The year that was — and wasn’t — in tennis

In a year hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, no fans in the stands proved the biggest challenge for players who relish and feed on the energy of the crowd. Empty stadia were the most obvious game-changer, and a host of other policy changes were also enforced for player safety and health at tournaments.

No man or woman in the history of tennis has come close to dominating a court surface as Rafel Nadal has on clay — he has an almost unimaginable 13 crowns at Roland Garros.   -  Getty Images

In the brave new world of pandemic tennis, traditional jargon such as “holding serve” and “match point” and “love game” was replaced with now-familiar neologisms such as “social distancing” and “contact tracing” and “bio bubbles.” Like almost every area of work, play and social activity, our sport was knocked down and out. When tennis rebounded, it had dramatically changed.

After the ATP and WTA suspended competition on March 12, 2020, the pro tours didn’t return until the Western and Southern Open on August 17. Instead of its traditional Cincinnati venue, the dual-gender tournament was staged at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York, as a prelim for the US Open. With strict health protocols, which occasionally miffed players, tennis became one of the first pro sports to return safely in America after the pandemic shutdown.

No fans in the stands proved the biggest challenge for players who relish and feed on the energy of the crowd. But they gradually learned to adjust to the eerie quiet, broken only by cheers from supporters in their “virtual player’s box.” However, these competition-starved athletes agreed with ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who said, “I’d rather have a US Open with no fans than no US Open.”

Empty stadia were the most obvious game-changer. A host of other policy changes were also enforced for player safety and health at tournaments. Players were required to be tested frequently and wear face masks until they entered the court. They also had to touch racquets rather than shake hands or hug at the end of matches, fetch their own towels and deposit them in colour-coded boxes, and forgo ice baths in the locker or recovery rooms.

Although the US Open ran on schedule, the COVID-19 pandemic claimed two huge casualties. Wimbledon, due to its small summer window for suitable grass, was cancelled for the first time since World War II, while the quadrennial Olympic Games were rescheduled for 2021. However, the French Open, which normally starts in late May, was staged in late September and early October.

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Though it seems long ago, the first Grand Slam event in this extremely abnormal year was completed with only one hitch. Bushfires that raged across Australia during early January produced dangerously high levels of air pollution that left some competitors gasping during one day of the Australian Open qualifying event. Otherwise, a feeling of normalcy — almost innocent or naive in retrospect — pervaded what the players call “the friendly Slam” because of the hospitable, sports-loving Aussies.

Two trends continued at the Aussie Open: “New Generation” parity for the women and, for the most part, “Big Three” domination for the men. Sofia Kenin, dismissed as a 35-1 pre-tournament longshot, won her maiden Grand Slam title. That made the Russian-born American the eighth first-time champion in the past 12 major events since Serena Williams, while pregnant, captured her last Slam in 2017.

Super-solid but seldom flashy, the 21-year-old Kenin ground down Coco Gauff 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 after the 15-year-old sensation had shocked defending champion Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4. In the semifinals, Kenin showed why she was selected as the 2019 WTA Most Improved Player. She upset immensely popular Australian and world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty 7-6, 7-5 as the temperature soared to a tournament-high 102 degrees Fahrenheit and a 4.8 heat reading, just short of the 5.0 it takes to close the Rod Laver Arena roof.

Nineteen-year-old Iga Swiatek thumped everyone at the 2020 French Open, yielding only 28 games in seven matches.   -  AP


In the other half of the draw, Garbine Muguruza, whom pundits had also overlooked, staged a career comeback. After winning the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon, the 26-year-old Spaniard plummeted to No. 36 by the end of 2019. A break from the game and a climb of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak (19,300ft) — which she called “a life-changing experience” — revitalised Muguruza. At Melbourne, the 6’ power hitter knocked off No. 4 Simona Halep, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 9 Kiki Bertens to make the final.

