Tennis in 2021: The best and the worst
Let’s look back at this memorable year when youth was served and age defied and see if you agree with how the author saw the Bests and Worst of vintage 2021.
A suspenseful quest for a rare Grand Slam highlighted men’s tennis, while unprecedented parity and shock champions spiced the women’s game.
Novak Djokovic nearly captured the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver achieved the feat in 1969. The 34-year-old Serb often talked about his burning ambition to overtake Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s record for the most majors, 20, and as the year progressed, also his parallel bid to join Laver and Don Budge (1938) as the only male Grand Slammers.
Slams often come down to “the survival of the fittest” as well as tests of skill and will. At the Australian Open, Djokovic was sorely tested by a painful abdominal strain incurred during his five-set, third-round victory over Taylor Fritz. Pain-killers and sheer determination enabled him to win three more matches, the toughest a 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (6) verdict over rising star Alexander Zverev.
In the final, Djokovic thrashed Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 for his record-extending ninth Australian Open title. “Djoker is so good. He’s routined great, great players at Aussie Open over the years,” tweeted former No. 1 Andy Roddick afterwards. “There is nowhere to attack him on the court. It’s like not being able to hit a boxer, but that boxer also has knockout power in both hands.”
Three months later, Djokovic faced archrival Nadal in the French Open semifinals. Conquering the King of Clay in a best-of-five-set match at Roland Garros was what Djokovic called “the biggest challenge you can have in this sport,” likening the feat to climbing Mt. Everest. Before 5,000 spectators — the maximum allowed due to CoVID-19 restrictions — the Serb out-grinded 13-time champion Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2. An ecstatic Djokovic rated it “definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros. And [among the] top three matches that I ever played in my entire career.”
Djokovic was far from out of the woods, though. He had to rebound from a two-set deficit to defeat No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 for his second French Open. That made the versatile Serb the only member of the Big Three to capture at least two titles at all four majors.
At Wimbledon, Djokovic lucked out with an easy draw. In the semis, he encountered No. 12 Denis Shapovalov, who had only one career win there going into the tournament, and in the final, No. 9 Berrettini, not much better at 4-2. Djokovic took all the big points to oust the aggressive but erratic Canadian lefty 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5. Then he finished off the huge-serving Italian 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 for his sixth Wimbledon crown and record-tying 20th major. Asked if he thought he was the best player in the Open Era, Djokovic said, “I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning Slams and making history.”
Showdown at the U.S. Open
That set the stage for the eagerly anticipated U.S. Open where Djokovic hoped to complete a Grand Slam and also break his three-way tie with Federer and Nadal. The GOAT debate raged as each member of the legendary triumvirate has staked a solid claim.
The seemingly ageless Big Three had grabbed 17 of the previous 18 Grand Slam events before the New Gen ended their near-total domination at the U.S. Open. At Flushing Meadows, the physical and emotional strain of Djokovic’s campaign for immortality exacted its toll. He dropped four sets before the semifinals where he lost two more before outlasting Zverev 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2. “Mentally, he’s the best player to ever play the game,” Zverev said. “Mentally in the most important moments, I would rather play against anybody else but him.”
In a lacklustre final, the razor-sharp Medvedev displayed the perfect blend of attacking tennis and relentless counter-punching, while Djokovic looked sluggish and tactically out-matched. Not even chants of “Nole! Nole!” could ignite a sustained comeback, although a too-little and too-late third-set rally closed the gap from 5-1 to 5-4. Medvedev, which means “bear” in Russian, broke the Big Three stranglehold with a decisive 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 triumph and captured his first major title in his third final.
“The combination of fatigue and pressure is fatal,” summed up 1980s champion John McEnroe. “Djokovic’s legs weren’t there today.”
Although Medvedev lacks the elegant athleticism of Federer, the ferocious competitiveness of Nadal, and the technical perfection of Djokovic, he boasts a big serve, high-percentage strategy, and terrific court coverage. Furthermore, as Djokovic noted, “There are no holes in his game right now. I mean, both forehand and backhand are very solid. Just running forehand, forehand from mid-court, something that probably wasn’t his forte in the past, now he has improved a lot. It’s just he always makes you play [another shot].”
Another 6’6” New Genner also threatened to overthrow the Old Guard. At the Tokyo Olympics, Alexander Zverev upset Djokovic in a three-set semifinal to end the Serb’s quest for a “Golden Slam” and then trounced Karen Khachnov 6-3, 6-1 for the gold medal. The ecstatic winner called the Olympics “the biggest tournament you can win, in any sport.” Climaxing his career-best season, the explosive-serving German captured his second ATP Finals title by defeating Djokovic again and overpowering Medvedev 6-4, 6-4 in the final. Afterwards, Zverev said, “I’m feeling as motivated as ever, [but] there’s one thing missing” — a Grand Slam title.
For tennis fans worried about the post-Big Three future and not smitten by Medvedev, Zverev, or Tsitsipas, a younger trio could capture their fancy in 2022. Jannik Sinner, a low-key but high-powered Italian cracked the top 10 at age 20. Steadily improving Felix Auger-Aliassime, a supremely athletic, 21-year-old Canadian, turned in career-best results at the Australian Open (fourth round), Wimbledon (quarterfinals), and the U.S. Open (semifinals).
The most intriguing prospect, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, is just 18 but already performs like a veteran, taking clutch tiebreakers in late-season victories over No. 4 Tsitsipas, No. 7 Berrettini, and No. 10 Sinner. That surge prompted former No. 1 Jim Courier to predict, “It looks like Carlos Alcaraz is on a rocket ride to the top.” Could the high-energy, hard-hitting Alcaraz be the next Nadal?
Longshot women shock favourites
On the women’s tour, extreme parity not only continued but produced longshot champions. “It’s been a crazy time for women’s tennis the past two years. So many women think they can go all the way at majors even if they’ve never come close before,” said Lindsay Davenport during Wimbledon where order was temporarily restored when No. 1 Ashleigh Barty triumphed.
Not only had four different women won each of the Grand Slam events for each of the last five years, but in the four majors before the 2021 U.S. Open, 16 different women appeared in the semifinals!
At the U.S. Open, though, women’s parity reached an unprecedented, almost unbelievable level. For the first time in Grand Slam history, a qualifier — of either gender — won the title. If that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, the champion was an 18-year-old ranked No. 150, and she didn’t lose a set in 10 mostly lopsided victories!
Fittingly, in this upside-down year, champion Emma Raducanu, a 100-1 longshot, defeated 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, a 200-1 longshot, in an action-packed 6-4, 6-3 final. Consider this: Just three months earlier Raducanu had never even played in a professional tour-level event! Yet within the intimidating confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tennis arena, she displayed a complete arsensal of shots, athleticism, and above all, extraordinary poise for a rookie. “She is a superstar in the making,” said all-time great Martina Navratilova on Amazon Prime . “You saw it with Novak Djokovic, you see it with Carlos Alcaraz, Martina Hingis as well. It’s there. They are born for it. If the body is willing, everything else is there.”
Almost as impressive as Raducanu, the 73rd-ranked Fernandez turned into a giant-killer herself. The feisty Canadian also savoured the big stage and fed off the supportive crowd to upset defending champion Naomi Osaka, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 5 Elina Svitolina, and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, all in bruising three-set battles. “I’m not surprised by anything that’s happening right now,” said super-confident Fernandez when she reached the quarterfinals.
The French Open produced another head-scratching final only a clairvoyant could have predicted. Unseeded, 125-1 longshot Barbora Krejcíkova had starred in doubles but had won only five Grand Slam main draw singles matches in her career. The unassuming Czech faced 31st-ranked, 250-1 longshot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a Russian veteran who had never gone past the quarterfinals in her previous 51 majors. Faster, fitter, and steadier, Krejcikova prevailed 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in an unremarkable final that seemed more like a typical third-round match.
While not as shocking as the U.S. and French Opens, the pandemic-postponed Tokyo Olympics nonetheless gave us a surprise champion. No. 12-ranked Belinda Bencic, a solid-stroking, 24-year-old Swiss who had just one major semifinal on her eight-year pro resume, did it the hard way with four three-set victories. She defeated Krekcikova, Paylyuchenkova, and Khazakstani power hitter Elena Rybakina to reach the final where she edged No. 42 Czech Marketa Vondrousova 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 for the gold medal. “I really don’t know how it worked out for me,” said a tearful Bencic, whose career had often been plagued by injuries.
Domination, not parity, however, marked the season’s first Grand Slam tournament. So much so that after Osaka beat Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3 to seize her second Australian and fourth major title, former champion Justine Henin told Eurosport: “Women’s tennis has a new boss. Naomi Osaka has this capacity, she has taken another dimension.”
Only 23, the Japanese-Haitian living in Los Angeles displayed the shot power and foot speed once displayed by Serena Williams, whom Osaka defeated 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals. That loss likely ended any lingering chance the fading 39-year-old legend had of equaling Margaret Court’s hallowed record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
Two champions face crises
Sadly though, Osaka’s own bid to make more history in 2021 was derailed at Roland Garros when she abruptly withdrew before her second-round match, citing mental health issues. Her unjustified complaints about media questions and mandatory post-match press conferences created a controversy but also a much-needed discussion about mental health. Osaka elicited sympathy after she revealed on social media she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before talking to reporters and has suffered from “long bouts of depression.” After skipping Wimbledon, she never regained her peak form and lost early at the Olympics and U.S. Open. Osaka didn’t compete again, and her season-ending ranking plummeted to No. 13, her lowest since 2017.
Barty faced a much different crisis going into Wimbledon. A painful hip injury forced her to retire from her second-round match at the French Open, but her team didn’t tell her this injury normally requires a two-month recovery. “Being able to play here at Wimbledon was nothing short of a miracle,” Barty said later.
