The end of season Tour Finals have barely faded from memory but the 2018 tennis season is already upon us. With less than a month to go until the Australian Open and tour events across the Southern hemisphere kicking off from Boxing Day, I pick my players to watch in the coming season.
Though slightly overshadowed by the return of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, 2017 was an outstanding year for the German. Still only 20 years old, he finished the year with a career high ranking of 4th in the world and five titles, including two ATP 1000 series (Rome and Canada). Perhaps most impressively, he was one of only five players on the tour to defeat Federer – something even Nadal failed to do. With the frame of Marin Cilic and a sweet backhand to rival Stan Wawrinka’s, players past and present are tipping Zverev to be the one to challenge the ‘Big 4’ (Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) Despite only progressing to the second week of a Slam once, with Djokovic and co returning to the tour outside of the top 10, 2018 offers Zverev his best chance yet to upset the status quo.
Sharapova returned to the WTA circuit last April after serving a 15-month drugs ban. Since then, the former world no1 has fought her way back into the top 100 (currently no.60) and claimed her first title at the Tianjin Open. This ranking guarantees automatic entry into all tournaments on the WTA tour and with no points to defend between January and April, we could see the 5-time Slam winner back in the seeds before Wimbledon. Facing seeded players as early as round 1 means it won’t be easy but if Sharapova can discover her form of old, she could re-establish herself as a title contender.
Like Zverev, Dimitrov also had a strong 2017- finishing the year as world no.3 and winning the Tour Finals in his maiden appearance. Dubbed ‘Baby Federer’ from early on in his career, he has consistently failed to live up to the hype. Only twice in 30 attempts has Dimitrov reached the semi-finals of a Slam and his rise up the rankings did occur in a season without many big names. However, if he can build on his performances from the tail end of the season, and with first time slam winners getting older (Cilic, Wawrinka, and Murray), the ship has definitely not sailed for Dimitrov.
Another player returning to the tour after a lengthy lay off: Serena Williams. After winning the Australian Open whilst pregnant, Serena withdrew from the 2017 season in April. Despite dropping to no.22, as a 23 time grand slam winner (and that’s just her singles titles) she is always a threat. With no points to defend after April and 3 slams in that period, Serena is a dead cert to be a contender at the WTA Tour Finals and will be hoping to regain number 1. Whatever the outcome, Serena is an exciting player to have back in the women’s game.
At the opposite end of the age scale to Serena is 20 year old Jelena Ostapenko. No one had really heard of the Latvian until she shocked Simona Halep, and the tennis world, to win the title at Roland Garros unseeded and from a set down. Ending the year as world number seven, 2017 was a breakthrough year for the young player. Personally, I find her aggressive playing style and high risk shot making , often exploiting the angles on the court, incredibly exciting. If she can control the risk and hit her spots, this player could be the future of women’s tennis.
Djokovic is returning to the tour hoping to repeat the feats of Federer and Nadal in 2017. Prior to completing the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2016, Djokovic had been the dominant force in men’s tennis – 12 slams, world no.1, it seemed only a matter of time until Federer’s Slam record was beaten. However, after conquering the French Open, he appeared to lose his desire having achieved almost everything in tennis. Fully recharged and with Agassi and Stepanek adding talent to his coaching set up, 2018 could see the return of the Djokovic of old. Personally I doubt that we’ll see the all-conquering Djokovic again but his return is always a major boost to the tour.