When Milos Raonic addressed the press in Abu Dhabi during the Mubadala World Tennis Championship early this month, the Canadian exuded so much confidence and spoke with such gusto, it was impossible not to sit up and take him seriously.
“I’m very confident… I feel like I can do really good things. I’m playing well, I’m fit, and damn it if I’m not hungry,” were his closing statements in the UAE capital.
Eight days later, Raonic defeated Roger Federer for just the second time in 11 meetings between them, to lift the Brisbane trophy last Sunday and turn his words into action so early in the new season.
After spending most of 2015 dealing with injuries, first a nerve problem in his foot that required surgery and forced him to miss the French Open, and more recently back spasms that ended his season prematurely, Raonic is finally fit and healthy and raring to go once again.
One interesting stat from Raonic’s win over a flu-struck Federer in Brisbane is that he ventured up to the net 25 times and won 20 of those points.
With his serve being such a gigantic weapon, it’s great to see the 25-year-old capitalising on it by taking his game up to the net.
Raonic has already shown his grand slam potential when he made the semis at Wimbledon in 2014 and reached the Australian Open and French Open quarter-finals in 2015 and 2014 respectively.
If he does indeed remain fit this season, you can’t help but think he could pop up in a grand slam final this year.
Player of the week – Sloane Stephens
Getting her first win over Caroline Wozniacki in the Auckland semi-finals and then stepping on the court a few hours later on the same day to defeat Julia Goerges for her second career title was quite the statement from the American.
Is Stephens due another strong Australian Open run reminiscent of her 2013 march to the semis? Definitely one to watch Down Under.
Flop of the week – David Ferrer
Losing in the first round at a tournament you won last year is hardly the way you’d want to start a new season.
Ferrer’s loss to Illya Marchenko in Doha was an unfortunate hit for the Spaniard, who has four more titles to defend this year.
Novak Djokovic insists he does not feel invincible despite starting the season in the best manner possible by crushing Rafael Nadal in straight sets to capture the title in Doha.
After making a 16th consecutive final and winning a sixth tournament in a row, Djokovic now turns his attention to the Australian Open where he is looking to extend his Open Era record of five trophies won there so far.
While the 28-year-old world No1 admits he is playing the tennis of his life, he is under no illusion that he is immune to defeat.
“No, I don’t feel invincible. Nobody is invincible,” said Djokovic in Doha after his win.
“But I’m playing the tennis of my life, and I will try to nurture and cherish those moments on the court.
“I will use this confidence level in every tournament that I play on. I know that it can’t go forever, but I’m not thinking too much ahead of myself.
“I don’t try to make any kind of predictions or whether or not I’m going to have another streak or whether or not I’m going to have the season of my life. I try not to go too far with my thoughts, because that creates a little bit of a distraction and unbalance emotionally.
“I think not just for a professional athlete but for anybody, really, to be in the present moment is a huge task. I try to work on that and stay committed, stay dedicated, do the things that I have respected and done with my team for several years that have worked so far, and hopefully I’m going to keep going.”
Djokovic, who had revealed he has been experiencing some pain in his right arm while serving, believes the problem will not affect his chances at the Australian Open, where he will be seeking an 11th grand slam title.
“The week that I have before the Australian Open starts will actually be very useful for me because I have played a lot, trained very hard, played a great five matches here. So I’m going to try to manage the energy in the days to come and work on certain specific things,” said Djokovic.
“But I think I’m ready for the competition, and I’m ready. Obviously some fine-tuning, best-of-five is different. Playing in a grand slam is different; I know that.
“That’s where I’m hoping I can continue this run and this great level of performance.”
On his arm injury he added: “I don’t think it’s too serious. I don’t see it as a possible hindrance for Australian Open. It appears time to time, but it’s nothing that really is major that I will be concerned about.”
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal insists he is not frustrated by Novak Djokovic’s superhuman level nor is he obsessed with catching the Serb, instead he is focused on his own path and is getting ready for when opportunity strikes.
Following a humbling 6-1, 6-2 Qatar Open final defeat do Djokovic on Saturday night – which game the Serb the edge in their lifetime head-to-head for the first time in his career – Nadal remains confident in his ability to compete well at next week’s Australian Open (starts January 18) and explains that his quest revolves around himself and not others.
Djokovic has won more titles (32) than he's lost matches (26) on hard courts since start of 2011 season #ATPStats— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 9, 2016
“I never had any obsessions for anything. Ambition yes, obsession no,” said a remarkably objective Nadal in Doha after his loss.
“I usually keep an eye on what I do. You cannot be thinking about what others do, it is not in your hands. I’m happy with my progress, happy the way I am working with the right attitude and the right level of play.
“Today there is a player who is better than all the others and I have to accept that. There are only two options: either I get frustrated and not want to fight, not want to face the challenge; or know that someone is better than you and wait. But wait while working so that when your chance comes, you are prepared and you take it. When one waits and searches, opportunity often arrives.”
Nadal started 2016 looking to put a troubling previous season behind him. The Spanish world No5 ended 2015 better than he started it, and commenced this year by winning the title at the Mubadala exhibition in Abu Dhabi with wins over David Ferrer and Milos Raonic before making the final in Doha.
Over the past week, the Mallorcan spoke about how pleased he has been with the progress he has made so far and that his mental struggles from 2015 are well past him.
Yet when he stepped on the court to face Djokovic on Saturday, the outcome revealed the gulf in level between Nadal and the world No1.
It is a reality Nadal is clearly aware of yet does not find frustrating.
“If you get frustrated for somebody that is better than you, it’s stupid,” Nadal said bluntly.
“I always think that if you are frustrated because somebody knows how to do something better than you, you are too arrogant or you are not smart enough.
“For sure I am not frustrated. I look the things very clear, and I am always honest. Today he’s better than me without a doubt.
“We will see during the whole season. Today? He’s better than me. We will see in two weeks or we will see in five months.
“I’m going to fight and I feel ready to fight, and I feel ready and excited about this fight and I hope to be closer.”
Nadal spoke about where his motivation lies at this point in his career and reminded everyone that he has already collected numerous trophies at the world’s greatest tournaments.
“I have 14 grand slams, not one or zero. So I do not have that urgency to win, the main urgency is to be happy and enjoy competing, which is what I’m doing today,” said the nine-time French Open champion.
Nadal flew from Doha to Sydney where he takes part in a Fast4 – touted as tennis’s version of Twenty20 – exhibition today with Lleyton Hewitt, Nick Kyrgios and Gael Monfils, before heading to Melbourne to prepare for the Australian Open.
Top seed Stanislas Wawrinka beat Croatian youngster Borna Coric on Sunday to capture the ATP Chennai Open for a third straight year, kicking off the new season in winning style.
The Swiss world number four overcame Coric in the $480,000 season-opening event with a 6-3, 7-5 win in the nearly 90-minute final, claiming his fourth victory since 2011 in the southern Indian city.
Scores of Indian fans at the Nungambakkam tennis stadium cheered wildly as the popular Wawrinka, making his eighth appearance in Chennai, outplayed his 19-year-old opponent — the youngest finalist on the ATP Tour in eight years.
The defending champion pocketed $75,700 and 250 ranking points for his efforts. But his biggest gain was a perfect tune-up for the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne on January 18.
Two years ago Wawrinka had followed his triumph at the Chennai Open by beating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final three weeks later, his first Grand Slam title.
And in 2015, after winning in Chennai, Wawrinka defeated Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros to win the French Open in June.