Djokovic Tops Murray to Lead First 2017 Winners and Losers

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2017

Djokovic Tops Murray to Lead First 2017 Winners and Losers

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    The superstars were out for the first week of the 2017 season and Novak Djokovic was the big winner, defeating super rival Andy Murray for the Doha title. What does this mean for both players as the Australian Open gets ready to heat up?

    There was action elsewhere in Auckland with Serena Williams and in Shenzhen where a rising star took her first title. But the bulk of the action was in Brisbane and there were tune-ups for Angelique Kerber, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and others.

    It’s our debut for the “Winners and Losers” of tennis in 2017. Players are looking to get in shape and find their rhythm for the year’s first major, and important matches last week could set up the immediate future.

    A noteworthy omission for this column was No. 5 seed Rafael Nadal's loss to top-seed Milos Raonic in the Brisbane quarterfinals. In early 2017, this was no upset.

Winner: Grigor Dimitrov

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    Maybe 2017 will showcase the continued rise of Grigor Dimitrov. After a two-and-a-half-year title drought, the Bulgarian flashed the form that saw him win three titles early in 2014 and land in the Wimbledon semifinals. He just won Brisbane against a strong field.

    The best part of Dimitrov’s run was how he outplayed three top-10 opponents. He outgrinded Dominic Thiem, took advantage of Raonic’s poor serving day and saved his best for a lights-out performance in the first set against finalist Kei Nishikori. He kept his nerve in the third set and glided past the Japanese star 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, showing greater purpose and clout.

    Dimitrov, once ranked No. 8, had gradually declined as low as No. 40 last July. Despite being 6’ 3” with incredible talent, including fast footwork and beautiful strokes, he had too often been satisfied to hit balls as more of a retriever, as if he were young Murray but without offensive precision.

    Dimitrov, once nicknamed “Baby Federer,” ironically moves past his legendary namesake for the first time in his career, rising to No. 15 (Federer fell to No. 17) with as much confidence as ever and the Australian Open soon to launch.

    He will be 26 years old in May, but maybe—there’s that word again—all the adversity, wars and lessons of fortitude will push him to become the top contender that was once foretold.

Loser: Kei Nishikori

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    The other side of the Brisbane final was loser Nishikori. After dominating Stan Wawrinka in the semifinal, Nishikori was the clear favorite to defeat the rejuvenated Dimitrov. Instead, he was overpowered, moved around and exposed once again in a big match.

    It’s not that world No. 5 Nishikori cannot win big matches. He’s got a pair of wins against each of the Big Four, including the bronze medal over Nadal at the Rio Olympics in August and a quarterfinal thriller over Murray at the U.S. Open. He’s also defeated Wawrinka three times since July.

    Nishikori should be primed to contend for major titles in 2017, but there is one disconcerting trend. After winning Memphis in February 2016, Nishikori was 11-5 in finals. His Brisbane loss is now a five-match losing streak in finals after previously falling at Basel, Montreal, Barcelona and Miami.

    He’s going to have to turn these results around to take that final leap to stardom.

    To add injury to insult, Nishikori revealed in his post-match presser that his hip is bothering him, according to a tweet from Brisbane’s Twitter account. It was a bitter weekend to an otherwise promising start to 2017.

Winner: Karolina Pliskova

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    Props to Karolina Pliskova who steamrolled through Alize Cornet in Brisbane’s WTA final, 6-0, 6-3. The Czech star, ranked No. 5 in the world, has shown all the signs of being a superstar since her blitz to the Western & Southern Open title in August.

    I wish I'd done better tonight, but Karolina was way too good for me and I bet she's going to win a Slam soon,” Cornet marveled in WTA Tennis. It sure looked that way after facing a heavy barrage of Pliskova’s powerful serve and improved intelligence in executing her forehand and aggression.

    Pliskova has been working with new coach David Kotyza, again via WTA Tennis. “We have been working on few things in the last month when I was in preparation at home. So he's just showing me new stuff which I was not able to do before. Let's hope we can still improve, and let's hope this is not the best result what we gonna have."

    While other stars were dropping early matches, Pliskova showed that she might be the most dangerous, feared player in tennis. Standing at a lanky 6’ 1” she has the muscular athleticism to create power and control her destiny over more defensive players. And she’s playing with more confidence and positive energy.

    Yeah, but the good emotions I want to show. I think I play better tennis when I'm in it, into the match," Pliskova told Kamakshi Tandon of

    “Some matches…you have to have [a] good opponent, and the match has to be really, like, intense and I can get into it, and I'm playing better in these conditions.”

