The Best Tennis Rivalries to Watch in 2016

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistDecember 28, 2015

The Best Tennis Rivalries to Watch in 2016

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    Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer was tennis’ biggest rivalry in 2015, but it’s less likely to be the rivalry to watch in 2016. Federer has all but eliminated the bulk of spring’s clay-court tour, and the Swiss Maestro figures to better challenge Djokovic on faster courts in the second half of the year.

    Meanwhile, there will be more chances for other ATP World Tour superstars to win and heat up a rivalry with Djokovic, unless he completely overwhelms them in big matches.

    In the WTA Tour, rivalries are even more ephemeral in the top 10, where the players are shuffled like a deck of cards. World No. 1 Serena Williams has staved off all of her nearest competitors to the point it never feels like she has a rival. It’s been awhile since 2007 when Justine Henin swept Serena in the year’s final three majors and was arguably the better player at that time.

    Serena is on her own island right now, and unless another star steps up and defeats her in big matches, it’s hard to see any rivalry for her.

    The following rivalries are the best possibilities for 2016 when considering players who could be major contenders.

Potential Rivalries

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    There are several second-tier players who could step up for bigger rivalries, but for now let’s consider these rivalries-in-waiting:

    Kei Nishikori vs. Milos Raonic: Great contrasts of style with the multiskilled Japanese baseliner against the Canadian power server. Nishikori has won four of six contests since 2014, but both players will need to show they can stay healthy as top-five-caliber players.

    Stan Wawrinka vs. Nick Kyrgios: There’s certainly no love lost between the rugged, veteran Wawrinka and the young, brash Kyrgios who can talk as well as hit aces.

    Venus Williams vs. Serena Williams: Maybe we get a couple of these big matches, but their best rivalry days have been over for too many years.

    Caroline Wozniacki vs. Eugenie Bouchard: If they could both get back to playing their best tennis, this would be an intriguing series of popular stars.

8. Rafael Nadal vs. Kei Nishikori

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    Kei Nishikori hammered Rafael Nadal at the 2015 Rogers Cup quarterfinals for his first win in eight matches against the Spaniard. It’s their only meeting since Nadal’s comeback over the ailing Nishikori in the 2014 Madrid final.

    What’s compelling about 2016 is both players should be looking for strong play on slower surfaces, including European clay, where Nishikori has become a fine player. Nadal must plow through Nishikori, David Ferrer and other fine players who will somewhat determine if the Spaniard will be anywhere near reclaiming his French Open crown.

    Nadal’s grueling topspin can be mitigated by Nishikori’s ability to hit on the rise and aggressively control the angles. Could they be in each other’s way as they look to rise close enough to Djokovic? Watch for this one right out of the gate.

7. Belinda Bencic vs. Madison Keys

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    Belinda Bencic at Eastbourne
    Belinda Bencic at EastbourneJulian Finney/Getty Images

    Call this the WTA stars-in-waiting rivalry that just might take off in 2016.

    On one side is 18-year-old Swiss player Belinda Bencic with the all-around return game and the kind of craftiness reminiscent of Martina Hingis or world No. 2 Simona Halep. The Swiss have had a recent glut of smooth, fine technical players.

    She could be clashing often in the years to come with American Madison Keys, a powerful ball-striker schooled to use her gifts of serving and hard groundstrokes. Will she be a successful champion from the American factory that teaches its tennis athletes power is first?

    Bencic is already ranked No. 14 with the 2015 Rogers Cup on her trophy case. No. 18 Keys blasted into the Australian Open semifinals and the Wimbledon quarterfinals. If she learns to harness her power and grow her mental game, she could be a top-five player sooner rather than later.

    Which player will become a huge contender in 2016? For now, give Bencic the edge on clay (where she destroyed Keys at the 2015 French Open) and Keys the better potential on fast surfaces. Keys won their grass-court meeting at Eastbourne just as easily. They’re just beginning, but they could be the future of the women’s tour.

6. Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka

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    Call this a rivalry looking for a renaissance. Maria Sharapova missed all but a few matches in the second half of 2015, but she remains poised with her No. 4 ranking to hit through anyone who cannot match her intensity.

    Victoria Azarenka could do more than match Sharapova’s intensity with her own high-octane screams. When they play, there’s a whole lot of hitting and shrieking, but there's great fun for tennis fans who enjoy baseline power.

    The biggest question is if Azarenka can continue to improve her conditioning, timing and confidence to rise up the rankings, grab better seedings and become the player who won Australian Open titles from 2012-13.

    Just a few years ago, this was a hot rivalry when Azarenka defeated Sharapova in the 2012 Australian Open final and four of six big matches that year. She has a better record in career finals against Sharapova (5-1), but Sharapova has the 8-7 edge in 15 career meetings with a four-match winning streak.

    The onus will be on Azarenka to lift her game, but both players could very well contend against each other for major titles.

5. Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer

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    There are some tennis pundits who believe Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal is the greatest rivalry in the history of tennis. For sure, their 22-22 split in 44 matches, contrast of styles and eight matches (Djokovic winning five) in 2015 have brought this rivalry into the spotlight. Among the highlights are three hard-fought Djokovic wins at major finals in 2014-15 Wimbledon and 2015 U.S. Open.

    But the rivalry has really best come of age well past Federer’s peak, and it certainly could be argued that other past and current rivalries have had more intrigue with major finals. Let’s see if they can add more to their legendary clashes.

    The 2016 Australian Open could be important to extending this rivalry, and perhaps there will be another meeting at Dubai or Indian Wells. However, Federer will be skipping all but Roland Garros on clay, so there will be at least a long interruption in the rivalry, while other superstar players could conceivably have their chance at grabbing the limelight with Djokovic.

    Maybe Wimbledon, the Olympics in Brazil and the U.S. Open will serve up a couple of classic finals. One thing's for sure: Federer will need to win one of these huge tournaments if this rivalry is to keep peaking.

4. Rafael Nadal vs. Stan Wawrinka

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    Because Federer will be skipping clay-court tournaments, save Roland Garros, it’s hard to see him develop any rivalry with Wawrinka or Nadal, who have proved they can thrive on the slower surfaces.

    It’s more likely Nadal and Wawrinka could face each other in a few huge matches from Melbourne to Paris as each sets his sights on dethroning Djokovic and claiming another major title.

    Since Nadal’s defeat at the hands of Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open, it’s clear the two stars can bother each other. There’s Wawrinka’s power and improvement. There’s Nadal’s determination to get back to the top of tennis. We could see some heavy-hitting contests at Melbourne, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid or Paris, if not other tournaments.

    There’s also a perceptible edge of dislike in how they play each other. Wawrinka basically tanked his two lopsided defeats late in 2015 at Shanghai and the World Tour Finals. He seemed to berate himself as much as shake his head that he was losing to Nadal.

    For his part, Nadal certainly did not enjoy getting blasted in the first set of the 2014 Australian Open final after coming in as the huge favorite. He hurt his back and limped to a four-set defeat, highlighted by Wawrinka’s anger at the Spaniard’s extra-long medical timeout in the second set.

    This rivalry could be a hot rise this spring if not sooner.

3. Simona Halep vs. Garbine Muguruza

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    This is a the more mature version of Belinda Bencic vs. Madison Keys. Really, the tale of the tape with Simona Halep vs. Garbine Muguruza is very similar. There’s the smaller, hustling, defensive-minded tactician in world No. 2 Halep. Then there's the contrast with world No. 3 Muguruza's bigger baseline power.

    Neither of them has won a major title, and if Serena Williams is not ruling the WTA in 2016, Halep and Muguruza are the next favorites to take up some of the slack.

