Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams both came agonizingly close last year to capturing the Grand Slam. Will they do it this year? Or will veteran champions Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, or Victoria Azarenka thwart them, or even dethrone them? And which rising stars will shake up the Old World Order and perhaps win their first major title? For 2016, the tennis world features these and other intriguing questions.
Let’s start with the inimitable Serena. Who else but this muscular Superwoman would or could chase down a man who stole her cell phone in a restaurant and induce him to meekly return it? Controversial, compelling, complicated, and contradictory, Serena was as renowned for winning big matches as Michael Jordan was for making big shots in big games. That was until the shocking US Open semifinals.
The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year had gone a spectacular 21-4 in finals and 25-3 in semifinals at Grand Slam events before ultra-longshot Roberta Vinci upset her. Last summer, as the last leg of the Grand Slam approached, a confident Serena often claimed she wasn’t feeling any pressure. Yet an exasperated Serena told reporters to stop asking her questions about her historic quest. Serena now insists she is as determined as ever to achieve the elusive Grand Slam this season. Yet Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach, confided his biggest challenge is to keep her motivated in practices and matches.
At her overpowering best, Serena is still clearly the best. “Even when she doesn’t play her best, she competes better than anyone on the planet,” rightly noted Mary Carillo, Tennis Channel analyst. How much Serena will be traumatized by choking away the Grand Slam is a big unknown. But the fact remains that Serena often played far from her best in 2015, surviving
18 three-set matches. Unluckily, she was plagued by knee and elbow pain all year, hampered by a bad cold in Melbourne, and weakened by the flu in Paris. But she was also extremely lucky to face only seven top-10 opponents all year (compared to 36 for Djokovic) and only three at the majors.
My crystal ball says Serena, now 34, will win only one of the Big 5 events, which include the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In the most electrifying match of 2016, Serena will outslug and outfight a valiant but tiring Petra Kvitova 6-7, 7-6, 8-6 to seize her seventh Wimbledon title. This will tie Steffi Graf and put Serena two behind Martina Navratilova’s record nine. More importantly, it will also match Graf at 22 career Grand Slam crowns, and leave Serena two short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24. Serena’s prospective triumph will also intensify the impassioned Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate.
Who then will fill the void Serena leaves at the top?
Maria Sharapova, another fierce competitor, will ride the late-2015 momentum built with victories over five top-11 players at the WTA Finals and Fed Cup final. Avoiding Serena, who has whipped her 17 straight times, in the draw, Sharapova will claim her second Australian Open and sixth Grand Slam title.
In sharp contrast, 2012−13 Australian Open titlist Azarenka retired in two of her last three 2015 tournaments. Playing in pain for most of her injury-plagued season caused only part of her decline, though. “Azarenka’s court coverage and her ability to turn defense into offense were what made her champion, and that’s not where it used to be,” rightly pointed out former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. Vika will get back into the top 10, but won’t get into a major final.
The New Guard
Led by 22-year-old Garbiņe Muguruza, the New Guard will take over at the French Open. As ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said, “Let’s face it. We’re going to see Muguruza at the top of women’s tennis for a while. She has so much power off both groundstrokes and a good first serve.” In an era bereft of clay-court superstars, Muguruza will win Roland Garros for her first major title. Although her favorite surface is hard courts (an anomaly for Spaniards) and her most successful surface is grass (she reached the 2015 Wimbledon final), the extremely aggressive and fit Muguruza will edge counterpunching Simona Halep in an unpredictable, fluctuating final.
The summer tour packs four of the Big 5 tournaments in three and a half months, which makes the last two events, the Olympics and US Open, as much a test of stamina as it does of skill and will. Underdogs will especially benefit from this congested schedule. With nationalist fervor buoying her at the Olympics, 23-year-old Czech Karolina Pliskova will use her booming groundstrokes and serve—she led the WTA Tour with 517 aces last year—to take home a gold medal. Pliskova, blessed with an ideal 6’1”, 159-pound physique, improved her ranking for nine straight years and finished No. 11 in 2015, winning a title in Prague and reaching five more finals. “Pliskova is on a meteoric rise,” said Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin. “She has a lot of weapons.”
A much younger up-and-comer, in fact the first female teenager to take a major since Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2004, will win the US Open. That will be Belinda Bencic, an 18-year-old Swiss. She was trained from age 7 to 15 by Melanie Molitor, the mother-coach of Martina Hingis, the clever 1990s teen phenom who is still copping Grand Slam doubles crowns. Last year, Bencic notched a superb 8-2 record against top-10 foes, including outstanding victories over Serena, Halep, and Muguruza. By September, this quick learner with bold, impeccable groundstrokes will have the necessary experience to capture her maiden major title.
Our sport’s only “Golden Slam”—the four majors plus an Olympic gold medal—was pulled off by Graf in 1988. Although Djokovic reigned supreme in 2015, the competition is far too strong and deep for him to achieve that daunting feat this season. Even so, as ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe predicted after the lithe Serb won his fourth straight ATP Finals in November, “It’s hard to imagine Djokovic not having another monster year in 2016.”
