Tennis Talk: Reviewing 2016 and predicting 2017 on the ATP World Tour

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Andy Murray in the French Open final against Novak Djokovic (Photo by Jerome Chainay.)

In the first edition of Tennis Talk, I’m joined by Sarah Claire to discuss the 2016 ATP season, and to predict what will happen in the coming year. (Note: This discussion took place on Wednesday 4th January, so some of the comments might have been a little different were we making them now…!)

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Abigail: So today I’m joined by Sarah Claire as we take a belated reflection on the 2016 ATP season (although actually, we have reflected on it many times since it finished!), and to preview the year ahead! Ready to ramble, Sarah?

Sarah: Ready to ramble! Belated is right, but I must say that 2016 took a while to sink in.

Abigail: Have to agree with you there! Honestly, I think we should get the most-talked-about item of the year out of the way early on: Andy Murray, year-end world no. 1. Obviously I’ve already given my thoughts on the subject. What are yours? Feel free to take the rest of the season over it…

Sarah: Andy Murray. In other words, the only tennis player that exists in the eyes of the British media. I guess they can now stop calling him “Andy Murray, British Number One, World Number Two, Soon To Be Number One”. It’s been a long season listening to those references. Moving away from the constant media exaggeration and onto the actual tennis, though, it was a great year for him (or rather, half a year). You can’t take anything away from him. He worked hard, and won just about everything he was supposed to in the absence of the rest of “The Big Four”. All of it came with the help of a number of soft draws, but it was a good run, all the same.

Abigail: Yes, I’ve been *rather* vocal on the biased British coverage, too (as many are probably aware.) Definitely the best season of Murray’s career, I agree. You’ve seen his game – physically and especially mentally – develop considerably over the years. The effort he put in to become a serious clay-court contender, alongside everything else, speaks volumes as to his work ethic. But for sure, things like comfy draws and some rough losses early in the season (he only reached the third round in both Indian Wells and Miami, for example) have been brushed over in the excitement. Still, he couldn’t help the absences of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal later in the season.

Before we move on, let’s consider those two for a bit. It was such a loss to the tour to have them both absent with long injury spells last season! Where do we begin?

Sarah: Honestly, now that you’ve said it, I caught a glimpse of some highlights from Murray’s win over Novak in the 2012 US Open Final. I was taken aback by how all over the court Murray looked! His balance and movement have improved immensely. He’s definitely not the same player he used to be. Naturally, the tennis world has acted as of late like the first half of year hadn’t happened. It was a period of time that included a number of strange losses for Andy – one being against Federico Delbonis, of all players!

The absence of both Nadal and Federer was rough for tennis in general. There are a large number of ‘tennis’ fans that are in fact just Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer fans, rather than fans of the sport in general. But I suppose there were positives to it, too, if we look passed the sentimentality of having both on the tour healthy and at their best. It definitely gave up-and-coming players (or the #NextGen, as they’re more commonly known!!), a bit of breathing space, and more of a bite at playing on the big stages. We also saw Marin Cilic claiming his maiden Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, so there were definitely positives for the rest of the tour.

Abigail: Marin Cilic is an interesting one, now you mention him. He showed flashes of the stuff that took him to the 2014 US Open title (that shocker of all shockers!) near the end of 2016, and produced one or two big results in Wawrinka-esque fashion. For some reason I think he’ll shrink back into the shadows in 2017 (he hasn’t strung two big seasons together yet), but we’ll see!

Sarah: Yes. Marin can completely take the racquet out of your hands one minute (Andy Murray will tell you all about that!), and then the next (Wednesday!) he’s losing in a 250 event to Kovalik (a qualifier).

Abigail: I think it’s often forgotten that Federer, despite playing up until Wimbledon, was actually physically hampered for pretty much the whole time he was in action last season (the famous ‘running-the-bath’ injury happened just after Melbourne.) And yet he still managed to make the semifinals or better at five of the seven tournaments he contested. Although he lost to both Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev in the grass-court season (massive for the rising stars), he was fresh off missing his first Slam event in 16 years with a back injury. So it wasn’t as much about the Next Gen (thanks for the reminder!) taking over as Federer doing well to compete at all.

That Wimbledon semifinal against Milos Raonic is another example of how negative results covered up just how well he was competing. Yes, he blew that match at the end of the fourth set (and then Raonic ran away with it in scary fashion.) But how did he even get to that match in the first place? The guy was playing on a busted knee, and had saved three match points in a marathon quarter-final encounter with Cilic the round prior. If he can do all that whilst injured, just imagine what he can do in 2017, refreshed and as motivated as ever!

