As tennis finally enters its all too brief off-season, our resident tennis historian, Martin Keady, looks back at the low-lights of the 2018 season.
On the men’s side in 2018, it was as if the strain of trying to keep up with “The Big Three” of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic finally took its toll on the only two other men to be multiple Major winners in the “Fedalic” era. Both Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka missed huge chunks of the season through injury and it remains doubtful that they will ever get back to the top of the game.
On the women’s side, it was as if the strain of trying to regain her former supremacy after giving birth finally caught up with Serena Williams, particularly in the US Open Final, when she embarrassed herself and stole the limelight from her conqueror, Naomi Osaka.
And there were other low-lights besides. Here, then, are 10 terrible things in tennis in 2018.
- ANDY MURRAY’S WHOLE YEAR
Andy Murray would not have been human if he had not watched Alexander Zverev winning the ATP Tour Finals last month and wondered about what might have been. That was because two previously key members of “Team Murray” are now helping Zverev to become a major player (and potential Major winner): coach Ivan Lendl and fitness coach Jez Green. Murray won his three Majors while Lendl was coaching him and although Green might have been unable to completely prevent Murray’s physical decline over the last 18 months, he might have been able to delay or reduce it.
Murray’s injury problems began in the second half of 2017. He was unable to properly defend the Wimbledon title that he had won so spectacularly (and for the second time) in 2016, losing to Sam Querrey in the quarterfinals; he subsequently withdrew from the 2017 US Open; and eventually he called time on the year in the hope that he would recover for the 2018 Australian Open. However, although he entered warm-up tournaments before Melbourne, he was ultimately unable to compete in the year’s first Slam and after hip surgery he ended up missing all four Majors.
At the start of 2018, Greg Rusedksi was the first to publicly voice concern about the severity of Murray’s injury woes, when he suggested that the Scot might never win another Major. At the time, that seemed unnecessarily pessimistic, but 12 months on it is not nearly so far-fetched. Although Murray is now finally in far better physical shape (as demonstrated by the recent clips of him doing hand-stands as part of his rehabilitation programme), even when he returns to court he will be completely lacking in both match practice and match fitness. Hopefully, he will be back to his brilliant best in 2019, but for now the jury is out.
- HALEP’S HOSPITALISATION IN MELBOURNE
Simona Halep is arguably the fittest female tennis player, largely because her game is based on mobility rather than power. (At only five feet and six inches tall, she literally cannot match up to six-footers such as Garbiñe Muguruza or Petra Kvitova.) So the fact that she was hospitalised, albeit only temporarily, with severe dehydration after her epic Australian Open Final defeat to Caroline Wozniacki was a real warning sign, specifically about the intense heat of the Australian sun at the start of the season but more generally about the increasingly heavy toll being exacted on all tennis players, both female and male.
Questions are increasingly being asked about the capacity of tennis players to continue performing at the Olympian heights that we have become accustomed to, especially in the last decade and a half, during which such magnificent athletes as Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams have taken the sport to new heights. Billie Jean King was sufficiently worried to suggest that rather than increasing women’s matches at Grand Slams to five sets, men’s matches should be reduced to three sets, and the ongoing physical problems of Murray and Wawrinka, to name but two players, should give everyone involved in the sport cause for concern.
There are practical solutions, most importantly a complete revision of the tennis calendar, with the Australian Open moving to later in the spring (when the temperatures in Melbourne would not be so high) and the introduction of a proper off-season from the end of October onwards. Unfortunately, as ever in tennis the lack of an overall governing body for the sport means that no one organisation can push through such dramatic changes. Consequently, it appears inevitable that players’ injury problems will only get worse, rather than better, in the coming years.
- NOVAK DJOKOVIC’S FORM FOR THE FIRST HALF OF 2018
Novak Djokovic seemed stuck in a permanent nose-dive for the first half of the year, including the first two Majors of 2018. He capitulated against South Korea’s rising young star, Chung Hyeon, in the Australian Open quarterfinal, losing a match in straight sets at Melbourne for the first time since 2007, when Roger Federer (who was probably at the absolute peak of his genius at that point) easily beat him in the fourth round. He also lost in the last eight at the French Open, when Italy’s Marco Cecchinato stunned the tennis world by beating him in four sets, clinching victory by winning one of the greatest tie-breaks ever seen at a Grand Slam 13-11. There seemed no way back for Novak, especially when he talked about missing the entire grass season, including Wimbledon, to try and get his head and his game right.