With an all-court game ideal for grass, the 25-year-old Australian capitalised on an easy draw — she played no top-10 opponents — to win her first Wimbledon and second major, defeating No. 13-ranked Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in the final. Barty’s fateful triumph came on the 50th anniversary of the first Wimbledon crown of her mentor and inspiration, Evonne Goolagong. Afterward, Ash humbly said, “I hope I made Evonne proud.”
Parity gave us engaging new stars like Raducanu and Fernandez. “I love it because they bring joy to women’s tennis,” said Chris Evert, a popular teen queen in the 1970s. But parity also took away riveting rivalries. As former pro and respected TV analyst Mary Carillo told The Washington Post , “Rivalries are the lungs of the sport; they make matches breathe. Especially when the rivals have different games, different temperaments, use different hands, play from different parts of the court, come from different backgrounds.”
Although Djokovic fell tantalisingly short of a historic Grand Slam, the US Open nonetheless showcased the culmination of two “Golden Slams.” Diede de Groot became the first player to complete the Golden Slam in wheelchair tennis hours before Dyland Alcott did it, and also the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1988. The Dutch superstar captured all four majors and the Paralympic gold medal. De Groot consummated the rare feat by outplaying Yui Kamiji, the second seed from Japan, 6-3, 6-2 in the U.S. Open final.
“For a long time it [a Grand Slam] wasn’t possible because Wimbledon didn’t have a singles event,” said de Groot. “To be the first one to actually get that title is just so special. I don’t think I will ever forget that.” After Alcott, a beloved athlete in Australia, defeated Dutch teenager Niels Vink 7-5, 6-2 in the U.S. Open quad singles final, he delivered a poignant and heartfelt message to the crowd, “Thanks for making the dreams of a young fat disabled kid with a really bad haircut come true because I can’t believe I just did it! I just can’t believe I just won the Golden Slam! …. I used to hate myself so much, I hated my disability, I didn’t even want to be here anymore, and then I found tennis and it changed and saved my life.”
Both wheelchair champions empathised with the vanquished Djokovic. De Groot recalled they rooted for him to win a gold medal at the Olympics, but learned a lesson when he didn’t. “I think following him, you could also sort of see his struggle, see how he’s just a human and how he’s not a robot,” she said. “And I think his performance, it just showed how it’s not just a given that you just keep on winning, and I think I really took that with me going into my own Games.”
Let’s look back at this memorable year when youth was served and age defied and see if you agree with how I saw the Bests and Worsts of vintage 2021.
Best men’s player — Novak Djokovic came just one victory away from the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver’s in 1969. His sensational year gave the stylish Serb a record seventh year-end No. 1 ranking to break the tie with his boyhood idol Pete Sampras. Besides titles at the Australian Open (his record ninth), French Open, and Wimbledon, he won the Paris Masters and the Belgrade Open. The 34-year-old Djokovic also tightened up the GOAT competition by reaching 20 major titles, to tie archrivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Best women’s player — Ten years after Ashleigh Barty won the Wimbledon junior title, she realised her childhood dream by winning the Big W for her second Grand Slam title. The super-athletic Australian also grabbed the Miami Open, escaping a match point in the opening round, and Cincinnati among her five titles. Ash also went a near-perfect 14-1 against top-20 opponents. In a year marked by stunning parity, that was enough to clinch the No. 1 ranking for the third straight year, a feat previously pulled off in the Open Era only by legends Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Serena Williams.
Best women’s match — A David and Goliath semifinal before a boisterous U.S. Open crowd gets my vote. For three fluctuating sets, Leylah Fernandez, a 5’4” Canadian lefty ranked No. 73, slugged it out with heavily favoured Aryna Sabalenka, a 5’11” Belarusian ranked No. 2. The 19-year-old Fernandez, a 200-1 pre-tournament longshot, played the big points with brilliant tactics, beautiful composure, and terrific serve returns and forehands. Conversely, the hyper-emotional Sabalenka choked when serving at 4-5 in the deciding set. Unnerved by the pressure and the vociferous pro-Fernandez spectators, she double faulted twice, and Fernandez won the thriller, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4. Afterwards, Fernandez told the crowd, “I tried to bring magic on court and put on a show for everybody.” She sure did!
Best men’s match — Superlative “Anything you can do, I can do better” points between two ageless legends marked the 58th Djokovic-Nadal duel. After four hours and 11 minutes of dynamic shot-making and furious scrambling, Djokovic became the first player in history to defeat 13-time champion Nadal in a Roland Garros semifinal, overcoming the Spaniard 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2. “Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me. And [among the] top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering the quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric.” So electric that at 6-5 in the thrilling third set as the 11 p.m. government curfew neared, fans defiantly chanted “We won’t leave! We won’t leave!” in French. To avoid a riot, the referee acceded.
Best U.S. Open men’s match — Six weeks before the U.S. Open semifinals, Alexander Zverev upset Novak Djokovic at the Olympics to deny his bid for a “Golden Slam.” Could the world No. 4 Zverev also end No. 1 Djokovic’s quest for a Grand Slam? The encounter pitted the greatest returner in tennis history against one of today’s most explosive servers. But the Serb’s biggest advantage came at net, where he won 33 of 41 points. Breaking serve three times in the deciding set, the more versatile Djokovic wrapped up the 214-minute duel, 4-6, 6-2. 6-4. 4-6, 6-2. Ever the showman, before match point, Novak raised his arms to ask for support from the crowd, and they responded with a standing ovation.
Best shock champion — Emma Raducanu not only became the first qualifier to win a major singles title, but also astonishingly, she didn’t drop a set in 10 U.S. Open matches. The 18-year-old Raducanu was the youngest Grand Slam champion since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova captured the 2004 Wimbledon and the first British woman to win a major singles title since Virginia Wade won the 1977 Wimbledon. “It’s an absolute dream,” said Raducanu, a 100-1 pre-tournament longshot. “You just have visions of yourself going up to the box, hugging everyone, celebrating. That’s something that you always think of, you always work for. With each match and tournament and week, I’ve really built in terms of confidence, in terms of my game, in terms of my ball striking. Everything came together today. I think to pull off some of the shots I did in the big moments when I really needed it was just an accumulation of everything I’ve learnt in the past five weeks. What I did very well this tournament was press in the moments that I really needed to.”
Best ATP newcomer of the year — Not even close here. Carlos Alcaraz, who turned 18 on May 5, started the year at No. 146 and finished at No. 32. After qualifying and making the second round at the Australian Open, the tenacious Spaniard gained momentum. He upset Casper Ruud to reach the Marbella semis, gained the French Open third round, won the Umag tournament, shocked No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas to advance to the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and captured the Next Gen ATP Finals. Alcaraz also notched major wins over No. 7 Matteo Berrettini and No. 9 Jannik Sinner.
Best ATP humanitarian — The Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award went to New Zealand’s Marcus Daniell, who founded High Impact Athletes in November 2020 and announced at the start of 2021 that he would donate at least 10 percent of his annual winnings to effective charity organisations for the rest of his life.
Best men’s career comeback — ATP players voted Mackenzie McDonald the Comeback Player of the Year. The American underwent right hamstring surgery in June 2019 and fell as low as No. 272 last year. Starting 2021 at No. 194, solid-stroking, high-percentage McDonald advanced to the fourth round of the Australian Open, his best performance at a major since Wimbledon in 2018. He also won an ATP Challenger Tour title and qualified for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The former UCLA Bruin’s most impressive result came in Washington, D.C., where he eliminated defending champion Nick Kyrgios and former No. 4 Kei Nishikori en route to the ATP 500 final.
Best ATP improved player — Aslan Karatsev, a virtually unknown journeyman player who had travelled around Europe searching for better training bases and coaches for several years, finally clicked in 2021. The 27-year-old Russian with the Popeye-like calves started his breakthough year ranked No. 114 and finished at No. 18. A party crasher at the Australian Open, he qualified and then streaked to the semis, upsetting Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Grigor Dimitrov. The hard-hitting Karatsev also won titles at Dubai and Moscow and racked up big wins over Novak Djokovic (in Belgrade) and Daniil Medvedev (in Rome).
Best ATP fan favourite — For an astounding 19th straight year, Roger Federer was voted as the winner of the ATP Fans’ Favourite award. “[The] crowds were amazing,” said Federer, who turned 40 on Aug. 8. “The ovation was fantastic. I loved it. That’s why I play. That’s why I still play now.”
Best ATP sportsmanship — Rafael Nadal was selected by fellow players as the winner of the ATP Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the fourth straight year and fifth time overall. The award recognised the Spaniard’s fair play, professionalism, and integrity on and off the court. “I can’t be happier to receive one more time the Sportsmanship Award from my colleagues on the Tour,” Nadal said. “It means a lot to me, so thanks a lot to every player that thinks that I am the right one to receive this award. Honestly, it means a lot to me because I try to be always correct on court.”
Best men’s doubles team — Croatians Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic, in their first year playing together, captured a tour-leading nine titles. The all-surface stars won Wimbledon, a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and Masters 1000 events at Miami, Monte Carlo, and Rome. Second place goes to the American-English team of Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury who won the U.S. Open, their second major in two years, and the Rogers Cup, and made four other finals, including the Australian Open.
Best women’s doubles team — Long-time friends and doubles partners Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova earned the WTA Doubles Team of the Year recognition. The highly efficient, 25-year-old Czechs captured the French Open, the Madrid Open, and the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, where they prevailed in three super-tiebreakers. At the season-ending WTA Finals, they won all eight matches, including three with super-tiebreakers. Hseih Su-wei and Elise Mertens placed second by dint of their triumphs at Wimbledon and Indian Wells.