Yes, I’m positive it was a season of turmoil for Roger and Rafa fans. Especially given the way Nadal had resurrected form-wise. I’ve been saying that Nadal will get back to his Slam-winning ways ever since the end of 2014, when things started to go downhill. So to see him really rediscover himself at the beginning of the clay-court season – winning Monte Carlo, obviously – and starting to strike deep and use the forehand again was terrific. I was virtually convinced he was going to win the French Open, and when he announced his withdrawal due to wrist injury, the dominant nature of his 6-3 6-0 6-3 second round win just rubbed salt into the wounds. Being forced out when he had just got back to full confidence, having overcome so many mental and physical issues previously, was the cruellest of blows. Honestly, I feel that if he had won that final tiebreak against Juan Martin Del Potro in his Rio comeback, sealing himself an Olympic medal, the rest of the year could have looked very different for him. As it was, he clearly thought he had tried to come back too soon (why else decline a World Tour Finals spot?) He’s looked promising so far this season, though.

Boy, that was a ramble and a half!

Sarah: Federer is phenomenal. He has the perfect all round game that he has adapted beautifully to the current changes and advancements in tennis. It’s pretty astounding that at 35, for a player that has more of a balanced game than one with lethal weapons can go toe to toe with young talents like Alexander Zverev and Milos Raonic. I’d highlight Zverev in particular, who has more than proven he’s a tricky one to put away with some massive artillery at his disposal. I do think Murray would have had a much tougher time getting that second Wimbledon title if he’d had to fend off Federer. I’m sure we would have seen an inspired version of the Swiss, injured or not.

And Nadal never ceases to amaze me. His passion and heart for the sport is like no other. I must say, that gold medal doubles match of his was an emotional one! There has been some good signs concerning Nadal this week. Even though it’s early days, it is good to have both him and Federer back and (seemingly) healthy.

Abigail: I think that doubles gold salvaged another heart-breaking season for Nadal. But the Abu Dhabi setting – with no ranking points either on offer or to defend – really brought out the best in him, and he has seemingly carried on where he left off with that confidence. It’s hard to believe he didn’t make a Slam quarter-final last season, and I find it harder to believe that he won’t end that unsavoury streak in 2017. As for Federer, I have to agree. Because he’s one of the greatest players of all time, people seem to take for granted that he’s still fighting with and beating the best so many years after starting out. As you say, only today (in one of his first singles matches back in six months), he took a zoning Zverev down the wire in three tiebreak sets. The Hopman Cup, with guaranteed match practice prior to the Australian Open, was definitely a smart move.

Anyway, speaking of Sascha/Alex/Whatever you want to call that rather talented German guy, let’s move onto the rising stars. I called Zverev to leapfrog Coric as the leading teenager on tour last season, but I think he excelled even my own expectations. Thoughts on Alex?

Sarah: While injury did hold Coric back near the end of the season, I have to agree with you there. Zverev is a massive talent. He has a bit of an attitude problem on court (at somewhat unfortunate times), which doesn’t help his campaign to the elite – but he’s getting there. He’s taking his time, and I think that’s important. I recall an interview he gave in the latter stages of 2016, in which he was asked about ranking goals. I was extremely impressed with his answer. He (very maturely) stated that he doesn’t plan on focusing on rankings at this point in his career, and proceeded to talk about getting to know his game, knowing the limits to his body and the risks of over scheduling when it comes to trying to rack up those all-important ranking points. Unfortunately, scheduling is something that his friend Dominic Thiem has most definitely fallen victim to.

Things are changing in tennis. Players don’t have to win Grand Slams at the age of 18 to become the best. I think it’s a smart call for Alex to think this way regarding his rise to the top, and it will definitely pay off in the long run.

Abigail: Yes, Zverev’s heated arguments when it comes to certain line calls are becoming the norm in tennis circles (or simply an amusement, if you were Roger Federer taking him on in an exhibition match in Perth!) I have to say, despite Zverev’s rather irritating outbursts, he’s dialled in right away again for the next point (which not every player is, saying no names.) In terms of last season, Alex definitely approached it all very maturely (assisted by both father and brother, no doubt.) While he did it all rather quickly, I have to say that Zverev’s 2016 rise was very convincingly. There was no skipping of rungs on the development ladder, as we have sometimes seen on the WTA tour. He started by making several ATP semifinals and bagging top 20 wins, before pushing the top players in lengthy matches. A couple of ATP finals and some top 10 wins followed, and he topped it all off with maiden ATP title victory in the St Petersburg Open – over recently-crowned US Open champ Stan Wawrinka. That’s a highly impressive run. You have to be doing something right to reach the top 20 as a teenager.

