2017 Men’s Tennis- The Year the Comebacks Beat the Breakthroughs in the Battle of the Band Aids

Fedal

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In 2017, men’s tennis saw the early signs of a shift at the top with Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov all asserting themselves in the top 10, but the younger players were not able to outshine the return to the top of Fedal, a resurgence, which, along with the promise shown by the legions of #NextGenners, and #LostGenners, was just the healing tonic the sport needed. 

When Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in three sets in the Doha final at the beginning of the season, men’s tennis fans took what they could get. This three setter, one of Djokoray’s (not as catchy as Fedal is it?) better contests, was a decent enough way to start the year, better than many anticipated, with Djokovic looking like he might have recovered from his end of season slump, a development of some promise, suggesting that if 2017 was going to be a predictable season of Djokeray finals, fans might at least be spared too many matches like the 2016 ATP Finals championship match.

Just three weeks later, tennis fans were no longer having to search high and low for something to get excited about in 2017– on one of the biggest stages of them all, Melbourne Park, in the Australian Open semis, with Murray and Djokovic upset before the last eight, tennis served up four of the world’s most popular players, three single handed backhands no less, and a variety of styles- Roger Federer battling Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal taking on Grigor Dimitrov, both matches going the distance.

Roger Federer’s win in the final, one in which he got some measure of revenge for his 2009 Australian Open final loss to Nadal, was the antidote to much of men’s tennis in 2016- tennis at its most sporting, entertaining and thrilling, a story every fan could follow, the kind of tennis to get the sporting world talking.

Fedal

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Federer carried that momentum over into the North American Spring swing, winning in Miami and Indian Wells, defeating Nadal twice more and putting together four wins in a row (Beijing ’15- Miami ’17) over the Spaniard for the first time in his career, a twist in their rivalry no one saw coming and which added even more spice, if any were needed, to the Greatest Ever debate. Federer’s first quarter of the season sprint saw him edge ahead in that one as he went 18-14 versus Nadal in slam’s won, and if you thought Djokovic had history on his side in 2016 when he held all four Majors at once, Federer’s early 2017 achievements- a record 18th slam at the age of 35, 18 slams after his 17th one at Wimbledon ’12, and the Sunshine Double (Indian Wells and Miami) 11 years after the last time he achieved that feat-  might make you think again.

Not to be outdone, Nadal was on the verge of a historic comeback of his own, too. The Australian Open final was the Spaniard’s first slam final since Roland Garros 2014, and, in April, he completed tennis’ first La Decima, winning the tenth title in Monte Carlo before dominating the clay season until Dominic Thiem defeated him in Rome.

Thiem tested Nadal more than any other player in the 2017 clay season and was one of a group of younger players breaking through in 2017, along with Dimitrov and Zverev, but it was Sascha Zverev who made the loudest noise as he took the Rome title, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final. With Thiem, Zverev and Dimitrov stepping up their games in 2017, and the return of Fedal, tennis in 2017 was in a state few had predicted, and one which in terms of its surprise, and shock, value, was one of the best starts to a season in a while.

But if fans were hoping that the #NextGenATP or the other generations who had not managed to reach the very top of the game might finally do so in the absence of Djokovic and Murray, they were to be let down. The youngsters just could not break through on the big stage- Thiem losing in three to Nadal at Roland Garros after an inspiring win over Djokovic- and it was Nadal who won La Decima at Roland Garros, and then, a few weeks later, with Dimitrov, Zverev and Kyrgios all failing to make it past the round of 16, Federer won Wimbledon, a record 19th slam, Fedal dominating their best surfaces a decade on from the last time they both did so in the same season in 2007.

All hope for not lost, however, for a breakthrough from Zverev and company at the season’s final slam, the US Open. In the Summer, Zverev’s Montreal win, defeating an injured Federer in the final, and Dimitrov’s Cincy win appeared to set the stage for a breakthrough at the US Open, but it was Nadal, recently returning to No.1, who won his third US Open title.

