2016 Year in Review: Has the “Old Guard” Finally Fallen?

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it happens quickly (remember Pokemon Go? Me neither), sometimes slowly (I’m sure the Browns will be good one of these years), but it always happens, and after what can generously described as a leisurely pace, change has finally come into full effect on the ATP tour.

That’s because while the guys winning the majors and masters remain the familiar faces, that next tier of players which for so long provided a buffer from any prospective up-and-comers has completely eroded. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and (to a lesser extent) Richard Gasquet have long been the gatekeepers for others attempting to break into the upper echelon, but after an underwhelming 2016 it seems they’ve been almost entirely replaced.

In 2015 that foursome had 10 titles between them, in 2016 3 (Gasquet 2, Berdych 1), with none above 250 level. The highest-ranked is Berdych, clinging onto his spot inside the top 10, while Tsonga, Gasquet and Ferrer are 12, 18 and 21 respectively. It’s not exactly a colossal drop-off, but in a sport that is so delineated by the haves and the have-nots, it’s evident this is as far from grand slam contention as they’ve been in a very long time. When names are tossed around now of who might break out in the near future, the talk is of players like Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and Dominic Thiem.

Simply because Ferrer, Berdych et al have been there so long it might seem like something of a surprise this happened – at least this quickly – but the truth is, this is a fairly routine transition in men’s tennis. The still impressive results and freakish longetivity of Roger Federer has obfuscated a historical trend that top-ranked players tend to drop-off quickly in their 30’s (Ferrer himself being one of the few exceptions), with Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero being some of the more well-known recent examples.It’s not just declining athleticism either, as simple wear-and-tear begins to add up, and when you’ve been going deep at slams and masters for nearly a decade as the FBTG foursome has, inevitably that takes a toll that can’t be fully repaid.

What’s more is that for the guys who aren’t quite as good as a Federer, even the slightest decline can hit much harder. Declining athleticism is always going to impact players as reliant on it as Tsonga and Ferrer, but even for Berdych and Gasquet, losing a half-step can be enough to pull you back to the fold. Balls that were once there to be smacked are now there to be merely returned, with worse movement making it harder to find that perfect position – it may only be a margin of centimeters, but it’s enough to make a difference. In turn, with old legs the physical cost to maintain their spot can rise to a point that isn’t always worth paying. If it was just a question of healthier eating, more gym work and tougher post-match recovery that’s one thing, but what also of motivation? Unlike fellow senior citizens Federer and Wawrinka, they have no guarantee their games are good enough to win majors in the first place, and they’ve already had superb careers. If holding onto a top-8 spot requires a greater off-court commitment than they’ve ever had to give before, can we really blame them for not giving it?

That said, by no means are any of the four gatekeepers “done” as quality tennis players, but at the very least, the distance between the summit and the old folks’ home has become equidistant. It doesn’t even mean they’re done winning titles, but their previous role has already been filled – namely by Nishikori and Raonic – and those spots will be only harder to regain assuming the continued improvement of young players like Thiem, Nick Kyrgios (assuming his head remains screwed on straight) and Sascha Zverev, all of whom have already proven a handful.

Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga and Gasquet well-and-truly are who they are at this point. Still good enough to mix-it-up with the top 20, but any hopes of gaining grand slam glory are decidedly behind them. How long they’ll persist in their current state of decline is anyone’s guess, but 2016 proved that decline is finally here. Their time at (or near) the mountaintop may be over, but with the careers they’ve had and the money they’ve made, I doubt they’ll be losing any sleep over it.

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.

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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.

2016 Year in Review: The No. 1 Battle in Two Matches

If the trajectory of Andy Murray’s career up until this point has told us anything, it was that he was never supposed to get to here. It didn’t matter if it was Federer, Nadal or Djokovic who was no. 1, he was always the “other guy”, the one who was good enough to test them, yet never good enough to surpass them – but with his win over Djokovic in the World Tour Finals, he finally has.

