Does anyone really pretend to know what 2017 holds in store for the ATP? The status quo was shattered on both tours in the second half of last year, and change seems to be in the air. The pecking order in men's and women's tennis appears less stable than it has been in a decade.
Predicting anything under these circumstances is perilous, but here are five prognostications for this season:
1. Roger Federer will win his 18th major title: Federer's reaction to the media after winning the first match he played in half a year was this: "I'd like to live [my comeback match] again. I'm a little bit sad it's over, because it was so nice out there. I was actually quite emotional. When I walked down, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is better than I thought it would be.'"
Do you think this guy missed the game while rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee through the second half of 2016? Do you think he's ready for another go?
Federer has to be the youngest 35-year-old in human history. He's the all-time Grand Slam singles champ, and he's returning to an altered and less formidable landscape. Novak Djokovic, Federer's recent nemesis, looks vulnerable. Same goes for Rafael Nadal. Federer has usually throttled Andy Murray.
Federer will have fresh legs, an alert mind and, as his words indicated, a deep well of enthusiasm despite his veteran status. "After all these years, it would be nice to win another one," added Federer, who hasn't won a major since Wimbledon in 2012. "Of course I'd even take two or three or four."
2. Andy Murray will consolidate his hold on the top spot: Despite a moving pecking order in tennis, there is not lack of obstacles for Murray. And outside the Big Four, this includes players such as Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic. But Murray will win enough matches and titles to retain his top ranking because his resolve and single-mindedness are peaking at exactly the right time. He's usurped Djokovic's role as the beast of the ATP.
The Australian Open will be particularly interesting in light of the developing Djokovic-Murray rivalry. Djokovic has beaten Murray in four finals (and five matches) Down Under. Djokovic was the chief source of the "always the bridesmaid" reputation Murray has had to work so hard to overcome. A win against Djokovic in Melbourne would be a sweet, validating experience for Murray.
3. At least three new faces will win ATP Masters 1000 events: The Big Four have had a stranglehold on Masters events since 2011. They have carted away the hardware 50 times in 54 tournaments. The only year in which more than one of the nine annual Masters titles went to a player outside the Big Four was 2014, when Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga each won one.
Look for a few more first-time winners to join Wawrinka, Tsonga and 2016 Cincinnati champ Marin Cilic as Masters champions in 2017. Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Gael Monfils are the prime contenders, but also watch the young pros such as Lucas Pouille, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev. These "outsiders" might not win majors in 2016, but some will walk away with a Masters 1000s crown.
4. Boris Becker will be back in the coaching picture before Wimbledon is over: The Wimbledon icon and former No. 1 served Djokovic extremely well, helping him win six Grand Slam titles in three years. Outspoken and flamboyant in his playing days, Becker suppressed his big personality while advising Djokovic.
It's hard to imagine that someone won't jump at the opportunity to hire Becker. It might even be Djokovic, should he find himself unable to resume his dominant, winning ways. The two parted company with mutual admiration intact. But the ideal candidate might be one of Becker's fellow Germans, Zverev. The 19-year-old has a big, Becker-esque serve and is already No. 24. Pundits consider Zverev a surefire top-5 player once he is seasoned.
5. Rafael Nadal will be the only player from Spain in the year-end top 20: Surely you remember the glory days of the Spanish Armada, when players from the Iberian Peninsula flooded the pro tour and the upper reaches of the ATP rankings?
The fleet started with Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja. Juan Carlos Ferrero, Nadal, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez and others soon followed. Spain has had as many as three players in the top 10 at one time. It's been a Davis Cup superpower. As recently as 2013, six Spanish pros led by Nadal accounted for 16 titles by the time the US Open rolled around. Nadal won that one, too.
Last year, Nadal barely hung on in the top 10, at No. 9. He had just one fellow countryman in the top 20, No. 14 Roberto Bautista Agut. Worse yet, at age 28, Bautista Agut is the youngest Spanish player in the top 100. The fleet is heading for mothballs.