By David Zakhodin
During the final months of every tennis season, we fans wrestle with the question of how much these upcoming events really matter in the big picture. It is often easy to point out that the year’s Majors are in the rearview mirror and that the next point of excitement is the Australian Open that follows a short offseason. The weeklong fall Masters tournaments go by quickly, and it is always uncertain which players are performing at their peak at this stage in the calendar. The same can be said for the ATP World Tour Finals, whose round robin format has in some years produced many lopsided results despite featuring the year’s most outstanding players. And while the fanatics continue to watch Davis Cup, it is no secret that the event has lost some of its allure within the mainstream because of the lack of year-round participation among top players. Moreover, with Laver Cup having created a previously untapped level of excitement several weeks ago, it would be easy to assume that the remainder of 2017 will fail to conjure that same excitement.
While all of the above is true, the ending to this particular ATP season is more important than any in recent memory. Everything begins with the high variance of both the ATP World Tour Rankings and the ATP World Tour Race to London in 2017 as compared to past contests. Over the course of the last ten years, only about a dozen different players have competed late into the month of November. Because the perennial contenders have largely remained the same during this period, endings to tennis seasons were often predictable. Those who had been number one throughout the year often won the World Tour Finals, and no results in Masters series events in Shanghai and Paris truly affected those year-end outcomes. One notable exception was in 2013 when Rafael Nadal overtook Novak Djokovic in the rankings at the start of the ATP World Tour Finals, but that was more of a foregone conclusion than anything because of Rafa’s dominance that year in winning both the French Open and the U.S. Open. So what changed? Why should the fall of 2017 following a Rafael Nadal U.S. Open victory be any different than the fall of 2013?
The answer lies within the course of the race that took place last year between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic for world number one. While both men equally deserved to be number one considering their combined three Grand Slam victories in 2016, it is important to note that both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were absent due to injury and paved the way for rising stars like Dominic Thiem and David Goffin, who had never previously contested the World Tour Finals, to qualify. Moreover, Federer’s absence and the loss of ranking points that followed particularly set the scene for an unpredictable Australian Open draw in which he was seeded seventeenth. Nadal, while not being absent from London for the first time, was also thrust into that same five through eight position in the rankings that he had entered in 2015. At that point he had been dismissed handily in the quarterfinals of the French Open by Djokovic and failed to reach the quarterfinals of any of the six Slams that followed. With these two greats absent, the road for Murray and Djokovic to meet in a winner-take-all match for world number one was set. It wasn’t surprising to see previous Slam finalists in Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori standing in their way, but 2016 was always a two-man race.
At the conclusion of that race, Murray emerged victorious and it wasn’t even worthy of a photo finish. In his ascension to world number one, Murray won the Beijing 500, the Shanghai and Paris Masters, and the ATP World Tour Finals. Some may argue the competition wasn’t as strong since his championship matches in the former three events were against the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Roberto Bautista Agut, and John Isner, but the Scot earned his stripes and entered a bionic mode of sorts where he neither missed nor threw any on-court tantrums during those wins. Looking a year ahead, it’s safe to say 2016 was no blueprint for 2017 whatsoever. But the end of the 2016 season and its drastic difference to where we stand 23 months later is why this fall will have an even greater impact on 2018. Because perennial names like Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Raonic, and Nishikori are unable to contest the 2017 World Tour Finals, a gap in men’s tennis has been created that never previously existed. Throughout the last decade, that group of perennial contenders was filled by the consistent stalwarts who displayed flashes of brilliance: Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, and even Gael Monfils, who although not consistent, qualified in 2016. With perhaps the exception of Del Potro, who has proven despite his fitness troubles that he can beat anyone on any given day, the ship has sailed for those consistent top ten finishers. Berdych is currently ranked 20th, Tsonga 18th, Ferrer 28th, and Monfils 35th. That’s not to say none of them can rebound in 2018, but their rising age and recent track record suggests otherwise.
With a younger generation of Grand Slam contenders still taking hold, the 2017 ATP fall season features a gap that has yet to exist in this era. Following the loss of all the points earned in last year’s wins, Murray is projected to be ranked twelve or thirteen by year-end. Djokovic will be ten or eleven; Stan Wawrinka may also fall out of the top ten. Raonic and Nishikori have already dropped outside of it as a result of missing the U.S. Open, and players like Pablo Carreno Busta, Sam Querrey, and Kevin Anderson have an opportunity to qualify for London. Furthermore, perhaps the biggest prize at the end of this fall is world ranking number three. While previously held by Raonic, no one outside of the Big Four other than Wawrinka has been able to unseat two members of the Big Four for an extended period of time. Who will be next? Will it be the savvy veteran and multiple Grand Slam finalist (one-time champion) Marin Cilic? Will it be the breakthrough star of 2017 and potentially future number one Alexander Zverev? Or will Dominic Thiem prove that he can win big matches outside of the clay court season? Only Shanghai, Paris, and London in 2017 will have the answers.
The storylines surrounding the 2017 finale are endless. Can Grigor Dimitrov end the year on a high note to polish off his previous successes reaching the semifinals in Australia and winning in Cincinnati? Will David Goffin be able to salvage what was, by his standards, a subpar season? Along with these stories, perhaps the most fascinating ones surround the three players fighting for two spots in Pablo Carreno Busta, Sam Querrey, and Kevin Anderson. All three have enjoyed success in unchartered territory deep in Grand Slams in 2017, and it will be interesting to see to what extent they can back up those performances.
