With 2017 coming to a close, and the 2018 tennis season already stirring, LWOT writer Finn Ranson looks back on some of the thrills and spills of 2017 – the good, the bad, the bizarre and the ugly…
2017 in Tennis: Indian Summers and Tomic’s Bleak Midwinter
2017 – the new 2007
The big four became the big two once more, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sharing the slam spoils – the 36-year-old taking Australia and his eighth Wimbledon following six months out of the game, the Spaniard the US Open and his tenth Roland Garros crown, returning to top spot for the first time since June 2014. Venus Williams also rolled back the years, reaching the final of Australia, Wimbledon and the semis of Flushing Meadows before coming runner-up at the WTA Finals in Singapore. Long may the thirty-somethings’ rich vein of form continue – Federer and Nadal’s clash in the final of Melbourne was dubbed the most-watched tennis match of all time, and the Williams sister’s battle broke ESPN viewing records. The Aussies even ditched the cricket to tune in.
Waiting for 2018
While 2017 had some special moments, a year of heart-warming Indian Summers, at the same time it was a season defined by injuries. Both Djokovic and Murray bowed out for the year after Wimbledon, soon followed by Wawrinka, Raonic and Nishikori, and even Federer and Nadal’s seasons were ultimately curtailed. It shook up the pack a bit, Sam Querrey reaching his first slam semi-final at Wimbledon, Carreno Busta going deep at the US and Anderson all the way to the final. We all thought a Federer-Nadal battle at the O2 would be a fitting year-end finale, but really a meeting between a mercurial talent still yet to realise his potential and a perennial top-10 outsider, both debutants, couldn’t have been more apt. It was refreshing, but after the apotheosis of the Australian Open final, 2017 often lacked the drama, the history, the sense of tennis titans doing battle. Wawrinka was soundly thrashed in Paris, Cilic was left crying after a set against Roger Federer, and Kevin Anderson hardly provided a stern test. Make no mistake, the return of the giants of the men’s game in Australia, all with something to prove, is a mouth-watering prospect.
We saw a similar breakthrough year on the women’s side – some old faces (see below), force of nature Jelena Ostapenko, and Stephens, Keys and Vandeweghe all finally stepping out of the Williams sisters’ long shadow. Ostapenko defeated Serena Williams in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, the start, surely, of 2018’s even more fascinating narrative – the battle between the redoubtable American and the new challengers to her throne.
Most lucrative frozen ranking
34-year-old Dmitry Tursonov had his last throw of the dice at the US Open, using the final of his 12 elite tournament entries under his protected ranking. He retired in the first round two sets down to world #222 Cameron Norrie. The Russian picked up $50,000 for his exertions, bringing his protected ranking earnings since the beginning of 2016 to $323,626– just over $9,000 per set – despite winning just two of 14 matches. Who’s the real winner here.
An honourable mention for Ernests Gulbis who also played with a frozen ranking this year. He used one of his 12 opportunities to enter the qualifying of the Montreal Masters event, but then forgot to withdraw when he decided to spend a week in the Hamptons. By the time he remembered, he was unable to find a flight that would get him to Quebec in time.
“Tursunov is smart, you know?” Gulbis said. “I’m not so smart.”
Most sensational comeback
We can’t get too cynical though – a certain Sloane Stephens only made it into the US Open courtesy of a protected ranking. Defeating fellow hitherto hopeless hopeful Madison Keys a fortnight later, Stephens secured her maiden grand slam title. 17th seeded Federer’s comeback in Melbourne was special, Nadal’s slam double nostalgic, Del Potro’s return to the big stage a fairy tale, but Sloane Stephens’ comeback trail was slap-round-the-face box office:
January – undergoes major foot surgery
May – starts hitting balls
June – makes competitive return, says there are “no expectations”
July – appears at Citi Open ranked 957, losing in the first round to Simona Halep
August – reaches the semi-finals of Toronto and Cincinnati inside a fortnight, defeating the likes of Kerber, Kvitova and Goerges
September – US Open champion
September-November – six-match losing streak but that’s by the by…
December – becomes a college graduate, receiving a B.A. in Communication Studies from Indiana University East.
Will we be hailing the comeback trail of another American in 12 months’ time?
While we wait with bated breath for Serena Williams’ return, there were a fair few former retirees who also enjoyed stunning revivals this year on the WTA tour.
Ashleigh Barty retired as a teenager to turn to cricket, playing for Brisbane Heat and Queensland in the Women’s Big Bash League for two years. With only a handful of singles tournaments under her belt from 2016, the Aussie rocketed from 271 in the world to inside the top 20 after finals appearances in Birmingham and Wuhan.
After working at a hotel, Timea Bacsinszky returned to plying her trade on a tennis court and battled her way to the French Open semi-finals, upsetting home favourite Mladenovic on route.
Teenage star Mirjana Lucic-Baroni had to flee Croatia in 1998 to escape her abusive father, and was unable to continue playing due to financial difficulties, compounded by IMG’s lawsuit against her. Almost 18 years after her first grand slam semi-final at Wimbledon, the 34-year-old reached the last four of the Australian Open. In May, she broke into the top 20.