    If Pliskova keeps ascending, the Australian Open title is very possible, and she would be even more suited for championship runs at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Loser: Serena Williams

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    Meanwhile, it was a rusty start to 2017 for world No. 2 Serena Willliams who coughed up 88 unforced errors in a second-round loss to No. 72 Madison Brengle at Auckland.

    It’s not much of a setback for the veteran superstar in terms in altering her chances of winning the Australian Open, but she does need more match play to find her groove.

    We profiled an outlook for Serena in 2017, and it’s clear that she will need to pace herself for the biggest tournaments, especially the majors. Melbourne is the first real target and while it will give Serena purpose as she looks to dominate the WTA, she has to walk a tightrope of getting enough matches to be at her best but not too many to wear down her 35-year-old body.

Winner: Katerina Siniakova

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    Tennis fans might want to tune into matches with new Shenzhen champion Katerina Siniakova. The 20-year-old Czech star had an impressive week that included wins over Simona Halep and Johanna Konta.

    It could be just the beginning for the muscular 5’ 9” player who has a lot of grit and promising pedigree. She was a juniors star as a teenager, winning three major doubles championships and was runner up at the 2013 juniors Australian Open when she became the world’s No. 2 singles player in juniors tennis.

    In the past few months, Siniakova has quietly put together some strong runs at tournaments. She got to the third round at Wimbledon, final at Bastad, defeated Eugenie Bouchard at the U.S. Open and lost in the Tokyo final.

    The Shenzhen title moves Siniakova up from No. 52 to No. 36 in the rankings and she is a competitor that the other stars will notice. She's just beginning to tap her potential.

Loser: Angelique Kerber

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    World No. 1 Angelique Kerber looks like her ranking is on borrowed time. She was ousted in the Brisbane quarterfinals by Elina Svitolina and this after a lackluster three-set win over wild card Ashleigh Barty.

    Will the next few weeks at the Australian Open be the last ones Kerber enjoys at No. 1?

    Since winning the U.S. Open, Kerber has been more off than on, the only strong result a loss to Dominika Cibulkova in the WTA Finals at Singapore.

    And while other stars are also trying to find their form early in the season (Flops this past week also included Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Cibulkova, Venus and Serena Williams.), Kerber is going to get greater press and added pressure for being in the spotlight.

    It’s time for the German southpaw to get her game together for Melbourne, but with her style and required physical precision it is never easy. Will Kerber's body pay the price for her 2016 championship grinding, to say nothing of the mental challenges of competing at the very top?

    We’re about to find out in early 2017.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

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    It was merely the next step into Novak Djokovic’s return to dominance but an important beginning. The Serbian star and world No. 2 defeated rival Andy Murray 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 to defend his Doha title and bolster his belief for the Australian Open.

    “Best scenario I could ask for at the beginning of the season,” Djokovic said in ATP World Tour. “Playing all five matches in this tournament and then three hours against No. 1 of the world, biggest rival, and winning in a thrilling marathon match. It was a really, really thrilling performance from both of us. Just a great way to start the year.”

    Winning a 67th career title is certainly a great achievement, especially in snapping Murray’s 28-match winning streak and exacting a small return for his head-to-head loss in the World Tour Finals, but there are still some things to work out as he looks to return to glory 2017.

    Djokovic survived five different match points against semifinalist Fernando Verdasco and could have been listed as a casualty in this column. That he was resilient is a great sign but hardly a dominant one, especially when contrasting his weekend final with the way he destroyed Nadal one year ago. And he will be moving on without former coach Boris Becker.

    Nevertheless, many pundits will give Djokovic the nod as the Australian Open favorite, something we will profile in greater depth this week.

Loser: Andy Murray

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    So the 28-match winning streak is history, like a framed return that airs helplessly into the seats. Murray will not crack the top-10 longest winning streaks of the Open era—he would have needed 32 wins to surpass 1985 Ivan Lendl and tie 2008 Rafael Nadal. Of course, his three legendary rivals have four of these top-10 streaks. Murray will not quite get there.

    Take a moment to appreciate Murray’s brilliant play and focus to win every match since his Davis Cup loss to Marin Cilic in September. But now that the streak is over, he will not carry another added weight into the Australian Open, something that did put extra pressure on Djokovic when his 43-match streak was snapped in the 2011 French Open semifinals by Roger Federer.

    I think physically it was a good test to start the year, and I did good there,” Murray said in ATP World Tour. “My body feels all right just now, so that's positive.”

    The super Scot is no stranger to losing big matches to Djokovic (25 defeats in 36 matches), but he’s not one to dwell too long on losses. He’ll be the No. 1 seed at Melbourne and ready to take on his best chance to win the Australian Open.