By David Zakhodin
The image above is perhaps the best snapshot into 2017 ATP tennis: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal running away from the rest of the field behind them and re-asserting their dominance. From the strike of the first ball down under until the final shot at the year-end finals, 2017 was a year of tennis worth to remember. While each season has its own set of hallmark moments that are etched into tennis history, 2017 presented a unique set of circumstances atop the ATP Circuit. The two most accomplished players of 2016, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, failed to continue their run of dominance. Their absence from Grand Slam finals paved the way for the other two members of the Big Four, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to re-kindle their rivalry and further their greatness during the latter stages of their career. But aside from these two, there were many more brilliant moments to a season filled with drama, excitement, and attrition. Here is our look back at the best features, moments, and players of the 2017 ATP season.
Comeback Player of the Year: Juan Martin del Potro
While not a conventional pick for comeback player of the year in the sense that he did in fact play in 2016, Juan Martin del Potro played a very light schedule last year. Aside from having great success in claiming silver at the Rio Olympics and reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, Delpo hardly improved his ranking. Many thought his defining moment of 2016, a come-from-behind victory against Marin Cilic that helped Argentina stay alive and later win the Davis Cup Final, would springboard his 2017 campaign. Instead, he skipped the Australian Open and made his first appearance of the year at Delray Beach where he fell in underwhelming fashion to the struggling Milos Raonic. In the subsequent three premier hard court events in Acapulco, Indian Wells, and Miami, he lost to Djokovic twice as well as Federer in early rounds due to the aforementioned low ranking. Following the loss to Federer in Miami, he failed to advanced beyond the quarterfinals in all but one of his next eight events, including two Slams. And then came the match that may have saved his season: the Delpo flu game against Dominic Thiem after being down two sets to love in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open. While it may not have been Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals-esque, it allowed him to gain the confidence that contributed to the quarterfinal win over Federer. Despite running out of gas in the quarterfinals, the Tower of Tandil won 14 of his next 17 matches, including a title in Stockholm, semifinal in Shanghai, and final in Basel. After considering how Delpo started the year, his finish to the season and eventual contention for the year-end finals is a testament to the level we all know he is capable of producing. 2018 should be the year that he regains his rightful spot in the top ten.
Most Disappointing Player of the Year: Milos Raonic
Entering the Australian Open, Milos Raonic was ranked number three in the world and riding an extreme high from 2016. In that season, Raonic achieved a career best performance by defeating Roger Federer en route to his Wimbledon final appearance. At the world tour finals in London, he played some of his best all-court tennis and had multiple match points against Andy Murray in a thrilling semifinal math. Once Murray and Djokovic were eliminated during the first week of the following Australian Open, Raonic was the highest seed remaining and arguably a favorite to win the tournament considering how well he had been playing. Don’t tell me people were predicting Roger and Rafa to reach that final at the end of the first week. While his season was riddled with a series of unfortunate injuries, the Canadian star failed to notch a single top ten victory all season with the exception of his early round win in Brisbane against Rafa prior to arriving in Melbourne. Raonic was the player many had lined up as the next Grand Slam champion, and his 2017 campaign (the injury aspect of which was no fault of his own) was an utter flop. Is Raonic capable of returning to the short-lived time he spent as top five in the world? Yes. We have seen players with big serves, big forehands, and good transition games go deep in Grand Slams and post consistent results. However, Raonic’s ceiling appears to be considerably lower than other rivals looking to break through on the Grand Slam stage like Thiem, Zverev, Goffin, and Dimitrov, to name a few. With Murray and Djokovic having had subpar years and few consistent instances of dominance outside of Roger and Rafa, this was the year for Raonic to make an even greater leap. Instead, he regressed and must now focus on health before taking the next step in his quest to replicate or improve upon his past successful results.
