Tennis: The best of vintage 2016

The year was all about new champions, stunning upsets, riveting comebacks and an Old Guard struggling to stay on top.

Andy Murray... in a year of several "firsts," he earned a career-high GBP10.8 million total prize money, reached a career-high No. 1 ranking, won a career-high nine titles and 78 matches.   -  Reuters

Angelique Kerber with the U.S. open trophy. The German was a paragon of excellence and consistencey, reaching the final of five of the six most prestigious tournaments.   -  AP

Monica Puig poses with the award for the Best Female Athlete of Rio 2016. Her run to win Puerto Rico's first Olympic gold medal inspired the world.   -  Getty Images

Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro... best comeback of 2016 (men).   -  AP

Crowd puller... Roger Federer was voted ATPWorldTour.com Fans' Favourite. He received a whopping 56 percent of votes cast. Andy Murray finished second.   -  Getty Images

Novak Djokovic looked virtually unbeatable after he captured his first French Open to complete a career Grand Slam. Just as decisively as Djokovic dominated the first half of this unpredictable year, Andy Murray ruled the second half, winning Wimbledon, an Olympics gold medal and the ATP Finals. Riding the momentum, Murray sealed the No. 1 ranking in a showdown against Djokovic in the last tournament match of the year. And though overshadowed by this riveting rivalry, Stan Wawrinka grabbed his third major title at the U.S. Open.

Queen Serena fought valiantly to defy age and a new challenger. Ultimately, she was dethroned by Angelique Kerber. The late-blooming German drew first blood when she upset Serena in the Australian Open final. Serena exacted revenge in the Wimbledon final to tie Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 major titles. But Kerber won the U.S. Open and proved more consistent throughout the season. The Rio Olympics provided additional excitement, resulting in longshot champion Monica Puig, while the WTA Finals ended with yet another surprise winner, Dominika Cibulkova.

In a year abounding with match and career comebacks, Juan Martin del Potro exemplified both. After winning the 2009 U.S. Open, the mild-mannered Argentine was often sidelined by multiple wrist injuries and surgeries. He started 2016 ranked No. 1,042 but rebounded emphatically with wins over six top-10 players and an Olympic silver medal, finishing No. 38. So it was poetic justice, or maybe tennis karma, when hard-luck Del Potro led his country, which had lost in four previous finals, to its first Davis Cup title. In his most dramatic performance, he rallied from two sets down to overcome Marin Cilic. That tied the final 2-2 and set the stage for unheralded Federico Delbonis’ historic victory.

 

On the debit side, the International Tennis Federation suspended Maria Sharapova two years for a doping violation, though Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the sanction to 15 months. The ATP fined bad boy Nick Kyrgios $16,500 and banned him for eight weeks for “lack of best efforts” at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, but reduced the sentence when Kyrgios agreed to see a psychologist. Sadly, injuries cut short the seasons of declining superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Let’s look back at this memorable and often surprising year and see if you agree with how I saw the Bests and Worsts of vintage 2016.

Best men’s player: “To finish the year No. 1 is very special, something I never expected,” said Andy Murray after he decisively defeated Novak Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 to clinch the top spot in the final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. That victory also gave the 29-year-old Brit his fifth straight tournament title and 24th straight match win. It culminated a season in which he captured his second Wimbledon title and second Olympic gold medal. Murray also was runner-up at the Australian Open and French Open. In a year of several personal “firsts,” he earned a career-high £10.8 million total prize money, reached a career-high No. 1 ranking, won a career-high nine titles and 78 matches (against nine losses), won his first ATP Finals, and reached his first French final.

