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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World Tour Finals: Round-Robin Winners and Losers

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on top of their groups, who would’ve guessed it?

On a scale of probability, the world nos. 1 and 2 finishing on top has to rank somewhere between a Gael Monfils brain implosion and a Rafa Nadal undie-tug. Neither man has been perfect, but with their consistent quality, neither has to be, and its left the other six to fight over scraps.

That said, the round-robin games have been by no means farcical. Firmly in the midst of the transition phase away from the Federer-Nadal era, this week’s events have been something of a “State of the Union” for men’s tennis, as the question of who can keep the sport aloft gets ever more urgent.

In that respect, the question of who have been “winners” and “losers” in London doesn’t just come down to the scoreboard. Who succeeded? Who failed? Read on to find out.

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Losers: The Old Guys

A three-time slam champion in Stan Wawrinka and a debutant in Gael Monfils, it’s safe to say London didn’t go to plan for either man. Both men alternated between world-class shotmaking and some head-scratching play when they could least afford it. Against Dominic Thiem, Monfils had played some absoluting scintillating tennis to take it to three sets, only to throw it away with three double-faults at 4-5 and hand the Austrian the match. Taking out fellow slugger Marin Cilic in two tiebreak sets, Wawrinka couldn’t maintain his level against the grind-it-out style of Kei Nishikori and Murray, being comfortably handled when the quicker indoor courts should’ve helped him. Both will have plenty of time to sit back and reflect in their rocking chairs now.

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Winner: Dominic Thiem

He may not have made it out of his group, but Thiem made a fine account of himself in his WTF debut. His first set-tiebreak win over Djokovic was exactly the sort of scrap he has to win if he wants to move further up the standings – although the final two sets of that match (0-6, 2-6) showed the 23-year-old still has much further to go. He bounced-back nicely in his match with Monfils, before receiving a lesson in indoor hard-court tennis from Milos Raonic. Still, to walk away with a scalp in his first go-around, and having boosted his shot-making reputation in his first taste of prime-time tennis has to be worth a significant amount of confidence.

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Loser: Marin Cilic

A listless tournament for the Croat, who having proved 2014 was no fluke, could only manage two sets against a Nishikori who had already secured his spot in the semis. A career best no. 7, it’s hard to see how he goes any higher when these are the names he’ll have to face to do it.

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TBD: Nishikori and Raonic

The two “middle-aged” players among the eight, making it to the semis is impressive, but will be entirely coloured by what they do now they’re there. Neither has shown the sort of form this week that would indicate they’re ready to knock-off the Big 2, but should they pull it off, they have to be considered legitimate major-contenders in 2017.

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Winner: Finals Ticketholders

And yet, with the week staying well on-script for Djokovic and Murray, all signs point to the two meeting in the final on Sunday. Djokovic in particular has been heartening, as after his slip-up against Thiem, seems to have played his way into some form. Dropping only three games against alternate David Goffin was to be expected, but his 7-6, 7-6 win over Milos Raonic saw him withstand the very best the Canadian had to offer, displaying the sort of defensive brilliance that makes him such a headache. On the other side, the supposedly tougher group has failed to trip-up Murray, albeit after having survived an epic three-setter against Nishikori that could’ve easily gone against him. Having handled Wawrinka so easily the Scot should have no problem in his semi with the pace of Raonic, while in Nishikori, Djokovic will have a semi’s opponent who will allow him to work his way into his service games and should be at a disadvantage when lines start getting painted.

The prediction

Djokovic d. Murray

Not having played since their final at Roland Garros in June, there’s an awful lot of uncertainty hanging over this matchup. Will Murray’s new offensive mindset be a difference maker? Or does the match hinge on Djokovic’s form? With a 24-10 head-to-head record Djokovic has the advantage historically, while his finish to the round-robin stages seem to indicate he’s finding his footing. There’s no denying Murray is playing exceptional tennis, but it did just take him over three hours to put away Nishikori – who like Djokovic doesn’t rely on accelerating points and can take away much of his advantage counter-punching – meaning all things considered the Serb has to be a slim favourite, but a favourite nonetheless.

A week that has so far been as intriguing for what we’ve learned about the new state of tennis in 2016, Sunday looks set to return us to more familiar confines. Maybe Raonic or Nishikori can spoil the party, but it’s impossible to bet against Murray and Djokovic the way they’re currently playing. The matchup we’ve been waiting for is nearly upon us – get your popcorn ready.