Kenin dropped the opening set 6-4 in the final, but rebounded with a pugnacious competitiveness reminiscent of Jimmy Connors, to grab the second set 6-2. Serving at 2-all, love-40 in the deciding set, Kenin faced three break points. In a stunning turnaround, she blasted five straight winners — two forehands, two backhands and an ace — to escape and hold serve for 3-2. “Champions raise their level when their backs are against the wall,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, “and that’s what Kenin did.” The American called the pivotal sequence the “five best shots of my life,” as she prevailed 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Dream come true

In her victory speech, Kenin, the youngest American Grand Slam champion since Serena Williams in 2002, said, “My dream has officially come true. If you have a dream, go for it.”

But the dream of 38-year-old Serena was dashed once again. Serena, the oddsmakers choice at 14-5 to at long last win her 24th major and tie Margaret Court’s hallowed record, was shockingly upset 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 by clever Chinese veteran Wang Qiang in the third round. Time is cruelly running out on the ageing, former superstar.

In sharp contrast, the men’s Big Three defied Father Time yet again, motivated by pride, a love of competition, their own three-way rivalry and a burning determination to stave off the Next Gen. Most of all, though, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had their eyes on the ultimate prize, the most Grand Slam titles, which translates into unofficial GOAT recognition. Roger led with 20 majors, followed by Rafa at 18 and fast-closing Nole at 16. To fathom their greatness, consider that fourth place went to the retired Pete Sampras at 14, and no active player had won more than three majors.

The year could not have started more auspiciously for Djokovic. The past decade’s most successful but least popular member of the triumvirate, Djokovic streaked to a perfect 8-0 record (6-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles) and led Serbia to victory in the inaugural ATP Cup.

Men’s tennis cups had runneth over. The Laver Cup was played in September 2019, the much-revamped Davis Cup in late November 2019 and the ATP Cup — a 10-day, 24-nation event — in early January. The clash of cups was confusing to sports fans and a serious blow to the prestigious but struggling Davis Cup, which lost its biggest drawing card — passionate home country crowds — by being held on only one date and site. “The ATP is trying to ruin Davis Cup,” alleged American player Reilly Opelka. Like many in the tennis world, he felt the ATP Cup was intended to replace the Davis Cup as the preeminent, “official” international team competition.

Djokovic stayed red hot at the Australian Open, racing to the final without losing a set, his only moderate challenge coming from Federer in the semifinals. Djokovic had won 15 of his last 16 tiebreakers and the last five against Federer. A diehard Fed fan raised a sign reading “F = Miracle,” but there would be no miracle for the 38-year-old Swiss. The Serb played a near-perfect first-set tiebreaker, 7-1, and then pulled away for a 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph.

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Not only had unfair tournament scheduling given the King of Hard Courts an extra day of rest and preparation before the final, but his opponent, Dominic Thiem, had battled through gruelling, four-set matches against Nadal and Alexander Zverev. The best of the Next Genners, Thiem viewed his chances with sober realism. “It’s unbelievable, twice in Roland Garros finals, twice facing Rafa,” acknowledged Thiem. “Now facing Novak here, he’s the king of Australia, so I’m always facing the kings of the Grand Slams in these finals.”

Djokovic had never been beaten in seven Aussie Open finals, and he boasted a sterling 30-10 career mark in five-set matches. Both records were enhanced as the far more experienced Djokovic outlasted the power-hitting Thiem 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 to seize his fifth Grand Slam title in his last seven majors and 17th overall. That gave the legendary Big Three an astounding 52 of the last 60 majors, including the last 13. And other than Thiem and Zverev, the much-touted Next Genners — Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Denis Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev and Felix Auger-Aliassime — lost early at Melbourne Park.

“I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level,” Thiem said. “I really hope also that I win my maiden Slam when they’re still around, because it just counts more. I just feel a lot of emptiness now.” Eight months later, Thiem would realise his dream, though, ironically, he would not face any of the Big Three.

During the tour shutdown, Federer underwent two arthroscopic procedures on his right knee and decided to skip the rest of the season. Nadal rested and didn’t pick up a racquet for more than two months, a gamble than would pay off in September. Meanwhile, Djokovic, Theim and Zverev stayed very active, but took sharply divergent paths that would prove fateful.

