What is the Biggest Surprise of 2017?

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For starters, we might say there a few surprises to this tennis season, beginning with #2017 Fedal. That these ATP elder statesmen have, combined, won every major championship and every Masters level tournament, minus Rome (that’s 3 majors and 4 Masters tournaments between the two) is a bonafide trip down memory lane.

To round-off the 2017 “headlines,” Djokovic is still struggling since going-out in the 2016 WB 3R and Murray, after chasing-down the #1 ranking from the 2016 Djokollapse, has really failed to maintain that sparkling form since the start of 2017. Whereas a year ago we were talking about the Djokeray combat that would resume and reach perhaps new heights in 2017, Fedal have emerged as the new tour dons (“new” seems like an odd term to use here).

We’ll focus our discussion on these guys, the top of the tour, the “Big 4,” though I am happy to say that a few other developments that have probably not surprised too many of us, but have certainly been promising, concern the play of Thiem and Zverev (both brothers actually though Sascha’s first Masters is great news), the emergence of Khachanov and even a glimpse finally of Thanasi Kokkinakis; and speaking of young Aussies, Kyrgios’ play in February (Acapulco) and March (Miami) was quite fortuitous. The Brisbane/Melbourne of Dimitrov squared gave us all a bit of a thrill, as well.

Of course, there are other interesting stories being told on tour this year, but we’ll put that top-of-the-tour back on the table here and have another look.

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Federer

Let’s start and actually focus on the surprising rise of Federer, who sits currently at #3 in the world, but who, along with Nadal, looks to be battling for year-end #1.

You probably know where I’m going here:

Federer’s 2017 dominance is not very surprising.

If you disagree with this statement, please feel free to field an answer in the comments:  what is so surprising about his dominance?

Here’s a summary of his year and the “surprise”:

  1. Most people point to the injury of 2016, how coming-off a six-month leave of minor surgery, rehab and rebuild to win the first major of the year is unreal, supernatural, is suspicious and shocking – beating 4-5 top-ten players, all of those five-setters and beating Nadal in the final, down a break in the fifth, as a 17th seed.
  2. He then goes-on to win the Sunshine Double, beating Nadal two more times, both times in straights, decisively, including the Miami final.
  3. He sits-out all of clay and returns to win Halle for the ninth time and Wimbledon for the eighth time.  He has, meanwhile, returned to the top-three in the world rankings and along with Nadal, has his eyes set on world #1.

How did all of this happen? Why should we not be very surprised by this?

If you read my blog, the seeds of my disagreement with the TSQ (Tennis Status Quo) should be pretty apparent. I will generally be 2 to 3 steps ahead of the mainstream. I hope you’re starting to believe that, will spread the word, and keep reading.

Federer’s History

Melbourne 2017 has Federer in the draw, as a 17 seed. We’ve gone over this before, but what are out expectations of Federer at a major? Naturally, we go to recent history and see some pretty clear patterns.

Before the injury exit, he made the 2016 WB SF and lost a five-setter to Raonic, in which he was up 2 sets to 1. He missed the 2016 French because of the lingering injury he exacerbated at SW19; this was the first major he missed in his entire career. Did you get that? 2016 French was his first miss at a major tournament. He started the year at the 2016 Australian Open where he made the SF. Of course, he took his leave after WB in 2016, so he missed the USO. In 2016 he was 34 years of age.

Mid-post quiz: how many majors has Federer missed in his career as of today?

2015: AO-3R RG-QF WB-F USO-F (33 years of age)
2014: AO-SF RG-4R WB-F USO-SF (32 years of age)
2013: AO-SF RG-QF WB-2R USO-4R
2012: AO-SF RG-SF WB-W USO-QF

Looking at those results, all things being equal, does it surprise you that Federer made the final at 2017 AO? That he went so deep, is this a shocking development? The answer is no. He may not have been closing the deal in 2014-2016, but he was getting into the business-end of the draw, per usual.