Murray may have taken the top spot after winning in Paris, but it was his fairly comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over the Serb in London that removed any doubt as to whether he deserved to be there. That might seem a weird notion given he’s the reigning Wimbledon and Olympic champion, but it’s been a weird year – we lost Federer and Nadal to injury, Gael Monfils finally made a World Tour Finals, while Nick Kyrgios somehow became even more immature – so when you consider that the man who finished the year on top started it getting handled by the same opponent he rolled in the WTFs, you can see where I’m coming from.

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First facing each other in the Australian Open final, all signs pointed towards 2016 being more-of-the-same for Murray.  A 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 win for Djokovic, the match largely played into the narratives set up by their previous 30 encounters, with Murray being ground-down by the Serb’s brilliance, his own foibles not helping either. Nerves cost Murray any chance at the first set, but even as the match shifted back into balance it was Djokovic who was taking the initiative, establishing footholds with early breaks – a product of his consistent pressure in return games – and while Murray was able to claw his way back, he wasn’t able to match Djokovic’s level when it really counted, costing him a service game at 5-5 in the second, as well as the third-set tiebreaker. Perhaps had Murray escaped the third set it could’ve been a different story, but as it was Djokovic reigned supreme in almost every area statistically, winning 67% of his service points and 44% of return points for a dominance ratio of 1.32, per tennis abstract. And while Murray tried to take control of baseline rallies, he lacked the offensive consistency to do so – case-in-point, his 7 extra winners came at the cost of 28 more unforced errors. Stats aside, in almost every circumstance Djokovic was much more assured from the back of the court, taking full advantage of his more fluid forehand to keep Murray on the defensive. Afterwards, Djokovic acknowledged there was “no doubt” he was playing “the best tennis of my life”, and clearly Murray didn’t have an answer.

Fast-forward to London, and the tables had comprehensively turned. Despite their vastly different lead-ins to the final – Murray’s a three-hour slugfest with Milos Raonic, Djokovic’s a barely one-hour waltz past Kei Nishikori – it was Murray who rose to the occasion. It didn’t matter how he’d got to the final, let alone number one, Murray was playing like he deserved to be there. This time it was Djokovic playing catch-up, but when the opportunity came in the final, he simply didn’t have the goods to pull it off.

His rebuilt offensive game firing on all cylinders, Murray was now willing and able to step in and dictate off both wings, and it paid major dividends against Djokovic, who could never find a similar gear. Murray was getting the better of backhand-to-backhand exchanges, but more notably (and in a complete reversal of Melbourne), it was now the Scot’s forehand that was causing Djokovic all sorts of problems, as Murray was simply doing more with it, both in terms of accelerating through the ball and manipulating the Serb’s court position. Statistically Murray won 68% of service points (largely thanks to the first-strike tennis he played on made first-serves, winning 27/32 points) and 39% of return points, adding up to a dominance ratio of 1.22. In response Djokovic was inconsistent at best, and toothless at worst. His depth-of-return was still exceptional, but he couldn’t follow it onto the attack with any regularity, while gimme put-aways were missed at an alarming rate, leaving us with a picture of a player who was more exasperated than he was engaged.

It may have only been a best-of-three sets affair, but the win was undoubtedly one of the most important of Murray’s career. The match was set up as a final test of the player Murray had become over the past six months, against a man who knew him unlike any other opponent, and he passed with flying colours. London may have been only eleven months removed from Melbourne, but Murray made it feel like an eon with this victory. There’s no way of knowing how long it will last, but with a number one ranking, and now an entirely new outlook on his rivalry with Djokovic, 2016 was unquestionably the year of Andy Murray.

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.

Closing the Gap: Djokovic, Murray and Their Unlikely Battle for Number One

Among the 26 men to have been ranked number one since the ATP’s inception in 1973, few could put forth as complete a resume as Andy Murray: three major titles, eleven major finals, a Davis Cup trophy, and two Olympic gold medals. And yet, simply by the course of his rivalry with Novak Djokovic, he might be one of the most improbable.

