8 Truths from 2018: Novak Djokovic the dominant force despite Zverev's win, Murray career in balance
Novak Djokovic is still the the dominant force in men's tennis, despite defeat to Alexander Zverev, while Andy Murray's career hangs in the balance. Eight truths from Kevin Coulson and Dan Quarrell at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals.
Zverev's Grand ambition
Alexander Zverev's formidable dismantling of Novak Djokovic's game to secure the biggest title of his burgeoning career at the World Tour Finals served as an intriguing teaser ahead of what he could unleash in 2019.
The German has still yet to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam, but at the age of 21 is surely poised to make a huge impact after his triumph in London.
Zverev cut an assured and confident figure throughout as he dominated Djokovic on serve and from the back of the court, showcasing the outrageous talent that so often appears to fade from view in the second week of Slams.
But it could all be very different next season as he further benefits from the assuring presence of Ivan Lendl in his corner. Another off season of strength work, conditioning and Lendl guidance could tee up a year that sees him follow up his season-ending crown with the maiden Slam he so desires.
Djokovic still man to beat
Sure, Djokovic lost on Sunday. But make no mistake: the year-ending world number one's resurgence in 2018 has been quite remarkable. Only in June, a beleaguered Djokovic was stunned by unheralded Italian Marco Cecchinato at the French; even after that chastening defeat, he said in despondent fashion that he didn't "know if I'm going to play on grass".
A month later, he roared to his fourth Wimbledon title to spark his incredible comeback.
Now at the end of the season, the Serb can reflect on a campaign which saw him achieve both of the stated goals which appeared so unlikely after his Roland Garros humbling: the world number one ranking and Grand Slam victories.
He looked weary when losing to Zverev and the ATP Final result should not mask the truth. His triumph at the US Open showed Wimbledon was not an isolated glimpse of his former glory, but a bold statement of the status he now holds once more: the dominant force in men's tennis.
Zverev serves up reminder
When serving for the first set against Djokovic on Sunday, Zverev fired down three aces on the bounce against Novak Djokovic.
It was a clinical way to crush any hope the world No 1 might have had of forcing a tiebreak and followed something that no-one had done all week – breaking the Serb’s serve. One break point earned, one break point won.
And then, to prove it was no fluke, he broke Djokovic twice more in succession.
But what his serve - that touched 140mph on occasion - and a back-court game that can undo Djokovic demonstrated more than anything was that the likes of Kevin Anderson and Marin Cilic must up their game once more.
For although they both reached major finals this year – Anderson at Wimbledon, where he ousted Roger Federer, and Cilic at the Australian Open – they did not use their weapons wisely at the ATP Finals and lacked the all-round game of the rest.
Djokovic outserved Anderson in the semi-final with two more aces (6-4) than his opponent. Less power, more precision. He also noted that breaking the South African in the very first game was the first step on the road to the 6-2 6-2 destruction because he "relies so much on his serve".
Of course, it would be no surprise if Anderson or Cilic won a major in 2019, they are, after all in the top 8 players in the world, but their best chance remains Wimbledon and they must produce a flawless serving display across two weeks.
Because, if they are broken, they struggle more than most to break back. Others, like Federer, Rafa Nadal, Djokovic and now Zverev, have a broader armoury to fall back on.
Make or break for Murray?
Andy Murray certainly looks in great shape.
But then, during his winter training camps, he always does.
The Scot’s attention to detail on his fitness is incredible, with the 31-year-old using yoga, ballet, and now gymnastics in a bid to get an edge on his rivals at the top of the game.
So it’s good news for fans of his that he has adapted his usual plan over the winter in order to ‘re-condition’ himself, and travelled to Philadelphia and Miami after ending his season early.
It’s also positive – reading between the lines – that footage of Murray’s training camp has emerged on social media as this surely would not have been posted should he have hit any more setbacks.
