When Andy Murray surpassed Novak Djokovic’s ranking at the Paris Masters in November – becoming the first British singles player to be crowned world number one since computerised rankings began – before adding a cherry to the icing of his achievement by winning the ATP World Tour finals a fortnight later, it capped off what was likely the single best 12 month period in British tennis history.
‘The Murray effect’ had been spawned by 2015’s Davis Cup triumph in which he was the talisman and in 2016 British tennis flourished. Murray lifted a second Wimbledon title, claimed a second Olympic gold and reached the Australian and French Open finals, while new stars such as Johanna Konta and Kyle Edmund had breakthrough years.
At Wimbledon, there was the fairy-tale of Marcus Willis, the qualifier who set a Centre Court date with Roger Federer. And, somewhat under the radar, there was Dan Evans, the Birmingham born underachiever who finally began to reach his potential.
Last week however, there were those who saw a turning tide, as Murray was bested over three sets by Djokovic in Doha. Victory for the Serb no doubt boosted his confidence ahead of the first grand slam of the year in Melbourne, yet in reaching the Qatar Open final, Murray actually extended his lead in the rankings over Djokovic (last year Murray played the non-ATP affiliated Hopman Cup and thus earned no ranking points, whilst Djokovic had points to defend as the reigning Qatar Open champion).
If there were any concerns about the curtain coming down on British tennis’s period of prosperity, they were completely dispelled this week in Sydney.
Konta lifted the women’s title in Sydney, winning all five of her consecutive matches in straight sets including a 6-4, 6-2 triumph over world number 3 Agnieszka Radwanska in the final. The 25-year-old world number 10 – who has risen from a ranking of 147th since the summer of 2015 – shook up the WTA when she reached the semi final’s of the Autralian Open last year. Ahead of her return to Melbourne on Monday, after claiming her second tour title, she could be hardly be in a better position to build on that success.
Konta is Britain’s most successful female tennis player since Jo Durie in the early eighties and has shown an ability to mix with the WTA elite that, to this point, has always been somewhat lacking in Heather Watson and Laura Robson. Following her defeat, Radwanska shed some light on what it’s like to play the world’s 10th ranked player.
“I can’t remember playing someone this consistent, and at that level,” Radwanska said. “I was doing everything right and hitting the ball well but it was coming back better and better. I can’t even be angry with myself.”
Still on an upward trajectory, the ceiling for Konta may not just be the top ten but as a genuine grand slam contender. Odds-makers were clearly impressed by what they saw last week, as despite her ranking and her seeding of 9th, she enters the tournament as the 6th favourite.
And Konta wasn’t the only British success in Sydney. Evans, formerly known as the ‘bad boy of British tennis’ punched above his weight – or at least his ranking – to produce a run to the men’s final. Although he was beaten there by Gilles Muller, the fact that Evans was still in action come Saturday’s final is testament to the turnaround in the world number 67’s results (note: when rankings are revised on Monday, Evans will be lifted to a career high of no. 51 as a result of reaching the Sydney final).
Two years ago Evans was ranked in the 700s, but has since refocused and cut-out boozy nights out with his friends in Birmingham, altered his diet and at 26 finally began to realise his potential.
Heading into his first round match with Argentine Facundo Bagnis on Monday, Evan is well poised for a great run in Melbourne too.
Kyle Edmund went out early in Sydney, but the 22-year-old is a handful for most top players on his day and to a lesser degree like young Alexander Zverev, if Edmund can iron out his issues with consistency he’s capable of making a decent run at a major. Heather Watson kickstarts her 2017 in a first-round meeting with Sam Stosur at the Australian, and has a great shot at progressing.
With Murray still at the top of the Men’s game, there should nothing but a feeling of optimism for British tennis heading into the Australian Open.