A Unique 2021 Perspective…

By Mark Winters

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The tennis year was a mishmash of highs, lows and a good deal of pandemic rules, quarantining and testing in between. Some topics were covered to the point where multiple new ball changes were justifiably neglected. Other story lines were passed over so quickly that Hawk-Eye Live missed them.

“A Unique 2021 Perspective” is not intended to increase topic fatigue. It merely offers a diverse examination of what took place…

Deserved Recognition…

It is almost a Grand Slam tournament tradition. Players, who are either lesser known or actually not known at all, post impressive singles results. In 1977, Australia’s own Bob Giltinan became the first qualifier to reach the Australian Open semifinals. Forty-four years later Russian Aslan Karatsev became the second player to accomplish the impressive fete.

The 27-year-old journeyman had an unfathomable run in Melbourne. (It almost matched the size of his formidable calves.) A professional for 10 years, he had contested merely 18 ATP Tour matches and recorded three victories. In his Grand Slam tournament debut, he matched Patrick McEnroe, the less-famous family member who reached the semifinals in 1991. Both Karatsev and McEnroe happened to be ranked No. 114 when the championships began. Tournament winner Novak Djokovic ended the Russian’s surreal eight-match winning adventure dismissing him 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

His tournament performance was inspiring since he went on to his first ATP Tour title at Dubai and followed up with a victory at Moscow. He finished the season ranked No. 18 and was the ATP’s Most Improved Player of the Year.

Aslan Karatsev at the Australian Open. Photo: Australian Open

For 48 years (1968 until 2016) the Roland Garros Women’s Singles results “forme assez suivie” (pretty much followed form). Since 2017, three of the trophy winners were unseeded. In 2021, Barbora Krejčíková added her name to this exclusive group.

Hana Mandlíková was the last woman from  Czechoslovakia to win the Paris title. In 1981, she defeated Sylvia Hanika of Germany, 6-2, 6-4. Krejčíková was born December 18, 1995, in Brno, (now in the Czech Republic), years after the Mandlíková victory. She was only four the last time the same women won both Roland Garros singles and doubles. Mary Pierce, (who is Canadian, French, and American), pulled off the challenging double in 2000 taking the singles and partnering with Martina Hingis of Switzerland for her doubles win.

Krejčíková secured her place in the record books defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the singles trophy round on Saturday. The next day, she teamed with countrywoman Kateřina Siniaková, who is from Hradec Králové, to romp past Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Świątek, the entertaining US-Polish tandem, 6-4, 6-2, in the doubles final.

Krejčíková and Siniaková are long-time friends and doubles partners. In 2013, they captured all the Junior Girls’ Slam titles except Australia. On the adult level, they earned a Roland Garros and Wimbledon doubles title in 2018 to go with this year’s triumph. But Krejčíková is even more versatile. Between 2019 and ’21 she has owned the Australian Open Mixed Doubles championship, partnering with Rajeev Ram of the US initially then, with Croatian Nikola Mektic in ’20 and with Ram again this year in the trophy rounds.

International Tennis Hall of Famer Jana Novotná was also born in Brno. Prior to her death in 2017, the 1998 Wimbledon champion was Krejčíková coach and mentor. After defeating Pavlyuchenkova, the new Paris winner said, “She (Novotná) is watching over me”

(Krejčíková was the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year and with Siniaková formed the WTA Doubles Team of the Year.)

Barbora Krejčíková poses with her Roland Garros Singles and Doubles Championship trophies. Photo: Roland Garros

The Championships, after COVID 19 brought about a respite of more than 700 days, returned after the pandemic sabbatical. Each of the majors has its own special niche within the game, but the fortnight in SW19, the suburb in London where the tournament takes place, enjoys revered status.

Nothing was more Championships-like than Ashleigh Barty’s 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 Ladies’ final victory over Karolina Pliskova. The No. 1 versus the No. 8 seed, an Australia-Czech Republic contest, was exacting and better yet, exciting. Further, it was the first time in 44 years in which neither player had previously been in the tournament final.

