Month: December 2016

What I’m thankful for in 2016

Although I grew up in a country that includes no similar date on the calendar, “Thanksgiving”, an holiday originally “celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year” is a tradition that I respect, even if the evolution of modern societies has diluted the meaning of it and its religious and cultural roots are disregarded by most these days.

Therefore, since I hold some appreciation for the values that are (supposed to be) exalted on Thanksgiving,  I decided to take Christmas time, a period based on much of the same ideals, to reflect and be grateful for what the subject of this blog, sports, inspires in me every day.

The result is the following miscellanea of topics, a list that, despite inherently personal, I believe is much less about my own preferences than the experience and pleasure one takes from the deeply misguided love for sports.

A final remark: While necessarily influenced by it, the choices don’t reflect only what happened over the last 12 months.

Jaromír Jágr – Recency bias be damned, it’s an absolute joy to be able to follow the footsteps of one of ice hockey’s greats as he approaches age 45. I may have lost his time for the team I support and definitely haven’t forgot the sting of his decision to spurn a return in favour of signing for the cross-state rivals, yet can’t stop admiring his uplifting love for the game, inexorable work ethic and ability to stay competitive night after night facing guys that weren’t even born when he was an NHL rookie, back in 1990-1991.

Jaromír Jágr's flow in all its glory at age 44

Jaromír Jágr’s flow in all its glory at age 44

Jágr still got that singular propensity to stuck his bottom out and protect the puck like very few can, the fluidity to weave through the neutral zone and gain the line with possession and the vision to offer his teammates easy tap-ins. If he says his legs haven’t slowed down and he can handle the load of an entire season, who are we to disagree? You can make it to 50, Jags!

The wealth of young NHL talent – The best hockey league in the world is, by definition, stacked with elite players at every position, nonetheless the recent influx of newcomers that can take over games right from the get-go has to be described as unusual and extraordinary, and you have to look no further than Team North America’s showings at the World Cup of hockey to illustrate the point.

Connor McDavid, a once-in-a generation prodigy with lightning acceleration and a phenomenal ability to execute in full speed, obviously leads the charge, but he’s not short on dazzling running mates. Jack Eichel, McDavid’s bridesmaid who can hammer one-timers from the right slot on his sleep. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary’s elusive offensive dynamo. Toronto’s rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who have electrified an entire city. Finland’s Patrik Laine, ripping pucks into the upper-corners from the top of the circles with the same nonchalance employed while dealing with the media. Show-stopping talents like Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Leon Draisatl or Mark Scheifele.

Patrik Laine's shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

Patrik Laine’s shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

All names that may one day figure in the Hall of Fame, alongside the rest of the League’s stars in their prime, such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, and without disregarding the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, John Tavares, Jamie Benn, Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov or Claude Giroux.

The future is bright for the NHL should they understand how to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that fell on their lap, which contributed to a move towards a much faster, more entertaining version where skill is more important than ever before.

3-on-3 overtime – One year has passed since its introduction at the NHL level and more top leagues are already following suit hoping to ride the wave of success. While coaches have made strides in bringing structure and trying to reign in their players, there’s only so much they can do to slow down the game with an inordinate amount of ice available. The 3-on-3 overtime is enthralling on its Intensity, pulsating and dramatic on its inherent chaos, a cradle of end-to-end action, odd-man rushes, turnovers, chances, near-misses, startling saves and… goals. Some criticize it for resembling pond hockey..but where’s the harm on that?

Lionel Messi – Like him there has never been and never will be. The ultimate talent powered by (near) flawless decision making, immaculate technical skill and advanced vision and perception of the game. Leo apprehends, selects and executes before the rest and better, and that’s why he’s peerless. The prototype of the human brain solving problems at high speed and driving football’s running and unrelenting evolution towards an era where sheer physical prowess will be essentially irrelevant.

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Lionel Messi, the best football player ever

Some fifty years from now, when those at the different levels and spheres of influence will be equipped with a superior understanding of the game, the next generations will laugh at “our” decisions to elect others based on the random outcome of a couple of games per year.

Peter Sagan – A unique figure inside cycling’s world, a sport still trying to overcome an uphill battle to restore credibility and regain fans. While the clashes on the mountains, that made so many fell in love with bike racing, can’t escape the veil of suspect, what Peter Sagan does can only be admired, which means you’ll have a hard time finding someone that actively roots against him.

Whether he is squeezing through the middle of the bunch to secure a sprint victory, jumping the gun to escape and arrive by himself, powering up a hill to a finish or collaborating doggedly on a breakaway, Sagan’s versatility is mind-boggling yet only a reflection of his personality. The Slovak is a risk-taker, follows his instincts, never gives up in face of adversity and has a hell of a time riding his bike, enjoying himself and entertaining the fans. In the end, we’re all looking for fun and Peter Sagan delivers that in spades.