You only have to look back to June, when Djokovic had beaten Murray for his maiden French Open title to see just how unlikely Murray’s ascendance has been. A 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory, it was the second straight slam final the Serb had defeated Murray in, but more importantly, gave him the distinction of holding all four major titles at once. Djokovic had proven to be literally unbeatable when it really mattered… at least until a subtle drop-off in form and a perfect storm of run-ins with the men who could take advantage had him abruptly dethroned five months later.

A quick glance at the results will tell you this is not the same Djokovic who dominated tennis for much of the past three years. Since Roland Garros, he has lost at five of the six tournaments he has played in, falling to a veritable who’s-who of the ATP’s premier gunslingers: Sam Querrey (Wimbledon third-round), Juan-Martin Del Potro (Rio Olympics first-round), Stan Wawrinka (US Open final), Roberto Bautista-Agut (Shanghai semis) and most recently, Marin Cilic (Paris quarters) – his lone title coming against Kei Nishikori in Toronto. That’s not a coincidence, where in the past Djokovic has been able to successfully blunt such power games and answer in kind, recently his own offensive game has been misfiring.

With perhaps the exception of Querrey – who on the speedy lawns of the All England Club played absolutely out-of-his-vulcan-mind in an exhibition of first-strike tennis – the result of each of those matches hinged largely on Djokovic. Against Wawrinka and Bautista Agut, he actually had a positive dominance ratio (per tennis abstract), but even against Del Potro and Cilic he didn’t lack for opportunities. His defensive skills have always allowed him to weather – if not completely neutralise – the sort of massive weapons each of those players possesses, but eventually, defence has to shift to neutral, and neutral has to shift to attack – since the French it’s become apparent he just hasn’t been able to consistently make those transitions. It’s not just an issue of missing aggressive shots either, but an inability to force his opponents into giving him more hittable balls. From the perspective of a Cilic or Wawrinka, that contentedness to maintain rallies – even as decent attacking opportunities appear – gives them the confidence they need to go for their own shots, and even someone as brilliant as Djokovic can’t fend off multiple 120kph+ thunderbolts.

In contrast, Murray hasn’t just maintained his year-on-year excellence, he’s gotten even better. Since the French, he’s gone 45-3 (not including walkovers) with seven titles under his belt, including Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal. Counter-punching has always been a hallmark of his game, but he’s been able to mix in his own well-timed aggression to dictate points against even the biggest of sluggers. The best example of this was his own match against Del Potro in the Olympic final. Both Murray and Djokovic found themselves embroiled in constant ad-court-to-ad-court exchanges with the Argentine, but where Djokovic was looping his backhand into inside-out forehands, Murray was able to consistently push him wider and deeper with the same shot, eliciting Del Potro’s weaker backhand in return, and opening up more attacking opportunities in kind. If Del Potro did go on the attack, Murray was often able to completely blunt it and send him back to his backhand corner, or vary the pace on his shots, lull him into over-committing, and pass him once out-of-position. Even with Del Potro still in the scintillating form that had downed Djokovic, Murray’s ability to dictate – both in terms of court position and rhythm, made a vital difference.

In the end these two remain as closely matched as they’ve always been, if just with the roles reversed. That said, Djokovic fans have to prepare themselves for the reality that, as it did with Federer and Nadal, his dominance has started to take a more permanent physical and mental toll. The two 29-year-olds may have been born only a week apart, but their difference in “tennis age” is a lot wider. There’s only so long you can dominate week-in, week-out, before a player starts to wear down. It doesn’t mean he’s done by any means, it just means he’ll have to start picking his spots, in particular easing it back at Masters 1000s.