Best women’s player: For the first time since Amelie Mauresmo in 2006, a player other than Serena Williams won two Grand Slam titles in the same year. Surprisingly, it was German veteran Angelique Kerber, who had never ranked higher than No. 5 and had finished No. 10 the two previous years. Kerber was a paragon of excellence and consistency, reaching the final of five of the six most prestigious tournaments. After stunning Serena 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 in the Australian Open final, the 28-year-old lefty fell to Serena 7-5, 6-3 in the Wimbledon final. Kerber sustained her momentum by capturing a silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, winning her second major at the U.S. Open, and reaching the final of the WTA Finals. After taking the U.S. Open, Kerber claimed the No. 1 ranking that Serena had owned since February 2013. “When I was a kid, I was always dreaming to be the number one player in the world and to win Grand Slams, and today’s the day,” said the ecstatic new queen of tennis.

 

Best men’s doubles team: Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares captured two Grand Slam titles — the Australian Open and the U.S. Open — and the Apia International Sydney. The British-Brazilian pair was also runner-up at two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments, the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Murray and Soares join Grant Connell and Patrick Galbraith (1993), and Jonas Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge (2001) as the only teams to claim the year-end No. 1 honour in their first season together. “I think we can still improve a lot in our game,” said Murray. “I think we have the past few months. The more we play together, the better we’ll get, I think.”

Best women’s doubles team: Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, both 23, won three titles — the French Open, the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and the Mutua Madrid Open. They became the first all-French team to reach the final at Roland Garros since 1971. Garcia and Mladenovic also made it to their second major final at the U.S. Open and reached finals at the Apia International Sydney, Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and China Open in Beijing.

Best women’s doubles player: On ranking No. 1 in the individual doubles rankings, India’s Sania Mirza said, “Imagine being No. 1 at what you do in the whole planet. I’ve had that privilege for the last year and a half. We’ve shared, me and Martina (Hingis) have shared amazing memories together being No. 1. I think if you ask any athlete, if you ask Barbora (Strykova), that’s probably her goal as well. We all want to be No. 1. That’s why we play tennis. Very few people get to be No. 1 in the world. It’s the thing as an athlete you dream as a child. To be No. 1 in the world is the most amazing thing.”

Best Davis Cup team comeback: The Argentine Davis Cup team trailed Croatia 2-1 going into the final day. Even its most optimistic fans worried this Davis Cup team would suffer the same runner-up fate as so many other Argentine teams over the years at World Cups, Copa Americas and Davis Cup. Despite suffering a broken finger in the fifth set, Juan Martin del Potro almost miraculously rallied from two sets down to overcome Marin Cilic. That tied the final 2-2. Then Federico Delbonis routed Ivo Karlovic to clinch sports-loving Argentina’s first and historic Davis Cup title.

Best Fed Cup shocker: To advance to the semifinals in Moscow, the Netherlands pulled off one of the biggest surprises in Fed Cup history, defeating Russia, which has won the title four times and was runner-up in 2015. No. 106-ranked Kiki Bertens defeated No. 31 Ekaterina Makarova 6-3, 6-4. Then, in the longest match in Fed Cup history (exactly four hours), unheralded No. 141 Richel Hogenkamp staved off a match point and overcame No. 17 Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-6, 5-7, 10-8. On that Sunday, Bertens beat a clearly exhausted Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-4 to complete the shocking win for the Dutch. It boosted Bertens’ terrific Fed Cup singles record to 13-1. Captain Paul Haarhuis called the huge 3-1 upset the “miracle in Moscow.”

Best men’s match: For the second time in four days, Andy Murray broke the record for the longest match played at the O2 Arena since this event began in 2009 and for the longest best-of-three-set match in 2016. After surviving a match point at 9-8 in the deciding set tiebreaker, Murray outlasted Milos Raonic 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9) on his fourth match point in the ATP Tour Finals semifinals. The high calibre marathon lasted three hours and 38 minutes. Raonic broke back twice — when trailing 5-4 and 6-5 in the third set — but his forehand let him down on some big points thereafter. Although Murray won only two more points, 138 to 136, another key to his victory was winning 63% of his second serve points to only 45% for Raonic.

