The first major leg of the tennis tour is over for 2017, and the long march on clay to the French Open is underway. This is shaping up as an unpredictable year, but in a good way.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the most beloved figures in the sport, mounted spectacular resurgences from long, injury-induced layoffs. Their credibility-straining performances tended to overshadow all else, but let's hand out some awards and admonitions earned during the just-completed winter/spring hard-court segment:
Rank: ATP No. 4
2017 record: 19-1
Best result: Champion at Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami
Yes, it's a no-brainer. Federer started the year ranked No. 17, and the very viability of his career was in question because of his age (35) and a knee injury that took him off the tour for the second half of 2016. But here he is, ranked No. 4.
Federer has lost just one of 20 matches, and he added an 18th Grand Slam title to his all-time men's record. He's won the only two Masters 1000 tournaments played thus far and racked up three consecutive wins over nemesis Nadal in 2017 (and four straight overall). Just as importantly, Federer (with an assist from Nadal) has focused the attention of sports fans everywhere on tennis once again.
Ranking: WTA No. 7
2017 record: 19-3
Best result: Champion in Sydney, Miami
The late-blooming British player has been a refreshing presence on the WTA. She's articulate, intelligent, frank and open. She's also a person in love with the process itself, which means you can look for her to improve. She gets the MVP because she is showing a degree of consistency that's in short supply in the WTA so far this year.
Konta has played a lot this season, with no surprising setbacks. She was beaten in the Australian Open quarterfinals by eventual champion Serena Williams. Nothing to be ashamed of in that. Her worst result was a third-round, third-set tiebreaker loss against fellow big hitter Caroline Garcia at Indian Wells. But Konta rebounded by winning her biggest title to date, at Miami, where she defeated a pair of former No. 1 players in the semis and final, respectively: Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki.
Ranking: ATP No. 5
2017 record: 19-5
Best result: Finals at Australian Open, Acapulco, Miami
It might seem odd to give this award to Nadal. How do you improve when you're already the "King of Clay"? But the reality is that Nadal was in a world of hurt in more ways than one when he left the tour last fall to take care of his wrist injury.
At that point, Nadal still seemed mired on a vicious slump unlike anything Federer has ever faced. Confidence-wise, Nadal seemed a shadow of himself in 2015 and in the early part of 2016. He turned 30 in June, on almost the exact day he pulled out of the French Open with a bad wrist before his third-round match. Nadal was barely clinging to a top-10 spot as this year began, but he made three finals, including the Australian Open and the Miami Masters, losing both times to Federer. He said Sunday in Miami: "I am close to what I need to be. I am at a very high level of tennis, and I believe I am ready to win titles."
Ranking: WTA No. 14
2017 record 12-7
Best result: Champion at Indian Wells
A 12-7 record might not be a lot to write home about, but Vesnina grabbed one of the three most important titles thus far in 2017 by rolling to the Indian Wells championship. In so doing, she achieved a career-high ranking at the age of 30. Historically, Vesnina's singles performances have suffered because of a willingness to exploit her considerable skills in doubles.
Indian Wells was just the third singles title of Vesnina's career, but she's won 15 doubles titles, including three at Grand Slam events. She was also a Wimbledon singles semifinalist in 2016, which suggests she will be a factor on grass and hard courts later this year.
Ranking: ATP No. 8
2017 record: 5-7
Best result: Semifinal in Acapulco
Cilic moved up a notch in the rankings this week, despite taking back-to-back losses in his first matches at the two recent Masters 1000 tournaments. Indian Wells and Miami are both played on hard courts similar to those at the US Open, where Cilic has won the title.
Cilic record this season is a real downer. He started the year taking a first-round loss in Chennai, India, to No. 117 Jozef Kovalik. By the time Rotterdam rolled around in mid-February, Cilic still had just one ATP match win. He's beaten just one player ranked inside the top 40 this year; that was No. 26 Steve Johnson. It happened in Acapulco, where Cilic lost to Nadal in the semis. The Croatian squandered what momentum he gained there almost immediately.
Ranking: WTA No. 6
2017 record: 14-7
Best result: Semifinal in Brisbane
Pundits and fans have been waiting for this French Open champion to settle into her role near the top of the game. (She's been ranked as high as No. 2.) But she just hasn't been finding the kind of consistency that the elite players develop.