    There’s a little more pressure on Halep, who is 24 years old and aware of younger players coming up to take their place in a post-Serena WTA. Halep wins plenty of titles, but she has only appeared in one major final (2014 French Open). For all of her excellent skills, she could be looking up at players with more stature and firepower, kind of like the next Agnieszka Radwanska.

    Muguruza will need to avoid the kind of slump that inflicted Eugenie Bouchard, who was 2014's hot, rising star. She’s making great strides on grass (2015 Wimbledon final) to go with the clay that suits her Spanish upbringing and baseline power.

    It has the potential to be the best rivalry in women’s tennis over the next few years, but of course there are plenty of other stars who will have their say in the deep WTA.

2. Novak Djokovic vs. Stan Wawrinka

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    Already a proven rivalry for the past three years, Novak Djokovic vs. Stan Wawrinka has the weight of five major clashes since 2013. Djokovic has won four of the last six matches (eight of 10 if we include the 2013 matches), but the two losses (2014 Australian Open quarterfinals and 2015 French Open final) were instrumental for Wawrinka’s two career major trophies.

    Djokovic has won other five-set duels, including at the 2013 Australian Open, 2013 U.S. Open and 2015 Australian Open. Wawrinka's huge baseline power can hit through Djokovic’s defense when he is rolling, so he might be the only player who scares Djokovic on a slower surface.

    Could we see something similar at Melbourne or Paris? Could they duel in a Masters 1000 final or two?

    Wawrinka does not have near the consistency or greatness Djokovic possesses across all surfaces and seasons, but when he is in the zone, it’s an extraordinary battle. Unlike Djokovic vs. Federer or Nadal, Wawrinka currently has the tools to dictate matters on a major stage.

    It’s an underrated rivalry that still does not get the ink of Big Four rivalries that have been around for about a decade. After all, Wawrinka’s career head-to-head totals against Djokovic are still only 4-21, and the 28-year-old is the older player by two years.

1. Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray

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    This is the third rivalry we are listing with Novak Djokovic, and it doesn’t include Rafael Nadal, who might have the most matchup problems with competing once again at the Serbian’s level. So somebody has to compete better against Djokovic in 2016, right?

    How about Andy Murray? The Scot defeated Djokovic for his two biggest titles—the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon championships. Since, Murray has had to recover from back surgery, deal with coaching changes and employ a lot of hard work to get back to No. 2 in the world.

    Now Murray could be ready to take a big match or two from Djokovic, who has shown all the mercy of a Sith Lord. Murray has the confidence of winning on clay at the Madrid Masters (yes, Djokovic was absent), and he defeated Djokovic at the Rogers Cup final in August. He’s also a Davis Cup champion with his sights set on competing better against the Serbian, according to his self-assessment in ATP World Tour.

    "Obviously this year [Novak's] level has been incredible," said Murray following the Paris final. "Since the beginning of last year, my results against him and Roger, from my perspective, haven't been good enough. I need to do better in those matchups." 

    Murray has always been willing to fight through his star rivals despite losing more often than winning. He simply reloads and tries again. Lesser players would have faltered long ago.

    In addition, Murray has the defensive speed, return game and groundstrokes to compete fiercely with Djokovic. At the least, he can force Djokovic to elevate his game and misfire. They are similar players, even though the Scot is not at the Serbian’s career level. Furthermore, Murray can compete across all surfaces, so he should be there all year, barring injuries or setbacks. Add in the fatigue or natural course of tennis that should indicate that Djokovic has to come down to Earth a little in 2016.

    Legendary player and broadcaster John McEnroe recently tagged Murray as the player who could dethrone Djokovic, according to The Tennis Podcast via Stuff Sport's Darren Walton:

    Even though it looks like Novak is unbeatable, it's hard to imagine he can keep up this pace. 

    Ultimately, mentally, it's all about attitude and belief and getting yourself in a position where you think you can handle anything that's thrown at you.

    And when push comes to shove, that's where the bigger tests come with Novak and that's hard to change.

    But the beauty about sports, is that things can change quickly ... more than you actually expect and this could be his next year.