Best women’s match: Angelique Kerber’s stunning 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 upset over Serena Williams in the pulsating Australian Open final contained many dynamic elements — historical significance, a premier event, contrasts, competitive balance, brilliance, suspense and career impact. The German lefty handled her nerves and Serena’s huge serves — breaking it thrice in the deciding set — to win her first Grand Slam title. She also stopped Serena from winning her 22nd and tying Steffi Graf’s Open Era record. Before the final, heavy underdog Kerber proclaimed, “I know I can beat you.” She backed up those confident words by smartly combining skilful defence with effective offence to keep Serena off-balance. Matching Serena in competitive ferocity, Kerber became the first foe to defeat Serena (previously 8-0) in the deciding set of a major final.

 

Best female athlete at the Rio Olympics: Monica Puig’s unlikely run to win Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medal inspired the world, and on November 16, she received the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Award for Best Female Athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. After thanking the committee and her family at the awards ceremony in Doha, Puig dedicated the award to her home country. “A big, big thank you to Puerto Rico,” she enthused on stage. “You guys have stood by me through the highs and the lows, and thank you for always believing in me. I know for many years to come I will continue to keep making you proud,” she added, before signing off with a “sí se puede,” her famous Olympic rallying cry of “yes we can.”

Best newcomer: Alexander “Sascha” Zverev, a 6’6” German 19-year-old, won the title at St. Petersburg and reached the final at Nice and Halle. He scored big wins over Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, Dominic Thiem, and Marin Cilic, and finished the year ranked No. 24. “He’s a great power baseliner, but he has to improve his game from three feet inside the baseline and three feet inside the service line,” analysed Paul Annacone. Former World No. 5 Jimmy Arias said, “The key will be how well he moves.”

Best career comeback (men): No contest here. Juan Martin del Potro’s career nosedived after winning the 2009 U.S. Open title because he was hampered by wrist injuries and sidelined by three surgeries to his left wrist and one to his right wrist. He returned to the pro tour in February ranked No. 1,045 after an 11-month layoff. The resurgent Delpo upset Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon, stunned Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the Rio Olympics to grab a silver medal, gained the U.S. Open quarterfinals, upset Andy Murray in the Davis Cup semifinals, and won the Stockholm tournament. Though he still can’t manoeuvre his left wrist fully on his two-handed backhand and slices his backhand more than ever, he ended up ranked a respectable No. 38. Delpo won the ATP Comeback of the Year award for the second time.

Best career comeback (women): Dominika Cibulkova, who reached the 2014 Australian Open final but then missed four months in 2015 following surgery to her Achilles heel. She fell to No. 38 in the year-end rankings, but rebounded to finish 2016 ranked No. 5. Cibulkova grabbed four of her eight career singles titles in 2016; her biggest title came at the WTA Finals in Singapore. The Slovak star scored a shocking 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the final after suffering one of her two round-robin losses to Kerber. The short (5’3”) but hard-hitting Cibulkova scored eight wins over top 10 players.

Best Paes persistence: Leander Paes tried and failed 20 times before he won his first mixed doubles title at the French Open at age 43 by teaming up with Martina Hingis. That triumph completed a career mixed doubles Grand Slam for the Indian doubles star.

Best winning attitude – I: Novak Djokovic stumbled badly against the frustratingly steady No. 14 Gilles Simon in the Australian Open fourth round. The champ survived that close encounter 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, despite making an ungodly — or rather un-Djoker-like — 100 unforced errors, including numerous injudicious drop shots. Asked how he escaped defeat, he explained, “It’s important that in the end of the day, that your convictions are stronger than your doubts.” That’s wise advice all athletes should heed.

Best winning attitude – II: On the Friday night before winning the French Open final, Garbine Muguruza came to the right conclusion about Angelique Kerber’s Australian Open final upset over Serena Williams: “When you see people that are winning and there’s new faces, (it) makes you think like, I can be one of those faces. I can be the one who — hey, if Kerber can, I can, or whoever is there.”