Looking ahead, the next step for Zverev will be to go deeper at Slams – which is something Thiem has done this season. Obviously his wasn’t such a breakout year as Sascha’s, with the Austrian already on the edge of the top 20 when 2016 began. But becoming a consistent top ten player within the season is no mean feat! The French Open stands out: not just because it was his first major semifinal, but because he stayed ice cool to take advantage of a faltering draw in awful conditions, having already proven he can beat most players on tour right now. Winning titles on all three surfaces in one season is one heck of a statement in itself.

My concern for Thiem, though (as I’m sure is everyone’s), is that he still thinks playing tournaments virtually every week is okay. He basically limped through the last months of the year, having seen the heights of two wins over Federer beforehand. I remember you saying you think he may backtrack in 2017?

(Oh, and as for Borna Coric, wins over Nadal and Murray at ages 17 and 18 is not to be scoffed at. I think, with his incredible ambition, he should make a move this season if injury doesn’t hold him back.)

Sarah: Zverev certainly handles it well, concerning moving on relatively fast. But his outbursts are still something I feel should be looked to be tamed down a bit. Oh yes, his father looks to be a force to be reckoned with! That facial expression of his never seems to budge! He seems a tough, but well-needed mentor who will help Zverev fulfil his potential. I’m sure that brother of his is a great help, too (who, by the way, has bagged a few good wins of his own lately, including one against Wawrinka!) It’s been a well-structured rise to where Alex is now, and I don’t see that changing much. He’s focussing on his future, which is sending him on the right track.

On the subject of Thiem, yes, I think him having a *minor* setback this year is a possibility. To be honest, I think it would benefit him. While we witnessed his great success in 2016, we also saw over-scheduling taking its toll. Which would be totally fine if he had learnt from it, but some recent comments from the Austrian show that he hasn’t. As you said, he still thinks it’s okay to play extremely competitive tournaments every week, and he’s not thinking about the big picture. He may need a bit of a setback to make him listen and improve for the future. It might not happen, but I think intervention is needed if he plans on staying healthy and fit enough to play at 100 per cent throughout long, gruelling, ruthless seasons year after year.

Abigail: I could sing Mischa Zverev’s praises all day, to be honest! I followed him at Challenger level for months, and it was only a matter of time before he broke through the mental barrier and started winning on the ATP tour again. Despite only possessing a top 80 ranking, I’d consider him one of the best serve-and-volleyers on tour right now.

Sarah: I whole-heartedly agree with you on Mischa Zverev. Personally, he has always been my favourite of the Zverev brothers (quite an unpopular opinion) but it’s the simplicity to his game is what reeled me in.

Abigail: And that’s actually a really good point you made concerning Thiem. He is so wrapped up in his passion for the sport (which, to be clear, I love to an extent) that trial-and-error may be the only thing that shows him the potential mistakes he’s making. But maybe he’ll prove us all wrong…

Obviously the other really exciting rising star (depending on how you look at it) is Nick Kyrgios. And I can tell you’re dying to talk about Tomas Berdych! Go on, then. Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kei Nishikori – the splendid talents so often overlooked. What did you think of their seasons (and what do you think of them overall?)

Sarah: Exactly, Thiem could prove us all wrong.

Nick Kyrgios. He’s quite something, isn’t he? The raw talent he possesses is breathtaking. Some of the best shots of the tour this year has been the result of a flick of the wrist from Nick. I was pretty excited about him and defensive of him throughout most of 2016. I looked beyond his tantrums and shared Murray’s opinion that the media was very hard on him. There is no doubt that he has buckets of potential – but he is his own worst enemy. Luckily, I think he’s starting to realise that he needs to change his childish ways following the incident in Shanghai – coincidentally against none other than Mischa Zverev! I think he’s starting to enjoy receiving praise from other players, and even the media. So I do feel he’s growing up, albeit quite slowly, but I reckon he’ll get there. He’s never going to have the whole tennis world loving him, but that’s okay. I don’t think he means any harm and in fact, I think he’s quite sensitive underneath it all. I admit, I expect big things from him soon, whether it be this year or next year.

