The first tournaments of the tennis calendar are always fascinating affairs, sometimes indicating who’ll be dominant throughout the year, and sometimes teasing a new force in tennis that doesn’t quite pan out through the rest of the tour. This year’s tournaments were no exception, with some old superstars showing some of their classic form, and other younger players making their mark. Here’s what RealSport writers Neil Brydon and Gurumurthy Rathnam took away from the Hopman Cup, Chennai Open, Qatar Open and Brisbane International.
Alexander Zverev is the real deal
Young German, Alexander Zverev truly announced himself in 2016 with an incredible breakout season, winning his first ATP title in St. Petersburg. Finishing the year with a 44-24 win-loss record, Zverev rose to a career high ranking of 20 by the end of 2016. It is not uncommon to see players struggle for consistency following a breakout year (Grigor Dimitrov and Eugenie Bouchard come to mind), however, if the Hopman Cup has been any indication, this won’t be an issue for Zverev.
After a slow start to the tournament, losing his opening match to eventual winner, Richard Gasquet, Zverev played in arguably the match of the tournament against Roger Federer. Not over awed by the occasion, Zverev fully tested Federer in his return tournament, taking the match to three tie-break sets. While the Hopman Cup is only an exhibition tournament, and you generally can’t use it as an indicator of form, Zverev definitely showed enough in his three singles matches to suggest he can back up last season’s results this year. [Neil Brydon]
Roger Federer is looking better than he has for quite a while
Despite the loss to Zverev, Federer was back to playing some of his best tennis in his first tournament after six months out with a back injury. At his entertaining best, Federer started with a bang against Englishman, Daniel Evans, but it was his final singles match against Richard Gasquet where he truly shone. Playing a game that really suited Federer, Gasquet had no answer for the power and placement of the former world number one, who was in full control from the opening game.
Enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the Hopman Cup, it was the perfect return for Federer, who’s ranking will drop as low as number 17 in the world by the Australian Open. This means Federer looms as one of the most dangerous ‘floaters’ in the Australian Open draw, where he is set to play on of the top four seeds in the fourth round. Having made at least the semi-finals in 12 of the last 13 years (third round loss in 2015), this year looks like his biggest test, as he will enter the tournament with his lowest seeding since 2002. [Neil Brydon]
Daniil Medvedev is a promising star
If there was one match that would define the potential that Daniil Medvedev had, then it had to be the semifinal match of the Chennai Open against Israeli Dudi Sela. Being down in the first set 3-5, he showed what he had in his kitty to fight back, even though he lost the first set. In the second set, he showed intent and fought for every single point, making Sela work hard. The set eventually went to a tie-breaker, and this is where Medvedev made full use of his height and served extremely well to win the second set. Sela looked like an aged horse in the 3rd set and surrendered meekly. Medvedev won the match rather than Sela losing it. He finished as the eventual runner up, losing to world No.14 and second seed Roberto Bautista Agut. [Gurumurthy Rathnam]
Rohan Bopanna is an underrated doubles player
Rohan Bopanna has been one of the stars for Indian tennis for the past 4-5 years on the doubles circuit, especially after the decline of Leander Paes. His booming serves made a booming impact as the unheralded Bopanna-Nedunchezhiyan pairing won the doubles section of the Chennai Open. Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan has been quite a consistent performer on the ITF circuit and has never done well in ATP 250 tournaments before. But, the presence of veteran Bopanna had a positive effect on Nedunchezhiyan as the opposition had no answer to Bopanna’s serves. Even if they kept the ball in play, it would be an easy task for Jeevan at the net. [Gurumurthy Rathnam]
Mikhail Youzhny still has a lot left
Around 4-5 years back, a young Russian team had pivoted around Mikhail Youzhny. He used to perform well but injuries and a lack of form derailed his career. In the Chennai Open, he showed why he had previously been such a strong competitor back then, reaching the quarters where he lost to eventual winner Bautista Agut. The convincing part for Youzhny was that he led the match 6-2, 4-2 after which Bautista Agut made him run hard, with Youzhny eventually losing 6-2, 4-6, 4-6. He can take a lot of heart with this performance. [Gurumurthy Rathnam]