As for the time-off, and people having trouble grasping his return at that level? Well, it’s new to the Federer program, this leave of absence. You nor I have experience watching Federer come-off an injury-leave like that. To say you’re shocked or this is somehow unbelievable, suspicious, etc., is an overreaction. You, I’m afraid, don’t have a clue how he comes-off injury.

Actually, I take that back: prior to his 2017 return, he did come-off one missed major (some considerable time-off), which was 2016 Roland Garros. What happened after that? He proceeded to reach the WB SF where he was a set away from reaching the final to play his pal Andy Murray. In other words, Federer had come-off injury prior to 2017 AO and he did pretty damn well.

So, throughout the summer and fall/winter of 2016 he gets a real chance to reconfigure his game, rest, get healthy, scout and get prepared for Melbourne and what-do-you-know: he absolutely ruins the return of the tour in 2017.

But his deep run, itself, at Melbourne, should NOT be a surprise at all. That’s what he does at majors, what he’s always done.

Ivan Ljubičić

We’ve been over this a lot lately. The Revenge of Federer was not the title of that post, but that’s what the WB final amounted to: the latest installment of the Maestro’s deadly return (Nadal, Kyrgios, Zverev, Raonic and Cilic all got taxed big-time). This clutch professionalism is the result of some kind of renaissance. I and I am sure many others wondered why Federer seemed to take points, games or even sets off even while advancing to major final fours (really throughout much of his career). Of course, this lacksidaisical tennis seemed more apparent on the big stages against Djokovic or Nadal. With your skill, Federer, what in the world are you doing not serving 85-90%/70% 1st/2nd, converting that absolutely critical BP? Are you afraid? Are you a choke?

Tough to call a guy with 17 majors (at the time) a choke, but you all know what we’re talking about here.

Bits of 2016 ( two majors played, two SF appearances) and 2017 look like a revamped mental approach – and the common denominator is Ivan. He was a bad ass, a guy without a lot of talent, certainly a more blue-collar player, and what do you know: Federer is playing some blue-collar tennis (it doesn’t look blue-collar because he’s the one swinging the racquet, but you better believe it’s blue-collar).

The revenge is telling of this kind of ethos, as is his latest run at WB, which you know had to have been #1 on the 2017 agenda: and the plan worked. He didn’t drop a single set. That’s professional. He did not fuck around (I am going to find some footage of that 2010 Indian Wells run where the Croatian, as a 20-seed, beat Nadal and Djokovic on his way to beating Roddick in the final).

Federer is healthy; that’s a big factor. On top of that, this no-time-to-waste, blue-collar work ethic spells the run of 2017. The team has him primed; his serve (1st and 2nd), ground strokes (BH is exceptional) and closing-awareness are sharpened. SABR? That’s 2015, pre-Ljubičić. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that made the final cut for Ivan the terrible’s “Federer’s winning form.”

Even the clay abstinence is an Ivan innovation (we’ve detailed this several times). I was still critical of his 2017 implementation, but that was Ivan’s insistence, I suspect, since he said such a pattern would have benefitted Federer earlier in his career.

Nadal

Are we surprised that Nadal is playing so well? This is more surprising than Federer, actually, because he fell-off the face-of-the-earth in 2015. He looked gone, adios but given his injury-plauged career, this would not have been much of a surprise for him to make a kind of come-back (I wrote him off, admittedly. But I can’t deny the pattern. This is what Nadal does – so don’t be surprised).

Where Federer had missed two majors through 2016, Nadal had missed ten. He has done this throughout his career, taking time-off and coming back strong.

When they met in the AO final, I tried to clarify how, despite the one-sided H2H, Federer could very well win (this should be very close), given their recent form. Federer back through 2014 has been at the top of the tour, especially in the majors. Nadal has been MIA often and even coming into Melbourne this year he was one of the first to see the 2017 Djokollapse, not having to see him on that side of the draw. Nadal’s appearance in that AO final was much more surprising, but we have this kind of pattern from Nadal and we’ll have to ask Novak about his role in this, as well.

