year 2016 ended with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray taking the year-end number one ranking race down to the very last match of the season. Murray became the World No 1 after beating the Serb in the ATP World Tour finals, capping off an invincible post-US Open leg of a season, wherein he had also won Wimbledon and the Olympic Singles Gold.
But with Djokovic having held all four majors earlier in the year, after winning the French Open, and Murray ending his most successful year on the tour, matching the 2012-2013 form that saw him win the US Open and Wimbledon as his first two majors, 2017 was stamped by one and all as the year for Murray and Djokovic to carry forward their rivalry as the top two men in tennis.
This became even more apparent when the duo met in the Qatar Open final early in January 2017 virtually nailing a two-horse race for major silverware in the season, beginning with the Australian Open.
As it turned out that the two-horse race was hijacked by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer beginning with the Australian Open final that the latter won in five enthralling sets and a twist ending. Fedal not only won two majors each, they also bagged five of the nine ATP 1000 Masters titles and an ATP 500 title each.
Although it didn’t quite go down to the final match of the season, this year’s No 1 ranking was settled in the penultimate tournament, with Nadal edging out Federer.
Both Djokovic and Murray finished 2017 outside the top 10 – 12th and 16th respectively. They combined for a total of one ATP 1000 final this year that Djokovic lost to Alexander Zverev in Rome. The furthest either got in a major was Murray reaching the French Open semis.
And so, with Fedal ruling the roost in 2017, the question on everyone’s mind is: can Djokurray – or Murrovic, we can finalise it when/if it finally echoes – replicate that in 2018?
This question itself has an underlying assumption: that Federer and Nadal won’t be able to repeat their unprecedented – even by their GOAT standards – exploits next year. And there’s a case to be made for this.
First of all, despite the level of play depicted by Fedal – which in tennis is always relative to, and influenced by, the player on the other side of the net – both Federer and Nadal clearly benefitted from the absence of Djokovic and Murray.
For instance, Federer didn’t play either of them all season, while Nadal only played Djokovic once – in Madrid.
Secondly, the toll that the 2017 took on both Federer and Nadal was visible by the end of the year, and hence both could be still feeling it during the first quarter of the year, which the Swiss swept with the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami titles.
Also, since Nadal and Federer would be managing their schedule – like every year in recent times – to peak during the clay and grass seasons respectively, the early hard court season could be up for grabs.
And if either Murray or Djokovic gets a couple of big titles under their belt, they could be on course for writing yet another golden comeback tale.
This would, of course, start at the Australian Open, where the duo have contested three finals, and where Djokovic has won six of his 12 majors.
It would be a shock almost as big as the 2017 Australian Open if neither Murray nor Djokovic makes it to the quarters of the year’s first major.
Another factor that could influence their respective comebacks, one which intriguingly mirrors Fedal, is how they deal with injury layoffs. For Djokovic this is unprecedented, just like it was for Federer, while Murray is accustomed to battling and returning from injuries, even if not as resoundingly as Nadal.
Even so, there is another parallel debate that influences the answers to the question-marks over the winning returns of Djokovic and Murray.
Can any of the younger chasing pack break their Grand Slam duck?
It is Wawrinka’s three majors – the same as Murray’s – that have not only made him a contender for Grand Slam titles outside the Big Four, he actually has made it a veritable Big Five since 2014. Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro, the only other major winners outside the Big Five since Roland Garros 2005, will both turn 30 in the same week of September next year.
So, can Grigor Dimitrov finally win a major after winning his first ATP 1000 title in Cincinnati and the ATP World Tour Finals, finishing the year as the World No 3?
Can the 20-year-old World No 4 Alexander Zverev win a major already, after having won ATP 1000 titles in Rome and Montreal, on different surfaces, beating Djokovic and Federer in the finals in 2017?
Can Dominic Thiem, David Goffin or Jack sock – all in the top 8 – be in contention for majors?
What about the eccentric yet enormously talented Nick Kyrgios?
The year 2018 could very well turn out to be the younger generation clashing with Djokovic and Murray to accomplish their respective feats. Surely, Nadal and Federer won’t be number one and two this time next year.