There wasn’t a lot to enjoy in 2020 in tennis or indeed in general, but, as Martin Keady (our resident tennis historian) reports, there were at least these 10 things.
- RAFAEL NADAL MAKING IT 20 MAJORS IN 2020
In an utterly imperfect year, the symmetry of Rafael Nadal’s 13th French Open triumph was utterly perfect, as it meant that he won his 20th Major in 2020. Despite everything that had threatened to derail his attempt to match Roger Federer’s historic mark of most Majors won by a male player, especially the rescheduling of the tournament from the warmth of spring to the cold of autumn because of Covid, Nadal showed how canny he had been in missing the US Open to target Roland Garros. And he triumphed in style, effectively avenging his thrashing in the 2019 Australian Open Final by Novak Djokovic as he defeated the Serb 6–0, 6–2, 7–5 in Paris. That also meant that on his favourite surface, Nadal had bagelled both his great rivals in the French Open at least once, having beaten Roger Federer by an even more emphatic score – 6–1, 6–3, 6–0 – in the 2008 Final.
Nevertheless, even matching Federer’s mark of 20 Majors did not completely end all the arguments about who precisely is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in men’s tennis. The truth is, of course, that it is perfectly possible to argue that there are three GOATS in tennis, with each one of the current Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic having proved their dominance on one of the three traditional surfaces on which tennis is played: Federer is the GOATOG (Greatest Of All Time On Grass), having won a record eight Wimbledon titles (although Djokovic, who is currently on five Wimbledon titles, might yet match or even surpass him on grass over the next few years); Nadal is undoubtedly the GOATOC (Greatest of All Time On Clay), having achieved a level of dominance at a single Major that is unmatched in men’s or even women’s tennis; and Djokovic is the GOATOH (Greatest Of All Time On Hardcourt), having won a record eight Australian Open titles. All of which only confirms that the “Trivalry” between the three men is not only the greatest in tennis history but probably the greatest in the history of all sport.
- THE SPECTACULAR ARRIVAL OF IGA ŚWIĄTEK
Iga Świątek had been tipped for greatness in the past, but virtually no-one had predicted that she would finally make her Major breakthrough in such extraordinary fashion. Indeed, in the second week at Roland Garros this year, she almost upstaged Rafael Nadal winning his 20th Major in total and 13th French Open in particular by winning her maiden Major. She defeated the pre-tournament favourite, Simona Halep, in straight sets in the last 16 (having lost meekly to the Romanian at the same stage in 2019); she swept past the two unseeded women who had done so much to light up the tournament, Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podorovska, in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively; and for good measure she destroyed Sofia Kenin, the only other woman to win a maiden Major this year (at the Australian Open) and who had previously been thought virtually undestroyable, in the Final, winning 6-4, 6-1.
Świątek’s stunning triumph at the 2020 French Open meant not only that there was yet another maiden Major winner in women’s tennis but, even more importantly, that there was yet another young woman who might conceivably establish a dominance over the women’s game that nobody has yet managed in this strange “Twilight of the Goddess” era, in which Serena Williams has not won a Major since 2017 at the Australian Open but still been the favourite for almost every Major she has competed in since. Alongside Naomi Osaka (and there’s more on her below) and Bianca Andreescu, if the young Canadian can ever regain and then retain full fitness, Świątek could be one of the three women who combine stunning power with equally stunning deftness of touch to such a degree that they could finally pull away from the pack to assert themselves as the next dominant Women’s World No.1 and ultimately replace Serena as the new figurehead for their sport.
- MEN’S TENNIS FINALLY HAVING A NEW MAIDEN MAJOR WINNER
While it has seemed that women’s tennis has had more first-time Major winners in the last three years than in the previous two or three decades, such has been the churn of first-time Slam winners at the top of the sport, men’s tennis had to wait for more than six years for a new Major champion after Marin Cilic had stunned everyone by winning the 2014 US Open. That new man on the block was Dominic Thiem, who came from two sets down to win a fifth-set tie-break (that he was also behind in early on) and finally triumph against Alex Zverev in the 2020 US Open Final 2–6, 4–6, 6–4, 6–3, 7–6.
Thiem’s eventual success in The Big Apple had the added bonus of ensuring that two other far less savoury stories to emerge at or soon after the 2020 US Open did not take top billing in any review of the tournament. The first was the disqualification from the tournament of Novak Djokovic after carelessly striking a ball against a line judge and the second was the allegation of domestic abuse against Zverev by his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Olya Sharypova. Zverev denied and continues to deny the allegations, but there can be no doubt that the US Open organisers and indeed men’s tennis in general would have been relieved that it was the relatively clean-cut and controversy-free Thiem who won the title in New York. And after losing his first three Major Finals (two French Open Finals and the 2020 Australian Open Final), there could also be no doubt that the hugely skilful and likeable Austrian deserved his victory, one that at last ended the complete monopoly of the greatest prizes in men’s tennis by “The Big Three”.