In the end, of course, Djokovic won Wimbledon, added the US Open for good measure and reclaimed the World No.1 ranking. Quite what sparked the remarkable turnaround remains open to conjecture, with Djokovic himself attributing it at least in part to going walking in the mountains after losing in Paris. A more prosaic explanation might just be that he stopped experimenting with “super-coaches” (such as Becker and Agassi) and “gurus” and returned to the sole instruction of the man who has always known him and his game best, namely Marián Vajda. Vajda was fittingly honoured for his part in reinventing Djokovic by being named the ATP Coach of the Year. Given Djokovic’s immense achievements since winning the Davis Cup with Serbia in 2010, he is more accurately the coach of the decade.
With the 2019 season fast approaching, Djokovic finds himself once more at the top of the men’s game, with many tennis writers and former players arguing that he might re-establish the dominance that he enjoyed in 2010-11 and 2015-16, and even overtake Federer’s record of 20 Majors. However, that is to reckon without Federer and Nadal returning to Slam-winning form themselves, let alone the arrival of the “next gen” of possible Major winners, three of whom – Stefanos Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev – inflicted Djokovic’s only defeats during the second half of 2018.
- THE ATTITUDE OF BERNARD TOMIC AND NICK KYRGIOS
For most of the 20th century, the only serious rival to the USA’s supremacy in tennis, especially on the men’s side of the game, came from Australia, as it produced a succession of truly great, teak-tough champions, from Emerson and Laver to Hewitt and Rafter. Consequently, it is not only disappointing but somewhat mystifying that perhaps the two greatest male Australian players of the 21st century, Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios, seem to possess little or nothing of that famous Australian fighting spirit.
Tomic’s time at the top of tennis may just be over already. He is currently ranked No.84 in the world, which is an almost ludicrously low ranking for a player of his ability. However, having overcome the obvious difficulties of having an overbearing father/coach, he has seemed unable to make progress on his own. In 2018, he was more famous for appearing on Australia’s version of the reality TV show, “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!”, than for anything he did on court, other than perhaps his loss in the first round of the French Open to Marco Trungelliti, despite the fact that the Argentine “lucky loser” had spent most of the previous 24 hours driving from Barcelona to Paris.
As for Kyrgios, it was hoped that he would learn from Tomic’s travails and not go down the same route of mediocrity and micro-celebrity. However, while he has not slipped as far down the rankings as his compatriot, ending the season at No.36 in the world, that is still no reflection of his truly astonishing tennis ability. John McEnroe, the original enfant terrible of tennis, was so moved by Kygios’s plight (partly, one suspects, because he recognises a kindred spirit in the Australian) that he recently said, “He’s going to run himself out of the game at this point, which I don’t want to see”. Absolutely no-one wants to see that, but unless Kyrgios can somehow accept that he is not playing his beloved basketball (in which he can be just one member of a team) but instead the most demanding individual sport of all, then it might just happen.
- WIMBLEDON’S SCHEDULING OF THE MEN’S SEMI-FINALS
The almost Biblical scale of the first Wimbledon semi-final between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, which Anderson eventually won 26-24 in the fifth set, meant that the second semi-final, between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, was delayed. And delayed. And delayed! Eventually, the two great men took to the court, but such was the predictably tight nature of the match, with the pair trading sets, that they were unable to complete the match on the Friday and so had to return early on the Saturday.
Wimbledon was lucky that the fifth set in the Djokovic-Nadal semi-final “only” went to 10-8. If it had been an epic to match Anderson-Isner, then even the incredibly athletic Djokovic would have struggled to rouse himself for the Final on Sunday. As it turned out, it was Anderson who was still exhausted by that point and he lost to Djokovic in straight sets in the most uninspiring Men’s Singles Finals at SW19 in recent years.
