Daniel Ross Goodman
| November 28, 2019 11:30 PM
This decade in men’s tennis has by most accounts been a golden age. It opened with Roger Federer’s Grand Slam victory at the 2010 Australian Open and closed with Rafael Nadal’s U.S. Open championship this year. The “big three” — Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — have won the last 12 Grand Slam tournaments and 54 of the last 65 Grand Slams since Wimbledon 2003. In 2019, the big three once again swept the slams, with Djokovic winning his seventh Australian Open and his fifth Wimbledon and Nadal winning the French Open and the U.S. Open. Here’s a quick recap of the highlights of the 2019 tennis season.
Player of the Year: Rafael Nadal.
Few who watched Nadal play when he was younger would have believed that he, with his grinding, physical style, would still be able to play this well into his 30s. But Nadal, who turned 33 in June, has defied all expectations. He began 2019 by losing three straight semifinals on clay, his most reliable surface. But he turned things around, winning the Italian Open in May and then going on to win the French Open (his 12th) and the U.S. Open. He finished the season with 19 career Grand Slam victories, one shy of Federer’s record of 20. After struggling with injuries at the close of 2018, Nadal had one of the best seasons of his stellar career, making three of four Grand Slam finals, winning in Montreal and Rome, and finishing the year ranked No. 1. It was the fifth time that Nadal has ended a season as the world’s top-ranked tennis player, equaling Federer’s and Djokovic’s five No. 1 finishes and moving to within one of Pete Sampras’s record of six. Nadal also became the oldest player to ever finish No. 1. To top it all off, in late November Nadal helped Spain win its first Davis Cup since 2011 by winning eight matches in six days — a feat even more remarkable for coming at the end of a long and grueling season and on Nadal’s worst surface, indoor hard court.
Breakout Player: Daniil Medvedev.
Medvedev, the lanky, idiosyncratic 23-year-old Russian, had a credulity-defying summer, making six straight finals and winning two Masters 1000 titles in Cincinnati and Shanghai. Medvedev also won smaller events in Sofia, Bulgaria, and St. Petersburg, Russia. His red-hot summer enabled him to lead the ATP Tour in total match wins, with 59, and to rise to No. 4 in the world.
Medvedev is a quirky character with an even quirkier game. He looks more like the captain of a high school chess team than a world-class athlete, yet this summer, he proved his ability to play with and beat the best. Medvedev notched a win against Djokovic, then-No. 1 in the world, in Cincinnati in August and near-wins against Nadal at Flushing Meadows in New York in September and at the ATP Finals in London in November. Medvedev plays a style that flummoxes opponents, hitting hard and flat with surprisingly little spin in this topspin-heavy era. He also has an incredible ability to hit hard shots on the run and moves exceedingly well for his 6’6” frame.
Runners-up: Matteo Berrettini (Italy) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece)
Match of the Year: Wimbledon final — Novak Djokovic def. Roger Federer, 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3).
This match truly had everything. It featured two of the all-time greats of the sport, with Federer playing for his 21st Grand Slam and Djokovic for his 16th. It was the first-ever fifth set tiebreak at Wimbledon (at 12-all) and the longest Wimbledon final in history. Federer won more total games than Djokovic, more points than Djokovic, and outplayed Djokovic for large portions of the match, yet somehow still lost, which is a testament to Djokovic’s mental toughness and steadiness in the clutch. Unless he wins another Wimbledon, Federer’s fans will be forever ruing the two championship points Federer squandered on his serve while leading 8-7 in the fifth set.
Runner-up: U.S. Open final — Nadal def. Medvedev, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
Shot of the Year: Gael Monfils’s leaping 360-degree overhead smash to close out his second-round U.S. Open match against Marius Copil.
Runner-up: Nadal’s around-the-net-post running forehand to set up match point in his fourth-round U.S. Open match against Marin Cilic.
Nick Kyrgios Moment of the Year: During decisive tiebreaks in both his semifinal and final matches at the Washington Open in August, Kyrgios, the Dennis Rodman of men’s tennis, asked a fan seated behind him where he should serve. He won both points (and both matches) and ran to the back of the court to high-five the fan before shaking hands with his opponent.
Comeback Player of the Year: Andy Murray.
When the 32-year-old Scot announced in a teary January press conference that he was indefinitely stepping away from the game because of a chronically injured hip, it looked as if his career was over. But the three-time Grand Slam champion teamed up with Serena Williams to play doubles at Wimbledon and played a few small singles events thereafter, finding little on-court success. When Murray lost in a Challenger event (the minor leagues of tennis), his prospects for a resurgence looked bleak. But Murray continued pushing himself, and when he defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in Antwerp, Belgium, in October to claim his first title since his injury, he broke down in tears. Winning an ATP 250 tournament does not mean that Murray is fully back, but the victory was encouraging. One of the big three has finished as the year-end No. 1 in 15 of the past 16 years; the only non-big three player to finish on top during this stretch? Murray. Here’s hoping that Sir Andy’s comeback continues.
Bold Prediction for the 2020s: Tennis’s next big three will be Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Daniil Medvedev.
Though the big three have had a stranglehold on men’s tennis for the last 15 years, for the first time since their brilliant run began, a new generation of rising stars — Thiem (26), Tsitsipas (21), and Medvedev (23) — appears ready to challenge them. This is a fascinating time in men’s tennis, with the three living legends of tennis still at the peak of their powers and younger players growing into theirs. The year 2020 is setting up to be one of the more exciting seasons in recent memory.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, an ordained rabbi, and a Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He has written for the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, among other publications.