The curtains may have fallen on another intriguing season, but in just over a month’s time, the hustle and bustle of the new season commences, and attentions will be firmly fixed on the Australian Open.
The first Grand Slam of the year already holds plenty of promise. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic take their lingering battle down under, and there is the small matter of the expected return of those two juggernauts - Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
I have sieved through the field, and picked out the guys that I think stand the best chance of hoisting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after the fortnight in Melbourne.
Here is a top five countdown, from the least likely to the most likely 2017 Australian Open champion:
5. STAN WAWRINKA
When Stan Wawrinka is around, the form book goes out of the window. Wawrinka has had another solid Grand Slam season, winning the US Open and reaching the semi-finals of the French Open. He did not make much of an impact in the other two Slams, but that can be excused as he bumped into an in-form Milos Raonic at the Australian Open, and got burned by the booming forehands of Juan Martin del Potro in the second round at Wimbledon.
The 31-year- old tailed off towards the end of the year, compiling a 7-6 record after his sensational victory over Novak Djokovic in the US Open final, and failing to go beyond the group phase at the ATP World Tour Finals for the first time in four years.
What we have learnt over the last few seasons is not to pay too much attention to all of that. Wawrinka comes alive at majors, and a return to the city of his major breakthrough could be the spark that ignites another Grand Slam title run.
4. ROGER FEDERER
Roger Federer has not played competitive tennis since Wimbledon, and thus, a run to the title in Australia appears a bit far-fetched, but the 17-time Grand Slam champion presents a compelling case.
While a lengthy spell on the sidelines renders him match-rusty, it is equally true that he is well rested, both in mind and body. The only other problem is his lowly ranking, which puts him at risk of crashing into the big guns early in the tournament.
Federer’s record in Melbourne is phenomenal. He’s a four-time champion, but perhaps more astonishing is the fact that he has reached the semi-final or better in 12 of the last 13 seasons. That is ridiculous consistency!
Roger Federer (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
The only year Federer fell before the last four was in 2015, when he suffered a freak third round loss to Andreas Seppi (still struggling to wrap my head around that one!). He may not be as dominant as he was, but Roger Federer is far from finished.
Federer has reached two finals and two semi-finals in his last four major appearances, losing out to Novak Djokovic on three of the four occasions. Now that Djokovic has dropped off a bit, it is not inconceivable that Federer, who has been fairly competitive in his recent matches against the Serbian (he’s got his fair share of wins outside the Slams), can get one over the world number two should they meet in Melbourne.
As for a potential Andy Murray obstacle, yes, Murray is a different player these days, but Federer has won his last five meetings against the new World Number One - that’s not a statistic you would associate with a fading force.
3. MILOS RAONIC
2017 will be massive for Milos Raonic, as he looks to build on the gains of the just concluded season. Raonic made a rapid start to the 2016 season, beating Federer for the Brisbane title, and pushing Andy Murray to five sets in their Australian Open semi-final. Raonic was two sets to one up in that encounter, and who knows what would have happened had he not been compromised by injury early in the fourth set.
An excellent first half of the season peaked at Wimbledon, with the big-serving Canadian eliminating Federer on his way to a maiden Grand Slam final, where he fell to Murray.
The 25-year- old couldn’t quite push on after that, as a series of listless performances and injuries threatened to overshadow all the good work of the first six months.
The big man however shot back into reckoning at the ATP World Tour Finals, where he was a very makable forehand down-the- line away from dragging Novak Djokovic into a final set, and a point away from knocking out Murray in the semi-finals, both of which didn’t quite happen.
Raonic arguably played his best tennis of the season at the World Tour Finals. We knew about the serve and the forehand, but he was much more willing to take on his backhand in London, and showed a marked improvement in his mobility around the court. Raonic will get better, and injuries permitting, he will be a big threat in Melbourne.
2. NOVAK DJOKOVIC
When was the last time anyone had Novak Djokovic as second favourite for a tournament? Even at the World Tour Finals, where he was supposedly slumping, and Andy Murray streaking, I still gave the Serbian the edge.
I thought the fact that Djokovic had been so dominant at the O2 Arena, and his excellent record against Murray, who had struggled over the years at the World Tour Finals, would swing it in the Serbian’s direction, but now we know better.
Djokovic enjoys similar dominance at the Australian Open. He has won the title an amazing six times, including five of the last six editions, but events of the last six months, particularly at the O2 Arena have shown that his recent mastery of Melbourne Park will be less of a factor in 2017.
Reigning Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Murray landed a major psychological blow on his rival with that lopsided victory in London; and history tells us that that may be difficult to recover from. Nadal did it to Federer; Djokovic did it to Nadal; now it seems, Djokovic is on the receiving end.
It’s still too early to conclude, of course, but Djokovic’s tame surrender against Murray at the O2 suggests that his problems may be deeper than initially feared.
Djokovic will still be hard to beat over the best of five sets, but with that air of invincibility slowly thinning, and belief growing through the rest of the field, he will be far more vulnerable in Melbourne than he has been over the last couple of seasons.
1. ANDY MURRAY
No Grand Slam has caused Andy Murray more misery than the Australian Open. Five times he has been at the final; five times he has ended up as the runner-up.
Four of those losses have been inflicted by Novak Djokovic, but the Scot will be confident of reversing that trend should that match-up re-occur in 2017.
Belief is flowing through those veins, and he just does not know how to lose at the moment. It remains to be seen whether this short break will dilute the adrenalin, and halt Murray’s momentum, but the world number one has surely got to be considered as favourite for the 2017 Australian Open.
Andy Murray (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)