Djokovic controversies

Djokovic courted controversy whatever he did or said. As the pandemic accelerated in April, Djokovic said he was “opposed to vaccination.” Eschewing social distancing and face masks, he organised the Adria Tour in Serbia and Croatia in June. When he, Grigor Dimitrov and seven others tested positive for COVID-19, the ill-fated event was scrapped. Again flouting health protocol, Djokovic was caught on video dancing shirtless and maskless with other players in a Belgrade cabaret club. His well-intentioned proposal to raise $4 million for financially struggling players ranked outside the world’s top 250 was roundly criticised by some upper-echelon players unwilling to donate $30,000.

Then, in August, Djokovic caused the worst political tempest in men’s tennis in years. Blindsiding the ATP, he resigned as president of the ATP Players Council along with dissident members Vasek Pospisil, John Isner and Sam Querrey to form a new players’ organisation, the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). Federer and Nadal, notably, did not support Djokovic and the PTPA. Instead, Federer, Andy Murray and Billie Jean King advocated merging the men’s and women’s tours.

Angry at playing poorly to fall behind 20th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta 6-5 in a fourth-round match at the US Open, Novak Djokovic, without looking, whacked a ball towards the back of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The fluke shot hit an unsuspecting line judge in the throat. She fell on the court, but was not seriously injured. No matter. Minutes later, Djokovic was defaulted for the rule infraction.   -  Getty Images


In sharp contrast, Thiem and Zverev kept their eye on the ball, not tennis politics. Thiem played 28 exhibitions in Europe to stay “match tough.” Zverev worked diligently on technical issues in his game — especially his unreliable second serve and volley — to close out close matches more often. Both decisions would pay off brilliantly.

With Federer sidelined and Nadal skipping the US Open to concentrate on the French Open, only Djokovic could maintain the Big Three’s stranglehold on the majors. With a perfect 21-0 record, he was the heavy favourite to win the first Grand Slam event without spectators.

But the tennis gods punished the embattled Serb. Angry at playing poorly to fall behind 20th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta 6-5 in a fourth-round match, Djokovic, without looking, whacked a ball towards the back of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The fluke shot hit an unsuspecting line judge in the throat. She fell on the court, but was not seriously injured. No matter. Minutes later, Djokovic was defaulted for the rule infraction. In a world turned upside down by a pandemic, a bizarre mishap suddenly turned the tournament upside down. Never before had a No. 1 seed been disqualified. The irony was that only the two marquee courts had line judges. For safety reasons, Hawk-Eye Live was used — for the first time at a major — to call lines on the other 15 courts.

Massive opportunity

“A massive opportunity for us younger guys” was what Alexander Zverev called the shocking disqualification. But which “younger guy” would take most advantage of it?

Medvedev, who lost a five-set thriller to Nadal in the 2019 final here, became the oddsmakers’ favourite after the Djokovic default. But Thiem outhit the Russian 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (5) in the semis. In the weaker half of the draw, Zverev recovered from two awful sets with grit and resourcefulness to overcome the relentlessly steady Carreno Busta in a 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 semifinal. For the first time in 16 years, the men’s semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament were contested without any of the Big Three participating.

Moreover, for the first time since Marin Cilic won the 2014 US Open, men’s tennis would have a first-time major champion. Thiem, the favourite, knew the stakes were even higher for him. “If I win, I will have my first Grand Slam. And if not, I will probably have to call Andy [Murray] about how it is to be 0-4,” an obvious reference to the dubious distinction of losing his first four major finals.

The 27-year-old Austrian nervously succumbed to the pressure and fell behind 6-2, 6-4 to the rocket-serving, 6’6” German. No one had ever come back from two sets down to win the US Open in the Open Era. With Thiem serving at 4-all, 40-all in the third set, Zverev was just six points from the title. But Thiem held on and then secured a service break to take the set 6-4 and the next set 6-3 to force a deciding set.

What the final lacked in sustained excellence it made up for in drama. After both players were broken three times, the few hundred spectators and millions of worldwide TV fans got what they wanted: a tiebreaker. Thiem was hobbling with leg cramps, but fighting gamely. Zverev, who had won 10 of 12 five-set matches at majors, was breathing heavily.

