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.     

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