Despite being a week older, Murray hasn’t hit that wall yet, mostly because he’s been saving his legs, albeit unintentionally. In 2013 he missed the French with a back injury, which required him to have surgery that September, which in turn led him to miss the March-April hardcourt swing of 2014. Also performance wise, his occasional quarter-final-and-earlier slam exits would have saved him from playing multiple grinding matches against top opposition, and obviously it’s a lot easier to recover from the flight back home than it is going 8 hours combined with Djokovic and/or Federer and Nadal.

Of course, the question now is: what will happen as the two move to London for the World Tour Finals? There are multiple permutations, but essentially if either takes the title they take the year-end ranking with it. Right now, Murray has to be the favourite, but if it is indeed Djokovic across-the-net from him in the final, the grinding style of their matchups may give him a better chance to succeed. The throne could end having been Murray’s to borrow, or his to keep – let’s just hope their battle is indeed decided in the final, and we get a match as quality as the two players in it.

The Strange Life and Times of Nick Kyrgios

It’s been an interesting week for Nick Kyrgios. On Sunday, he beat Belgian David Goffin in a highly entertaining three-set encounter to take the first 500-level event of his career in Tokyo. He entered the Shanghai masters with his first top-15 ranking, and had a fantastic opportunity to gain major ground in the race for the top 8 to London. All signs pointed to Kyrgios’ star on the rise. Then the Mischa Zverev match happened.

To say Kyrgios tanked would be a bigger understatement than saying Donald Trump is struggling to appeal to women. A second round encounter against the world no. 110, this wasn’t a case of him not showing up, as much as it was him trying his hardest to get out of there. You’ve seen the “highlights” by now – lollipopped serves, wild swings, conceding points before they were over – in a career already with multiple on-court low points, it has to be his lowest yet, and it’s only compounded by the promise he showed in Tokyo.

Kyrgios’ 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory on Sunday really was a fascinating match. Goffin plays a game that is, for better and worse, everything Kyrgios’ is not – he plays frenetic defence, chasing everything down while Kyrgios never really gets off the attack, his serve is merely useful while Kyrgios’ is a true-match saving weapon, his backhand is lethal while Kyrgios’ is the weakest part of his game, and his forehand, while good on the attack, can’t compete with the heavy topspin Kyrgios’ bludgeoning technique gives him on every ball. Goffin could very well have won that match, but Kyrgios simply didn’t allow him to.

The first set was all Goffin. The Belgian was brilliant at extending rallies, getting enough depth on his groundstrokes to keep Kyrgios pinned behind the baseline, while forcing him to hit to the Belgian’s favoured backhand side, where he could step into the ball and use it to paint the sidelines. The break seemed inevitable, and right on time at 3-3, Goffin found his rhythm blunting the Kyrgios serve, which combined with his baseline advantage was enough to break and take the set. The match was on the Belgian’s racquet… so what changed?kyrgiostokyo

Basically, Kyrgios found the rhythm to match his talent. His hand-eye coordination is otherworldly, and that means he doesn’t need to up his level, or his effort, he just has to start middling it to win matches. He served his way out of jail a ridiculous amount of times (including five break points-saved at 1-1 in the 2nd set), while those same lengthy rallies that would end with a Goffin backhand would now come down to forehand exchanges, and the Belgian simply had no answer to Kyrgios’ brutal topspin. It was still very close, but while Goffin’s continued doggedness brought him plenty of momentum-changing opportunities, Kyrgios’ fearlessness allowed him to take control more-often-than-not.

Had Kyrgios not imploded in Shanghai three days later, this piece would’ve entirely been about the good he’d shown in lifting that trophy. It was a match that showed just how damn talented the bloke is, which makes it so disappointing that he overshadowed himself with his antics against Zverev. It’s just so nonsensical. He’d beaten no. 29 Sam Querrey in the first round a day earlier, so it wasn’t like he had made a conscious decision to immediately bail on the tournament, and had fatigue just caught up with him, he wouldn’t have been the first player to pull out of a match under such circumstances. The only “good” explanation – besides match fixing, which if true is kind of genius in a so-crazy-it-could-work kind of way – is that he still has days where he doesn’t feel like playing tennis, and that’s a big problem for someone who plays it professionally.

