If you love one of the Big 3 — and who doesn’t — then watching superstars Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic dominate for yet another year had to cheer you up no matter how much today’s politics may have depressed you. These ageless warriors — 37, 32 and 31, respectively — swept all four majors for the second straight year.
Wielding his racket like a magic wand and gliding for balls like a ballroom dancer, the incomparable Federer won his sixth Australian Open and record-extending 20th Grand Slam title. He capitalised on an easy draw and was further gifted when unseeded Korean Hyeon Chung, a dangerous power hitter, retired after two sets with an injury in the semifinals. After defeating Marin Cilic, another 30-something, in a five-set final, the Swiss maestro exulted, “Winning is an absolute dream come true. The fairy tale continues for us, for me, it’s incredible.”
Nadal proved even more incredible than Federer in 2018. Bashing topspin shots more ferociously than ever, he smashed his own unfathomable and unbreakable records with his 11th titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros. He lost just one set in 19 matches. The all-time King of Clay climaxed his conquest of the European circuit by crushing Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the French Open final. “In my career I achieved more than I could dream, but at the same time I went through tough moments,” injury-prone Nadal reflected afterwards. “I am going to keep playing until my body resists. From the first time since I came here to today is a love story.”
A year after Federer and Nadal authored spectacular career comebacks by winning two majors each, Djokovic fashioned an even more astounding turnaround. But not before Djokovic’s mystifying two-year slump — complicated by elbow problems and coaching changes — worsened with a dismal 6-6 start in 2018. But then, suddenly, shockingly, the speedy Serb exploded to capture his fourth Wimbledon crown.
The title run was highlighted by Djokovic’s razor-thin 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8 semifinal victory over Nadal. In a classic lasting five hours and 15 minutes, both Nadal and Djokovic wound up with 73 winners and 42 unforced errors. Djokovic then predictably polished off a nervous Kevin Anderson 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 in the final. The 6’8” South African had overcome seven-time champion Federer 13-11 in the fifth set in the tournament’s biggest upset, and then surpassed that marathon when he outlasted 6’10” mega-server John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set of their semifinal.
“It has been a long 18 months for me, trying to overcome different obstacles,” Djokovic told the BBC. “There were times of doubt, frustration, disappointment, where you are questioning whether you want to keep going. So, to be where I am now is quite, quite satisfying.”
During his superb 48-6 second-half finish, Djokovic also grabbed two Masters 1000 titles. His Cincinnati triumph made him the first player in history to claim every Masters tournament. With unstoppable momentum, he capped his comeback season by easily taking his third US Open, surrendering only two sets and outclassing Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 in the final.
Once again, the Greatest Gen slammed the door on the Next Gen. Only Thiem, the French Open runner-up, and Alexander Zverev, the ATP Finals champion, sneaked briefly into the penthouse of the three living legends. At the ATP Finals, the No. 4-ranked Zverev, a 21-year-old German, knocked out No. 1 Djokovic, No. 3 Federer, No. 7 Cilic and No. 10 Isner for his biggest title.
Two other young Europeans shot up in the rankings in 2018 thanks to breakthrough tournaments. Karen Khachanov, an all-business, 6’6” Russian, overpowered Djokovic, Zverev, Thiem and Isner to capture the Paris Masters and finish No. 11. After Khachanov’s four-set US Open slugfest with Nadal, former champion John McEnroe, said, “Khachanov’s fighting spirit impressed me the most about him. He fought toe to toe with Nadal, the greatest fighter in history, for four hours. I can’t imagine Khachanov not making the top 10, even the top five, in a year or two.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas earned the ATP Most Improved Player of the Year award by zooming from No. 91 to No. 15. A handsome, 6’4” Greek with languid ground strokes and a booming serve, the 20-year-old Tsitsipas became the youngest player to beat four top-10 opponents at a single tournament since the ATP World Tour was established in 1990. At the Rogers Cup, he upset Djokovic, Zverev, Thiem and Anderson. “He’s a complete player,” said Nadal who beat Tsitsipas in the final. “He has passion for the game. He’s not just one thing, he’s got everything.”
The GOAT race became more intriguing as Djokovic surged to 14 Grand Slam titles. Can he catch the often-injured Nadal at 17 or even declining Federer at 20?
Off the court, Djokovic has also taken over the political game as president of the ATP Player Council. He and other power brokers will have to deal with contentious issues, such as a more equitable distribution of prize money and a calendar cluttered with four international team events — the Laver Cup, the Davis Cup, the Hopman Cup and the ATP Cup — in a four-month span. None is more controversial than the prestigious Davis Cup, which has struggled this decade because leading players sometimes skipped it.
