10 Questions For 2016: Part 1
We’ve all seen the stats: fewest titles since 2011 (three), earliest exit at Roland Garros since 2009 (quarter-finals), no Slams or ATP Masters 1000 titles for the first time in more than a decade, lowest year-end Emirates ATP Ranking (No. 5) since 2004. But if you didn’t tune into Rafal Nadal’s post-US Open campaign, you’re not getting the full picture. The resurgent Spaniard would go 16-5 during the Asian and European swings with semi-final showings at the Shanghai Rolex Masters and Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and finals in both Beijing and Basel. More importantly, the 29-year-old Mallorcan was already looking ahead to 2016 with a renewed sense of on-court calm and confidence.
“Victories are the best medicine possible,” he said.
“A lot of the time this year, I was not able to fight the way that I wanted to, and I was not able to try to find solutions on the court when things weren’t going well,” he continued. “So for me, the big improvement is when I’m able to find those solutions again; when I’m able to figure out how to change the dynamic and to fight the way that I want to fight again. That's the most important thing.”
Perhaps most reassuring was Nadal’s run to the Basel final (l. to Roger Federer 6-3, 5-7, 6-3), which included consecutive three-set wins against Lukas Rosol, Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic, the Spaniard showing that he indeed has plenty of fight left in him. All this, he says, will serve as ideal prep work for 2016.
“I take everything like a practice,” explained Nadal, who with uncle/coach Toni Nadal has been sharpening his serve and ramping up his return game. “Every week for me is like a preparation for next year. I try to spend as much time on court as possible working on the things that I need to work on. The more time that I can spend on the court is going to be important practice, trying to do the things I need to do to start strong next year.”
For anyone who might doubt Nadal’s ability to turn things around, all you have to do is look back to 2013. That’s the year he returned from a seven-month injury layoff to win 10 titles and reach a career-high 14 finals, becoming the first player to retake No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings after a three-year absence.
“I understand that people are questioning his game now and where he's going to be,” said Novak Djokovic. “But if you need a reminder of who he is, you just look at his career stats and Grand Slams that he won. I think that says enough about his quality as a player and as a champion.”
2. Can Novak Djokovic possibly top his stellar 2015 and win a calendar-year Slam?
Twice now Novak Djokovic has come within a Roland Garros of the calendar-year Grand Slam, first in 2011 (when he opened the season on the second longest winning streak in ATP World Tour history en route to a 70-6 finish) and then in 2015 (when he claimed a record six ATP Masters 1000 titles, the Barclays ATP Word Tour Finals and went 82-6). As we saw with Serena Williams’ quest for the final piece in her Grand Slam puzzle of 2015, it can be a taxing, pressure-filled journey. But the level-headed Djokovic is just 28 and playing better than ever. Even the Serb called this past season “the best year of my life.” So there’s little reason to doubt his ability to complete the task in 2016. It’s just a matter of how he deals with the pressure and the obstacles that will inevitably come his way: the injuries, the colds, the rising talent, the Stan Wawrinkas.
“He was so close this year,” said Rod Laver, the last man to pull off the Grand Slam, something he did not once but twice, in 1962 and 1969. “Going into the French final, I would have picked him nine out of 10 times against Wawrinka. But things happen. The pressures are there. It depends on how you deal with them. If you start off 2016 saying, ‘I’m going for a Grand Slam,’ those sorts of things can creep into your game. The more you talk about it you’re just adding pressure. But if you play your best tennis under pressure, which Djokovic certainly does, he’s got a good chance.”
Though Laver admits that the pressures, at least from a financial perspective, are weightier now than in his heyday, the Hall of Famer did deal with his own heavy expectations when he swept the majors at 24 and again at 31, a remarkable seven-year buffer between them.
“The biggest thing is how you perform under pressure,” Laver, 77, told ATPWorldTour.com. “I was fortunate. I think I played my best tennis under pressure. It wasn’t nerves that beat me in my time on the tennis court. I think Djokovic has a great chance at a Grand Slam. I hope I can be there to congratulate him if it happens.”
3. What will Australian tennis look like in a post-Hewitt world?
When his last ball is struck on home ground at the 2016 Australian Open, be it in the first round or during an inspirational second-week run, Lleyton Hewitt will walk away from his playing career for good. Sure, he’ll stick around to represent his nation as the newly elected Davis Cup captain, but his days as one of the ATP World Tour’s most dogged on-court competitors will be over. The two-time Grand Slam champion’s departure will surely be felt, but thanks to the rise of a talented crop of young talent Down Under, the void won’t be as ominous as we once might have thought.
