The ATP World Tour is like a Wrestlemania for tennis players. Everyone waits for it to come and after its end, the universe of tennis thinks about the magnitude of the next edition. Last year, World Number 1 Novak Djokovic ended an incredible year with a straight sets win against the only man who proved to be a true rival throughout 2015: the Swiss Maestro, Roger Federer. The two produced a rivalry that captivated audiences and conquered continents with legendary matches at Indian Wells, Wimbledon, US Open, Cincinnati and London.
After another showdown at the Australian Open, the new season brought another episode from the Game of Thrones with King Nole in leading role. The Serb beat Roger Federer and Andy Murray to win his 11th Grand Slam of his career. Even though history shows that every empire disappeared, the one built by Novak is still the most powerful entity on the tennis court. In June 2016, Djokovic became a part of the history books with another astonishing performance: he won the Roland Garros after three disappointing defeats in 2012, 2014 and 2015 and completed the career Grand Slam. The champion from Belgrade became the 8th player to win all tennis grand slams of a year alongside Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Legends are amongst us.
Although it might sound like nonsense, summer of 2016 was not the perfect one for Novak. He lost against Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon and was knocked out of the Olympics tournament after a brilliant display by Juan Martin del Porto. At the US Open, the champion seemed to be far from his 100%. He eventually reached the final, but three matches ended after the withdraw of his opponents. In the final, he faced a huge challenge, the Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, the player that stopped him in the final of the 2015 French Open. The average summer was complete after Nole lost in fourth sets to Stan, a superb final but a big disappointment for the World No1. The gap between him and Murray is reduced to under 4500 points and the end of the season might bring a change of guards.
Tennis under the roof
Controversy was present at this year’s Roland Garros. The tennis tournament has its scheduled delayed for a few days after heavy rain, wind and bad weather hit Paris during the competition. This issue raised some eyebrows as people are still debating why the French Federation won’t invest in a retractable roof so that the players cannot be affected by the weather. The frustration of „les bleus” is even bigger after US Open presented its rebranded Arthur Ashe stadium. The centre court of the last slam of the year is a masterpiece and Rafael Nadal was the first top player to play in indoor conditions against Andrea Seppi. According to ESPN.com, the cost of the retractable roof is around 100 million dollars, a sum which is easily recovered because of the high-class marketing of the American organizers.
At this moment, with the exception of the Roland Garros, all other Grand Slam tournaments benefit from indoor conditions in the case of rain. In the 130 years of the tournament held in Wimbledon, only four editions ended without drops of rain. On June 30th, 2009, Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka, two Grand Slam winners, played for the first time under the roof of the centre court from All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Rod Laver has the longest history in terms of indoor tennis at a Grand Slam, after using the roof for the first time on January 11, 1988.
So, after hawk-eye and retractable roofs, what’s up for the universe of tennis? Robot-referees or Tennis Balls with a special chip? I will let you decide. But, one thing is for sure. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will be legends at that time. And we will miss their classic display of tennis.
The return of the lion
In July 2013, Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic offered one of the best matches of the decade after a 5-set thriller in the Wimbledon semifinals. Although he lost the match, the argentinian has won millions of hearts. The next year was the beginning of a nightmare for the Bronze medalist from London 2012 (Del Potro defeated Djokovic in the bronze final from London 2012). He underwent several surgeries on the wrist of the left hand, missing two years of play until a full recovery was confirmed in the spring of 2016.
After average tournaments during the hard court season and clay season, the South-American retired from Roland Garros to be fit for the grass season. At Wimbledon, his comeback was complete: a second round win over Stanislas Wawrinka showed that the former Grand Slam Champion (he won US Open in 2009) is still on fire.
The story evolved in Rio. Juan defeated two of the legends of the game. In the first round, he eliminated Novak Djokovic after two similar sets, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2). The ending scene of the match was emotional with the two players hugging and Djokovic crying as a big and humble champion. The spirit of the lion was back and the victory gave wings to Juan Martin. In the semifinal of the tournament, he played against an in-form Rafael Nadal, gold medalist in the doubles’ competition. After a three set thriller, considered by most of the tennis experts the match of the tournament, the latin that conquered the fortress was Del Potro. He eventually lost the final against Andy Murray but the silver medal brought back the spirit of a champion that tennis needed more than ever.
At the US Open, the fighting spirit was back and the Argentinian reached the Quarter-Finals. But he faced Stan Wawrinka in that phase and the Swiss took his revenge after the disappointment from Wimbledon.
Next Gen – Thiem, Zverev vs Raonic, Nishikori?
But who is going to be the new number one in the next years? After reaching Grand Slam finals in the last three years, Raonic and Nishikori are two of the main contenders for the first place. The Canadian has the best season of his career with semifinal at the Australian Open and a final at Wimbledon. His game has improved substantially at the net and on the baseline, apart from the monster serves he delivers on court.
On the other side, Kei Nishikori has shown several times that his top form can produce one of the best tennis percentages from ATP. He proved to have the potential a future-to-be leader in May, when he lost dramatically against Novak Djokovic at the ATP 1000 Masters from Rome. His bronze medal from Olympics and the brilliant performance against Murray in the Quarter Finals of the US Open 2016 have been the peaks of this year.
If these two are familiar faces in tennis, 2016 has brought the evolution of two NextGen products: Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. Thiem is considered by most of the analysts the new star of tennis. After four titles in 2015, he won another four this year, on all surfaces and the pinnacle was reached at the Roland Garros. He only lost in the Semifinal against Novak Djokovic, but that performance guaranteed him a top 10 spot. He is now ranked the 10th, but he is the 7th in the Race to London with big chances to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals.
Zverev is only 19 but showed several times that he possesses the DNA of a tennis champion. The german player is ranked 22 after a crazy year. He had match point against Rafael Nadal in the last 16 stage at Indian Wells but eventually lost and he beat Roger Federer in the semifinals of the ATP 500 from Halle. He lost two finals, Nice and Halle and reached the semifinals of the tournament from Washington but his game and the certain amount of talent that he showed are two promises for a future top player.
In 5 years, all Big Four members will be nearly retired and the tennis universe will be dominated by the NextGen, with candidates like Thiem, Kyrgios or Zverev on the list. So who will be the new King of Thrones?