Andy, "Nole", Stan, "Delpo" and the rest: a review at the 2016 men’s season
With the last trophies of 2016 having been presented at the ATP World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup final, we pick out the highlights of the year.
Djokovic completes his Grand Slam set
It is not overstating the point to say that winning the French Open had become an obsession for Novak Djokovic. The tears he shed after losing to Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 final – an unexpected reverse at the end of a tournament full of promise – were proof of that. “Nole” was not about to miss out in 2016, however, finally ending his long wait to lift the Musketeers’ Cup on 5 June, after beating Andy Murray 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4. The Serbian was so relieved that he did a “Gustavo Kuerten” by way of a celebration, drawing a heart on the red clay of Roland Garros with his racquet and lying flat on his back inside it. “It’s a very special moment, the biggest of my career,” said Djokovic, the undisputed world No1 at the time.
It was also a historic moment for “Nole”, as it made him only the eighth player to achieve a career Grand Slam, and the first since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at the same time. The achievement also took a mental toll on the Serbian, who felt the effects of his long-awaited Parisian triumph and was unable to replicate his stellar form through the rest of the season. "Winning the French gave me a lot of happiness but it took a lot out of me too,” he later acknowledged. “I felt exhausted afterwards and not as motivated.” After missing out in the season’s two remaining Grand Slam events and subsequently relinquishing his status as world No1, Djokovic has his sights firmly set on 2017. With his place in the sport’s history books secure, he has nothing else on his mind but winning yet more major titles.
Read more: Success catches up with Djokovic
All hail King Murray!
World tennis has a new leader. Building on his superb clay-court season, the high point of which was his run to the final at Roland-Garros, Andy Murray enjoyed an outstanding second half of the year to usurp Djokovic at the top of the ATP Rankings. Snatching the No1 slot with his maiden BNP Paribas Masters win in Paris, where he defeated the USA’s John Isner in the final, the Scot made sure he ended the year as top dog by winning the ATP World Tour Finals, a triumph sealed with a 6-3 6-4 defeat of the Serbian in the final. Speaking afterwards, Djokovic sportingly said: “We should all let Andy enjoy this a little bit. Don’t ask him questions about next season. He deserves to be in the moment and to take in what he achieved.”
It was a only a few short months ago that Murray began to nurture hopes of achieving his dream objective, even if he believed it was only possible "from February or March 2017, not before”. Yet, having made the No1 spot his own ahead of schedule, he is entitled to believe he can extend his reign. Coached once more by Ivan Lendl, the Scot has nothing more than a final place to defend in Melbourne in the first three months of the year, a good deal less than “Nole”, who currently trails him by 630 points. “Obviously I’d like to stay here,” said Murray. “But I know it’s going to be really tough because I had a great season this year. And I’ve only won one match. Doing it all over again next year is going to be really hard.” Maybe so, but not impossible, especially as being No1 is a source of motivation in itself. The 2016 season is over. Long live 2017! The duel between the two 29-year-olds promises to be an exciting one. It remains to be seen if they will fight it alone.
Read more: Ivan Lendl - the Murray whisperer
Modest Stan hits top gear
In winning his third Grand Slam at the US Open, a little over a year after his second at Roland Garros, Wawrinka showed that he is one of the biggest threats to the domination of the “Big Four”. In defeating Djokovic to lift the trophy, the Swiss maintained his unbeaten record in major finals: played three, won three. Curiously, all three of those wins have come against the reigning world No1 at the time (Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open, and Djokovic at the French in 2015 and the US in 2016), with the man they call “Stanimal” losing on each of the other 20 occasions he has taken on the planet’s top-ranked player of the day.
“He deserves to be in the mix, no doubt about it,” said an appreciative Djokovic. “Stan has won three grand Slams now, and three different ones, as well as the Davis Cup and an Olympic medal (a gold in the doubles at Beijing 2008). He’s been around for so many years, and he plays best in big matches. He definitely deserves to be mentioned in the mix of top players.” A man for the big occasion, Stan is made of the right stuff, even though he is too modest to speak of himself in the same breath as the “Big Four”.
"Delpo" is back
It was only a year ago, pretty much to the day, that Juan Martin del Potro was expressing his delight at just being able to hit a backhand. Few would have tipped him to be one of the stars of 2016, but that is exactly what he became after returning to the Tour in February following two lost seasons and three operations on his left wrist in 15 months, this after he had surgery on his right wrist in 2010. “To be honest, I was this close to giving up tennis after the third operation,” he said. “It’s hard to explain what I went through. I tried several different types of treatment and none of them worked. But I dug deep and never gave up.”
It was a good job he didn’t. Having fallen out of the top 1,000 in the ATP Rankings, the Argentinian ended the season 38th. In the meantime, he picked up an Olympic silver medal in the men’s singles at Rio 2016, reached the last eight at the US Open, won a title in Stockholm and earned typically epic victories over the best in the business in Djokovic and Murray (becoming the only player to beat both of them in 2016). Just for good measure, he scored wins over Wawrinka and Nadal too. The “Tower of Tandil” rounded his year off in the best possible fashion last weekend in Zagreb, playing a decisive part as Argentina defeated Marin Cilic’s Croatia to win the Davis Cup for the first time. “Delpo” has never rhymed better with “hero” than in 2016.
Thiem, Pouille, Zverev... The new generation is on the rise
Are we about to witness a power shift at the summit of world tennis? Perhaps not, though a generational handover cannot be too far away. With the 35-year-old Federer having dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since 2002 and Nadal, five years his junior, having slipped to ninth, the year saw a number of rising stars break into the tennis aristocracy. On the back of his run to the semis at the French and his four titles (Buenos Aires, Acapulco, Nice and Stuttgart), Dominic Thiem shot up to eighth in the Rankings at the age of 23. Meanwhile, Lucas Pouille and Nick Kyrgios, respectively one and two years younger and ranked career-highs 13th and 15th, are both knocking on the door.
Read more: Rising star: Dominic Thiem - going wild
While the Australian won in Marseilles, Atlanta and Tokyo, the Frenchman opened his title account in Metz, made his Davis Cup debut, and also starred on the Grand Slam scene, winning through to the quarters at Wimbledon and the US, where he beat Nadal in the last 16. Further down the Rankings lie two potential young climbers in the 19-year-old Alexander Zverez (24th) and Borna Coric (48th). After reaching finals in Nice and Halle, the German secured his maiden ATP title in St Petersburg, while the Croatian downed Nadal in Cincinnati and contested finals in Chennai and Marrakech. Make no mistake, the new generation is on the rise.
Lopez’s golden double
Now 34, Spain’s Marc Lopez will remember 2016 for the rest of his life, not least because it was the year in which he finally landed the title he wanted more than any other, teaming up with compatriot and namesake Feliciano to win the French Open doubles crown. Sealed with a 6-4 6-7 6-3 defeat of the Bryan brothers, it was his first Grand Slam final win at the third attempt, having finished a runner-up with Marcel Granollers at the 2014 French and US Opens. “I never thought I could win the French,” said Lopez. “It’s been my favourite tournament for a very long time. When I was little, I used to watch all the great Spanish champions playing there.”
Not content with ending Spain’s doubles drought in Paris, which stretched back to Emilio Sanchez and Sergio Casal’s win in 1990, Lopez then teamed up with his great friend Nadal to scoop Olympic doubles gold in Rio. “It’s been a fantastic year,” said the smiling Lopez. “It hasn’t really sunk in. I’ve achieved things in doubles that I’d never dreamed of.”