The Big Four (Five?) – With Federer and Nadal sidelined for much of the year, the incredible supremacy exerted by tennis’ Big Four wasn’t exactly paraded throughout 2016, yet the season confirmed two other talking points.

First, despite a meagre Grand Slam total (3), Andy Murray’s evolution has led him to a level where’s he’s every bit part of the group. Knocking Djokovic off the perch and securing the No.1 in London with authority were the final formalities for a man that’s no longer the guy the other three secretly hope to face in the semi-finals.

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray's greatness were erased in 2016

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray’s greatness were erased in 2016

Meanwhile, Stan Wawrinka’s sensational panache at the Majors guarantees that the competition tightens up, at least, from the last eight onwards. If we ever get Juan Martin Del Potro back to his best (and that’s a big if with those wrists), we can have as much as six clear-cut contenders with Grand Slam triumphs on their résumé and a plethora of dark-horses trying the bridge the gap (looking at you, Raonic and Nishikori). We may be in for a dandy of a season in 2017.

Angelique Kerber – With all due respect for Serena Williams’ application to the title of best female athlete of all-time, her towering presence over the rest of the field in the WTA Tour well into her thirties is (was) boring. For different reasons, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were never able to consistently challenge her, therefore Angelique Kerber’s rise was a breath of fresh air. Helped by Serena’s minimalist calendar? Definitely. However, raise your hand if you believed any player other than Serena could win two Grand Slams in the same season?

While I’m not convinced the German can clamp down the World No.1 for long, she has already done the most important. She changed the paradigm and kicked off the dog-fight to pronounce a new Queen. Let the Hunger Games begin!

The Olympic legends of our time – In 120 years of modern Olympic action, countless athletes have produced epic sports moments in the biggest stage of them all. However, few were able to elevate their respective sports, the Olympic movement and its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” quite like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. We should be forever grateful for the chance to witness their incredible exploits in the beginning of the XXI century, achievements that will resonate for generations to come and conveyed to our children and grandchildren.

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

As their careers end, new heroes will take over and the show will continue, but we shouldn’t take for granted the unique opportunity to appreciate true, unrepeatable greatness. May their spirit inspire the ones to come.

Sports fans – An integral part of all memorable sports achievements and condition sine qua non for spectacles that bring together the world, sports fans can entertain, impress and inspire as much as the ones they support.

From the kind, joyful and passionate Brazilian fans at the Olympics, cherishing the opportunity of a lifetime at every arena even when their athletes didn’t stand a chance or even took part, to the hordes of Iceland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Ireland supporters that provided a singular beauty to the Euro 2016. From the deafening rendition of “You’ll never walk alone” by Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund fans in unison on their Europa League double-header, to the emotional tributes all over the world after Chapecoense’s tragedy, especially the touching reaction from Atletico Nacional (and Colombian) fans. From the masses that crowd the roadsides of Belgium during the spring, the peak of cycling’s classics season, to every fan that hit the road and dispensed hard-earned money and time simply to voice the support for his colours miles away from home.

My teams – For so many wonderful memories, which I will treasure for a long time, and for hitting the jackpot in 2016.

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Looking back on the 2016 ATP Tour season through the final rankings

A few weeks ago, I looked at what happened in the 2016 WTA Tour season and now it’s time to do the same for the men’s game, a more character-driven setting that at times seemed to undergo a transition year.

Indeed, with two of the most decorated Grand Slam players of all-time (Federer, Nadal) spending most of the season on the shelf and their main counterparts (Djokovic, Murray) splitting periods of dominance as they approach the 30’s, a lot of ink was spilled on the immediate future of tennis on the male side, and there’s reason to believe it will be a bright one. As the focus was broadened from the tier of players maturing right below the Big-Four (Nishikori, Raonic, Čilić) to the new wave of talent that the ATP has been pumping incessantly over the last couple of years, the so-called “#NextGen”, the budding impact and scrutiny surrounding names like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Sasha Zverev can only anticipate a swift changeover when the time comes. Furthermore, an old friend and fan favourite made a thrilling return to the Tour, providing a cathedra of memorable moments and strengthening the depth of contenders for next editions of the major events on the calendar.

You can check the introduction of the women’s piece to better understand the aim of this article since the reasoning is the same and there’s no need to repeat it, however one key difference is worth mentioning. Instead of starting at the top of the rankings (locked on November 21st ) and gradually going down the ladder, this time we’ll reverse the order and start with a young phenomenon on the depths of the top 100, slowly making our way to the surface, the top-10, which this season features players hailing from 10 different countries.

