Tennis

Tennis: Has 2017 Been The Worst Year For Injuries?

2017-12-17
Top stars have all struggled with niggling problems

It is fair to say that 2017 on the ATP Tour has not panned out the way that most would expect. The more cynical would point to the raft of injuries that have decimated the seasons of many of the top players, with numerous big hitters absent from the latter half of the year as they fight for fitness.

Those looking to celebrate the positives of the ATP in 2017 will, of course, bask in the glow that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have brought back to the court.  They say you can never teach an old dog new tricks, but these wily old dogs have merely perfected their old tricks that made them two of the most successful players in ATP history.

The Australian Open final at the start of 2017 was welcomed as the last hurrah of two greats, with impassioned implorations to enjoy possibly the last match in which Federer and Nadal would go head to head, although they've played each other three times since. Federer triumphed in Australia in a gripping epic, but the three subsequent occasions have been more straightforward.

A comfortable 6-2 6-3 victory in the round-of-sixteen at Indian Wells has been followed by straight set victories in finals at Miami and Shanghai. In Nadal's defence, all of these encounters took place on the hard courts where he didn't make his name. However, while Federer rested, during the clay-court swing Nadal obliterated pretty much everything and everyone in his path. 

This year has almost been a bonus for tennis purists, with Federer in particular expected to be fading into retirement with dignity. Yet his evergreen appearance on the court has been a joy to watch. It does, however, provoke questions about the state of the ATP Tour.

Have Federer and Nadal been their irresistible best, or are the contenders simply not good enough? Nobody could have anticipated that Nadal would be a 5/2 favourite to be champion for a hard-court slam in 2018, or for Federer to be second favourite at odds of 11/4. Yet this is the case at the Australian Open, set to take place in the very near future of January.

Roger Federer

This does not give much time for the injured to recover, and it is surely a near-impossible task for the likes of Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic to play their way back into Slam-winning form in that space of time.

The young pretenders do not look ready yet to stake their claim to the throne, with Alexander Zverev yet to find his best form in a Slam and Dominic Thiem's packed schedule undermining his position as heir to Nadal. The latter is EVS to finish within the top seven of the world rankings in 2018, an interesting price considering his progress and the injury problems that have beset many would-be contenders. 

Thiem is the only player to have defeated Nadal on clay in 2017, a quarter-final defeat in Rome the only loss for Nadal in 25 matches. This winning streak, of course, featured the French Open which Nadal may as well call his own.

Meanwhile, Federer has only lost in four competitive matches this calendar year. Zverev brought his best game to the final in Montreal, while crowd favourite Juan Martin Del Potro found his magnificent best in the quarter-finals of the US Open.

Federer's other two defeats can be summarised in one word: weird. One of the few men on tour even more seasoned than the Swiss legend, Tommy Haas stunned Federer in Stuttgart. Evgeny Donskoy, who has never surpassed 65 in the rankings, shocked the tennis world in an unprecedented victory in Dubai back in March.

Clearly, Federer and Nadal have been the players to beat this year. Federer's early departure at the US Open served to pave the way for Nadal's victory, with the draw vastly misshapen as a result of Andy Murray's late withdrawal. Big-serving Kevin Anderson made the final by defeating Pablo Carreno Busta in the semis.

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Carreno Busta has enjoyed a stellar season, and may make the ATP Tour Finals in what would be a stunning debut. The Spaniard has only beaten a Top 10 player on one occasion at eighteen times of asking, by virtue of defeating Milos Raonic at this year's French Open.

Carreno Busta is a canny player and a stubborn foe, but few would have earmarked him as one of the world's elite. The same applies to Sam Querrey, with the American capable of shocking the world's best but falling victim to his inconsistency. Querrey is another eyeing up a spot in London, where the ATP Tour Finals will take place in November.

As it stands, Nadal, Federer, Zverev, Thiem and Marin Cilic have sealed their place in London. Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin look in prime position to join the ranks, leaving Carreno Busta in possession of the eighth spot but embroiled in a battle with Querrey and Anderson. Of course, the benefits of such a setup as the ATP Tour Finals is that you only qualify if you are worthy: the rankings do not lie.

But injuries can distort the truth, and the depth of injuries has certainly removed a considerable array of top players from challenging for a spot in London. Murray's eventual inheritance of the world number one ranking was rightly heralded, but the Scotsman has been unable to defend that ranking as vigorously as he would have hoped.

He began the season in decent form, only blighted by a shock defeat to Mischa Zverev at the Australian Open. An elbow injury set him back, as Murray bowed out with a whimper in Madrid and Rome.

The French Open witnessed a return to the resilience that has defined much of his career, as he appeared to be easing into form before falling to an impressive Wawrinka in a battle of a semi-final. The grass-court season was not the old friend that Murray had relied on in the past, with rank outsider Jordan Thompson prevailing in the first round at Queen's and Querrey capitalising on an injured Murray at Wimbledon.

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He hasn't returned to the court since, although he looked set to do so at the US Open until his late withdrawal as the second seed plunged the draw into chaos. That Murray is still 4/1 in 888sport's tennis betting odds to win Wimbledon in 2018 is testament to both his prowess on the grass courts and his defiant attitude that gives fans confidence that he will return to his best form.

Wawrinka's defeat of Murray at the French Open turned out to be the Swiss' peak for the season. Defeat to Nadal in the final was perhaps not unexpected, but the clearly fatigued Wawrinka was unable to make it interesting in a 6-2 6-3 6-1 dismantling.

Wawrinka endured a similarly frustrating campaign on the grass, losing in the first rounds of both Queen's and Wimbledon to Feliciano Lopez and Daniil Medvedev respectively. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic is another who will not want to dwell on 2017 for too long. A stunning defeat to the then world number 117 Denis Istomin at the Australian Open set the tone for much of the year...

Before that Slam, Djokovic took the title in Doha. That would be his only title until Eastbourne just before Wimbledon. In Djokovic's defence, the young guns were firing against him. Nick Kyrgios, in a surprising show of consistency, defeated the Serbian in consecutive tournaments, while Zverev prevailed in the final in Rome and Thiem delivered a comprehensive victory at the French Open.

Djokovic concluded that match against Thiem with an uncharacteristically limp bagel in a 7-6 6-3 6-0 defeat. Whether that was because of fitness concerns or a result of a mental lapse is difficult to say. It is similarly difficult to say how soon Djokovic, Wawrinka and Murray will be able to rediscover their top form in a sport with a punishing schedule, and likewise for traditional top ten players Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

This season surely lays claim to one of the most injury-hit campaigns on the ATP tour. Perhaps Federer and Nadal would have ended the year on top regardless. One thing is easy, however, and that is to sit back and watch two masters at work. When the ATP World Tour Finals arrive in mid-November, fans could well be treated to an epic encounter where two legends seek to be the current number one.

 

*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*