Wimbledon has already taken one important action to prevent a repeat of this year’s semi-final farrago by introducing a final set tie-break at 12-12. Nevertheless, that alone does not preclude a repeat of this year’s scheduling mistakes. Quite simply, if the first men’s semi-final is going long (i.e. beyond the fourth set), then there should be a contingency plan in place to allow the second semi-final to be shifted from Centre Court to No.1 Court. And if that puts anyone’s nose out of joint, including the Wimbledon debenture-holders who expect to see both men’s semi-finals on the Friday, then tough. Maximising the players’ physical well-being and chances of giving their best is what matters most.
- JO KONTA’S FORM FOR MOST OF 2018
2018 was almost a no-go for JoKo. Having excelled in the previous two seasons, during which she reached the semi-finals at the 2016 Australian Open and (even more impressively, as it is her home Slam) Wimbledon 2017, Johanna Konta’s form for most of the last 12 months was disappointingly patchy, to say the very least. She is currently ranked just No.37 in the world, which is a considerable fall from grace after reaching No.4 in the world following her Wimbledon 2017 heroics.
Many speculated that Konta was suffering from a season-long hangover after reaching the last four at Wimbledon. She was the first British woman to do so since Virginia Wade had actually won the Women’s Singles in 1977 and such was the tsunami of celebrity (at least in Britain) that was unleashed upon her that she seems to have been swamped by it.
Another complicating factor has been the near-permanent rotation of her coaches. By Konta’s own admission, the most important coach she has ever had was Juan Coto, the mind coach who had completely revitalised her game in 2016 but who tragically killed himself at the start of 2017. Since then, the services of both Wim Fissette (the former coach of Kim Clijsters) and Mike Joyce (the former coach of Maria Sharapova) have been acquired and then dispensed with. Given that Fissette went on to coach Angelique Kerber to Wimbledon triumph in 2018, there is no doubt who has got the better of that deal. Just as Andy Murray must occasionally rue parting company with Ivan Lendl, there must be moments when Konta regrets parting with Fissette.
- SERENA WILLIAMS’S OUTBURST IN THE US OPEN FINAL
Nearly two years ago, at the 2017 Australian Open Final, Serena Williams won her 23rd Major Singles title and it appeared inevitable that she would first match Margaret Court’s women’s record of 24 Majors and then overtake it. A few months after that Melbourne triumph, when it was announced that she had actually been pregnant when she defeated sister Venus in the Australian Final, there seemed to be no limit to her capacity for achieving near-miracles.
Maternity, however, seems to have reduced her to mere mortality. She obviously missed the rest of the 2017 season to give birth, but the traumatic nature of that birth (which was only revealed in 2018) and the inevitable conflict that she, like so many women, has subsequently experienced between her career and becoming a mother appear to have exacted a heavy price. Upon returning to the WTA Tour roughly halfway through 2018, she subsequently withdrew from the French Open before losing the final at both Wimbledon and the US Open.
It was in the US Open Final when all the turbulence of the previous 12 months finally did for the near-serenity that Serena has shown for most of her career. When umpire Carlos Ramos penalised her for receiving coaching from the watching Patrick Mouratoglou (which Mouratoglu later admitted to), she rounded on Ramos in the most appalling fashion, when he was literally only doing his job. Worse still, the subsequent fallout and recriminations robbed her victor, Naomi Osaka, of her first ever moment in the limelight, which is something that she will never be able to regain. Serena has been a shining example of sportswomanship for most of her career (when Angelique Kerber defeated Serena in the 2016 Australian Open Final, she pointedly praised her for it), but at that moment she was utterly unsporting.
- THE BOOING OF ALEXANDER ZVEREV AT THE ATP TOUR FINALS
“Fed-Heds” are a legendarily fanatical bunch. In fact, the most famous of them all, William Skidelsky, made that fanaticism the subject of his book, “Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession”, which is one of the best books ever written about tennis and hero-worship. However, that fanaticism can occasionally spill over into unfair treatment of Federer’s opponents, and never has that been better demonstrated than during the semi-final between the Swiss and Alexander Zverev at the ATP Tour Finals last month.