Kyrgios has spoken in the past of his love-hate relationship with tennis, and performances like Wednesday’s would seem to confirm that this is far from a job he enjoys. The thing is, it’s actually okay to not want to play, and more importantly, he doesn’t owe it to any of us to reach the sort of expectations the Tokyo title implies. He can work as hard or as little as he wants to, it’s his life, and as an individual sport, he has no professional obligations in that regard either. The obligation he does have however, is when he actually steps onto a court in front of paying customers, to at least try to give a good account of himself. He clearly doesn’t understand that when he does these things, people don’t get the time or money back they’ve already invested. The fans and media aren’t out to get him, he’s the one slagging them off, of course they’re going to be angry.

There’s no denying that given what he’s accomplished already – Two grand slam quarterfinals before his 20th birthday, wins over multiple top-10 players, a top 15 ranking at 21 – it will be disappointing if winning a 500 is the peak of his career, but it’s understandable if Kyrgios doesn’t share those concerns. The same can’t be said for the anger he’s received after Wednesday. Between competing and withdrawing he somehow came up with another option that hurt everybody (except maybe Mischa Zverev), and ruined all the good he did on Sunday. He’s already one of the sport’s premier entertainers, it would be so easy to appreciate – if not like – him with just a marginal change in his approach. Will that happen? Now? Soon? Ever? Who knows? Such is the enigma of Nick Kyrgios.

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.

Swiss Timing vs Father Time: Federer at 35

Looking back at Roger Federer’s 17 grand slam victories in this week, where he celebrated his 35th year of existence, the 2005 US Open final is certainly one of the most memorable. Playing at his absolute apex, the Swiss faced off against one of the most decorated superstars in modern tennis – eight-time major champion Andre Agassi. With six titles to his name already, the 24-year-old Federer was a considerable favourite against Agassi, who – 19 years after his first appearance at Flushing Meadows – had clawed his way through the draw to reach the last final of his storied career. At a disadvantage for if not skill, then certainly mileage, Agassi was able to shock the crowd through the first three sets, stealing the second (and very nearly taking the third) with a mix of sublime counter-punching and dogged defence from the baseline. It was incredible to watch, as for only a few hours Agassi was Agassi again, and despite his age you truly felt he could pull the improbable off. Then the fourth set happened, and the American came crashing back to Earth as his body gave out and Federer steamrolled him. Even though he would play for one more year, it marked the last time Agassi was truly at his best. A perfect coda to his career, when that match took place, Agassi was 35.

And so as Federer now celebrates the same milestone, I wonder if he’s thinking about that match, and the man who starred across from him. Just as Agassi was, now Federer is the veteran presence, and just like Agassi was in ’05, finds himself staring down the barrel of retirement, while simultaneously clinging to the hope for one final slam.

16

It’s been four years since he last won, at Wimbledon, but what kept him going – and tennis fans hoping – was that he almost certainly had those four years to get number 18, after professing his goal of competing at the Rio Olympics right after London 2012. With the recurrence of the knee injury that sidelined him after Melbourne, that’s now officially dead in the water, so how much longer can we hope to keep him for? After all, his real fight isn’t to regain that glory of old, but to hang onto what he has left – namely his perch in the top four.

If his latest Wimbledon sojourn showed us anything of Federer, it’s that he can still be just as captivating and competitive, yet equally frustrating as the consistency of his game continues to fray. Particularly against Cilic and Raonic, his game was less instant-offence and more easy bake oven – never out-hitting but doing juuust enough out-manoeuvring to keep his head above water until finally in the fifth set against the latter, he lost it completely. It was an exhilarating two weeks for Federer fans, but just as Agassi realised in 2006, that run may very well have been the Swiss’ last hurrah.

