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Hi Joel,

Was that the calmest Davis Cup-winning celebration you’ve ever seen? Daniil Medvedev clinched Russia’s first Cup title since 2006…and then just walked up to the net and shook hands with the man he had beaten, Marin Cilic of Croatia. Medvedev couldn’t even muster a US Open-style dead-fish fall to the court.

That doesn’t take away from Medvedev or Russia’s accomplishment, of course. With two Top 10 singles players—Medvedev and Andrey Rublev—the Russians were the favorites. They showed up, they wanted it, and they came through. Cilic played some excellent tennis in the opening set, good enough to beat most players; but Medvedev just raised his level higher, which is what the top guys always seem able to do in this team competition. We’ve seen other players, like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, use Davis Cup titles as springboards to bigger things individually; perhaps Medvedev and Rublev are destined for similar leaps upward in 2022.

But that celebration made sense in a way, because Sunday’s final was something of an anti-climax. Such an historically important event should really take more than two matches, four sets, and a few hours to decide, don’t you think? In this case, Croatia didn’t even have a chance to use its biggest weapon, its world No. 1 doubles team of Pavic and Mektic.

Once again, I’m left with mixed feelings about a Davis Cup format. There were some great moments this year, that can only happen in this event—Feliciano Lopez bringing the Madrid crowd to its feet; players like Mikhail Kukushkin, Elias Ymer, and Borna Gojo playing far better than their rankings would lead you to believe was possible; Mektic and Pavic showing what a full-time doubles team can do, in winning the clinching point against Serbia.

But those moments, as usual, just make me wish Davis Cup could be better showcased. How do retain its traditional home-and-away energy, while also fitting it into the already-crowded ATP schedule? It sounds as if we’ll see a new format again next year. I like the idea of splitting the ties up between different cities, but I don’t know whether holding the final in Abu Dhabi, far from most teams’ fans, will be a satisfactory answer. We know the Kosmos group, which took over DC in 2019, promised billions in earnings; maybe Abu Dhabi is the only way to make good on that.

This Davis Cup was a bit of a microcosm of the men’s 2021 season: Djokovic was the big attraction for most of it, but the young guys—in this case Medvedev and Rublev—finished strong. It was an interestingly bifurcated year: On the one hand, Djokovic won his first 27 matches at the majors, something that hadn’t happened since Steffi Graf won all 28 in 1988. On the other hand, Medvedev and Alexander Zverev managed to break Djokovic’s stranglehold in the second half of the year, beating him at the Olympics, the US Open, and the ATP Finals. Right now it feels as if 2021 could be a transitional season, when the balance of power passes from one generation to the next. But I’ve said that a few times before in the Big Three era, and I haven’t been right yet.

What did you think of Davis Cup, Joel, and what do you think the most important aspects of the 2021 men’s season were?

Rublev didn't hold back in celebrating to the fullest.

Rublev didn't hold back in celebrating to the fullest.

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Steve,

Davis Cup: a perfect storm—and alas, not in a good way.

Format reform has been on the table for years. The big picture idea called for staging something akin to what the ITF at last announced in early 2018: a concentration of the competition in one place and one time, akin to soccer’s World Cup.

But talk about unintended and unforeseen consequences. No one in 2018 could have dared imagine a global pandemic. And as minor as any sports event seems in comparison to all the COVID-related suffering that continues, the truth is that the pandemic has had exceptionally negative implications for Davis Cup.

After the inevitable rough start for the new format in 2019, the hope was that 2020 would mark a significant upgrade. Instead, and for good reason, Davis Cup was cancelled. Davis Cup returned in ’21, but in the wake of a long, stressful and altered tennis calendar (California events in the autumn), generating traction even among tennis aficionados was not easy. One leg of this year’s Davis Cup was played without fans. That’s a tough go during tournaments, but even stranger to have cheering thousands absent during what’s long been a lively team competition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. For now—and perhaps only for now—Laver Cup has stolen some of Davis Cup’s thunder. And then there’s next month’s ATP Cup. One day, and this day will likely never come, I would like to talk face-to-face with the leaders of all three of these events and ask them: What’s the thinking for creating so much clutter?

As far as other story lines go, consider 2021 the first full year of the COVID Era. I hand it to all the players, officials and tournament staff members who were able to participate in and put on so many events amid various protocols, testing, bubbles, and more. All of this has added both gratitude, stress and even dread to the traveling tennis circuit. And that doesn’t even begin to account for the whole matter of China. The WTA has taken its stand. As time goes on, what will the ATP do?

But first, let’s look back at some of the highlights of the 2021 men’s tennis year. The Djokovic-Nadal semifinal at Roland Garros was arguably the most pivotal match of the year—a wonderful case of significance and high-quality tennis coming together. The first three sets of that match were my favorite tennis viewing moment of ’21.

Beyond that, there was an interest split between old and new, played out vividly at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Old: seeing both Nadal and Federer exit from their favorite Slams. New: lively shot-makers, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini, reaching their first Slam finals and posing excellent challenges to Djokovic.

Then there were even younger prospects hitting the radar at the US Open—the savvy Jenson Brooksby and the high-energy Carlos Alcaraz. Seeing these youngsters play so well reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with our Tennis Channel colleague, Jim Courier. I was opining that the game had gotten so physical that it was going to be hard for very young players to make an impression. Jim differed, arguing that if greatness is meant to burst through, it will.

