Tennis players’ new motto: Reinvent, resurrect
The favourites for the Australian Open include players who were down and doubtful, but have found second wind in their careers
If the turn of the year was to throw some surprises in the tennis world, wrecked by war wounds and withdrawals in 2017, that notion has been quickly dispelled.
Last week, the former world No.1, Andy Murray, pulled out of the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, starting 15 January in Melbourne. The other former No.1, Novak Djokovic, is still testing his fitness with this week’s Kooyong Classic and is unsure about playing in Melbourne.
Other Slam quarter-final and semi-final regulars, like Milos Raonic and Stanislas Wawrinka, are limping back to competition, but remain iffy, while Kei Nishikori, the 2014 US Open finalist, will skip the Australian Open.
Djokovic, who hasn’t played since Wimbledon last year, has an elbow injury that doesn’t seem to go away. The Japanese Nishikori has problems with his wrist while Wawrinka has undergone knee operations. Murray hasn’t fully recovered from a hip injury and hasn’t played a Grand Slam since last year’s Wimbledon—he pulled out of the US Open later at the last minute.
These troubles coincided with the resurgence last year of the two veterans, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who pocketed two Grand Slams each. They look set to repeat some of their feats in 2018—if their bodies don’t crash and the others’ don’t resurrect. Nadal, after some more fitness issues, has said he will play in Melbourne next week.
If 2017 was a year of surprises—in how the established order shuffled a bit and the past maestros returned strongly to the top after fighting injuries and challenges to longevity—2018 promises to be more of the same, at least in the beginning.
The women’s tour is headed in a similar direction as well—heralding in the forgotten. Two of the favourites for this year’s first Grand Slam would be two wrongly assumed have-beens, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki.
Williams had a standout 2017 in the absence of her sister Serena, reaching the Australian and Wimbledon finals and entering the top 5 in rankings for the first time since 2010. Whether the 37-year-old still has a major title in her remains a moot point, but the winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles will continue to be a sentimental favourite.
Wozniacki has come back into the top 3 rankings (she is currently No.2) for the first time since 2013. The 27-year-old, one of the few players to have reached the No.1 ranking without ever winning a Grand Slam title, could make a breakthrough this year. With Serena out, Maria Sharapova still finding her feet following a doping suspension and No.3 Garbine Muguruza nursing a calf injury, Wozniacki has a credible chance in Melbourne. She leads 4-2 in head-to-head meetings against No.1 Simona Halep, who is also yet to win a Grand Slam title.
Unpredictability is one of the virtues that make a contest watchable and sport gives its honest practitioners a second chance. Last year, badminton player Saina Nehwal came back from an injury break to win a third place in the World Championships. Viswanathan Anand, the only player in the top 25 rankings in chess who was born in the 1960s, won the rapid event in the King Salman World Chess Championships at the end of the year, after having had a disappointing 2017.
The reason accomplished sportspeople are able to return to the top of their games after setbacks is in equal measure a tribute to their perseverance as it is their ability to adapt.
“When someone like a Federer does well on court, you feel you can do it too. Players like Federer or Nadal try to experiment with their style. They’re willing to drop weapons that served them well for 10 years and try something else,” Anand said in an interview to The Times Of India recently.
Nadal, 31, has struggled throughout his career with injuries—he was suffering from a knee injury before heading into the Australian Open. But after surviving 2016 with problems of fitness and form, he ended 2017 as the No. 1 for the first time since 2013, after claiming his 16th Grand Slam title in New York.
The 36-year-old Federer, who was out injured in the second half of 2016, came back rejuvenated, but also with a change in attitude. His backhand, for example, improved during practice when he was on a break, but he also started enjoying practising, he said in interviews.
For someone like Kevin Anderson, it’s about belief. The South African reached his first Grand Slam singles final last year at the US Open at the age of 31 (see Kevin Anderson: Standing tall, aiming high).
“I need a good sense of belief in my game, in my skills on the court and you are constantly looking at ways to improve. I also need to trust myself,” Anderson said during a media interaction in Pune last week where the world No.11 lost in the final of the Tata Maharashtra Open to 33-year-old Gilles Simon.
“My team—from my family to my coaching team—constantly tells me to believe in myself. The more I trust myself, the more I can see evidence (on court). I can see the tennis I am able to play in that frame of mind.”
Sri Lanka’s former cricket captain Mahela Jayawardene says the same about his 18-year international career— taking T20 as an example. “It came after we had played 10 years of cricket. To adapt to that and play with different tempo, our mindsets had to be different and our technique had to tweak a little. We had to be fitter, train more.”
“You can’t be stubborn and say this is my game. You have to adapt. If I needed to be, I would be more aggressive and take more calculated risks,” says Jayawardene, who stopped playing for Sri Lanka in 2015.
Jaywardene echoed the sentiments of Federer, who was reported by Tennis.com as saying in April last year, “Maybe (I am) more relaxed than I’ve been in a long time, mostly rejuvenated and refreshed. I’m much more willing and open to do other things.”
After defeating one of the predicted future stars of tennis, Alexander Zverev, in the Hopman Cup last week, Federer called himself a “part-timer”. The win not only showed that the next gen has still some catching up to do, but also that “part-timers”—even if it was a humble brag—still have some fire left in them.
The Australian Open may yet become a tournament for the also-ran, over the hill, washed out, part-timers who reinvented, reinvigorated and readied themselves to show that they may have been down but definitely not out.
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