Doubles Team of the Year: Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo
The casual fans may have been hoping to see the Bryan brothers, who turned in another top eight season at age 39, win this award for their consistency and status as greatest doubles team of all time. The doubles specialists would have probably given the nod to Henri Kontinen and John Peers, the Australian Open champions and first team to win back-to-back ATP World Tour Finals titles since the Bryan brothers accomplished the same feat in 2003-04 during the old Tennis Masters Cup. While this was indeed an impressive feat, the best doubles team of 2017 consisted of the top ranked doubles players in the world, Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo. The tandem won six titles, including Wimbledon and three Masters Series events, and reached the final of an additional four. While they lost several times to the aforementioned team of Kontinen/Peers (including in the World Tour Finals championship), Kubot/Melo stepped up when it mattered most by defeating Kontinen/Peers along with two other teams deep in the fifth set en route to their first combined and second overall Grand Slam title. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recent doubles marriage is the combination of a journeyman on the singles tour and seasoned doubles veteran. Most Grand Slam or World Tour Finals winning tandems in the last seven years have been either full-time doubles players (Kontinen/Peers, Bryan/Bryan, Murray/Soares, Rojer/Tecau) or players who both play a full singles schedule (Sock/Pospisil, Herbert/Mahut, Harrison/Venus, Benneteau/Roger-Vasselin, Melzer/Petschner, Bolelli/Fognini). However, Kubot/Melo join the unique club composed of Paes/Stepanek, Granollers/Lopez, Kubot/Lindstedt, and Dodig/Melo featuring journeymen singles players teaming up with doubles specialists to win Grand Slams. While Kubot has rarely played singles in recent years, his run to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2013 certainly qualifies him for journeyman status. Having accomplished that feat with other doubles partners, it seems very logical that Kubot/Melo found great chemistry once they began playing and had the most successful 2017 among the four different doubles teams who won Grand Slams.
Event of the Year: Laver Cup
Despite our attempt to revive excitement in Davis Cup following Argentina’s miraculous victory over Croatia in 2016, Davis Cup was quickly surpassed this year by Laver Cup as the premier display of team tennis within the context of men’s professional tennis. With a format artfully constructed by Roger Federer and his agent Tony Godsick to honor the game’s legends, Laver Cup and its immediate success on an international scale propelled the event to Ryder Cup comparisons with the golf world. Because of the compelling action, high level of tennis, and stars on display during those three electrifying days in Prague, hardly a word was uttered by the time France finally broke their curse and won the Davis Cup against Belgium after what felt like an endless series of losses in the championship round. We’ll postpone the fixing of Davis Cup for later, though. On the other hand, excitement for Laver Cup 2018 will only build as Team World looks to challenge Team Europe by adding players who were unable to play this year such as Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kevin Anderson. Not that those names intimidate the whole European team comprised of top ten players, but the 2018 event in Chicago should be just as exciting if not more compelling than what transpired in the inaugural tournament in Prague.
Newcomer of the Year: Alexander Zverev
When 2017 began, we knew the sky was the limit for a player as young and as talented as Alexander Zverev. While the results were not there during the Grand Slam events this year, the five-set battle between Zverev and Nadal at the Australian Open gave us a glimpse into the type of breakthrough season this young star was capable of having. I remember when Zverev played Nick Kyrgios in a Miami quarterfinal, and the commentators had a long debate regarding who would make the bigger leap this year. Without question, Zverev answered that call by capturing two Masters 1000 titles in Rome and Montreal, where he beat Djokovic and Federer, respectively. While he ran out of gas down the stretch and played rather mediocre tennis in his last World Tour Finals match against Jack Sock, Zverev has all the makings of being a future world number one. A lanky athletic figure, a whistling backhand, much improved footwork and fitness, and immense poise for a player of such age. Maybe he doesn’t win a Grand Slam in 2018, but look for him to make deeper runs and show the type of consistency on the biggest stage that he lacked this year.
