Sunday, January 17, 2016

Winners and Losers from the Australian Open Men's Draw

With the 2016 Australian Open ready to begin, here's a look at some winners and losers from the men's draw.


Andy Murray:  Murray knew he'd land on the opposite side of Djokovic as the number two seed, but he was fortunate to see 4th seeded Wawrinka land on his half as opposed to 3rd seeded Federer.  Moreover, he's slated to play 8th seeded Ferrer in the quarters, who just got destroyed by Sock and shouldn't be much of a threat to Murray.  In the early rounds Murray doesn't look to have much to fear either.  He opens with 18 year old Alexander Zverev who is a superstar in the making, but isn't ready to beat Murray in a major at this point in his career.  After that the path looks to be relatively tame.  If Murray fails to make the semis with this draw it would be a big surprise, and he'd be confident heading into a semifinal match against Wawrinka or Nadal.  Winning a third career major in Australia is clearly Murray's goal, and the draw gave him as good of an opportunity to do so as he could have hoped for.

Rafael Nadal:  Nadal has to be thrilled with his Australian Open draw.  Both Djokovic and Federer are in the other half, and his potential quarterfinal opponent is Stan Wawrinka who he historically dominates (and beat in straights at the end of 2015).  While Murray is clearly in good form and would be a tough semifinal opponent, Nadal knows he can still beat him as he took Murray out at the 2015 year ending championships.  Nadal often plays himself into form as a tournament goes on, and he should have the opportunity to do so here.  He's not getting that much attention as a serious contender based on the beat down Djokovic gave him to open up the year in Doha, but with his friendly draw Nadal could end up being a major factor in Australia.


Roger Federer:  As the third seed Federer was clearly hoping to land in the opposite half of Novak Djokovic, but he had no such luck.  Assuming he makes it to the semis he'll likely have to find a way to beat the world number one, but his draw to that point is tougher than the one he usually faces.  Federer could face the always tricky Alexandr Dolgopolov in round two, and a Grigor Dimitrov who seems closer to his 2014 form than his 2015 form in round 3.  He could then face the talented Dominic Thiem or David Goffin in the Round of 16.  In the quarters he could find himself facing the big hitting Berdych, Kyrgios or Cilic.  Federer would clearly be favored against any of these opponents individually, but having to role through such a tough draw just to make the semis could take a lot out of the 34 year old.  He's still a serious threat, but Federer's Australian Open draw did him no favors.

Kei Nishikori:  Nishikori failed to build on his success in grand slams in 2015 after reaching the 2014 US Open finals, and it looks like he'll have to wait a little bit longer to do so in 2016.  While his path to the quarterfinals is pretty manageable, he's slated to run into Djokovic in the quarters.  Based on current form Nishikori would struggle to even get a set (which says more about Djokovic than Nishikori).  It's possible Nishikori is ready to make a run at the top 5 in 2016, but it doesn't look like Australia will be much help in that regards. 

The "next generation":  The draw didn't do any favors to much of the promising next generation.  Alexander Zverev could have done damage with the right draw, but has to open against Murray.  Borna Coric would have to meet fellow countryman Marin Cilic in round two, and 19 year old Korean Hyeon Chung who is just outside the top 50 drew Djokovic in round one.  18 year old American qualifier Taylor Fritz has been on a tear to open up the new year, but drew Jack Sock in round one.  Assuming Sock is recovered from the flu in time, this seems to be asking a bit too much from Fritz at this point in his career.  Moreover, the big hitting Thanasi Kokkinakis wasn't even able to play Australia with an injury.  There's a lot to look forward to with this young generation, but it's unlikely we'll see a teenager make a deep run in Australia given their brutal draws.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What We Learned From Week 1 on the ATP Tour in 2016

There may be hope for a "youth" movement in 2016:  The one thing that's been missing from men's tennis in recent years is a young superstar who is good enough to challenge the Big Four.  While that's still a long ways away from happening, there were signs in the first week of the season that younger players (or at least guys younger than 27) are ready to make some moves.  19 year old Borna Coric reached the finals of Chennai where he fell to Stan Wawrinka, and in the process showed he may be poised for a true breakout season in 2016.  Milos Raonic topped Federer to win the Brisbane title, which is impressive even if Federer wasn't feeling 100%.  Also in Brisbane were the talented Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem and Bernard Tomic, who all had solid tournaments and look to be improved in the new season.  Moreover, 18 year old American Taylor Fritz continued his strong play in Challengers by rolling to the title in Happy Valley.  Given our lowered expectations at what constitutes a youth movement based on the recent past, tennis fans may be in for a pleasant surprise in 2016. 

Djokovic did not forget how to play tennis during the off-season:  If the rest of the tour was hoping that Djokovic lost a step during the off-season, they must be sorely disappointed after seeing what he did to Rafael Nadal in Doha.  The 14-time grand slam champion managed a grand total of 3 games against the World Number 1 in the Doha finals, and in doing so Djokovic sent a clear message to the rest of the tour that he plans on being just as dominant as ever in 2016.  It may be nearly impossible for Djokovic to top his epic 2015 season, but he's already off to a better start given that he lost to Karlovic in Doha to start off the previous season.  Djokovic has now won the last 6 tournaments he's played, and looks poised to have another dominant season in 2016.

