2017. . .Here We Go

It’s December 31, 2016. I have a couple of weeks to dial-in some ATP action as the athletes get their shits together for some 2017 tour action and subsequently some 2017 Australian Open form!

Hope you all had a great holiday/are continuing to celebrate whatever holiday you’re all about.

Let’s take a quick look back at our predictions from last year and make some wildly inaccurate predictions for 2017 since the place (the tour) looks a bit like a mad house.

What we said about the top 5 (at the time).

Novak: “In other words, I see Novak being particularly sharp early in the season, peaking for the FO. You and I know he has to win RG. The greatness discourse includes absolutely the career grand slam. He knows it, we know it; this is a must for 2016, especially given his terrible luck (we’ll call it) at that tourney. Think of the upset at the hands of Fed in 2011 (remember that? was that not a choke?), or his inability to beat Nadal in such closely fought matches more recently, and then the Wawrinka stunner last year. Nole has to hoist the trophy at RG. Must. . . .

From there, I am not so sure what Novak does. A win at the FO might put WB a bit out of reach, yet he is now the king of that surface, more or less. We are waiting for a lull from the Serb and I’m calling for some success early, through the FO and then a lull. He may want to play well at the OG and then the hard courts where he needs to win Cincy for his career Masters quiver, then the Open, and a finish where he can equal Roger’s 6 WTFs.

So, I’m calling for a lull on the grass from Nole. . . .”

Not bad! Put it down, roll the dice. You can read the rest of the post/prediction, but the essence there is pretty much on the spot. Should I have said “collapse” instead of “lull”? Probably.

Federer. “The new coach is interesting at the very least because the change shows he is still trying. Having said that, we could see a significant drop this year as he nears his 35th birthday.”

Not many saw an injury plagued year, but I was not keen on a big year from the old man. He’s now been on a farewell tour for 2 years and counting.

Andy. “He’s a factor, for sure. If he can keep his wits about him, keep developing his game, he’ll continue to threaten at these big tournaments. Of course. But the coaching situation seems less than ideal (Mauresmo back, Bjorkman out). And he just doesn’t seem to have the make-up to deal with the top 2-3 in the sport. He’s an outside chance at AO and maybe the hard courts? I just don’t see his level good enough to beat even a peaking 34 year-old Fed. Stan is coming, Nadal is probably hanging around and then there’s Nole. Even if Murray survives those early rounds, he’ll have to beat his old nemeses, which he’s been unable to do.”

Aha! I was dead wrong about Andy and dead-on right in that his coaching situation did stink. I did not account for a return from Lendl (aside from not considering a bigger lull from the Serb or, what will be called here and now, the Djokollapse). Lendl changed everything. Nadal circling the drain, Federer getting fitted for a cain, and Novak experiencing a lull. . . I should have seen a bit more of a chance, but you and I both know Lendl is a MASSIVE GAME CHANGER.

Nadal. “I know a lot of people see him coming. I don’t. Will he be better than he was early in 2015? Probably. His form and results at the WTF were laudable, but I still think he’s a shell of who he was. I may be proven wrong. If we wins the AO or the FO, I call for an investigation. Seriously. He’s done. Having said that, he will come hard for his 10th FO. This would be a nice way to wrap-up a great career. Nole probably prevents any of those theatrics.”

I nailed this. His withdraw from the FO as he was cleaning-up the bracket is bizarre. Any theories on that? He saves himself for more important tournament play? What? Makes no sense. Play for La Decima at the FO and then call it a year. Look at his results prior to the retirement. Suspicious. Or just dumb. That was his little window, closing.

I threw a few question marks around Stan‘s name. Which is usually the case.  His work at  the 2016 USO was marvelous and as we look now to 2017 and come-up with some precious little (wildly inaccurate) predictions, let’s start with Stan.

Tennis Channel has been, per this time of year’s typical programming, replaying some of the big matches from last year’s majors. I watched a bit here and there, but the USO final, especially the first three sets, really is must-watch. The Stanimal is something to behold, especially against the Djoker, given their little history at the majors (AO 2013 and 2014 and FO 2015, for example).