- THE RETURN OF NAOMI OSAKA
Naomi Osaka never really went away, of course, but there were still 18 months between her second Major triumph (at the Australian Open in 2019, which followed hot on the heels of her debut Major win at the US Open in 2018) and her third, at the delayed and fan-free 2020 US Open. Osaka again demonstrated the combination of spectacularly powerful hitting and sublime touch that perhaps only Bianca Andreescu and Iga Świątek can consistently match at the top of the women’s game. So, just as the complete hegemony of the Men’s Big Three in the Majors finally came to an end in 2020 with Dominic Thiem’s triumph in New York, so a new “Big Three” could be emerging in women’s tennis. If all three of them are fit and playing well, there is every chance that between them they will all four women’s Majors in 2020.
Incidentally, the 2020 US Open Women’s Singles almost produced what would arguably have been the greatest comeback story in women’s tennis ever, as Victoria Azarenka made it all the way to the Final (her first Major Final since 2013) and even led by a set and a break before eventually losing to Osaka in three sets 1–6, 6–3, 6–3. Having fought her way back to the top of the women’s game after the custody battle over her son had almost completely exhausted her, Azarenka could not quite take the final step that would not only have secured her a third Major title but almost certainly a sporting biopic. Ultimately, though, if she couldn’t quite provide the “Hollywood ending” (and movie) her story merited, 2020 still marked a tremendous return to form for her.
- THE MONTERREY OPEN FINAL
The single best singles final in either men’s or women’s tennis in 2020 was probably the Monterrey Open Final between the Ukrainian veteran Elina Svitolina and the rising Czech star Marie Bouzková. It is rare in any final in any sport for both competitors to play at or near the top of their game for the entire match, but that is precisely what happened in Monterrey back in March, as Bouzková won the first set 7-5 before eventually losing the next two sets, both by the same score of 6-4. However, that summation of the match does not do justice to the remarkably high level of tennis that both women played before Svitolina eventually triumphed. There were numerous rallies of 10 shots or more and every time it seemed that one woman was pulling away from the other, the other woman pulled her back, before Svitolina finally pulled clear right at the end.
Perhaps one of the reasons why this Final lived so long in the memory is that it was the last Final of any kind in tennis before the plug was pulled on the Indian Wells tournament at the end of March, after a spate of coronavirus infections in California (back when Western countries were still keeping close count of the number of infections), and eventually on both the WTA and the ATP Tours for the next four months, before action resumed in early August. But so high was the intensity of the Svitolina-Bouzková Monterrey Final that it helped to sustain anyone who had seen it for the next four months, in which there was no virtually tennis at all.
- JANNIK SINNER CONTINUED HIS RISE
If there was a men’s equivalent of the Monterrey Open Final in 2020, it was probably the Sofia Open Final in the autumn, which, with pleasing symmetry, was the final ATP Tour event before the season-ending ATP Finals in London (more of which below). It was contested between Vasek Pospisil, the vastly experienced Canadian, and Jannik Sinner, Italy’s young but rising star. Sinner eventually won 6–4, 3–6, 7–6 (7–3), to claim his first ever main-tour ATP title, less than a year after winning the 2019 NextGen tournament in his home country.
Just like the Monterrey women’s Final, the men’s Sofia Open Final was a minor classic, with Sinner winning the first set before Pospisil roared back to win the second set, in the process reminding everyone that he is one of the finest, if not the finest, serve-volleyers on the ATP Tour. But Sinner eventually won the third-set tie-break, once again displaying the almost superhuman cool and composure that has already come to define him in his short career so far. Having played well throughout the whole year, including reaching the last eight at Roland Garros where he went toe to toe with Rafael Nadal for a set before losing in straight sets, Sinner confirmed in Sofia that he really is the real deal as far as the future of men’s tennis is concerned. For all his staggering array of shots, especially the forehand that might just be the finest in the men’s game already, it is that sheer mental toughness that really marks him out as a future Grand Slam champion. As various social media trends and influencers put it after the Sofia Final, there may be seven deadly sins but there is only one deadly Sinner.
- DANIIL MEDVEDEV (AND DOMINIC THIEM) AT THE ATP TOUR FINALS
The disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic meant that there was no end-of-season event at all for the top eight women in the world and the ATP Tour Finals went ahead for the final time in London without any of the fans who had filled the 02 Arena for the previous dozen years. Nevertheless, such was the performance of Daniil Medvedev, and to a lesser extent that of Dominic Thiem, that in the years ahead the 2020 ATP Tour Finals might just be regarded as a historic landmark in the men’s game.