King Novak is targeting Roland Garros, the only major he has yet to capture, and also an Olympic gold medal, the other missing jewel in his crown. Like superstars Federer and Nadal, the dedicated Djokovic trains and competes with unmistakable passion. “This is a sport I love truly with all my heart,” he commented after winning the 2015 WTA Finals and finishing No. 1 in the world for the fourth time in the past five years. “Because I love the sport, that’s why I started playing it. As a kid, you dream to be in a position to win Grand Slams, win the season finale and be the best in the world. I managed to achieve that for many times.”
That love and those dreams will carry Djokovic far when he’s physically and mentally drained, both late in Grand Slam tournaments and throughout the long, grueling season. One Djokovic career statistic stands out as the most revealing and predictive: he’s appeared in 15 of the past 20 Grand Slam singles finals. That elite-level consistency also comes from his near-perfect technique, tremendous fitness, and unwavering competitiveness. Djokovic plays his best on hard courts and in hot weather, and that’s why he’ll win the Australian and US Opens and his first Olympic gold medal.
While Djokovic will feast at the majors, world No. 2 Murray will remain famished for the third straight year. Indeed, his 2012−13 halcyon period now seems like an aberration in his career. Then, guided by no-nonsense coach Ivan Lendl, he captured the US Open, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. Before the 2015 Australian Open final, the Brit declared, “I feel a lot more mature, less petulant.” Then in his four-set loss to Djokovic, he showed he was still immature and petulant. Furious at himself for losing his focus during the pivotal third set, Murray cried out, “So many times! How do you do it to yourself?”
Besides losing 10 of his last 11 matches against Djokovic, Murray is faltering against the rest of the Big 5. Federer has whipped him the last five times, dropping just one set; Nadal has beaten him in three of their last four encounters; and late-bloomer Wawrinka has grabbed their last three matches in straight sets. Murray’s cautious, counter-punching style will prevent him from reversing these losing ways against his four toughest foes.
Quick questions: Who is the only man, besides Djokovic, to win at least two majors in the past two years? Who was the only player, besides Djokovic, to make the quarterfinals or better at all four majors in 2015? That’s Wawrinka. Stan The Man doesn’t get the respect or recognition he deserves. But he upset Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final on hard courts and stunned Djokovic in the 2015 French Open final on clay. This year he will upset ageless Federer in a marathon Wimbledon final on grass. All three of Wawrinka’s career victories over The Mighty Fed (against 18 losses!) have come on clay, including in the 2015 French quarterfinals. But Wawrinka is more versatile, tactical, and confident than ever and has a better backhand than Federer. Finally, winning tiebreakers often makes the difference in close matches. In the past two years, Wawrinka has gone a terrific 55-23 in tiebreakers, including 8-1 against top-10 opponents last year.
Federer won’t reach a second Grand Slam final, but another living legend, Nadal, will rebound from his 2015 slump. Last year, Rafa was dethroned at Roland Garros, where he had reigned a record nine times. And for the first year since 2004, he didn’t win a major title. Fickle French fans haven’t always fancied Nadal; they prefer stylish artists rather than workmanlike artisans. But this year, sensing it may be his Last Hurrah at age 30, Parisians will shout “Vamos Rafa!” as never before and carry Nadal to yet another French title.
The whiz kids to watch are Americans Taylor Fritz, the world junior champion, and 6’11” Reilly Opelka, the Wimbledon junior titlist who has served 141 mph. Among the girls, two Russians stand out: 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina, who upset No. 14 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 29 Irina-Camelia Begu at Moscow last October, and Sofya Zhuk, the 15-year-old Wimbledon junior champion. Zhuk is reminiscent of the blond beauty, power, and precocity of Anna Kournikova 20 years ago. Also keep an eye on vivacious, 18-year-old Naomi Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. The 5’11”, 152-pound tower of power shocked No. 19 Samantha Stosur at Stanford and upset No. 35 Caroline Garcia to win the WTA Rising Stars Invitational in Singapore.
There’s one player my trusty crystal ball can’t predict. It’s Nick Kyrgios, the racket-smashing, profanity-spouting, 20-year-old Aussie with the slashed eyebrows, close-cropped Mohawk haircut, and gold chains. He reached the Australian Open quarters and Wimbledon round of 16. But he garnered as much publicity, all bad, and a probation for blurting out, “[Thanasi] Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that, mate” during a changeover while playing Wawrinka. When Tennis Channel analyst Luke Jensen was asked which of the three talented, young Australians—Bernard Tomic, Thanasi Kokkinakis, or Kyrgios—will have the best career, he replied, “Kyrgios, if he can stay out of prison, if he can stay out of trouble, if he matures.”
Tennis faces an existential threat, though, far more menacing than bad boy Kyrgios. Twenty-five years ago, prescient Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion, explained why he supported environmental causes: “You can’t play on grass if there’s no oxygen.” On December 7, 2015, the air pollution in Beijing reached
40 times the limit considered safe by the World Health Organization. Schools were closed, factories were shut down, and people wore protective masks. According to a 2015 WHO study, 13 of the 20 most-polluted cities in the world are in India. In May 2014, the WHO rated New Delhi the most polluted city in the world.
“Airpocalypse” is what English speakers in Beijing call the most toxic air pollution events. Unless nations reverse, or at least stall, human-driven climate change and its devastating consequences, outdoor tennis will severely endanger players and spectators in many great tennis cities. As a result, pro and amateur tournaments will be cancelled. And our sport will die.
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