For the winner it was doubly meaningful. Ten years earlier, as a 15-year-old, Barty edged Irina Khromacheva of Russia, 7-5, 7-6 in the Girls’ Final. Even more significant, her latest victory marked 50 years since Evonne Goolagong downed countrywoman Margaret Court, 6-4, 6-1 for Ladies’ honors. (Goolagong, who married Roger Cawley in 1975, was victorious again in 1980 but that time as Goolagong–Cawley.) Like Barty, she is an Indigenous Australian, and has served as an inspiration for this year’s Ladies’ champion throughout her career. (Prior to the tournament Barty worked with Fila, who is one of her sponsors, to design outfits that paid homage to the clothing that Goolagong wore when she was the champion.)

Words simply don’t convey Barty’s unassuming “quiet presence…” In 2014, burdened by career expectations, she decided to stop playing tennis and became a cricket professional. After a 17-month recess she returned to the tour in 2016 and won her first title, the Malaysian Open, in March of the following year.

At Roland Garros, seeded No. 1, she was forced to withdraw in the second round. Having injured her left hip in her first match, the pain kicked in early in her match with Magda Linette of Poland. Trying to play through the discomfort, she dropped the first set to, 6-1 then at 2-2 in the second set she decided not to risk further injury and retired. Unbeknownst to her, members of the Barty team later learned about the severity of the injury…and kept it from her. Supposedly full recovery would take around a month. Fortunately, it didn’t, and she became the 2021 Ladies’ Champion in London. She finished the year ranked No. 1 and justifiably was named the WTA Player of the Year.

Ash Barty takes in her win at The Championships. Photo: Rob Prange

It was fitting after a tennis year littered with so many distractions that the US Open Women’s Singles final was startling and wondrous; untainted even by being in New York. It wasn’t about glitz and glamour…It was about two tennis ingenues.

In an improbable final Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez took the Arthur Ashe Stadium stage on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. A performer from Great Britain, whose father is Romanian and mother is Chinese, but was born in Toronto in 2002 (and still holds a passport from the country), against a Montreal native with an Ecuadorian father and a Canadian Filipina mother, who calls Boynton Beach, Florida home. It was a fairytale match with the No. 150th ranked player taking on the No. 73rd.

It was the first “Teen Final” since 17-year-old Serena Williams defeated Martina Hingis, who was 18, 6-3, 7-6 for the 1999 US Open Women’s title. Raducanu, a qualifier, was looking to become the first British women’s champion since Virginia Wade scored a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Billie Jean King, in the first “Open Era” Open in 1968 (and Raducanu was the youngest woman from Great Britain to reach a slam final since Christine Truman, who was 18, at Roland Garros in 1959). Fernandez wanted to match countrywomen Bianca Andreescu’s 2019 6-3, 7-5 stunner over Williams.

There was much more to the matchup than a righthander against a lefthander. Raducanu has flowing strokes that feature relaxed, punishing power. She makes hitting a tennis ball look easy and her feel for shots is almost otherworldly. What’s more at 5’9” she covers the court effortlessly – no doubt because of her ballet and multi-sport involvement as a youngster. Astonishingly going into the final she had not lost a set in either the qualifying or the main draw. What’s more she had only been on court a bit over seven hours.

Leylah Fernandez in her semifinal at the US Open. Photo: Jo Becktold

Fernandez is a modern day lefthander. She doesn’t gently cup or roll strokes. Her approach is like she is…feisty, attacking, and blatant in an opponent’s face aggression. She has touch but she prefers to punish shots, particularly with her hands spread two-handed backhand. Occasionally she hit strokes from an improbable knee-on-the-ground position. Her pluck was visible in three set wins over Naomi Osaka, the No. 3 seed and defending champion, in the third round, Angelica Kerber of Germany, the No. 16 seed, in her next match, No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in the quarterfinals and Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed from Belarus, in the semifinals.

She harassed and frustrated the “names” until they finally lost their cool and  folded. Bolstered by a raucous, fervent crowd, she thrived because, of course, New York loves an underdog. Without the backing she could have lost any of the three setters she played. But Fernandez, who was on court almost 13 hours during her six matches prior to the final, (and here’s a new cliché) “out-headed” her opponents.

