Players in 2020 faced a lot more than their usual challenges of fast serves, tough opponents and partisan crowds. The pandemic stopped everything in its tracks in March, pushing the tours to their breaking points.
But even with all that has happened, 32 tournaments took place pre-pandemic, countless exhibitions played on during the six-month shutdown and 30 tournaments returned in the "new normal." And of those players, tested like never before, Sofia Kenin and Dominic Thiem managed to start and end the season in big ways, and emerge from the destruction that was 2020 as first-time Grand Slam champions.
Kenin tore through the Australian Open draw—though admitting to bursting into tears of nerves before every match—and emerged victorious. After she ousted world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals, Kenin dispatched two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza in her first major final. Though emotional and tense at many turns, Kenin was able to stay true to her game all the way to the finish line.
Her ability to fall back on her reliable strokes and intense footwork was thanks to a long-instilled workhorse mentality, and it's something everyone can learn from this year. Instead of taking any time off, the 22-year-old played hard during the shutdown, signing up for the Charleston team event and a full season of World TeamTennis in West Virginia.
At No. 4 in the world, Kenin was the highest-ranked player in WTT, but you wouldn't have known from the way she carried herself. She put in extra hours of practice, played in every match that was asked of her (15 total), and competed with the same intensity fans saw from her in Melbourne Park. She wanted to win for the Philadelphia Freedoms as badly as she wanted to win for herself.
Instead of overthinking the shutdown and stressing over what she couldn't control, Kenin chose to maximize her down time and emerged raring to go in August. She'd go on to reach the fourth round at the US Open and then battle her way to the Roland Garros final, cementing her place as the WTA Player of the Year.
Her champion's mentality didn't waver, even without any tour-level matches to play. While the pandemic presented everyone with unique challenges, finding the motivation to keep working hard towards a goal, even when that goal isn't crystal clear, is universal.
Her male champion counterpart is fellow workhorse Dominic Thiem.
Arguably no player could have been more frustrated by a shutdown than the Austrian. He had reached the Australian Open final and jumped past Roger Federer for the world No. 3 ranking. It's no secret that the 26-year-old thrives on match play; long before the shutdown, there were few draws Thiem's name wouldn't appear in. If he could have played in two different continents at the same time, he would have found a way to.
Even without a tour schedule, though, Thiem still found ways to compete—and win. He won trophies at the Adria Tour, Bett 2020 and Bett1ACES events, and lost just one match out of 10 at the Austrian Pro Series. So eager for action, he reached the final of his own Thiem's Seven tournament. By the time the tour's resumed, Thiem had racked up 22 exhibition matches, winning 20 of them.
There was also nothing that could keep him from training, and for his hard work, he was rewarded with the ultimate prize in September: his first Grand Slam title, at the US Open. Thiem stayed focused on the ultimate task at hand, even when that vision faded for six long months. He would end his year on a high note by reaching the championship match of the ATP Finals in London.
If there's any good takeaway from 2020, it's that keeping your head down and working hard can still warrant good results. Only time will tell what Thiem and Kenin will be able to do with a full tournament schedule. Here's hoping they get to test out their strengthened champion's mettle and chase their second Slams in 2021.
Television Schedule (all matches begin at 7 p.m. ET)
For commentary on each of these matches, read Steve Tignor's Top 10 countdown.
Roger Federer vs. Tennys Sandgren, Australian Open quarterfinal
Garbine Muguruza vs. Victoria Azarenka, Rome quarterfinals
Dominic Thiem vs. Novak Djokovic, ATP Finals semifinal
Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams, Lexington round of 16
Borna Coric vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas, US Open third round
Nick Kyrgios vs. Karen Khachanov, Australian Open third round
Victoria Azarenka vs. Serena Williams, US Open semifinal
Novak Djokovic vs. Dominic Thiem, Australian Open final
Dominic Thiem vs. Alexander Zverev, US Open final
Naomi Osaka vs. Jennifer Brady, US Open semifinal