Take aways from that match that might be relevant for 2017:

First of all, Stan‘s strength is simply unmatched in terms of all-around power: from both wings, his serve and his endurance. If you watch that final, Stan’s imposing strength is predominant through-out, from ripping ground strokes to running off the court after a hold, which was used to contrast/intimidate the flagging Serb. Remember Stan’s draw, too. He faced MP vs the Brit Evans, and still had to play Del Potro and Nishikori. And in both of those last two matches he simply wore down his opponent. Against both Kei and Novak, he lost the first set, but then reeled-off the final three, with his opponent going away big-time in the fourth. Stan is a beast. You don’t want to play Bo5 agains that guy, especially if it’s a GS final.

We haven’t even discussed his shot-making. The forehand is more imposing than the BH, but the latter is the most beautiful shot in the sport, no question.

Watching Stan trade ground strokes with Novak was really fun to watch. And it reminds you, especially when you consider the affect of that OHBH, why Federer really has no shot at beating a top player in best-of-five, unless he serves his ass off and wins in straights I suppose.

Federer’s BH is not in the same book as Stan’s. The older Swiss’ vulnerability here ends any discussion of Fed’s relevance at the end of big tournaments unless, like I said, he serves and volleys his ass off.

Indeed, Stan’s got the kind of power and ascendant dominance to do a lot of damage on the tennis court, especially in those big matches. His mental game can be almost as devastating as his physical game.

Watch the first set of that USO final. Unreal how he sticks around at 0-3, 1-4, 2-5. Then he loses the TB pretty quickly, but comes back and spanks the Serb in Stan fashion.

But what I perhaps like the most about Stan that overcomes, in my book, many of the other players of today’s game (reminds me of Sampras): his glares, body language and almost verbal intimidation of his opponents. In the third set of the USO final, his “Come-on”s as he’s arresting control of that championship are just the tip of the ice-berg. His glares at Novak when the Serb starts to “nurse” the injury are all-time. The guy’s overall composure (fitness and fortitude) is a compelling watch. Throw-in the actual tennis and you have a master class in power tennis.

How old is Stan? For that matter, let’s look at the ages of the leaders.

Novak 29 (5/22)

Andy 29 (5/15)

Rafa 30 (6/3)

Stan 31 (3/28)

Roger 35 (8/8)

We’ve talked about age many times on this blog and the sport’s audience should have some context for this factor. Let’s talk for a second about Stan.

He turns 32 in March, as we can see. So what about that? That’s old in tennis years, as you know. We’ve been reminding everyone of the Serb’s big birthday in May that puts him in the dark, in tennis years. But we know this calculus is anything but absolute; history, none the less, has a big say here and age, in the end, is undefeated.

But recall our discussion of Novak’s age, how he turns 30 in May. I have made the argument, pretty emphatically, that he’s an old 29 (soon to be 30). Think of the wars this guy has fought. He has a lot of mileage on that body and his style is anything but Federer-like. Novak is tired. Nadal’s 30 might look fairly young, too; but he’s quite old in terms of tennis years. Those guys have played their baseline-loving asses off for a long time.

The look of a 31 year-old Stan at Arthur Ashe last September did not look that old. He’s had quite a different tennis life from that of the 29 year-olds Novak and Andy, and the 30 year-old Rafa, for that matter. Stan looks like he can play well for another couple of years. And when I mean well, I mean as the guy who can take the racquet out of anyone’s hand.

Last word on Stan: as we know, he only needs a WB for the career GS. That’s probably a bit much to ask, but we can look forward to that build-up and we know he’s good for one big surge at at major per year, a surge that no opponent can handle. That’s really the only thing to say about Stan. He’s tough to call, until perhaps late in a tourney.

The point here however is that he is very relevant for 2017; he’s won a major each of the last three years. Does this late-blooming tennis genius have a grand plan for the almost Agassi-like career GS? Look for him to make some noise, hopefully a lot of it. The more Stan and Magnus we get. . . the better.

By the way, the career GS has only recently become a huge deal and with the homogeneity of the surfaces (they’re all about the same actually, speed-wise), it’s an over-inflated stat. I’ll carry-on that discussion in the future: the true mark of greatness is consistency and longevity and, most importantly, dominance at the most prestigious tournaments. Period. Winning at all four is tremendous but it’s really just another part of that argument I have yet to finish: How Roger Federer Ruined Tennis. 😉

Back to our predictions:

Novak Djokovic‘s 2017 should be fairly productive. You might think I’ll say he’s going to get skunked at the majors. Sure I have made pretty clear that his 2016 drop in form shouldn’t be very shocking given his age, mileage and style, but he’s still up at the top of the sport, more or less. The personal and family issues could be brought-in to play here, but everyone has those and they’re too tough to calculate, not knowing exactly what’s going on. Certainly no Becker will be an interesting new paint-job to watch roll down the 2017 road; but, again, Novak has 2011 and some intermittent brilliance in ’12 and ’13 to remind himself that he’s succeeded without the German before.

