How can you tell if it’s been a good year in tennis? It’s an interesting question. Is it a year that produced sensational stories? A year that coughed up a large number of surprises? Or perhaps it’s one in which history was made, or we witnessed a major change? A great year has all of those qualities, a good one most of them.
By that standard, 2013 was a good year indeed. The only thing it really lacked was a sensational story. I can’t put the return of Rafael Nadal into that category simply because calling his success this year “sensational” implies that it strains credulity, or catches us completely unaware. But did anyone really doubt that Nadal was perfectly capable of achieving what he did in 2013? I certainly didn’t.
So let’s mull over some of the things we witnessed or learned in 2013, restricting our selections to 13. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below. These are in no particular order:
1. One of the most remarkable aspects of 2013 was the extent to which older players continued to perform well. Really, everything from Open-era history to the ever-escalating emphasis on raw power in tennis has suggested that the game will increasingly be dominated by young men and women. Yet here we had players over the age of 30, led by Serena Williams, doing better than ever before. The ageless wonders included Roger Federer, David Ferrer, the two Tommies—Haas and Robredo—Li Na, Roberta Vinci, and a number of other main draw staples. Isn’t it great when reality makes theory look foolish?
2. The big winner when the calendar adds an extra week between the end of Roland Garros and the start of Wimbledon in 2015 will be Rafa. The ATP No. 1 was upset in the first round at Wimbledon this year, and it was partly because he was under doctor’s orders to rest his knees instead of playing in the customary grass-court tune-up event. Lack of match play on grass certainly seems to have been a factor in Nadal’s loss to Steve Darcis.
3. Serena has a shot at becoming the most prolific Grand Slam champion of the Open era. Thanks to two major wins in 2013, Williams has positioned herself to vault right over Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (tied for second with 18 majors apiece), leaving only Steffi Graf to catch. Graf, the all-time Open-era leader with 22 Slams, may be out of reach—or is she?
4. For once, the fall was not the “lost season” for the ATP. Between Nadal’s drive for the No. 1 ranking, Federer’s resurgence, and Novak Djokovic’s 11th hour attempt to stop Nadal, this was one of the best fall seasons on record. It wasn’t quite as compelling on the WTA side of the game, but we’ll take what we can get. And the men produced their memorable fall despite the absence of Andy Murray, the reliable autumnal warrior who called it a season shortly after the U.S. Open in order to have back surgery.
5. The women are offering the best of both worlds: A dominant champ (Serena) as well as a great variety of legitimate contenders at every major. Over the past few years, the women have produced a fleet of ultra-competent and diverse players who have consistently moved up the bar. Let’s hope the trend continues.
6. Federer has to worry less about winning big titles than he does about failing to make the second week at majors. That may sound harsh, but Roger’s real challenge, especially early in 2014, will be getting past the host of solid players he’ll meet and need to beat consistently to go deep at Slams.
7. Victoria Azarenka needs to work a little harder on her overall consistency. Right now, the world No. 2 exists in a twilight zone. She’s certainly a class better than other Grand Slam champs, like No. 6 Petra Kvitova, No. 18 (yikes!) Sam Stosur, and even No. 3 Li—but she’s nowhere near as reliable as Serena, or even a healthy Maria Sharapova.
8. Nadal may have turned to corner in his drive to surpass Federer as the all-time singles Grand Slam champion. Just 27, Nadal has 13 majors—four fewer than Federer. He could win four more just at the French Open, but I think his underrated skill on grass is the clincher.
9. The one shortcoming shared by the Little Five (the Top-10 ATP pros after the Big Four and Juan Martin del Potro) is a tendency to fall short when the stakes are high. It’s there in Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, all of whom have been Grand Slam finalists but rarely win even Masters Series events.
10. The American women have positioned themselves to make strong moves in 2014—but it’s not certain that they’ll do it. None of the aspiring WTA pros from the U.S. has ever really been a “can’t miss” prospect, a fact that’s often glossed over in our rush to anoint the heir to Serena and Venus Williams.
11. If Stanislas Wawrinka can continue to make progress, he’s got a great shot at cracking the Top 5. “Manislaus” has a lot more game than anyone outside the Big Four, but does he have as much mind and heart?
12. Fabio Fognini is for real. That’s terrific, because the emotional Italian is an eyeball magnet, and not just because of his good looks. It’s his deceptively casual game and the hilarious sense of entitlement that he projects. It’s like he’s doing all of us a great big favor just playing the sport. If he puts up the results, I can see him becoming one of those guys at whom people throw seat cushions.
13. Djokovic needs a challenge; simply protecting his status as the No. 1 player doesn’t appear to give him adequate motivation to play his best. Well, he’ll have all the challenge he wants going forward into 2014, which ought to make the next one an interesting year.