Let’s jump right into action then.

  1. Taylor Fritz (USA)

Coming off his 19th birthday celebrated in late October, Taylor Fritz ended 2016 as the youngest player among the Top 100. One of the faces of the new generation of American tennis alongside 18-year-olds Francis Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh, 19-year-old Reilly Opelka and 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, Fritz enjoyed a breakout season highlighted by the Final in Memphis, becoming the youngest ATP Tour finalist since his opponent, Kei Nishikori, did it in 2008.

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19-year-old Taylor Fritz is a name to bookmark for the future

The 2015 US Open Junior Champion managed to reach two other QF in Acapulco and Atlanta, falling to two established compatriots, Sam Querrey and John Isner, respectively, and it was also another American, Jack Sock, who ended his adventures at the US Open and Australian Open, both after gruelling five-set encounters. Fritz’s 15 wins guided him to the 53th position on late August, but it’s expected he’ll blow past that career-high in no time. It’s been four years since Andy Roddick retired but, finally, the USA’s wait for a new high-end talent seems to be coming to an end.

  1. Kevin Anderson (RSA)

The South African is just another example of the fleeting nature of achievement in tennis. Anderson reached the top 10 in October 2015 a few weeks after dispatching Andy Murray at the US Open, yet 12 months later his situation has changed radically.

The 6’8’’ journeyman, who barrelled his way into relevancy on the strength of a pugnacious serve, was forced to withdraw or retire from more than a dozen events in 2016 due to several ailments (knee, shoulder, ankle, groin), losing almost three months after pulling out of the Australian Open. Upon returning to action, the 30-year-old suffered through some tough losses, chiefly in Wimbledon where he wasted a two-set advantage over Denis Istomin in the first round, and couldn’t get past the QF in six tries, including at Toronto’s Masters 1000, with his ranking plummeting to the 70’s, a place he last experienced in 2010. Will he rebound in 2017?

  1. Karen Khachanov (RUS)

A few months ago, this 20-year-old Russian was a complete unknown, however a late season charge grafted his name into this list. Khachanov failed to reach the main draw in the first three Grand Slams of the year but would take a set off Kei Nishikori in the second round at Flushing Meadows, a sign of things to come. After playing Challengers for most of the season, the Moscow-native stunned everyone by winning in Chengdu, leaving four top-35 players on his trail, and guaranteed a 46-spots jump on the rankings (from 101 to 55), entering “get to know” territory.

While Khachanov has only contested 32 matches at the ATP level, advancing to the QF’s in Kitzbühel and Vienna, he hails from another world power in search of a (men’s) tennis torch-bearer, thus expect his development to be closely monitored in 2017.

  1. Borna Ćorić (CRO)

Since his scalping of Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, the Croat has been regarded as a star in the making on the ATP Tour. He was the youngest top-100 finisher in 2014 and top-50 in 2015, but couldn’t make the next step this season despite a few landmarks.

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Young Croat Borna Coric scored a win against Rafael Nadal in 2016

Ćorić made his first ATP Tour Final appearance in Chennai on the dawn of the year, losing to Wawrinka, and later repeated the feat at Marrakech (l. to Federico Delbonis), yet his upmost attainment this season was becoming the youngest quarter-finalist in a decade on a Masters 1000 at Cincinnati, curiously defeating Nadal once again. However, the Croat fell in the 1st round on three Grand Slams (3rd round in RG) and was forced to shut down his season after a right knee surgery in September, missing selection to the Davis Cup Final and a chance to ride his season-record into positive territory (22W-24L). The promising 20-year-old ought to target a maiden ATP title and a top-30 breakthrough in 2017.

  1. Kyle Edmund (GBR)

While Andy Murray produced a banner-year for himself and the history of British Tennis, one of his teammates on the 2015 Davis Cup triumph took a few more steps on his upward trajectory. Kyle Edmund improved his final ranking for the fourth straight year, amassing 21 triumphs on a season where he reached his first ATP Tour SF, seeing off David Ferrer before losing to Richard Gasquet in Antwerp, and the 4th round of a Major, succumbing to Djokovic at the US Open.

The 21-year-old also advanced to the last eight three times, with Murray ending his run at Queens and Beijing, however he will be disappointed to leave 2016 without his first match victory on the holy grounds of Wimbledon, where he fell on the first hurdle for the fourth consecutive season. Definitely something to aim for in 2017, since a good first half of the season can deliver a seeded position.

  1. Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG)

Olé Olé Olé Olé DELPO, DELPO! Olé Olé Olé DELPO, DELPO! The tune bawled at every major court by the enthusiastic Argentinian fans at the sight of their hero left an indelible mark on the 2016 season.