Best composite player — Neither the ATP or the WTA gives such an award, but if the WTA did, Barbora Krejcikova would easily claim it. The down-to-earth Czech was out of this world in women’s doubles. In singles, she won the French Open title and 250 tournaments at Prague and Strasbourg to finish a career-high No. 5. Krejcikova also took the Australian Open mixed doubles crown with American Rajeev Ram.
Best unknown doubles star — You will be forgiven if you never heard of Desirae Krawczyk even though the 27-year-old Southern Californian captured three Grand Slam titles in 2021. They came in mixed doubles, the least-followed and least-prestigious of the three events in tennis. Krawczyk won majors with Joe Salisbury at the French and U.S. Opens and with Neal Skupski at Wimbledon.
Best trophy ceremony speech — Novak Djokovic lost the highly anticipated U.S. Open final and a bid for a historic Grand Slam, but he won the hearts of spectators with a poignant speech. “I would like to say that tonight, even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy, and I’m the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel very special,” Djokovic said. “You guys touched my soul. I’ve never felt like this in New York, honestly. I’ve never felt like this. I love you guys. Thank you so much for your support. I love you and I’ll see you soon.”
Best improved women’s player — Barbora Krejcikova, previously known for her doubles success, won her first three singles titles. The highlight of her year and career came at Roland Garros where she used her relentless, high-percentage game to grab her first Grand Slam title, defeating five seeds and Sloane Stephens, a former major winner. Krejcikova also won the Internationaux de Strasbourg and the Livesport Prague Open and reached the final at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Starting the year ranked No. 65, she rose to a career-high No. 3 and finished at No. 5.
Best women’s newcomer — Emma Raducanu was voted the WTA Newcomer of the Year after making history in 2021 with her U.S. Open title. Ranked a lowly No. 150 and a 100-1 longshot, the 18-year-old Brit shocked the sports world when she became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam crown. Also astoundingly, Raducanu did not drop a set throughout all 10 of her matches. She foreshadowed this tour de force two months earlier at Wimbledon. There, Raducanu made her Grand Slam main-draw debut and reached the last 16 to become the youngest British woman to reach this stage at the All-England Club. Like a meteor, she started the year ranked No. 343 and streaked to a career-best No. 19.
Best women’s career comeback — The WTA Comeback Player of the Year award went to Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spanish veteran planned to end her career in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted Suarez Navarro’s farewell season. She was then diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in September 2020. After winning her battle against cancer, the Spaniard decided to end her career on her own terms and returned to the tour in 2021 for her final farewell. She played Roland Garros, where she took Sloane Stephens to three sets in the opening round, and Wimbledon, where she had another three-set battle against eventual champion Ashleigh Barty in the first round. Suarez Navarro, who retired after the U.S. Open, peaked at No. 6 in singles and No. 11 in doubles during her 14-year WTA career.
Best coach — In a vote by ATP coaches, Facundo Lugones won the ATP Coach of the Year award. The Argentine guided Briton Cameron Norrie, his former college teammate at Texas Christian University, to a career-best season. Norrie, who zoomed from No. 74 to a career-high No. 12, displayed all-court prowess, capturing Indian Wells (hard courts) and reaching finals at Queens Club (grass), and Lyon (clay). Kudos also go to Gilles Cervara, Daniil Medvedev’s coach, and Juan Carlos Ferrero, Carlos Alcaraz’s coach. Oddly, the WTA has no Coach of the Year award.
Best explanation for Big Three domination — GQ magazine asked Roger Federer: Do you think we’ll ever see this era of champions again? Fed surprisingly replied: “I think yes. I feel like nowadays — and this is not to take anything away from Rafa, Novak, or myself, for that matter — but, you know, I feel like it’s easier to dominate through the different surfaces nowadays. Back in the day, yes, we did have three grass-court events, but maybe the margins were slimmer. I feel like there were hard-court players, clay-court players, and there weren’t so many players who could play on all surfaces. Sure, [Bjorn] Borg did it, but things were different. Players weren’t chasing one Slam after another like they are today and record after record. Nowadays such a strategy is much more part of your career. So, yes, a new, incredible player will, I believe, break our run of 20 Grand Slams eventually — but not overnight!”
Best analysis of Big Three — When Andrey Rublev was asked in Russian media championat.com , “What strengths do you see in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic?” he replied, “I would say Nadal’s mind, Federer’s sense of timing and for Djokovic, his vision of the game, his backhand and his elasticity. Each player has a significant advantage over one aspect of the game.”
Best praise of Big Three — “To win nine Australian Opens, I need to win every year until I’m 34. I mean, I believe in myself, but I don’t think I’m able to do it. Same with Rafa. I mean, 13 Roland Garros… We’re talking about some Cyborgs of tennis in a good way. They’re just unbelievable.” — Daniil Medvedev, with undisguised admiration for the Big Three after Novak Djokovic whipped him in the Australian Open final.
Best statement by Big Three — After backing up his pre-final confidence by trouncing Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the Australian Open final for his ninth title in nine finals there, Novak Djokovic said, “[The next generation] have definitely the quality to reach the heights of major tournament trophies. They’ve proven that. Dominic [Thiem] has won the U.S. Open. I think just Roger, Rafa and myself have managed to always play our best tennis at Slams. We have the experience of knowing what to do, how we can win matches in best-of-five on different surfaces. I think that’s made it more challenging for guys that are in the next generation, up-and-coming. Roger, Rafa, myself are still there for a reason. We don’t want to hand it to them and we don’t want to allow them to win slams. I think that’s something that is very clear. Whether you communicate that message or not, we are definitely sending that vibe out there. I’m sticking to that.”
Best post-Big Three prediction — “Everyone is making bets on who will be the player to take over from Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer at the top of tennis,” Stefanos Tsitsipas told Explica.com in April. “I think our generation is going to be different. We have gotten used to talking and reading the Big Three all the time, and I feel like we are going to be the Big Six or the Big Eight. I think it will be more fascinating, a kind of revolution, to have a larger number of players competing with each other. It will be more exciting for the viewer.”
Best prediction about the end of the Big Three — “Things are now going in a completely different direction. I feel that the era of the ‘Big Three’ is over. Novak may still win one or two more majors, but I think there’s a feeling that this younger generation now see themselves as Grand Slam winners. We know the intensity, and the discipline, and the ultra-strong façade of Novak, but we saw him break. Whenever you see that in an athlete, you don’t know how they’re going to recover.” — Australian doubles legend Todd Woodbridge believes we saw Novak Djokovic “break” in the U.S. Open final.
Best allegation of sexism — “I think I am more sensitive to the fact that Martina has won nine Wimbledons, but nobody really talks about it. Rafael Nadal has won 13 Roland Garros and all to underline the greatness of this record. I mean, Martina’s Wimbledon record is incredible, and I think it needs to be celebrated from time to time, so why don’t they? And what about Steffi Graf’s 1988 Golden Slam? I mean, Olympics and Four Slams. If a man had done this, he would have been mentioned for a very long time, but no one ever mentions Steffi.” — All-time great Chris Evert, telling TennisMajors.com that the record of nine titles won at Wimbledon by her former archrival, Martina Navratilova, was not celebrated as the 13 Roland Garros titles won by the 20-times Slam winner Rafael Nadal.
Best advocate of gender equality — “But why not? Of course, that would be nice to see. They deserve it. I will be in favour for it.” — Top-seeded and defending champion Novak Djokovic, when asked after he played the traditional first match on Centre Court how he would feel about Wimbledon alternating the honour between the men’s and women’s defending champions. The “gentlemen’s singles” champion has traditionally started the proceedings.
Worst social media sexism and racism — “I am human. After last night’s match I got 2k+ messages of abuse/anger from people upset by yesterday’s result. It’s so hard to read messages like these, but I’ll post a few so you guys can see what it’s like after a loss.” — 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens shared on Instagram some of the horrific racist and sexist abuse and violent threats she received online following her three-set defeat to 2016 champion Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open.
Best power couple quote — In a joint U.S. Open interview with his girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic after they both made the round of 16, Matteo Berrettini confided, “I feel 10 times more stress watching [Ajla’s] match than when I’m actually playing mine! My hands get so sweaty, it’s unbelievable. I’m the most stressed guy on the planet!”
Worst choke — Closing out matches can prove fraught even for the greatest champions. In the Australian Open quarterfinals, after Rafael Nadal comfortably took the first two sets, 6-3, 6-2, Stefanos Tsitsipas rebounded to force a third-set tiebreaker. Then in the shocker of all shockers, Nadal, who possesses one of the best overheads in tennis history, blew two routine smashes — and also made two unforced groundstroke errors. The unbelievable collapse gave Tsitsipas the tiebreaker, 7-4. Seizing the opportunity, the 22-year-old Tsitsipas pounded away at Nadal’s backhand until it finally broke down. His younger legs eventually wore Nadal down to produce a stunning 3-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-5 upset.
Best anecdote about Djokovic — Although Novak Djokovic can’t match Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in fan popularity, other players often remark about his kindness. During the Australian Open trophy ceremony, Daniil Medvedev praised him for helping him during a practice session when he was an aspiring teenager and Djokovic was No. 1. “He was super nice to me. I thought, ‘OK, he’s not going to speak to me’ or something, because the guy was a god for me. Because I was shy, I didn’t speak,” Medevedev recalled. “He was asking the questions, talking to me like a friend. I was really surprised. It never changed since I was 600 in the world or four in the world. You’re a great sport, great person. So congratulations.”
Best Australian Open first — The 2021 Australian Open made history when for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament every match was played without line judges present and with all line calls made electronically.