Finally, standing in the middle of the cliché ATP World Tour Finals photo in which they all wear suits and defiantly face the Thames River will be Federer and Nadal, tennis’ two greatest players whose 2017 campaigns were nothing short of magic. Shanghai, Paris, and London, while not on the same level as Melbourne, will provide these two legends with a final opportunity to meet in 2017. We loved watching them embrace each other and play doubles together at Laver Cup, but history has proven that tennis reaches new highs when they are on opposite sides of the net. Even though Federer may not have made it to the final due to his back issues, I will still never forgive the U.S. Open for not putting them on opposite sides of the draw or Andy Murray for being selfish and putting his name in the mix when he probably knew he had no chance of being healthy enough to play.
Nonetheless, 2017 was an historic year for the two in more ways than one. For the first time in their decorated careers, they split the four slams. It had previously always been three for one and one for the other (Federer with the upper hand in 2006, 2007 and Nadal in 2010), but a resurgent year for both is what it ultimately took to reach the inflection point where we stand today. It’s an inflection point because we know how the story to 2017 ends. As many Federer fans will dislike hearing, Roger will have to replicate Murray’s results from 2016 to a tee and hope for Rafa to stumble if he is to regain world number one at the age of 36. Rafa, on the other hand, is arguably playing some of the best hard court tennis he has played in years. He didn’t look good in Montreal or Cincinnati, and he didn’t have to go through a single top ten opponent en route to winning his third U.S. Open. But the way Rafa played this week in Beijing as he defeated the likes of Pouille, Dimitrov, and Kyrgios (all whom have beaten him before on hard courts) demonstrated that he truly earned his spot atop the world rankings. What stands out the most about Rafa’s recent play on the hard courts is his ability to turn defense into offense, something we have seen him master on clay but struggle with on other surfaces. Often times, Rafa’s success on hard courts directly relates to his level of aggression and ability to execute from inside the court. Once he falls back behind the baseline and leaves a loopy forehand or backhand short, he is automatically forced on defense by a bigger hitter willing to dictate the point. In the last couple months, Rafa has played a ridiculously high number of points, especially in his return games, where he has been forced deep behind the baseline and then found a way to finish the point with the most underrated aspect of his game: his volleys. Much like Federer has been able to prolong his career by coming to net and shortening points, Rafa has done the same in not allowing his opponents to comfortably sit in baseline rallies.
In addition to the more technical aspects of his success, Rafa’s mental game is the chief reason for his return to world number one. Prior to this year, all we heard from Rafa and his team was story A about injury B and reason C for lack of confidence D, the same narrative we had all become accustomed to as a means for justifying his absence from certain events over the course of his career. When Rafa first burst onto the scene, all everyone talked about was how he would always lack the durability to factor longevity into his career. Today, every week added to his total at world number one is an extra bullet on his resume. Even though he surely will not catch Federer and most likely not even Djokovic in that category, Rafa has made history by being the player with the longest time between the first and last instance of becoming world number one. Couple this stat with the fact that he’s accomplished the feat a record four times and you have the definition of longevity in men’s tennis. Following victory last month in New York, Rafa’s Uncle Toni mentioned that Federer’s record of nineteen Slams is well within their sights. Rafa won’t be able to chip away at that goal this fall, but his results this fall will dictate the momentum carried into the 2018 hard court season and the length of time at which he can maintain his status as world number one. Perhaps the only thing missing in Rafa's trophy case at this stage of his career is the ATP World Tour Finals trophy. Despite having reached the final several times, Rafa has a prime opportunity to take on the challenge of never having previously won this tournament. Given his strong form on hard court going into the last month of the season, Rafa has put himself in a great position to finally join the likes of Federer, Djokovic, and Murray as the only ones in this era to have won the event and finished the season world number one.
As far as the rivalry is concerned and Federer’s role in it, it is no secret that Roger owned Rafa and the whole tennis world as of July. We can only wonder what might have been if he had chosen to skip the family trip to Montreal and played (and probably won) Cincinnati instead. Despite all the aforementioned momentum in Rafa’s favor going into the end of this season, I would not sleep on Roger and his chances to put several more feathers in his 2017 cap. While he did not necessarily play his best tennis against Nick Kyrgios several weeks ago, Roger’s clinch of the inaugural Laver Cup for Team Europe may go a long way in his quest to add to what he has already accomplished this season. With the last several tournaments being two out of three sets, the back should play less of an issue and allow Roger to play the type of tennis that led him to dominate the first half of the hard court season and Wimbledon. Historically, he has been very successful indoors and will most definitely have something to prove considering all the success attained by his main rival in the last month. Perhaps his first step in that quest was meeting reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant the other day and telling the Warriors forward that it would now be his turn to win the ATP World Tour Finals.
If you’ve made it this far, you better have Tennis Channel or whatever virus-inducing streaming site you use ready to go these next five weeks. No one is going to blame you for not watching the 250 event in Antwerp, but what transpires in the 500’s and Masters Series tournaments is must-watch TV for all tennis fans. The ultimate outcome of however the 2017 race ends is that the 2018 Australian Open will be the most anticipated Grand Slam event of the decade. Federer and Nadal meeting in the 2017 final was a delicious appetizer considering their unconventional seeding this year; the 2018 tournament will be a full three-course meal. Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Raonic, and Nishikori will all be returning from injury and seeded outside the top ten. Next Gen stars and new top ten members will have an offseason to adjust to their new standing. Either David Goffin or any combination of French players will enter the season with confidence based on the victor of the Belgium – France Davis Cup Final. And assuming the tennis gods care about us, the draw will start and end with Rafa and Roger. Safe to say it’s a good time to be a tennis fan.