Zverev choked with two costly double faults, but Thiem’s fearless offence — highlighted by two forehand passing shots and a forehand drop volley winner — ignited the 8-6 tiebreaker and wrapped up the 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory for his first Grand Slam crown.

Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, the much-touted Next Genners, lost early at the Australian Open. Eight months later, Thiem would realise his dream at the US Open, defeating Zverev in five sets in the final. Sceptics, however, devalued Thiem’s title because he didn’t beat any of the Big Three, even though obviously you can only beat who you play.   -  Getty Images


Sceptics devalued Thiem’s title because he didn’t beat any of the Big Three, even though obviously you can only beat who you play. Still, Thiem would dispel any remaining doubts if he defeated either 12-time champion Nadal or No. 1 Djokovic to raise the winner’s trophy four weeks later at Roland Garros.

The US Open featured the three best women’s matches of the year, despite a field missing six of the top eight players, including 2019 Slam champions Halep, Barty and Bianca Andreescu. Serena Williams, who won the first of her six titles here an amazing 21 years ago as a 17-year-old, would make the semis for the 11th straight time. No surprise there.

But the semifinal appearance of Victoria Azarenka, Serena’s biggest rival nearly a decade ago, was a stunner. Her 2011-13 halcyon era was followed by injuries, brutal first-round draws and losses, and an acrimonious child custody battle. By the end of 2019, the down and almost out two-time Australian Open champ contemplated retirement. “I was pretty ready to stop,” Azarenka recalled. “I didn’t touch a racquet for about five months before the pandemic.” In early 2020, though, the custody dispute was resolved, and she became relaxed and much happier.

When the recharged Azarenka returned to the pro tour in August, the former world No. 1 was almost unstoppable. She captured the Western and Southern Open and then raced to the US Open semis, scoring impressive wins over No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka, rapidly improving No. 20 Karolina Muchova and No. 16 Elise Mertens.

Battle of the Moms

A slight favourite in the Battle of the Moms, Serena led 18-4 in their rivalry and was a perfect 10-0 at majors. Even so, Azarenka returned Serena’s booming serve better than anyone over the years, and as Evert said, “She has no fear when she plays Serena.”

After a nervous first set that Azarenka dropped 6-1, she broke the greatest server of all time twice to grab the second set 6-3, thanks to 12 winners and only one unforced error.

The Belarusian matched the American’s intensity with fist pumps when she won pivotal points, and meditated on changeovers. That mental game and her trademark accurate, deep ground strokes produced a riveting 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory. Vika — her nickname — closed out the way Serena often does — with two big serves, one at 109 mph inducing a return error and another clipping the line for an ace. Once again, the consensus GOAT was thwarted in her bid for a 24th major title.

The much-anticipated final pitted the Next Gen — Osaka, in this case — against the Old Guard, the explosive server against the formidable returner, and the favoured No. 4 seed against a rare unseeded finalist.

Surprisingly, Azarenka surged to a 6-1, 2-0, 30-15 lead. Afterwards, Osaka confided, “I thought it would be embarrassing to lose in an hour, so I had to change my attitude. In the first set, I just was so nervous. I just didn’t want to lose 6-1, 6-0.”

Sofia Kenin, dismissed as a 35-1 pre-tournament longshot at the Australian Open, won her maiden Grand Slam title. That made the Russian-born American the eighth first-time champion in the past 12 major events since Serena Williams, while pregnant, captured her last Slam in 2017.   -  Getty Images


But Azarenka couldn’t stay “in the zone” in that game, which turned out to be the turning point of the match. She started hitting cautiously when leading 40-30, just a point away from taking a 3-0 lead, and Osaka pounced with a booming forehand that forced an error from Azarenka. Using that momentum and gaining confidence, the Japanese-Haitian rebounded for a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph — her second US Open and third major title.

