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2020 Preview: Novak, Rafa & Roger lead the pack; Thiem's major quest

2020 Preview: Novak, Rafa & Roger lead the pack; Thiem's major quest

We're answering the 10 biggest questions about men's tennis as the page turns to a new decade of possibilities.

1. Will a player outside of the Big Three win a major? 

During the 2010s, only three men besides Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer triumphed on the major stage. Two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem came close, and is a credible candidate to break the mold as a new decade begins.

A five-time tournament champion last season, Thiem has worked vigorously to add layers to his game. His serve is bigger, his shot selection is more meticulous, and he’s grown as a net finisher. The more he can come forward, on any surface, the better his chances. 

While Nadal has stifled Thiem at Roland Garros, the Austrian owns four wins over Rafa on red clay. Should he get another look at Nadal in Paris, the diligent student may finally ace his greatest test.

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2. Can Andy Murray rejoin the Slam contender conversation? 

Last January, Murray hobbled his way into the Australian Open press room. Choking back tears, the three-time Slam champion soon left the room to compose himself before revealing that the event could be his last. A year later, after having his right hip resurfaced, Murray’s comeback, which included a title in Antwerp, has exceeded all expectations.

Antwerp is no Australian Open, though, in terms of the physical toll required for success. But if the 32-year-old’s pacing in the back half of 2019 is any indication, Murray’s stamina and strength are on an upward progression. His game must continue a similar restructuring: taking risks with first-strike tennis; reducing looks at his second serve; minimizing court expenditure. Don’t count the Scot out at the majors—after all, Murray’s No. 1 asset, his heart, has never gone under the knife.

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3. Can Alexander Zverev learn to win in best of five? 

Zverev’s 2019 provided an education in off-court management. He was embattled in a legal dispute with former agent Patricio Apey, and parted ways with coach Ivan Lendl. Amidst all this distraction, the highly ranked German went 5–0 in fifth sets. Not bad for someone who, you may have heard, has yet to reach a Grand Slam semifinal.

Too often, Zverev has built comfortable leads at the majors, only to see his time on court dragged out. His serve is vital to his success, but it has left him out to dry. During the Laver Cup, Federer and Nadal pressed Zverev to drop his negative mindset and bring fire to the table. He responded, and won the Cup for Europe. If Zverev is finally able to subdue his discouraging thoughts without two legendary consultants, he has the tools to put his substandard Slams in the rear view.

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4. Matteo Berrettini and Daniil Medvedev: One-year wonders? 

In reaching six successive hard-court finals, Medvedev might be the frontrunner to become the next first-time major champion. Berrettini is a gifted player with a ferocious forehand, but Medvedev brings elements of danger and surprise that are incomparable to anyone else.

Medvedev’s brick wall provokes the other side to play chicken. His 6’6’’ wingspan only augments his maddening court coverage, and he throws in 125 M.P.H. second serves. At his core, Medvedev is a disrupter, one who serves up brainteasers that are anything but amusing for his competition to decipher. 

Zverev has said Medvedev’s game is “one we have never seen before.” It’s an accurate assessment, and points to why the US Open finalist isn’t going out of style anytime soon. As for Berrettini, we’ll need to see more.

5. Will the Next Gen build off a promising 2019?

Lift the age restriction with this group to 23, and men’s tennis is in good hands. Medvedev (23), Berrettini (23) and ATP Finals champ Stefanos Tsitsipas (21) will all look to build upon breakthroughs. With targets on their backs, each must schedule soundly to avoid burnout.

Alex de Minaur  (20) will try and outwork everyone in the off-season. Denis Shapovalov (20) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (19) will both be raring to make deep major runs, like their North American counterparts, Taylor Fritz (21) and Reilly Opelka (22). If Andrey Rublev (22) can stay healthy, his star is as bright as anyone’s, along with the ATP's Newcomer of the Year Jannik Sinner (18). And don’t forget the “old guys,” Karen Khachanov (23) and Borna Coric (23), two players motivated to bounce back from dry spells.

6. OK, late-bloomer: Which veterans will put it all together (again)?

Echoing a sport-wide trend, aging is becoming more irrelevant as each season passes. Last decade’s late-bloomer extraordinaire,  Stan Wawrinka , may not have won any titles in 2019, but the 34-year-old showed flashes of his best form after returning from two left-knee surgeries to get back inside the Top 20. If 35 is the new 25, Wawrinka will remain a threat wherever he plays.

Another player whose best may yet come is Diego Schwartzman. A world-class returner, the 27-year-old led the ATP in second-serve return points last season. If he rolls the dice more often with his serve and continues to connect, the 5’7’’ Argentine nicknamed peque—the short one—will be hungry to measure up on the Grand Slam stage.

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7. Is there any hope for Nick Kyrgios?

His latest season belted plenty of sour notes—a match default in Rome, a record $113,000 fine in Cincinnati, a six-month probationary period, and a 3–3 record at the Slams. Yet through the stormy stretches emerged two weeks of sizzling, sunny play in Acapulco and Washington D.C. 

If Kyrgios chooses to approach more tournaments with his energy spent on positive fan engagement and focused efforts, he can still be a captivating champion. He has long traveled without a coach, and for an athlete who admires Murray, Kyrgios would be well-served to take a page out of the Scot’s playbook by welcoming unfamiliar perspectives into his corner. Someone with patience—and willingness—to peel back his comfort zone. Whether this is pursued is, rightfully, up to Kyrgios.

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8. Who’s the best player you may be unfamiliar with?

Plenty of young talent provided hope for the future in 2019, before Sinner burst onto the scene with a massive push. The Italian began the year ranked No. 549, but after turning 18 in August, he rocketed inside the Top 100 and won the Next Gen ATP Finals (later named the ATP's Newcomer of the Year).

Sinner’s gangly frame, and hair with a personality of its own, crosses between a youthful Murray and Rublev. Looks aside, the youngster’s game also blends ingredients from those two players, plus Djokovic. There’s deep, crisp ball-striking (Rublev); shot preparation, backhand extension and recovery (Murray); and terrific balance (Djokovic)—sculpted by his upbringing as a promising skier. Sinner will need to strengthen his physique and endurance in his first full ATP season, but his innate talent and poise are primed to carry the ripe redhead to the Top 30.

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9. What should we reasonably expect from this soon-to-be 39-year-old?

Federer’s ability to shut the door isn’t the forgone conclusion it once was. Has his time irreversibly come and gone? In short, not quite yet. Federer has carefully managed his schedule, and his backhand—once dubbed “my weakness”—has become a powerful asset. Should his serve remain a well-disguised starting point, the Swiss will keep getting cracks at making history. If Federer finds Djokovic—a player he hasn’t beaten at a major since 2012—across the net, he must be bolder and committed on the swing points. Over his last five Slam defeats to the Serb, Federer has converted just 16 of 54 break points, compared to Djokovic’s 22 for 55.

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10. At year’s end, who will we feel better about in the Slam race: Djokovic or Nadal? 

While Nadal moved to within one major of equaling Federer’s 20 in 2019, Djokovic closed his gap to four, and he has the added benefit of time on his side. One of the Serbian’s driving forces will only intensify as his chief rivals turn the page for another demanding year.

Like Serena Williams, Federer has rewritten the book on the concept of prime years—yet it’s a double-edged sword when a player like Djokovic has yet to see what’s possible in his mid-to-late 30s. It would be foolish to write off Nadal’s chances of replicating his 2019, but Djokovic has a higher ceiling. He has winning records against his legendary rivals, and has established himself as the ATP’s best player under pressure—maybe ever.

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