The point is Nadal’s 2017 hasn’t been that surprising other than we probably didn’t see the absolute maniacal form he found on the clay.

Djokovic

We have to attribute some of the Fedal re-emergence to the Djokollapse. This has been severe and tragic. I have documented this since 2016 USO (here and here, but there’s a lot more, as I hope you know).

I am surprised by the severity of this decline, but this is not out-of-touch with the Djokovic career arch. We’ve been over this, as well.

First major in 2008. Next major in 2011. 2011 is huge, but the 2012-14 period amounts to only 3 majors. 2015 is massive and he wins the first two majors in 2016, but it’s been a free-fall since. So, this fall, then, is not that surprising.

You get the pattern, the argument, folks?  There is NOTHING surprising about 2017 – though the Fedičić formula has been pretty stealth, pretty remarkable.

Murray

Murray’s 2017 isn’t that surprising either as his career zenith was 2016 where he grabbed  #1 finally, in large part because of Nover-the-falls, but he hasn’t defended this honor much at all, nor has he been much of a #1 in our collective tennis imagination, either.

Folks, not very surprising. Don’t let the mainstream media fool you. “Oh my gosh, how did Roger do it? Incredible? Unreal?” Not really, actually. He’s continued to play pretty dominant tennis (as is the case with his massive variety and fluid form that does not beat him up), and there have been some other factors, too, such as the continual roller-coaster ride that is Novak’s tennis career.

Thoughts?

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The Blog

I am in the process of trying to revamp my blog, make it a lot more dynamic, efficient, brilliant, etc.

One of the first items on the agenda, for which I do need this upgrade, is to finish and package HRFRT. I am going to polish it, and sell it as an Ebook. Sure, this helps fund this blog and the work I want to do, but I think it will be a particular artifact that really speaks to the essence of this blog. I have other arguments/narratives too that I’d like to curate a bit more thoughtfully.

Many/most/all of you might tell me to go to hell on such a venture, but I’m willing to risk that. This will push me to polish and develop some of the commentary, which I think you gather is pretty much written on the spot, in a couple of hours at most, each. I have other ideas too for generating some revenue (random ads do not appeal to me, by the way).

I do know that this blog/venue is nothing without you all. The core group is brilliant (you know who you are). I encourage more of you to chime-in and give the tennis some chatter, give some of my long-windedness some feedback 😀

Continued thanks for reading and responding.

Cheers to you all.

4 comments

  1. Hey Matt, first time poster on your blog here – have been following it religiously since the AO draw was announced after looking around the vast and cluttered expanse of the Internet for some detailed analysis of this beautiful game. Been a FedFan since the 2008 WB Final and spent a few years in the fanboy wilderness (basically belligerently arguing with friends who are Nadal/Djokovic fans) before trying to course correct and appreciate tennis as a whole. This blog has been a godsend in that respect, and despite the stagnant state of the next generation (Kyrgios, Thiem, Dimitrov et al), has rekindled my love for the sport, beyond Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Stan.