Best inspiration — “You get the staring, you get the questions, you get the sympathy sometimes, and then you get the opposite: you get the hatred. But I’ve never been one to focus too much on what other people think of me. Because I don’t think this defines me. I think it made me who I am, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it defines me. I was always told I wouldn’t [play] professional, my body wasn’t made to be an elite athlete, but that was never an impediment...I’m really looking forward to getting out to Oz. I’ve never been [to the AO] before, so it’s gonna be my first time and I’m sure it will be an amazing experience.” — Francesca Jones, who realised a major milestone toward her tennis dream, after the 20-year-old British baseliner swept Lu Jia-Jing 6-0, 6-1 in the final round of Australian Open qualifying to secure a main draw spot in her first career Grand Slam tournament. Jones, who has ectrodactyly ectodermal dysplasia syndrome, a rare genetic condition, was born with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, four toes on her left foot, and three toes on her right foot. She defied the doctor who told her pursuing a tennis career was an impossible dream, and she continues to show perseverance and commitment to the cause.
Best African-American inspirations — “Yeah, for me, they [Williams sisters] mean a lot to me personally, just because, you know, I wouldn’t play tennis if it wasn’t for either of them. Definitely a 0.1 percent chance I would have picked up a racquet if they don’t exist. I think the reason that I believe I can go this far is definitely because of them. They broke so many boundaries, especially for African Americans in tennis, broke so many boundaries for women in tennis. Not even in tennis. In the world. Definitely Serena Williams. You know, she’s been on my bucket list forever to play, and she’s obviously one of my idols.” — Coco Gauff, telling blacksportsonline.com that she has put Venus and Serena Williams on a pedestal, is keen to emulate their success in the sport, and would love to play Serena, her dream opponent, before she retires.
Best learning process — “[Federer and Nadal] helped me realise what I need to do in order to improve, to get stronger — mentally, physically, tactically. When I broke into the top 10 for the first time, I lost, for three, four years, most of the big matches that I played against these two guys, and something shifted, end of 2010, beginning of 2011, and last 10 years [have] been an incredible journey.” — What Novak Djokovic said in an on-court interview after his Wimbledon victory about how he turned around his rivalries with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Best reaction to quarantine — “A lot of people were complaining, and I told myself I wasn’t going to complain. I mean, there’s way worse things going on in the world than me being stuck in a hotel room for 14 days. Tennis Australia provided us with a bike, and for the last few days, I had a treadmill and weights. I was able to train and work out. It was a small hotel room, but I was able to do everything that I needed to do to stay as fit as possible. If I started feeling bad for myself or started complaining, I think it would have made the 14 days a lot harder than it was.” — Jennifer Brady, after reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals, was one of the 72 players who had to go through a hard lockdown — two weeks stuck in a hotel room, not allowed to leave for any reason — after flying to Australia in January because someone on their flight tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.
Best advice when quarantined — “When you start feeling anxious or a panic attack is coming on, stop for a minute and take a deep breath, reset your thoughts. Listen to yourself. Your opinion matters. Get comfortable spending time by yourself. Find things you like doing on your own. Don’t be scared of change! It’s how we grow. Life can seem super hard, but keep going — you’re stronger than you think.” — Amanda Anisimova, a thoughtful, 19-year-old American, with some upbeat advice on how to make the best of life during a pandemic.
Best praise for Osaka — “She successfully completed the difficult task of taking excellence in sports performance and using that platform to succeed outside of sports on a much bigger stage. She ignited a conversation on social justice, the results of which were bigger than tennis, larger than sports, and in doing so raised the bar for all those who want to leverage the gifts and talents we have to make a difference in our world.” — Billie Jean King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles title winner and a pioneering advocate for decades, talking to the AP , praised Naomi Osaka, who was named 2020 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, for positioning “herself as a leader not only in women’s tennis but in all of sports and a force for change in our society.”
Best praise for Barty — “I love watching Barty play. She can hit the slice, she can come in [to net], she can serve and volley. She uses the whole court. She reminds me of Justine Henin.” — Former Australian and French finalist Mary Joe Fernandez, now an ESPN tennis analyst.
Best appreciation of spectators — “It was emotional. I think after playing already for a year with empty stadiums, we’re not used to this [fans] anymore. Like, I get goosebumps even now. At the end when they were clapping, I almost dropped tears, but of joy. It’s definitely special for us.” — Sorana Cirstea put the attitude of the players into perspective, after advancing to the Wimbledon third round via an upset of Victoria Azarenka.
Worst rationale to evade the media — “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room, and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down, and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.” — Naomi Osaka, who said she won’t participate in news conferences at Roland Garros.
Best decision to enforce press conference rules — “A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans, and for themselves. These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story.” — The $15,000 fine was assessed by the tournament referee at Roland Garros and announced in a joint statement from the president of the French tennis federation, Gilles Moretton, and counterparts at the sport’s other majors: Tennis Australia President Jayne Hrdlicka, All England Club Chairman Ian Hewitt and U.S. Tennis Association President Mike McNulty.
Best media advice for Osaka — “Roger Federer has always said that he was taught when he was very young never to treat the media as an enemy and to treat them as a bridge to the fans. We need to get Osaka to a point where she understands that. I would absolutely love her to come and shadow my media work as I have been on both sides. I’ve been in tears in the press conference as a player after a defeat, and now I’m sitting in the audience. If I had known then what I know now, everything would have been so different…. If you were to watch sporting events and never hear from one of the athletes or coaches afterwards, it would be somewhat dull, never finding out more about the characters or the storylines. So it is now a question of getting Osaka to understand how the whole jigsaw puzzle fits together in tennis.” — Annabel Croft, a former WTA Tour player and now a TV interviewer, writing in The Times (UK).
Best tennis books — The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federe r by Christopher Clarey (Twelve); The Fein Points of Tennis: Technique and Tactics to Unleash Your Talent by Paul Fein (Coaches Choice); All In: An Autobiography , by Billie Jean King, Johnette Howard (Knopf).
Best Gauff “youngest” achievements — At 17 years old, Coco Gauff became the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Nicole Vaidisova at the 2006 French Open, the youngest American to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros since Jennifer Capriati in 1993, and the youngest American to reach the quarterfinals of a Slam since Venus Williams at the 1997 U.S. Open.
Best “why not me?” attitude — “It should just give everyone the inspiration to say, ‘Why not me?’…They’re playing so fearlessly — ‘Why not me winning it?’ They’re playing very boldly, fiercely…Keep going!…Age is just a number…It reminded me of Coco when I watched her on these big stages…how bold and fierce she was, not afraid to go for her shots, get the crowd engaged…It inspires me to go out there and work harder and say, ‘Why not me?’” — Caty McNally, Coco Gauff’s doubles partner.
Worst Serena luck — “I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today after injuring my right leg. My love and gratitude are with the fans and the team who make being on Centre Court so meaningful. Feeling the extraordinary warmth and support of the crowd today when I walked on — and off — the court meant the world to me.” — Seeking a record-tying 24th major title, a heartbroken Serena Williams had to retire at 3-all against No. 100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich with a painful right hamstring injury after slipping on the Wimbledon grass. The seven-time champion left the court in tears.
Best streak-breaker — In 2021, Maria Sakkari ended Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak in Miami; Iga Swiatek’s 11-match Roland Garros winning streak; and Bianca Andreescu’s 10-match U.S. Open winning streak.
Best gratitude toward parents — “They are working every day [at] a simple job. They know what it means to work hard.” — A fist pump was the extent of Jannik Sinner’s celebration after he overcame Roberto Bautista Agut, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the Miami Open semifinals. Sinner, only 19, has an impassive demeanour he attributes to his parents, who make their living at a restaurant in northern Italy — his dad as a cook, his mother as a server.
Best Australian Open upset — Olivia Gadecki, an unranked 18-year-old Australian wild card upset Sofia Kenin, the defending champion and world No. 4 from the U.S., 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 in an Australian Open shocker.
Best U.S. Open upset — “Can’t get any worse. You’ve lost to her every time. Try something different.” — 43rd-ranked Shelby Rogers, a heavy underdog, asked about her mindset when she trailed No. 1 Ash Barty 5-2 in the third set before she broke down Barty’s vulnerable backhand to score a big 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (5) upset. Coming into this match, Barty was 5-0 against Rogers.
Best explanation for an upset — “It takes a while after you put your heart and soul into a major and then lose in the final. It’s a combination of pressure, fatigue, and disappointment.” — Former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, on third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas, the French Open finalist, after he suffered a stunning 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 upset loss to Frances Tiafoe in the Wimbledon first round.
Best fascinating fact about mental health at Australian Open — In the Australian Open women’s singles, only one of the 12 seeded players forced into complete isolation for two weeks — others who did not travel on a flight with cases of COVID-19 were allowed to practice outside for up to two hours a day — reached the singles round of 16. Jennifer Brady far surpassed that by making the final.
Best fascinating fact about mental health at French Open — The app Calm , which bills itself as helping with “sleep, relaxation and meditation” and supported Naomi Osaka during her crisis at the French Open, offered to pay fines for tennis players who don’t fulfil 2021 Grand Slam media obligations for mental health reasons.
Best fascinating fact about Venus and Serena — Rick Macci, who coached Venus and Serena for six hours a day, five days a week, and four hours on Saturday for four formative years, revealed their fanatical father Richard put broken glass on the court to stop them from stepping back too far while playing. “The one thing I knew Venus and Serena had is they’d run over broken glass to get a ball,” Macci told The Sun (UK).
Best fascinating pandemic fact — The first outdoor sporting event in the United Kingdom to have full capacity since the pandemic began was the 2021 Wimbledon, where the capacity was 50% until the finals, which was 100%.
Best fascinating fact about Osaka — When she won the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka, 23, became just the third player in the Open Era to win her first four Grand Slam finals after Monica Seles and Roger Federer. When told about her feat, a smiling Osaka, said, “My reaction is that’s very amazing company. I hope that I can have one grain of how their career has unfolded. You can only wish and you can only just keep going down your own path. But it’s definitely something crazy to hear.”
