Murray and Djokovic vie for No1, Federer and Nadal return, #NextGen rise as Australian Open beckons
There is plenty to look forward to in 2017 as tennis's top players prepare for the Australian Open and the season ahead
While Joe Public recovers from Christmas’s overindulgence in readiness for the onslaught of New Year’s Eve, the arduous tennis tour has already knocked its family into shape.
For some, that has meant a bit of team tuning. No3 Milos Raonic lost Carlos Moya, who had helped to steer him to his first Major final and his highest ever ranking, but he then took on former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek.
Rafael Nadal saw, in fellow Majorcan Moya, a chance to join up with an old friend, former No1 and French Open champion, in what looks a match made in heaven.
The dominant player of the last two and half years, Novak Djokovic, ended the season as No2 and ended his fruitful partnership with Boris Becker. Meanwhile the player who usurped Djokovic’s place at No1, Andy Murray, is—not surprisingly—more than happy with his close-knit group. After recruiting old friend Jamie Delgado to his team, Murray reunited with Ivan Lendl ahead of the French Open—and never looked back.
Jonas Bjorkman, who was briefly part of Murray’s team, moved alongside Marin Cilic, who promptly rose to a career-high No6 and won his first Masters title, while Cilic’s former coach, Goran Ivanisevic, was snapped up by Tomas Berdych.
Can top-10 stalwarts bounce back?
Roger Federer, a resident among the elite for 15 years, also began 2016 with a new coach, Ivan Ljubicic, but their partnership has had little chance to shine. Even Federer could not have anticipated how long he would be away from tennis’s centre stage after reaching the semis of the Australian Open, but a sudden knee injury and surgery ensured he would play just five more tournaments, and he withdrew from the season after Wimbledon.
So there has been great anticipation about his return to competition in the Hopman Cup, with an open practice drawing 6,000 fans. That he sits at No16 in the rankings, however, makes his choice of the non-points event an interesting one. He has 150 points to defend from Brisbane, while No17 Grigor Dimitrov trails the Swiss by fewer than 100 points.
Federer told press in Perth that “rankings at the moment… completely secondary,” but entering the Australian Open below No16 in the seedings could mean he faces a higher-ranked player as early as the third round.
Nadal has played only four matches since the US Open, and missed the entire grass swing after wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the French Open. Now ranked No9, he gets his eye in for 2017 at the non-tour Mubadala exhibition event in Abu Dhabi, thus also forsaking the 150 final points he won in Doha a year ago.
He would gain a seeding advantage by rising to No8 in time for Melbourne, but Dominic Thiem has fewer points than Nadal to defend.
Berdych also has something to prove. He finds himself at No10 for the first time in almost five years after missing the US Open with appendicitis, and he won just two matches in his last four events this year. Australia has been his most consistent Major, with four quarters and two semis in his last six visits. Like Nadal, though, he could be up against his biggest rivals by the fourth round in Melbourne.
Wawrinka spearheads evergreen over-30s
All three of those injury returners are over 30, and while Federer is pushing the boundaries more than most at the age of 35, they will all be increasingly aware of the next generation—mid-20s such as Raonic, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin—and the generation beyond—the ATP’s #NextGen—jostling for a place on the big stage.
Yet even with extended absences by Federer, Nadal and Berdych, 30+ is proving to be the new 24. Four of the top 10 are over 30, nine of the top 20, 15 of the top 32—meaning that almost half the seeds at the Australian Open will be over 30.
During 2016, 16 over-30s together won 22 titles, including one Grand Slam—and Stan Wawrinka not only won in New York but in Dubai, Geneva and Chennai, too. He won the Australian title in 2014, and this year has changed his schedule by opting for Brisbane in place of Chennai. A late bloomer he might be, but he continues to evolve and grow in confidence.
It is worth noting, too, that the top players in the world, Murray and Djokovic, will also turn 30 in May, yet their dominance appears to have plenty of life, and time, left in it.
Murray changing things up
Murray has become many people’s favourite to dominate 2017 after his remarkable efforts in closing down Djokovic through the clay, grass, hard and indoor seasons during 2016 to claim the No1 ranking.
Before he had barely got his hands on his first World Tour Finals trophy, he was back training in Miami, returned to Scotland for a brief family Christmas, then jetted to the Middle East for the Mubadala championships on his way to Doha. Murray has played the Hopman Cup for the last two years, so looks to gain points in Doha before Melbourne—where he will aim to convert five final finishes to the title.