The over 30 crowd may begin slowing down:  It wasn't a great week for the over 30 crowd on the ATP tour, and this could be a sign some of the tour's veterans may be in for a rough 2016.  33 and 34 year old Spaniards David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez both suffered surprising first round losses in Doha.  32 year old Gilles Muller got knocked out by a qualifier in Chennai, and 31 year old Gilles Simon fell to Dimitrov for the first time in his career in Brisbane.  And then there was that loss by Federer to Raonic, though Federer did look to be in good form during his run to the finals.  Maybe the over 30 contingent just came out a bit flat to start the season and will get it together soon, but their early struggles could be a sign of more problems to come in 2016.

Don't sleep on Wawrinka in 2016:  Wawrinka didn't drop a set in capturing the Chennai title, and looks to be a threat heading into Australia.  He's won a slam in each of the last 2 seasons, and could do so again in 2016 if a draw falls right.  He didn't get much attention heading into the season, which is justifiable given most people were focusing on Djokovic's dominance, Murray's momentum following his Davis Cup title and Federer's continued great form.  But if Stan stays focused and motivated (which he looked to be to start off the season), we shouldn't be surprised if the Swiss number 2 steals another big title or two in the new season. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Storylines to Watch on the ATP Tour in 2016

As we get ready to begin the 2016 ATP season, below is a look at some of the biggest storylines to follow during the upcoming year.

Can Djokovic win the career, or even 2016 calendar grand slam?  The obvious storyline heading into the year is whether Djokovic can finally win the French Open and complete the career grand slam.  Nadal is no longer invincible on clay, as Djokovic proved in destroying him on the way to the 2015 finals at Roland Garros.  Unfortunately for the Serb, he seemed to run out of steam by the finals and played a pretty tentative match against an in-the-zone Stan Wawrinka.  Djokovic looks like he'll be the favorite heading in, though based on recent form a tougher Nadal is likely to await than what we saw in 2015.  Murray is much improved on clay and could be a threat as well, and Djokovic will be hoping to find Murray and Nadal on the other half of the draw.  Assuming he's able to reach the finals once again, we can expect Djokovic to learn from his mistake in 2015 and come out with a more aggressive gameplan.  

The less likely but still interesting storyline is whether Djokovic can make a run at the 2016 grand slam.  He only came one match away last year, but it's hard to predict that anyone (no matter how dominant) will pull off this feat.  First, he has to stay healthy, which he's been pretty good at doing throughout his career.  Then, he's got to hope an opponent doesn't catch fire for a prolonged period of time, i.e. Wawrinka at the French.  Djokovic's world class defense generally makes him immune from getting blown off the court in a best of 5 match, but this doesn't mean it's impossible on any given day.  And while Djokovic has owned his fellow members of the Big Four at majors in recent years, if you run into Federer, Murray and Nadal enough at the latter stages of grand slams one slip-up is hard to avoid.  It may be unlikely, but it's still fun to imagine as one of the biggest stories of the 2016 season.

Will anyone new break into the ATP Elite?  We're probably still a couple of years away from the next generation truly joining the elite of the ATP Tour, but it's still a major storyline heading into the season.  Dominic Thiem, Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios are all in their young twenties and have tons of talent, but whether they can challenge for spots in the top 10 remains to be seen.  Following behind them is the younger Coric, Zverev, Kokkinakis, Chung, Rublev and the deep group of American teens, who are all accomplished but may still need a few more years of seasoning.  If anyone from either of these groups can somehow start to challenge the ATP's best, it will be a breath of fresh air and a major storyline of the ATP season.

Does Federer have one more grand slam title (or Olympic gold) left in him?  It's been amazing how well Federer has played since he entered his thirties, and he's made several grand slam finals in the last couple of years.  But he's been unable to overcome the Djokovic riddle when it matters most, and it's hard to see him knocking off the world number one in a slam final now that he's nearing age 35.  Moreover, Murray and Nadal both look like they'll enter 2016 in good form, which should only make Federer's work more difficult as he attempts to win one more major title.  Federer will clearly be targeting Wimbledon, the US Open and the Olympics (which is the only major singles title he hasn't yet won) in 2016.  He likely won't enter any of these events as the favorite, but if the draw opens up it won't be shocking if he ends up holding one of these three titles.  Whether or not he pulls it off, Federer's attempt to win one more huge event will be a major story to watch in 2016.

Will anyone from the "lost generation" challenge the Big Four?  The "generation" of guys currently in their mid-twenties, i.e. Nishikori, Raonic, Dimitrov, Cilic and Del Potro arrived with plenty of hype.  But due to some bad luck in terms of injuries and timing (being right behind one of the greatest groups of players of all time), they're in danger of failing to capitalize on their primes before being passed by in favor of the talented younger generation.  It's not too late for them, but they should all be feeling a sense of urgency.  Del Potro is clearly the furthest away, as he's barely played in the last couple of years with wrist injuries.  The rest all seem capable of having big 2016 seasons, but for this group a "big" season feels like a spot in the top 8.  However, if any of them can win a major (or in Cilic's case a second major), it will be a huge achievement for this group and could perhaps signal a slight changing of the guard.