Nadal took the title beating just one player ranked in the top 30, del Potro in the semis, and defeating first time slam finalist Kevin Anderson in the final, the South African emerging from the wreckage of a bottom half which did not even see its highest seed Andy Murray compete and which was missing Zverev, Dimitrov, and Kyrgios, the stand out players of the US Open lead in events, by the end of the second round.

del Potro’s performance in the event, beating Federer in four sets in the last eight, and taking the first set from Nadal in the semis, a performance which shook Nadal and made him play his best tennis of the tournament, was one of the year’s highlights and the Argentine’s comeback of sorts- his first trip to the semis of a slam since Wimbledon ’13- saving the tournament from being dismissed as another breeze to a slam title for one of the Big Four. If Federer was going to lose to anyone, then del Potro was the man to lose to, the Argentine rivaling the Swiss not just in forehand prowess but also with popularity among fans, and if Nadal was going to win the title without beating a top five player, then defeating the Argentine, a former US Open champ who beat the Spaniard himself on his championship run, added some much needed credibility to a grand slam run, Nadal’s 16th, which though overwhelming in its focus and intensity was underwhelming in its drama and competition.

In the post US Open final stretch of the season, Nadal and Federer were still going strong, competing for the end of year No.1 ranking, as Thiem and Zverev faded away.  Federer scored his fifth win in a row over Nadal, a career first, in the Shanghai final, and Nadal sealed the world No.1 ranking, winning in Beijing, reaching the Shanghai final, and then winning a couple of rounds in Paris before withdrawing from his quarter-final against Filip Krajinovic, the Serbian going on to the final which he lost in three sets to Jack Sock, an unpredictable end to the year’s final Masters, an event which suffers the loss of the top players coming at the end of a long season, but which also prospers, delivering something different than the other ATP 1000s, champions like Jack Sock, David Ferrer, and Robin Soderling.

Federer and Nadal only had so much to give though, and by the ATP Finals, they were spent, Nadal withdrawing after his opening match loss to David Goffin, and Federer going out in three sets to the Belgian in the semis. Only Dimitrov had the stamina to play great tennis at the start and end of the season, winning the title and showing great depth to his game as he won some matches by hitting winners and others by being smart and keeping the ball in play. Dimitrov’s ability to win at the start and end of the season was partly down to his lesser match play from the end of February to the middle of August- of the Bulgarian’s 49 wins in the season, just 13 of them came (26.5%)  in that nearly six month period- and partly down to his greater fitness levels than those of his rivals, a strength that made all the difference in a season which is as over stretched and tired by the end as its competitors.

Marat Safin said at the end of the year that if Federer and Nadal are still winning in 2017, tennis is in trouble, and the 37 year old former No.1 and multiple slam champ, who was retired by the age of 29, knows only too well the game’s once natural order of young stars breaking through and established players giving way to age, injury, and the survival of the fittest.

The Fedal resurgence can be largely explained by advances in sports science, technology, and prize money, but those advances are as ready and available to the current youngsters who are richer even quicker than their predecessors, who can afford the very best in the game money can buy, and who, by now, at their ages, (Dimitrov (26) , Thiem (24), and Zverev (20( (Safin won a slam at Zverev’s age)) should be capable of winning slams and reaching No.1. rather than merely threatening to so so and then vanishing once the pressure is really on. The younger player’s inability to step up and really break through means that if Federer and Nadal were to succumb to the injuries that plagued them at the end of 2017, and Murray and Djokovic were unable to come back, which is looking a likely scenario as we approach 2018, men’s tennis would find itself without a healthy, young, slam decorated star, one with the power to attract new fans, to inspire younger already existing ones, and to give the old faithful, the fans who tune in to every final whoever is playing, for sheer love of the game, someone to be proud of when family, friends and colleagues ask them about the game’s most recent slam champion.

That star would soon sparkle, of course, by default and design, with Dimitrov, Thiem and Zverev, ranked 3-5, in the end of year rankings, as likely as anyone to win slams in the absence of the Big Four, and tennis would, in this age of PR and marketing sophistication and manipulation, spin another narrative of “Big Fours” or a fresh one of “New Stars”.  Right now, with the resurgence of two of the Big Four, Fedal, and the odd glimmers of those stars, flickers of a possible future we saw in Brisbane, Rome. Roland Garros, Montreal, Cincy and London, tennis has been, temporarily anyway, reprieved of its troubles, the wounds covered up with a band-aid where major surgery is required. With Fedal’s injuries at the end of the season and the lack of consistency of the likes of Dimitrov, Thiem and Zverev, that band-aid may be about to be ripped off sooner than expected, but what a colorful and distracting band-aid it has been for men’s tennis 2017, one which in a sport plagued by burn-out, injuries, and lacklustre rivalries could not have been better designed, more distracting, and plastered on at a better time.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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