DISCLAIMER: First things first, let’s stop talking about Roger Federer’s age. Do you think he ever gets tired of answering the same stale questions, barely reworded, about his continued competition at the decrepit age of 35 (or 34, 33, 32, 31, etc.)? That glint in his eye before he speaks is him imagining a 130 mile-per-hour serve fired straight at your nether region. Roger Federer has earned the right to play for as long as he damn well pleases, and if his EPIC five set Australian Open victory against a very in-form Rafael Nadal means anything, he will be competing not just during the 2017 ATP season but for years to come. No tennis storyline is more stale than that of Roger’s age (aside from maybe Serena’s age).
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the beauty that was the Australian Open final. Be honest, did you really think Roger would win? Of course not. Ever since the 2014 Wimbledon Final loss to Novak Djokovic, Federer has suffered from frayed nerves in late-round Grand Slam play. From failing to seriously compete at two subsequent finals against Novak to the tearjerker loss against Raonic at last year’s Wimbledon, most honest Fed fans resigned themselves to a man still able to compete with the best in three-set tournaments but who had lost the mental edge in majors.
But in Australia, any confidence issues just disappeared in a cloud of Federer Dust (like fairy dust but classier). Federer took down FOUR top ten players en route to the cup. Berdych? Brushed aside in three sets. Nishikori? Defeated in an arduous five set slog. Stan Wawrinka? Bested in the most exciting match of the tournament. Nadal, the spoiler? Vanquished.
Neither Rafa nor Roger played their best match. Flashes of brilliance were punctuated by painful lapses in concentration that led to four flippy-floppy lopsided sets before both pulled their game together for the fifth set. And that fifth set will go down as arguably the gutsiest Roger has ever played. No sliced backhands, just pure heavy drive shots taken frighteningly early off the bounce. Nadal broke him, then he broke Nadal twice. Then he won.
What, if anything, does this mean for the 2017 ATP season?
The world as we know it is upside down. We refer here to the tennis world and not to the messy bummer that represents current politics. The careful order that fans and writers had crafted in their mind at the close of last year is gone. When asked, most serious tennis writers going into 2017 would have given you this summary:
“Well, Andy is certainly number one, but you can’t expect Djokovic to let him rest easy there. Novak will be back next year, and Andy may win one major but won’t be dominant. Raonic will step up and finally win one, and Stan will be competitive. Maybe Dmitriov or Zverev will be fun to watch? Federer? Nadal? Get real. Also, I love Cheetos.”
The conventional wisdom has been murdered by the Old Masters’ refusal to play nice and die. Sportswriters as we speak are balling up and throwing away the stories they had pre-written about Federer’s graceful yet sad aging (and oh how long until he must hang it up?).
Every major storyline we thought we expected to see at the top of the men’s tour this year may be as worthless as Zimbabwean paper. Here are five new predictions:
Djokovic won’t be back
We were sure, SURE, that after the off-season rest, a clearly disheveled Djokovic would return with the fire. This looked increasingly certain after a January win against Andy Murray in Brisbane to take the title there. But then came The Exit.
Djokovic sounded remarkably nonchalant about losing in the early rounds of the Australian Open, his best Grand Slam, and has nearly gone off the radar since then. Aside from a Davis Cup tie against Russia (that he struggled to win), Djokovic has no plans to play tennis again until Indian Wells in March. He’s lost that loving feeling and now looks poised for a quiet 2017 ATP season. Side note: Has any 12-time Grand Slam winner ever felt less relevant to the game of tennis than Novak Djokovic?
It may not be Andy’s year, either
Andy played astonishingly well throughout the first three rounds of the Australian Open. He didn’t drop a single set and looked completely unchallenged save for the second set of his first round match against Marchenko. Then Mischa Zverev happened.
One shouldn’t read too much into an early-ish exit early in the season, but compounding external factors should worry those who hope for a Year of Andy. First, the younger guys. Dmitriov and Raonic played well at the Open, and every player on tour should be compiling a dossier on Alexander Zverev. Second, Nadal and Federer are BACK and look ready to compete. The closest analogy … bear with me here … is when your older brothers leave for college, finally letting you dominate the scene in high school, only to return for Fall Break and totally wreck your world by stealing your girls and kicking your ass. Bottom line: a strong Nadal and Fed have never been good for Andy’s confidence.
Did we mention Fed and Rafa are BACK?
At the risk of overselling it, the Fedal Final in Australia is fantastic for fans and terrible for the young pretenders on tour. You could make the argument that this was a fluke, that they can’t possibly keep up that level of play all year. I refuse to make that argument because I’m a dreamer and because I know better. Barring injury, I predict they run the table for one more magical run of dominance during the 2017 ATP season. Nadal takes the French, Federer takes Wimbledon, Nadal takes the U.S. Open in a five-set slugfest against Fed. We all have dreams, right?
Fear the Young Guns
More specifically, fear Grigor Dimitriov and Alexander Zverev. Grigor looks ready. He nearly survived a furious five set onslaught against Nadal in Australia, and most pundits would be shocked not to see him take a few titles and make more deep major runs this year. Alexander will win his first major within two years and is the almost universal favorite for tennis’ next big breakout star. This guy’s going to be huge.
Without setting expectations too high, this could be an interesting year for American men’s tennis, particularly for those who follow the juniors game. There is a strong crop of young kids, led by Frances Tiafoe, stretching their legs on tour. Toward the top of the game, Jack Sock continues to make slow but steady progress and just moved into the top 20 for the first time. Nobody expects much, but the flame of hope is lit for the 2017 ATP season.
Punditry is a dangerous game and not for the sensitive or faint of heart. In all likelihood, four out of five of these predictions will prove not just wrong but stunningly, disastrously wrong. For that, you can burn the Up Two Breaks logo in effigy and vow never to visit the site again. Check back in at the close of the 2017 ATP season to see how we did.