After a rather lackluster 2016 bar the initial start by Novak Djokovic and the late march by Andy Murray, 2017 promises to be brilliant. With the heavyweights Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal coming back on tour, the void left by their absence will vanish – and some young talent has absolutely excelled on Tour.
The intense pressure of expectations awaits Sir Andy Murray as he looks to hold on to his number 1 ranking. For Novak Djokovic, the desire to compete shall play a crucial role. Each member of the ‘Big Four’ has a point to prove this year and that is what excites fans most.
A thrilling year of tennis is in store for us. Let us look at how these four legends have fared in the first few weeks of 2017 and what we can expect from them going into the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open.
The return of the maestro
There is no other man in tennis world that produces a fanfare such as Roger Federer does. If you have any doubts regarding that fact, Brisbane practice session has the answer for you. More than 8000 fans gathered to watch the Swiss magician wave his Wilson wand – with Federer’s matches sold out so early that the Swiss opened up viewing for his practice sessions!
When 35-year-old Roger Federer stepped onto the court in Perth to compete in his first match in six months, the tournament registered an attendance record. The Swiss’ return after a six-month gap was probably one of the most anticipated one in recent years.
Roger started his campaign at the team tennis Hopman Cup tournament against Great Britain’s Dan Evans and played some wonderful forehands, returned well and showed good movement on the court to get home a win. He got the job done in 63 minutes, winning 6-3, 6-4. He also won his mixed doubles match teaming up with Belinda Bencic. It was a perfect comeback.
The real match to see where Federer’s game was, came next. Up against the upcoming talent Alexander Zverev. Federer showed brilliant early signs in the match. He was getting on top of his backhand, his forehands were landing on the right side of the lines; his serve, a key part of his game, was landing at perfect spots with good pace.
His returns were good as well. Early part of the match saw vintage Roger at display. However, as the match progressed, multitude of unforced and forced errors started to creep in. Add to that some extraordinary tennis from the teenager and the set went into a tie-breaker. Surprisingly, Federer lost the tie-breaker with a huge margin, 7-1. Roger would go on to lose the match in three sets.
There were a lot of positives from this match but also a few weak areas were at display. Against the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Roger cannot afford to show these weaknesses. That will be the main cause of worry for him.
In his third singles match for the season, Federer took out Richard Gasquet in commanding fashion to send a message to rest of locker room that he is a serious contender for titles this season.
Looking back at these three performances from Federer and predicting his chances at Australian Open, we can say that the story is not over yet. Playing competitive tennis after six months, Federer put forward good performances.
More importantly, the ankle seems fine. What remains to be seen is that can Federer keep up this level of tennis in best of five set matches when competing against top 10 players.
A record 17 time Grand Slam champion, Roger Federer is bidding for his 18th Slam title this season. From what I see, it is possible. Will he do it or not, only time can tell.
The mystery of Novak Djokovic and his awaited return
One of the most intriguing stories of last season has to be Novak Djokovic’s sudden lack of desire to win in second half of the year. After a very solid first half, fans were sure that Novak was on his way to end the year as number 1.
Strangely, though, post the highly anticipated French Open victory, Djokovic appeared to have become complacent. In the words of his coach at the time, Boris Becker, “He (Novak) didn’t spend as much time on the practice court in the last six months as he should have and he knows that.”
Even though he lost his number 1 ranking, the last six months were not as bad as deemed by a lot of tennis fans. The fact that he was virtually winning everything he laid his eyes on in first six months, made his defeats seem huge. This however, did not take away the spirit of the man. Novak is a world class player and his words reflect that. This is what he had to say:
“I don’t see the second six months of 2016 as a failure or anything like that. It’s not in my mindset, I guess, in my philosophy of life to observe things in this way. That I didn’t succeed; that I failed; that I’ve fallen or something like that. I just feel like every experience is a blessing one way or another. I felt like the second six months of the year were very valuable, because I was always saying that you can learn a lot more from your lost tennis matches.”
It is this mindset that makes him one of the most dangerous players on tour.
In his first match of the 2017 season, Novak was stretched to a tie break in first set against Jan-Lennard Struff. Novak, however regained his form and dispatched his opponent in two sets, winning 7-6 6-3.
The run of form continued for the Serbian as he took out Horacio Zeballos and Radek Stepanek in straight sets in his next two matches. In quarter-finals match against Fernando Verdasco the things started to heat up. Novak’s resilience was tested as he had to save 5 match points to win this match. This was probably the match that will assure his fans that Novak wants to win again. The desire to compete and rule the tennis world is back for the world number 2.
