Abu Dhabi is the first step on the comeback for Rafa Nadal

 

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When Andy Murray was crowned world no 1 in November, the first British male to hold the position in the history of ATP Rankings, it ended former champion Novak Djokovic’s 122-week reign. It also brought about the end to what proved to be a thrilling year of professional tennis.

While men’s tennis is typically dominated by the big four – Scotland’s Murray, Djokovic the Djoker, Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Swiss veteran Roger Federer – the 2016 season saw a younger generation of lower ranked players climb their way to the top, two of the big four drop below the top four for the first time in over a decade, and Britain’s pride and glory claw his way to victory after years of dogged effort.

As the season came to a close with its new well-deserved champion, it left fans wondering just one thing: what’s next? Well, the 2017 season could certainly be an exciting one if last year’s unpredictability is anything to go by.

Better yet, it all starts here with the season opener, the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC), from 29th to 31st December. Every year, the tournament welcomes six of the world’s top players who fight for the trophy in a bid to show fellow players how they mean to go on.

The ninth edition of the tournament sees world no 1 Murray go up against reigning champion Nadal, returning contender Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Canadian world no 3 Milos Raonic, Czech powerhouse Tomáš Berdych and debutant David Goffin. Given the rankings, it would be easy to assume the final will be a Murray-Raonic showdown.

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But history tells us anything could happen. One man who knows how unpredictable tennis can be is seasoned pro Nadal, affectionately known as Rafa, who’s a firm favourite with Abu Dhabi fans. The King of Clay has had a tough year: injury forced him to pull out of the season in October, causing him to drop out of the top four for the first time in 13 years.

“Every season is different and it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen,” Rafa tells ADW.

“The 2016 season has been a new season in a way. I suppose fans were used to seeing the same players as previous years win most of the big tournaments.

“The season started with a very strong Novak who seemed unbeatable. Then Andy Murray has played some amazing tennis and managed to end as year number one. That was an amazing end of the season playing arguably his best tennis ever.

Roger and I both suffered some unfortunate injuries this year and that, in a way, has kept us away from playing tennis. This is one of the problems in our sport and our ranking system: the moment you have an injury you risk dropping many spots and that’s happened in the past with players such as (Juan Martín) del Potro (rank: 38) and this year with Roger.”

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Despite having time to recuperate and prepare, Rafa knows what challenges the Abu Dhabi tournament will present for him. “If you haven’t played for such a long time, you are completely out of rhythm and that is something important. So for this purpose the Abu Dhabi tournament is very important for starting the season.

“My goal is to be healthy and try to reach my best level of tennis. Being ranked eighth or fourth is not a big difference. I know that if I play well and I am able to compete at the highest level, the ranking will hopefully follow. Obviously I do risk having to play against any of the top four in earlier rounds, but that’s tennis.

“I would love to win [MWTC] again but obviously I haven’t had any matches in a long time so it’s not easy,” he continues. “There are great players on the field and everyone wants to win. Every opponent is complicated, from the first match until a potential final.”

Outside of said matches, MWTC incorporates activities for visitors, in particular children, in an effort to highlight the sport of tennis and get youngsters active, a passion that’s shared by Rafa.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Tomas Berdych of The Czech republic celebrates victory during the Men's Singles first round match against Ivan Dodig of Croatia on day three of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 29, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“This is key for our sport and any sport,” he says. “The kids are the future of our life and you have to get them involved, have them enjoy the sport and the game of tennis as I did when I was a kid.”

In the Tennis Village, you can join in autograph signing sessions and coaching clinics with the players, and even Murray’s mum Judy, while there will also be special activities for kids on day one. While it’s easy to say there are plenty of fun activities in between matches, the pros are sure to put on a nail-biting demonstration of skill as the 2017 season begins. So will the world no 1 leave his fellow athletes in the dust? Will first-time player Goffin pull out a surprise win? Or will Rafa retain his Abu Dhabi title?

We’ll have to wait and see…

Predictions for the 2017 season

Professional tennis is anything but predictable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate. Taking into account the highs and lows of the 2016 season, head coach at Zayed Sports City (ZSC) Academy and former pro Peter Wessels serves up what he thinks 2017 has
in store…

It’s been a remarkable year. How would you sum up the 2016 season?

It has been interesting with the traditional top players still winning the majors, but they will have great competition next season from some of the younger players who can smell their chance now that Federer and Nadal are injured a lot and they see that Djokovic can be beaten too. I was pleasantly surprised by Dominic Thiem
(rank: 8) who I enjoy watching and it was great to see that del Potro came back with some great results after being injured for a long time.

Given the unpredictability, how do you think the 2017 season is going to play out?

It will definitely be a very interesting one with a new world number one and some younger players knocking on the door of the absolute top. It will be interesting to see how Djokovic comes back after a bit of a disappointing last few months of the season. I’m also very curious to see if Federer and Nadal can stay healthy and if they can, how good they still are and if they have any chances of winning Grand Slams again.

We know about the “big 4”, but are there any other players that you think we need to keep an eye on?

I believe there are a few players that could be a threat for the traditional top four next season. I’m thinking about guys like (Stan] Wawrinka (rank: 4), Raonic and del Potro. But also younger players like Thiem and Misha Zverev (rank: 51) who is a great talent, and I also hope that Grigor Dimitrov (rank: 17) will find his way back to the top 10.

You’ve been up against some top players in your career, even beating Federer in 1999, so you know their strengths and weaknesses. Do you think Federer and Nadal can climb back up the rankings?

I think Federer and Nadal have had their best times behind them but I still believe both could do well next season. It all depends on how fit they will be throughout the season. If they can stay away from injuries then I still believe both belong in the top five.

If you had to predict who would be in the top four at the end of the 2017 season, who would it be?

It will be harder for the top four than ever but I will stick with the names of Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Raonic or perhaps Wawrinka or (Kei) Nishikori (rank: 5).

Why is the MWTC an exciting season opener?

It gives you an insight into the upcoming season. All players have had their rest at the end of the season and preparing for the first couple of tournaments of the year in Australia. I believe that in previous years the players who did well in the MWTC also did well at the start of the season.

As for visitors, it must be exciting to see the top of the tennis world in action during the event. The players are more approachable than in other big tournaments; you can see them having fun, practising together and you can get up close and personal during the clinics and autograph signings, which is also great motivation for our younger players. It’s a great line-up this year.

Who will you be rooting?

Nadal; I really hope he can fight his way back to the top. He’s a great ambassador for the game and a huge role model for young players.

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