The year-end World No. 1 ranking is precious, an honour that is fought for bitterly. Injuries are disregarded and enormous sacrifices are made.
Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert. They all earned it. Multiple times. With blood, sweat and tears. And such was always the case, until this year.
The year 2020 has been different, far different from any other year when there hasn’t been a World War. The pandemic has made mockery of life. But we as a race have fought back. A million deaths from a virus originating in a city in China that much of the world had never even heard of before this year has not deterred us from returning to that which has given humankind pleasure and solace in difficult times since time immemorial – sport.
Slowly, carefully, literally in a bubble, international sport has made its way back into our lives, even as the search for a vaccine continues. Football, cricket, golf, basketball, tennis have all commenced in largely empty stadia with the action streamed live on more platforms, to more people than ever before. From fake crowd noise to real (but fewer) spectators at matches, everything is being tried out.
Whatever doubts existed at the start of the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) about diminished player intensity have been thrown out of the window. Engrossing and hard-fought encounters from Manchester to New York, from Dubai to Paris, have kept action-starved, bleary-eyed fans at the edge of their seats as they devour the action on their television sets, laptops and mobile phones. Telecom companies and Internet-streaming sites have never had it so good.
HIGHLIGHTS | French Open: Women's singles semifinals
The women and men who make elite sports the ambrosia that we all crave to partake of have laid aside apprehensions, conquered their mental demons, and ventured into bubbles to wrest back control of their own destinies. We have drunk deeply of the nectar they have served up from football field to cricket pitch to the tennis court. Twenty-five thousand of us have stayed away from the stadium so that a billion could enjoy the spectacle as it is streamed live around the world. Local sacrifice for the greater global good in a connected world has been a small price to pay to have sport back in our lives.
In August, the brave souls at the US Tennis Association (USTA), undaunted by America’s pole position in the pandemic stakes, pulled off a largely successful Grand Slam event within a spectator-less ‘bio-bubble’ at Flushing Meadows, the first since COVID-19 broke out.
Hope in the air
At Roland-Garros a month later, as we find ourselves at finals weekend of the French Open, hope is in the late autumn air. Virtually every tennis player in the world without injuries has showed up to be counted on the iconic clay courts of Paris.
On Sunday, the incredible Rafael Nadal, a man who a banner at the semifinals proclaimed as ‘Le Goat de Goats,’ is seeking to win his 13th title at Roland-Garros and 20th Grand Slam singles title. Facing him across the net will be the man in the form of his life – Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, still smarting from his default at the US Open and making a bid for his 18th Grand Slam title. On the way, the two have vanquished every major player in the world, all of whom showed up in Paris.
But before that, making an appearance against reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin will be a 19-year-old Polish sensation few had heard of. Two weeks on, Iga Swiatek, of whom Mats Wilander said: “I genuinely believe that Iga can be the one. I think she’s there to be a Grand-Slam champion, multiple times,” is the toast of a largely deserted Paris.
On the way, the two have vanquished every major women’s player in the world. There is, however, only one who has escaped the destruction wrought by the racquets of these two young pretenders.
HIGHLIGHTS | French Open: Men's singles semifinals
Her name is Ashleigh Barty, the 24-year old defending French Open champion, and the toast of the tennis world in 2019.
Barty is a remarkable young woman. She has played cricket at a high level while taking a break from professional tennis, appearing successfully in the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia. Done with that and presumably rejuvenated, she went back to tennis. A few months later she was holding up the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen, the infectious Barty smile lighting up Paris. The world of tennis was at her feet in the months that followed, culminating in the yearend world No. 1 ranking.
Golf hits for Barty
Then the pandemic hit, and Australia was not spared. In the midst of lockdown, Barty stopped playing tennis, like most of her colleagues, simply because it wasn’t possible to do so. But unlike every other professional tennis player in the world, she didn’t pick up her racquet and get back to the practice courts when it became possible.
When competitive tennis returned, Barty chose her golf clubs instead, setting out to prove her prowess at yet another sport. And she did. On a course designed by Greg Norman, she claimed the Brookwater Golf Club women's title near Brisbane, with a commanding 7 and 5 triumph in the matchplay final.
When asked why she wasn’t returning to competition in the sport where she stood at the pinnacle, she cited her lack of preparedness. For good measure, she added that her health and the safety of her family and team were paramount so she didn’t want to travel. Fair enough.
The Ashleigh Barty story however has a twist in the tale that has little to do with the player herself.
As the pandemic hit earlier this year, the men’s and women’s tennis bodies announced that ‘protected rankings’ would be in play. Under the modified conditions, both injuries and unwillingness to play citing health concerns would allow players to retain points earned last year despite not appearing at the particular tournament in 2020. However, if a player does show up, this protection disappears and their points depend on the performance at the current edition of the tournament.
The impact of this has been felt in its entirety as the seeded players have fallen by the wayside at Paris, particularly in the women’s draw. But no one has been as impacted as the gritty and determined Simona Halep.
Halep had spent the past three months making her way through whatever tournaments she could, braving the pandemic, living through the discomfort and loneliness of the bubbles, to get back into the groove. A week before the French Open her efforts were rewarded as she picked up the Italian Open and excitedly spoke about making the final at Roland Garros. She came to Paris as world No. 2.
Then it all fell apart. In the fourth round, 19-year old Swiatek ran through Halep, putting in a stunning display of clay court mastery. As Halep walked back to the dressing room, a further nasty surprise awaited.
When Halep arrived in Paris, she had had two milestones in sight. The first was of course the title, and the second was the race to the year-end world No. 1 ranking. The first had been decisively snatched from her grasp on court; the second would soon follow, away from it.
The ‘protected rankings’ had caught up with Halep. Word came in that Barty, who had not played in eight months, was the year-end World No. 1, her points as untouched as her tennis racquet. Halep, for all her efforts, was unable to improve on her 2019 French Open performance and get the points needed to retake the world No. 1 ranking, despite the months she had spent in preparation and winning tournaments in trying conditions.
As Halep set out on her lonely journey home, Barty was celebrating on the terraces at the Gabba in Brisbane, at an Australian Football League playoff game. Pictures of Barty rising to her feet in the crowded stadium, pumping her fist while holding a cup of beer in the other hand, went viral on social media in Australia, where fans hailed a “a true icon.”
2020 continues to be a special year.
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