It’s not the end of the ATP Men’s Singles season yet. The Swiss Indoors Open is underway at Basel, while there is the Paris Masters yet to come before the season-ending World Tour Finals in London. But the four Grand Slams are over – and they’ve been split between two of the greatest men’s tennis players of all time. There is already so much to discuss and fawn about and not all of them involve Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Here are the five key stories of the ATP World Tennis tour this year:
The Australian Open Final
Of course, this tops any list. Federer had missed the entire second half of 2016, while Nadal missed four months. Both of them were coming back from injuries and rest when they entered Melbourne as anything but favorites. Yet, they found themselves in one of the great Grand Slam finals of all time, once again. It was the rekindling of a rivalry men’s tennis had missed and needed so badly. With Novak Djokovic declining and No. 1 Andy Murray inconsistent as ever, the old horses battled hard for five topsy-turvy sets on a humid Melbourne night. Down 3-1 in the fifth, Federer overcame more than a decade of mental demons to defeat Nadal for the first time in ten years in a Grand Slam match. When Nadal’s challenge failed on the second Championship point, Federer’s leap made for the most victorious and memorable image of the year. Suddenly, it was 2007 all over again. Nadal went on to win the French Open without dropping a set, Federer won Wimbledon without dropping a set, and Nadal pulled off a surprise win at the US Open to cap off the Slam season in spectacular style. But none of those finals came close to January’s fateful night – because they didn’t face each other in any of the other three majors this year, despite Federer pulling off three more wins against Nadal in ATP1000 Masters tournaments. The rivalry is alive and kicking.
The Alexander Zverev Story
It has been a wildly successful and enigmatically disappointing year for young Sascha Zverev – who is currently the leading light among the ATP next-gen stars. He cracked the top 10 and became the only tennis player not named Nadal, Federer, Djokovic or Murray to win TWO Masters’ titles in the same season. He destroyed Djokovic in the ATP1000 Monte Carlo final and then destroyed Federer in the Montreal final. He cracked the top 8 in the men’s rankings. Yet, unlike friend and rival Dominic Thiem, his Grand Slam season has been a failure – third round at the Australian Open, first round at the French Open, fourth round at Wimbledon and second round at the US Open. Thiem reached the French Open semifinal, but Zverev – for all his success – hasn’t quite been able to crack the best-of-5-sets format yet. Fitness? Maybe. Long-form temperament? Perhaps. But Zverev will want to step it up again in Paris and London, given that he will be fresher than most after a short break.
The Great Canadian Hope
18-year-old southpaw Denis Shapovalov has easily been the discovery of the men’s tennis calendar this year. Nobody had heard of him before August. Suddenly, he burst upon to the scene at the Montreal Masters, at home – a wild card who had previously won only three ATP tour-level matches before this tournament. That week, he defeated four players who had 1356 tour-level wins between them – two of them being Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro on consecutive nights. He eventually lost to Zverev in the semifinal, but Shapovalov had jumped from 143 to 66 in the rankings and is currently ranked 49 after his opening win at Basel. He reached the fourth round of the US Open – his first ever Grand Slam and has set the stage for a searing rivalry with Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem in the years to come.
The Heart of JMDP
Men’s tennis is poorer without the smile of Juan Martin Del Potro. The lanky, tall, supremely talented player has spent most of his career being let down by his body. Every now and then, he shows spurts of madness that remains the only brand to be able to defeat the likes of Federer, Djokovic or Nadal at their peaks. He won the US Open eight years ago, but broke Djokovic’s teary resolve last year in the first round of the Olympic Games during one of his brief windows of health. Yet, it was in early September this year again when the 28-year-old leapt back into the limelight. He defeated Dominic Thiem in the fourth round after coming back from two sets down to win a classic. Two days later, he broke Federer fan hearts by beating their man in four tight sets. In 2009, he had defeated Nadal and Federer consecutively to win his only Slam, but he wasn’t able to repeat it, falling to Nadal in the semifinals in four sets. But he had again proven that Federer still finds him virtually impossible to swat away. Federer defeated him in Shanghai this month, but not before losing the first set and having to change his tactics. We need more of Del Potro.
The Nick Kyrgios Cycle
This Aussie wild-child is the only tennis player this year to have beaten Alexander Zverev (Indian Wells, Miami, China), Rafael Nadal (Cincinnati) and Novak Djokovic (Indian Wells, Mexico). He played perhaps the best men’s match of the year against Roger Federer in the Miami Open semifinal – three tiebreaks – to continue their highly underrated rivalry (they had played six tiebreaks in a row by then). It was tennis at its best as Kyrgios was just two points away from the final, serving at 5-4, before Federer wrenched the match back. At the Laver Cup last month, Federer again faced Kyrgios in a crucial singles match. Though unofficial, they put on a spectacular exhibition as Kyrgios again went down in the final set 9-11 tiebreak after blowing a match point. This time, he was left in tears. It was clear that he had begun to care about the sport he has claimed to hate so often in the past. Kyrgios’ biggest disappointment of the year though came in Cincinnati when he lost the final despite starting as the favorite against Grigor Dimitrov. This came after he had blown away David Goffin, Dolgopolov, Karlovic, Nadal and Federer on consecutive nights. The title eluded him – and greatness continues to elude perhaps the most talented of all the new-age kids.