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Ten Terrible Things In Tennis In 2023

Maxime Cressy in action. He will play on day two at the ATP Queen's Club Championships.

For his second end-of-year piece, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the lowlights of the 2023 tennis season.

1. Annett Kontaveit Being Forced To Retire

Sadly for her, Annett Kontaveit now embodies the utter unpredictability of sport in general (and tennis in particular). In 2022,  Kontaveit was probably the most consistent female tennis player in the world after dominant world No.1 Iga Świątek, which was reflected in her rising to a career-high of world No. 2. However, in October 2022 at the Ostrava Open in the Czech Republic where she was the defending champion, Kontaveit was forced to retire in the first round with a back injury and soon afterward announced the end of her season.

It was hoped that a good off-season, including some much-needed rest, would help to repair Kontaveit’s obviously exhausted body after such an extraordinary but arduous 2022. Unfortunately for her, that back injury was only the harbinger of much worse to come, culminating in her announcing midway through the 2023 season that she was suffering from lumbar disc degeneration, which made it impossible for her to train properly, let alone play at the highest level. She duly played her last match as a professional at Wimbledon and then joined the ranks of potentially great players who were forced to retire before they could win a Major, alongside the likes of Agnieszka Radwańska and Robin Soderling.

2. Jenson Brooksby’s Long Suspension From Tennis

If Annett Kontaveit’s retirement was forced upon her by injury, then Jenson Brooksby’s long absence from tennis – until January 2025 at the earliest – was entirely self-inflicted. The young American, who like Kontaveit, had been one of the rising stars of tennis at the end of 2022, was given an 18-month suspension in October 2023 for missing three doping tests in a 12-month period.

The only reason that the story did not generate more publicity was that Brooksby barely played in 2023 after suffering a wrist injury at the Australian Open. Also, his ban was announced at the same time that Simona Halep announced that she would be fighting her four-year doping ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Halep is a much more famous and successful player, but whatever happens to her from now on, at 32, she is clearly nearing the end of her career. Brooksby is a full decade younger than Halep and had appeared to be at the vanguard of the new “Red, White and Blue” wave of young American men trying to end the long wait for a US male Major winner since Andy Roddick’s 2003 US Open triumph. But now, through his own stupidity (or worse), Brooksby will miss at least the entire 2024 season. After such a long period out of the game, there are questions that he may never return to his best again.

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3. Ons Jabeur Losing the Wimbledon Final Twice In Succession

Ons Jabeur is probably the most universally popular tennis player since Roger Federer, combining an infectious personality with an irresistible playing style. Thus, why her second loss in succession in the Wimbledon Women’s Singles final was so hard to bear for her and her many fans. Having defeated her 2022 Wimbledon nemesis Elena Rybakina in the quarter-final and then Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-final, it seemed that Jabeur was destined to win Wimbledon 2023. However, Markéta Vondroušová had other ideas. The Czech made up for her own loss in the 2019 French Open Final by defeating Jabeur in straight sets and winning her first Major Singles title.

It is often said of athletes who seem to struggle in the most pressurized situations, such as Major singles finals, that they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. In Jabeur’s case, she seems to be carrying the weight of two worlds: both the Arabic world and the African world, as she is the first Arab of either gender to reach a Major final and the first non-South African African to reach a Major final. If she ever won a Major final, she could become one of the most important Islamic athletes in history. However, it seems that the colossal weight of expectation being placed upon her is weighing her down rather than inspiring her.

4. Rafa’s Absence

It is remarkable how quickly The Big Three have become The Giant One. Roger Federer, of course, has already retired, and it appears increasingly likely that his great rival and the man with whom his name will almost certainly forever be linked, Rafael Nadal, will soon join him in retirement. This will leave the path relatively clear for Novak Djokovic to win at least a few more Majors and further distance himself from his former rivals for the title of GOAT.