Ironically, in an attempt to revitalize 118-year-old annual competition, the International Tennis Federation likely destroyed it. Radically revamped and almost unrecognisable, the new Davis Cup format has transmogrified into an 18-team final with the 12 winners of home-and-away matches moving into the November event. There they will join the four semifinalists from the previous year and two wild cards. The final will be staged at a neutral site (Madrid) with the countries, divided into six groups, playing a downsized round robin consisting of only three matches — two singles and one doubles — and downgraded to only best-of-three sets. Worst of all, without home and away ties (except for the first round), the quintessential Cup passion — roaring, chanting and singing nationalistic crowds — will be lost.
“It’s a recipe for the death of the Davis Cup as we know it,” predicted John Newcombe, Australian Davis Cup captain for six years and five-time champion as a player. Let’s hope against hope that Newcombe and the many other critics are wrong.
New stars outshine Serena in women’s tennis
“In women’s tennis, anything can happen when there is no Serena Williams,” pointed out Timea Babos, after upsetting 10th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6, 6-2 in the Australian Open first round. As 2018 proved, anything can happen even when Serena returns to competition.
Parity has become so pronounced that eight different women have divvied up the last eight Grand Slam events. In 2018, the majors honour roll featured a trio of first-time champions — Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka. The exception, Angelique Kerber, won her third major.
Whither Serena? In a season filled with intriguing comebacks, none attracted more scrutiny and caused more controversy than that of the woman many cognoscenti consider the GOAT. Other experts, however, pick 1960s-70s great Margaret Court based on her all-time record 24 Grand Slam titles, one more than Serena’s total.
For a decade, Serena has chased that Holy Grail with a fist-pumping, “C’mon!”-shouting fury, but some of her most bitter disappointments came at the US Open. History would repeat itself in 2018 as the combustible former Queen of Tennis once again self-destructed there.
Serena’s comeback started slowly. Life-threatening complications from giving birth to her first child in September 2017 forced her to skip the Australian Open in January. Even so, she managed to reach the Wimbledon and US Open finals.
“The year that was” also created new headliners, some of whom will likely reign in the post-Serena era. Although Wozniacki finished both 2010 and 2011 ranked No. 1, her dream of winning a Grand Slam title remained agonisingly elusive. Hampered by periodic injuries, a mediocre serve and a flawed forehand, the Danish veteran plummeted to No. 74 and even contemplated retiring in 2016.
But inspired by the late-career comebacks of Federer and Nadal and recently engaged to former NBA All-Star David Lee (whom she calls her “soulmate”), Wozniacki was primed for her own comeback. At the Australian Open, she displayed a newfound aggressiveness, particularly on her serve and forehand. After surviving two match points and recovering from a 1-5 deficit in the deciding set, Wozniacki overcame No. 119-ranked Jana Fett 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 in a second-round adventure. An easy draw smoothed her ride to the final, where Wozniacki faced world No. 1 Simona Halep, equally hungry to win her first major after two heartbreaking losses in French Open finals.
Despite suffering a painful left ankle injury and right foot plantar fasciitis, Halep had valiantly overcome tenacious Lauren Davis 4-6, 6-4, 15-13, escaping three match points, in the third round. Then, in the most enthralling and outstanding match of the year, Halep belted a career-high 50 winners to conquer Kerber 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 in the semis. And so, with the weakened Halep playing on adrenaline in debilitating 90-degree heat, Wozniacki finally prevailed in a dramatic, superbly contested 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 duel to capture her first Grand Slam title.
“It was an incredible match, an incredible fight,” Wozniacki told the cheering crowd. “I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years.” Fortune can be fickle, however. Seven months later, the extremely fit Wozniacki revealed she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
As for Halep, rather than being dispirited, the hard-fought setback encouraged her as well as several tennis experts. Former superstar Chris Evert, who also lost her first three major finals, predicted “I have no doubt Halep will win a Grand Slam.”
It came soon enough at Roland Garros on Halep’s favourite surface, clay. After whipping Kerber and 2016 French champion Garbine Muguruza, Halep faced 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the final. A year earlier, Halep led Jelena Ostapenko 6-4, 2-0 before faltering and losing the French final.
Could the stylish-stroking Romanian exorcise her demons? Could she control her mood swings when she faced adversity?
Down 6-3, 2-0 to clever counter-puncher Stephens, it looked like déjà vu all over again for the harried Halep. But, sparked by the partisan crowd’s chants of “See-moe-nah! See-moe-nah!”, she reversed the momentum and ultimately came through, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. Afterwards, Halep told the spectators she used her experience in the three previous losing finals to stay positive and focused. “I believed. And I never gave up,” Halep said. “In the last game I felt I cannot breathe any more. It’s amazing what is happening now.”
