Editors debate: Will Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray return to dominate the game in 2018?

Live Tennis Staff in Features 11 Dec 2017
  • Will Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray make successful comebacks from injury in 2018?
  • Can Roger Federer turn the tables on Djokovic the way he has done on Rafael Nadal?
  • Australian Open men's favourites and more discussed by live-tennis.com's editors
  • Watch and bet on tennis at William Hill > live streaming > tennis
Novak Djokovic stumbled in 2017 but will he find his feet quickly in 2018? (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Will Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray make comebacks in 2018 as successful as those of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2017? The live-tennis.com team debates.

Watch and bet on tennis live in 2018 at William Hill > live streaming > tennis

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer each put together incredible resurgent seasons in 2017, coming back from extended spells on the sidelines with injury to collectively capture all four Grand Slams and end the year as the No. 1 and 2 players in the world. Which begs the question - can fellow ‘Big Four’ members Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray emulate those feats as they prepare to return from their own respective injuries in 2018? The LiveTennis team of Hannah Wilks, Leye Aduloju and Andrew Hendrie debate their chances!

Andrew Hendrie: Interesting topic and obviously one of the great stories of intrigue as we gear up for the 2018 season. I don’t think any of us expected that Nadal and Federer would dominate in the fashion they did in 2017 (I certainly didn’t), so you’ve got to be careful before writing off Djokovic and Murray, no matter how hard it is to envision them sweeping the slams and finishing 2018 as No. 1 and 2 at the moment. Anything can happen in tennis (as we saw this season) and things can change drastically in an instant.

With that being said, I’m much more optimistic about Djokovic’s chances of returning to No. 1 and winning more majors than Murray’s. Djokovic’s struggles on the court first surfaced after he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slams simultaneously at the 2016 French Open. He admitted to lacking motivation and drive after making history, which is understandable after such a feat. After parting ways with Boris Becker at the end of 2016, Djokovic then split with his entire coaching team in Madrid this season. Obviously Djokovic needed a change and a fresh team around him. He’s got that now with Radek Stepanek and Andre Agassi.

Andy Murray crashed out of the Australian Open early in 2017  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
I think Djokovic is the sort of character and personality that needs to have fun on the court and in training throughout the season - and he’ll certainly get that with his good friend Stepanek! Agassi’s presence is a nice balance, he’s obviously a legend of the game and knows all about winning slams after turning 30. If Djokovic has fully recovered from his elbow injury (which he said had been bothering him for 18 months before pulling the plug at Wimbledon), then I see no reason why he can’t return to dominating the sport and compiling a similar comeback season to that of Federer and Nadal. I’d even label him as favourite for January’s Australian Open.

Murray, on the other hand, I think will find it more challenging to carve his way back to the very top. Hip injuries are extremely tough on the body, especially when your game’s strengths are based on movement and endurance, while Murray’s second coaching split with Ivan Lendl couldn’t have come at a worst time. The Scot only made it past the quarter-finals of one slam (SF at the French) after his initial split with Lendl in 2014 - add in coming back from a serious hip problem (that could still be lingering), into the equation this time around, and I’m not too confident in Murray’s chances to win slams in 2018. And we have to remember that Murray, apart from his magical finish to 2016 as he chased down the No. 1 ranking, has never dominated the sport for extended periods like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have.

At the end of the day, Djokovic has runs on the board (in terms of dominating the sport) and is a better tennis player than Murray (can’t argue with 12 slams to 3). Which is why, putting it simply, he has better a better chance of following in Federer and Nadal’s footsteps.

Leye Aduloju: 2018 has got the makings of a fantastic year in men’s tennis, as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray return from injuries; Federer and Nadal look to reproduce their 2017 excellence; and Dimitrov, Goffin and Zverev attempt to build on the gains of the outgone season, amongst other storylines of course.

This increased competition is the major reason why I don’t think Djokovic or Murray can emulate Federer and Nadal’s dominance from the previous season.

