Just like that, we’re down to the last tournament on the men’s tennis calendar for 2017, the Nitto ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) Finals that begins on 12 November.

Rafael Nadal, the top-ranked player, is assured of closing the year as No.1, becoming the oldest male to finish the year at the top. At No.2, Roger Federer is close behind.

Raise your hands if you predicted this outcome at this time last year. Nadal finished 2016 ranked ninth, Federer was 16th. In 2017, both won two Grand Slams each. Nadal won six titles and 67 matches and lost 10. Federer won seven titles and 49 matches and lost four. Nadal is 31, Federer is 36.

2017 has been a textbook study of what makes a champion. Its various chapters offer fascinating insights. To understand this better, however, we also need a look at the trajectory of the big four’s careers—Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray being the other two.

Roger Federer has won seven titles this year—the last time he got so many (8) was in 2007. Photo: Reuters
Roger Federer has won seven titles this year—the last time he got so many (8) was in 2007. Photo: Reuters

Beginning of the legend

Federer burst on to the tennis scene in 2001 when he beat Pete Sampras, then ranked No.1, at Wimbledon. In 2004, he won 11 titles, including three Grand Slams—the highest number of singles titles in a year since 1995, when Austria’s Thomas Muster had won 12. But did Federer have it easy at the start?

“Not really. The expectations out of him were big ever since he beat Sampras at Wimbledon. Once he took the top spot, it’s tough to defend," says player-turned-commentator Vijay Amritraj over the phone.

But Nadal became Federer’s Achilles heel when the latter ruled tennis by playing to his own strength—the clay court.

In 2005, eight of the 11 titles Nadal won came on clay, including the French Open. He entered Federer’s mind. In 2006, Nadal won five titles in six final appearances. Four of those wins came against Federer, including the French Open final. After losing to him in the Wimbledon finals of 2006 and 2007, Nadal finally beat Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final.

“There has to be much belief with Rafa in his game to defend and retrieve and move well when playing against Federer. In those years, Rafa had the edge being a lefty and could swing that serve into Federer’s backhand. In rally mode, Rafa could get it to Federer’s backhand and not be out-manoeuvred or out-hit," says Mark Woodforde, the former top-ranked doubles player who is now a commentator .

Nadal beat Federer again in their next match—the Australian Open final at Melbourne in January 2009. Federer was inconsolable and wept openly on court when holding the runner-up trophy. The mental conquest was complete.

The others

Djokovic, meanwhile, was on the rise, but had to wait his turn. In 2011, he won 10 titles, including three of the four Grand Slams.

He beat Nadal for six of those titles. Sports Illustrated magazine’s executive editor L. Jon Wertheim, pointing to Djokovic’s mental toughness, had remarked at the time: “Djokovic is to Nadal what Nadal is to Federer."

“Djokovic kept plugging away, getting closer, and then peaked just as Nadal-Federer were starting to struggle," says David Law, a tennis commentator who produces The Tennis Podcast, a free downloadable radio tennis show available every week.

Though Murray won six titles in 2009 (the most by any player that year), his breakthrough came in 2012, when he reached his first-ever Wimbledon final. He lost to Federer but won gold at the Olympics a month later. But he was only ranked No.1 in November 2016. What set these four apart from the usual set of challengers of their time is their perseverance.

Meanwhile, other players were gnawing their way up. Stan Wawrinka won three Grand Slam titles between 2014 and 2016. The 2009 US Open champion, Juan Martin Del Potro, made a strong comeback in 2016 after having missed most of the previous two years due to surgeries on his left wrist. From No.1,045 in February 2016, he is now ranked 11th. Dominic Thiem, ranked No.4, has played 73 matches this year, winning 48 of them. At 24, he is considered a rising star.

The Injury factor

On the wrong side of 30, meanwhile, both Federer and Nadal had a tough 2016. Until July, Federer had not won a title. A left-knee surgery in February and lower back pain limited his schedule. He didn’t play for the rest of the season after losing in the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

Nadal failed to win a single Grand Slam title in 2016 (including a third-round loss at the French Open) and played his last tournament of the year in Shanghai in October.

Against all odds, Federer and Nadal came back strongly in 2017. An improved backhand, a bigger racket and smart scheduling are reasons Amritraj, like other experts, offers for Federer’s comeback this year.

“It perhaps helped in places but the main thing was that they returned healthy, fresh and raring to go. Their natural ability has never been in doubt," says Law.

“The extended months they both had off due to injury has been a total blessing and definitely extended their playing careers," adds Woodforde, who says that “the combination of Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Milos Raonic (ranked No.3 at the beginning of 2017, now 24th) and Kei Nishikori (ranked No.4 in March and now 22nd), facing their own injury problems, has also contributed to the Slams being won by Fed and Rafa".

Can Djokovic, Murray return?

Amritraj thinks they will. Law says, “Djokovic will be back and successful…whether he can reach the heights of before is another matter."

Woodforde, cautious, points to the Serb’s personal life. In a pre-tournament interview at the US Open last year, Djokovic admitted to “personal problems". When asked about his shock third-round loss at Wimbledon in 2016 (he had won all the four Grand Slam titles, consecutively, until then), he said: “It’s tough to go back now and talk about that.... It was nothing physical. It’s not an injury. It was some other things that I was going through privately..."

For others like Murray and Wawrinka, it’s going to be tough. While Law believes they won’t be able to catch up with Federer and Nadal’s numbers, Woodforde says Murray’s body “screamed for a break, given the efforts it took him to rise up the ranks of men’s tennis".

Both Raonic and Nishikori have been out since August. While the rest of the tennis world waits for them—as well as Djokovic and Murray—to return, Federer and Nadal aren’t complaining.

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