Best national team domination — When the Russian Tennis Federation won its first Davis Cup since 2006, it completed a clean sweep of the most prestigious national team competitions after the Russian women won the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague. Only three other nations in history — the U.S., Australia, and the Czech Republic — have ever achieved this feat.
Best tactic to beat Serena — “We watched matches of Serena, of course. We tried to make her play from the backhand side more, just because she has an open stance. With an open stance and two hands, it’s difficult to move the ball, so I tried to attack this side. Sometimes I was stuck too much to the forehand. That’s why I was losing points, because the forehand it’s better not to even play there, it’s so good.” — Elena Rybakina, revealing her game plan, made with her coach, Stefano Vukov, to defeat Serena Williams, her girlhood idol, 6-3, 7-5 in the French Open fourth round.
Best tactics to beat Medvedev — “It’s obvious that’s one of the tactical plans against him because he stands far back in the court. So you try to open the court with some wide serves and come in. Again, you still have to play some half volleys, some very low first volleys, but you have kind of the whole court to play with so that was one of the strategies I try to mix it up. You can’t go through him — I’m not going to reveal the tactics — but you have to find a controlled aggression. You can’t be too aggressive because then you’re just going to lose the match yourself with unforced errors. You have to find a way to play the right shots at the right time — also make him play, make him come in — it’s really a variety that wins matches against him. Much easier said than done — trust me — on court. We both suffered [during] some gruelling rallies, but this is what tennis is all about: No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the world playing the finals of the biggest events of the world in front of a packed stadium in a city of tennis, it’s amazing. It was a great atmosphere.” — Novak Djokovic, talking to Tennis Channel’s Prakash Amritraj in his post-match interview after he came back to beat No. 2 Daniil Medvedev 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the Paris Masters final.
Best match comeback — “I’m speechless. I have no words to describe what just happened. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to fight at such a level and just be able to give it my all on the court. I started very nervous, I won’t lie, but I don’t know what happened after the third set. I just flied like a little bird, everything was working for me. The emotions at the end are indescribable.” — Stefanos Tsitsipas, after he pulled off an astonishing comeback at the Australian Open, rallying for a gritty 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal to reach the semifinals. Nadal, who hadn’t lost a set before the quarterfinals, had claimed 35 consecutive sets at major events prior to Tsitsipas’ comeback. In the final three sets, Tsitsipas hit 36 winners and only 18 unforced errors.
Best doubles comeback — Iga Swiatek and Bethanie Mattek-Sands staged an improbable comeback to eliminate the top-seeded doubles team at the French Open. Swiatek, the defending singles champion, and her partner overcame seven match points and a 5-1 deficit in the final set. They beat Hsieh Su-wei and Elise Mertens 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 in a wild third-round match that took more than three hours. When it finally ended, an ecstatic Swiatek and Mattek-Sands jumped into an embrace.
Best GOAT amazement — “It is incredible because in all other sports you have debates. Lionel Messi or Maradona? Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It’s rare when you get three guys who are playing at the same time, and it would be hard to argue they aren’t the best three players ever. That’s not just based on the number of majors [won], which obviously is a big thing, but their overall bodies of work. It is just amazing. Finishing the year as world number one is important, but people like to talk about records — in all sports, not just tennis. There is plenty to talk about with these guys. If someone had said to me when I was playing that there would not only be one guy to win 20 majors but there would be three, I would have said the same thing as what I said to the umpire in 1981 — you cannot be serious!” — John McEnroe, giving the BBC his views on the current GOAT debate in August.
Best analysis of Alcaraz — “When you see somebody at 18 who can hit the ball that big already off both sides and moves that well, it’s close to unique. To me, his backhand is actually better than his forehand. He misses his forehand. It’s huge, but he misses it. He doesn’t miss the backhand much at all. Sometimes I do wonder, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, whether someone who plays like that is really fearless or just doesn’t have any tennis IQ yet. That’s the unknown, but if you look at the kid’s tools, once he understands how to open up the court and use short angles and realize he doesn’t need to blast everything, it will be pretty scary.” — Paul Annacone, who coached former No. 1s Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, analysing 18-year-old, future star Carlos Alcaraz in The New York Times.
Best analysis of Gauff — “She has such a much bigger game, maybe more dynamic, than [Martina] Hingis, [Tracy] Austin, and Chrissie [Evert]. She’s consistent, hungry, speedy around the court. What worries me is that she has some flaws in the forehand and the serve that just gives me some hesitation… [but] I think it’s proven it’s harder to have that major success at an early age, so I would hate for her to feel there’s a timetable or a time limit.” — ESPN analyst and former WTA doubles superstar Pam Shriver told wtatennis.com it was not fair to compare major successes at early ages any more, despite Coco Gauff’s string of “youngest since” achievements.
Best motherhood quote — “I would not be able to go function without my three-year-old around. I think I would be in a depression. We’ve been together every day of her life. Is that healthy? Not at all. Not even close. But every single day I just want to be around her. It’s great.” — Serena Williams, on making her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., named for her father, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, the first priority in her life.
Best 9/11 tribute to New Yorkers — “I know that New York has suffered a lot the past years when [9/11] did happen. I just wanted to let them know that they’re so strong, they’re so resilient. They’re just incredible. Just having them here happy, lively, just going back to the way they were, having my back during these tough moments, has made me stronger and has made me believe in myself a lot more.” — Leylah Fernandez, paying tribute to New York City on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, when her breakthrough U.S. Open run ended in the championship match.
Best honest quote — “When you’re No. 2 in the world, the fourth round is a really bad result, that’s it. I played really bad today.” — Daniil Medvedev, after blowing a two-sets-to-one lead and losing in five sets to No. 14 Hubert Hurkacz in the Wimbledon fourth round.
Best quote about parity on the women’s tour — “Everyone can beat everyone,” concluded 100th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a 27-year-old Belarusian from Minsk, after she upset U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu 6-2, 6-4 in the Indian Wells second round.
Best open-minded quote — “Sometimes just watching videos of random players and random matches can trigger something in you that you can see, that you can observe, that you can implement later on in your game. So I try to have an open mind always when I watch tennis.” — Novak Djokovic, despite being a legend in the sport, keeps an open mind while watching other players. This helps him to analyse the sport much more, which can help improve his overall game.
Best riposte about the environment — When Victoria Azarenka was asked about Star Trek actor William Shatner’s journey into space, she was unimpressed and turned the question around, saying, “Me personally, I kind of like planet Earth. I hope we as a society will take better care of it before moving to another planet. That’s kind of where I stand.”
Best humourous quote — “We are not turtles that we live 220 years. Let’s enjoy it, c’mon!” — Marjan Cuk, the coach of Tamara Zidansek, who entertained reporters with his refreshing views on life during a press conference.
Best insights about Djokovic’s personalities — “He’s got two personalities. There’s the one on the court — the machine-like, Zen-like, businesslike competitor that wants to win no matter what. And then you’ve got the Novak off the court, who is a sweetheart — loves his family, loves his charity, loves his country — and he would give you his last shirt if you needed one. So you have these two sides that fight with one another sometimes on the court, and I think that’s why people sometimes don’t understand or criticise him because they see this fierce competitor that can be ugly at times. But it all comes from a good place.” — Boris Becker, talking to the BBC about Novak Djokovic’s dual personality.
Best Egyptian woman first — “People, a lot of times, like they stop me, they want a picture, they just say good luck for the next. It’s such a great feeling, especially when kids come and they recognise me. For me, that means a lot because that’s the next generation, and I want them to believe in themselves and to see me and look at me and say that we can be like her. When someone tells me, ‘Oh, I wish one day to be like you,’ I go, ‘No, you have to be better, you have to achieve something more, you have to go for more.’” — Mayar Sherif, who became the first Egyptian woman to win a main draw match at the Australian Open.
Best late-season sensation — “I think [this season] definitely has given me so much confidence, so much self-belief. I think self-belief is a big thing, I think you can achieve as much as you believe you can. I think that’s definitely what has really grown for me,” said Anett Kontaveit at the WTA Finals. “I’m excited for the next season. Really want to keep this momentum up, just keep improving “in my game, have a very good pre-season with [coach] Dmitry [Tursunov], just keep working. I think we’re doing the right things, my game is definitely improving in the right direction. I’m very excited for what’s to come.” The tall, 25-year-old Estonian ranked No. 30 in August, but hard-court title wins in Cleveland, Ostrava, Moscow, and Cluj catapulted her to a career-high, season-ending No. 7.
Best analysis of a match — “Tennis is such a brutal sport where there is no room for error when you’re playing top guys. I am a top guy; he is a top guy. ... It’s always about the small details. He definitely was not at his best; we saw him playing better. The question is, if he would be [at his best], would I be able to [keep] up with him? We can never know now.” — Daniil Medvedev, after he decisively beat Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the U.S. Open final to capture his first Grand Slam singles title. Djokovic acknowledged, “I was just below par with my game. My legs were not there.”
Best team player — “I have a very large team. I know not everyone is here with me this week. I’ve got obviously my family at home, I mean, trainers, physios back in Australia. I also have my trainer and physio this week as well as Tyz [coach Craig Tyzzer] and Garry [Kissick, her boyfriend]. It’s nice to be able to share some of these awesome moments with those that put so much time and energy into my career and allow me, encourage me, help me kind of work and figure out a plan and a way that they try and achieve our dreams. I think being able to share that with them is really special.” — Ashleigh Barty, on the team effort that enabled her to perform at her best to defeat Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 to capture her first Wimbledon and second Grand Slam title.
