If the 2017 Australian Open taught us anything, it’s that tennis, and sport in general, is far from easy to predict.
Venus and Serena Williams, aged 36 and 35 respectively, battled their way through the draw to make the most unlikely of their grand slam final meetings, which Serena won to record her 23rd major title. 24 hours later, a 35-year-old Roger Federer defeated the biggest nemesis of his career, a now 30-year-old Rafael Nadal, to win an 18th major crown in his first tournament following a six-month break.
It was the first time in history that all four participants in both men’s and women’s finals of a slam were over the age of 30, and nobody called it. Rather than learn from that teaching however, here Left Field Sport boldly attempts to predict the remainder of the tennis season for 2017…
Serena Williams will not win the French Open, but will equal Margaret Court’s all-time record at Wimbledon, potentially break record at Flushing Meadows
In 2015, Serena Williams had a glorious chance to win all four major titles and record that rarest of feats in tennis; the Calendar Year Grand Slam. The American lifted the Australian and French Open titles before adding the Wimbledon crown, but then surprisingly lost in the US Open semi-finals to Roberta Vinci. After winning this year’s AO, Serena’s dream start to 2017 means she has a chance at the self-dubbed ‘Serena Slam’ once more.
Whilst she is undoubtedly still the top player in the women’s game however, the field will be more difficult to overcome in the season’s next major at Roland Garros, largely due to a number of re-motivated big guns.
Defending French Open champion Garbine Muguruza lost in the quarterfinals in Melbourne to Coco Vanderweghe, but that’s her best result in the slam Down Under and she fairs much better on clay. Angelique Kerber has struggled with form of late and lost her no. 1 ranking to Serena after losing in the fourth round, but will be eager to re-establish top position. At the Australian Open, Serena didn’t have to meet big hitters Simona Halep (a former French Open finalist) or Karolina Pliskova, who could both be threats. And by the time the French Open is here in June, the women’s game will see the return of 2017’s most notable absences thus far; Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
With greater obstacles to overcome and clay traditionally being the weakest (if you can call it that) of her playing surfaces, we’re going to stick our necks out and say that the Serena Slam will be derailed at some point during the French Open. But that will only fuel Williams to rebound and claim a record-equalling 24th grand slam on her favourite surface a month later at Wimbledon. From there, she’d be a decent bet to break Margaret Court’s record on home turf at the US Open.
Maria Sharapova will break back into the top 10
Sharapova will make her highly-anticipated competitive return in April, following her ban for a positive meldonium test last year. Her reputation has floundered and the 29-year-old will be eager to bounce back and make up for lost time. Currently suspended from the WTA Rankings, the Russian will have to start from scratch in terms of building points on her return, however she has already received a wildcard entry to the Madrid Open and more invitations will surely follow.
With no ranking points to defend from last year due to her absence, and the silver lining of a break to refocus (see the benefit that’s had for Federer), Sharapova could fly back up the rankings relatively quickly and should at least be back in the top ten before the year is out.
Andy Murray will retain number one ranking until at least Wimbledon
Following a career-best year in 2016, it’s been a disappointing start to 2017 for Sir Andy Murray.
Beaten by Novak Djokovic in the final of the Qatar Open, Murray then failed to capitalise on the early exit of his nemesis in Melbourne, himself suffering a surprise defeat in the shape of a fourth-round loss to Mischa Zverev.
Yet Murray’s position in the rankings has actually strengthened due to Djokovic’s slump. He currently occupies a 1715 point lead over the Serbian, who in the coming months will struggle to keep up with the red hot pace he set this time last year. Given that number 3 ranked Stan Wawrinka is almost 6000 points behind Murray, there’s also little danger of anyone but Djokovic overhauling him anytime soon. Between now and the French Open, Djokovic has a plethora of titles and points to defend and unless Murray makes a habit of losing in early rounds, it’s improbable he can catch the Scot this side of Wimbledon. There Djokovic, holder of a mere 90 points having been beaten in the third-round last year, can really gain ground on Murray, who will defend 2000 points as last year’s champion.
