By Prabha Mohan
2016 made as if the tennis status quo was immutable, but by the end of the year, it wrote itself into the history books as a Year of Shakedowns. Post-French Open, tennis players chose to shuffle their position in the rankings, and retrofitted new players in the process.
2017 is therefore new territory. It is a wildcard-year that does not conform to previous frameworks that allow us to predict the future of players and the sport. There’s a lot to look forward to, but also a lot for fans of every player to stress about. No one gets to rest easy in 2017.
Now that the Australian Open draw is out, here are my players in men’s tennis to watch both now and the rest of the year. This year, more than any year, will make it clear, who consolidates their place in the sport.
Novak Djokovic is the only player on the tour right now who can realistically set his sights on winning all four Grand Slams in the same year again! This is in spite of the fact that he experienced a setback in the second half of 2016 following his Canadian Open win. Physically, he is every bit a masterful precision-machine. If he finds his mental form again, he will be indomitable. He started 2017 with an impressive win against Murray at Qatar Open, ending Murray’s 28-win streak. Now he looks ready to add a seventh Australian Open trophy to his collection. His draw isn’t a tough one as much as a tricky one. He starts by facing left-hander Verdasco, who has never beaten Djokovic on the hard court in over a decade, but the hard court is still his best surface, and he is a dauntless and aggressive player. Keep in mind, he beat Nadal in the first round of the Australian Open last year, and gave Djokovic a scare in this year’s Qatar semi-finals, where he made him save five match points. Djokovic may also face Dimitrov who recently beat three of the top 10 players in Brisbane. Dominic Thiem is another aggressive baseliner with a strong mental game that Djokovic might face. He is touted to be the future No. 1 player. In 2016, he made his debut to the Top 10 rankings, but he too suffered a setback in the second half of 2016. His performance this year will therefore confirm or challenge our conjecture about his future potential. Either way, he is already proving himself to be a talented shot-maker with a few tricks up his sleeve. In the end, it is most likely that Djokovic will breeze through to the semifinals. 2017 will also be interesting to see how Djokovic does without Boris Becker as coach. He still has Marian Vadja on his side, and Dusan Vemic joins his coaching team again.
Andy Murray will be fighting to keep his well-earned World No. 1 ranking and prove to his discreditors that the top ranking was a result of his mettle and not because the other players experienced an off-year. Let’s not forget, he consecutively beat all other the four players holding the the Top 5 rankings in his last four matches of 2016, and is the only players holding the the Top 5 rankings in his last four matches of 2016, and is the only don), the Olympics, the ATP World Tour Finals and Masters 1000 events all in the same calendar year. He is a five-time finalist at the Australian Open, losing once to Federer and four times to Djokovic. But, there is a serious possibility that he might win this year, since he won two of their last three matches. It will depend on how he defends his points against Djokovic. He has the easiest draw of the top players, and should be able to make it to the finals without much challenge. However, Federer, Nishikori and Berdych are not to be underestimated. This is also the year to watch Lucas Pouille, who is in Murray’s quarter, whose fluid, almost effortless technique and flawless execution of strokes is reminiscent of a young Federer. It may not be long before he picks up the persistence and agility he needs to beat Murray. Murray’s year is about how long he can hold on to being No. 1 after Djokovic regains his edge.
Stan Wawrinka is even more underrated than Andy Murray, even though he has won three of the four Grand Slams by defeating the world No. 1 players in the finals in each of them, and in fact, holds the unique record of winning every final he has ever played in the Grand Slams. This means, if Wawrinka makes it to the Australian Open final, his opponent has real reason to fret! He also has an impressive head-to-head record of beating all the top players in hard courts. What makes Stan’s record peculiar is, he has a tendency to falter in the early rounds. He does best when the challenge he faces looks insurmountable. But, once he’s through the early rounds, he is formidable. This time, his draw looks fairly uncomplicated. It would be great to see him play Tsonga on the hard court or Maric Cilic and Nick Kyrgios, the promising young player who the locals have pinned their hopes on, and who Wawrinka shares a bad personal history with. Another potential cold war to watch out for in this group is a spin-heavy match between Jack Sock and a towering Karen Khachanov. Also, all the best Australian players, such as Nick Kyrgios, Sam Groth and Bernard Tomic, seem to have all fallen in this quarter, making this the most dramatic draw, especially for the locals.
Roger Federer is the most interesting player to watch this time because he comes in as a low ranking player (Rank 16) after an injury break, which throws up an unpredictable path. His match with Sascha Zverev at the Hopman Cup is evidence of the fact that he is fighting fit. Many, including his former coaches Stefan Edberg, Paul Annacone, and Federer himself, hold on to the hope that he may win another Grand Slam this year. His first tour match since his hiatus, puts him in the same quarter as Murray, Nishikori and Berdych (another player who was consistently in the Top-10, who is written off ever so often as a player long past his shelf-life). This will be his first real test of his grit and tenacity. In the meantime, he continues to be the most elegant player to watch, with masterful art.
Milos Raonic has unsuspectingly made his way up to No. 3. He also made it to the Australian Semifinals last year. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against his big challengers, Ferrer and Nadal. Nadal, like Federer, is back after a long gap, and has now added Carlos Moya to his coaching team. Raonic’s matches may be more watchable because of some unpredictable and athletic players in his draw, such as Gilles Simon or Dustin Brown or Gael Monfils, and new blood such as Sascha Zverev (another towering, potential great). Suffice to say, Raonic may be the highest ranked player in his quarter, but not the most interesting. The more interesting matches to watch may be Nadal vs. Mayer, Dolgopolov vs. Coric, or Gilles Muller vs. Taylor Fritz (both of whom he shares a similar playing style with). Raonic has a fairly easy draw, so the Australian Open and the year ahead is his chance to show us what else he has to offer apart from his big serve and volleying ability. Bear in mind, these have been enough to take him to the top. I am often reminded of Ferrer, in that, his consistency is his biggest weapon.