With the Mubadala World Tennis Championship taking place in Abu Dhabi, the latest Battle of the Brits (between England and Scotland) scheduled for next week and various other warm-up/exhibition events happening or about to happen around the world, it is clear that tennis has no real off-season. Nevertheless, as 2021 draws to a close, it is still worth taking stock of the sport and considering what happened within it, for good or ill, in the last 12 months. First of all, here are 10 terrific things that happened in tennis in 2021.
- The WTA Taking a Stand Over Peng Shuai
“Heroic sports administrator” is almost a contradiction in terms. The very nature of running a major professional sporting organisation, such as the Women’s Tennis Association, is compromise, diplomacy and—frankly—politicking and being polite. However, Steve Simon, the Chairman and CEO of the WTA, proved that he is a truly heroic sports administrator by taking a stand over Peng Shuai, the Chinese player who made an allegation of sexual assault against a prominent Chinese Government official, the former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. In protest at what Simon and the WTA consider to be the continuing censorship, if not active suppression, of Peng Shuai’s views and freedoms, Simon announced in early December “the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong”.
In addition to being a heroic sports administrator, Simon is clearly a keen tennis historian, because he cited the values that had led to the creation of the WTA in 1973, especially the principle of gender equality, as being the determining factor in his decision on China. In doing so, he showed all other sporting administrators—in particular, the Association of Tennis Professionals, which so far has not followed the WTA’s lead in taking action against China—how to defend their sport and its foundational values.
- The Return of Fans
But for the suprising and principled action of Steve Simon and the WTA, the return of fans to watch tennis in 2021 would undoubtedly have been the highlight of the year. In the second half of 2020, almost all tournaments around the world, including both the US Open and the rescheduled French Open, hosted either no fans at all or very few fans. The result was an experience that was undeniably strange and sterile. It was obviously better than having no tennis at all, but it was still a remarkably reduced spectacle, as it was at all sporting events that took place without an audience.
Throughout 2021, there were reminders on a weekly basis of the importance of fans, with a particular highlight was the incredible atmosphere generated in Turin by the appearance of Matteo Berrettini and Jannik Sinner (the latter as an alternate, after Berrettini dropped out through injury) at the inaugural ATP Tour Finals in Italy. Consequently, tennis, like the rest of society, is regarding the current alarm over the Omicron/Ominous/Omigodwhenwillthisend variant of coronavirus with growing trepidation. Tennis, like any live performance, is simply not the same without fans and we can only hope and pray that they will not be banned again in 2022.
- Novak Djokovic Finally Getting the Love He Deserves
As Harry Lime proved, it’s never easy being the Third Man. For over a decade, Novak Djokovic had been The Third Man of tennis and was almost as universally unloved as Harry Lime, simply because he had the temerity to challenge and eventually dismantle the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top of the men’s game. As the BBC’s Tennis Correspondent, Russell Fuller, pointed out in 2019, in large part this was simply because he had risen to prominence after Federer and Nadal, and therefore after most tennis fans had decided to support either the great Swiss or the great Spaniard, leaving relatively few neutrals for Djokovic to win over.
In 2021, however, there was no doubt that Djokovic finally got the love that he is due – in fact, the love that is long overdue for a player who has dominated the last decade of men’s tennis. That was evident throughout the year, growing throughout the Majors before reaching a conclusion at the US Open, when Djokovic may have lost the final (and with it the chance of a Calendar Slam) but enjoyed the unique experience of hearing his name chanted by the crowd in a way that it never had been before. As a tearful and reflective Djokovic said afterwards, even though he had lost he still felt like the happiest man in the world.
- Daniil Makes his Major Breakthrough
Of course the man who beat Djokovic in New York and denied him the Calendar Slam was Daniil Medvedev, who along with Djokovic now surely constitutes a new “Big Two” at the top of the men’s game. That could possibly be a new “Big Two And A Half”, if one includes Olympic champion Alexander Zverev, although the German will not make it a new “Big Three” until he wins a Grand Slam.