I think you know that I could sing Tomas Berdych’s praises all day, every day! I may be slightly biased (very) when it comes to him, but he’s a great player. Although as a Berdych fan, 2016 was rough. The lack of consistency is something I’m not used to, but we have to take into account the appendix issue. I do think some great runs he made were criminally overlooked. The semi-final in Wimbledon comes to mind! Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Berdych are both such overlooked players. I’ve argued endless times that Grand Slam results should not be the basis of a career when they have both achieved so much. People seem to pick and choose when Grand Slam results are of vital importance. I have witnessed countless people – “professional” journalists included – that have called Tsonga and Berdych “a waste of potential”, with their argument solely based on Grand Slam results. This would be fair enough if the exact same people didn’t say weeks later that Murray is a “better all round player” than Djokovic, with their argument being that “Grand Slam results aren’t the be all and end all”. Both Tsonga and Berdych have so much potential, and have had incredible careers (which has seen Berdych a permanent fixture of the top ten since 2010, in what can only be called the toughest era of men’s tennis).

I must say, I’m still excited to see what Goran Ivanisevic can do for Berdych. We all know what a vital part he played in Marin Cilic’s success!

Abigail: Okay, a few players to comment on here!

There is no question in my mind that Kyrgios is just about the most talented player on the rise. The raw talent, the power, the angles, the trick-shots, the feel for the ball… it’s simply incredible. I do think the media are a lot harder on him than most players, but if I’m honest, Nick hasn’t really helped himself there. I, too, think he will learn as he grows, but it is his own conduct that has drawn the media to him as a click-puller. It’s tough, but having reeled them in, it’s something he’s going to have to deal with until he can get a handle on his emotions and fully focus throughout every match he contests. A current ranking of world no. 13 shows that those days might not be too far off.

I was especially impressed with Kyrgios during the clay-court season, when he played some lethal tennis for strings of matches. And given that dirt is the tour’s slowest surface, and the Aussie possesses a hard-hitting game, that only bodes well for him in the future. It’s a good point that he has obviously enjoyed the approval from Murray, Nadal etc. Honestly, after getting over the initial culture-shock (haha), I’ve come to think that Kyrgios’ individuality and character is good for tennis in general, giving it colour. But character and attitude/conduct are different things, and it’s the latter couple that still need adjusting. There will always be haters, but there need not be so many.

Sarah: You’ve taken the words out of my mouth regarding Kyrgios. I dare not add any more. I think you’ve summed it up completely.

Abigail: Anyway, it seems you’re a Berdych fan? News to me (NOT!) I remember back to 2012 when I was not keen on Berdych at all, but I have become quite the convert in recent years. Like many, I once thought he was nothing but a serve, but I saw a real change when he joined up with Daniel Vallverdu before the 2015 season. He really built up a strong and consistent groundstroke game behind his biggest weapon, with some variation, too. It was sad to see that partnership end last year, but it was also a symbol of how much Berdych was struggling early in the season (sorry, but who gets double bagelled by David Goffin?!)

Good point, Berdych did commendably to rebound from appendicitis – not to mention missing the US Open – and almost qualify for London. And he displayed flashes of top form throughout the year. Definitely lacked consistency within both matches and tournaments, which as you say, someone of Ivanisevic’s experience could help him to deal with. He’s shown he has the weapons to beat anyone – as has Tsonga. I completely agree with your argument, there is certainly a double standard – and I think part of the reason is that Berdych and Tsonga are players that many don’t bother to watch on a regular basis. Therefore there’s an image of them stuck in people’s minds from years ago. Players change and develop. There are different causes for losses. Tsonga and Berdych will always be up-and-down, but they are two of the only men to have beaten all of the Big Four multiple times. Until they hang up the racquet for the final time, there is still a chance for them to win a Slam. And had Tsonga not been forced to make a tearful third round withdrawal from his home Slam in May (just one awful occurrence during the messiest fortnight of the season), who knows what heroics he could have produced?

Kei Nishikori, too, will always have a shot at that elusive major with such a complete and precise game as he currently possesses. And his coaching team has stated that major glory is the principle goal now. The one notable feat of his 2016 might have been an Olympic bronze medal, but he regularly went deep throughout the season.

Sarah: I agree on the Vallverdu partnership. And oh boy, that double bagel from Goffin was just inexplicable! Especially for someone of Berdych’s talent. He has such lethal weapons, one being his serve and another his forehand. You have to admit, when he gets going, it’s a treat to watch! As is Tsonga, who plays a similar flashy game-style If they had the mentality of Djokovic or Murray, they could beat anybody. I truly believe that the main problem for both these men has been a mental issue – barrier of some sort, that they just seem to be unable to break through!