Fittingly, Hewitt played his last US Open match against a player whom many Aussies hope can fill his shoes, Bernard Tomic. In their first-ever FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting, the 34-year-old Hewitt pushed his 23-year-old foe to five sets before falling 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 in the second round. The torch had officially been passed. At the Australian Open, the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios became the first teen to reach two Slam quarterfinals since Roger Federer in 2001. Nineteen-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis became the first teen to reach the third round at Roland Garros since Ernests Gulbis in 2008. And fellow Aussies James Duckworth (23), Luke Saville (21) and Jordan Thompson (21) are showing promise, too.
“I will pass on stuff to the young guys,” said Hewitt, the year-end No. 1 in 2001 and 2002. “That's my next role — to help those boys out. I was very fortunate that I came up in a group where there weren't a lot of egos, especially the Woodies [Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde], [Jason] Stoltenberg, [Richard] Fromberg, Wayne Arthurs, a lot of these guys. They helped me out with a lot of stuff. [Patrick] Rafter came up when I was playing Davis Cup with him. He took me under his wing. So I was really fortunate with that stuff. I think that's just part of a really good Australian culture."
4. Will Grigor Dimitrov finally emerge as a consistent elite power?
Though he’s just 24, its feels like Grigor Dimitrov has been under the microscope for eons. From the moment that, as an 18-year-old upstart, he shocked Tomas Berdych in Rotterdam in 2009 and the tennis cognoscenti — fairly or unfairly — began to pin the “Baby Federer” label upon his chest, it seems the balletic Bulgarian has been expected to live up to some impossible Swiss standards.
Since turning pro in 2008, Dimitrov has been on an upward trend in the Emirates ATP Rankings, going from No. 482 to a career-high of No 8 in 2014, a year in which he claimed three ATP World Tour titles and reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon. This April, he scalped Stan Wawrinka in reaching the quarter-finals at ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in both Monte-Carlo and Madrid. But just when it began to look as if he might continue his climb, Dimitrov, who has struggled with shoulder issues, took a step backward in the rankings to close 2015 at No. 28.
“Last year was a pretty intense year for me,” he confided. “Everything was quite intense for me to get into those rounds, quarter-finals, semi-finals. Every tournament that I was playing was just something new for me. To come back the following year, to repeat all that, it's never easy because after you put quite a bit of pressure on yourself to do good and even better. It's been a lot of ups and downs. Last year was an eye‑opener for me. It showed me what I was capable of. I fell into a rhythm that I always wanted to. But I knew it was very hard to sustain.”
However, Dimitrov’s uber-athletic game has clearly made an impression on his colleagues, even that Swiss sensation to whom he is so often compared.
“He's making improvements from the baseline and taking bigger cuts at the ball now,” noted Roger Federer of Dimtrov’s arsenal. “He's not just waiting for mistakes from the opponents, like he did at the beginning of the his career more often. I've played him quite a few times now. He's always a tough guy to play.”
If he can get himself fully healthy, 2016 might just be the year in which he breaks through in a big way.
5. Will more teens continue to populate the Top 100 in the Emirates ATP Rankings?
Don’t look now but there’s a youth movement afoot in men’s professional tennis. Croatia’s Borna Coric (18), Korea’s Hyeon Chung (19), Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis (19) and Emirates ATP Star of Tomorrow award winner Alexander Zverev of Germany (18) all infiltrated the year-end Top 100 in the Emirates ATP World Tour Rankings in 2015, proving that the top young guns can indeed play with the big boys.
Though in recent years the sport’s elite hasn’t been peaking until its late 20s (the average age of today’s Top 10 is 29.6), that doesn’t mean this new era of young talent can’t hold its own or even break though at the biggest events.
“It’s good to have some fresh faces, new faces, in the Top 100. A lot are pretty close to breaking through, as well,” said Kokkinakis, who grew up idolizing Russian Marat Safin. “It’s good to have that new young crop coming through.”
“There’s a couple of more guys coming in. I’m just happy that I’m one of them,” said Coric, who scalped a Top-5 win over Andy Murray in Dubai. “It’s nice to have someone else to keep pushing you, so I can work even harder.”
“We’re definitely a new generation,” added Zverev, who in 2014 became the first 17-year-old since Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet in 2003 to finish in Top 150 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. “We’re young and we play very aggressive — all of us."