The Australian Open in two weeks is huge for the Serb. If he wins in Melbourne he’s right back in control of the tour and of history. His collapse at the end of 2016 is still very costly, but if he wins his 13th major in about a month, regains #1 and all of his intimidating form, he’ll be in pretty good shape for 2017.

I will go-out-on-a-limb here (not really) and say that 2017 is Novak’s last really good chance to “dominate” tennis. Forget the burn-out or exhale or whatever you want to call what happened after Roland Garros – he’s tired, folks. Again, he’s played a lot of tennis.

One of the reasons I say AO is so important is that the FO, WB and the USO are going to be more and more difficult for him. They always have been, but we know these will only get more difficult. Grass is not his ideal surface (venue) though as the best in the game and really with no other immovable force to contend with, he snagged the back-to-back in 14-15 to give him three WBs. Roger’s inability to win in 2014, especially, is a tough pill for Fedfans to swallow although they do have seven of those to boast.

But there was no one to challenge Novak on the grass then. Now Murray is rolling and has two WBs, Lendl is going to be in-charge, still, and the likes of Raonic, Cilic, perhaps Stan, and even Pouille will be difficult, not to mention anyone with a big serve (like Querrey). WB is going to be tough especially only a few weeks after RG.

The French has been tough for Novak to win, as well, of course. He got it done in 2016, completing his incredible Novak Slam, but that’s certainly a tough major. It follows the early hard-courts and the spring clay.

Really it’s almost as if Novak would be best built to conserve until spring clay so he can be in much better shape to perform at the FO and at WB. I know this may sound lunatic, but he will have a tough spring summer if he’s all-in at the AO and looks to defend IW and MI and then play well on the clay.

But he has a lot of points to defend, too. That’s what makes AO so additionally important. He has those 2,000 points and many more to defend early in the tennis calendar. To be clear, he has to get his 9th AO.

Lastly, the late summer is always tough on him, historically. He has yet to win Cincy and his USO record (although he has been to several SF and F) is over par. Nothing new here in terms of the history or commentary. Novak has a lot of work to do, really. A lot of points to defend, a lot of confidence to build and the clock is working against him.

Andy seems a tough and easy one to pick. He will be battling for #1 all year. He established himself pretty definitively at WB (he was in the AO and FO finals as well) and through out the summer and fall.  Hell, he’s #1. AO has to be big for him, as well. He has a one-on-one with Novak going at this point. Unless someone else steps-up, this is all about Novak and Andy in 2017.

I have heard Andy wants the FO badly. Interesting. Suffice it to say, Andy will be amongst the favorites at every tournament he plays, especially every major. His strength at this point, just his ability to defend and return serve, his solid movement and good overall game are a tough match for anyone. Would have been interesting to see Roger play Andy late in 2016 because of Roger’s solid H2H with him. Roger seems to have his number a bit, but the Brit is just going to be a tough out on every surface.

Andy and Novak have really very similar outlooks for 2017, but I think the Serb has a little more urgency (perhaps a bit of desperation) given the history he’s playing against and his recent Djokollapse.

Would be safe to say that these two split the four majors, but I see another one or even two players sneaking in.

I want to say Andy wins AO and Novak finally finds some form at the FO, defends his title there. They’re the favorites early, but I think we’re all wondering how Novak comes out here, hopefully not at all like Ronda Rousey’s return to the UFC last night. :O

As for Rafa, I see a similar year to last. I see that he’s brought-on former #1 Carlos Moya who actually should be credited some for helping Raonic move-up the ranks and develop his game. I have a hard time thinking this will do much to change the outlook or the prospects of Rafa since Moya is not a magician who can turn back time. Besides, I think it was Moya, who at the near height of his game, who also hails from Mallorca, was getting his ass kicked by a 12-13 year-old Rafa on the practice courts. With Toni still around and Carlos not a Lendl or McEnroe presence, Rafa will still be Rafa though a bump in his performance and results would be a nice addition to the drama of the 2017 tour.

Roger is going to be 36 years old in August. He is all rejuvenated, playing with impressive form in Dubai, etc., blah blah blah. Roger won’t win #18 only because the tennis gods won’t allow it; besides, Roger doesn’t have the game anymore.

