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Two Nostalgia Finals May Have Had Drawbacks
The Women’s and Men’s singles finals at the Australian Open featured nostalgic rematches of many previous major finals. There is a lot of upside to casual fans being able to plug in late in a tournament and feel invested in the result. I am not sure CoCo or Grigor would resonate to general fans the way Venus and Rafa did. Still, Serena Williams has stated she will mainly focus on majors in 2017. Roger Federer’s statement about not knowing his clay schedule means he is unlikely to make a push in Paris unless a dream draw opens up. Will Federer pursue titles at Masters 1000 events on slowish hard courts or clay courts or will he be hitting Halle for a grass court season plus rest? Carlos Moya is preaching shorter points and shorter practice sessions to Rafa. Venus has more health issues than Serena. On balance, I think two historic nostalgia finals in Melbourne were good for the sport, but newer faces will be carrying most of the load through Indian Wells (at least).
Murray and Kerber Will Post Scattered Results
Andy Murray had an Australian Open draw that should have meant the end of his fruitless title pursuits in Melbourne. Novak Djokovic has beaten Andy Murray in 4 Australian Open finals and 1 semifinal. Roger Federer who beat Murray in the 2010 Australian Open final was recovering from knee issues and a 6 month absence from the tour. Given the way Murray ended 2016 and Djokovic’s early loss, Andy should have won this tournament. Instead, he did not reach the quarterfinal round. Andy Murray may have been leg weary from his late unbeaten run in 2016, but I wonder had he been seeded #2 if he would not have left Melbourne with the big trophy.
Angelique Kerber too found out that entering a major with “1” next to your name is not always easy. Kerber reached 3 major finals in 2016 winning 2 and was runner-up at the olympic games, Cincinnati, and the tour championships. I did not expect her to repeat, but Kerber not reaching a zoning Venus in the semifinals raises some questions.
I think both Kerber and Murray will play well in 2017, but the pressures of attaining, and, in Murray’s case at the moment, defending the number one ranking can take time for a player to adjust to. Jim Courier floundered in early 1992 before finally relaxing and accepting the notion that the computer was not a foe he could beat. Both players likely need to make similar peace with the 2017 ranking system and just focus on playing quality tennis.
Someone on the ATP Tour will Make a Leap Forward
Obviously, Grigor Dimitrov’s title in Brisbane and run in Melbourne bode well for his forthcoming 2017 results. Milos Raonic has aimed at making this leap with great deliberation. Dominic Thiem reached the final four 1 year ago at Roland Garros. Still, someone could make a leap forward a la Stan Wawrinka’s 2013 rise leading to his 2014 breakthrough. I think enough oxygen is present at the top of the men’s game for someone unexpected to jump into the major title picture.
Returns to the Tour will Dominate WTA News
Maria Sharapova’s return will be treated as a media spectacle. This would have been the case even had members of the WTA Tour not expressed dismay about her demeanor in the locker room. Victoria Azarenka’s return to the tour has no specific timetable, but again this should be big news when it happens. Given that Kerber and Karolina Pliskova did not replicate their US Open runs, tennis will not be as focused on some of the players who made big moves in 2016. Monica Puig’s Rio form? If it returns, so will attention.
The French Open will be a Mad House on the Men’s Side
Rafa Nadal is back to playing really solid tennis. Does that mean he wins a 10th RG title? Not necessarily. We know Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka could win Roland Garros as well. Andy Murray needs to consolidate his #1 ranking and his win at Rome last year means he too could take the title. Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori could beat anyone in the draw on a given day, but neither seems ready to take the title. Could a rugged player like Roberto Bautista-Agut make a deep run and even threaten for an Albert Costa or Gaston Gaudio type finish? I think the physical nature of play on clay plus no true alpha dog entering Paris will put Roland Garros back to its pre-2005 levels of unpredictability.
Roger Federer will not Pursue for Number 1
Roger Federer would undoubtedly love to spend a few more weeks at #1, but if he does, it will be because no one played well enough in a given 52 weeks to keep his limited schedule from grabbing the top spot. The only events I am 99% sure Roger will play for the remainder of 2017 are Dubai, Halle, Wimbledon, Cincinnati, the US Open, and Basel. I am sure he will play more than these events, but if he is not 100% or is feeling leg weary, I expect Roger to consider not playing other events. He does have 2000 points banked for 2017, but unless he grabs Wimbledon and/or the US Open I doubt his point haul will be enough to spend a little more time ranked #1. I am sure Wimbledon #8 or US Open #6 will mean more to him than pursuing points that could leave him leg weary.
Djokovic is the Key to the Tone of 2017 on the ATP Tour
Novak Djokovic won 5 of 8 majors in 2015 & 2016. He was runner-up at 2 others. As good as Andy Murray is, Murray does not appear to be a dominating #1. If Djokovic returns to physical and mental form, he will likely end 2017 ranked #1 and restore some sort of a pecking order on tour. If Djokovic does not, Andy Murray will likely win enough prizes to maintain his top spot, but plenty of players will be grabbing trophies as well. In 2002, Lleyton Hewitt was #1, but Pete Sampras, Albert Costa, and Thomas Johansson all grabbed major titles while Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, and Juan-Carlos Ferrero set the ground work for big 2003 campaigns. Do we have a tour with 8+ major contenders or a tour with a gatekeeper limiting opportunities at big prizes? Novak’s form will answer that question for 2017.
It will be Serena’s World on the WTA Tour
Serena Williams is engaged and had grabbed the Open Era record for major singles titles. Serena is the defending champion at Wimbledon, but pressure should be low. She can take or leave the #1 ranking, but in Australia she took her 23rd major title without dropping a set. If Serena is on, she will be the player to beat. If she is only slightly off, she will be the player to beat. That margin for error along with the good feelings coming out of January should propel Serena to a strong 2017 even if she plays a limited number of events.