And Kei Nishikori, what a talented player. He is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked players as of now. Nobody ever really expects him to beat Murray or Djokovic, or win anything big. But that thriller against Murray at the US Open last year tells the whole story of what Nishikori is capable of! In the words of the media, Murray was in the best form of his life, on the back of an Olympic gold medal, and he was stopped in his tracks by Kei. I still expect big things from Nishikori.

Abigail: I have, indeed, found Berdych brilliant to watch when he’s on-song (his backhand winners down the line have literally made me gasp I don’t know how many times.) Tsonga – my love of his game stretches back years. I could watch it any day. So many massive shots. And Nishikori is just such a complete player! He is possibly the most underrated lethal threat on tour. There was no way he should have won that deciding set against Murray in Flushing Meadows, but he found a way – a sentence you would use about his opponent. But Nishikori is in the league of the elite, no questions asked.

We could go on forever, but I think there are just three more men we should discuss specifically before we move on to 2017 predictions: Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, and Novak Djokovic. Let’s start with Stan. Really, I don’t think there’s much to say. Wawrinka is a phenomenal talent who will be forever streaky, and who relishes being under the radar so that he can produce fantastic results. The moment the spotlight is completely off him, he’ll win a major. This saw him win the US Open, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he triumphed in Melbourne to make it back-to-back Slam victories. Thoughts?

Sarah: Wawrinka is one of the most baffling players on the tour. He has so much talent. And let’s state the obvious: he has arguably the most breathtaking backhand in the game. But he is simply not consistent enough. I have heard notions of “adding him to the Big Four”, which is just absurd. He’s a great player who has achieved something extraordinary in claiming three different Grand Slam titles, but he’s nowhere near the likes of Nadal, Djokovic etc. I wouldn’t say he’s far off in talent, but the idea of The Big Four is the constant domination of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic (and even) Murray over an insane and inhuman amount of time. This is a criteria that Wawrinka simply does not fit.

And personally, I thoroughly enjoyed Raonic’s rise last year. What were your thoughts on him?

Abigail: Yeah, I don’t have much to add concerning Wawrinka. In terms of the Big Four, it goes back to what you were saying before concerning Tsonga and Berdych. If it’s all about the Grand Slams, then sure, add another Swiss star and make it a quintet. If not, then Wawrinka – although fully able to beat any of the Four – is a step below, plainly because he still lacks that crucial staying power.

If I’m honest, Milos Raonic scared me at times last season! One thing I will never do is rule someone out (which is why my 2017 predictions are going to be extremely vague), but I broke that principle during a twitter discussion at the end of 2015. During that conversation, I said Raonic had missed his chance to win a Slam. What a mistake! I still cannot fully understand what instigated the change (apart from maybe Milos finding my comment and deciding to show me up), but I know that in just a couple of months, Raonic went from an average middle-man to full-on top player, with the confidence and channelled aggression to do serious damage. To this day, I say that only injury stopped him beating Murray in that Australian Open semifinal (has it really been a year?!). Nevertheless, I think as the year went on – and Federer was the only top-draw player he was getting wins over – he began to wobble just a little. His performance in the Wimbledon semis was terrifying, but the straight sets loss to Murray afterwards took the wind out of his sails somewhat. But he pushed Murray and Djokovic close in London, and that late-season revival could make all the difference in 2017. It’s still beyond me why he split with Carlos Moya, though.

Anyway, speaking of Novak Djokovic… Please start off. I’m not sure what to begin with: Sam Querrey, Andy Murray, or the French Open!

Sarah: Milos did surprise everybody. One thing is for sure, there isn’t a soul that can call that man “just a serve” any longer. Man, he can play tennis! The most unforgettable rallies of 2016 happened in the Cincinnati semi-finals between Raonic and Murray. The movement from Milos was just ridiculous. I’ve seen men half his size that couldn’t move even remotely as fast as he did. So I definitely think Milos’ time is coming for a big win. Regarding the Wimbledon Final, I think he’s a player that needs to make mistakes, analyse them and come back stronger. And I think that’s exactly what he’s going to do!

Well, I’m going to start on a lighter note for Novak, and give him the biggest and most deserved credit for finally getting that Roland Garros title. I’ll admit I was emotional. The man held all the Grand Slam titles at once. It may not have technically been the “Calendar Year Grand Slam”, but who else can say they held them all at the same time? Murray? No. They can deny it all they want, but the fact is that Murray is nowhere near Djokovic’s achievements (yet, I guess).