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Juan Martin Del Potro’s played marvellously with his country’s colours this season

After competing in just five tournaments over the last two years due to persistent wrist problems, the Argentine returned to competition in February carrying a ranking outside the top 1000 and escalated all the way to the top-40 due to a bounty of beautiful moments.

Del Potro still missed the Australian Open and Roland Garros on the first half but would announce his presence at Wimbledon with a four-set triumph over Stan Wawrinka in the second round, a prelude to his heroics in Rio. Defending the bronze medal of London, he shocked Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to the final, forcing Andy Murray to play four hours before settling for silver. A few weeks later, Dominic Thiem was the latest prominent victim on his comeback trail but Wawrinka would get him back on the QF at Flushing Meadows, with the tables turning in relation to Murray on the Davis Cup SF, where Del Potro rescued a deciding rubber that took more than five hours.

“La Torre de Tandil” wasn’t yet satisfied and after capturing his first title since early 2014 in Stockholm – without conceding a set, no less – he exorcised the demons of a nation on an emotional Davis Cup Final, coming back from two sets down for the first time in his career to stun Marin Čilić and save the tie, contributing decisively to Argentina’s maiden trophy in the competition on the fifth Final appearance.

The 28-year-old was fairly named the 2016 ATP Comeback Player of the Year and tennis fans just can’t wait to see what’s in store next year for one of the most cherished players in the world.

  1. Alexander Zverev (GER)
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Alexander “Sasha” Zverev, one of the brightest young players on the ATP Tour

The youngest top-100 finisher of 2015 shot up the rankings this season, with his remarkable 44 wins landing the teenager a top-20 cameo in October, something not seen since Novak Djokovic did it in 2006.

The precocious Hamburg-born talent defeated top-20 opposition 10 times this season and he galloped those triumphs into a plethora of excellent results, including his maiden ATP Tour title, which arrived in St. Petersburg over “big-match player” Stan Wawrinka, two other final appearances (Nice and Halle) and three semi-finals (Montpellier, Munich, Washington). More impressively, his three deciders were played on three different surfaces, whereas he managed to hold his own on the Grand Slams, reaching the third round in Paris and Wimbledon after being trounced by Murray earlier in Melbourne. At age 19, “Sacha” Zverev is bound for another leap in 2017, when he should become a regular second-week feature at the Majors.

  1. Jack Sock (USA)

The 24-year-old is a slow-burner that may to be on the edge of a breakthrough year. For the sixth consecutive year, Sock improved his year-end ranking and win total to complete an entire season engraved inside the top-30, yet he’s looking for more.

The Nebraska-native was a runner-up at Auckland, Houston and Stockholm, but it was his play on higher-profile tournaments that sustains greater expectations, with Sock consistently picking up wins over top players in 2016, something he wasn’t able to achieve in years past (1-14 against top-10). He thrashed Marin Čilić in three sets before reaching the 4th round at the US Open for the first time, fell on the third round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and qualified for his first two Masters 1000 QFs late in the season, dumping Raonic in Shanghai and Dominic Thiem in Paris.

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Two-time medallist in Rio 2016, Jack Sock will be looking to climb the rankings in 2017

Additionally, he was the only tennis player (male or female) to leave the Rio Olympics with two medals, gold in mixed doubles and bronze in men’s doubles. It’s thus natural that Jack Sock’s confidence is on the rise and with the window to assert himself as USA’s No.1 player still wide open, he can quickly become dangerous to everyone.

  1. David Ferrer (ESP)

The extenuating style of play employed by the former World No.3 finally caught up with his body, and the Spaniard tumbled outside of the top-20 for the first time in seven years. Since 2005, Ferrer had always collected 40+ wins, including six consecutive 50+ wins seasons, yet he recorded just 36 in 2016 and failed to advance to a final for the first time in 12 years, falling short on title defences at Doha (1R), Rio de Janeiro (QF), Acapulco (2R) and Vienna (SF).

The 34-year-old still reached the QF at the Australian Open, losing to Murray, but after that couldn’t do better than the 4R on the clay of Roland Garros, accumulating an uncharacteristic six first round losses, no last eight appearances in Masters 1000 or victories over top-10 players. The industrious Valencian will probably slide further down the rankings before closing out a splendid career, which delivered so much more than his natural talent anticipated.

  1. Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)

The Bulgarian enjoyed a nice bounce back season following a 2015 where he struggled to build on his status as one of the game’s finest talents, a prominence crafted during a breakthrough 2014 season. Dimitrov escalated 11 positions from last year’s finish (from 28th to 17th) but most of the heavy lifting was left for the second half of the season.