That is because both Daniel Medvedev and Dominic Thiem did what Mats Wilander, the Swedish multiple Major-winner who is now one of the most respected commentators in tennis, had said was virtually impossible, namely beating two of the “Big Three” – Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal – at the same tournament in the same week. Now, Wilander had rightly emphasised that he meant beating two of the “Big Three” at a Major, in five-set matches, rather than in the three-set matches that make up the rest of modern tennis. Nevertheless, both Medvedev and Thiem made it all the way to the Final in London, which Medvedev eventually won 4–6, 7–6 (7–2), 6–4. And although Thiem had won the bigger prize – a maiden Major – at the US Open a few months earlier, in London Medvedev reminded everyone watching just why he might be the very best of the “NextGen” players to emerge, simply because he has the most complete game. He played both baseline tennis and serve-and-volley tennis to win the ATP Tour Finals and the suspicion remains that no other young male player, not even the precociously talented Jannik Sinner, can quite match that astonishing range of abilities.
- THE INAUGURAL ATP CUP IN AUSTRALIA
Because of the Coronvirus pandemic, the start of 2020 can seem like ten years ago, rather than just 12 months. As a result, it is easy to forget how successful the inaugural ATP Cup was in January. It provided the template for future team tennis events and in the process suggested that it might eventually replace the Davis Cup as the premier men’s team tennis event.
Comparison between the ATP Cup and the Davis Cup is inevitable, as almost everyone in men’s tennis, not least World No.1 Novak Djokovic, accepts that ultimately there can be only one men’s team tennis tournament a year, rather than the two that there are currently. If so, it surely has to be the ATP Cup that survives, because by almost any measure it was superior to the first revamped Davis Cup in November 2019. Most importantly of all, because it was played at the start of the season rather than at the end, there were not only more top players willing and available to play in it but the standard of the tennis itself (which is surely the most important measure of any tennis tournament’s success) was much higher. The Final of the first edition, between Serbia and Spain, was not quite a classic, but none the less confirmed that the ATP Cup – perhaps renamed in the future “The ATP Davis Cup” – is the stronger of the two men’s team tennis tournaments and likely to emerge as the only survivor of the two in the future.
- NOVAK DJOKOVIC’S EARLY SEASON FORM
Novak Djokovic led Serbia to success at the ATP Cup in January and immediately followed it by winning his eighth Australian Open title. Furthermore, his triumph at Melbourne in 2020 was probably the finest of all those eight successes, as he had to come from two sets to one down against Dominic Thiem before eventually winning in five sets. And having won both the ATP Cup and the Australian Open right at the start of the year, there was a genuine belief in men’s tennis that 2020 might just be the year that Djokovic won an actual Grand Slam (i.e. winning all four Majors in the same calendar year) rather than just the “Nole Slam” he had achieved in 2015-16, when his triumph at Roland Garros meant that he held all four Majors simultaneously.
Like so much else, of course, Coronavirus eventually put paid to any hope that Djokovic might have had of finally joining Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only two men in tennis history to win the Grand Slam. Indeed, having been so utterly dominant at the start of 2020, Djokovic’s form gradually declined over the course of the year, culminating in his disqualification in New York and his virtual capitulation in Paris, when he was destroyed in straight sets in the Final by Rafael Nadal. So, with the rise of younger players like Medvedev and Thiem, and the ongoing excellence of Nadal at Roland Garros, it might just be that Djokovic’s best chance of ever winning the Grand Slam has gone forever.
- AND FINALLY, TENNIS AT CHRISTMAS TIME
It is often said that tennis has no off-season and that is probably truer this year than in any other year. That is because the pre-season preparations for the 2021 Australian Open have been delayed and greatly complicated by the ongoing battle against the virus, with the tournament itself delayed by three weeks and all the entrants having to undergo extreme self-isolation measures in the run-up to it.
Among the unusual, indeed unprecedented preparations for the Australian Open was the latest variation on the “Battle of the Brits” theme, which was the almost absurdly named “Premier League of Tennis”, played out at Britain’s national tennis centre in Roehampton, just outside London. Nevertheless, whatever the merits or otherwise of such a grandly named tournament, it had the pleasant effect of providing British tennis-lovers at least with a superb match in the run-up to Christmas (traditionally the one time of year when there is no competitive tennis at all), as Andy Murray defeated the current British No.1, Dan Evans, in straight sets in the first match of the tournament. The fact that those two sets took nearly three hours to play shows just how competitive the match was between arguably Britain’s greatest ever male tennis player and the man who is currently Britain’s best male tennis player. At the end of a long year with when there was so much less tennis to watch than usual, this was truly a pre-Christmas treat.
And finally, next time Martin outlines 10 Things To Look Forward To In Tennis In 2020.