Federer & Nadal Return; No.1 Battle: 6 ATP Storylines for 2017

A new World No.1 prepares to defend his throne, the return of Roger and Rafa, and the next step for rising stars Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. There’s so much to look forward to on the ATP World Tour as we prepare for what promises to be a glorious year of tennis in 2017.

Chris Oddo takes a look at six storylines to watch closely as the season commences.

Will the Maestro Still Have the Magic?

The tennis world will greet Roger Federer with open arms in 2017, but a bigger question is: how will Roger Federer greet his opponents? Will the Swiss maestro be the same shrewd competitor that we’ve always known, the one that has racked up 1080 ATP wins along with 88 titles?

The good news for Federer is that when he did play in 2016 he was in fairly solid form. Federer reached the semifinals of both Grand Slams he played and he served above his career average in terms of service games won (90 percent in 2016 vs. 88 percent career) and first serve points won (80 percent in 2016 vs. 78 percent career).

This season, perhaps more than ever, it will be important for Federer to get off on the right foot. For the first time since 2002 he will begin a season outside of the ATP’s Top 10. That *16* next to Federer’s name looks quite strange but it can quickly become a single digit with strong performances in his first few tournaments back.

The Battle for No.1 Continues

The most compelling storyline down the stretch in 2016 also promises to be the most compelling storyline as 2017 begins—who will take the No.1 ranking out of Australia? Andy Murray will begin the season with a 630-point lead in the rankings over No. 2 Novak Djokovic, and the pair could lock horns as early as the first week of January when they’ll be the No.1 and No.2 seeds at the Qatar Exxon Mobil Open in Doha.

Djokovic holds the 24-11 lifetime edge over Murray but the Scotsman defeated Djokovic in a winner-took-all battle at the ATP World Tour Finals in London to claim his first year-end No. 1 ranking.

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic ATP World Tour Finals 2016

It certainly felt like a changing of the guard, but Djokovic will have a chance to take the power back from Murray in Qatar, and later in January at the tournament he loves the most—the Australian Open. The Serb is 6-0 in Australian Open finals, with four of those triumphs coming against Murray.

But with Djokovic defending a huge amount of points in the first half of the year, after big titles in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Paris in 2016, Murray may hold onto top spot for a fair few months.

What’s Left in Nadal’s Tank?

There is an air of brimming hope in Rafael Nadal’s camp. Not only is the 14-time major champion healthy after a long season of health issues, he has also hired his longtime friend and fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moya to join his coaching team.

With Moya working alongside Uncle Toni and Francisco Roig, Nadal should benefit from having a new set of eyeballs watching over his progress in 2017. If there has been one consistent complaint about Nadal’s approach over the last two or three years it is that he has been reluctant to step outside the box and rethink his tactics, particularly on serve.

Nadal 1st serve pts won 2nd serve pts won Service games won Return games won
2016 69% 54% 81% 41%
Career 72% 57% 85% 33%

The criticism about Nadal’s perceived lack of flexibility in his game-planning may not have always been fair. The Spaniard has worked to flatten out his ground strokes and shorten points in the last few years, and he was having quite a bit of success at it in 2016 – when he wasn’t being derailed by injuries.

That said, there is lots to improve on for the Spaniard in 2017. Nadal went 39-14 and was just 9-7 in deciding sets and 5-4 against the Top 10, but he really hit his stride on his beloved clay, going 21-4 with titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

Will Moya’s presence help Nadal make an impact at the Grand Slams, where he has failed to reach a semi-final in more than two years? If Nadal can stay healthy, we think the odds are good.

Is Zverev a Generational Talent?

Next Gen Finals poster boy Alexander Zverev thrust himself into the spotlight in a massive way in 2016. The 19-year-old hit his stride early and often, and he proved to be formidable foe on all surfaces and against all levels of talent. Is the German, coming off a 44-win season that saw him net his first career title in St. Petersburg, ready to make the next step this season?

Zverev won 24.7% of return games in 2016, which ranked him 21st on the tour. That’s quite remarkable given his size (6’6”) and his relative lack of experience. Analyst Craig O’Shannessy pointed out some more of Zverev’s impressive stats in a piece written for ATPWorldTour.com in November.

Zverev cut his season short after Stockholm to give himself two months to work on improving his game and fitness, so expect to see him in fine form the minute he takes the court in January.

Is 2017 Going to be Milos Raonic’s Best Year Yet?

After reaching his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2016, Milos Raonic will aim to take that next giant step in 2017. The Canadian has methodically improved his tennis – and his ranking – over the last few seasons and now he truly does seem primed to reach tennis’s holy grail.

But once again, fitness will be the issue for the lumbering Canadian. His net game has improved by leaps and bounds, and so has his backhand. There was never a problem with his serve, which could arguably called the best in tennis. Even Raonic’s return is on the up (he won a career-best 18% of return games in 2016), but can he stay fit long enough to build up momentum so that he might peak at the majors?

Andy Murray and Milos Raonic handshake

Raonic did that during the grass season in 2016, but ran into the hugely-backed and determined Andy Murray in both the Queen’s and Wimbledon finals. Now backed up by brand new coach – 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek – 25-year-old Raonic is bound to break through if keeps giving himself chances by working hard.

What’s next for Thiem, Pouille and Kyrgios?

We’ve already talked about rising star Alexander Zverev, but the German isn’t the only ATP young gun who could make a serious run at the majors this year. Dominic Thiem, coming off a 58-win season that saw him claim four titles and reach the last four at Roland Garros, should also be a major threat all season long. The 23-year-old is especially dangerous on clay but he’s starting to prove himself on faster surfaces as well.

Lots of criticism was aimed at the Austrian last year regarding his schedule and it seems that once again he’ll take on a heavy tournament workload in 2017…

Faster surfaces are no problem for Lucas Pouille and Nick Kyrgios. Pouille surged in the summer of 2016, reaching back-to-back quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and looks poised to become a top-ten player after a long, hard winter that saw him training in Dubai with Roger Federer.

The same could be said of the immensely talented Nick Kyrgios. One of the most gifted players to hit the tour in a long time, Kyrgios has only mental blocks to hurdle before he takes his spot in the top ten.

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