Nadal has suffered with injuries throughout his entire career. Indeed, in the wake of his spectacular start to 2022, during which he won the first two Majors of the year, he admitted that he had been in pain throughout virtually his entire career. In retrospect, this makes his record of 22 Major titles, including 14 French Open titles, all the more incredible. He is planning to return at the Australian Open next month (Melbourne being where he last appeared on tour in 2023) and has strongly hinted that 2024 will be his last season on tour.

If that is the case, it can only be hoped that he can somehow summon up the physical reserves for one last crack at a Major title. If it is to happen anywhere, it is most likely to be Roland Garros. However, given his long, slow physical decline over the last two seasons, it is hard to foresee Nadal seriously challenging Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, or any of the other main contenders in Paris.

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5. Carlos Alcaraz’s Full-Body Cramp In Paris

The new king of Spanish tennis, Carlos Alcaraz, enjoyed another superb season in 2023, culminating in his winning Wimbledon by beating defending champion (and seven-time winner) Novak Djokovic in one of the greatest-ever Wimbledon finals. However, just over a month earlier, that outcome would have seemed impossible as Alcaraz suffered a full-body cramp at Roland Garros in the French Open semi-final against Djokovic. He had to limp through the last two sets, in which he won a grand total of two games.

Fortunately, Alcaraz recovered almost immediately from his Roland Garros ordeal. Nevertheless, the sight of the best young male player in tennis being virtually unable to walk, let alone play tennis, was an unedifying one. It is admirable that so many of the best tennis players, Alcaraz included, are so reluctant to retire from a match, especially one as big as a Major semi-final. Nevertheless, for their own good and the good of the sport, there should probably be a greater understanding that sometimes it is impossible for a player to play on and, rather than just stay on-court for the sake of it, they should be allowed to retire with injury and in good grace.

6. Emma Raducanu’s Seemingly Unending Injury Problems

Alcaraz’s full-body cramp in Paris ultimately seems like a blip; he has not had a recurrence of the problem since. Unfortunately, almost exactly the opposite could be said of Emma Raducanu. Her 2021 US Open victory, when she became the first tennis player of either gender to come through qualifying to win a Major, is increasingly looking like the successful “blip” in an otherwise largely unsuccessful career.

Raducanu, at 21, is still very young. Nevertheless, the sight of her lying in bed recovering after operations to both her wrists (let alone the ankle operation that she underwent at the same time), raised the specter that she may never get close to emulating her New York fairy-tale. Allied to the seemingly unending succession of coaches she has worked with since her US Open triumph, her seemingly unending injury problems have wreaked havoc with the early part of her career. It can only be hoped that in 2024 she can both return to full fitness and find a coach she can work with long-term.

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7. Lorenzo Musetti’s Late-Season Slump

Lorenzo Musetti would not have been human if he had not looked at his compatriot Jannik Sinner’s spectacular end to 2023 with some envy. For so long, the two young Italians have been linked together. Musetti was a junior world No. 1, and Sinner had won the Next Gen tournament in 2019. Having had only two male Major winners in men’s Italian tennis history (Nicola Pietrangeli and Adriano Panatta), it had seemed that Italy might have two more male Major winners within the next few seasons.

After his astonishing autumn (or fabulous fall), Sinner looks as if he is back on track to becoming a Major-winner, or at the very least a serious Major-challenger, in 2024. By contrast, Musetti endured a poor second half of 2023, which saw him go from world No. 15 in June to world No. 27 by November. The two young Italians’ contrasting fortunes were summed up in the Davis Cup finals in Malaga.

Sinner virtually led his country single-handedly to Davis Cup glory, first by beating Novak Djokovic twice (once in singles and once in doubles) on the same day, before thrashing Australia’s Alex de Minaur in the second singles tie in the final to secure an unassailable 2-0 lead for Italy.