Best booster for Korda — “I’m trying to think of another American in recent years who makes it look so easy. The way he moves and generates power, it looks effortless. Where is the weakness in Korda’s game? He’s been so impressive.” — Former world No. 1 Jim Courier, on 20-year-old Sebastian Korda, after he notched his first top-10 win, a three-set victory over No. 9 Diego Schwartzman to reach the Miami Open quarterfinals. Korda previously upset Fabio Fognini and Aslan Karatsev.
Best booster for Sinner — “He has everything, no? He has a big serve, he’s tall, he’s big, he moves well, he has very good groundstrokes. Well, mentally he’s also great and improving. He has a great future.” — Roberto Bautista Agut, with high praise for Jannik Sinner, who beat him 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to become the fourth teenager to reach the Miami Open final. The other three teens won a total of 48 Grand Slam singles titles — Andre Agassi (’90 winner), Rafael Nadal (’05 runner-up), Novak Djokovic (’07 winner).
Best breakthrough tournament — “I have been putting a lot of work in, and I really, really wanted the results so badly, like since the clay-court season started, but I didn’t expect that it would come sort of so quick, because I have already had right away the good run in Madrid and now it’s here. My brother, even now we were talking a bit, he teaches me how to play smarter, to read the game, which I actually like sometimes don’t read the game well. So that also helps, of course. Just those few things have helped.” — As well as enlisting a sports psychologist, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is currently working in a coaching capacity with her brother Aleksandr. These two decisions have yielded significant results. The 29-year-old Russian booked a maiden Grand Slam semifinal in her 52nd major main-draw appearance.
Best “What I like most about tennis” statement — When fast-rising Danish teenager Clara Tauson was asked by WTA.com: What do you like most about tennis, and how did you get started in it?, she replied: “I love that I can decide where I want to play the ball and it’s only me who decides if I win or lose. I’m definitely not a team player! Of course, there’s an opponent you have to beat, but it’s me who decides where and how I play the balls. And the tactics also — it’s like a board game, but you don’t know how the opponent is going to play, because it’s so different from player to player. But the individual thing is the best thing for me. Tennis is the only sport I’ve ever played. People are actually surprised when I say that, because kids always play a lot of sports, but I’ve only ever played tennis. My uncle, Michael Tauson, is a former ATP player, so everybody in the family has tried tennis, it’s been going on for generations. He was the World No. 101 — the worst ranking! If I get to the Top 100, I’ll have beaten that.”
Best Tiafoe confidential — “When I’m out there playing, I feel it’s bigger than a tennis match…It got me super emotional, I almost cried walking off court…It’s just the amount of love they showed me…Into the [tie]breaker, I had four kids saying, ‘Whatever happens, you’re my inspiration.’ Like, that’s what it’s about…That’s the shit that matters. That’s why I wake up every day and I go crazy. I do all that because a little kid is going to remember that. Parents are paying their hard-earned money to put their kids in seats and watch it. I just want to put on a show. Don’t get that twisted, as if I’m just out here trying to be an entertainer. I want to win just as bad as the next person…I want to have fun and I want everybody in the crowd to enjoy those three hours, four hours, however long I’m out there, as well.” — Frances Tiafoe, on what motivates him when he competes, after he upset No. 7 Andrey Rublev 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 6-1 in the U.S. Open third round.
Best Krejcikova feats — Barbora Krejcikova upset five seeds in her seven French Open matches, including coming from match point down to beat Sakkari in the semifinals. The 25-year-old Czech won her maiden Grand Slam in just her fifth main draw; only two women in the Open Era have won a major with fewer main draw appearances — Seles (fourth at 1990 Roland Garros) and Andreescu (fourth at 2019 U.S. Open). Krejcikova also became the first woman to capture both singles and doubles titles at Roland Garros since Pierce in 2000.
Best renaissance man — MARCA asked Stefanos Tsitsipas, “You are a multifaceted man. How much of a philosopher is he, how much of a film producer, and how much of a musician?” Tsitsipas answered, “I consider it all art and it leads to the same thing. I will not separate one from the other. Everything comes from the artistic part that I carry inside. I have always wanted to teach society different aspects of life that are fascinating to me. I make music and I also make movies. Although they are not good, I try to make them interesting. I love photography and am dying to learn how to draw even though I haven’t had time to experience it yet…. I like to experiment. I would like, for example, to create a song in which I can express nostalgia and experiences from the past. That doesn’t mean I want to be a musician, it’s a hobby for me. What I do want is to tell my story.”
Best perspective about life — “Ninety-nine percent of the people on this planet, if you ask them what is the most important thing in your life, would say it’s family, love, health, happiness. So I would say those four things, and I would add that I want to be the best father and husband that I could possibly be. And I would also like to be remembered as a person that was a giver and the person that cared about others and left a mark on the world and that inspired others and that lived life to the fullest. That is, for me, the definition of how I would like to look back at my life on the last days of my life.” — Novak Djokovic, during a late-evening video call from Montenegro during his family’s vacation, saying he has spent a lot of time thinking about his tombstone. He has even imagined people visiting his gravesite and reading the words.
Worst French Open blunders — Using rankings for the French Open seedings with no adjustments for a player’s record on clay is not only unfair to standouts on clay, such as Rafael Nadal, who should have been seeded No. 1, but resulted in Nadal playing No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals rather than the final. Second, as TennisNow.com’s Richard Pagliaro wrote, “The [umpire’s] over-rule highlights the insanity of Roland Garros having Hawk-Eye on site for TV networks to use yet not actually using modern line-calling technology to ensure the correct calls are made. It’s maddening that TV viewers at home can see technology at home while officials do not use it, but Krejcikova, knowing the stakes were so high, took the right tact moving on mentally from the call.” Third, the French Open foolishly does not have tiebreakers for the deciding sets of matches, as the three other majors do to prevent absurdly long matches.
Best compassion for an opponent — “More than anything we’re human. Okay, it’s another tennis match. She’s only 20 years old. She’s going to have many more chances than I’ll have in the future because it’s only the beginning for her. I saw that she was struggling. It wasn’t a nice thing to see from the other side of the net. She’s a very, very nice girl. I mean, we always have great practices and great chats.” — A compassionate Maria Sakkari explained why she hugged Iga Swiatek at the net after she beat the distraught 2020 French Open champion for the third straight time, 6-2, 6-4 in the WTA Finals first round.
Best Federer advice about footwork — “You talk about movement, but not in detail like this. That’s why I thought it would be nice to retweet. I even mentioned it to my kids. When I tell them in tennis about footwork, I tell them, ‘Look at how much I move my feet for one shot, or one point!’ I think it’s also interesting for junior kids to see what goes into it. Even though it looks all relaxed at the top, there’s a lot of work at the bottom.” — Roger Federer, in a Tennis Channel interview, referencing his very active feet in a tweet Federer titled “Dancing on clouds and floating above the sand.”
Best Djokovic data weapon — Knowledge is organised data. And Novak Djokovic gets massive amounts of data from longtime friend Gordon Uehling, a tech-obsessed New Jersey tennis coach. Uehling recently told Sports Illustrated : “We see the game with 3,800 different shot types and we’re able to really home in on what area needs addressing or areas that the opponent maybe doesn’t like to be addressed. It’s a question-and-answer game. And if somebody is asking a question, you have to come up with the right answer.”
Worst sexual assault charge — In a 1,600-word post on Weibo in early November, former world doubles No. 1 Peng Shuai alleged former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli, had “forced” her to have sexual relations with him. “I know that someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ll say that you’re not afraid,” Peng wrote in her post, “but even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.” She said he had first coerced her after she visited his home to play tennis. “That afternoon I didn’t give my consent and couldn’t stop crying,” she wrote. “You brought me to your house and forced me and you to have relations.” Peng acknowledged that she will not be able to provide proof to back up her claims. “I have no evidence, and it has been impossible to leave any evidence... You were always afraid that I would bring something like a tape recorder, to record evidence or something... There is no audio record, no video record, only my distorted but very real experience.”
Best condemnation of IOC and China about Peng scandal — In a scathing statement, Global Athlete said, “By taking a nonchalant approach to Peng Shuai’s disappearance and by refusing to mention her serious allegations of sexual assault, IOC President Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes’ Commission demonstrate an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes. The IOC’s actions today again demonstrate that the organisation fails athletes, aligns with authoritarian regimes, and disregards human rights.”
Worst U.S. Open bathroom break disagreement — “It’s just disappointing because I feel it influenced the outcome of the match. I’m not saying I necessarily win that match, for sure, but it had influence on what was happening after those breaks. I rate him a lot. I think he’s a brilliant player. I think he’s great for the game. But I have zero time for that stuff at all, and I lost respect for him.” — Andy Murray, after his five-set loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in an epic U.S. Open first-rounder, said he lost respect for the Greek after he took a more than eight-minute bathroom break to make a clothing change before the fifth set.
Best Nadal trivia — Rafael Nadal receives 568 hours a year on average of therapy on his body to aid in recovery from gruelling matches and training sessions.
Best superstar longevity trivia — It’s been 24 years since a Grand Slam tournament was held without any of Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal participating. Before the 2021 U.S. Open, it last happened at the 1997 Australian Open.
Best forbearance — “At that moment I was just like, ‘Well, it’s out, but what can you do?’ The chair umpire, he has seen it as in. What can I do? I cannot do anything about it. I cannot call anyone, change his decision. I was like, ‘OK, well... it’s fine. Doesn’t matter. Just let’s go.’ You just have to put everything together and just keep working, next one, next one, next one.” — Barbora Krejcikova, on how she managed to regroup after being robbed of a match point on a bad line call by the umpire during her hard-fought 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 French Open semifinal victory over Maria Sakkari.