Like I said earlier: while watching the USO final between Stan and Novak, you could just see where Roger doesn’t have the game to stay with Novak. Roger’s BH is so suspect, especially for a Bo5.

As we look back and say wow he was so close at WB in 2016, I said then what I’ll say now: his ability to beat Cilic was pretty remarkable, maybe brilliant, but his inability to beat Raonic, choking here and there, only to see Murray just play with Raonic, the verdict was clear: Andy’s more youthful and potent form, despite the lack of style, is too much for a 35 year-old Roger. Roger’s style, though immense and legendary, is almost a dog and pony show at this point. Instead of being just a solid old guy like Karlovic, he’s Roger, so the cameras and everyone and their third cousin flock to see the guy perform. And there’s a few fist pumps and “come on!”s, but as far as collecting hardware, it ain’t happening.

I would love to be wrong here, wrong about his aging process, that last year’s extended down-time preserved some of that winning formula, but I’m probably not wrong.

For what it’s worth, AO might be a good time for him to sneak-up and catch some people sleeping.

Either way, good to have him back. He begins play at the Hopman Cup tomorrow.

The post is too long at this point. We’ll have to catch-up on some other ideas for 2017 a little later.

In closing, players were very interested in watching develop in 2017: Pouille (lots of pedigree, meaning already some big matches under his belt), Thiem, Alexander Zverev, and some of the rest of #nextgen (Coric, Fritz, Tiafoe, Donaldson, Khachanov, Chung, Rublev, Halys, et al.). Of course, there are others.

We have to say that Cilic and Raonic have certainly emerged as the best threats to Novak and Andy (other than Stan). Nishikori is here to stay, but I just can’t take his sustained form seriously. He’ll play a great QF and knock-off a favorite before laying an egg.

And what about Del Potro!  Taking the AO off, but he’ll be back.

Wildly inaccurate predictions:

AO – Andy

FO – Novak

WB – Stan (lol) or another Swiss player or Cilic or Andy or who the fuck knows

USO – Andy

No need to request comments since you’re all just strictly readers at this point (other than Caligula, Nambi or RJ – thanks fellas!).

Some thoughts on Brisbane, Doha and Chennai next. The tennis starts tomorrow, so I better get busy!

4 comments

  1. First of all, thanks Matt for keeping the high level of this blog even at dark times (like the post Wimbledon slump). Your oasis for the objective tennis fan is greatly appreciated and I’m always thirsty for your articles.

    I missed part of the action because of other aspects of my life taking precedence, but hopefully I’ll contribute in the future more. I’ll start with a summary of 2016 and a 2017 preview.

    Well, I -as well- predicted the top of the sport correctly last year: Djokovic getting the two first slams and losing the two next. What I didn’t predict was the type of decline to come: he lost US Open and WTF due to a decline in his mental game. Yes, Wawrinka was in form (but not outstanding as in their French final), he is a excellent bet for every final (back then 11/11 since his rise in 2014 I think) due to his style of play and he throws his bombs “in your face”, but Djokovic did not seem to think clearly in that match, trading powerful balls with Stanislas and losing a lot of BP. Even worse, in WTF he didn’t seem to believe in winning that match although Murray was not at his very best. As I have written before, the currently dominant playing style plus the slower surfaces (longer rallies) is very taxing to the body and given Novak’s multiple stretches and slides on the concrete, I expected physical issues and a decrease in speed to arise first (as in Nadal’s case). But it seems that Federer’s decline was not random: the Maestro seemed to loose first his mental “edge” (I recall a few Majors finals in 2009 he should have won…) and then the game went (is going?) slowly away. If this is happening to Djokovic right now, he’d better get any silverware he can fast, before the rest of tour smells this weakness which will add up to the eventual loss of his physical attributes.

    If that is the case how come Murray and Wawrinka are not that heavily affected by the taxing gameplay of current age tennis? Well, Wawrinka hasn’t competed in that level for long and his strengths (power and a simple game plan) are not affected that much by age. Murray due to injuries and maybe better scheduling (a necessity after his back problem?) has tired his body a bit less than Djokovic playing about a hundred professional matches less in his career, but I expect the body weariness to be presented in the next couple of years too.

    So here comes 2017 for the top (20) players. I basically agree with everything Matt already stated but I’ll dare a couple of more exact predictions.