American of the Year: Jack Sock
Honorable Mention: Sam Querrey
Speaking of Jack Sock, he checks in as the American of the Year because of the great wins he got during the indoor hard court season that propelled him to a career-high ranking of world number eight. He may still not have a functioning tour-level backhand, but he hit some pretty impressive passing shots from that wing against Filip Krajinovic en route to his first Masters 1000 title in Paris. Even though the points from Paris and London may be tough for Sock to defend next year, he has a lot of room for improvement at the Slams. Not only did he fail to reach the second week in any of them, but imagine having a solidified American presence in the top ten if Sock beats the players he’s supposed to beat. We were never really able to say that with John Isner, America’s most recent top ten player, because every match is such a wildcard with his style of play. Has Jack reached his ceiling? Probably too early to tell at age 25 with a small sample size of success from the Majors. In addition to monitoring his success, a quick honorable mention goes to Sam Querrey for making great Wimbledon semifinal and U.S. Open quarterfinal runs that positioned him for Year-End Finals qualification in London prior to the wheels coming off in September and October. The tennis Querrey displayed in his five-set victory over Andy Murray at Wimbledon was probably the highest level of tennis played by any American man in 2017.
And now we take a look at the best shots of 2017 both on the doubles court and the singles court. First, the conventional “down the middle solves the riddle” doubles strategy from an improbable angle followed by the circus passing shot that might be more disrespectful than the tweener.
Doubles Shot of the Year: Juan Martin del Potro
Singles Shot of the Year: Pablo Cuevas
Commentator of the Year: Dick Enberg
He may not have made an appearance in our power rankings piece on tennis commentators, but this is our tribute to the late Dick Enberg. While he had many signature “Oh My” calls in the broadcast booth for CBS as a football announcer as well as the ballpark being the voice of San Diego Padres baseball, here is a remarkable moment from one of the greatest tennis matches Dick Enberg ever called. It may not have had the “Oh My”, but it captured the gravity of one of the best Federer – Nadal clashes ever seen.
Most Improved Player of the Year: Grigor Dimitrov
Honorable Mention: David Goffin
In a year dominated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the Grand Slam stage, it only seems appropriate to give the most improved player award to the man who finished third in the rankings: Grigor Dimitrov. What was the season-defining moment for Grigor? Was it his five-set grind against Rafa in the Australian Open semifinal? Was it the running forehand winners that won him his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati? Or was it his poise in an undefeated run to the World Tour Finals? Despite his inconsistency throughout the summer months, Grigor has demonstrated that he belongs in the Grand Slam conversation. Once he won his first title of 2017 in Brisbane, Grigor never looked back and played the kind of tennis many expected of him after unfairly giving him the nickname Baby Fed. With a proven ability to win on the biggest stage as well as a ton of confidence from the best season of his career, Grigor has positioned himself to be the next one to breakthrough on an even bigger level. The honorable mention goes to the man he defeated in the World Tour Finals, David Goffin. It may not have appeared so following his freak injury at the French Open, but this truly was a great year for the little guy. Goffin played his best tennis when it counted to win the Tokyo 500, qualify for the World Tour Finals, and reached an even higher level when defeating Roger Federer in the semifinals. While he did not win the title, Goffin followed up his runner-up performance in London with two huge wins to keep Belgium alive until a fifth rubber in the Davis Cup Final. It was very fitting to see these two most improved players be the last ones standing in London, and look for them to continue winning big in 2018.
Biggest Concern of the Year: Injuries
As we approach the highly anticipated 2018 Australian Open, the only thing standing in the way of an absolutely epic fortnight in Melbourne is the slew of injuries to top-ranked players that sat out most of the second half of 2017. Notably, Andy Murray has delayed his arrival in Australia. Stan Wawrinka only had surgery in September and pulled out of the Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament. Kei Nishikori was last seen lightly hitting at IMG Academy in Florida. Novak Djokovic appears healthy and has been training in Monte Carlo. All of these stars missed significant time last year, and some (Murray) were criticized for participating in late fall exhibitions while simultaneously citing injury as a reason for not playing out the remainder of the season. While Roger Federer mentioned that these injuries may be more a result of players getting older rather than the draining ATP World Tour schedule, the increased number of 2017 injuries promises to re-start the age-old debate among higher-ups in the tennis world: are the players or the tournaments the product? Players and their agents would say the former; the governing bodies of the ATP would say the latter. Without resolution of this debate, few significant calendar changes will be made, and injuries will continue to be a big part of notable absences at meaningful tournaments. But to have this issue in 2017 trickle into the first Major of 2018 would signify a major change in the previous narrative of this debate. Only time will tell if the ATP is forced to take further action on the matter or if this is one fluke season of so many big names choosing to follow the precedent set by Roger in taking everything after Wimbledon off to rehab.
