Lessons from the ATP side of the 2016 Australian Open

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After two weeks of tennis in Melbourne, there are lessons from the ATP side of the 2016 Australian Open that should carry into the season ahead.

Milos Raonic is making his move

Milos Raonic reached his second career Grand Slam semifinal, and was just a set away from reaching his first ever Grand Slam final. Though the big serving Canadian came up short against Andy Murray, his two week run in Melbourne showed off a newly aggressive net rushing approach that paid dividends. Working with Carlos Moya appears to be paying off for the Canadian #1, he’s getting more inside out forehands as well, and his impeccable serving was a key to all of his wins, including wins over Stan Wawrinka and Gael Monfils.

Raonic won Brisbane prior to the AO and looks to be a contender in any of the major hard and grass court tournaments. He’s more than a dark horse in Masters and Slams now, and has a great shot at moving into the top 5, if he can stay healthy. His physical attributes are a big help, and he’s developing the court sense, and touch needed to compliment that, with primarily his mental game still lacking. Raonic has solidified he’s a cut above other serve-centric players such as John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, and Kevin Anderson, at this point in his career.

Novak Djokovic has a shot at the Grand Slam

Novak Djokovic made it three straight Grand Slams since his 2015 French Open final defeat and he’s won the last five “major” tournaments dating back to last year’s US Open. Clay remains his most vulnerable surface, but with Rafael Nadal looking to be down and out, Roger Federer aging, and Andy Murray unlikely to be able to reach his level, the Serbian superstar has more than a punchers chance at running the table this year. He had a remarkable 2015, and has more than double the ranking points of the world #2 Murray, this year could see that gap widen even further if things don’t change.

Djokovic is healthy, mentally tough, and extremely physically and technically gifted. This is his prime, and enjoy its peak, because the tennis he is putting together is as good, if not better, than what Federer and the other greats of years gone by were able to put together in he prime of their careers. Watching him drub Federer and Murray in consecutive Melbourne matches was flat out brutal, and they looked at a loss for what to do against him. If nobody can figure that out, Djokovic could find himself in the position Serena Williams was last Fall at the US Open, in just a few months time.

Rafael Nadal is no longer elite

Rafael Nadal’s lack of clutchness, and lack of inventive craftiness in his round 1 loss against Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne points to deep problems with his tennis at the moment. Nadal appears to be relatively healthy, something that has not been the case in the past, but he no longer intimidates opponents, and he appears to be lacking self belief of his own to get through tough matches.

Verdasco was slugging winners, and Nadal was unable to offer a change up to try to throw him off, especially after he failed to close out the match against his rival in four sets. Prior to that match, the Spaniard was dismantled by Novak Djokovic in Doha, winning just three games. Rafa’s peak tennis was remarkable, but these days he’s going to have to fight to stay inside the top 10. The quality of his tennis has slipped below an elite level, and outside of clay especially, there is a clear formula of power hitting, and aggressive play to defeat him.

Clay will remain his best surface, but with other players making strides on the surface, his title as “King of Clay” could be stripped soon as well. The best path forward for Rafa at this point in his career is most likely to seek new advice and try out a different coaching team, that can ¬†hopefully adapt his tactics for his physical abilities as they are now. The Spaniard is a legend, but that has become a past tense term.

The rest of the top 10 has a ways to go against the big 3

Novak Djokovic’s toughest tournament test came from world #15 Gilles Simon, and most of the players in the top 10 failed to challenge Djokovic, Murray, or Federer, the current top 3. Kei Nishikori, formerly thought to be ready to challenge the best, lost in straights to Djokovic, breaking just twice in the match. Federer demolished a hapless Tomas Berdych, who appears content to let himself get smacked around by the top players, and totally lacks belief. Andy Murray handled a pesky David Ferrer in four sets, as the Spanish vet appears to have maximized his game, and it’s not one that can beat the very elite players. Stan Wawrinka found himself booted out by Raonic in an underwhelming result, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga failed to challenge Nishikori in their match. Nadal, of course, lost in round 1.

The string quartet below the big 3 is capable of entertaining and high class tennis, but outside of Wawrinka at his best, and Raonic’s rise, it doesn’t appear they have the belief or physical abilities to make a move into that top 3 range. At the moment matches between the big 3 and the rest of the top 10 are mostly foregone conclusions. There is not a lot of parity in the men’s game, compared to the women’s. Presuming Federer can continue his graceful play, and Murray stays focused and fit, it’s hard to see them being dethroned anytime soon.

Australian Tennis still has work to do

Thanasi Kokkinakis was injured for the 2016 Australian swing, while only Bernard Tomic reached the second week of the tournament among Australian men. Tomic is also the only Aussie man holding a top 20 ranking, even while being notoriously flaky, and mentally troubled. Tomic put in a workman like showing against Andy Murray, only to lose in straights. Nick Kyrgios was hugely disappointed in himself, and once more showed immaturity in a four set loss to Tomas Berdych in round 3. Kyrgios is a firecracker, but until he is able to calm himself down on court, making that elusive move into the top 15 should prove to be a challenge.

John Millman was a nice story to reach the third round, and he did lose to Tomic. Millman has talent, and could be a top 50 player, but he’s a notable underachiever. Omar Jasika also won a round, but he’s unlikely to see the quick rise Kokkinakis and Kyrgios had. Beyond that there is plenty of male talent in the pipeline after Lleyton Hewitt’s retirement, but it still should be a year or more before we see Australian men consistently going deep in slams.

Young guns are coming but aren’t ready yet

Though they got considerable buzz and billing, not a single player under the age of 23 reached the second week. Dominic Thiem did reach the third round, and along with his semifinal in Brisbane, he appears to show the most level-headed, mature promise at the moment, especially once the clay season starts. Kyrgios was likewise ousted in round 3, while ¬†young American Noah Rubin fired winners and played aggressive tennis in a round 1 upset against Benoit Paire, Rubin appears to have bulked up recently and played much stronger. Outside of those three, there isn’t much else to point to in terms of young gun success at the AO, Borna Coric and Jiri Vesely were both major disappointments, while others such as Hyeon Chung, and Alexander Zverev simply had unlucky draws.

Men’s tennis, mainly due to the physical nature of the game, remains no country for young men in Grand Slam competition.

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