Raducanu’s interview responses throughout the tournament were thoroughly engaging. She was “little sister” joyous explaining how she had to change her reservation home, on a daily basis, as she kept winning. She was “wrap a smile around it” delightful explaining how she dashed around the locker room three minutes before her first qualifying match searching for her AirPods then realizing if she won, she could afford to buy a new set.

In New York, she proved that her future is very bright after becoming the first qualifier to ever win a Slam singles title and the first to become the champion without losing a set since Serena Williams did that in 2014. At the same time, she became the youngest major champion since Maria Sharapova won The Championships title in 2004 at 17 and the youngest Brit to ever secure a big four title.

Her 6-4, 6-3 victory launched “Radumania”… “A remarkable achievement at such a young age” acknowledged Queen Elizabeth II. Prime Minister “Brexit” Boris Johnson Tweeted,  “What a sensational match! Huge congratulations to Emma Raducanu. You showed extraordinary skill, poise and guts and we are all hugely proud of you.” (And to top that, she appears in the October issue of British Vogue.)

Emma Raducanu in her shoot for Vogue Magazine. Photo: Scott Trindle

Belinda Bencic, the Swiss player who was the Olympic Gold Medalist and No. 11 seed in New York, lost a 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal contest to Raducanu. Following the defeat, she wisely said of her opponent and Fernandez, “It’s great story…I really hope that everyone will protect them…not put so much pressure on them…so they can just develop in peace…”

From Raducanu’s perspective the US Open, “was an absolute dream”. Fernandez believed “…it’s magical”.

On September 11, 2004, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in an All-Russian final, defeated Elena Dementieva, 6-3, 7-5, to become the became the first Russian woman to win the US Open singles title. The players’ social awareness made the match even more storied. Kuznetsova walked onto Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing an FDNY (Fire Department of New York) baseball cap. Dementieva wore an NYPD (New York Police Department) cap. In their trophy-presentation speeches, on the third anniversary of 9/11, both spoke with fervor about the heroes and victims of the disaster, (they also commented about the horrific Russian school massacre that had taken place in Beslan, 11 days earlier).

Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva. Photo: US Open

During the trophy presentation, Fernandez added to the tournament’s 9/11 lore by offering, “I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the last 20 years. Thank you for always having my back. Thank you for cheering for me.”

Also Attention Worthy…

Not to be overlooked, Petra Marcinko did her part to make the Croatian tennis year memorable. The 16-year old became the first junior from her country to finish No. 1 in the Girls’ ranking and be named the ITF World Champion.

The fallout from the Chinese effort to “disappear…” Peng Shuai will not be fully calculated for some time. Unfortunately, one of the possible results could be limiting the attention Shang Juncheng receives. The 16-year-old, also known as Jerry Shang, is the first player from his country to be No. 1 in the final ranking and become the Boys’ ITF World Champion.

Throughout 2021, Shingo Kunieda, Diede de Groot and Dylan Alcott were constantly praised…and for good reason. Kunieda won his 25th Grand Slam Men’s Wheelchair Singles title at the US Open, and before that the Olympic Gold Medal at home in Tokyo. He finished the season as the ITF World Champion for the ninth time.

The Dutch star De Groot was even better. She achieved a “Golden Slam” claiming all the Women’s Wheelchair Singles major championships as well as the Olympic Gold Medal. (In 1988, German legend Stephanie Graf recorded the first “Golden Slam” in tennis history.) For the third consecutive year, De Groot was named the ITF World Champion.

Alcott matched de Groot then matched her again…realizing a “Quad Wheelchair Golden Slam”, as well as being named the ITF Quad World Champion for the third year in a row. From a spectator point of view, a highlight of the Australian’s spectacular season was “The Alcott Tradition”…After each triumph, he joyfully consumed a beer from his trophy cup. He plans to retire following the 2022 Australian Open…so “Here’s to you Dylan…enjoy that final ‘brewski’”.

Doubles…But Mixed Stood Alone…

Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic are going to find it next to impossible to better their inaugural year partnership. The Croatian duo “only” tallied nine tour-level titles together. They won 56 of 61 matches to start the season, including Miami, Monte-Carlo and Rome Masters 1000. At The Championships, they became the first all-Croatian team to claim a major, the Gentlemen’s Doubles trophy. They continued their historic success with a Gold Medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Clearly, they deserved to be named the ATP Doubles Team of the Year. In addition, Pavic, after partnering  Oliver Marach of Austria in 2018 and Bruno Soares of Brazil a year ago, again finished No. 1 in the doubles ranking.

