Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, each absent for extended periods in 2016 before sharing five straight Grand Slam titles between them, emphatically highlighted the benefits of an extended break. And it seemed many big names took note: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka – all battling injuries – each called time on their 2017 seasons post-Wimbledon. While fans received an important reminder not to take the superstars for granted, players could look to follow Nadal and Federer’s example of using a rest and recovery period to extend their professional careers.
Nadal and Federer are not the only players to make sentimental returns to the top. The 2017 season marked many emotional comebacks – from Mirjana Lucic-Baroni’s return to a Grand Slam semifinal 18 years after she’d first achieved the milestone at Wimbledon in 1999, to Petra Kvitova’s victory at Birmingham in just her second event after she was seriously injured in a knife attack. The trend looks set to continue in 2018, showcased by Juan Martin del Potro’s return to the top 10 in the first week of the season.
The history-making dominance of Serena Williams provided much to celebrate in recent years – and so too did the variety created by the superstar’s absence for the past year on tour. With each of the past five Slams delivering a different female champion, the question of who would rise to the top became a suspense-filled narrative. Six women had the chance to climb to No.1 at the Australian Open – and while that honour was eventually seized by Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep had a chance to quickly recover it at Doha. An intriguing time in women’s tennis seems likely to continue.
While the gruelling individual nature of tennis is what sets it apart, team events can have a special appeal – most gloriously emphasised in 2017 with the inaugural staging of the Laver Cup. As the youthful Team World showcased theatrics on the sidelines – led by an exuberant Nick Kyrgios – and a passion to compete, the grandiose Team Europe combination added extra magic to the event. Most magical, of course, was the first-time pairing of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in doubles – and even the top-two men noted the significance of putting their rivalry to one side. “After being rivals for so many years, to be in the same part of the court fighting for a team is something special,” said Nadal.
The Laver Cup also highlighted that honouring tradition need not come at the cost of innovation – and there were many of them in Prague, from behind-the-scenes cameras, to mid-match coaching, net cam, an intriguing points system and the ground-breaking black court. “I think the event is first class … anyone that’s been here sees that,” said Team World captain John McEnroe. “I’m hopeful, just as a tennis fan and an ex-tennis player and now alleged coach, that it’s going to be a great event in the future. It was exciting.” And as millions tuned in to watch the unique extravaganza, few could dispute the fresh appeal of boundaries pushed.
While embracing the new, there has arguably never been as much reverence for the legends of our sport. Rod Laver’s prolific achievements – including his two calendar-year Grand Slams amid 200 career titles that would have almost certainly been greater if not for a turbulent time in tennis – were sensationally brought into focus through the Laver Cup. Similarly, Billie Jean King’s tremendous contribution to the women’s game was deservedly showcased – again – through the Battle of the Sexes movie release. With 2018 marking a half-century of pro tennis, it’s both timely and significant to further reflect on the legends who paved the way for today’s greats.
As modern-day legends compete well into their 30s, generations of tennis increasingly overlap – and often with exquisite results. Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios arguably played the marquee men’s match of 2017 in Miami, the prolific champion pushed to three tiebreaks by his far younger counterpart in their thrilling semifinal. Alexander Zverev, who grew up idolising Federer, upset the 20-time Grand Slam champion (who is 16 years his senior) to win his second ATP Masters title in Montreal – drawing many comparisons with the Swiss stars’ early matches against Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. “I’m sure for him playing against someone like Agassi or Sampras was the same kind of special feeling like it is for me playing against him … it’s something very special,” offered the ever-respectful Zverev – an assessment that’s invariably as true for the fans as it is for the stars.
While many big-name male players have transitioned to coaching roles, their female counterparts have been a rarity until recent years. Now the trend popularised by Amelie Mauresmo, who helped Andy Murray’s rise to world No.1, seems set to stay. Former No.1 Lindsay Davenport guided Madison Keys to the US Open final, doubles star Anabel Medina Garrigues was instrumental to Jelena Ostapenko’s French Open triumph and Conchita Martinez helped Garbine Muguruza claim Wimbledon, as the more senior Spaniard had earlier done in 1996. Kim Clijsters is often on hand as a coach to advise younger Belgians (Kirsten Flipkens, Elise Mertens and Yanina Wickmayer train at Clijsters’ academy in Bree) and late in the year, Aussie doubles star Rennae Stubbs became a temporary coach to Karolina Pliskova. We relish the thought of the high-profile female stars who may follow that coaching path.
If Federer, Nadal, Serena and Venus provide the gravitas, young stars create the excitement – as Jelena Ostapenko and Denis Shapovalov gloriously demonstrated in 2017. Celebrating her 20th birthday during the French Open, Ostapenko also became a Grand Slam champion with a big-hitting display that reaped an incredible 299 winners over seven matches. Shapovalov, younger still at just 18, became the youngest-ever ATP Masters semifinalist with fearless wins over Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in Montreal. As each added to their breakthrough seasons to achieve huge new ranking milestones – Ostapenko into the top 10 and Shapovalov smashing the top-50 from outside the top 300 at the start of the year – the thought of more breakthrough young stars to follow that path adds spice to the season ahead.
Mothers in tennis are of course not new, as Casey Dellacqua, Tatjana Maria, Kateryna Bondarenko and other current players have demonstrated. But with Victoria Azarenka, mum to one-year-old son Leo, returning to tennis in 2017 and Serena Williams set to resume her history-making career as a mother to baby daughter Alexis Olympia, high-profile professional mums are increasingly showcasing the benefits of dual roles. “With my family, you know, it’s whole other soul, soul feeling than you just come here and I don’t go to empty house after my loss and just cry there,” Azarenka said of combining her fourth round Wimbledon run with motherhood to Leo. “I go home and spend time with my son. Regardless if I won or lose, he’s still going to smile when he sees me.”
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