Top 5 Matches of the Year:
5. Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray, Doha Final: In their only meeting of 2017, the top two players (at the time) duked it out in Doha in what many saw as a great display of tennis and a possible prelude of the Australian Open Final.
4. Roger Federer vs. Nick Kyrgios, Miami Semifinal: Kyrgios previously had Federer’s number with a big win in Madrid during their first and only meeting. Roger responded in exclamatory fashion with a clutch win marked with excellent shot making.
3. Juan Martin del Potro vs. Dominic Thiem, U.S. Open Round of 16: The aforementioned Delpo flu game after looking absolutely out of it the first two sets and then storming back to win at his favorite tournament. And once again, we’re still not sure if Dominic Thiem can win a big match on a hard court.
2. Rafael Nadal vs. Grigor Dimitrov, Australian Open Semifinal: It wasn’t the first epic Australian Open semifinal for Rafa, but he ultimately prevailed against the impressive Grigor Dimitrov.
1. Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, Australian Open Final: By far and away the greatest match of 2017 and another milestone moment in their historic rivalry.
MVP: Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal?
The Case for Rafa: Two Grand Slam titles, surpassed Pete Sampras for second all-time in Grand Slam titles, world number one since August, won his tenth Roland Garros and third U.S. Open, returned from knee injury, six total titles (Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Roland Garros, U.S. Open, Beijing). The narrative for Rafa after the Australian Open was more along the lines of “wouldn’t it be nice if he won one more just like Roger won here in Australia?” Instead, the narrative was the familiar Rafa going on a tear during the clay court season and winning the French without dropping a single set. When the familiar hard court struggles seemed to arise in Montreal and Cincinnati, Rafa reversed course and ran away with the U.S. Open title. While he did not finish the season he wanted to after retiring in London at the World Tour Finals, his immense success at age 31 should supersede questions of durability. He is the best player in the world according to the computers, but did he do enough to hold off his greatest rival?
The Case for Roger: Two Grand Slam titles, year-end world number two, won his fifth Australian Open and eighth Wimbledon, returned from knee injury, seven total titles (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Halle, Wimbledon, Shanghai, Basel), 4-0 head-to-head vs. Rafa. In 2017 Roger bettered his own Grand Slam record, won the coveted Indian Wells – Miami double, dominated yet another grass court season, and would have done the same on the indoor hard courts had fatigue not caught up with him in London (not to take away from Goffin’s performance). This was without a doubt one of his best seasons, especially considering he did it aged 36 and 37.
And the MVP Goes to… Roger Federer (No, we’re not having an Oscars La La Land screw-up):
We can debate all day who looked more invincible or dominant on their favorite surface. We can penalize Roger for not playing a full enough schedule to reach world number one. We can penalize Rafa for not being able to finish out the indoor hard court season. But when you’re splitting hairs between the two greatest players of all time, a great measure is head-to-head. Now, even that is a polarizing statistic. Prior to this year, Rafa led 23-11 but yet was hardly considered by anyone to be the greatest of all time. So why does Roger’s 4-0 head-to-head advantage matter this year? Because he came up clutch against Rafa on the biggest stage when all circumstances were equal. Neither of them entered 2017 with a whole lot of confidence, both had exhausted themselves with multiple five-set matches en route to the final, and Roger finally got his revenge from the tear-filled 2009 Australian Open Final after coming back from a break down in the fifth set. One can play the what-if game and say that Roger would not have had the results he did the rest of the year if Rafa had won that match, but Roger’s victory was the springboard he needed to launch another historic campaign. Rafa’s was just as historic, but he came up short in three very meaningful matches on a neutral surface. Therefore, the 2017 MVP award goes to Roger Federer.
Point of the Year:
Honorable Mention: The best match-point saving rally from Alexander Zverev and Richard Gasquet
The Winner Heard Around the World: Roger coming up clutch against Rafa in the best point of the greatest match of 2017
May the 2018 tennis season bring us fans as much happiness and joy as it did in 2017.