Best tribute to Goolagong — “Evonne is a very special person in my life. I think she has been iconic in paving the way for Indigenous youth to believe in their dreams and to chase their dreams. She’s done exactly that for me, as well. I think being able to share that with her and share some pretty special victories now with her, to be able to create my own path, is really incredible…. I think if I could be half the person that Evonne is, I’d be a very, very happy person.” — Ashleigh Barty, telling The New York Times about what Evonne Goolagong Cawley, her inspiration and mentor, had done for her and others in the Indigenous community after she won Wimbledon on the 50th anniversary of Goolagong’s first Wimbledon title.
Best “animal hunger” — “Never giving up is in my genes. The way I grew up in difficult times for my country means failure was never an option for my family. We had to find the basic needs to survive, and that has strengthened my character. Part of it comes from my upbringing in the mountains with wolves, and this is a wolf energy I have — I am not kidding!” — Novak Djokovic, after stopping American qualifier Denis Kudla 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 in the Wimbledon third round, when asked after that win where he got his “animal hunger” to succeed. He recalled how he had sheltered for months in his grandparents’ flat as a child while NATO forces bombed Belgrade nightly in the spring and summer of 1999. And he was only there as his parents worked day and night in the neighboring mountains to put food on the table for their three sons.
Best Wimbledon reform — “We want more of this wonderful event to be available to more people around the world to share in the joy of The Championships. Including Middle Sunday permanently in our schedule will allow us to do just that and begin a new tradition which we hope we can become immensely proud of. It enables us to do more with the second Monday, which is known as ‘manic’ for good reason.” — Sally Bolter, the All England Club’s chief executive, on why Wimbledon will break with a long tradition and schedule matches on the middle Sunday, starting in 2022.
Best kindness — After winning the Wimbledon final, Novak Djokovic spotted an adorable little girl holding a Djokovic sign in the front row. He jogged to her and gave her his prized racquet, which some estimate is worth at least $100,000. Djokovic did the same thing after the French Open final. There a boy, who had been offering him helpful tips throughout the match, was rewarded with a Djokovic racquet. The champion said what the kid had done was “cute.”
Best criticism of Davis Cup format reforms — “I’ve only heard a rumour, but I think it’s ridiculous, it’s not what Davis Cup is about. The Davis Cup was held in the highest regard, up there with the pinnacle of our sport in tennis — with matches played over five sets. We threw that out the door and then we’ve thrown the home and away out the door as well. Playing a qualifying tie here or there, best of three sets, is not the same as having home and away, main draw matches over the year. So if they’re going and selling the soul of the Davis Cup to the Middle East for another five years, I think it’s ridiculous, and they’re really killing the competition. I’ve been pretty vocal about the whole thing for the last four or five years now. This is a wonderful stadium here tonight, but it’s not a massive crowd, it’s not what Davis Cup is about. Some of my greatest memories were playing in Davis Cup semis or finals in front of packed houses and it didn’t matter if it was in Australia or away, the atmosphere was incredible.” — Hall of Famer Lleyton Hewitt rightly blasted the rumoured move to Abu Dhabi as well as the Davis Cup dropping traditional best-of-five-set matches for best-of-three sets and forgoing the traditional home-and-away ties for the current Davis Cup Finals format staged in Madrid, Turin, and Innsbruck.
Best mother knows best — “From a young age, I never was a player that would sit back and wait for my opponent’s mistakes. I always wanted to be the one dictating. I was always coming to the net from 10, 12 years old, getting lobbed back there, losing points. My mom always told me: ‘Later on, you’re going to grow, and this is going to be an advantage to you. It’s something that is yours. You have to keep and maintain it for the future.’ It was great that she had that vision for my game years ahead. It’s something that I’ve always had.” — Denis Shapovalov, who is still coached by his mother, after outlasting Karen Khachanov in five sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Best Hall of Fame inductees — In a special combined 2020–21 ceremony on July 17, the International Tennis Hall of Fame inducted Goran Ivanisevic, Conchita Martínez, Dennis Van der Meer, and members of the Original 9, which includes Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kerry Melville Reid, Judy Tegart Dalton (virtually), and Nancy Richey (in absentia). On Sept. 23, 1970, The Original 9 began the fight for equality and set in motion the eventual creation of the WTA Tour. Martínez, a Wimbledon champion in 1994, thanked The Original 9 for making her career achievements possible.
Worst American showing — For the first time since the U.S. Open was first staged in 1881, no American man or woman reached the singles quarterfinals.
Best American junior player — Kristen Scott, a hard-hitting, 17-year-old lefty who pulled off a rare double at the U.S. Open, winning the girls’ singles and the doubles with Ashlyn Krueger.
Best praise for Alcaraz — “Ball speed was incredible. I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard. Took time to adjust. Took time to kind of develop my game around his game style… I didn’t expect him to raise his level so much, especially after having lost the fourth set this way. He was a completely different player.” — Stefanos Tsitsipas, with high praise for 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz. (According to data from Hawkeye, Alcaraz’s average forehand speed was 78 miles per hour: 3 miles per hour faster than the U.S. Open men’s average this year. His backhand speed was 75 miles per hour: five miles per hour faster than the average.) Alcaraz upset No. 3 Tsitsipas 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-6 (5) in the third round.
Best teenage envy — “I have to be honest. It was a bit rough for me to watch both of their runs. I’m trying to be the best I can be, so I obviously want to be where they are, and I’m sure it’s going to happen soon. It just didn’t feel very nice to watch them playing a final. It was very inspirational because it gave me strength and helped me realize that I can do the same thing. This is a thing they gave me, and I’m very thankful for that. Leading something is never easy: when you are the first, there’s always extra pressure and more expectations.” — Marta Kostyuk, a highly touted 18-year-old from Ukraine, confiding she found herself crestfallen to see Emma Raducanu and runner-up Leylah Fernandez suddenly surpass her and play the century’s first all-teen final in Flushing Meadows, after Kostyuk reached her third WTA semifinal of the season, by routing Raducanu 6-1, 6-2 at the Transylvania Open in Romania.
Best mentor — Sebastian Korda, asked what Andre Agassi as a man, has brought to you, and what it’s like working with him, replied, “I’ve been talking with Andre for probably about a year now. We started around this time last year. My dad kind of set it up. We had our first call. He’s been awesome. We spent 14 days together in Vegas. He welcomed me into his family. He has an incredible family. Everybody is super nice. Kind of like a family like ours. Both my parents play tennis. He and Steffi play tennis. He has a son and a daughter who are incredible at baseball. She’s a world-class street dancer I’m pretty sure. Our families are a little bit alike. He’s just a special person. We talk basically every single day, every single match about how I’m feeling, what I should do. But the most important thing he told me yesterday was just to enjoy it. It’s your first time on Centre Court at Wimbledon, just enjoy it, embrace it, have a lot of fun.”
Best character — “What I love and respect about Daniil Medvedev is his commitment to being true to who he is at all times. Being authentic and original. Doesn’t matter what others think, say, or expect, he keeps his heart and mind checked and measures his deeds based on his values. When I see people who embrace their nature and identity and work hard to get better every day—I know they are in for greatness. I am looking forward to seeing more of you @DaniilMedwed . I know I won’t have it easy with you around, and you are a great rival to have.” — Novak Djokovic, tweeting words of praise to Medvedev after he defeated the Russian in the Paris Masters final, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Best poignant on-court interview — “I know how to lose, believe me; I’m so good at that,” Karolina Pliskova told Wimbledon spectators after losing a tough three-set final to Ash Barty, her second setback in a Grand Slam final. “To know how to win and to know how to lose, you need to learn that. I think all the big champions and all the big names, they need to learn this. They need to know how to lose. In the end, somebody has to lose. I think also to accept that maybe somebody played better that day, or somebody is a bit better, for no matter for which reason, I think is also important. Yeah, I just know how to do that.” After those touching words, Wimbledon spectators gave Pliskova a loud ovation that brought her to tears.
Best Billie Jean King Cup hero — “Liudmila was playing amazing this week. Tonight she showed again that she can beat very good players, she has everything ahead of her, a lot of things to improve, she can be a top player, not only playing well but dealing with all the pressure, big stage, and she performed fantastic tonight so big credit to her.” — Russian captain Igor Andreev, after the Russian Tennis Federation took its fifth Billie Jean King Cup championship — the prior four were won when the event was known as Fed Cup — and first since 2008, praising the 22-year-old Liudmila Samsonova, who went in 2-0 singles and 3-0 in doubles. In her Cup debut, 40th-ranked Samsonova upset Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to clinch Russia’s 2-0 win over Switzerland at the O2 Arena in Prague.
Best diversified life — When Camila Giorgi was asked by WTA Insider: “What was the most discouraged that you ever were in your career, the lowest moment?” the Italian veteran replied: “I never thought I would have this moment in this career. You need to appreciate a lot in art, as in life. My mom taught me that at a young age it’s important to have this variety. It's very healthy. My mom is amazing. She follows sport, but she was a teacher in contemporary art and now has this amazing brand that I’m wearing, Giomila. She always put me in fashion since I was young. My dad was sport, my mom was art. We were going to shops and museums. So my life was very complete always, so I didn’t have any discouragement in my life. Because tennis, I believe it’s just my work. It can happen one day you have a bad day, but then you have other things in life. You have friends and you can go out. There are many interests. I love to read, too. I would love one day to be a writer. I would love to do that. So I think there are many interests, so it’s not good to be down with just a tennis match.”
Best WTA decision for women’s equality and safety — The Women’s Tennis Association announced on Dec. 1 that it suspended its 10 tournaments in China and Hong Kong due to concerns about the safety and well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. In a statement, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon wrote: “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault. None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.” Contrast the WTA’s strong, principled position on human rights and women’s rights with the ATP’s cowardly, profits-driven stance on China.