Nearly five years on from her valedictory Wimbledon victory, Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli recently announced her return to the tour. One to keep an eye on in 2018…
Most expensive press conference
“It was definitely a mental issue out there,” Bernard Tomic admitted after defeat in the first round of Wimbledon. “I wasn’t mentally and physically there with my mental state to perform. I don’t know why but I felt a little bored, to be completely honest with you. To me, this is one of the biggest tournaments in the world that I have done really well in my career [to reach] and, yeah, I just couldn’t find anything.”
“It’s tough. I’m 24, I came on tour at 16, 17, I have been around and it feels like I’m super old, but I’m not. This is my eighth or ninth Wimbledon, I’m still 24 and it’s tough to find motivation. Being out there on court, to be honest, I just couldn’t find any motivation. I just couldn’t find anything, it’s happened to me a lot.”
Fair enough, Bernard, propos for speaking out.
“Holding a trophy or doing well, it doesn’t satisfy me any more. It’s not there. I couldn’t care less if I make a fourth-round US Open or I lose first round. To me, everything is the same. I’m going to play another 10 years, and I know after my career I won’t have to work again.”
“You probably don’t like me but, at only 24, you guys can only dream about having what I have at 24. End of the day, don’t like me or whatever. Just go back dreaming about your dream car or house while I go buy them.” In 2016, the world #59 boasted that he “didn’t care” about his clinching match point against Roberto Bautista Agut to progress to the last 16 of the Championships. “Would you care if you were 23 and worth over $10 million?”
Racket sponsor Head terminated their seven-figure contract with the Australian the next day. He has since sunk to 140 in the world, most recently picking up €1,820 for reaching the second round of the Slovak Open. Might have to go for a Lamborghini instead of that Maserati now, eh Bernard?
Journalist and presenter of the WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen’s thread during the US Open outlining the litany of sensational comeback stories in the women’s draw. Safarova, Venus, Kanepi, Stephens, Sevastova and, of course, Kvitova. Check it out.
This #USOpen has some amazing stories. To quote The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, females are strong as hell. 1/
— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) September 4, 2017
Proof that the numbers can lie. Despite failing to win a single match since July, Kristina Mladenovic broke into the top 10 in October for the first time in her career. While the Frenchwoman’s season was dogged with injury, her 12-match losing-streak, yet to be broken, spanned 11 tournaments over 3 months. During that time approximately 32.85 million babies were born, Catalonia declared independence and had it quashed, and Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Ophelia all came and went. Like Tursunov, Mladenovic certainly knows how to win at losing.
Best silver screen renaissance
Until this year, tennis’ big screen ambassador was beigest of bland rom-coms, Wimbledon. But 2017 saw the tennis film genre enjoy something of a resurgence, with Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf starring in Borg vs McEnroe, and Emma Stone and Steve Carrell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. While the former may have made McEnroe, to the American’s chagrin, “look like a jerk”, it reanimated the legendary rivalry with a gripping introspectiveness. Battle of the Sexes was quite simply a triumph in didactic entertainment, a powerful realisation of King’s work, but also a pertinent reminder of how far sexual and LGBTQ equality still has to go in the sport. Ilie Nastase was one disturbing testament to that.
Most chauvinistic draw ceremony
The ATP’s Next Gen Finals was a look to the future, piloting short sets to four, hawk eye replacing line judges and playing lets. The draw ceremony, however, was something out of the 19th century. Players were asked to choose one of two female models before making their way down a catwalk arm in arm, at which point the model would remove an item of clothing to reveal the qualifier’s group, the letter A or B. Shapovalov’s chosen model pulled up a lace dress to display the letter A on her thigh, and eventual winner Hyeon Chung was asked to pull a model’s glove off with his teeth. “The intention was to integrate Milan’s rich heritage as one of the fashion capitals of the world,” ATP and Red Bull’s joint statement read. “However, our execution of the proceedings was in poor taste and unacceptable.”
Denis Shapovalov once that kid who smashed an umpire with a tennis ball, now a genuine grand slam contender. And who would have thought that that fractured eye socket would be the start of a glorious friendship. “He messages me here and there and I message him,” the 18-year-old said.
Hot favourite Alexander Zverev for his bold/sacrilegious throwback to Borg/Jackie Moon at the US Open, sporting a striped headband, pinstripe shirt and knee-high socks. He lost in the second round.
Flu-hampered Juan Martin Del Potro, battered by Dominic Thiem 6-1 6-2 in the opening two sets, coming back to win in five to progress to the quarter-finals of the US Open, before upsetting Federer. “Juan Martin fought like a lion,” the Swiss said.
Club coach and world #598 Marcus Willis worked his magic at the Championships again alongside 18-year-old Jay Clarke, defeating second seeds Nicolas Mahut and Pierre Hugues-Herbert in an epic five-setter to reach the third round. “A bit of an upset, that one,” he beamed, revelling in his underdog role once more. “The expectation was probably to lose this, but I knew we could get close.”
The ITF’s anti-doping unit was back in action, coming down on former French Open finalist Sara Errani with a two month ban after allegedly consuming banned drug letrozole in her mother’s tortellini.
Maria Sharapova made a noisy return to the tour in April after a 15-month doping ban. “I don’t think it’s right,” Eugenie Bouchard said unceremoniously. “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again.” While she had an injury-disrupted season, the five-time grand slam champion still had time to upset Simona Halep in a rip-roaring three-setter under the lights of Arthur Ashe. Hopefully a taste of things to come.
For some more 2017 nostalgia, check out Stefano Berlincioni’s roundup of all the antics on the ITF and Challenger circuit.