When 2016 began – before it became the metaphor for all things wrong in this world – Roger Federer was in Australia gunning to play his 65th straight slam, Novak Djokovic maintained an iron grip at the top, Andy Murray was steadily lapping at his heels at No 2, Rafael Nadal was raring to go in Qatar, the likes of Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic were trying to reach the last eight of majors, Stan Wawrinka was in Chennai and Juan Martin del Potro was nowhere in contention.
When 2016 is coming to an end (finally!) Federer, ranked 16th, has had his worst season ever while missing most of it; Nadal hasn't played since October and is ranked ninth; Djokovic is no longer World No 1, but Murray is; Thiem, Raonic, Gael Monfils are top eight players; Wawrinka has the same number of Grand Slams as Murray, and Del Potro is an Olympic silver medallist and Davis Cup champion.
The year 2016 has really been as topsy-turvy as social media claims it has, at least for the ATP tour.
Dramatic climaxes, epic sequences, emotional moments, picture-perfect memories, tantrums, underdog-triumphs, larger-than-life scenes, enduring lines – this tennis season had all the makings of an Oscar-winner. But more importantly, it gave us thrilling tennis.
Here’s a lowdown:
Year of Andy Murray
Apart from amassing 12,410 points and climbing a mountain of more than 8000 points in less than eight weeks to become World No 1, the Brit also won nine titles – the most by any player in the year – and reached 13 tournament finals.
He became the first male player to win two Olympic singles gold medals, back-to-back, he won his second Wimbledon and third Grand Slam title, and ended the year on a five-title, 24-match winning run. However, this dominance came only in the second half of the season, coinciding with his decision to reunite with Ivan Lendl as part of his coaching staff. While his performance and consistency have steadily improved, the most remarkable transition of Murray’s year has been his endurance and the ability to go that extra inch when things seem down.
Novak Djokovic, Career Slam and the road downhill
While Murray began his upward trajectory, the second half of the season saw Novak ‘the machine’ Djokovic take the fast train downward. But first, a word on his historic first half. The Serbian claimed his biggest achievement in May — a career slam. When he defeated Murray in the French Open final (again), he captured his 12th major and the unique distinction of holding all four Grand Slams at the same time. A GOAT contender for sure. A calendar slam beckoned, a 'Golden' one even. But then came a shock third-round loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon and it all went south — a first round exit to resurgent Del Potro at the Rio Olympics, a straightforward loss to Wawrinka in the US Open final and the crucial ATP Finals showdown loss to Murray. Sure, he won seven titles and is World No 2, but for someone with Djokovic’s reputation, nothing short of the top of the summit makes the cut.
Roger Federer’s fag end
However, Djokovic’s slide to No 2 wasn’t the most shocking part of the season, it was Federer finishing as World No 16. This is the Swiss player's worst season since 2000, where he failed to win a single title. This is his lowest ranking since 2001, this is the first time he missed a major — snapping an incredible 65 consecutive slam streak. And it all came down to a slip, doing something as mundane as a running a bath for his kids. While that fateful slip soon after the Australian Open led to his career’s first surgery and a long injury layoff — which was exacerbated with a stomach bug at Miami and back injury before Rolland Garros — it was his slip on the grass of Wimbledon in the semifinal against Milos Raonic that was the proverbial straw that broke the GOAT’s back. He had won an epic five-setter days before in the quarters against Marin Cilic and there was no reason he couldn’t repeat it on his favourite Centre Court. But that was not to be. Soon after, Federer announced that he would miss the rest of the season, which included the Olympics. While he believes he can return to winning ways and has the hunger to do it, it won’t be the same Federer that returns to court in January’s Hopman Cup. The religious experience as we knew it is over.
Resurgence enough for Rafael Nadal?
While Federer promises to return rejuvenated in 2017, maybe the same won’t be enough for his once arch-nemesis. Nadal is already the poster child for resurgence, but while his Olympic doubles gold makes for a wonderful story, it was perhaps the lone epic performance in a year plagued by injuries. He ended the year ninth in the world, finishing his season in October due to the wrist injury which had forced him out of his beloved Roland Garros. Nonetheless, he had a fruitful season winning the singles titles at the Monte Carlo Masters before tasting glory seven days later at the Barcelona Open, and the doubles title at Beijing. And then came the crowning glory, the Spanish flag-bearer clinched the doubles gold with childhood friend Marc Lopez in Rio. In fact, his journey to the bronze medal match (singles) and gold (doubles) was enough proof that he is the dogged, determined Nadal of old — but four titles a year is not going to be enough for one of this generation’s strongest fighters.
The telenovela called Juan Martin del Potro
If Del Potro starred in a telenovela (a popular Latin American soap opera), he’d be the resilient protagonist who overpowers all the seemingly impossible, and often inconceivable, odds to eventually win the girl of his dreams. He was a Grand Slam champion in 2009, having beaten Federer as a 20-year-old. He was close to retirement before this season, after three successive wrist surgeries. He was ranked 1,045 in February this year. He finished the year as World No 38. He won the silver medal at the Olympics, with wins over Djokovic and Nadal en route. He powered Argentina to a first Davis Cup title, beating Murray in the semis. He almost beat eventual champion Wawrinka in the US Open. He will also miss the first half of 2017 due to his persistent fitness reasons. He is Juan Martin del Potro, tennis’ soap opera star if they ever was one.
Stan Wawrinka’s annual week of brilliance
For the last three years, Wawrinka has lifted three different Grand Slam trophies, in similarly dramatic fashion. A consistently inconsistent player, Wawrinka has moved on from being the other Swiss. And now he holds the same number of major trophies as World No 1 Murray. He may not have enough titles on the ATP tour, but the big three that he has are due to a phenomena I like to call the ‘week of brilliance’ Every year, he will produce a scintillating tennis display, dig deep, pull out all stops, break all the dams he has in him and create a masterful, dominant performance. When he hits his peak, there is nothing can stand in his way. He has done that thrice in majors against Djokovic, an enviable record. And as he ends the year ranked fourth with four titles, the best he can hope for is for this solitary week of dominance to extend longer in the coming season.
Next Gen steps up
The 2016 season also saw the rise of the next generation, as every season does, but this time there is ample reason to believe that the next crop of players are actual contenders to end the "Big Four" dominance. It started with Milos Raonic overcoming Federer 6-4, 6-4 to win the title at Brisbane. The Canadian continued his steady rise, and reached his first Slam final at Wimbledon with a classic victory over Federer. He finished the year at a career-high ranking of No 3. While he has lost John McEnroe and Carlos Moya from his support staff, it remains to be seen how this impacts him in 2017. And then there was Dominic Thiem, a player many expect big things from. The Austrian broke into the top 10, reached his first slam semifinal, and exceeded expectations on clay. However, his season ended on an inconsistent note as he ran out of steam in the latter half. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev became the first teenager to finish in the ATP top 25 since Djokovic and Murray in 2006, while the hot-and-cold Nick Kyrgios ended at a career-high 13.
So as we head into 2017, after the roller coaster that this season was, we hope to see more emphasis on entertaining tennis and less on entertaining tennis outfits, more epic matches, less epic meltdowns, more interesting player pressers, less interesting coach comments and definitely more play time for the best players of this generation.
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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2016 16:48:00 IST