I think we can forgive Novak for a little slump after all of that. He is only human, after all – which is something he has not seemed for years. He’s trying to find his motivation again, and it’s understandable. The early Wimbledon exit to Querrey was the start of a string of shocks regarding Novak, although we all seem to forget that he did win the Rogers Cup this summer! I think if Novak gets to near 80% of what he was the past few years, he will still pose a massive obstacle for Murray. He still gets inside Murray’s head like no one else does. All those Grand Slam final losses to the Serb left their mark on Murray, and even though the British media have somewhat made up their mind on whether Novak’s domination of Murray has come to an end, I don’t think it will be as straight forward as they expect.

Abigail: Briefly on Raonic: I think he will likely at least sustain a good level throughout the current season, if not do better. It will be frustrating for him that Djokovic literally has about 6000 more ranking points than him at world no. 2, though. One comment I will make is that calibre of resistance at the time of a player’s success will have a lot to say about how the appearance of the history books. Raonic is doing superbly, yet I would definitely call Tsonga a more complete, dangerous and accomplished player. Nevertheless, the Frenchman has a career-high ranking of world no. 5 (attained during 2011/2, the ‘peak years’ of the Big Four), while Raonic sits at world no. 3, thanks in part to the absence of Federer and Nadal. But of course, years down the line people will only see the numbers, and not the context.

Sarah: I agree with you about Tsonga. What separates Milos from a lot of players, though, is his absolutely insane determination and motivation to constantly improve and do better. Tennis is everything to him. He’s willing to make sacrifices and put a large majority of his earnings back into his (rather expensive) team of coaches. It certainly makes him standout, and I don’t think he’d be half the player he is today if it wasn’t for that steely determination.

Abigail: Anyway, now that unexpected ramble is over, back to Djokovic! Yes, I agree with you on Roland Garros. Somehow I don’t think Djokovic’s feat of holding all four Slams simultaneously got as much coverage as Serena Williams’ famous ‘Serena Slam’. Perhaps it was because Serena has kind of made it her own personal achievement in the women’s game (as the name suggests), but I also think it was to do with how normal – and to some, boring – Djokovic’s dominance had become. As you say, Djokovic remained the mighty beast he had been for a couple of seasons throughout the first half of 2016. He won the first two Slams (despite abysmal conditions at the second), claimed a ridiculous third straight Indian Wells/Miami double (no, I will not call it the Sunshine Double, what a pathetic name), and ended the whole season with four Masters 1000 titles (plus more finals) to his name. The Rogers Cup win was the one I was sceptical about, because he didn’t beat any of the Big Four – despite winning every match in straight sets. But I was still surprised when he didn’t bounce back after the Querrey nightmare. Obviously, as has been covered a million times, that clash was the kind that Djokovic always manages to come through, and (let’s be honest) Querrey is one of the men you would brand least likely to produce an upset of this kind. Giving that he looked ill, I expected Djokovic to return to dominance soon enough. That it didn’t happen is surprising, but it should not be worrying yet. I’ve always said that – rather typically – Djokovic will be right as rain again the moment old rivals Federer and Nadal are back on the scene. So January is going to be a big indicator in how things go for Djokovic from here. Admittedly, if he fails to win a tournament, things don’t look great for him in the near future (added January 9th: HAHA!) But we have yet to see whether this will occur, and I completely agree with you: Years of insane dominance will not last forever. The lapse is normal, where Djokovic has been far from normal in previous weeks and months and seasons.

Sarah: Well that’s true about the Rogers Cup, but you could say the same about practically the whole second half of Murray’s year! But I agree, these early stages are crucial in telling what 2017 will bring for Novak Djokovic.

Abigail: Believe me, I do say the same about practically the whole second half of Murray’s year! So I will refrain from invalidating the Rogers Cup comment (just!)

Okay then, 2017 predictions time! (AKA the point where we’re supposed to give one player’s name for each category and I give about five because of the whole not-ruling-people-out thing.) Starting with the Slams. Your pick to win the Australian Open? For me… it is VERY much subject to change! I have said that this is Nick Kyrgios’ best shot at a major trophy yet (with Federer and Nadal just coming back, Djokovic on uncertain ground and Murray possibly ready to burn out after what looked like a one-day offseason.) For the time-being Federer looks a little rusty, as does Djokovic (although he has been the master of scraping through early before pummelling the elite for some time) (added January 9th: HAHA!) I think it would be unfair to exclude Nadal after his recent form (although I’m not sure how he will hold out for seven matches, as with Kyrgios.) So for me, it is a four-way tie between Stan Wawrinka, Nick Kyrgios, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. And a Djokovic or Federer win would not surprise me (added January 9th: Guess who I would include now?!) Please don’t make me narrow it down, I promise I’ll be more concise on the next three…!