Worse yet, some of the 23-year-old's losses seem truly inexplicable even if you factor in her relative youth. Muguruza made the Australian Open quarterfinal, but she lost to No. 35 Coco Vandeweghe by an ugly 6-4, 6-0 score -- coming after crushing all previous opponents with comparable ease. Muguruza simply tends to freeze up at important times, which doesn't bode well for her defense of the title she won at Roland Garros last year.
Ranking: ATP No. 2
2017 record: 11-3
Best result: Champion in Doha
It looked as if Djokovic had successfully hit the reset button when he came roaring out of the gates in his first tournament (Doha) to best Andy Murray in the final. Who would have predicted it would be the only final Djokovic would play by this point in the year?
Djokovic was upset in the second round of the Australian Open by journeyman Denis Istomin. Nick Kyrgios soon piled on, contributing two beatings against Djokovic in short order, one at Acapulco the other at Indian Wells (where Djokovic was defending champ). Djokovic was also defending champ in Miami, the back end of the "Sunshine Double." He pulled out before the tournament with a sore elbow, but his pride might have been wounded even more seriously.
"Of course I wanted to be on the court and defend my title," Djokovic told reporters in Belgrade, Serbia, on Wednesday, referring to Miami. "But it just didn't happen this time. At the same time, it was also rather refreshing to get some rest and sit out Miami at home with my wife and son."
Ranking: WTA No. 1
2017 record: 13-7
Best result: Semifinal in Dubai
Kerber got an enormous boost when the No. 1 ranking reverted to her by default, thanks to Serena Williams' inactivity after the Australian Open. But Kerber was unable to capitalize on the gift, losing to Vesnina at Indian Wells and Venus Williams in Miami.
Kerber's only true bright spot was Dubai, but even there she took a puzzling semifinal loss to No. 13 Elina Svitolina. True, Kerber had a career year in 2016, when she played three Grand Slam finals in 2016 (winning two) and reached No. 1. That can be draining. But at 29, she should be close to her physical peak. For her not to have made at least a final thus far in 2017 is a bad omen.
Ranking: ATP No. 64
2017 record: 9-9
Best result: Fourth round at Indian Wells
In our context, a "newcomer" is an under-22 player new to his or her station in the game. Nishioka is just 21 and stretches the tape to reach 5 feet 7. But he's come up big this year in a number of high-profile matches against quality opponents.
Nishioka had wins against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Jack Sock before producing the best performance of his career at the Indian Wells Masters. He got in as a "lucky loser" in qualifying and made the most of it, putting up wins over No. 14 Tomas Berdych and No. 21 Ivo Karlovic -- who stands a full foot and a half taller than Nishioka. In the fourth round, he forced eventual finalist and No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka into a third-set tiebreaker before capitulating.
Nishioka had to retire because of a knee injury during his second-round match against Sock. Unfortunately Nishioka tore his ACL and will be out for an indefinite period.
Ranking: WTA No. 49
2017 record: 7-5
Best result: Quarterfinal in Auckland
Osaka won't be 20 until October, but she's a promising prospect from Japan. Osaka is much taller than most Japanese players; at 5 feet 11, she even has an inch on the ATP's Kei Nishikori. Osaka makes the most of her size, relying on a powerful serve and forehand. She's won a round at every tournament she played in the early hard-court segment.
Most likely to succeed
Ranking: ATP No. 16
2017 record: 14-4
Best result: Semifinals in Marseille, Acapulco, Miami
The fiery 21-year-old from Canberra, Australia, is becoming the quintessential big-match player, and 2017 is shaping up as the year he makes his much-anticipated big breakthrough. Although he got off to a slow start, taking a heartbreaking five-set loss to tricky Andreas Seppi in the Australian Open, Kyrgios caught fire afterward.
He played like a Grand Slam champion in Acapulco, beating Djokovic in the process. Kyrgios got sick and had to withdraw before his quarterfinal match with Federer at Indian Wells, but the Aussie was healthy for his Miami semifinal with the same man. It turned into a three-'breaker barnburner. Perhaps most significantly, Kyrgios has had a pair of wins over his rival in the "next big thing" department, 19-year-old and No. 20 Alexander Zverev.
Ranking: WTA No. 2
2017 record: 7-0
Best result: Champion at Australian Open
With nobody but Konta showing signs of long-term consistency, titles are there for the asking. All Serena needs to do is come back.