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The exquisite tennis of Grigor Dimitrov was in full display in Beijing

The 25-year-old reached the Final in Sydney, was eliminated on the 3rd round in Melbourne Park by Roger Federer and produced solid showings until late April, yet after losing on the decider in Istanbul he hit a rough patch, being unable to earn a victory for almost two months.

Dimitrov broke the five-tournament winless streak at Wimbledon (3R) but still dropped to the 40th position before ramping up his efforts in the summer. He went to the QF in Toronto, then the SF in Cincinnati, rolling over Stan Wawrinka, and his campaign at New York was going well until Andy Murray showed up. The Scot would also halt his run at Beijing, taking the trophy after Dimitrov dumped out Rafael Nadal in the QF, yet he should be in joyful mood entering the new season. It’s entirely possible that, at age 25, the Bulgarian has finally found the maturity level necessary to consistently pile up good results and sustain a place amongst the elite.

  1. Roger Federer (SWI)

After logging so many miles over the last 18 years, maybe a season like this was simply in the cards for the Swiss legend.

The 17-time Grand Slam Champion still advanced to the Australian Open SF in January, but shortly after he damaged his knee on a freak accident while preparing a bath for his daughters, requiring surgery for the first time on his career. Federer recovered to play in Monte Carlo and Rome while clearly impaired and then, for the first time since 1999 (a total of 65 straight appearances), skipped a Grand Slam, missing Roland Garros to prepare a healthy return on the grass.

The new generation, symbolized by Dominic Thiem in Stuttgart and Alexander Zverev in Halle, kicked him out before Wimbledon but he still rebounded to display his majestic tennis in London, coming back from two sets down against Marin Čilić in the QF before being knocked off by Milos Raonic in a scintillating five set SF. However, the knee flared up again and thus that would be the last time the 35-year-old step on court in 2016, ending the season with just seven tournaments contested and no titles to his name for the first time since 2000!

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Roger Federer isn’t the No.1 anymore, but he still showcased his magic at Wimbledon in 2016

Federer only dropped from 3rd to 4th on the hierarchy in August, but the slide eventually took him outside of the top-10 in early November, ending a run of 734 weeks – over 14 years – among the very top of men’s tennis. Healthy and fully rested, Federer’s return will be one of the major storylines of 2017, as that elusive 18th Major still looms large on his dreams. How nice would look a picture of him lifting a record-breaking eight Wimbledon trophy before riding into the sunset?

  1. Lucas Pouille (FRA)

The Frenchman entered 2016 as a relative newcomer to the top-100 and closed the year chosen by his peers as the most improved player on the ATP Tour, capping a year of tremendous progress.

Dispatched by Raonic on the first round in Melbourne, Pouille drifted outside the top-80 until the clay season arrived, with a string of great performances, including a final run in Bucharest and a surprising SF campaign in Rome as a lucky-loser, putting him on the map and inside the top-50. The 22-year-old would then take down Del Potro in route to his first Grand Slam QF at Wimbledon before confirming his credentials at the US Open, reaching the same stage after winning three consecutive five set matches, the last one over Rafael Nadal.

A win of such magnitude resonated around the Tour and Pouille would still find a way to collect his maiden title in Metz before the calendar flipped. With 15 victories in 21 matches decided on a final set, a 4-0 record in fifth sets and five triumphs over top-10 opponents, Pouille proved his worth in pressure situations, warranting close scrutiny next season.

  1. Nick Kyrgios (AUS)

Tennis’s ultimate “bad boy” couldn’t escape a few more boorish episodes this season, adding novel entries into his personal list of shenanigans, yet 2016 mainly represented his affirmation inside the sport’s elite. The 21-year-old rose from 30th to 13th in the hierarchy to end the season as the youngest top-20 player, and he splattered vivid brushes of his explosive potential around the Tour all year long.

Kyrgios collected the first three ATP Tour titles of his career (Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo), with the path in France proving especially magnificent, since he held his serve throughout the week despite the challenges of Richard Gasquet, Tomáš Berdych and Marin Čilić. Among the Aussie’s 39 wins in 2016, a career-high, also deserve mention triumphs over Milos Raonic in Miami, on his way to a first Masters 1000 SF, and Stanislas Wawrinka in Madrid, with Kyrgios more than holding his own against the best in the World. He took 6 of 13 matches against top-10 players, but succumbed to Berdych in Melbourne, Gasquet in Paris and Andy Murray at Wimbledon, reaching the second week of a Grand Slam only once since he later retired at the US Open 3R.

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Nick Kyrgios earned his first ATP Tour titles in 2016

Kyrgios’ last title, in Japan, merited a career-high ranking but he failed to push even further after being suspended for blatantly tanking a match in Shanghai, ending the season once again under a storm of criticism and deflecting questions about his drive to succeed at the level his talent calls for. Will some clarity on his career endeavours be provided in 2017?