Sarah: This really is a tough one since they’re all a little rusty at the minute, but my names for Australia would be Murray, Wawrinka, Raonic and Djokovic. I don’t want to rule out Federer and Nadal, but because they are only just back, I’ll stick with the four I’ve mentioned. Although I’ve said it already, I feel like somebody could surprise everyone for Melbourne this year. We’ll just have to wait and see…

Abigail: Boy, your choices sound so much more sensible than mine! Yeah, Melbourne it tough – probably too tough (despite the fact that, you know, Djokovic wins it basically every year.) But on the French Open, I’m not hesitating. My pick is nine-time champion Rafael Nadal. I said the same thing at the beginning of last season, and honestly still think he would have done it had injury not ended his campaign. This one’s his.

Sarah: Honestly for me, it’s Nadal too. I doubt that he will manage Melbourne, but I can already see him lifting that Roland Garros trophy! I would give Federer and Murray an inkling too, though.

Abigail: Roger Federer – the Unacknowledged Prince of Clay, as I called him before Djokovic won Roland Garros last year. Everyone seems to forget that 2009 victory! Anyway, I’m going with Federer for Wimbledon. I think I’ve said it every year since he last won it, and I’m probably going to do so until he wins it again. Because both he and I know that he has (at least) one more SW19 victory left in him. It’s three straight years he’s come excruciatingly close now… Always seems to produce his best on those lawns.

Sarah: For Wimbledon I’m going to say it’s between Federer, Raonic, Wawrinka (solely based on him maybe completing the Career Grand Slam) and Djokovic. I see Berdych (all going well health-wise) making a good run, too. For some reason I don’t see Murray taking Wimbledon two years in a row.

Abigail: Agree with you on Murray not winning it twice in a row – he needs for it to all fall into place in a certain way. Big thing to win it twice running. As for the US Open, I am completely clueless. It is the one that nobody seems to own really, and rarely reflects the season that has been (I mean, hello, Stan Wawrinka!) Any of the Big Four could take it (a lame but true statement), and I have to say that Nishikori often peaks there. I want to add Tsonga’s name, but it really… No, I have no idea. I’ll say Novak Djokovic, because I haven’t predicted him for anything yet. And I cannot see him ending the season Slamless.

Sarah: Dare I say Juan Martin del Potro for the US Open? If he could make the quarter-finals last year, who knows – right?! If Nishikori and get to the final without totally wearing himself out then he also has a bit of a chance.

Abigail: Ahh, I knew we had missed someone in the season review! (Although to be fair, Del Potro’s comeback has been well documented!) I’m liking the brave choice. He proved himself over five set matches in 2016 (albeit not in matches where ranking points were really on the line), but as you say, who knows? He’s done it before.

Sarah: Very true. Maybe we should all convince him it’s for Argentina and then he’ll win? Because let’s face it, when Del Potro decides to win a match, he’s going to win the match.

Abigail: Haha, good point. But at the same time, we don’t want to risk him partying the rest of the season away…!

Right then, breakthrough player for 2017? I’m under pressure after Alex Zverev last year. I’ve actually got an eye on Omar Jasika, but I’ve been following Quentin Halys for longer and I’m going with him. He’s been rising under the radar for some time and has already shown maturity on the ATP stage.

Sarah: I’m going to predict the year-end top 20 for Kyle Edmund. I’m expecting a few big wins for him this year. I reckon also Jared Donaldson is going to edge his way up the rankings too. He’s a player with a lot of potential and a very smart game.

Abigail: Nice. I need to see more of Jared Donaldson, but Kyle Edmund is definitely going places. A finish on the edge of the top 20 wouldn’t be all that surprising.

Who do you think will drop out of the top ten, then?

Sarah: I’m going to stick with my notion earlier and go with Thiem (although I think he won’t be far off it) and I reckon Cilic and Monfils will be well gone. Berdych dropping down to the top 20 is also (sadly) a possibility…

Abigail: Gael Monfils, I definitely agree. A surprisingly consistent season (by his standards) surely won’t be followed up by another, knowing his hot-and-cold nature. I’m really torn over Thiem – should be a lot more certain by the end of the Australian Open. But I certainly don’t see Cilic staying in for much longer. I actually think that if Berdych has a strong opening few months then he should be okay, especially considering he has zero points to defend at the US Open.