Best “in memoriam” (men) — Manuel “Manolo” Santana, the first Spaniard to win a Grand Slam singles title and rank No. 1, died Dec. 11 at age 83. Santana captured four major singles titles — the French Championships in 1961 and 1964, the U.S. Championships in 1965 and Wimbledon in 1966, when he claimed the No. 1 ranking. Tony Trabert, a popular 10-time major champion, died on February 3, at age 90, at his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. As an amateur, Trabert captured three Grand Slam titles in 1955 and ranked No. 1 that year. Trabert and Vic Seixas led the U.S. to a thrilling 3-2 victory over host Australia in the 1954 Davis Cup final. He then joined the barnstorming pro tour and later captained the U.S. Davis Cup team to two titles. John Edward “Budge” Patty, an American who spent most of his life in Europe, died on Oct. 3 at age 97. Patty was a four-time major champion, winning the singles titles at both Wimbledon and Roland Garros in 1950 when he ranked No. 1 in the world.
Best “in memoriam” (women) — Shirley Fry Irvin who captured 21 Grand Slam titles, including both singles and doubles titles at all four majors, died at age 94 in Naples, Florida. Renowned for her speedy court coverage, she proudly recalled that “Billie Jean King said I was her idol.” Fry was one of only 10 women to win the singles titles at all four Grand Slam tournaments. American tennis great Darlene Hard, a 1973 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and the winner of 21 major titles, died on Dec. 2 at the age of 85. Hard used her artful serve and volley game to win the 1960 and 1961 U.S. National Championships and the 1960 French Championships in singles, plus 13 in women’s doubles — with eight different partners! — and five in mixed doubles. Jane Brown Grimes, an eclectic tennis industry leader who served as President and CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Managing Director of the Women’s Professional Tennis Council (precursor to today’s WTA), and Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO of the United States Tennis Association, died in New York City on Nov. 2 at age 80.
Best Badosa confidential — “At the beginning of the year, I remember having a conversation with my coach [Jorge García]. He said, ‘You keep playing like this, for sure you’re going to get the Top 30.’ I was like, ‘That’s impossible,’ to finish the year Top 30. Top 50, I [would] sign up for here. Imagine, I finished the year Top 10. Yeah, I didn’t even expect it. Even less expected to be here in the WTA Finals.” — Spain's Paula Badosa, who ranked No. 70 at the start of 2021, never imagined she’d qualify for the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico. The 23-year-old won her first title in Belgrade, reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, and captured her biggest title at Indian Wells.
Best “oldest” Open era records — After winning the French Open and Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic set an Open Era men’s record for the most Grand Slam singles titles after turning 30 with 8. In 2021, Djokovic, at age 34, became the oldest man to finish a year ranked world No. 1.
Best Grand Slam record — When Serena Williams won her second-round match at the French Open, she set the career record for the most Grand Slam singles wins, 364.
Best undercovered story — The replacement of all line judges by automated line-calling on all the U.S. Open courts. As a nonsensical courtesy, the players were still allowed to “challenge” line calls, which always proved the players wrong and were never changed anyway. Let’s abolish needless, pointless, time-wasting player challenges for good in 2022.
B est childhood inspiration — Novak Djokovic, in a Eurosport interview, reminisced about his childhood when he grew up idolising Pete Sampras, after he clinched the No.1 ranking for a seventh time, surpassing the record he shared with Sampras. He recalled, “Breaking the [Grand Slam] record of Pete Sampras, who was my childhood hero growing up. He was the one that I looked up to the most. He was the one that got me going with tennis and you know, motivated me to grab the record. At times, it seems surreal to really be where I am, you know. I’m and blessed and grateful to be in this position. It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of all the achievements while you are still an active player because you always have to look for the next challenge.”
Best praise of Ons Jabeur — “It’s a connection to our dream back in 1970, and Ons is actually living the dream. The players today are living our dream that we had for them,” Billie Jean King said in an interview with The National . “When we started the Tour, there were three things we wanted to accomplish. One of them is that any girl in the world, if she’s good enough, would have a place to compete, and we meant that. She has such a yearning to do well for the Arab people, and that came through really loud and really clear. She’s trying to represent the Arab people, and I’m very big about what you do off the court, not just on the court. So I think I really admired that part of her. The reason I like it is because it’s always easy when you both think the same way, because I feel the same way, that I’m representing people, I love team play, I love representing my country, I love the fact that it’s something bigger than yourself, and I see that in her; I see that sameness in her that I admire. Because I think we need to use our sport as a platform to do good and I think she is, and I love that. I love the fact she’s so proud of being Arab, and she’s representing Arabs; she wants to make a difference for women’s tennis as well. So she’s got a lot of things going on that she’s trying to help make this world a better place, and I admire what she’s trying to do and I’d like to see her succeed.”
Best tennis vs. school question — After her Wimbledon third-round victory, Emma Raducanu was asked whether she would prefer straight A*s in her A-levels grades due next month or a place in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Emma replied, “I’d have to say round four. I’d just say I have high standards of myself, that’s helped me get to where I am in terms of tennis and school results. But I’d still pick round four.”
Best Del Potro update — On Dec. 16, popular Argentine star Juan Martin del Potro announced he planned to return to the ATP Tour in Feb. 2022. “I’ve been training really hard, some days are better than others but always with the hope of coming back to compete early next year,” the 2009 U.S. Open winner and 2018 finalist and former world No. 3 wrote on Instagram . “It would be very special to come back in Buenos Aires and then play in Rio. As you can imagine, I’m giving my all everyday so we can meet again very soon. I’ll keep you all updated with my progress.” The injury-plagued power hitter, now 33, underwent his third right knee surgery last August and hasn’t played competitively in more than two-and-a-half years.
Best simile about Medvedev — “Medvedev is like an octopus on the court. Arms flailing, legs flailing, but he’s there.” — Jim Courier, Tennis Channel analyst, on Daniil Medvedev’s impressive defence during his 7-6(3), 6-7(7), 6-4 victory over Alexei Popyrin at the Miami Open.
Best simile about a mismatch — “It’s like sending an impala out on the savanna with the lions.” — John McEnroe, on Jenson Brooksby’s chances against No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The 20-year-old American briefly tested Djokovic before getting routed 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in the U.S. Open fourth round.
Best Australian vaccine mandate — “Less than a year after tennis officials engaged in painstaking wrangling with players to accept quarantine conditions just to get the  Australian Open off the ground, the sport faces another battle: convincing unvaccinated players to get the jab. After confirmation that Australia is mandating double vaccination as a condition of entry, the nation’s annual tennis-fest at Melbourne Park in January represents a sudden reality for professional tennis players: get vaccinated for COVID-19, or don’t come. Suddenly, it’s suck it up or skip a s lam.” — Scott Spits, sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald , in his Oct. 24 column titled “Get the jab or skip a slam: does professional tennis have a vaccination problem?”
Best Thiem confidential — “Well, I think everybody who is a professional athlete has to sacrifice a lot. For me, especially the years from 13 to 17, 18, they were pretty tough. I mean, there was only school, practice, homework, sleep, and that’s like all year long. There was nothing else at all. They were pretty tough years. Also when you’re younger, when you’re a teenager, you don’t think so much about it. That’s why I also didn’t really miss it. Well, I don’t know how everything would be if I would have done it differently.” — Dominic Thiem, during the Madrid Open, speaking about the sacrifices he made to make it in pro tennis.
Best Chinese first in the Open era — Zhang Zhizhen became the first man to represent China in the main draw at Wimbledon during the Open Era. Zhang, ranked 175th lost to Antoine Hoang of France, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-2 in the first round in a match-up between qualifiers. The last Chinese men to compete in the main draw at Wimbledon were Chu Chen-Hua and Mei Fu-Chi in 1959.
Best emotion — “The most amount of tears I’ve ever seen shed is at the Olympics Games — more than anywhere else on tour.” — NBC tennis analyst Rennae Stubbs, during Belinda Bencic’s 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Marketa Vondrousova in the gold medal final at the Tokyo Olympics.
Best comments about prestige of Olympics — “This is so much bigger than anything in the tennis world — in the sports world,” enthused Alexander Zverev after winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. “There’s nothing better than this. You’re playing for everybody involved. This is not only for yourself; this is for everybody.” Echoing those sentiments, retired doubles superstar Mike Bryan told Tennis Channel , “We would trade our Slams for a gold medal. The Olympics transcend tennis.” And four-time major champion Jim Courier said, “You only get to play the Olympics once every four years, not four times a year. And a gold medal every bit as valuable as a major title these days.”
Best Osaka altruism — Naomi Osaka announced at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati that she would be donating her tournament prize money to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, her father’s homeland. On her Play Academy, a Nike program started in Japan and recently expanded to the U.S. and Haiti, Osaka told Tennis.com, “The thought that a gesture, an activation, a program can impact and change a life, that’s really powerful to me. Of all the things I do, I find that when I am doing my best to help others, it’s most fulfilling.”
Best young female players to watch in 2022 — Linda Fruhvirtova (16, Czech Republic), Clara Tauson (19, Denmark), Alycia Parks (20, U.S.), and Marta Kostyuk (19, Ukraine).
Best young male players to watch in 2022 — Holger Rune (18, Denmark) and Dominic Stricker (19, Switzerland).
Best questions for 2022 — Will Novak Djokovic win his 21st Grand Slam title to surpass Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and claim sole possession the all-time record? Will Daniil Medvedev win more majors and perhaps dethrone Djokovic as No. 1, or will another New Genner, such as Alexander Zverev or Stefanos Tsitsipas, leapfrog over Medvedev? Will Naomi Osaka find inner peace and regain her championship groove? Will Ashleigh Barty win the hard court majors to complete a career Grand Slam? Or will teen queen Emma Raducanu or another rising star steal their thunder?
Finally, will the Covid pandemic, worsening climate change, and political conflicts continue to threaten tennis at every level?