With he 2019 season underway, we look at the top ten sub-plots to follow this year, with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Serena Williams all facing big potential crossroads in their careers.
Going into 2019, it seems to be generally accepted that Roger Federer is on the decline. He’s 37-years-old and has just started to lose matches that you’d have never expected in previous years.
Of course, Federer is still very capable of winning tournaments, Grand Slams included, and only a fool would suggest otherwise. We are talking degrees of dominance here, and Federer will simply dominate fewer players less often.
The real question on Federer is whether or not he will decide to have one last go at the clay court season?
The Swiss star has shunned the red dirt, including the French Open, for the last the last few years, claiming he has sacrificed it to prolong his career. Controversial as that is, it has certainly worked for him.
Will will the lure prove too strong for one last season on clay? The sense you have had in the past is that he doesn’t really feel like he has anything to prove on clay anymore and doesn’t need the hassle of trying to topple Rafael Nadal on his favoured surface.
Is that the case and will it endure in 2019? Only time will tell.
It’s great to see Andy Murray back, but his warnings before the Brisbane International that he still plays with pain in his hip were also ominous.
The discomfort may subside the more tennis he plays, and that will be the hope, yet the urge to temper expectations must not be ignored.
After all, Murray’s brilliance of the past was usually build on his ability to outlast his opponent with outstanding defensive tennis before eventually crushing them with his quality.
Whether or not he can still do that with his hip restricting his mobility and causing pain remains to be seen.
Murray may adapt his game and find other ways to win, or he may defy medical analysis and fully recover from what is generally a degenerative condition. If anyone has the sheer force of will to do it, then it’s Murray.
Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to find out.
Rafael Nadal’s body appears to be creaking. There’s no denying it.
His 2018 was littered with withdrawals and retirements. Indeed, he only completed one hardcourt tournament he started, and he didn’t start anywhere near as many as he’d have liked.
More worrying is that it wasn’t just one persistent injury, but multiple ones, with his knee, ankle, and back all forcing him off the court at some point during the season.
2019 hasn’t really started all that promisingly either.
Nadal quit Mubudala half way through, playing just one match instead of two, and withdrew from Brisbane before he’d even so much as swung his racket.
He has come back from worse before, but his game buts such a strain on his body that you wonder if his shelf-life at the top is simply more limited than any of us would like.
Like Federer, Serena Williams’ time playing every, or even the majority of, tournament on tour is probably over.
She made a successful comeback in 2018, reaching the final of two of the three Grand Slams she played and not actually being beaten in the other (she retired injured at the French Open).
One thing that is clear is that Williams will probably play more tennis this year and will definitely be gunning for what would be a historic Grand Slam singles title.
She already has 23 to her name and one more will see her equal Margaret Court as the most successful tennis player in history.
You definitely wouldn’t bet against her.
Novak Djokovic’s return to the top was one of the sporting stories of 2018.
The Serb started the season outside of the top 20 and losing far too many games he shouldn’t have been.
More worryingly, he was looking disinterested and demotivated on court and an absolute shadow of the warrior we all know he is.
He rediscovered himself, though, and dominated the tennis world in the second half of the year, winning both Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as becoming the first man to win every Masters event and returning to the top of the rankings.
Going into the new season, he doesn’t look likely to relinquish is grip, but in many ways staying at the to pis going to be an even bigger challenge than returning to it.
French Open aside, though, there is little doubt he’ll go into every tournament he plays as the favourite.
One thing that Serena Williams’ step back from the WTA Tour has done has done is demonstrate just how bonkers the world of women’s tennis is.
Eight different players have won the last eight WTA Grand Slams, and you almost go into tournaments trying to predict which top players’ turn it is to suffer a huge upset rather than trying to read who’s going to actually win it.
Simona Halep goes into the new season as world number one and she’s expected to be a force again in 2019. Naomi Osaka has a lot of build upon too, and Sloane Stephens is another generally finding some semblance of consistency.
Whether or not anyone can truly dominate, though, an emerge as Williams’ true successor, we will just have to wait to find out.
People have been predicting Alexander Zverev’s rise to the top of tennis pretty much ever since he announced his arrival on the ATP Tour.
The German is referred to within the game as ‘the leader of the NextGen’ so often it’s becoming hard to imagine him as anything else.
He goes into 2019 on the back of what looks like being a huge breakthrough in winning the ATP Tour finals, beating both Federer and Djokovic along the way, and with just about every major voice in the media predicting big things for him.
However, Grigor Dimitrov has been there, done that, just a year previously in fact, and he has dine nothing but slide in the rankings ever since.
Zverev will probably never get a better time to lay down his marker with Federer’s powers on the wane and Nadal’s body apparently beginning to fail him, so it will be fascinating to see whether or not he can take his opportunity.
Wimbledon isn’t really known for embracing the modern era and changing, but this year sees one major alteration to its makeup.
For the first time, there will be tiebreaks in the deciding set of matches – but only at 12 games a piece.
It’s been heralded as the compromise that will keep both camps happy.
Most spectators love the drama of marathon contests that become battles of sheer will, such as John Isner’s war with Kevin Anderson last year.
Players, though, have complained it is unfair for too long, and Djokovic’s steamrollering of a clearly fatigued Anderson in the final certainly offers validation to those concerns.
Will it work and create finality without impacting the drama? Let’s see.
2019 may be the time when the influence of coaching becomes really apparent.
Several WTA stars, most notably Simona Halep, Venus Williams, and Angelique Kerber are heading into the season with new coaches or no coaches, and the impact that has one their results is sure to be closely analysed.
Over on the ATP Tour, meanwhile, Grigor Dimitrov has added US legend Andre Agassi to his coaching team as he attempts to climb the rankings once again after an atrocious 2018.
Coaches probably don’t get the credit they deserve in tennis, or other individual sports, as a general rule, but 2019 may be the year that all changes.
There can be little question that Eugenie Bouchard is one of the most talented players on the WTA Tour.
Frankly, you don’t get to number five in the world and a Wimbledon final by accident. She got there on talent and that talent is still in there.
Bouchard is just 24 years old but has admitted to chasing too many distractions on the back of her success a few years ago.
The modelling contracts came and the endorsement opportunities beckoned, and social media almost certainly became a damaging obsession for the Canadian on the back of increased public interest.
She has slipped down the rankings into relative obscurity as a result, but has vowed to reapply herself to tennis and make it a priority again.
It would be absolutely brilliant if she means it.
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Andy Murray eager to play at US Open.
Alexander Zverev remains undecided about US Open.