In addition to winning a singles Major, Medvedev proved himself the new king of team tennis, as he spearheaded Russia’s double triumph at both the ATP Cup at the start of the year and the Davis Cup at the end of it. In between, he also showed that he is the man of many nicknames: “Ichabod Cranium”, which is a testament to both his height and his high IQ; or, when he was at his absolute best, “Fedvedev” or even “Godvedev”.
He continues to defy the laws of biomechanics, but there is no doubt now that he is the best of the so-called “Next Gen”. Dominic Thiem may also have won a Major (the 2020 fan-free US Open), but injury prevented him from backing that triumph up in the way that Medvedev has. As a result, the Russian is the firm favourite to meet Djokovic in the Australian Open final next month. And if Djokovic’s vaccine status prevents him from playing in Melbourne, Medvedev might just make it back-to-back Major triumphs.
- Emma Raducanu’s US Open Triumph
As Andy Murray and others have speculated, one person who might have benefited from the lockdowns (sporting and societal) of 2020 is Emma Raducanu. Rather than simply starting to make her way on the Futures and Challengers Tours, as would probably have happened in normal circumstances, Raducanu had to continue honing her game in such a fashion that when she finally made her professional bow in the summer of 2021 she could go all the way to a Major victory.
Raducanu’s US Open victory might just be the most surprising, if not downright shocking, of all time. She had performed well at Wimbledon, reaching the fourth round, but to then win 10 matches (including three qualifying rounds) and 20 sets in succession to triumph in New York was surely a new historical highwater mark in debut Major victories, overtaking even Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1985. Raducanu’s subsequent parting of the ways with coach Andrew Richardson almost immediately after winning in New York and the near-nosedive in her form at the end of the season prompted some questions about her long-term future. Nevertheless, whatever else she does in tennis she will always be a Major – and a Majorly Surprising – Champion.
- The Set
Novak Djokovic did not complete the Calendar Slam, but he still had what is probably the finest season any male tennis player has had in the Open Era (post-1968): winning three Majors and reaching the final of the fourth; reaching the Olympic final; and reaching the semifinals of the Davis Cup with Serbia while playing both singles and doubles. In addition, and as aforementioned, he also finally won over the watching tennis world, proving that he was not the “Bad Guy” or “Bond Villain” who had upset their previous favourites Federer and Nadal but an absolutely outstanding player in his own right, who at his absolute best combined Federer-like flair and Nadal-like intensity, topped off with his own unique bouncebackability or resilience.
However, as well as all those historic triumphs in 2021, Djokovic also produced two sublime moments of tennis magic that are worthy of celebration in their own right. The first was “The Set”, as it will surely come to be known, just as the crucial game at the end of the 1995 Wimbledon Women’s singles final between Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario is often known simply as “The Game”. That set was the third set in Djokovic’s French Open semifinal victory against Rafael Nadal, which lasted over an hour and produced a seemingly unending series of winners, near-winners and impossible “gets”. Djokovic finally won it on a tie-breaker and in the process he may just have ended Nadal’s nearly total domination of Roland Garros forever.
- The Shot
The second of Djokovic’s own personal highlights reel from 2021, which is a highlights reel to put alongside that of any sportsperson in any year since professional sport first began at the end of the 19th century, was “The Shot”, namely the extraordinary, indeed almost unbelievable, winner that he played against Matteo Berrettini in the third set of their Wimbledon final. At the time, the match was perfectly poised, at a set each and midway through the third. Then, Djokovic somehow produced a tennis stroke of such brilliance that it both lifted the Centre Court crowd out of their seats and seemed to break Berrettini’s resolve.
