Players of the Year: Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal

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Photos by Anita Aguilar

With the 2013 tennis season in the past, it's time to dole out our annual awards. Look for the winners—for better or worse—throughout this week on (To see what's been unveiled thus far, click here.)

Serena Williams: “I can’t say it’s the best season. I can’t say it’s not the best.”

That’s how Serena Williams assessed her 2013, and coming from her, it’s high praise. Maybe only she could look at a year in which she went 78-4, won 11 titles—including two Grand Slams—vanquished all “rivals,” and finished No. 1 and say that it might not have been the finest of her career. 

For the record, we can safely put it in her Top 3. In 2002, Serena won three Grand Slams, eight titles, and went 56-5. In 2012, she won two Slams and an Olympic gold medal in singles. But what made 2013 special was how thorough she was. 

Serena, at 32, played and won more matches than she had in any of her 15 previous seasons. She knew it was a risk. “It could have been the secret to my success,” she told CNN recently, “or the secret to my demise.” She almost didn’t reach the finish line. Williams said she “hit a wall” the morning of match No. 81, her semifinal against Jelena Jankovic at the WTA championships in Istanbul. Yet she walked through that wall and won the tournament anyway.

The most common observation about Serena’s latest surge is that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, has made her a more motivated and consistent player. There’s no question he has helped, but it isn’t true that, as CNN put it, he “rescued” her after her first-round defeat to Virginie Razzano in Paris in 2012. It should be remembered that Serena was already back on the rise that spring, before she began to work with the Frenchman in earnest. What made her loss to Razzano especially shocking was that she had gone 15-1 on clay that spring.

Since that match, Serena is 109-5. Mouratoglou has been a source of calm, positive energy and has assisted in rounding out her game, but tennis is never, when it comes down to it during a match, a team effort. Her statistics aside, I thought Serena’s 2013 was memorable for two reasons, each of which showed that even among tennis champions, she's unique. 

First, she conquered herself. In 2002-03, when she won her Serena Slam at age 21, she played with the fearless, seemingly nerveless abandon of youth. In 2013, at age 32, Serena was equally dominant, but she was also vulnerable. She won so easily that any hiccup could make it feel like disaster was around the corner. And sometimes it was: Surely her biggest regret is that two of her four losses came at the Grand Slams, to Sloane Stephens in Melbourne and Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. But more often she overcame her nerves. Serena struggled mightily with them against Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open final and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals at the French Open, yet both times she gathered herself, reined in her game, and eventually won the tournament. Those wins were all the more impressive because they weren’t dominant.

Finally, Serena showed that rarest of champion’s abilities: To be No. 1, and stay No. 1. Most players, even the best players, are at their best when they’re the hunter rather than the hunted. In 2013, Serena began at the top, took on all challengers, and sent them tumbling back down the mountain. After her loss to Serena in the French Open final, Maria Sharapova won one more match in 2013. After her loss to Serena at Flushing Meadows, Azarenka went 1-4 for the rest of the year. Serena finished by fending off the last contender, Li Na, with a willful, imperfect, three-set flourish in Istanbul. It wasn't easy, but the final set was still 6-0.

It may or may not have been her best season of all, but in 2013 Serena Williams walked through walls, both mental and physical. She was vulnerable, yet unbeatable. You can’t coach that.

—Steve Tignor


Rafael Nadal: Thank God for Novak Djokovic. Were it not for his ability to make Rafael Nadal uncomfortable we might be tempted to run Rafa clear out of the game, or perhaps even accuse him of practicing sorcery and burn him at the stake. His entire career seemed to be in jeopardy as recently as February, and yet—poof!—here he stands 10 months later, No. 1 in the world again.

A year ago, Nadal was still tending to his chronically aching knees. Perhaps he was wondering if he should take the civil service exam, or enroll in Mallorca’s police academy if his 2013 comeback didn’t work out. He need not have worried. He spotted his rivals a month’s head start and ended up completing one of the best years in tennis history. Nadal won two of the three Grand Slam events he played (defeating Djokovic in both tournaments) as well as an additional, mind-boggling, eight titles; overall he won 75 out of 82 matches.

I guess that comeback worked out okay, eh Rafa?

Nadal was so dominant that it’s not worth the bother ticking off the highs because there was just one significant low—his first-round loss to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon (one of our Upsets of the Year). That outlier was partly made possible by Nadal’s decision to rest those troublesome knees instead of playing in a warm-up grass-court tournament, which would have helped the quick transition from slow red clay to slick turf. Nadal’s only other notable failure was at the first event he played after the seven-plus month hiatus that began in July 2012. He lost the final at Vina del Mar to ATP No. 73 Horacio Zeballos—then won 19 matches in a row before bowing to Djokovic in the final at Monte Carlo.

So let’s look at some of the numbers Nadal put up this year and put them in a big picture context. Nadal’s winning percentage for 2013, 91.4%, is less than a single percentage point lower than the winning percentage Djokovic posted in his storied dream year of 2011 (70-6, 92.1%). They won the same number of tournaments (10) in the years being compared. Djokovic won three of the four majors in 2011, while Nadal won “just” two this year—but he didn’t even play in the first major of the year.

Nadal also boosted his chance to surpass Roger Federer, his original rival, in the all-time Grand Slam singles champion sweeps. With the two majors Nadal bagged this year he increased his total to 13 titles, and at age 27 trails Federer by just four majors. Given that he’s the “King of Clay” and has lost just one match at Roland Garros, can anyone doubt that he’s on track to shatter Federer’s mark?

In this remarkable year, Nadal was 4-0 against Federer—improving his career head-to-head lead to 22-10. Against Djokovic, his second and perhaps more dangerous rival when it comes to the match-ups, Nadal was 3-3 on the year. But two of those wins were in the Slams Nadal won, and he remains in the lead in their rivalry, 22-17.

With Federer fading, and Andy Murray still unable to claim equal status, the main obstacle in Nadal’s way is Djokovic. It’s a good thing, too, because Nadal’s assault on tennis history ought to happen under appropriately exciting circumstances.

—Peter Bodo

Further reading:

"Closing Act": Steve Tignor on Serena's most complete season.
"Rafa Explains it All": Peter Bodo on Nadal's rivalry with Djokovic.

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