What happened next at Wimbledon was pretty amazing, too. All top-10 seeds tasted defeat before the quarterfinals for the first time in Wimbledon history. That topsy-turvy upset theme was topped, though, by the feel-good comeback story of Angelique Kerber.
In 2016, the German lefty catapulted from a solid top-10 player to a champion, capturing the Australian and US Opens, reaching the final at Wimbledon and the WTA Finals, and winning an Olympic silver medal. In 2017, however, she couldn’t cope with the fame and expectations. Euphoria turned into disappointment. Kerber won no tournaments and plummeted from No. 1 to No. 21. Her fortune changed yet again in 2018 with new coach Wim Fissette coaxing her to play more aggressively. She won Sydney, made the quarterfinals at the French Open and the semifinals at the Australian Open, Dubai and Eastbourne, a Wimbledon tune-up event on grass.
At the Big W, the 11th-seeded Kerber’s excellent form continued. She straight-setted No. 18 Naomi Osaka, former top-tenner Belinda Bencic, No. 14 Daria Kasatkina and No. 12 Ostapenko to reach the final. Meanwhile, Serena faced much weaker opponents, including only one seed, No. 13 Julia Goerges, to set up a rematch of the 2016 final, which Serena had taken 7-5, 6-3.
This time, a nervous, error-prone Serena, sans the speed and explosive serve of yesteryear, was easy prey for the high-percentage play of Kerber. Committing just five unforced errors — compared to Serena’s 24 — in 101 total points, Kerber triumphed 6-3, 6-3. After winning championship point, an exultant Kerber fell on her back on the lush grass and covered her eyes with her hands. “When I was a little kid, I always dreamed of winning Wimbledon,” the ecstatic champion told ESPN.
Serena licked her wounds and accentuated the positive despite her dismal defeat. “These two weeks have really showed me that, ‘Okay, I can compete,’” she said. “I can, you know, come out and be a contender to win Grand Slams.”
A contender, yes. But was Serena’s glorious time at the top finally over?
The US Open provided a strong, if not definitive, answer. Once again, a very easy draw — no top-15 opponents aside from No. 8 Karolina Pliskova in the quarters — smoothed Serena’s road to the final. Her surprise opponent, 50-1 pre-tournament long-shot Osaka, edged fast-rising, hard-hitting Aryna Sabakenka 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in a brilliant quarterfinal that may presage future Grand Slam finals. Osaka was equally impressive in knocking off 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys 6-2, 6-4 in the penultimate round.
The 20-year-old Japanese-Haitian, who grew up in the United States, had long idolized Serena. As a third-grader in Florida, Osaka wrote a report on Williams. “I said, ‘I want to be like her,’” she recalled. “Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of playing Serena in a Grand Slam final.”
Osaka’s childhood dream came true, though she could never have imagined the bizarre, controversial and, in some ways, nightmarish denouement. Not intimidated by Serena’s screams or the wildly pro-Serena crowd, Osaka deceptively mixed up her powerful serves, dictated most of the rallies with penetrating ground strokes and defended effectively to outclass an error-prone and occasionally inept Serena 6-2, 6-4.
The second-set psychodrama sadly overshadowed the actual match. An imbroglio started when umpire Carlos Ramos gave Williams a code-violation warning for receiving illegal coaching from her player’s box. When Serena smashed her racket on the hard court, she was issued a second code violation for racket abuse and assessed a point penalty. Enraged and fuming, Serena harangued Ramos on a changeover, calling him “a liar” and “a thief.” The code violation for “verbal abuse” cost Serena a full game.
In the post-final press conference, Osaka explained how she managed to compartmentalise her conflicting emotions towards Williams. “When I step on the court, I feel like a different person,” Osaka said. “I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player, playing another tennis player.” Breaking into tears, she added, “But then when I hugged her at the net, I felt like a little kid again.”
Serena was characteristically unapologetic about her transgressions — her third mental meltdown at Flushing Meadows in the past 10 years — which resulted in $17,000 in fines. Instead, she wrongly accused Ramos of sexism.
Like sand flowing inexorably through an hourglass, time is running out for Serena, now 37. Before the fateful US Open final, she confided, “I’m still waiting to get to be the Serena that I was, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that physically, emotionally, mentally.”
The future appears far more certain for the appealing Osaka, who possesses all the attributes of a superstar. However her career unfolds, she’ll always remember 2018. “It’s been a crazy year,” Osaka said. “For me, it’s just been a lot of new experiences.”
Thanks for the memories, Caroline, Simona, Angelique and especially Naomi.
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