All tennis eyes, as 2017 gave way to 2018, were firmly set on some the best players ever to pick up a racket.
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic began last year as Nos 1 and 2 in the world, having won three of the previous year’s four Majors and seven of the nine Masters titles. Now, both were scheduled to return from a six-month absence with hip and elbow injury respectively. The same was true of then No4 Stan Wawrinka, winner of the US Open, but also absent since Wimbledon last summer.
Indeed, eight of the top 10 this time last January ended 2017 with injury problems, even current world No1 Rafael Nadal, who twice had to cut short tournaments—at the Paris Masters and ATP World Tour Finals.
However, fans of Djokovic, Nadal and Wawrinka—plus Kei Nishikori—will all have to wait, for each has delayed their return, each pushing to the limit their preparations for the imminent Australian Open.
Andy Murray, limping his way through an exhibition set in Abu Dhabi in the dying days of 2017, will know a little more about his rehab after his opening match as the No2 seed in Brisbane. Milos Raonic, No4 seed, and Nick Kyrgios, No3, both heading for their first matches since October, also enjoy byes in the first round.
Meanwhile, at the Qatar Open in Doha, Tomas Berdych prepares to return for the first time since early October, while Gael Monfils, taking a wild card, has not played since the US Open.
While the cats have been away, however, the mice have played—and with considerable success and gusto. No surprise, perhaps, that the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem were able to build on their prodigious and early talent to press upwards to career-high rankings. Both men find themselves in the top five for the start of the season and as top seeds in their respective tournaments in Brisbane and Doha.
The popular Bulgarian started and ended 2017 with victories: He is defending champion in Brisbane and ended the year as champion at the ATP Finals, but also reached the semis at the Australian Open in dazzling form, and ticked off his first Masters title in Cincinnati. He has at last evolved, it seems, into the player many hoped he could be, one who could be challenging for his first Major.
Thiem made the semis of the French Open for the second straight year, his first Masters final in Madrid, and the semis in Rome. He looked at his most dangerous on clay, although he made the fourth round of the other three Majors this year, too. Can he build on his top-10 breakthrough last year, or will he feel a snapping at his heels from the new wave of young players who marched into the top 50 during 2017?
Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric and Hyeon Chung have all won tour titles, and Daniil Medvedev made his first tour final in 2017: All are 21.
Much is expected of teenager Denis Shapovalov, who plays charismatic single-handed tennis with crowd-pleasing gusto. He started 2017 at 250 and on the Challenger circuit, but come his home Masters in Montreal, beat Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal to reach the semis. He then came through qualifying to make the fourth round of the US Open, and had a ball at the Laver Cup.
Andrey Rublev, age 20, is currently the youngest man in the top 50, ranked 39, won his first title last year, and was losing finalist in the NextGen finals. While still a teenager, he beat Dimitrov and David Goffin on the way to the US Open quarters.
And what of Goffin, who in 2017 proved himself the equal of any of the ‘1990s generation’?
It has taken the light-weight Belgian time to build a power and a confidence to match his nimble footwork, tactical flair, and all-court variety. Had he not suffered an ankle-twisting accident at Roland Garros, he was possibly on his way to a deep run in Paris, but after missing the whole grass season, he surged through the latter months to qualify for London, beat both Nadal and Roger Federer, and became one half of a high-quality title clash with Dimitrov.
Even then, the slender Belgian did not holiday: He played another gut-busting role in his country’s second attempt to win the Davis Cup, though Belgium again fell just short.
So where is he preparing for the first Major of this year? In fact, it is among one of the strongest fields in action this week—but a non-tour event: The Hopman Cup.
And Goffin is not alone. World No2 Federer, who returned from his own six-month injury absence here last year, is again playing this round-robin mixed team event.
The weather is hot, the atmosphere relaxed, and every player is guaranteed three matches against fellow top players—and maybe more. Stir in a bit of short-form mixed doubles to keep the reactions sharp, and it is proving to be a popular choice, even without ATP ranking points.
In fact, four of the top eight men in the world, along with a starry line-up of women such as Angelique Kerber and Coco Vandeweghe, have chosen to spend the week at the 30th playing of the Cup.
Certainly, there is big interest in Federer after the trajectory that his season took following Perth last year, especially with so many of his big-name rivals fighting for fitness, but this tournament’s impressive arena hosted a particularly interesting showdown for those with an eye to the rest of the year.
Goffin took on Alexander Zverev, a man tipped by many for Major success in the very near future. After all, the 20-year-old No4 in the world won five titles last year, including two Masters, and has confidence to burn. He carries expectations lightly, too, and the Hopman Cup gave the tall, strong German a chance to play Goffin for just the second time in what may become a burgeoning rivalry in the top 10.
No, there were no ranking points at stake, but at this level, two form players will always be keen to throw down a marker.
Straight away, Goffin harried from the baseline, absorbed the Zverev power, and used his great movement to convert defence into attack. It was lively and entertaining stuff.
It was noticeable at the ATP Finals just how much Goffin has been cultivating his forward game, and why not, with such deft hands and precise footwork? Asked about that part of his game after beating Federer, he confirmed:
“If you see me at the net, it means that I’m really aggressive and I’m confident with my groundstrokes… I think I worked a lot to be more aggressive, especially from the return. It’s one of my best weapons.
“But also, when the serve is going well, it’s easier to be more aggressive and to take more risk… So, yeah, we are working a lot on it [and] I think I’m improving in this part of my game. It can be better—but I’m still improving.”
Goffin indeed broke immediately, saved break points in the sixth game with a fine touch volley, and made another lovely volley winner on his way to a break for the set, 6-3.
Zverev bounced back quickly to take an early lead in the second set, but Goffin picked up the pace again, defused the German’s power with angle, change of direction, and more net transitions. He broke not once but twice to serve out the win, 6-3, in an hour and 20mins, and with more winners to his credit than Zverev.
Germany did go on to win the tie against Belgium, but that singles match will stay in the Zverev head—and in Goffin’s too. When will they meet again? It could be in the altogether more demanding context of Melbourne, and this time with big points and kudos at stake. And that really would be fun.
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