From July onwards, Murray’s ranking will come under serious threat from a number of players as he’ll be up against his own performance from his terrific last six months of 2016.
Novak Djokovic will win the Cincinnati Masters
What can we say about Novak Djokovic? Based on his form since last year’s French Open, the man who was once the epitome of consistency at the height of his dominance is now the most unpredictable player on the tour. He’s still capable of winning majors, but right now he seems as likely to lose in the opening rounds. The Serbian turns 30 in May, reaching a milestone that is typically followed by decline, and the window of opportunity for Novak to chase records is closing fast.
After that French Open win, arguably Djokovic’s greatest triumph, it almost seemed inevitable that he would surpass Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras’s 14 majors and, such was his dominance, possibly chase down Roger Federer’s tally of 17. But three majors have passed since and Djokovic remains on 12, while Federer extended his record lead to 18 with victory at Melbourne Park. With a healthy, resurgent Nadal surely the favourite for this year’s Roland Garros, the likelihood of Djokovic catching his two contemporaries looks much slimmer than a year ago and that may further affect his motivation, which currently seems to be lacking. There remains one statistical discipline however where he can cement his superiority over his greatest rivals; by completing his set of the Masters tournaments.
Should Djokovic win the Cincinnati Masters in August, he will become the first man in history to have won all nine of the ATP Tour’s 1000 Masters Series events at some point in his career. He has reached the final of the hard-court tournament five times in his career, but has been beaten twice by Murray and three times by Federer. Last year, Djokovic pulled out of the event to focus on his preparation for the US Open.
This year, now that his ranking has slipped along with his dominance of the majors, the chance to win Cincinnati and achieve what no one else has may refuel Djokovic’s motivation. Providing he’s injury free, there’s not much that can stop a motivated Djokovic.
Roger Federer will continue to break/extend records.. but won’t win another grand slam
As well as adding that long-awaited 18th major to his list of accomplishments, Roger Federer further extended a bunch of his other records with victory in Melbourne.
It was his 28th appearance in a grand slam final, had been his 41st in a semi-final and 49th quarterfinal, as well as taking his tally to 314 grand slam match wins. Playing with vigour once more and with one eye now perhaps on a final hurrah at Wimbledon, one way or another Federer is going to add to his legacy this year. A 50th slam quarterfinal seems likely, if nothing else.
The Australian Open did however have the feel of Federer’s last hurrah, like Jack Nicklaus’s 18th golf major at the 1986 Masters. While you can never count out Roger on the green lawns of SW19, Federer will not be the favourite at Wimbledon and with good reason. No one expected the 18th major to come and the chances of a 19th remain slim. Instead, look for the Swiss to perform well at the tournaments he enters and make the quarters or the semis at Wimbledon and the US Open, but not add further to his major championship haul in what could possibly be his last year on tour.
Alexander Zverev will break into the Top 10
The youngest player inside the ATP top 50, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev continues to attract attention and acclaim as ‘The Next Big Thing’ in men’s tennis. Zverev broke into the top 20 for the first time last year after an impressive run during the hard court season and beat Stan Wawrinka to win his first ATP title at the St. Petersburg Open. Having also shown glimpses of his precocious ability on grass and clay, it’s likely that Zverev will soon develop into an all-court threat capable of going deep at any major, but to this point that’s where he has faltered.
In his impressive 2016, ‘Sascha’ reached the third round of the French Open and Wimbledon, to date his furthest venture in a grand slam and a feat he equalled at this year’s Australian Open, losing a thrilling five-setter to eventual finalist Nadal. He pushed the Spaniard close however and having lead by two sets to one before cramping badly, many suggested it was a match that Zverev should have won if it weren’t for his fitness. Luckily for Zverev, that’s both an attribute he can work on and one that will come naturally as he gains experience. By the end of this year, he’ll be a handful for all of the top players on a consistent basis and should at least be knocking on the door of the top ten if he hasn’t already broken through it.