I do agree that Djokovic looks set to have a very good year. If the reason for his initial struggles was motivation, (before his injuries really kicked in), then half a year away from the tour watching Federer and Nadal do what they did should have re-awakened that appetite! Let’s not forget, this man was absolutely unplayable at his prime, and there is no reason to doubt his ability to rediscover that level.

All seems well in the Djokovic camp - having Andre Agassi around is never bad idea, while the appointment of maverick Stepanek could be a masterstroke. Things aren’t that rosy in Andy Murray’s end of the divide, following the departure of Ivan Lendl. The Scot also didn’t sound the most confident when he spoke about his fitness ahead of November’s exhibition match against Roger Federer in Glasgow.

Of course, full fitness can never be a guarantee. Apart from Djokovic and Murray potentially carrying vestiges of their 2017 problems into the new season, Federer and Nadal also have their problems. Federer had issues with his back at the back end of last season, while Nadal’s infamous knees misbehaved in the final weeks of the season.

Taking the Grand Slams one after the other, assuming everyone is on a level playing field fitness-wise, I make Federer the favourite in Melbourne, just ahead of Djokovic. Nadal obviously will be hard to beat at Roland Garros, and I believe Federer will once again tailor his schedule to suit Wimbledon- he will be the main man over there. The US Open is the most unpredictable. A lot would have happened before August 2018- injuries, loss of form and all. Nadal capitalized on a depleted field in 2017, the next edition could also come down to the survival of the fittest.

Hannah Wilks: I think you've both identified the weakness in the way the question was phrased - part of what was incredible about Federer and Nadal in 2017 was that they both found their way back to the top of the game and carved up the Grand Slams between them to finish the year ending world no. 1 and world no. 2. The consensus among the two of you seems to be that Djokovic's 2018 prospects look a lot rosier than Murray's - and I can't disagree. 

Stan Wawrinka has had two knee surgeries ahead of the 2018 season  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Health and fitness is a major (no pun intended) unknown ahead of the Australian Open and the 2018 season in general, with all of the 'Big Four' carrying some kind of physical issue, The exact state of Djokovic's wrist or Nadal's knees is not something we're going to really know much about until they take to the court in late December and early January, so it feels slightly pointless to speculate. But even if we wipe the question of Murray's hip injury - which sounds, by all accounts, pretty bad and potentially career-ending - off the board, I don't think Murray is fundamentally framed to make the kind of speedy comeback from extended breaks that Federer and Nadal have shown themselves capable of; look at how long it took him to get back to anything like his best after that back surgery in 2013. His 2014 season was kind of a disaster and rescued only by a late autumn charge. I could see Murray ending 2018 at around world no. 4 or 5, but only after a similar late-season surge, and I think he'll struggle for much of the year.

Things certainly look better for Djokovic. As you've both suggested, the mixture of Agassi and Stepanek in the camp is an intriguing one and I would be tempted to join Andy in making him the favourite for the Australian Open, assuming of course that he's fit - the eternal caveat!

I think there are two parts of the question that we haven't really discussed enough, though. The first is the relative weakness, or otherwise, of the field outside of the Big Four. This was, to my mind, conspicuous in 2017 - you only have to look at the year-end top 10: World nos. 3-5 (Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem) were relevant at literally one or fewer Grand Slams; then there's the likes of Jack Sock and Pablo Carreno Busta ... The return of an even somewhat fit Stan Wawrinka, which we anticipate in 2018, would make a big difference to the general level of competition by itself.

The second is whether Federer can change the dynamic of his rivalry with Djokovic in the same way that he succeeded in turning the tables on Nadal in 2017. Admittedly Djokovic is 23-22 vs Federer, but he has obviously won the majority of their meetings in recent years (especially at Grand Slams, where Federer last won one at Wimbledon 2012). 

So my two questions to the two of you are ... well, those ones. Do we think Djokovic and Murray will climb the rankings quickly when they return partly because of the weakness of the field outside of Federer and Nadal? And, narrowing our focus to Djokovic, do we think Federer can find a solution to the problem of the Serb in the same way he did against Nadal?

