Djokovic and Serena, the two dominators of 2015

Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic thrilled us with the best seasons since Steffi Graf’s "Golden Slam" in 1988.

Novak Djokovic called 2015 "the best year of my life."   -  REUTERS

Serena Williams’ quest to achieve a Grand Slam riveted sports fans, but she enjoyed it far less than the fun-loving Djokovic. “It’s hard and lonely at the top,” she confided.   -  AP

Super teams and players dominated the sports headlines in 2015. Perennial powerhouse Barcelona ruled European football. Newcomer Jordan Spieth exploded to win two golf majors and finish second in two more. American Pharoah captured horse racing’s Triple Crown. And Golden State, after grabbing the NBA title in June, streaked to a phenomenal 24-0 start this season, the best in North American major sports history.

Tennis boasted not just one Dominator, but two. Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic thrilled us with the best seasons since Steffi Graf’s “Golden Slam” in 1988. But which superstar had the better year?

Even though not-so-serene Serena came oh so close — within two matches — of pulling off a rare Grand Slam, Novak outdid her. While Djokovic’s hopes for the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver’s in 1969 were dashed much earlier than Serena’s — in the French Open final — he achieved more. The 28-year-old Serb won 11 titles, including three majors, the ATP World Tour Finals, and a record six ATP Masters 1000 series crowns. He wound up 31-5 against top-10 opponents (compared to only 6-1 by Serena) and with nearly twice as many ranking points as No. 2 Andy Murray.

Importantly, Djokovic also faced tougher competition against Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka than Serena, whose 21 career major titles surpassed the total (20) achieved by the rest of the women’s tour. No wonder Djokovic called his season “as close to perfection as it can get” and “the best year of my life.”

Serena’s quest to achieve a Grand Slam riveted sports fans, but she enjoyed it far less than the fun-loving Djokovic. “It’s hard and lonely at the top,” she confided to Vogue magazine. “Everyone wants to beat you. Everyone talks behind your back and you get a lot more criticism. God forbid I lose. It’s like ‘Why?’ Well, I am human.” Indeed she was, as it turned out.

Consider the multi-faceted pressure Serena faced. She was chasing not only the Grand Slam, but also the most hallowed career record, the 24 major titles of Margaret Court. Physically, Serena was afflicted by the flu at Roland Garros and knee and elbow pain most of the year. Mentally, the toll was heavy, too. After every match she was peppered with questions about her historic quest by the media who often reminded her that at 33 she might not get another chance. Court would prove prophetic when, after winning the Grand Slam in 1970, she said: “More than anything, winning the Grand Slam is a battle within yourself. It really gets down to how you handle the pressure, more than how you handle anybody else.”

In the past, Serena almost always stared down pressure — and her “Take that!” glare had intimidated opponents after she belted awesome aces on pivotal points. She conquered the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and five U.S. Open foes. She had only two very beatable, aging Italians left on her plate to devour. But that eight-letter word, P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E devoured Serena instead. Collapsing nervously in an excruciatingly tense third set, Serena was upended in a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 shocker by light-hitting, but clever, 5’4” Roberta Vinci, a pre-tournament 250-1 longshot. “This is absolutely the biggest major upset of all time,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, a 1980s doubles star.

Flavia Pennetta, a 150-1 longshot herself, then defeated her long-time friend Vinci for her first major title, and completed the surprise-filled tournament by announcing she would retire in October. Heartbroken and exhausted, Serena prematurely ended her sensational season with this memorable defeat, calling her journey “at times exhilarating, at times disappointing.”

The stunning parity below Queen Serena is evidenced by 10 different runner-ups in the last 10 Grand Slam finals. In the highlight of her season, No. 4 Maria Sharapova gained the Australian final. But she bowed 6-3, 7-6 to Serena, Sharapova’s 17th straight loss to her bete noire. Victoria Azarenka’s comeback from a serious foot injury was steady but slow, and she rose to only No. 22. In fairness, she suffered some tough luck in potentially season-changing matches.

A bad line call on set point cost Azarenka the second set of her 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 French Open setback against Serena; and a rain delay early in the third set stopped her momentum in her 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 U.S. Open quarter-final loss to Simona Halep. The stylish-stroking Halep wound up No. 2, a misleading ranking because she didn’t defeat any top-4 opponents and won just 10 total matches at the majors. No. 6 Petra Kvitova dealt Serena the most decisive of her three losses (6-2, 6-3 in Madrid) and brought massive power, but Kvitova lacked consistency and failed to make the semis at any major.