However, there is no substitute for playing – especially after a hip injury, one of the hardest to come back from – so the acid test will be when he lines up at Brisbane ahead of the Australian Open in January.
It is a long way back from hip surgery, and world No 263, into the top 10. And with the likes of Lleyton Hewitt never returning to the heights they had once hit after hip operations, it is still a long road for Murray a year on from going under the knife.
It could still go either way, and the longer he goes without consistent tennis, the more likely it could be that he retires. But if there is one man who can achieve it...
Don’t forget Edmund!
Speaking of Brits coming back stronger, don’t forget about this man…
He narrowly missed out on the ATP Finals, withdrawing from the Paris Masters with a knee injury.
But it came after a season of firsts – his maiden Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open, ATP tournament title at the European Open, and career-high ranking of 14.
And, don’t forget, it was also an injury – which he did not want to talk about out of respect for his opponent – which hampered him in his semi-final against Cilic in Melbourne in January.
The 23-year-old has a monster forehand and, given that the other youngsters at the top of the game have still not closed the gap sufficiently on the top players to be challenging regularly for majors, do not be surprised, injuries permitting, if Edmund continues his rise.
Dimitrov and Thiem have to take final step in 2019
Every year much is expected of Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem; every pre-season prediction touts a potential breakout. Thiem did show impressive form to reach the final at Roland Garros, but otherwise the pair have again not managed to win a Grand Slam befitting of their talents.
At 25, Thiem is two years Dimitov's junior, but neither has been able to upset the established trio dominating men’s tennis, and it is hard to see that changing in 2019.
Dimitrov boasts the kind of rare talent that convinces you a Grand Slam is all but a formality whenever he flashes a backhand winner cross court, yet at 27-years-old it is quickly getting harder to picture. The Bulgarian triumphed in London only last year to suggest he may have finally cracked the big-stage anti-climaxes, but 2018 has proved an underwhelming follow up.
Having ended last season as the world number three, he is now down at 19 and struggling to reassert himself amongst the game's elite group. One senses this off season will be absolutely crucial working with Dani Vallverdu as he looks to finally deliver better that a last-four finish when it really matters at a Slam.
For the Austrian, an end of year ranking of eight demonstrates his inconsistency away from the clay courts. He may well be the king in waiting at Roland Garros, but he cannot afford to simply wait for Rafael Nadal to be out of the draw if he is to truly stamp his authority on a Slam.
Cupset over team events?
Are there too many team events in tennis?
The 118-year-old Davis Cup has been joined on the calendar by the Laver Cup – impressive since its debut – and now the ATP Cup, which is set to feature ahead of the Australian Open in 2020.
It has led to increased concerns about player burnout, despite the assurances of ATP chief Chris Kermode, who insists the newest event will simply replace the Australian Open warm-up events for most players.
Of course the prize money – just under £12m is in the pot – will help, as well as well as the incentive for the top stars of representing their country and not just themselves.
However, with the Davis Cup seemingly in decline over recent years with the top stars rotating in and out of their national teams dependent on their personal schedule, could this be too much, too soon?
Although the team events are popular with fans, we can only hope that three events in a calendar year – and two within six weeks of each other – do not serve to dilute the attraction and lead to sparse attendances.
Shapovalov, Tsitsipas and Khachanov exciting talents to watch
There is currently no doubt that Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Karen Khachanov are rising prospects to watch very closely in 2019 with all three capable of crashing a Grand Slam in a big way.
The dynamic trio all play in a very aggressive and entertaining manner, which is great for the sport at a time when fans have been long since doubting the talent coming through and the chances of anyone overtaking the old guard.
At 19, 20 and 22 respectively – add the more established Zverev, who is still just 21 – the group have the opportunity to really seize the initiative next year, starting at the Australian Open.
As Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have consistently proved, however, rising stars need much more than huge groundstrokes and powerful serves if they are to usurp the legendary trio, so it is crucial they each prove they have the mental strength and fortitude to upset the decade-long order.