Up till this point, Federer’s entire career has been an anomaly. No man has won as many slams, nor dominated the rankings, nor displayed the artistry that he has, and only the great Jimmy Connors can match him for longevity – albeit not at quite the same level of success. If anyone can come back at 35 and win another major title it’s Federer, but my head says it’s a bridge too far. In the end it shouldn’t matter, he’s already the greatest, everything past #15 was a bonus, including a post-30 journey that gave us his undoubtedly best Wimbledon title, and a run at the top that has seen him not only continue to better his contemporaries – Roddick, Hewitt, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Gonzalez – but decisively outlive them. Unfortunately, as his body starts to fail him, this year’s run at Wimbledon might end up being his ’05 US Open, and that’s a reality tennis fans will have to come to terms with. As of right now, Federer intends to return for 2017, all we can do is enjoy whatever he has left, whatever that turns out to be.

Schedule Shenanigans – Fixing the ATP Calendar

Among major professional sports, none quite know how to drag out its season quite like the ATP tour. Sure, MLB is probably 80 games too long, but at least there’s enough time off over the winter to fit in a proper transaction period, or for players to play overseas and/or complete a PED cycle. Soccer’s pretty bad, but that’s more a fault of clubs fattening their wallets on increasingly-extensive preseason tours.

The ATP Tour is just a mess. For 2016, it starts in the first week of January, and ends in mid-November, in between packing-in nine Masters 1000 events, plus the year-end World Tour Finals for the top-8. These events (with the exception of Monte Carlo) are supposed to be compulsory, yet thanks to injuries and fatigue, that commitment means about as much as one from John Tomic to improve his behaviour. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s the ATP’s for its largely nonsensical calendar, and it’s about time someone fixed it. That someone is Ernests Gulbis me.

However, before I start, there are a few parameters I have to work with – namely, I can’t move the grand slams. As much as I’d like to see the Australian Open moved back to February so as to give players a longer offseason/make bank on exhibition tours, I can’t, as they’re not actually part of the ATP Tour. The only people who can make that happen are the AO themselves, and the same goes for the other three slams, as well as the Davis Cup.

The Solution

The ATP’s calendar is built on one sole principle – highlight its stars as much as possible. I don’t actually disagree with this idea (at least in theory, it’s a no-brainer), but it’s just not possible. Instead, the directive should be to get all the top players at their best, every time they compete in a showcase event. If that means scrapping a tournament and losing ticket sales, so be it, we’ll make it up later in TV money anyway.

So first thing’s first, and this might be the trickiest part of the whole calendar – the lead-up to the Australian Open. Together with its tournaments in Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland, and exhibitions in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, the AO series has always kind of been out on its own from the rest of the tour. From here on out, we’re starting things off from the first Sunday in January from Miami, with the Masters 1000 tournament there – it’s not close to Australia, but in its current slot in March, we tend to lose several top-players to fatigue from (the much bigger) Indian Wells the week prior, and as a popular offseason training base, it’s actually kind of a perfect place to start the season. Follow that up with Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland the following week, and you’ve got a solid lead-in to the Open itself.

Post-AO should be the first of two prolonged break periods, should the top guys decide to use it. The AO ends January 31st this year, while Indian Wells (the best-attended of the Masters events) starts March 7. Move IW back two weeks to Miami’s former slot, put the ultra-lucrative Dubai 500-level event on the 7th, and you’ve got at least a month to rest up (give-or-take a weekend for Davis Cup commitments).

The next big change comes at the start of the clay season, with the 1000 in Monte Carlo going the way of its inhabitants’ tax obligations and disappearing into thin air.  Starting in 2016 on April 11th, it’s not compulsory anyway, and the date would be better served to space out the currently back-to-back Madrid and Rome events. Two masters is plenty for an already busy clay-court swing, and would allow for some of the post-Wimbledon events on dirt (Gstaad, Umag, etc) to move into a slot that is actually relevant to the rest of the tour.

