Sports in 2017

2017 in review: What this unexpected season foretells for men’s tennis in 2018

The freak ATP season might not continue in 2018 but could have a huge impact on how the upcoming year unfolds.

By now it has been repeatedly established that in men’s tennis, 2017 was the year of “Fedal”, as the genius of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is collectively termed. The veterans staged a stunning comeback, sharing the four Grand Slams and the top two spots in the ATP ranking between them.

But 2017 was also the year of Grigor Dimitrov coming of age, of Alexander Zverev breaking through, of Jack Sock winning a Masters, of Novak Djokovic and his looming absence, of Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and their struggles, of the Gen Next, Andrey Rublev, Hyeon Chung, Denis Shapovalov.

Above all, 2017 was a year of an anomaly, a freak ATP season which saw the oldest year-end No 1 and the youngest year-end top five in 10 years.

This incongruity might not continue in 2018, but the unexpected happenings of 2017 will have a huge impact on the upcoming season. Here’s a look back at the year gone by and a look ahead at what it tells us about the season ahead.

More successful injury comebacks?

Before January 2017, before Denis Istomin and Mischa Zverev had dumped Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray out of the Australian Open, before the epic final at Melbourne Park, you’d have to be either a sentimental fan or a soothsayer to believe that Federer and Nadal would dominate men’s tennis again.

A 35-year-old 16th seed who had barely played the year before and hadn’t won a Major in five years, along with a 30-year-old who was in chronic pain, had missed almost half the season to fall to No 9. For all their achievements, they should not logically have been the finalists at the year’s first Slam. But from that epic five-setter in Melbourne to the just-as-historic finals at Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Wimbledon, US Open, Shanghai, the two Nike athletes showed that impossible is nothing.

But there was another storyline hidden there: the Fedal fairy tale that we raved about was proof that an astonishing comeback after months away was not beyond reach. The loss of ranking points could be made up with refreshed, off-court game.

Perhaps it was this gamble by the top two players of the generation paying off that prompted several other prominent players to call time on their season early. As many as five out of the erstwhile top 10 didn’t play since the US Open this year – defending champion Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic, Murray, Milos Roanic and Kei Nishikori. Nick Kyrgios and Tomas Berdych also joined this list later.

It’s not easy for a top player to call time on their season early with a bunch of points to defend at the end of the year. Djokovic for one admitted that the elbow injury had been bothering him for around a year before he took his sabbatical. Murray’s hip troubles were also not new.

But when Federer said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if 2018 worked out for them as well like it worked out for me and Rafa,” he was speaking for the lot of them – after all, 2017 has shown that the risk is worth the reward.

Whether the absent ones enjoy a similar fairytale return is hard to tell. Djokovic is now ranked 12th in the world, Murray is at 16 while Wawrinka starts 2018 at nine.

But of the players who will (most likely) return to the tour in January, Djokovic stands the best chance. Although he has already pulled out of what was to be his comeback match in Abu Dhabi and the Qatar Open, the ‘machine’ from Belgrade has put together a star-studded team off-season. If he can regain even 80% of his former gritty, all-returning game, he will be one to watch out for at his favourite Melbourne Park.

The tour gets older

Apart from the obvious domination from the two ageless champions, 2017 also showed that the cream of the ATP tour is now middle-aged men.

In 2017, 15% of the tour-level titles won in the year were captured by players aged 35 or older, Federer leading with seven. Fun fact: Federer wasn’t the oldest title winner, though. That honour goes to Victor Estrella, who was 36 and a half when he beat Paolo Lorenzi at the Quito Final. The oldest first-time winner? Gilles Muller in Sydney.

In the year-end ranking, 43 players over 30 were in the top 100, the highest number since ATP rankings began in 1973. There were also 12 finals where both players were above the age of 30. Marin Cilic, at 28, was the youngest Grand Slam finalist in 2017, and the only one under 30.

Heading into 2018, this trend looks to continue. Federer and Nadal don’t seem to be going anywhere, Djokovic and Murray are both 30 and the “lost generation” are all in their late-20s now, and still very much present in the top 25.

In the ATP top 25, there are 11 players who are 30 years and above and only five under 25 – Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Lucas Pouille, Sock and Nick Kyrgios, who at 22, already had to end his season early with injury. Possibly with the exception of double Masters winner Zverev, none have shown the consistency or temperament to become Slam winners soon. Unless one of them goes on a two-week rampage a la Wawrinka, it’s a stretch to see another young Slam champion in 2018.

Dimitrov, Zverev make their space

In tennis colloquialism, 2017 is the year Baby Fed grew up. For a while now, fans have been waiting for 26-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov to make good on his potential. His game, so often compared to Federer’s class, is not lacking as much as his grit in tight situations was.

But he put all the tabloid-friendly part of his life behind to win his first Masters trophy at Cincinnati and then earn the biggest career title, going unbeaten in his debut at year-end ATP Finals, adding to his hard-court victories at Brisbane and Sofia in 2017.

His best match, however, was in a losing cause – the Australian Open semi-final against Nadal. While admittedly the big wins came in a depleted field, the now world No 3 Dimitrov can have the tour at his feet if he can build on the momentum.

If there was an award for the breakthrough star of 2017, it would go to Germany’s Alexander Zverev, and then taken back halfway through the ceremony.

In the year he left his teenage behind, the tall German cast a long shadow with his exploits on court… for about 50% of the season season. The 20-year-old won a stunning five ATP titles, was 5-1 in finals, including two ATP Masters Rome where he beat Djokovic and Montreal, beating Federer. (Yes, someone did beat Federer in a final this year.)

After his meteoric rise to 24 in 2016, he climbed 20 spots in the rankings to peak at No 3, becoming the youngest top five player since Djokovic in 2007. Eligible for the inaugural ATP Gen Next Finals for under-21 players, he instead stormed through to make his debut at the ATP World Tour Finals.

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But while his performance was phenomenal for his age, it was clouded by his inconsistency. For all the tour success, it’s the ability to sustain at best-of-five two-week tournaments that counts in the end and he has never made it past the fourth round at a Grand Slam.

He lost to Nadal in the third round Melbourne, was knocked by Fernando Verdasco in the first round at Roland Garros days after his Rome triumph, was dumped out of Wimbledon by Raonic in the fourth round and stunned by Borna Coric in the second round. He had similar early exits in Cincinati, Paris and London. For Sascha to become what he is clearly capable of, he will have to tweak his all-or-nothing approach and focus on the Majors.

However, despite their erratic performances, if I were to pick a surprise first-time Slam champion in 2018, I would be tempted to choose between the two of them. Both Dimitrov and Zverev have shown that they can back their potential with performances and it will be exciting to see where this confidence leads to next year.

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