As they were in 2018, Barbora Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková, the Czech tandem, was the WTA Doubles Team of the Year. They were feted for winning Roland Garros and the AKRON WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico, along with Gippsland Trophy and Mutua Madrid Open. Individually, Siniaková finish the season ranked No. 1.

Desirae Krawczyk and Joe Salisbury with the US Open Mixed Doubles trophy. Photo: Susan Mullane

Desirae Krawczyk, who resides in Palm Desert, California (which is near Indian Wells, the home of the BNP Paribas Open), established ownership of Mixed Doubles at the majors in 2021. She teamed with Joe Salisbury of Great Britain for the Roland Garros and the US Open trophies. At The Championships, Salisbury decided to be a “True Brit” and teamed with countrywoman Harriet Dart…which proved to be a mistake. The “All-Brit” duo lost in the final to…none other than Krawczyk, another Great Britain resident, Neil Skupski, for the trophy. With three-in-a-year Mixed Slam wins, Krawczyk joined an exclusive group, including Martina Hingis, who tripled in 2015 and Martina Navratilova who did it in 1985. (At the Australian Open, Samantha Stosur and Matthew Ebden, playing at home, defeated Krawczyk and Salisbury in a three-set semifinal.)

By The Way…

Sebastien Korda, a Florida resident, made his debut in the 2021 Gentlemen’s Singles draw.  In the second and third rounds, he captured four set contests. In back-to-back matches, he defeated No. 15 seed Alex De Minaur of Australia then Britain’s top player Daniel Evans, the No. 22 seed. On his 21st birthday, July 5th, Korda was dogged but Karen Khachanov, the No. 25 seeded Russian, stayed the course and survived 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 10-8.

“Ever since I decided to play tennis, I always dreamed about having my birthday here at Wimbledon,” Korda said. “I had my first birthday here and I knew if I would have my birthday here again, I’d have a really good week.”

He added, “…first time playing at Wimbledon and made the second week here, which was incredible. Today I played my first-ever five set-match. Hopefully I can learn from the mistakes that I made today…”

Jenson Brooksby earned accolades from his fellow players who named him ATP 2021 Newcomer of the Year. Prior to this season he was ranked outside the Top 300 and had a grand total of “one” tour singles victory. At Newport, he reached his first tour singles final and at 20, the Sacramento, California native became the youngest US man to earn a place in the fourth round of the US Open since Andy Roddick in 2002. Though he was defeated 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 by Novak Djokovic, he fully displayed his fascinating toolbox of strokes against the Serbian. He finished the campaign at a career-high No. 56.

Anett Kontaveit became a sprinter racing to season’s conclusion. Ranked No. 31 prior to Roland Garros, the Estonian was one of the last AKRON WTA Finals Guadalajara qualifiers. Overall she earned four singles titles and closed the year ranked No. 7.

Anett Kontaveit defeated Maria Sakkari in their semifinal at the AKRON WTA Finals Guadalajara. Photo: Rob Prange

It is no surprise that Raducanu was selected as the WTA Newcomer of the Year. Perhaps it was because, after playing sparingly during an 18 month academic sabbatical, she received an A in maths and A+ in economics in her A-level results last spring. (In an interview, during the US Open, she mentioned that visiting Wall Street was on her New York bucket list because of her interest in having a backup plan in case she didn’t make it as a tennis player.)

Having been granted a wild card in the Ladies’ draw at The Championships, she played her way to the fourth round. Facing Ajla Tomlijanovic of Australia, she lost the first set 6-4 then trailing 0-3 in the second, she began having trouble breathing and felt dizzy (she had a panic attack) and was forced to retire. Still, she was the youngest woman from Great Britain to reach the last 16 while making her debut. Her US Open performance verified her elite status having begun the year at No. 343 and finishing at No. 19.