Two rising stars proved most impressive. Hard-hitting Spaniard Garbine Muguruza reached her first major final at Wimbledon and shot up from No. 24 to No. 3. Belinda Bencic didn’t advance past the fourth round at a major, but she can beat anyone. In Toronto, the 18-year-old Swiss Miss whipped former Wimbledon finalists Eugenie Bouchard and Sabine Lisicki, former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki, Halep and Serena for her biggest title.

Wawrinka breaks into Big Four

In the men’s game, Stan Wawrinka replaced slumping Nadal in the reigning Big Four by upsetting Djokovic in a high-calibre four-set final at the French Open. It remains the only major title Djokovic has yet to win. An inspired Wawrinka whacked 59 winners, almost twice as many as Djokovic, to grab his second major. Nicknamed “Stanimal,” Wawrinka also overpowered his Swiss compatriot Federer in a straight-sets semi-final.

Federer scoffs at sceptics who contend that he’s over the hill at 34. Bursting with confidence and enthusiasm, he said, “I think I’m a better player now than when I was 24 because I’ve practiced for another 10 years and I’ve got 10 years more experience.” With effortless, glorious shot-making, he finished No. 3 and beat Djokovic three times in eight encounters. Djokovic won all their most important matches, though — in the finals of Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Indian Wells, and ATP Finals. The Mighty Fed plans to compete at least one more year, and he’s targeting an Olympic gold medal, the only prestigious title he hasn’t claimed, in Rio de Janeiro in August. Don’t count him out there or anywhere else.

Nadal, Federer’s long-time arch-rival, not only failed to win a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2004 — and still trails Federer 17-14 in Grand Slam titles — but reached only two quarter-finals. Even then, he was trounced by Tomas Berdych (who had lost their 18 previous matches!) in Melbourne and Djokovic in Paris. The best news for Rafa aficionados was a late-season resurgence highlighted by victories over Murray, Wawrinka twice, David Ferrer, Milos Raonic, Richard Gasquet and Marin Cilic. Exuberant again, Nadal fist-pumped and let out cries of “Vamos! Vamos!” after he walloped vicious forehand winners.

The doubles storylines featured the dethronement of Bob and Mike Bryan and the domination by another ageless Swiss, Martina Hingis.

The 37-year-old Bryan twins, the greatest team in men’s doubles history, failed to capture a major for the first time since 2004. They were replaced at No. 1 by Dutchman Jean-Julien Rojer and Romanian Horia Tecau, champions at Wimbledon and the ATP Finals.

Hingis, 34, became the second all-time great — the other was also named Martina — to seize Grand Slam titles after enshrinement in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She immediately clicked with two Indian doubles standouts. Hingis and forehand-bashing Sania Mirza smiled and romped to 10 titles, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Indian Wells, Miami and the WTA Finals, to finish the season No. 1 riding a 22-match winning streak. Hingis rampaged even more in mixed doubles. She and another “golden oldie,” 42-year-old Leander Paes, outwitted and out-volleyed foes to grab three majors — the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. titles.

But not all the fun and games happened on the courts. Press conferences produced some juicy quotes.

When Ernests Gulbis, who would play Nicolas Mahut in the French Open second round, was asked, “Specifically, what would you do before meeting Nicolas?” Gulbis answered, “I will sleep and I will eat specifically.”

Musing on the agony of defeat, Federer said, “In tennis, always one guy has to win and one guy has to lose. One has got the press conference he dreads.”

When Sharapova was told Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou, whom Sharapova outed as Serena’s lover, had said, “Azarenka is much better than Sharapova,” Sharapova retorted, “I don’t think you’re ever going to hear nice words from him about me. I’m sure you know (why).”

When surprise French Open quarter-finalist Alison Van Uytvanck was asked, “You played against a French player. Of course, fans were behind your opponent. How did you manage?” she replied, “I’m scared. There is a spider on the mic.”

Asked why he cuddled a ball boy during his fourth-round Wimbledon loss to Gasquet, Nick Kyrgios explained, “I just felt like a hug, I guess. Everyone now and then wants a hug.”

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