    Agree to a great extent with your analysis in this post – in that the 2017 the Big Four have been having is not all that unexpected. However, I’d suggest that 2017 Federer is still the biggest surprise of the year. While Federer’s singular talent and less physically-intensive game meant he was still making deep runs in majors during the 2012-16 period (when he won 1 slam), his transformation this year has still been something wondrous – the rejuvenation of the OHBH, making his tennis somehow even more offensive (coming into the baseline for the Nadal forehand and mixing up more serve & volley as examples), willing to win ugly (thank you Ivan the Terrible) and most critically, his enhanced mental fortitude i.e ‘clutch’ ability. Like you’ve said elsewhere on this blog, Federer stubbornly clung to baseline grinding in a bid to defeat Rafa during the years where Rafa was effectively dominating Federer, and that he’s shanked a few winnable slams owing to some unknowable mental lapses. Overhauling the OHBH at age 35 (both in terms of when he takes the shot and finally using the bigger racquet) after having spent years relying on the slice backhand as an answer to Nadal/Djokovic, is unprecedented to my mind. And even more so, nobody could have held it against him if he decided to ride out his last years on the tour as an elder statesman, making deep runs, holding the young guns accountable and generally dazzling the tennis watching world – all without winning another slam. And for the longest time, that seemed exactly like what he would do – as a FedFan, I cannot tell you the number of times I would be rooting for him in a critical match, only to know in my heart of hearts that he would mentally switch off at a critical juncture, simply because he can. For him to then completely turn that expectation completely on its head is just stupefying. His resolve in the fact of being a break down against Nadal in the AO Final, having not gone to five sets against Nadal since AO 2009, and not won a five-setter against Nadal since WB 2007, was stunning. He got stuck into every Nadal service game, and in years past, seeing all those BP chances go by, Federer might have shut down shop and been happy to have a respectable and hard fought defeat. His fist pump and glare towards his box (likely towards Ivan) after that forehand winner in the 26 shot rally, spoke volumes about the mental steel Federer has been able to graft this late in his sporting life. Seems to me that usually, as great sportspersons get on in age, while the sporting gifts remain, their body and mind usually fail them – a combination of burnout and perhaps a lack of motivation. And this seemed to be ailing Federer as well – you and many others were not wrong in suggestion that Federer seemed to be on a farewell tour in 2015/16.

    In any case, would love to hear your thoughts about this and really looking forward to the conclusion of the HRFRT series. 🙂

    1. Great comment, abdullahgulzar. So glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog.

      Check-out these posts:
      https://mcshowblog.com/2015/12/10/a-little-vinci-and-raonic/
      https://mcshowblog.com/2015/12/18/bto/
      https://mcshowblog.com/2015/12/21/ljubicic-to-the-rescue/

      This takes us back to December 2015 when the hiring was made. I sensed the enhancement at that business-end right away.
      Going from the soft refinement of Edberg to Ivan the terrible was a huge signal. At least Federer was still trying.

      So, we were on this as early as then, but 2016 of course didn’t exactly give us the sample size we needed to see how the tennis had changed. Still, as I said in this current post, two majors in 2016, two SF while battling a bit of an injury. He was still basically right there, behind Novak, waiting for a drop in form from the Serb. Imagine if the Serb hadn’t been peaking in 2014 (WB) . . . through first half of 2016. Federer probably has 2 more majors in that time-span, even playing that less-clutch Federer tennis.

      Now we have the Ivan factor and Djokollapse – two factors we’ve followed, which both point to Federer’s ascension. Again, go back to WB/USO 2015. If Novak is not playing that well, who stops Federer? If you can, go watch Cincy highlights from 2015 – Federer playing out of his mind. Even through the draw in NYC until he met Novak in the final and the theme there, again, is that lack of urgency in those few points (although he was like 3/19 on BP).

      This is why I’m arguing not a huge surprise: Federer’s historical success as early as last year, the year before, at the majors, Fedicic (though I did say the execution here has been remarkable, perhaps a bit surprising) and the Djokollapse (and the Nadal roller-coaster) give us some sense of normalcy.

      Did you read my “pep talk” prior to USO 2015 final? I have been urging Federer to play with more urgency for a while – only to enhance the tennis for us tennis fiends!

      Thanks again for the comment and for reading!

  2. Hey Matt,

    Haha, I was going to ask you if you were considering writing a book. Obviously, I have my answer now! Good on you!
    I have been avidly reading this blog since Ruan/Ultimate Tennis recommended you. Really enjoyed the foresight on Ljubicic’s effect on Fed. Keep it up dude

  3. Maybe the Djokollapse is due to Novak coming off the “Sharapova-induced-help” in time before the ban?……..*crazed Djokeresque et al fanatical fan parody coment*

    Like the imagery you’re sculpting with Feds playing blue collar tennis Matt. Every point doesn’t have to be a virtuoso pirouette, nope, get the job with solid earnest work. To use a football/soccer adage, “If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later.”
    Understandable regarding the blog revamp but remember there’s beauty in simplicity, minimalism.

What say you?