Tennis in 2017: Where the old battled the new and won
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This year was a tug-of-war, to say the least, in the tennis world. The old guard got some of its much needed mojo back while the new lot made inroads.
For India, it was a relatively unremarkable year, though Rohan Bopanna won his first Grand Slam title with the French Open mixed doubles. The Indian team lost to Canada in the Davis Cup World Group Playoff and the country’s signature Association of (men’s) Tennis Professionals (ATP) event moved from Chennai to Pune, where the next edition will be played from 1 January.
Here are the five main trends of 2017.
Rafa-Roger at the top
By the end of 2016, both were down and looked to be on their way out. Rafael Nadal had finished the year ranked No.9 while Roger Federer was at No.16. Nadal had been out of action for three months, up until the start of 2017. Federer had not played since losing in the semi-finals at Wimbledon in July.
That ultimately didn’t matter.
The two resumed their rivalry in the final of the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam. Federer won—his first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon 2012. At 35, he became the second oldest player to ever win a Grand Slam title in the Open Era. since 1968.
He followed it up with another Wimbledon title in July. Nadal won the French Open and the US Open and finished the year as No.1—the oldest player to do so at age 31.
Federer won a tour-leading seven titles in 2017; the Spaniard won six. Nadal and Federer ended the year as No.1 and No.2—the first time since 2010 that these two finished in the top two.
“Five years ago, people had started writing off Nadal and Federer. But that is exactly what you don’t want to do, because champions have a way of coming back, especially these two extraordinary players,” former player Vijay Amritraj told Mint last month.
Others, like Cliff Drysdale, a former player on the men’s tour and now an ESPN commentator, said it was unexpected. “It was obviously aided by the injury of other top players like (Novak) Djokovic (No.2 at the start of 2017, now No.12) and (Andy) Murray (No.1 at the start of the year, now No.16) but it speaks to just how dominant Federer and Nadal have been over the years,” Drysdale said over the phone from Texas, US.
Spate of injuries
Six of the top 10 men’s players (as of end July) retired after the US Open (in August) for the remainder of the year, due to various injuries.
Murray has been nursing an injured hip. Djokovic hasn’t played since losing in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and has admitted to “personal problems”. Stan Wawrinka, No.4 at the start of the year and now No.9, has had a left-knee surgery.
“It’s very concerning. When players play for 3, 4, 5 hours on hard courts, it’s hard on the body and these players are going to break down. This leads me to hope that matches would be of shorter duration. I am all for best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five sets in Grand Slams,” says Drysdale.
Laver Cup: The T20 of tennis
Tennis got quicker in 2017, thanks to the inaugural Laver Cup. Federer’s sports agency, Team8, led by founder Tony Godsick, who has been Federer’s agent since 2005 (first at sports agency IMG and then later on his own), promoted the idea of two teams (Europe and Rest of the World) playing one another over three days.
Top players like Nadal, Marin Cilic (Croatia), Denis Shapovalov (Canada) and Nick Kyrgios (Australia) came on board. All matches were best-of-three sets but the third set was a tie-breaker.
Three years ago, the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) promoted by Indian tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi tried to shake things up by tweaking the match formats to make them shorter.
Is this the future of tennis? The ATP is said to have distanced itself from the Laver Cup, while Tennis Australia and the US Tennis Association supported it.
Tracy Austin, a former world No.1 player and winner of three Grand Slam singles titles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says she was excited about the Laver Cup and what it brings to tennis. “It was fantastic. One of my favourite matches of the year was Rafa-Roger playing doubles together. To see them play with such passion and desire to win in an exhibition speaks volumes about why they are the champions they are,” she says in an e-mail.
For now, fans like Austin will have to wait. Bill Babcock, the director of the Grand Slam Board—a committee formed in 1989 with representatives from all the four Grand Slam tournaments as well as the International Tennis Federation—prefers status quo. “Please be assured that there is no desire within the Grand Slam Board to make winning a Grand Slam tournament less difficult,” says Babcock in an email.
Some old hands came to the rescue of a tour that was starved of big names, and seemed to be on the verge of oblivion when Serena Williams announced her pregnancy after winning the Australian Open in January.
Venus Williams, who lost to younger sister Serena in the Melbourne final, didn’t win a single tournament in 2017, but finished fifth in the rankings.
Maria Sharapova was back on the tour after serving a 15-month doping ban. She played eight tournaments and won the Tianjin Open in China.
Two-time former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who reached No.2 in singles rankings in 2011, came back strongly after being forced to sit out following a knife attack during a burglary at her home last year. She finished 2017 ranked 29.
Women’s tennis saw its youngest Grand Slam winner—since Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17—when Jelena Ostapenko, the 20-year Latvian, won the French Open. She was 19 years, 11 months when she won the title in May.
American Sloane Stephens won the US Open after returning from an 11-month injury lay-off and barely weeks after her ranking had plunged to 957.
The next year seems promising too. Serena is expected to return at the Australian Open. Victoria Azarenka is expected to settle her child’s custody battle and return to the tour full time while Sharapova is likely to continue her comeback.
….and some losses
Martina Hingis, the former top-ranked singles player who was ranked No.1 in doubles at the end of 2017, retired from tennis.
Her old-time rival on the singles tour and her partner later on the doubles tour, Jana Novotna, died in November aged 49.