The 2017 season was quite literally a mixed bag for the ATP fraternity! On one hand, the 30-and-above were redefining the common perceptions about the sport; while, on the other, the newbies and the experienced youths were battling it out for recognition and prominence. Amidst all of this, some major stars were missing in action for a large part of the season, owing to injury.
The changing of guards?
The coming year in tennis stands at an interesting conjecture. Will the much-hyped changing of guard finally usher in a new era in tennis, one that’s potentially going to take tennis beyond the Big 4? The past season had shown signs of a possible breakthrough from a few talented youngsters, and a few experienced 20-something veterans, but nobody could carry themselves past the final hurdle. That brings us to a rather captivating question – can they finally break through in 2018?
Take, for example, Alexander Zverev. The lanky, blond German, touted to become the next great superstar, had seen more highs than lows in an overall awe-inspiring season, but when the lows did come, the difference between a rising star and an actual great was clearly evident. He’s had weeks of brilliance, but when the spark wasn’t apparent, he would play more like an average newcomer, struggling to reach the later stages of big tournaments.
Along similar lines was Grigor Dimitrov’s season. The Bulgarian 26-year old had his fair share of artistic excellence, mixed with lots of mediocrity. But a weakened circuit, with many of the top players being injured, saw him rise to a career-high rank of 3 in the world.
Seemingly unable to push for more, was another rising star Dominic Thiem, whose season was once again marred by an imbalanced schedule. He played the most tournaments inside top 20, but without much luck outside of clay (53% wins outside clay, not quite suggesting a top 8 player, isn’t it?). Unless he improves his results on hard courts (chances of which look thin), it is going to be another long second-half of the season for the heavy-hitting Austrian.
A few other youngsters stole the limelight for a few weeks with their incredible achievements – most notably Denis Shapovalov, the eighteen-year-old Canadian star who enjoyed a sharp rise in the rankings owing to monumental victories over Del Potro and Nadal at the Montreal Masters and then reaching the 4th round of US Open.
Fedal prowess, once again!
2017 was hands down the season of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Starting right from the historic Australian Open final which saw Federer triumph over his nemesis while tackling adversity, this season belonged to the two most successful men Open Era tennis has ever witnessed. They shared the four majors between themselves and won five of the Masters titles, ending the year atop the rankings, yet again. Coming off of a six-month injury layoff, Federer showed that he’s still too hot to handle for the rest of the tour, and even Nadal whom he beat 4 times in as many matches this year. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and five other titles, including 3 Masters 1000 titles. Not too bad for a 36-year old!
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Nadal didn’t do too bad, either. Winning his 15th and 16th Grand Slams and finishing a season at #1 for the fourth time in his career, he made an astounding comeback after a brief injury-ridden period towards the end of 2016.
Together, these two squashed off whatever myths tennis had, surrounding 30-and-above players. They proved that with the right kind of fitness and attitude, ruling the sport is just a reality away, regardless of a player’s age.
The Injury Saga
In one of the strangest turn of fortunes ever, all of the top 5 players of 2016 were sidelined by mid-2017. Novak Djokovic’s long run of success was finally halted by an elbow injury, while Andy Murray’s celebrations of maintaining the top spot were cut short with a recurring hip and back injury. The departure of both of them, and Stan Wawrinka (who couldn’t be at his Stanimalistic best, owing to a knee injury) from the field, provided a lot of chances for the rest of the tour, and the rest of the tour made sure they did well on those chances. The rankings took a heavy fall, but that would probably be the least of their concerns, given the question marks regarding their respective comebacks. And, of course, there were Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. Maintaining fitness had always been a struggle for Nishikori and this season was no different either, with an injured right wrist making sure he dropped outside top 20 for the first time in over three years. But, for Raonic, who wanted to finally have a go at being the top-ranked in the world, it was a disaster, not being able to compete properly in some of the tournaments he entered. While their counterpart Dimitrov was always the better player talent-wise, but not so much in terms of results, this season, he leapfrogged them and set himself apart.
The next season is knocking at the door, but it remains to be seen how the story will unfold. We have a few possible scenarios and multiple endings to the story, each of them with their own charm. Will the comeback players dominate the tour? Will the 20-somethings finally make big strides and win when it matters? Or, will it be a repeat of the last season – full of nostalgia and youthful exuberance? That is what remains to be seen.
2017 was strange. 2018 promises to be stranger.