He can then enjoy a season of feast compared with the famine of 2016. Between Melbourne and Miami—a time spent enjoying the birth of his daughter rather than winning titles—he can extend his lead over the field before beginning the defence of big points from May onwards.
Refreshed Djokovic will renew his challenge
Murray’s success in reeling in Djokovic from Madrid on this year was due in large part to the dominance of the Serb in the previous year. Djokovic had big points to defend after winning 11 titles from 15 finals in 2015. He then went on to win the big Indian Wells/Miami double and the first two Majors of this year—thus winning all four in a row for the non-calendar Slam.
But such success is a double-edged sword, and Djokovic may have to wait until Wimbledon to begin reeling Murray back. Not that Murray is the only big factor in the ranking equation.
Big-hitting men such as Wawrinka and Cilic showed both ambition and form this year, and beat Djokovic along the way. If Federer and Nadal come back revitalised, they can also make life difficult on faster hard courts and clay respectively. And then there are those young risers waiting in the wings.
The coming generations
Dominic Thiem won four titles in 2016 to break the top 10 for the first time, but he has been followed up the rankings by even younger title winners: teenager Sascha Zverev debuted in top 20; Nick Kyrgios made a career-high No13; Lucas Pouille rose to No15.
Many have tipped the oldest of ‘Generation 90’—Raonic—to shatter the glass ceiling and win a Major. He beat Federer to reach the Wimbledon final this year and came within inches of beating Murray in the World Tour Finals semis in London.
But he, like Nishikori, Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov, are only too aware that they are sandwiched between two generations vying for the top rankings and big titles. Each has edged into the top 10, but Raonic is the only one thus far to have encroached on the top four.
Behind them is a clutch of #NextGen improvers who could break through in 2017—Borna Coric back from surgery, Chengdu champion Karen Khachanov, the No1 junior Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Thanasi Kokkinakis returning from injury. The pool of talent is growing and the quality rising.
Jockeying for position—and kudos—starts here and now
First and foremost, all will aim to sharpen their match-play ahead of the Australian Open, and the coming fortnight is packed with five ATP 250 tournaments, two high-quality round-robin events, and a big-name, six-man exho in Abu Dhabi.
Who plays where ahead of the Australian Open
29-31 December: Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Abu Dhabi
(exho event, thus no ranking points)
Defending champion: Nadal
Players: Murray, Raonic, Nadal, Berdych, Goffin, Tsonga
Week commencing 1 January
Hopman Cup, Perth, Australia
(ITF mixed round robin, thus no ranking points)
Defending champs: Kyrgios/Gavrilova
Players Group A: Gasquet/Mladenovic; Zverev/Petkovic; Evans/Watson; Federer/Bencic
Players Group B: Kyrgios/Gavrilova; Pavlasek/Hradecka; Lopez/Arruabarrena; Sock/Vandeweghe
Brisbane International, ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion: Raonic
Seeds: Raonic, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Thiem, Nadal, Pouille, Ferrer, Simon
Qatar Open (Doha): ATP 250, 32-man draw
Defending champion: Djokovic
Seeds: Murray, Djokovic, Berdych, Goffin, Tsonga, Karlovic, Kohlschreiber, Baghdatis
Chennai Open (India): ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion: Wawrinka
Likely seeds: Cilic, Bautista Agut, Ramos Vinolas, Klizan, Paire, Coric, Youzhny, Robredo
Week commencing 8 January
Auckland International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion: Bautista Agut
Likely seeds: Bautista Agut, Isner, Ferrer, Sock, Ramos Vinolas, Lopez, Johnson, Baghdatis
Sydney International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion: Troicki
Likely seeds: Thiem, Cuevas, Troicki, Carreno Busta, Kohlschreiber, Muller, Klizan, Granollers
Priceline Kooyong Classic, Melbourne
(exho event, thus no ranking points)
10-13 January, four-day round-robin
Defending champion: Goffin
Players: Goffin, Gasquet, Tomic, Pouille, Youzhny, Simon, Karlovic, Coric, Nishioka
10-12 January: World Tennis Challenge, Adelaide
(exho round-robin, past and current players, thus no ranking points)
Players: Red team, Querrey, Santoro; Blue team, Berdych, Ivanisevic; Gold team, Kyrgios, Philippoussis