Road to Rio and beyond: What lies ahead for Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Nadal and more?
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the build-up to the Rio 2016 Olympics and what the road holds for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer
And there, in the blink of an eye, the long glamorous sweep of clay and the elegant sojourn on grass season are over.
Now, after a frantic weekend of Davis Cup action around the globe—featuring players who just days before were stretching every sinew at Wimbledon—the first hard-court tournament since the March-filled Indian Wells-and-Miami Masters endurance test is under way.
The ATP500 in Washington heralds the start of the long road to the US Open, a road even more arduous this summer with the Rio Olympics shoehorned between the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters.
But tennis players are gluttons for punishment. The Rogers Cup begins the day after Washington ends. Even during the Olympics, some men will pursue other priorities in Atlanta and Mexico, while the tiny recovery window between Cincinnati and the hard-court climax in New York offers up Winston-Salem.
So scheduling, particularly for those with ambitions for Olympic medals, Masters titles or the most lucrative financial prize in tennis, the title at the US Open, becomes a master-class of tactical nous. What, then, can we expect from the biggest names?
The ambition of world No1 Djokovic
World No1 Djokovic has barely put a foot wrong—barely lost a match—in the first half of this year. After an extraordinary 2015 of 11 titles and a run of 82-6, he hit the ground running in 2016 with the Doha and the Australian Open titles, the back-to-back Indian Wells and Miami double, one of tennis’s hardest tests, and then he dropped only one match—the Rome final—between winning the Madrid Masters and Roland Garros. It meant Djokovic had done what none of his rivals had: won all four Majors in a row.
Come Wimbledon, though, that mental and physical effort seemed to have taken a toll: He looked pale and weary, and lost before the quarter-finals in a Major for the first time in seven years.
By the time he arrives for the Rogers Cup, where he is a three-time champion, he will have played just three matches in seven weeks, so fatigue should no longer be a factor. And he has plenty of incentives to stimulate his hard-court ambitions: converting an Olympic bronze into gold; achieving another unique record, the complete set of Masters crowns in Cincinnati; and defending huge points and the No1 ranking through to the end of the year as his closest rival attempts to close the gap.
That his closest rivals are not playing Toronto will only boost his confidence.
Current points: 15,040
Defending to end of season: 7,000—runner-up Rogers Cup and Cincinnati, won US Open, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, WTFs.
Making of Murray
The man from Dunblane has rarely looked more comfortable in his skin than he has this summer, and little wonder. A clear No2 in the world, with a second Wimbledon title under his belt, a first clay Masters, and a first French Open final, he may trail Djokovic by 5,000 points but is only 800 behind in the Race.
Now back with Ivan Lendl, who steered him to his first Grand Slam at the US Open, the aggressive, confident body language is making itself felt all over again, and Murray likes the North American hard courts: three Canadian titles, two in Cincinnati and the US Open bear testament to that.
However he played a long, tough clay and grass season to get himself to this point, and has opted out of his defence of the Rogers Cup—the first time he has missed the tournament since his first in 2006—to prepare for the defence of his Olympic gold. It could prove to be very smart scheduling, but his biggest problem will remain Djokovic, for achieving that single clay victory since last beating the Serb in Montreal a year ago tells its own story.
Current points: 10,065
Defending to end of season: 2,700—drops winner’s points from Montreal; semis Cincinnati and Shanghai, final Paris.
What lies ahead for Federer?
When has Federer ever suffered as much injury and illness in a single season? Between reaching the semis of the Australian Open to beginning his semi run at Wimbledon, he won just eight matches in four tournaments, and missed his first Grand Slam, the French Open, in 16 years. Not since 2002 has he found himself in July without a title.
He took a fall during a tough five-set loss in that Wimbledon semi, too, and admitted afterwards that he was uncertain what damage was done to the knee that took the brunt of his fall, the one that had undergone surgery in February.
What’s more, he will now reach August without a title after pulling out of the scheduled Toronto, saying, “It is best for me to take more time after Wimbledon.”
Federer missed out on singles gold in London 2012 by one place, so most expect him to go full throttle to fill the gap in what will surely be his last Olympics—he turns 35 during Rio itself—and he has signed up to men’s and mixed doubles too.
But make no mistake: the physical demands until September are unforgiving of the most fit body and confident mind. Thus far, only he knows whether he will be ready, and with more points to defend between now and the World Tour Finals than anyone but Djokovic, there are ranking implications, too.
Current points: 5,945
Defending to end of season: 3,800—won Cincinnati and Basel, final US Open and WTFs.