Andrew Hendrie: Bang on - the level of competition is a major (no pun intended again!) factor on how swiftly Djokovic and Murray make their way back up the rankings. I’m a firm believer that one of the primary reasons for Federer and Nadal’s dominance throughout 2017 was because nobody could challenge them - at least consistently and in the bigger events. You can’t tell me that Nadal and Federer played better in 2017 than they did a decade ago.

As you mentioned Hannah, you only have to look as far as seeing the names of Jack Sock and Pablo Carreno Busta in the top 10 to justify the severe lack of depth in men’s tennis at the moment. Sock won three matches during the entire European clay and grass swings, while Carreno Busta only won one of eight matches after the U.S. Open. Dominic Thiem barely threatened off clay all season and he comfortably established himself among the game’s elite. Alexander Zverev hasn’t proved himself at the slams and is yet to beat a top 50 player in BO5. The jury is still out on whether Dimitrov can back up his 2017 - and again, the Bulgarian only really flourished in January and November (apart from taking advantage of the depleted Cincinnati Masters field).

With this in mind, I’d tend to agree with you in placing Murray around the 4-5 bracket by season’s end (again, assuming he plays a full year without serious injuries) and I think Djokovic will make it back to No. 1 at some stage - and I’d say the lack of depth at the top of men’s tennis will play a significant role in that. Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka (without Magnus Norman, which is a discussion for another time) and Gael Monfils are all top 10 players from 2016 that are also returning from injury that could offer resistance, but I think Djokovic in full flight continues his domination over all of them (bar Wawrinka of course) and Murray beats them more often than not.

Djokovic has established an ascendancy over Federer in recent years  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
If Federer can find the answers to turn the tables on Djokovic is an interesting question. I didn’t think there was any way Federer could get the upper hand on his rivalry with Nadal, especially at this stage of his career, but all it took was a bit more aggression on the backhand wing and on return of serve and voila, he went 4-0 over him in 2017. If he can overcome his clear deficiencies of his match-up with Nadal, there’s definitely a chance he can do the same with Djokovic.

But I don’t think he will. For one, I think Djokovic, at his best, plays at a much higher level on hardcourt than Nadal. Secondly, can Federer repeat his phenomenal performances from 2017 into another season at the age of 36? When you consider how he struggled towards the end of 2017 and how he always seems to be carrying this lingering back issue, you’ve got to have your doubts. And thirdly, I think Djokovic is just too solid, especially on the backhand. He’ll simply turn into a brick wall, retrieve everything with depth and frustrate Federer into error.

Like both of you stated, a lot of this is pure speculation because we don’t know how Djokovic and Murray will pull up from their respective injuries, especially because neither of them underwent surgery to correct the problem. And Federer and Nadal both finished 2017 under an injury cloud, which adds another element to the discussion. But for me, if everyone’s fit and operating at their peak in 2018, Djokovic will be the main man again, Nadal will be just as dangerous on clay but perhaps not as much on other surfaces, Federer will threaten on his sporadic schedule but won’t clean up anywhere to the extent he did this season, and Murray will gradually fight his way back into the top five, but probably with no major prizes. And it’s up to the rest of the field (Dimitrov, Zverev, Goffin, Thiem, Cilic, Kyrgios) to try and stop them.

Leye Aduloju: I don’t see how Djokovic wouldn’t be at least Top 4 by the end of the year- and I expect him to be higher. Considering the fact that in 2017, he was either off-form or injured in what used to be his most productive period of the season, there are plenty of points to be won in 2018!

Djokovic is traditionally strong at the Australian Open-Indian Wells-Miami axis, a period during which he struggled last season. Expect him to rack up points in Melbourne, where he will only be defending second round points (!); he lost out in the Round of 16 at Indian Wells and didn’t play Miami at all. He could be adding almost 2000 points by the end of March!

He fared better on clay, but there are still points to be gained on the dirt, but further acceleration should come in the latter half of the year, particularly from the US Open down to Asia, where he was the absolute boss until last year. So yes, the Serbian will rocket up the rankings pretty quickly in my opinion.