  1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)

Almost nine years after his thumping run to the 2008 Australian Open Final, we can safely assume the Frenchman won’t reach the heights many predicted at the time.

At age 31, Tsonga finished once again inside the top-15, but he keeps losing relevancy as a major tournament outside bet since injuries started taking a toll on his imposing athleticism and ability to produce fireworks off his forehand. That much was evident in 2016 as he withdrew from a slew of important events (Rome, Queen’s, Beijing), retired at Roland Garros (3R) and the US Open (QF), and couldn’t push through when time came to show his muscles, falling to Murray in 5 sets at Wimbledon’s QF, to Raonic on the QF of Paris’ Masters 1000, to Nishikori at Melbourne’s 4R, to Roberto Bautista Agut in the QF of Shanghai, or to Gaël Monfils in the SF of Monte Carlo.

All in all, Tsonga reached a single final, in Vienna (l. to Murray in straight sets), downed (a beat-up) Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and outlasted Nishikori in Paris before failing to ride the momentum.  It’s not a lot for a former World No. 5 with aspirations of regaining notoriety at a time a new generation is finally emerging.

  1. Tomáš Berdych (CZE)

Not unlike Tsonga, the Czech is another player whose best seasons seem to be on the rearview, with Berdych finishing outside of the Top-7 for the first time since 2010 but managing to hold his place on the Top-10.

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Tomáš Berdych renewed his title in Shenzhen

The 31-year-old successfully defended his title in Shenzhen to pick up his only trophy of 2016 yet was unable to reach another final on the year despite four other SF appearances, including at Wimbledon, where Andy Murray advanced in three quick sets. As has been the norm for much of his career, Berdych supplied what was expected of a player of his stature, reaching the QF at Melbourne and Roland Garros, as well as in four Masters 1000 (Miami, Madrid, Toronto and Paris), but couldn’t break through when facing the alpha males, losing three times with both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray plus once with Roger Federer.

His career tally against Top-10 players ballooned to 49 wins and 117 losses, which perfectly depicts a player that has been really good for a long time – Berdych is the only active player outside of the Big-Four to reach the SF in all four Grand Slams – but never truly great.

  1. Rafael Nadal (ESP)

The Spaniard returned to action in 2016 after missing the final months of the previous year but injuries never stopped being an ever-present concern on court, forcing Nadal to navigate cautiously through the first few months. Nonetheless, when the clay season arrived, he looked prepared to take flight, securing his ninth triumphs at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the two places where his aura matches Roland Garros. The 30-year-old was on his way to challenge for a first Grand Slam title since 2014, but his problematic wrist ceded once again, derailing his hopes in Paris and shoving him out for the next two months.

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Rafa Nadal played some of his best tennis of 2016 in Rio at the Olympics

Still, Nadal didn’t accept the prospect of missing a second consecutive Olympic tournament, and recovered in time to be the flagbearer of his country in Rio de Janeiro, trudging through an exhaustive run of 11 matches in 8 days to secure gold in men’s doubles and nearly add another medal in singles, with Del Potro and Nishikori prevailing in three-set battles on the SF and bronze-medal playoff.

The massive effort jeopardised the rest of the season as Nadal fell precociously in New York to end a year without a Grand Slam QF for the first time since 2004, yet he managed to qualify for the ATP Tour Finals for the 12th consecutive season, a tribute to his perseverance and astonishing level of performance in face of regular adversity.

  1. Dominic Thiem (AUT)

The young Austrian put the finishing touches on his breakthrough season by debuting on the ATP Tour Finals, closing the book on a lengthy season where he virtually competed week in week out.

In fact, among the Top 25, no player matched the 28 tournaments he entered, totalling 72 matches contested and 58 victories, a tally which tied Kei Nishikori’s and only trailed Djokovic and Murray. Despite such unwise scheduling, which resulted in more than a handful of retirements and withdrawals, Thiem enjoyed a highly successful campaign, taking four titles from three different surfaces (clay: Buenos Aires and Nice; hard courts: Acapulco, grass: Stuttgart), reaching two other finals (Munich, Metz), advancing to a Grand Slam SF for the first time at Roland Garros and displaying nerves of steel in decisive sets, where he mustered a sparkling return of 22 wins and just 3 losses.

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The 23-year-old broke into the Top-10 in June right after Paris, and stuck there for the rest of the season even if fatigue kicked in on the second half of the year, leading to a few lacklustre performances and the need to rely on the assists of others to qualify for London. Now positioned amongst the elite, Thiem should scale back his participation on ATP 250 tournaments in 2017, an important step towards targeting longer runs on the flagship events of the calendar.