Almost as noteworthy as Osaka’s explosive game was her social activism. Before every match, she donned attention-getting face masks commemorating the victims of police brutality. “I wanted more people to show more names,” the charismatic superstar told ESPN. Endorsements have already made the 23-year-old Osaka the highest-paid female athlete of all time, according to Forbes, and her fast-growing fan base includes more than 700,000 Twitter followers. The outspoken, articulate, biracial champion appears destined to be a leader both on and off the courts, much like Arthur Ashe 50 years ago.

For her inspiring human rights work, Osaka received the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award as one of “five men and women who in 2020 were champions in every sense of the word: champions on the field, champions for others off it.”

Rafa reigns

The French Open will be most remembered for two champions who outclassed the fields. Their similarity, though, ends there.

For one thing, no man or woman in the history of tennis has come close to dominating a court surface as Nadal has on clay. Margaret Court won 11 Australian titles on grass, but nearly all of those events suffered from weak fields. Other super achievers include Martina Navratilova, who captured nine Wimbledons on grass, and Djokovic, who grabbed eight Australian Opens on hard courts. All these career surface records, though terrific, pale in comparison to Nadal’s almost unimaginable 13 crowns at Roland Garros. It’s one of those career sports records that will never be broken. As a bonus of sorts, the Spanish conquistador stands a perfect 13-0 in both French Open semifinals and finals, still more untouchable records.

If defeating Nadal at Roland Garros is almost impossible — he’s now 100-2 there — what about getting a measly set off him. That’s rather difficult, too. He’s dropped only three sets in the last four years. That didn’t happen this year, but two up-and-coming players, Jannik Sinner and Diego Schwartzman, actually extended Nadal to a tiebreaker, in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

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Sinner, a hard-hitting, 19-year-old Italian, helped Nadal’s cause by upsetting the ailing, sixth-seeded Zverev 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in the fourth round. Argentina’s Schwartzman, a 5’7” giantkiller, did Nadal an even bigger favour. Playing high-percentage tennis and great defence, he outlasted the tiring 2018-19 finalist Thiem 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2. Order was restored, though, when Nadal stopped Sinner 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-1 and Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6.

In the other half of the draw, Djokovic struggled. He dropped the opening set against 17th-seeded Carreno Busta, which had to evoke haunting memories from their US Open match. This time, the slender Serb kept his poise and regained his form quickly for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Djokovic, who admitted he tends “to make life complicated,” did exactly that against fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. Ahead 6-3, 6-2, 5-4, 40-30, Djoker failed to convert a match point when he missed a backhand down the line, and the handsome, charismatic, 22-year-old Greek turned the match around. It took another two hours and some aggravation, with fans chanting “Stefanos,” before Djokovic pulled the match out 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1.

Djokovic had reason to be optimistic going into the final. After all, he was 37-1 this year, with the only blemish his default at the US Open. Since 2013 he boasted a 14-4 edge over Nadal. And in their last 15 matches on clay, he won a respectable seven, including their last encounter here in 2015.

All those stats meant nothing by the end of the 6-0 opening set, the only time Djokovic had been “bageled” in a major final. Nadal’s signature topspin cross-court forehand punished Djokovic’s stellar backhand, and the Spaniard’s aggressive cross-court backhand and accurate slice backhand kept the Serb off balance. Tactically, Nadal was far superior to Djokovic, whose mediocre drop shots from the baseline cost him dearly. After the 6-2 second set, Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier rightly noted, “The level Nadal is playing is sublime, time-capsule stuff.”

Although Djokovic briefly led 5-4 in the third, he lost his serve on a double fault to trail 6-5. Then Nadal finished off a love service game with an ace for a smashing 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 victory. Nadal’s 13th French crown extended his own record, and his 20th major title equalled Federer’s record.

Polish power

On the women’s side, the Next Gen has already become the New Gen. And other than Osaka, with three majors already, parity prevails. So, not surprisingly, yet another first-time champion was crowned in Paris. This time the breakthrough came from a 19-year-old Pole who hadn’t won a tournament and was ranked only 54. What was even more surprising was that Iga Świątek thumped everyone, yielding only 28 games in seven matches.

