What Murray’s Ascension Means for 2017
It’s been a long time coming, but following a lopsided victory in the ATP World Tour Finals final, Andrew Barron Murray sits atop the men’s singles tennis ranking for the first time. Once the perennial bridesmaid, Andy Murray is now the multi-Slam winning, multi-gold medal holding, Davis Cup champions leading, number one player in the world.
But what does that mean?
The first thing to consider is the circumstances in which Murray achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the number one player on the men’s circuit. His detractors will gladly point out that he only managed this in a year when two of his “Big Four” rivals ended their season early due to injury. More importantly his main rival, Novak Djokovic, had a spectacular fall off in the second half of the year. No one can deny Murray has played some of the best tennis of his career in the latter half of 2016, but while he was busy earning himself nearly 4,000 ranking points between the French Open and the year end, Djokovic was losing over 5,000 points. Murray claiming the number one spot was as much about Djokovic as it was about Murray.
Still, there is a reason the tennis rankings play out over the course of a year. Djokovic was undoubtedly the better player in the first half of the season—as two Grand Slam finals can attest—but Murray was the better player (just) over the course of the whole season. He earned his trophies.
So what about 2017?
Djokovic has looked listless since finally achieving his Career Slam at Roland Garros, but there’s a good chance that losing so much ground to Murray this year will reignite that competitive fire that saw him enjoy two of the most dominant seasons in tennis history. With a Davis Cup title, a Career Slam, and no Olympics for another four years, there’s not a lot left for Djokovic to achieve. If he can find his fighting spirit, however, there is always Federer’s record for most Slams… or even a Calendar Slam. Of course, the other members of the Big Four will be back on the courts in 2017 after their injury lay offs, what about them?
It’s sad to say, but I can’t see Roger Federer causing any major problems for the top players over the course of the season. Don’t get me wrong, even in his twilight tennis years The Fed Express can be dangerous, and has the ability to win any match against anybody on the tour. But will he? Probably not. I think he’ll be up there, maybe even breaking back into the top four and taking an ATP250 or 500 event or two. Possibly even a Masters if the stars align. But an eighteenth Grand Slam? Reclaiming the number one ranking? I just don’t see it happening for the Swiss. I would love for him to prove me wrong though.
And what of the King of Clay? In truth, Rafael Nadal has not looked anywhere near the dominant force he was around 2008 and 2010 for some time now. The last two seasons have seen him fail to win even the French Open, something unthinkable a few years ago. Injuries have played a large part in Nadal’s fall from grace—something that should be expected given the physically brutal way he plays—but there has also been a number simply average performances from the Spaniard to the point where you could be forgiven for expecting him to lose on any surface other than clay. I could definitely see Rafa adding to his French Open tally next year (though I wouldn’t consider him favourite), but unless 2017 brings about a significant change in his fortunes, I doubt he’ll be striking fear into the hearts of the tour on the hard and grass courts of the world.
Rounding out the Big Four we have the new darling of tennis, Andy Murray. It’s a safe bet that Murray will be able to hang on to his number one ranking at least until Wimbledon. Djokovic’s early 2016 was so dominant that he pretty much has to win everything just to keep up with Murray. Murray, meanwhile, had a few early exits that he’ll be looking to capitalise on and increase his lead over the Serb. I expect Murray will add at least one more Slams to his total in 2017—he’ll be especially eager to finally capture the Australian Open after making the final five times—but as to whether he can finish the year as the top dog of tennis once again, that will depend on Djokovic. If the Djoker can muster up anything like his 2011 or 2015 dominance, Murray will have a hard time keeping his number one spot.
And the Rest
It’s not all about the Big Four, of course, but in the interests of brevity I’ll just focus on the three I think will be a threat. The main players to look out for in my opinion are Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic, and Stan Wawrinka. Raonic has had the kind of season that Murray could sympathise with. Many ponder just how dominant Murray would have been if he hadn’t been playing in the shadow of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and Raonic got a little taste of that this year in the seven encounters he had with the Scot.
He lost every single one.
These matches included four semi finals and two finals. Raonic may not have found a way in yet, but he’s been consistently knocking on the door for some time now and I get the feeling he may well have a break through of some kind in 2017. Cilic, on the other hand, one of the very small number of players to boast a Grand Slam to their name during the Big Four era, has been less consistent than Raonic but he can play amazing tennis when the mood is right. This is nicely illustrated by the fact that Cilic is the only player on the tour outside of Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal to claim a Masters title in 2016, not to mention beating Murray in the process, something few other players managed in that half of the year. Finally we have Stan Wawrinka.
Stan is an odd one.
Like Federer, many would think he’d be considering retirement at his age. He plays well enough to consistently make the top ten but never really looks that threatening in the grand scheme of things… and then BAM, Grand Slam title. He has managed to win a Grand Slam every year for the last three now, and he goes into 2017 just one Wimbledon title away from a Career Slam. No big deal, right? Who knows what to expect from Wawrinka these days?
2017 is shaping up to be a pretty exciting season for men’s singles tennis fans. There is of course the risk that we could be facing another season of utter dominance, be it by Djokovic or Murray, but with the ascent of players like Raonic and Cilic, and the fall of Federer and Nadal, we could see the top of the rankings bust wide open!