  1.  Gaël Monfils (FRA)

“Lamonf” returned to the Top-10 for the first time since late 2011 on a season adorned by some of his most spectacular tennis, with the 30-year-old hopefully turning a corner on his career towards an injury-free period of consistent results against the best in the business.

The Frenchman conquered in Washington the biggest title of his career and also advanced to another final in Rotterdam, yet his most striking performances were saved for bigger stages. He didn’t drop a set on his way to the US Open SF, where he was ousted by Djokovic, reached the final of Monte Carlo, falling to Rafael Nadal, qualified for the SF of Toronto, and was one of the last eight men standing at Miami, Indian Wells, the Australian Open and the Olympics, a panoply unlike any other in years past of his career.

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Gaël Monfils flies at the 2016 Australian Open

Nevertheless, Monfils still struggled at times, with an untimely virus costing him Roland Garros and a rib injury limiting his play during the ATP Tour Finals, to which he qualified for the first time after ascending to a new career-high No. 6 in November. We already know Monfils’ unparalleled athleticism can defeat any opponent in a given day, but are we about to find out it can also be the foundation of a preeminent Top-5 player?

  1. Marin Čilić (CRO)

The most consistent season of the Croat’s career was, paradoxically, also a roller coaster of emotions, with a few milestones intercalated by devastating losses in high-stakes matches.

The surprising 2014 US Open Champion collected his first Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati, becoming the second-to-last man to defeat Andy Murray, captured his maiden ATP 500 tournament at Basel, finally beat Novak Djokovic  – in the Paris’ Masters –  on the 15th try and qualified for the ATP Tour Finals for a second time, yet he will mostly be remembered for what slipped away. With Roger Federer on the ropes, Čilić wasted 3 match points and a two-set advantage at Wimbledon’s QF, suffered the same fate in a Davis Cup QF rubber against Jack Sock, let Gaël Monfils turn the tide on the last 16 in Rio, and ultimately choked in Zagreb with the Davis Cup trophy in sight, allowing Juan Martin Del Potro to comeback from two sets down.

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Marin Čilić’s emotions run wild in several occasions this season

That’s a lot to chew up on the offseason, even if the 28-year-old amassed 49 wins while missing much of the clay season, finished the year on a career-high sixth position and won 7 of 12 bouts against top-10 players, breaking an 11-match losing streak on that front. What kind of mindset can we expect from Marin Čilić in 2017?

  1. Kei Nishikori (JPN)

On the second full season enmeshed inside the top-10, the slight Japanese continued to showcase top-five talent, colleting 58 wins, third-highest total in the ATP Tour, despite the usual setbacks related with fitness shortcomings and untimely injuries. Nishikori captured a single title, a three-peat in Memphis, but reached four other finals, surrendering his Barcelona crown to Rafael Nadal, failing to take revenge on Marin Čilić (from the 2014 US Open Final) at Basel and losing to Novak Djokovic on the Masters 1000 of Miami and Toronto.

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Kei Nishikori exhibits his flexibility during a match

Moreover, the 26-year-old conquered Japan’s first tennis medal in 96 years by leaving Rio with bronze, and also took positive steps on the Majors, advancing to the second week in every occasion. His signature victory on the year came in five sets over Andy Murray at the US Open QF and further sanctioned an incredible stat: Nishikori owns the best deciding-set win pct (+16 matches) in the Open Era (99-29, .773), attesting that his tremendous cadence is a fearsome weapon when he’s fit.

Therefore, if he’s able to hone his physical preparation (maybe Andy Murray can offer some tips), the sky’s the limit.

  1. Stan Wawrinka (SWI)

The Swiss’ late career resurgence acquired a new brilliant chapter in 2016 with a 3rd Grand Slam triumph, this time in New York, improving his record against the World No.1 in Major finals to 3-0 whilst elsewhere he’s yet to win once (0 in 20). Those numbers illuminate Wawrinka’s reputation as a force to be reckoned in the biggest stages and his ability to get in rampaging form, but also the struggles to figure out ways to execute week after week.

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Stan Wawrinka, the King of New York in 2016

The 31-year-old obtained multiple tournament victories on the year (Chennai, Dubai, Geneva) but also accumulated unexpected upsets by the likes of Jan-Lennard Struff, Mischa Zverev, Juan Mónaco or Andrey Kuznetsov, which means he finished a third consecutive season as World No. 4 despite boasting a single Masters 1000 on his résumé (Monte Carlo, 2014). Nonetheless, Stanimal’s defeats in the rest of the Majors were nothing to freak about (Raonic, 4R AO; Murray, SF RG; Del Potro 2R Wimbledon) and his 11-final win streak, snapped at St. Petersburg by Alexander Zverev, demonstrates his ability to turn it on when necessary.