Regarding the weakness of the top four, Djokovic was better than virtually everyone else at his best any way, so, assuming he is fit, I will be very surprised if he finishes below any of Sock, Carreno-Busta, Thiem, and even Zverev in 2018. Notice I haven’t included Goffin and Dimitrov in that little list- I’m holding out for big seasons from those two (even though I suspect they will both finish below Djokovic in 2018 because of the sheer number of points available for the Serbian).

I have to say I’m less optimistic about Murray. He’s definitely top 10, but will he make enough deep runs to move up quickly? I don’t think so. Unlike Djokovic, who was at the top of the sport for an extended period, beating everyone, including other members of the big four, Murray had just four or five months of true dominance, and let’s not forget, Federer and Nadal were nursing injuries when he had that golden patch in the back end of 2016. Even that took a whole lot out of him. Will he, can he push himself that hard for a whole year? Unlikely.

As for the Federer-Djokovic rivalry, if both are at their best, I will have to lean towards Novak once again, especially on a hard court. There are aspects of his game that will always give Federer problems- the return of serve especially. Except Federer serves up a storm, he will always be vulnerable the Serb’s superb returning. Nadal obviously doesn’t return as good and as aggressive as Djokovic.

Also, Djokovic defends better than Nadal off both wings- he hits deeper and flatter, so will push Federer back more that Nadal managed. There is also that magic backhand, one of the best shots in the sport when it’s firing.

QUIZ: How well do you know Novak Djokovic?

Hannah Wilks: I do think there is a general tendency to treat the years of Djokovic's dominance as some kind of interregnum in a Fedal era, which can blind us to just how impenetrable and effective his game is. Tennis as a whole is great at getting excited about the very recent past and extremely misty-eyed about the distant past, but less impressive when it comes to holding a reasonable perspective about anything in the middle distance.

All of this is to say that I can't dispute the consensus that Djokovic will be climbing up the rankings very quickly (given the eternal 'if fit' caveat!). I also have to agree with both of you that it's difficult to envision Federer turning the tables on Djokovic in 2018 in the way that he managed to do against Nadal in 2017. It isn't a question of a shot-for-shot mismatch in the way that Federer vs Nadal was traditionally analysed, but rather tests, perhaps, the exact qualities it's going to be more and more difficult for Federer to bring to the court going forward - namely, stamina, both physical and mental.

I don't want to underestimate the severity of Djokovic's various struggles or disrespect the field, but I think expecting anything other than a fairly swiftly successful comeback from the Serb is disregarding just how good he is. 

I do find it intriguing that neither of you have taken the bait to discuss Stan Wawrinka as a factor. It's true that he has injury concerns (but who doesn't?) and his split with Magnus Norman, who was the affable Swedish Svengali of Wawrinka's elevation to the rank of Grand Slam champion, is another big question mark when it comes to the 'other Swiss man' in 2018. But if Wawrinka's knee surgeries have done the trick, and draws in Melbourne and Paris put him on an early-ish collision course with Djokovic, I think that could slow the Serb's return to the top of the game. It's not all about majors, of course - Djokovic excels at Masters 1000 Series level and can shoot up the rankings with strong performances at Indian Wells and Miami, without even getting into what's available to him in the second half of the year - but it's something to bear in mind. When one is making one's predictions for Melbourne and Paris, there's no bigger 'x factor' in the men's game than Stan Wawrinka.

I'll wrap up by noting that we swiftly arrived at a consensus on all fronts, which if nothing else gives a neat snapshot of the conventional wisdom ahead of the 2018 ATP season. But then conventional wisdom never predicted the Federer-Nadal domination of 2017 ...

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Editors debate: Will Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray return to dominate the game in 2018?

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal returned from extended injury breaks to dominate the ATP World Tour in 2017: Can Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray do the same thing in 2018? Live-tennis.com's chief editors, Andrew Hendrie, Hannah Wilks and 'Leye Aduloju, debate.

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