By complete contrast, Musetti could not stem his late-season bleeding in the team event. After losing meekly in the first singles tie of the semi-final against Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanović (winning the first set on a tie-break before losing the next two sets for a total of just three games), Musetti was duly dropped for the final by Italy’s Captain, Filippo Volandri. He was replaced by Matteo Arnaldi, who defeated Australia’s Alexei Popyrin in a three-set classic to set the stage for Sinner to see Italy home. But even as he celebrated with his team-mates, Musetti must have been ruing the fact that he had not done more personally to contribute to Italy’s success.

8. The Davis Cup Final Scheduling

Lorenzo Musetti must have been relieved that Italy won the Davis Cup final against Australia, even if he did not personally participate in it. However, his sense of relief would have been nothing compared to that of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the organizers of the Davis Cup. Put simply, Jannik Sinner saved them from extremely difficult questioning about the scheduling of the Davis Cup last eight event. He did so by somehow backing up his double-defeat of Novak Djokovic in the semi-final with another dominant performance against Alex de Minaur in the final, just a day later.

It is bad enough that tennis still does not have a real World Cup, whatever the protestations of the Davis Cup and the ITF that it is “The World Cup of Tennis”. But what is even worse is scheduling that simply would not be allowed at any other World Cup in any other sport. It is imperative that both finalists in a World Cup have the same or at least a similar amount of time to prepare for the final. But that was not the case in the Davis Cup final, where Australia had a full day of rest between their semi-final on the Friday and the final on the Sunday, whereas Italy had no rest at all between their semi-final and final.

The Davis Cup will hopefully eventually become a real World Cup of Tennis, staged only once every four years but with every (uninjured) major player participating in it. And when it does, it will hopefully have the proper scheduling, with a proper balance between rest and performance, that every World Cup demands.

9. Maxime Cressy’s Season

If Maxime Cressy lived up to his name in 2022 by seemingly maximizing his talent, then in 2023, he was very much “Minimum” Cressy. Having risen as high as World No. 31 in August 2022 (which would have given him a chance of being seeded at future Majors), he tumbled down the rankings in 2023, eventually falling out of the world’s top 100 by the end of a season.

Of course, there are many other players who have experienced similar plummets down the rankings who do not receive the attention that Cressy has. The reason that the French-born American receives such attention is simple; he may be the purest serve-volleyer to play on the ATP Tour in the last decade. The style that was thought to have died was revived spectacularly by Cressy in the summer of 2022, when he reached the final of Eastbourne, one of the Wimbledon warm-up tournaments, and won his first ATP Tour title on the grass of Newport. However, given his travails in 2023, he may have to rethink his commitment to serving “two first serves” and modify (i.e. slow down) his second serve to give him a greater chance of getting it in court.

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10. The Increasing Saudification of Tennis

Unfortunately, sportswashing is a term that all sports fans have become familiar with over the last few years, with increasing Saudi investment in almost all major professional sport, culminating in the formation of the breakaway LIV Golf Tour. Now the influence of The Kingdom is being felt in tennis, such that the greatest individual sport in the world could soon be as Saudified, for lack of a better word, as golf or football.

The Next Gen tournament in 2023 was held in the Saudi city of Jeddah. There are rumors that both the WTA Finals and the Davis Cup Finals could relocate to Saudi Arabia over the next year. While new investment in tennis is always being sought, the problem of Saudi investment in tennis is two-fold.

First, tennis has traditionally been the most gender-neutral sport. Both men and women have played at the highest level for the same money for over 50 years. That does not sit well with playing some of its premium events in one of the most gender-imbalanced countries in the world.

In addition, tennis has always been one of the most tolerant sports when it comes to sexuality. While there has not yet been a high-profile male player who has come out as gay, there have been numerous great gay female players, from Martina Navratilova to Daria Kasatkina. The fact that such players (or ex-players) face double discrimination in Saudi Arabia, as both women and gay women, makes the prospect of the WTA Finals being played in the country particularly problematic.

Read Back: Ten Terrific Things In Tennis In 2023

Next time: Ten Things To Look Forward To In Tennis In 2024.

Main Photo Credit: Susan Mullane – USA TODAY Sports


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