2016 Year in Review: The Major Movers

Unlike many other sports, it’s not easy to predict a career trajectory for tennis players. Some burst onto the scene, conquer the world, and see their star fade all before their 21st birthday. Others hang around as supporting acts before making their breakthrough long after their age should prevent it. Others come, go, and come again. And sure, some do follow the “normal” career path of steadily realising their potential, hitting their prime at the same time as their body does, but as something of a minority, even that can be considered unusual.

Nothing illustrated this better than the players who made their move in 2016. Success isn’t measured just by the leaps a player has made in the rankings, but by what their accomplishments meant in the grand scheme of their very unique careers. So who soared in 2016? Read on to find out.

Milos Raonic

No one announced themselves on the grand slam stage in 2016 quite like Milos Raonic. A two-time quarterfinalist prior to the season, Raonic managed to make the semis in Melbourne before reaching the final at Wimbledon, falling both times to Andy Murray. Even with the injury-shortened seasons of Federer and Nadal undoubtedly aiding his rise to the year-end no. 3 ranking, it was clear that Raonic had made considerable gains on his 2015 version, rounding-out what was previously a fairly straightforward 1-2 serve-and-forehand style with an increased ability to manipulate rallies and set-up attacking opportunities, all backed-up by an even better feel at the net. If it wasn’t for an injury sustained in his AO match with Murray, he could’ve very well started the year a grand slam champion, and has to be the favourite to pop his cherry in 2017.

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Gael Monfils

Eleven years removed from one of the greatest junior seasons in tennis history, 2016 saw Monfils deliver on much of his immense potential by finally making the year-end top-10, finishing at no. 7. A finalist in Monte Carlo and Rotterdam, with a title in Washington, Monfils also made his first AO quarterfinal and just his second career slam semi at the US Open to rise back into the ranks of the sport’s elite. Having turned 30 in September, the Frenchman seems to have found something of a happy medium between playing solid tennis and the shenanigans that have long endeared and frustrated in equal measure, and the sport is better for it.

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Dominic Thiem

A four-time titlist in 2016, Thiem was able to take a significant step forward with his first top-8 finish. Having won all three of his 2015 titles on clay, this year Thiem proved to be a more well-rounded player with a title each on grass and hardcourt, not just due to his scintillating shotmaking, but more offensively-minded point construction that allowed him to build pressure over the course of a rally. If anyone is poised to make the leap into grand slam prominence in 2017, it’s certainly Thiem.

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Alexander Zverev

Undoubtedly the hottest young prospect on tour, the 19-year-old managed to claim his first career title in St. Petersburg (d. Wawrinka) en route to finishing 24th in the rankings. At 6’6 Zverev is far from the lumbering giant usually found in players of that height, with superb lateral movement and a rock-solid baseline game that relies on defense and manipulation as much as it does outright power. He’s not the first teenager to be heralded as “the next big thing” in recent years, but he might be the sport’s best shot since the next man on this list.

Tennis - Olympics: Day 9

Juan Martin Del Potro

The man who’s spent so much time on the comeback trail he’ll give you a guided tour, 2016 saw the Argentine get well-and-truly back on track. The season may have started inauspiciously with no-shows at the Aussie and French, but it rapidly came into full bloom during Wimbledon. Claiming the scalp of Stan Wawrinka before his third-round exit, Del Potro went on to claim a silver medal in Rio thanks to an upset of Novak Djokovic in the 1st round, make the US quarters, and cap his year with a Davis Cup victory for Argentina. Seemingly at greater ease with the wrist injury that has robbed him of much of his backhand, Del Potro instead employed a slice to great effect while backing it up with the same cannon forehand that had once gotten him to no. 4 in the rankings. In a career robbed of so much promise, his ascension to year-end 38th was one of the best stories in tennis, and hopefully this time, it means he’s here to stay.

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A glimpse of the future? A look at Pouille and Zverev

Men’s tennis is in a weird spot at the moment. The game’s two greatest ever players, Rafa and Roger, have bodies that are showing clear signs of their wear and tear. The number one player, Novak Djokovic might’ve peaked, and certainly hasn’t been the same player since May. Stan Wawrinka is always lurking, but not always surfacing. Andy Murray is, well… Andy Murray.

Now more than ever, the ATP is desperate for an injection of youth – not just to take it to the big guns, but eventually usurp them, which made the results this past Sunday unusually important for events at the time of the year, as two of the sport’s hotter prospects, Lucas Pouille and Alexander Zverev, took their first titles in Metz and St. Petersburg respectively.

A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon and the US, the 22-year-old Pouille certainly came into his final with more expectation than Zverev, the Frenchman facing another of the sport’s younger lights in Austrian Dominic Thiem. After beating both the aforementioned Federer and Nadal over the past six months, the Pouille has established himself as something of a big-game player, and lived up to that reputation in his 7-6, 6-2 victory. Going up against Thiem, Pouille was never going to be the dominant force from the baseline, and the Austrian shotmaker certainly lived up to his reputation – the difference for Pouille was that he made his shots hard to hit back. Heavy, deep, rallying balls that forced Thiem to try and paint the lines, a serve that constantly pulled Thiem out of position to set up dominant baseline positions for Pouille, and a nose for the net that, once he was on the attack, allowed him to stay there. It was smart tennis, and a wholly deserving victory.

pouillemetzUp to a career best number 16, Pouille might be the most dangerous man outside the top-ten on tour right now. While he lacks any singular weapon that is a force against everybody, he has a game for all comers, from shotmakers like Thiem to grinders like Nadal and David Ferrer, another of the Frenchman’s scalps. He’s certainly fun to watch, and could be one more second-week-run-at-a-slam-away from cracking the top 10.

Zverev’s triumph wasn’t so clear cut. His 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 victory had a dominance ratio (% of return points won divided by % of serve points lost) of only 0.98, per tennis abstract, and that’s a pretty good indicator of a match that Wawrinka lost as much as Zverev won. Like Pouille, Zverev was going up against a shotmaker – one who just happens to currently be the best in the game – in Wawrinka and never was able to dictate from the back of the court.

Down a break in the third, it certainly looked like Wawrinka had it in the bag, but a particularly bad service game at 3-0 allowed Zverev back in it, and the former’s level never recovered, while the latter remained steady. If there’s any big takeaway from this win for Zverev, it’s probably that – he showed remarkable comfort rallying from deep behind the baseline, which given his relatively flat groundstrokes is very difficult to do, and it eventually paid dividends when his opponent wore down. Offensively, Zverev has work to do, but he did have success with an old-school serve-and-volley game that would’ve brought a smile to even Tony Roche’s face. Comparatively speaking, at 19 he’s a better version of Bernard Tomic, both in his foundational game and his lack of dick-headedness.

For both Pouille and Zverev, the obvious question now is: how high can these two players go? There’s no doubting they have top 10 talent, and Sunday’s results just confirmed that. However, if you’re hoping to crown either the tennis superstar, maybe wait a bit longer. There’s a big leap between that watermark and the sort of grand slam stardom everyone is yearning to unearth, and both men have some ways to go just yet. Perhaps what will be most telling is how they back up these results in the coming months, ideally with a few more deep runs to close out the season. Time moves very fast on the ATP tour, and if Pouille and Zverev want to cement their spot as the sport’s future, they’ll have to keep excelling in the now.