As Andy Murray awaits Novak in the finals of Qatar Open, it will be interesting to see how the two react in their first meeting of the season. The winner of this match will definitely enter the Australian Open beaming with confidence. Novak has had his best success at the Australian Open and if he wishes to recreate that fear in his opponents’ minds, he needs to win the title this season.
One thing is for sure, Novak is a long way from being a finished story. If anything, last year experience will only make him spring to greater heights in 2017. It will lead to a fierce battle for the world number 1 ranking between Novak and Andy and I can’t wait for it to get started.
The pride of the nation
Andy Murray is finally in the limelight and making headlines for his achievements and not near misses as he did in the past.
In the last 12 months, Murray’s career graph has shot up exponentially. Everything seems to work for the Glasgow native.
He achieved the impossible last season by snatching the world number 1 ranking from Novak Djokovic, winning the Wimbledon title and reaching finals of the Australian and French Open en route.
In addition, he won his second Gold medal at the Rio Olympics, defeating a resurgent Juan Martin del Potro in a thrilling encounter. The Scot also won three Masters titles and bagged the trophy at the Barclays ATP Year-End Championships, which sealed the year-end No. 1 ranking for the ace.
It was a perfect season for Andy Murray under the guidance of Ivan Lendl. To put cherry on the cake, Andy received knighthood, the greatest honour one can receive in Great Britain.
Now, he needs to carry that momentum into the 2017 season. It is not going to be easy but nothing has ever been easy for Andy. He has always had to fight for his place at the top and this time will be no different. Can he retain his number 1 ranking? That is the biggest question.
Murray has been in strong touch if his early matches of the 2017 season are an indicator. Progressing to the finals of the Qatar Open, Murray has looked higher on fitness than Djokovic, perhaps, but the Serb pulled out the stops at the final, with Murray putting on a sublime display of tennis to mount a fight back despite being three match points down to Djokovic.
In the end, the Scot forced a third set, with Djokovic eventually winning, but fans and pundits alike marvelled at Murray’s reach for shots and his sheer drive. If that match is any indication of his form for the rest of the year, tennis watchers will be in for a treat.
The Spaniard who keeps coming back for more
In a video released by the ATP some time ago, the Association polled players on tour, asking who they thought was the most competitive and most hard working player of all. The majority of players took one name – Rafa Nadal.
The Spanish bull has been one of the most revered and yet, feared players on tour for a long time. The sight of his strong arms hitting those heavy top spin forehands can intimidate even the greatest of players. In the recent past, however, Nadal has been a shadow of his former self, plagued by old and new injuries. His strong results, which were earlier consistent, have become few and far between.
2017 is a crucial year for Nadal as he enters the troubled 30 and above age group. Many have predicted that this year might as well be his last year on tour. Although I don’t agree with this, I do believe that the year will play an integral role in deciding how long Rafa will play competitive tennis.
The Spaniard has made one big change he had never before made in his life; adding a new coach in his team. At the end of 2016, Nadal announced that he has added to his team former world number 1, Carlos Moya.
This is an excellent decision as the team needed a fresh voice and with Moya being a longtime friend of the Nadal family, this partnership seems ideal for the Rafa camp. Moya will join Nadal’s longterm coach, uncle Toni Nadal.
Rafa had an ideal start to the season as he won the Mubadala title for the fourth time in his career in December 2016. Dispatching his opponents in style, the Spaniard looked in great touch then, despite it being an exhibition tournament.
At the Brisbane Open, however, Nadal looked tired in his first round match against Alexandr Dolgopolov. Managing to get the win to progress to the second round, h won his second round match with ease and set up a quarter finals clash with the number 1 seed Milos Raonic. The Canadian came out as the winner after three competitive sets of tennis that saw Nadal not fully in form, but fighting to get there.
This is what Nadal said after his loss to Raonic:
“It’s important to win a lot of matches, of course, but at the same time it’s important to lose with just a small difference (between the opponents). That’s what happened. The result was so close, and that’s positive. It means my mind was ready to keep fighting until the end, and that’s what I did.’’
Winning five of his six matches this season, the Spaniard will enter the Australian Open with the right mindset. Though, there are still questions regarding his ability to keep up his game for five grueling sets of tennis, you can never count him out.