferrer has reserved a wild card should he lose early in Doha
NB Tsonga injured in Mubadala Exho tournament over New Year

Sydney International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion, Viktor Troicki
Top ranked: Bernard Tomic, Dominic Thiem, Viktor Troicki, Grigor Dimitrov, Andreas Seppi, Jeremy Chardy, Leonardo Mayer, Alexandr Dolgopolov

Priceline Kooyong Classic Invitational, Melbourne
Three-day, 12-man round-robin in two pools of six
Defending champion, Fernando Verdasco
Pool A
Gilles Simon, David Goffin, Feliciano Lopez, Hyeon Chung, Nicolas Almagro, Richard Osborn
Pool B
Nick Kyrgios, Marcos Baghdatis, Pablo Carenno Busta, Alexander Zverev, Kyle Edmund, + replacement for injured Richard Gasquet

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