After RG comes the rapid turnaround to grass and Wimbledon, but thankfully there’s no need for adjustments here, as the Championships took it on themselves to do something about the schedule, moving themselves back a week this year. Hopefully this is a sign to all the other majors that traditional dates don’t have to stay that way, but I doubt they’ll take the hint.

Post-Wimbledon is the second month-long break, should the players choose to use it. The US Open series is just as cluttered as its Australian counterpart, but the simplest solution is to just make the Canadian Masters what Monte Carlo is now – non-compulsory. With Cincinnati a week later, players are often walking a tightrope between finding form and managing fatigue at this point in the season – case-in-point was the laughable 2015 edition in Montreal, with nine of the 16 seeds failing to make it out of their opening matches (compared to just five a week later in Cincinnati), while Roger Federer didn’t even show up.

Finally, we come to the post-US Open swing. For the casual tennis fan, you’d be forgiven for not even knowing this existed, but as things stands, there’s a further two months of mostly-irrelevant tennis left to play. So what’s the deal here? Well, the ATP uses this period to build up hype for the World Tour Finals, but the problem is, by the time we get there, there’s always a few dudes who are either too buggered or too focused on Davis Cup to actually give a damn. However, changing it is simple. First, the Paris Masters is dead. Long live the Paris Masters, I’m sure we’ll all miss the only masters tournament David Ferrer actually had a chance of winning (and really, that should tell you everything you need to know about how unremarkable that tournament is). Second, the two weeks immediately after the USO are combined, with Metz moving back to the clay-court season, and Malaysia, Shenzhen and St. Petersburg in the same week. Doing that means we can move all the following tourneys up a week, and we can have the WTF – and therefore the whole season – done and dusted by the end of October.

So without further ado (and there’s been about a 1000 words of ado so far), here’s my modified schedule. Note: to make this applicable for any given year, I’ve taken out the Rio Olympics, which are Aug 8. Adding them would just move Toronto back to the end of July.

Date Tournament
Jan 4 Miami 1000
Jan 11 Chennai, Brisbane, Auckland, Sydney
Jan 18 Australian Open
Feb 1 Quito, Montpellier, Sofia
Feb 8 Buenos Aires, Rotterdam
Feb 15 Rio de Janeiro, Marseille
Feb 22 Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Doha
Feb 29 Davis Cup First Round
Mar 7 Memphis, Delray Beach
Mar 14 Dubai
Mar 21 Indian Wells 1000
Apr 4 Marrakech, Houston
Apr 11 Madrid 1000
Apr 18 Barcelona, Bucharest, Gstaad
Apr 25 Estoril, Istabul, Munich
May 2 Metz, Hamburg, Umag
May 9 Rome 1000
May 16 Geneva, Nice
May 23 Roland Garros
Jun 6 ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Stuttgart
Jun 13 Halle, London
Jun 20 Nottingham
Jun 27 Wimbledon
Jul 11 Davis Cup QFs
Jul 18 Kitzbuhel, Bastad
Jul 25 Washington D.C.,
Aug 1 Atlanta
Aug 8 Toronto 1000 (non-compulsory)
Aug 15 Cincinnati 1000
Aug 22 Winston-Salem
Aug 29 US Open
Sep 12 Davis Cup SFs
Sep 19 Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur, St. Petersburg
Sep 26 Beijing, Tokyo
Oct 3 Shanghai 1000
Oct 10 Moscow, Stockholm, Valencia
Oct 17 Basel, Vienna
Oct 24 ATP World Tour Finals
Nov 21 Davis Cup Final

And there you have it. Just by scrapping two already unloved masters events, we’ve got a schedule that does everything possible to get its stars to the finish line, and yet promises regular doses of high-quality tennis along the way. You’re welcome ATP, I’ll be expecting my cheque in the mail any day now.

