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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.