So overall, amid all the stress of our current world, there was lots to appreciate this year. We just need to emotionally budget for all of this great tennis taking far more energy—and understand that all the challenges of pandemic might make it harder even for the very best to be as consistent as we’ve come to expect.

Steve, what players did you particularly enjoy watching in ’21? Which matches did you find compelling?

Djokovic went 55-7 in 2021, with nearly half his wins coming on the major stage (27-1).

Djokovic went 55-7 in 2021, with nearly half his wins coming on the major stage (27-1).

Joel,

Djokovic, of course, was a wonder to watch all year. At 34, he hadn’t lost a step; in fact, he was still breaking new ground. He defended his own turf at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and invaded Nadal’s turf for just the second time at Roland Garros. He reached what might be his career peak in his back-to-back 4 hour and 11 minute wins over Rafa and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Paris.

Eventually, Djokovic proved human in his defeats to Zverev at the Olympics and Medvedev at the US Open. In that sense, it was a season in which he fended off the younger generation for as long as he could, by beating Tsitsipas and Berrettini in the French and Wimbledon finals, but finally succumbed to the future in Tokyo and New York. Still, I was impressed that Djokovic came back to the tour in the fall, and used a new tactic—serve and volley—to turn the tables back around and beat Medvedev at Bercy.

I’d say Djokovic will go into 2022 on even terms with the German and the Russian on hard courts, and on even terms on clay with Nadal and Tsitsipas. Which is amazing for a guy who will turn 35, and which should make for an interesting season as he goes for Grand Slam No. 21. Djokovic seems to understand that his usual impenetrable baseline game isn’t going to work for him forever against these guys; it should be fascinating to see how he deals with that.

On the end of the age spectrum, Carlos Alcaraz was the young gun I enjoyed watching most. The speed, the clean technique, the margin that’s built into his shots, the predatory grace to his movement, the careful coaching from Juan Carlos Ferrero, the maturity at 18: He seems like a guy who will be winning majors sooner rather than later.

If I had been there for your conversation with Courier about the sport being too physical for teen prodigies to break through, I might have sided with you. But we can see that Jim had a point: blazing talent—Alcaraz-like talent, Jannik Sinner-like talent—can still make a dent. It also helped their cause that Federer and Nadal weren’t what they used to be in 2021.

Finally, I was heartened by the number of U.S. male players who had success in 2022: Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe, Seb Korda, Jenson Brooksby, Taylor Fritz, and finally Tommy Paul winning his first title. Even the naysayers about U.S. tennis, and they’re legion, can’t ignore the number of Top 50 players, and potential Top 20 contenders, the country is producing. The next step, obviously, is to see some of them get into the Top 20, or the Top 10, and stay there. But right now there’s no shortage of male players for U.S. fans to choose from and watch on a regular basis. That hasn’t been true for most of the last decade.

Joel, what do you think of the U.S. men’s game heading into 2022? Does Opelka have a point when he says that fans should appreciate the number of players we have right now? Or is anything short of a new Slam champ a disappointment?

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Among the ATP's Newcomer of the Year nominees include Americans Brooksby and Nakashima.

Among the ATP's Newcomer of the Year nominees include Americans Brooksby and Nakashima.

Steve,

I really like the many ways the current group of Americans play—and that includes Opelka, who has clearly shown that he’s not merely the so-called “Servebot” he often jokes about, but a player with emerging skills in the transition area and fine weapons from the baseline too.

Check out this array. Tiafoe is tactically versatile and plays with a passion that can make the crowd come alive. I like how Paul has improved dramatically through his work with one of my longstanding favorite coaches, Brad Stine, and become far more judicious in his shot selection. Fritz took several find steps forward to create a workable blend of power and movement. Brooksby has a tactical approach that combines Mats Wilander, Brad Gilbert and Miloslav Mecir. Korda strikes me as having a Sampras-like arsenal—the whole package. I also like the grit, tenacity of intelligence shown by the resurgent Mackenzie McDonald (disclosure: I played him when he was 11 years old). It will be fun to watch each of these men compete and hopefully spur one another on to improvement. As a start, I’d love to see Brooksby versus Korda.

When it comes to assessing their results, while I could give a two-hour speech on all the reasons why an American man hasn’t won a singles major in nearly 20 years, I personally don’t get too invested in matters of national pride and tennis results. Should the flag alongside a player’s name really be the determining factor in shaping my affinity for him or her? I sure hope not—and I hate it when American fans speak so provincially.

Heck, for a long time I think the most popular tennis player in America has been that guy Roger from Switzerland. In the boom years that formed the basis of contemporary tennis, we had a very popular but subdued Swede in Bjorn Borg, a controversial Romanian in Ilie Nastase, and many enduring Australians such as John Newcombe, Rod Laver, and Ken Rosewall. Granted, there also were plenty of American contenders like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the mix too. But that’s been increasingly less the case for decades now, and it really hasn’t diminished my appreciation of the game.

As history has shown, great players are also very much formed by the world—be it exposure to coaches and ideas from other countries, competing at ITF events versus players from various nations, attending junior academies and practicing alongside others. My belief is that if anything should transcend borders, it’s a sport played by individuals. So I’m not going to sweat how it goes for the Americans.

Steve, you mentioned how Djokovic served-and-volleyed more to beat Medvedev in the Paris final. I’m curious to see how that and other tactics play out in ’22. As the era of the Big Three nears its end, as a wide range of Americans pursue more success, perhaps we’re on the verge of a stylistic paradigm shift – not necessarily Edberg-like net-rushing, but perhaps a new version of all-court tennis.