After all, you don’t need to collect 60+ wins and pack up 7, 8, 9 titles per season to be a leading contender for a Major, and Wawrinka knows that, as he’s quietly one Major away from a career Grand Slam. You might as well just pencil him as the 2017 Wimbledon winner.

  1. Milos Raonic (CAN)

The Canadian started the year by slaying Roger Federer in the Brisbane Final and never looked back, improving by leaps and bounds to end the season as a worthy No.3 player in the World despite a single tournament win to his name and a difficult couple of months (September – October)

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Milos Raonic’s improvements were in full display throughout 2016

The 25-year-old amassed his first 50+ win season by reaching the last eight at seven of nine Masters 1000 (except Shanghai and Rome) and advancing to four finals, but lacked silverware mainly because he kept running into the pesky Andy Murray. The Brit came out on top at the Australian Open SF, on Raonic’s maiden Grand Slam Final at Wimbledon, on the Final at Queen’s, and, lastly, at the ATP Tour Finals SF, where the Canadian wasted a match point, yet Raonic seldom looked overmatched.

Now much more than a tremendous server, the remarkable evolution of Raonic’s all-around game is a testament to the hard-working nature of a player who incessantly strives to maximize his potential, and the best may still yet to come. Perhaps, already in 2017.

  1. Novak Djokovic (SRB)

The 2016 season was a tale of two halves for the Serbian superstar, who romped through the season in a form reminiscent to 2011 and 2015, but along the way lost his balance and eventually relinquished the lead on the ATP rankings.

Djokovic demolished Rafael Nadal in Doha at the onset of the year, conquered the Australian Open for the sixth time, swept Indian Wells and Miami for the third year in a row, and finally reigned at Roland Garros to complete the career Grand Slam and hold all four majors at once, but things strangely fell apart after that.

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Novak Djokovic finally secured Roland Garros’ iconic Coupe des Mousquetaires

The 29-year-old’s steely resolve just wasn’t there at Wimbledon and the shocking loss to Sam Querrey in the third round triggered a final few months permeated with atypical presentations. There was the heartbreak on the first round in Rio against Juan Martin Del Potro, a subpar showing on the US Open final, allowing Stan Wawrinka to take over after the first set, and the sudden tumbles in Shanghai and Paris against Roberto Bautista Agut and Marin Čilić. The last hiccup, coupled with a rival on an absolute tear, determined the change at the top, something no one would dare to predict just a few months earlier.

In London, with year-end supremacy on the line, Djokovic was beaten squarely by Murray and the following offseason period has already brought a coaching shakeup. With Nadal and Federer back on the Tour and Murray on top of his game, what Djokovic can we expect to watch next year? The ruthless, nearly-unbeatable version that went on a preposterous sequence of 17 straight finals between 2015 and 2016, or the disengaged self that had no answers to Murray at the Finals?

  1. Andy Murray (SCO GBR)

Seven years after first becoming the World No.2, Andy Murray finally arrived to the peak of the mountain, culminating an incredible season with the cherry on top: a commanding victory over Novak Djokovic on the ATP Tour Finals decider, just his second triumph on the pairs’ last 15 encounters.

That was an unforeseen outcome for a year which started with the Serbian holding the trophy at Melbourne as Murray lost his fifth Australian Open final, and saw the Scot take some time to gain traction, dropping out of Indian Wells and Miami early, before facing Djokovic in consecutive finals in Madrid and Rome. Murray earned a split by winning in the Italian capital and then pushed the envelope at Roland Garros, eventually fading but setting the scene for a stunning turnaround of fortunes.

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Andy Murray celebrates one of his triumphs en route to a second consecutive Olympic gold medal

The Glasgow-native then racked up 22 straight victories to conquer Queens, his third Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, and an unprecedented back-to-back singles gold medal at the Olympics, yet Marin Čilić crashed the party at Cincinnati and later Kei Nishikori would prevail at the US Open QF, surely ending Murray’s dream of challenging Novak Djokovic lead this year.

Not really. It would take a monumental unbeaten run of 24-matches and five-tournaments (Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris Masters, ATP Tour Finals) but Murray pulled off the improbable, finishing off by defeating the World No.5, 3, 4 and 2 in succession. Once derided by his fellow Islanders as a grumpy Scot that couldn’t close it out in the big moments, Murray is now in the conversation as the greatest ever British sportsman. After so many stretches when he was overshadowed by three of the game’s greatest of all-time, he thoroughly deserves to relish this moment and enjoy the experience of being the man to beat.

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Andy Murray, the best tennis player in the world in 2016, holds the ATP Tour Finals trophy