    Djokovic is the key figure for the year to come. If he reinstates his authority (mental part) he’ll get at least a Slam or two (AUS Open+ one of the rest). I think the Aussie is critical because it is his “homeground” and losing it signifies the end of his dominion (plus the obvious complications if he targets to pass Federer’s GS total).

    Murray is complimentary to Djokovic’s rise/fall. Should the Serb continue at his current mediocre level of play Murray should benefit the most, collecting at least two Majors and -maybe more important- believing he can consistently beat Djokovic. I consider him a favorite for the French (if he’s in form) and to hold the N1 position for some time.

    Wawrinka should remain in the top 5 winning a surprise title as usual. Wimby as the only major missing from his collection will require a bit more of luck because his skill-set is not ideal for that surface.

    Raonic, Pouille and Thiem are the most hopeful younger players of the current top 10 (I like Zverev also). The first should touch his first Masters 1000 and maybe a Slam in a quicker surface if he improves a bit, the rest must evolve/complete their game more. In another note, let’s repeat our wish for a more serious Kyrgios during 2017.

    I share Matt’s feelings for Nishikori and Cilic. Monfils, Berdych, Tsonga, RBA, Dimitrov, Gasquet, Isner a.k.a. the lost boys, will remain boys.

    Federer should get back to top 10 and probably top 5 in due time. After the Grass Slam he decided to rest -as he should have done earlier in 2016 (the Wimby temptation is hard to resist for him). A surprise run in AUS Open (meaning second week entry) could do wonders in his psychology. As last year, the senior tour representative’s hopes rest in the faster courts of the second part of the year. I don’t discount him totally, but naming him a favorite in any tourney at this point is an exaggeration.

    Nadal remains hard to predict but at this point his hopes rest almost only on the red courts. If injury free, he should return to top 5. Yet again I can’t see him winning the French if he has to face Djokovic or Murray. Probably soon Thiem will be a problem too and then another, another…

    To sum it up, if Novak cannot restore order, we’ll get a good taste of what the future holds for us since Andy hasn’t shown us that he can dominate the Tour as the Serb did. You know who usually wins in the eternal wrestle between order and chaos?

    PS: Still longing for the completion of the HRFRT series; much to comment on.

  2. Thanks, Caligula, we’re on the same page and Happy New Year to you.

    Blackspy, thanks for the comment. Your comment about Stan and the USO final, Murray the next in line etc.: this year will be interesting in answering a lot of these questions.

    Stan’s form was brilliant at the USO, for me, mainly because of his fitness and that complimentary Stanimal mental edge that is proving now three years in a row to be too much for some very tough competition (Nadal 2014, Novak ’15 and ’16). Stan’s bullying tennis is one of the best shows on earth. I would have to go back and see if his tennis was that much higher level at the ’15 FO; his USO form, I thought, was epic.

    I will say Novak was not in form. People talk of his physical breakdown – imagine if he’d had a real draw? He played NO ONE. And still got smoked. Clearly he was (and is) off.

    On that note: I think he is further from that dominance than we think, the more I think about it. So much of this is mental, as we know. He’s been beaten by the Querreys, Aguts of the world. His draw at the WTF was soft and he looked awful in the final. The Becker-less Serb has to find the mental and he has Pepe, a happy wife and his old pal Marian to buoy his mental game. There are a lot of players coming for him, as well.

    He will see a Pouille, Dimitrov (playing well), Thiem, Cilic, and even a Federer in a 4R/QF and it will get tougher from there. Murray is cruising right now and I think the Lendl factor is HUGE. Mental. Djokovic has to regroup quickly. I don’t see the composure to vanquish a draw like he’s been doing. Sure the field seems thin, but I think there are tough matches out there and he’s not at his best.

    I agree, if Novak wins the AO, status quo pretty much. But I need to see his dominance to believe it. If he’s in form in a final against a good Murray, I have to like Novak. But if he limps in and Murray is rolling: Murray. I don’t trust Novak’s game right now. Losing that WTF and YEAR-END #1 (both) is devastating. No two ways about it.

    As for Murray vs Stan vs Novak’s physical wear and tear: Novak has played the most and the most taxing tennis. Probably more than Federer (style). Murray has been around but he’s just fresher and the same is true of Stan. Stan and Andy are also bigger, stronger players. Novak is like a cyclist. Has it’s advantages, but these tournaments are world-class battles and Novak has looked a bit famished.

    I’m going to carry this on in another post. . . .

What say you?