Return of Rafa
Just as he began to reclaim ranking and confidence after a tough year following illness and surgery—the Monte-Carlo Masters title was his biggest since winning Roland Garros in 2014—Nadal was struck with injury again, just as he looked set to celebrate his 30th birthday with a final run at his beloved French Open.
A wrist problem forced him to withdraw after two rounds, and he then pulled out of Queen’s and Wimbledon. Now he has withdrawn from his scheduled return in Toronto, 11 years after winning the first of three titles there, saying he only began practising last week.
Nadal is scheduled to play at the Olympics for the first time since he won singles gold in 2008. In 2012, he did not play because of knee injury after his second-round Wimbledon loss, so it would surely be a heavy blow if he had to miss Rio through wrist injury, especially as he is nominated to carry the Spanish flag.
But if Nadal is fit, and bounces back from injury as well as he has done in the past, he is in a fine position to challenge the top three in the rankings. He has the fewest points to defend among the top five and is already breathing down Federer’s neck—and is well ahead of him in the Race.
Current points: 5,290
Defending to end of season: 2,600—drops QF points in Canada and winner points in Hamburg; finals in Beijing and Basel, SF Shanghai and WTFs, QF Paris
Can Wawrinka crash the top-four party again?
Not unusually for the popular Swiss, 2016 has blown hot and cold, with and early win in Chennai but a loss to Milos Raonic in Australia. Then a win indoors in Rotterdam followed by just two match-wins in the Indian Wells-Miami doubleheader. He failed to defend his French Open title but still made the semis and won in Geneva, then won just one match at Queen’s and Wimbledon combined.
In Canada, he has reached the quarters only once in nine attempts, and Cincinnati has not been much better—one semi run in 2012. But there is no doubting he can perform on hard courts—witness two semi runs and a quarter finish in New York in the last three years.
Good results during the rest of the year could seem him challenge Federer in the rankings. Poor results, and he is separated from No6 Kei Nishikori and No7 Raonic by only 500 points
Current points: 4,720
Defending to end of season: 2,355—won Tokyo, SF US Open, Paris and WTFs, QF Cincinnati and Shanghai.
Can Raonic become home hero—and more?
The big Canadian who has taken such strides this year—leaving no stone unturned in recruiting Carlos Moya and, latterly, John McEnroe to his corner—made his big breakthrough on home soil three years ago. Then, he lost in the Montreal final to Nadal, but disappointed last year with a first-round loss, and did the same in Cincinnati.
Now apparently on top of a succession of injuries, he has gone from strength to strength: He beat Federer in Brisbane and at Wimbledon, came close to beating Murray in the semis in Australia and the final of Queen’s, reached the final in Indian Wells and made the quarters of three more Masters.
His intentions for the rest of the year are clear: He has pulled out of the Olympics, giving himself a chance to gain more tour points and close the gap in the rankings. He is already third in the race, and has few points to defend until the end of 2016. Watch out for a real surge.
Current points: 4,285
Defending to end of season: 450—won St Petersburg
Time for Thiem?
It has been on the cards for some time that the focused, serious 22-year-old from Austria would succeed. Anyone who saw the then-20-year-old Thiem’s ball striking against Murray in Rotterdam could have little doubt.
Clay may since have yielded the most success—three titles last year—but in 2016, after a long off-season training block, he won titles on all surfaces, four of them from five finals. Marin Cilic on hard courts? No problem. Nadal on clay, yes, in a final-set tie-breaker. An arduous semi run at Roland Garros was followed by a win over Federer on grass and his arrival at the top table with a No7 ranking.
As he enters the next phase with more match-wins than anyone on the tour, he too is bypassing the Olympics to focus on points, and he has very few to defend. Could he qualify for his first World Tour Finals? If he does not run out of steam, very possibly.
Current points: 3,175
Defending to end of season: 700 [NB SFs in Kitzbuhel, St Petersburg plus R2 in Basel non-countable]—won Umag and Gstaad.
Missing the Olympics
For some, it is a step too far to depart from the already-demanding annual road to New York, though not for the top five.
All are medal winners already: Nadal won singles gold in Beijing, Federer and Wawrinka won doubles gold there, Djokovic won singles bronze; Murray won singles gold in London, Federer singles silver.
However while some men did not make themselves available for career reasons (Raonic and Thiem are joined by John Isner and Sam Querrey), the Zika virus has forced some difficult decisions for others.
Tomas Berdych explained: “It is because of the Zika virus in the country of the Olympics. As I have founded a family recently, to limit health risks towards my nearest is the utmost priority.”
Some players who would have qualified on ranking do not make the national team because there are too many top-level players ahead of them: France and Spain are notable examples.
Other top-30 players missing include Richard Gasquet (back injury), Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic, Feliciano Lopez and Kevin Anderson.