Tennis is now in its annual offseason, but don’t blink, lest you miss it. It says something about this 12-month sport that the 2019 season hasn’t even really ended —
it’s been quietly humming along in the background with Challenger (ATP) and 175K WTA Tour events, offering both rankings points, prize money and some familiar names in the draws. The ATP main tour kicks off for 2020 on Jan. 3 in Australia with a new team event, the ATP Cup. The WTA launches three days later with three events.
So, while we’re catching our breath, let’s review the best tennis of 2019.
ATP player of the year
Rafael Nadal: Year-end ranking, No. 1
2019 record: 57-7 with four titles, including two Grand Slams
The player of the year can be the individual who was most successful or the one who had a significant impact on the game in general. Our choice this year qualifies on both counts.
The 2019 season began ominously for the then-32-year-old King of Clay. Nadal missed the entire 2018 fall swing due to ankle surgery, standing idly as Novak Djokovic ran amok. Upon his return in January, a thigh strain curtailed his preparation for the year’s first Grand Slam. He still managed to belt his way to the final, where Djokovic humiliated him in the most lopsided blowout of their historic rivalry, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.
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“I needed something else,” Nadal said afterward, citing the effect of limited playing time. “Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, That something else — probably today, I don’t have it yet.”
Nadal found that “something else” as he has always at the French Open. He gobbled up the now traditional press room birthday cake along with his 18th major title at Roland Garros. But he suffered yet another tough loss on Wimbledon grass to Roger Federer. Perhaps, as in some years past, Nadal was done with his heavy lifting for the year. Not so.
Nadal had a glorious summer, capped by a blockbuster US Open final win over an on-fire Daniil Medvedev. He’s now within one Grand Slam title of Federer’s 20 — a feat Nadal will probably be a prohibitive favorite to earn in Paris in June.
“I don’t like to look that far ahead,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. “But sure, if Rafa is healthy, can anyone stop him?”
Of equal historic importance, Nadal played well enough in the fall to lock up the year-end No. 1 ranking for a fifth time, denying hard-charging Djokovic the opportunity to join Pete Sampras as the only six-time year-end No. 1. The Serbian star remains in second place on that list along with Jimmy Connors, Federer and now Nadal. The great GOAT debate just got a whole lot more interesting.
And think, Nadal has suffered more injuries and paid a heavier price in Grand Slam opportunities than any of his Big Four rivals. Sure, everybody deals with injuries, but the numbers don’t lie: Federer has missed two majors on account of injury or surgery. Djokovic has lost out on just one chance. Nadal, by contrast, has missed eight majors outright, and that isn’t even counting majors during which he had to pull out, like last year’s US Open or the 2016 French Open.
“I always find a way to keep going, you know, and to do my route,” Nadal said after he won the French Open in June. “And here I am at the age of 33, enjoying, playing good tennis. Let’s see for how long I am able to manage and to hold this.”
WTA player of the year
Bianca Andreescu: Year-end ranking, No. 5
2019 record: 46-7, with four titles including the US Open
Our WTA player of the year had a profound impact on the game, emerging out of nowhere at 19 to become the game’s latest supernova, powering Canada’s emergence as a tennis power as well as the putative career rival of that other blazing young star, Naomi Osaka.
Andreescu played no WTA Tour events in 2018, and started the new year ranked outside the top 150. Her attempts to qualify at all four majors fell short, but she punched through qualifying and was runner-up in the first event of 2019, the WTA’s ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. Just two months later, Andreescu became an overnight sensation as she claimed the title at the prestigious Indian Wells combined event.
Less than three weeks later she was forced to retire with a sore shoulder — no doubt due to her heavy early-season workload — during the fourth round in the back half of the “Sunshine Double” at the Miami Open.
Before Andreescu pulled out of Miami, her young Canadian compatriot Denis Shapovalov — who, along with Canada’s Felix Auger Aliassime, would reach the men’s semifinals — said, “I got the chance to grow up with Bianca [in Toronto], I know she’s had some injury struggles coming up, so it’s insane what she’s doing. Not even I could believe it, and I know how good and talented she is.”
Andreescu was unable to complete for the next four months due to her shoulder injury. Questions percolated around her return at the Rogers Cup in August, but she won her native championships in Toronto when Serena Williams retired because of an injury.
At the US Open, Andreescu met Williams again in the final and overcame a case of the jitters to win in straight sets, preventing the American icon from earning a record-tying 24th major singles title. Nine months into her first year on the tour she was a Grand Slam champion.
Andreescu managed to stay in tune following her stunning win and capped her year with a tantalizing glimpse into the WTA future. In the quarterfinals at the China Open in Beijing, Andreescu and Osaka slugged it out in of the best WTA matches in recent memory, Osaka winning in three sets. It was Andreescu’s first loss in 18 matches stretching all the way back to Miami.
“The one thing I worry about is her injuries,” 18-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN analyst Chris Evert said of Andreescu’s bold style. “But I love her game. She plays in-your-face tennis. I love that aggressiveness.”
ATP match of the year
Wimbledon final: Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3)
If a player of Djokovic’s caliber can be said to have a career-defining moment, this Wimbledon final must be it. In winning, the 32-year-old Serb completed a Wimbledon hat trick against the most successful Open-era men’s singles champion at the All-England Club (Federer has eight titles). It was the first men’s singles match decided by a fifth-set tiebreaker and also the first time since the 1948 tournament that a man won Wimbledon after being down championship points.
For many, this match has replaced the Wimbledon final of 2008 as the finest of all-time. At four hours, 57 minutes, this was the second-longest Grand Slam final, surpassed only by Djokovic’s 5-hour, 53-minute mastery of Nadal in the Australian Open final of 2012. Both men were at or close to their very best the entire way. If they were knights in King Arthur’s court, Federer would have been wielding a broadsword, Djokovic a mace. Djokovic responded to every slash and slice from Federer with a heavy swing, pushing him back.
The key stats: Federer logged a whopping edge in winners, 94-54, but he committed just 10 more unforced errors (62-52) and still lost. It tells us that Djokovic outfoxed, outmaneuvered or outhit Federer to win a lion’s share of the points not decided by winners or unforced errors.
But it was those two match points that many fans — and Federer — will not soon forget. Serving for the match at 8-7 in the fifth at 15-all, Federer smacked a pair of aces that earned him two match points. He was a shade slow dancing around his forehand to go inside-out and just missed on his first opportunity. He attacked too early behind too weak a ball on his second chance, and Djokovic hit a clean crosscourt pass winner. The errors proved fatal.
“It was mentally the most demanding match I was ever part of,” Djokovic said afterward. “I had the most physically demanding match against Nadal in the finals of Australia that went almost six hours. But mentally this was different level.”