Like all tennis scoring starts at love-all, tennis seasons also begin with warm, happy, fuzzy feelings.
A whole new year stretches ahead for the players, full of possibilities. Failings of the earlier year have morphed into vital lessons and the triumphs used as launch pads. Off-season is for them to toughen up and go faster, stronger, higher. With a few matches at the tune-up events under their belt, the players arrive at the Australian Open brimming with optimism.
Ahead of the first Major of the year, Russian youngster Andrey Rublev was also brave enough to declare that “in the future there will be better players than them (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal).”
The 20-year-old Rublev is part of ATP’s much publicised Next Gen, a generation that has neither lived in the Federer-Nadal shadow nor seen their chances or confidence wilt under it. Their aspirations are unlikely to be clipped by the long prevailing dominance of the duo.
Rublev and 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov were visibly fearless in their pursuit at the US Open last year. Playing attacking, attractive tennis, they were the breakout stars in New York. The Russian went all the way to the quarter-finals while Shapovalov, who had entered the tournament through qualifying, made it to the last-16.
At 18, the Canadian was the youngest to reach a Grand Slam fourth round since Michael Chang in 1989. A few weeks before that, Shapovalov had caused a sensation as he defeated Nadal in three tight sets, in front of a noisy home crowd in the third round of Rogers Cup in Montreal.
As exciting as the Canadian teen is, Alexander Zverev seems the Next Gen member most ready to make a breakthrough in the majors. The 20-year-old is currently ranked fourth in the world, but had gone up to as high as third in November. Even though his Grand Slam form tapered as 2017 wore on, the German has the poise and a well-rounded game that can take on the big guns. Whether he has fully come to terms with the expectations heaped on him, especially since he became the first player born in the 1990s to win a Masters title (in Rome) last year, remains to be seen.
One of the biggest challenges to the tennis hierarchy was mounted at the ATP World Tour Finals, when Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin contested the final of the season-ending tournament. It was for the first time since 2009 — when Nikolay Davydenko defeated Juan Martin Del Potro — that neither of the top four had made it to the final of what is considered to be the ‘fifth Slam’.
Belgian lightweight Goffin may have lost that final, but pulled the biggest punches. In his opening match, he took down Nadal in three close sets befitting the theatre of London’s O2 arena. The fleet-footed Goffin then clawed back from a set down to beat Federer in the semi-final. It was the first time in seven meetings that Goffin had managed to get past the man he grew up idolising.
Goffin, 27, has always been a battler, fighting off taller, more powerful opponents with his foot-speed and variety. But in the sterile indoor courts at London, the Belgian, making his debut in the season-ender, found another gear to become the first player since Djokovic (ATP Finals 2015) to beat Federer and Nadal in the same tournament.
“Both are really special. It was the first time against Rafa. Then the semi-final for the first time for me here, and to beat Roger for the first time here in such a big event, big tournament, it was the perfect moment,” Goffin had said. He wasn’t done yet. Goffin single-handedly took the fight to the French in the final of the Davis Cup.
France used eight different players during the team event through the year even as Belgium heavily relied on their little big man to keep them afloat.
In the final in Lille, Goffin won both his singles matches – against the explosive Lucas Pouille and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – but his team went down 2-3. He finished 6-0 in Davis Cup singles in 2017, and No 7 in the world rankings. ‘Valiant’ was word routinely used to describe Goffin. And he will need to be every bit of that warrior again to make an impact on the Grand Slam stage.
Meanwhile, the man who was crowned champion at the ATP Finals, has long dwelled on the fringes. Dimitrov is a stylist, but has often lacked the stubbornness to shake off the top dogs. The Bulgarian showed some steel when he went toe-to-toe with Nadal in the semi-final of the Australian Open last year. Though the 26-year-old had another patchy season, his impeccable run to the finish line should give him some energy for the coming months. The ATP Finals win elevated him to No 3 in the world rankings and he will be hoping to build on that success.
There were more inroads the younger brigade made in the past few months. American 25-year-old Jack Sock won the Paris Masters and made it to the semi-finals on his maiden appearance at the ATP Finals to finish at a career high of No 8 eight in November. And enfant terrible Nick Kyrgios won his first title in Australia when he claimed the Brisbane Open in the first week of 2018. Their success along with the ever-looming presence of former Grand Slam champions Marin Cilic and Del Potro (both 29) has refreshed hope for a long-awaited change in guard.
Moreover, Federer, at 36, is the only one of the Big Four, or Big Five if you include Stanislas Wawrinka, who is reportedly fit to play at the Australian Open.
The Swiss master, now a 19-time Grand Slam champion, will start one of the favourites as he gears up to defend his title in Melbourne. But, pleasant as it may be, him winning the hard-court Slam for the second year in a row will still be a surprise.
The top-ranked Nadal, who extended his Grand Slam tally to 16 last year, hobbled out of London at the ATP Finals, cutting his tourney down to one match, and lost his season-opening match at the Kooyong Classic. Andy Murray, who recently had a hip surgery, will be out of action while Novak Djokovic is taking his first few steps back on the tour after recovering from a chronic elbow injury. The 2014 champion Wawrinka is also on a comeback trail after undergoing a knee surgery in August.
The ‘Happy Slam’ — as the Australian Open is called for its player-friendly approach — is as good a place and time as any for new beginnings.
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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2018 12:58 PM