Like a wrecking ball destroying everything in her path, Swiatek first crushed 15th-seeded Marketa Vondrousova, the 2019 French finalist, 6-1, 6-2. She then ambushed top-seeded Halep by the same score, prompting the humbled Romanian to say, “I didn’t lose that match, Iga won it. She was everywhere.”

Indeed, speed was just one of 5’9” Swiatek’s many assets. She displayed the athleticism of Barty, the clever variety and strong mental game of Andreescu, and the finesse of Agnieszka Radwanska, the Polish former world No. 2 who inspired her. Swiatek was also aided by a travelling sports psychologist named Daria Abramowicz, who helped her stay relaxed and focused. On changeovers, Swiatek did breathing techniques, visualisation and inner dialogue.

In the final, Swiatek produced another magnificent performance, dismantling a slightly injured (strained abductor muscle) and often frustrated Kenin 6-4, 6-1. The Pole racked up an impressive six service breaks.

Although the Fed Cup, renamed the Billie Jean King Cup, was cancelled, the Nitto ATP Finals staged its last show in London — it moves to Turin, Italy, next year — to close the pandemic-shortened season. Here the Next Gen made a strong statement that could presage a changing of the guard in 2021.

The Next Gen may have been fuelled by an acerbic John McEnroe quote after Thiem won the US Open. “It only took a pandemic, Federer having knee surgery, Djokovic getting defaulted, and Nadal not playing. So Thiem finally got a Slam.” Ouch! Thiem, Zverev, Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Schwartzman and Rublev, who led the Tour with five titles, were stacked up against five-time champion Djokovic and Nadal, eager to capture the only prestigious title that had eluded him during his 18-year pro career. Djokovic’s turbulent season had taken an emotional toll, and since the US Open he’d uncharacteristically suffered three lopsided losses.

Medvedev breakthrough

Medvedev, overshadowed by fellow Next Genners Thiem, Zverev and even much-improved Rublev this season, broke through in London to take his biggest title. The wiry 6’6” Russian did it with a flourish, going undefeated against the creme de la creme (aside from the missing Federer).

In the round-robin phase, Medvedev polished off Djokovic, Zverev and Schwartzman in straight sets. Then, avenging his five-set loss in the 2019 US Open final, he overcame Nadal, who served for the match at 5-4 in the second set but then played too passively, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.

“Medvedev is such a unique player,” said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone. “He doesn’t have textbook strokes, textbook tactics or textbook movement based on his body type.” Perhaps not, but his strokes are sound, his tactics clever and his movement faster than any player his height or taller in tennis history.

The other semifinal featured the most fluctuating, entertaining match of the tournament. Thiem outlasted Djokovic 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5), but not before squandering four match points in the second-set tiebreaker and trailing 4-0 in the third-set tiebreaker. Playing his best when it mattered most, the Austrian exploded with three aces and two ground-stroke winners to pull it out.

For the sixth straight year, a new and unexpected champion took the crown at the ATP Tour Finals in London. The final match of the year was also the longest best-of-three-set final in the tournament’s 50-year history. Daniil Medvedev, the champion, called the two-hour, 43-minute battle “the toughest victory in my life.”   -  Getty Images


In the final, Medvedev faced the favoured Theim, who led 3-1 in their rivalry. Thiem’s biggest improvement in the last two years has been his defence, but, ironically, playing too defensively, namely slicing his backhand about 65 percent of the time, proved his undoing. That foolish tactic allowed Medvedev to play more aggressively. The Russian also served brilliantly, changed pace creatively and unpredictably rushed net. He finished a superb 7-2 second-set tiebreaker with an ace, and sneaked in for a volley winner to get the crucial third-set service break for a 3-2 lead. With superior skill and smarts, Medvedev ultimately triumphed 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. This final match of the year was also the longest best-of-three-set final in the tournament’s 50-year history. Medvedev called the two-hour, 43-minute battle “the toughest victory in my life.”

For the sixth straight year, a new and unexpected champion took the crown in London. Tennis could not have had a more fitting ending to an unprecedented, often chaotic year filled with the novel and the unexpected.