On YouTube or in the mind’s eye, it is still remarkable. Djokovic seemed to slide in – on grass, no less, which had hitherto been thought almost impossible – from the baseline to the net, without touching it, before not just reaching Berrettini’s drop shot but somehow returning it with such control, deftness and sheer precision that Berrettini, who had thought he had the net covered, could not reach it. Of all the thousands, if not millions, of great shots hit throughout tennis history, that one alone is surely deserving of the epithet “The Shot”.
- Paula Badosa’s Breakthrough
Right now, women’s tennis may be not just the most principled professional sport in the world, as proven by the reaction of Steve Simon and the WTA to the apparent censorship of Peng Shuai in China, but the most unpredictable and therefore the most exciting. There were four different Major winners in 2021 – Naomi Osaka (Australian Open), Barbora Krejčíková (French Open), Ash Barty (Wimbledon) and Emma Raducanu (US Open) – which just confirmed the general trend, since Serena Williams’s last Major victory at the 2017 Australian Open, that there is no dominant WTA world #1 and that virtually anyone in the top 100 (or even perhaps the top 200) can win a Major.
Spain’s Paula Badosa was not one of the Major winners in 2021, but given her astonishing rise up the rankings during the year she has every chance of becoming one in 2022. Her complete, indeed all-court game has propelled her into the world’s top 10. And she ended the season in stunning fashion, winning in Indian Wells (beating Victoria Azarenka in what may well have been the best women’s match of the year) and reaching the final of the WTA Tour Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she lost to her resurgent compatriot, Garbiñe Muguruza, in the semifinals. Of course, she is also a headline writer’s dream, with her fantastic tenacity sure to earn her the nickname “BadAssa”.
- The Spectacular Rise of Cameron Norrie
“The Spectacular Rise of Cameron Norrie” sounds like the title of a Victorian or Edwardian novel, perhaps one by H.G. Wells, author of “The History of Mr. Polly” as well as “The War of the Worlds”. In fact, it is a precise summation of the remarkable rise up the men’s world rankings of Britain’s Cam Norrie, who almost matched Paula Badosa for late-season heroics by winning in Indian Wells and reaching the ATP Tour Finals (albeit as an alternate after other players dropped out through injury) in Turin.
In the wake of his Indian Wells victory, which was all the more impressive after he had lost a series of lesser finals throughout the year, Norrie posited the theory that because he was truly a “global citizen” – the son of British parents who had been born in South Africa, raised in New Zealand and then college-educated in the USA – he perhaps adapted to the rigours of the ATP Tour better than other players who had not known such global travel at an early age. But whatever the reason, Norrie’s ascent into the world’s top 20 (he is currently ranked #12), alongside Emma Raducanu’s astonishing US Open triumph, proved to British tennis fans that there is life after Andy Murray, who is undeniably nearing the end of his career, and Jo Konta, who announced her retirement earlier this month. This Fall, British tennis was undeniably on the rise.
- The Succession of Five-Set Epics at the Australian Open
With the start of the 2022 Australian Open now just a month away, it is easy to forget the majesty of Melbourne 2021, especially on the men’s side, not least because the men’s singles culminated in a one-sided final in which Novak Djokovic crushed Daniil Medvedev in straight sets. However, what preceded that final was a succession of five-set epics. Kyrgios-Humbert, Thiem-Kyrgios, Djokovic-Fritz and, above all, Tsitsipas-Nadal were all marathon matches that showed tennis, especially men’s tennis, at its absolute best. With Davis Cup matches now reduced to three-set matches, the Majors remain the last bastion of the five-set format and long may that continue.
Nearly a decade on from the most “marathonic” match of them all, the 2012 Australian Open final between Djokovic and Nadal that Djokovic finally won after nearly six hours, the 2021 Melbourne epics proved yet again that Billie Jean King is wrong to call for an end to five-set matches for men. Mistakenly, she believes that she shortens careers. What they really do is to elevate ordinary and even extraordinary careers into the realms of the superhuman.
Next time: But it wasn’t all good! Next time: Ten Terrible Things In Tennis In 2021.
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