Dimitrov regains his lost touch
Grigor Dimitrov won his 5th career title at the Brisbane International. What makes this feat more special is the way he won the crown, defeating world No.5 Kei Nishikori, world No.3 Milos Raonic and world No.8 Dominic Thiem en route to winning the title. After slipping to World No. 40 from No.8, he had jumped back up to No.17 by the end of 2016. It also seems to be a sign of good things to come at this year’s Australian Open. [Gurumurthy Rathnam]
Seeding doesn’t matter in doubles
Looking at the draw before the tournament started, no one would have predicted someone like Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jordan Thompson to make the finals, let alone winning the title. Out of the four teams that made it to the semis, the only seeded pair was fourth seed Canadian-French pair of Daniel Nestor and Edouard Roger Vasselin. They took on the wildcard duo of Kokkinakis and Thompson, and eventually had to bite the dust. In the other semi-final, unseeded pair of Gilles Muller and Sam Querrey took on wildcards Sam Groth and Chris Guccione. The Australian duo of Kokkinakis and Thompson sent the rankings for a toss and won the doubles title. As an icing on the cake, they defeated the top seeded pair, Frenchmen Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, in the quarterfinals. Who said seeding is so important? [Gurumurthy Rathnam]
Novak Djokovic is not untouchable
Despite ending Andy Murray’s 28 match unbeaten streak, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Novak Djokovic at the Qatar Open. Djokovic entered this year’s Qatar Open aiming to defend last year’s title, and looked to be in cruise control in his opening three rounds. One of the more light-hearted moments of the tournament came after Djokovic’s second round match, with Horacio Zeballos approaching Djokovic for a ‘selfie’ before leaving the court.
However, Djokovic hit a hurdle in the semi-final against tour veteran, Fernando Verdasco. After taking the opening set, Verdasco held five match points in the second set tie-break, before Djokovic clawed his way back into the set and pushing it to a third set which he went on to win. In the final, Djokovic looked to have learnt from his mistakes, only to have his serve broken when serving for the match in the second set. Murray took full advantage of the lapse from Djokovic, taking the second set. Djokovic managed to do enough in the third set to take the title, but not before showing he is still vulnerable in these early stages of the season. Watch his draw early at the Australian Open as Djokovic will be hard to beat if he cruises through his first few rounds. [Neil Brydon]
Murray and Djokovic are unlikely to be knocked off the top of the rankings
Despite Djokovic’s struggles in the semi-final, he and Murray again contested a final. Winning 16 titles between them in 2016, Djokovic, in second, sits almost 6500 ranking points ahead of third ranked Milos Raonic. While their titles mean they will have a lot of points to defend throughout the season, they are also looking in ominous form and should receive favourable draws thanks to their top rankings.
Having both made last year’s Australian Open final, Murray and Djokovic quite enjoy playing at Melbourne Park and many players will be watching the draws closely to see which half of the draw they find themselves in. Both of the top two seeds could be vulnerable early in this year’s Australian Open, but don’t be surprised to see them contesting the final once again this year. [Neil Brydon]
Richard Gasquet is still relevant on the ATP Tour
The man with one of the most exquisite backhand’s on the ATP Tour, Richard Gasquet continues to win matches in his 15th year on tour. Despite his loss to Federer, Gasquet looked strong in his other three singles matches during the week in Perth, overcoming a big-hitting Jack Sock in the final.
Before a back injury forced Gasquet to withdraw from both Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics, he was on track for one of his best seasons in recent year’s. After missing the Australian Open with the same back concern, Gasquet successfully defended his title at the Open Sud de France. He followed this with his first ever quarter-final appearance at the French Open. At the Hopman Cup last week, Gasquet showed that if he can stay fit, he can match it with some of the best up and coming players thanks to his consistency and accuracy. [Neil Brydon]