Worst Kyrgios ambivalence: “I don’t have a doubt that if I wanted to win Grand Slams, I would commit. I’d train two times a day, I’d go to the gym every day, I’d stretch, I’d do rehab, I’d eat right. But I don’t know what I want at the moment. Am I content? I don’t have a coach, I can train every now and then. I can take it easy and be maybe (No.) 10-20 my entire career. Am I O.K. with that? I don’t know.” — Tennis bad boy Nick Kyrgios, in an essay by Michael Steinberger and titled “The Electric, Infuriating Nick Kyrgios,” in the Aug. 25 New York Times Magazine.

Best confidence – I: After extending sixth-seeded Simona Halep to 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 at the French Open, No. 93-ranked Naomi Osaki crowed, “At the risk of sounding really arrogant, I kind of think that I can play like the Top-10 players. I feel like I can play with anybody. I just have to be consistent and not freak out all the time. I feel like I’ve got to have more strategy, because it can’t be just this one thing all the time. I feel like I do have like the strokes and the power, though. But like, please — I don’t want to sound like I’m a mean person while I’m saying this.” — Naomi Osaka, who made the third round in her French Open debut after making the third round in her Australian Open debut.

Best confidence – II: “If you believe in yourself you can beat anyone. Especially in girls’ tennis, it’s not only about a game and tennis, but it’s more about the mental things sometimes,” asserted No. 10 seed Karolina Pliskova on the importance of confidence after upsetting Serena Williams 6-2, 7-6 (5) in the U.S. Open semifinals.

Worst tweet about death threats: “Bummed to have lost yesterday, but at least I had a ton of death threats on Facebook and Twitter to make me feel better about things...” — Kevin Anderson, tweeting that he was given a torrent of abuse following his first-round upset loss at Wimbledon.

Best “under pressure” players: Novak Djokovic ranked No. 1 in the ATP’s “Under Pressure” statistics at 273.5. Following Djokovic were Andy Murray (259.9), Juan Martin del Potro (250.4), Kei Nishikori (248.1), and Dominic Thiem (244.3). Surprisingly, Rafael Nadal (211.3) ranked No. 27 and Roger Federer (210.5) No. 29. The Under Pressure Rating is based on break points converted percentage, break points saved percentage, tiebreakers won percentage, and deciding sets won percentage versus all players on all surfaces for 52 weeks.

Best fashionable athletes: Four tennis players, headed by Serena Williams at No. 4, were listed on Sports Illustrated’s first “Fashionable 50” list, honouring the most stylish athletes in sports. Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams were also listed.

Best Murray quip: During his post-Wimbledon final comments to spectators, Andy Murray noticed spectator Prime Minister David Cameron, who had announced he would resign in October in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The mischievous Murray quipped, “I think playing in a Wimbledon final is tough. But I certainly wouldn’t like to be a prime minister. It’s an impossible job.” The prime minister smiled and laughed. The cheering crowd loved it.

Best dream come true: “It’s just amazing. I won my second Grand Slam in one year,” marvelled Angelique Kerber, who pocketed $3.5 million in prize money for her victory after defeating Karolina Pliskova in the U.S. Open final. “It’s the best year in my career. It means a lot to me. When I was a kid, I was always dreaming to one day be the No. 1 player in the world, to win Grand Slams. And today is the day. All the dreams came true this year.”

Best fascinating fact: Kei Nishikori is the only pro player in whose honour a major airline named a plane. Japan Airlines named Jet KEI — for its Tokyo-London route — after its greatest Open Era men’s player, No. 5-ranked Nishikori.

Best Radwanska trivia: Asked by Australian Tennis Magazine what annoys or frustrates her the most, Agnieszka Radwanska said, “Slow Internet. Oh my God, that drives me crazy. And slow drivers. When I’m behind a slow driver, I hate that.”

Best Serena trivia: Serena Williams loves tacos so much that she wants to eat them every day. She posts videos of herself making tacos at home and flies with stacks of corn tortillas on long trips. “I make the best taco,” she told USA Today.