ATP World Tour Finals Preview: Is Nole gonna have to choke a bitch?

Yep, it’s that time of year again – the world’s eight best male tennis players are set to gather in London to compete for the vaunted title of “who looks most awkward in a suit?” (Spoiler alert: it’s David Ferrer), but after that’s been decided, we move onto the ATP Tour’s centrepiece event – the World Tour Finals.

As much as the ATP Tour would like to believe otherwise, the WTF has often struggled to develop any sort of real importance in the context of the tour itself. Situated at the end of arguably the most gruelling season in any major professional sport, players often turn up suffering from varying levels of fatigue – an issue compounded by the ITF scheduling the Davis Cup finals (a much rarer opportunity for most) the week after, each year forcing at least one top player to take it easy in London.

Unfortunately, 2015’s edition seems unlikely to break that trend. This year it’s Andy Murray’s turn to take it easy, before he faces Belgium on Clay next week. It’s a particular shame given he carried some nice form into the week, reaching the Paris final where he lost to Novak Djokovic. Speaking of which, the other intrigue-sapping factor is that Djokovic has already wrapped-up the year-end no. 1, having well-and-truly dominated this season from start to finish, with the only reprieve being his shortfall against Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final. What’s more, is that despite reaching all four slam finals, and a further eight of the nine masters finales he looks as fresh as ever, meaning as the lights come on at the 02, it seems everyone else is playing for second.

Perhaps the highest compliment can be paid to Djokovic’s 2015 season is that it’s almost a carbon-copy of peak-Roger Federer. His tennis in the last week of October at the Paris Masters was just as superb as it was in Melbourne back in January, with a resurgent Andy Murray looking more helpless than Pat Rafter trying to reel in Nick Kyrgios. What particularly stood out about that victory was just how supreme his return-of-serve was – with Murray having an average serving day, easy points were hard to come by, as Djokovic was on top of everything, even on ultra-fast indoor. As such, given that the WTF is played on the exact same surface, figuring out if anyone can actually dethrone Djokovic is a question of who can back-up some serious firepower with an exceptional serving day. Unsurprisingly, it’s a short list.

Stan Wawinka and Roger Federer. That’s it. The two Swiss are Djokovic’s biggest rivals on tour at the moment, and have proven in the past to have the shotmaking to take it to the Serb on any surface. Both come in with a modicum of form – Federer more so with his recent title in Basel – and they’ll need to be playing at their absolute best to have a chance. Merely “good” won’t be enough given the level Djokovic is currently playing at.

So what separates them from the rest? It’s either one of two things: 1. Murray (who would be on the above list otherwise) has the aforementioned Davis Cup final, and isn’t even practicing on the right surface, and 2. The rest don’t have the all-round firepower to do any more than take a set from the Serb. You might think someone like Nishikori or Berdych could pull the upset, but the surface is too fast for the former to out-grind him, and the latter doesn’t have enough consistency from point-to-point. Ferrer and – as sad as it is to say – Nadal, simply can’t ramp up the aggression to best Djokovic, who at this point, is a better grinder than either anyway.

Not exactly the prettiest picture is it? In fact right about now you’re probably saying: “well if Djokovic is gonna win, is it even worth watching?” My response is firstly, stop talking to your screen, you’re creeping people out, and secondly, of course! These are the eight best players in the world we’re talking about! There’s an old adage in boxing that ‘styles make fights’, and that can be true for tennis as well – watching Nishikori grind it out with Djokovic is sure to be a lot of fun, or Wawrinka play ‘paint the lines’ against Nadal. If for no other reason, it’s worth watching to see what made these guys special-enough to get there in the first place.

With a near-7000 point lead in the ATP rankings, men’s tennis is very much Novak Djokovic’s world right now. It would be silly to expect that to change in the next seven days. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. After all, we did see John McEnroe, Tim Henman and Pat Cash reach the 2014 final.