All that Zverev did was to stop play when a luckless ball boy dropped a spare ball during a point, which then rolled ominously towards the court. Although it happened during the second-set tie-break, when Federer was desperately fighting to remain in the match after losing the first set, Zverev was entirely within his rights to stop play. Indeed, he may just have prevented Federer from serious injury, because if he had not stopped play it is possible that Federer would have stood on the ball and suffered a spectacular fall. Federer fans would do well to remember that, as it would have been no way to end the great man’s season, or perhaps even his career.
Nevertheless, at that point and for a period after Zverev had actually won the match, a not inconsiderable number of Federer fans at the O2 booed Zverev for his actions, to the point that the on-court interviewer, Annabel Croft, had to publicly take them to task. Even Federer himself admitted that there had been nothing else that Zverev could have done. Nevertheless, Zverev apologised publicly and profusely, in the process apparently evoking the ire of his coach, Ivan Lendl, who would never have apologised for anything he did on court.
The fear is that as Federer inevitably approaches the end of his historic career, an increasing number of his army of fans around the world will react against the dying of his light by blaming his opponent, or umpires, or anyone else, other than the only opponent that even Federer cannot beat – Old Father Time.
- YANNICK NOAH’S SINGLES SELECTIONS FOR THE DAVIS CUP FINAL
It has only just been announced that Amelie Mauresmo will forego becoming the French Davis Cup captain (the first female captain of the men’s team in French history) to become Lucas Pouille’s full-time coach instead. In part, that may be because of the downgrading of the Davis Cup from a year-round tournament to an end-of-season event, which will happen next year. However, it is also possible that she finally realised how difficult it would have been to follow in the footsteps of Yannick Noah, the most important figure in French tennis in the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, in his final Davis Cup as either player or captain, Noah had a stinker.
The most important job for any Davis Cup captain is the selection of the team and in particular the selections that he makes for the opening singles, which can dictate the whole course of a tie. In 2017, Noah had chosen brilliantly, persevering with Pouille even after he lost his opening singles match to Belgium’s David Goffin. Ultimately, it was Pouille who secured the winning point when he defeated Belgium’s No.2, Steve Darcis, in the final singles rubber.
This year, however, Noah seemed to forget that Pouille had been his and France’s hero a year before. It is true that, after two very impressive years on the ATP Tour, Pouille has had a largely disappointing 2018, which ultimately may have prompted his change of coach to Mauresmo. Nevertheless, he had already shown in 2017 that he could rise to the occasion and play above himself in the Davis Cup. Sadly, Jeremy Chardy, who Noah selected ahead of Pouille for the first singles match in the 2018 final against Croatia’s Borno Coric, played below himself, as the pressure of leading the French fight appeared to completely unnerve him and he duly lost in straight sets.
Then, to compound his original mistake, Noah selected a clearly half-fit Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ahead of Pouille for the second singles rubber against Marin Cilic, with predictably disastrous results for France. Although Pouille did play in the Sunday singles against Cilic, the damage had already been done and he, too, lost in straight sets to give Croatia the title.
- THE DEATH OF THE DAVIS CUP?
What exponentially increased the French feelings of disappointment at losing the 2018 Davis Cup Final was the fear that it may well have been the last Davis Cup Final ever. The plans for next year’s tournament, which will be played in one “block” at the end of the season in Madrid, are radical enough. However, the new ATP Cup, which will be launched in Australia barely a month later, might instead attract all the star players that the Davis Cup redesign was supposed to win back.
If that happens, then it will be a truly terrible thing for tennis. Although there is no denying that the Davis Cup has been diminished in stature in recent decades, it is also true that in the last 10 years it has attracted probably the three greatest male players ever – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – to compete in it (albeit, sadly, rarely at the same time) and win it. Each of them has testified to the unique satisfaction that winning for their country, rather than just for themselves, has brought.
The real fear is that the competition between the century-old Davis Cup and the brand new ATP Cup will bring an end to men’s team tennis completely, and that would be a crying shame. As the Ryder Cup has proved over the last two decades, by achieving the miraculous feat of making golf interesting by playing it in teams, even individual sports such as tennis gain from being played in a team format. And if that format finally dies out in tennis, the whole sport will be reduced.