Best ironic statement – I: On the day before the 22-year-old Spaniard Garbine Muguruza upset defending champion Serena Williams 7-5, 6-4 in the French Open final, Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach, said, “I don’t know why everybody’s so impressed with Garbine. Did she win a Slam ever?”

Best ironic statement – II: Three days before scoring a shocking 7-6, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 upset over World No. 1 and reigning champion Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon third round, Sam Querrey said: “I would much rather play literally anyone else at this point.”

Best Mirza pride: “I am very proud of what I have done as a player,” said India’s Sania Mirza, who won five tournaments, including the Australian Open, with Martina Hingis, and three tournaments with Barbora Strycova in 2016. As a tennis player, to be coming from the sub-continent to be top 30 in the world for many years was something that was very special. It was something that was unheard of for a man or woman (from India) for many, many years. It was very, very difficult, I have to tell you. And it still is, on a lot of levels. For me, or anybody that comes from that side of the world, it is very difficult to pick up a sport like tennis that is played by 200 countries. You have no facilities. No support. No background. No coaches. No training. And so that’s why the achievements I’ve had were very special to me. Because it was something that came on pure, raw talent. Against a lot of odds. But making the tough decision to play doubles was the right call for me.”

Worst match-fixing network: “On Dec. 1, the Associated Press reported: “Spanish authorities have detained 34 people, including six tennis players, involved in a tennis match-fixing network that made more than half-a-million dollars from lower-tier tournaments in Spain and Portugal. Police say they found evidence of fixing in 17 men’s tournaments in Spain and Portugal. If convicted, 34 face prison sentences of up to four years. Police said that Operation Futures probed several Futures and Challenger tournaments in Iberia for the past several months and found evidence that results were rigged. The tennis players were not identified, but authorities said they were ranked between 800 and 1,200 in the world. Their Spanish rankings ranged between 30 and 300. Police said they found evidence of match-fixing attempts in 17 men’s tournaments in five cities, including Madrid, Seville, and Porto.”

Fans’ favourite player: Who else could it be but immensely popular Roger Federer? The 35-year-old Swiss was voted ATPWorldTour.com Fans’ Favourite presented by Moet & Chandon for a record 14th straight year. He received a whopping 56 percent of all votes cast. Andy Murray finished second, followed by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori.

Fans’ favourite doubles team: Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan, the 38-year-old American twins received 25 percent of votes to be named the ATPWorldTour.com Fans’ Favourite presented by Moet & Chandon for a record 12th time. They edged out Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares. Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez, Frenchmen Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, and the Canadian-American duo of Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock rounded out the top five.

Best victory celebration – I: “Her collapse backwards was one of the great (ones) all time,” commented 1980s doubles great Pam Shriver about Serena Williams’s celebratory gesture — Serena fell and landed softly on her back where she stayed for a few seconds — after winning the Wimbledon final to tie Steffi Graf with 22 career Grand Slam singles titles.

Best victory celebration – II: After unheralded Federico Delbonis won the last point of the last rubber against Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic to clinch Argentina’s first Davis Cup title, he fell onto his back with a big smile on his face. The overjoyed Argentine team rushed on the court and piled on top of Delbonis and each other to celebrate the historic victory.

Best players to watch in 2017: Daria Kasatkina, a high-percentage, 18-year-old Russian with solid groundstrokes, notched wins over Karolina Pliskova, Venus Williams, Monica Puig, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Timea Bacsinszky, Dominika Cibulkova, Ekaterina Makarova, and Samantha Stosur in 2016.

Ana Konjuh, a power-hitting Croat, attacks relentlessly and says, “I hit as hard as I can.” Konjuh, 18, upset No. 20 Kiki Bertens and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and she should go at least that far on fast surfaces at many tournaments in 2017. Belinda Bencic’s progress was stalled by injuries in 2016, but her impeccable groundstrokes, smart tactics, and innate talent ensure the 19-year-old Swiss will rejoin the top 15 in 2017.