As for people entering the top ten, Roger Federer (who, in my mind, never left it) is top of the list. We never really talked about how a lower ranking (16, good grief) might adversely affect him at Slams and such, but that’s one to assess at a later time, I guess. No bias, I also see Tsonga getting back in (he’s been back and forth like nobody’s business!), and Kyrgios could well crack it. Alex Zverev could do it, but will have to produce those Slam results – and it may be a little early. Under Vallverdu’s guidance Grigor Dimitrov may well find his way back up there, and I’d say Lucas Pouille had a shot at it. But Bernard Tomic needs to show us he exists outside of the first few months of the season if I’m going to give him a chance…

Sarah: I love Monfils. He’s flashy and likeable. But I’m sorry, how the heck is he number six in the world? How?! Cilic leaving for the best part of the year and then finishing top ten is a possibility. And that’s actually quite true for Berdych. Virtually nothing to defend except for Shenzhen. The US Open would add some big points too, since he should (all going well) make a decent run there. Around Wimbledon time onwards should get fun regarding world no. 1, since Novak has practically nothing to defend after Roland Garros and Murray has everything!

I’m just presuming Roger will be back in no time. Tsonga could very well (actually more than likely) re-enter the top ten at some point, although staying there is a different story. I would say David Goffin, too. It’s hard to call with Kyrgios, but I reckon he will, and Zverev – in my opinion — will without a doubt become a very permanent top ten presence this year.

Abigail: I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds Monfils’ ranking a little crazy! I think, as with a lot of things, the absence of key players and the struggles of other regular threats have been components in aiding his ascent. And sure, things could indeed get mad after Wimbledon – especially with returning top stars also having little to defend!

I always overlook poor David Goffin. A semifinalist in Indian Wells and Miami out of the blue, as well! If he squeaks into the top ten then you can’t take anything from him. Strong words on Zverev! Looking forward to seeing if you’re right.

So, anything else you want to predict?

Sarah: Interesting on Grigor! Very possible since he’s lately found his feet again, and we all know what he’s capable of.

I am interested to know your predictions for the Americans this year? Mainly Jack Sock?

Abigail: Ahh, American men’s tennis. Sock has taken me somewhat by surprise – mainly because I just never paid him that much attention, to be honest. He’s steadily working his way up, though, and I’d be pretty shocked if he didn’t crack the top 20 in the future. He is, however, in short supply of really big wins, and I don’t see him climbing much higher until he starts to either pick them up regularly, or consistently reach the fourth round or beyond at Slams. In general, I’ve not kept much of an eye on the American men lately (something I must change.) I’ll predict that Querrey won’t top his Djokovic win, though. And that Frances Tiafoe will make waves, and John Isner will have one really good Masters 1000 tournament but do nothing at majors. Yourself?

Sarah: Pretty much the same. Sock has really taken me by surprise, and those bronze and gold medals were insanely good! Looking forward to seeing more of Tiafoe next year, I had forgotten about him actually.

Abigail: You’d forgotten about Tiafoe, and I’d forgotten about those medals! Massive for Sock, definitely. I was going to say that I couldn’t really think of anything else to predict (except that the French crop are going to be underrated and awesome again), but one last thing. David Ferrer. Will this be his last season? Part of me thought 2016 would be, and it shows his trademark grit and determination that he’s carried on.

Sarah: A part of me thinks that it surely has to be his last season, but another part of me says look he’s got another year or two in him! But I don’t know, it all depends on the level of determination, and if he can go injury-free. I can see him dropping to maybe the top 30 soon, though.

Abigail: I agree. If he could survive such a year of tough losses, miserable weeks, lost passion and – as he admitted himself – a lack of confidence as 2016, then he can surely carry on into 2018. But it’s about whether he really wants to do so. And if he drops into the top 30 zone or below, that desire might desert him. Unless he wants to end on a high note. No, I still think he can cause an upset or two, but the glory days appear to be distant for Ferrer…

On that cheerful note, are we good to wrap up there?

Sarah: Completely agree, he still has that talent of just not going away in a match! And yeah, I think we’ve just about covered absolutely everything… twice!

Abigail: Well, thanks for joining me, Sarah! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. We’ll have to have another one of these in the not-so-distant future…

Sarah: Pleasure was all mine! I’m sure we’ll manage another soon.

*

Thanks for reading! And if you’re at the finish line and read every single word, big congratulations. Got any thoughts to share? Sound off in the comments section!

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