In recent times, being a British player was not enviable. Forever or so it seems, “Our Tim” was men’s tennis in the country. Then “Dandy Andy” (my moniker), became the new “Our Tim” then had to deal with bouts of surgical hip repair. Daniel Evans slipped into Murray’s Top Brit position while the three-time slam winner was going through on again, off again recovery stints. All the while, Cameron Norrie, the South African born, New Zealand raised, has been Britain’s “Nowhere Man” (not the Beatles 1965 hit). He moved to London in 2011 and from there became a Fort Worth, Texas resident in order to develop his game. He spent a year at Texas Christian University (TCU in the same city), playing on the men’s tennis team, before turning professional in 2017. The lefthander is a “slogger…”, a battler. He is never rattled because he believes he has what it takes to survive almost any competitive situation. In 2021, his unrelenting determination brought about his first ATP tournament win at the Los Cabos Open in July. His follow up performance, in October, was off the chart. He became the first British player to win the BNP Paribas Open Men’s Singles. Having begun the year ranked No. 74, the former “Nowhere Man” finished 2021 as the best of the men in Great Britain and No. 12 in the final rankings.

Carlos Alcaraz isn’t the next Nadal…He is the next Carlos Alcaraz. He began 2021 stationed at No. 141 in the rankings. In July, he became the Croatia Open Umag champion, but at the US Open Alcaraz followed his third round upset of Stefanos Tsitsipas, of Greece, by winning another exhausting contest this time against qualifier Peter Gojowczyk of Germany 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. The victory made the 18-year-old from El Palmar, Spain, the youngest man to reach the quarterfinals since 1963. (In those days, the tournament was the US National Championships and Thomaz Koch of Brazil who turned 18 in May 1963 was a quarterfinalist). After winning the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP title, in early November, he achieved a career high ranking No. 32 and with his groundstrokes redefined the term, “Heft of shot”.

Ons Jabeur playing in Birmingham. Photo: WTA

All of the players mentioned above were newsmakers during 2021. None, however, could come anywhere near what Ons Jabeur accomplished. The Tunis, Tunisia resident became the first Arab woman to win a WTA title when she defeated Daria Kasatkina of Russia in the Birmingham Classic final, 7-5, 6-4. While the victory was significant, early in October Jabeur realized a historic achievement – She became the first Arab woman ever to earn a WTA Top 10 ranking (and she finished the year at No. 10).

Injuries Abound…

Prior to the Slams there was regularly more interest in the list of those who would not be able than there was in the participation commitments. Physically tennis is a game of attrition but the cast of all-stars who were in the “Unable to perform…” category was staggering. Some of those who spent more time visiting medical specialists than on the court included David Goffin of Belgium, Simona Halep of Romania, Milos Raonic of Canada, Dominic Thiem of Austria and Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland. Foremost among the missing were Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.

It was painfully ironic that Federer and Williams were both toppled, for the rest of the year, at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Having become oldest man since Aussie great Ken Rosewall in 1977 to reach the quarterfinals, seeded No. 6, he was shocked by Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, the No. 14 seed, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0. During the contest he mis-stepped trying to hit an overhead and his right foot slipped. The tweak aggravated his twice-surgically repaired right knee and he ended up having it operated on again in the fall.

In the fifth game of the first set of her first Ladies’ singles match, Williams was serving and ahead 3-1 against Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus when she slipped while attempting to hit a baseline forehand. Grimacing, she dropped her serve. On the side change, she asked for the trainer then left the court to be treated. After returning, her stride was tentative, but she decided to continue. Sasnovich held to make it 3-3. On the first point in the seventh game, Williams was unable to extend fully on her serve and faulted on her first delivery. She pushed a second serve into play then cracked a backhand winner off Sasnovich’s return. Unable to move, she wobbled a forehand into the net on the next point. With the score 15-15, she was caught in a baseline exchange and attempted to change direction. She slipped and crumpled to her knees, and that was it. The match was 34 minutes old when she retired. It was later determined that she had torn her right hamstring.

Serena Williams, unable to continue at The Championships. Photo: Rob Prange

The way Nadal plays terrorizes his body. During his career he has contended with knee and back complaints, along with chronic pain in his left foot. Following his epic Roland Garros performance against Novak Djokovic, this year’s ATP Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award winner decided it was time to rest his perpetually aching left foot. (Nadal was selected for the fourth year in a row by fellow players in recognition of his fair play, integrity and professionalism on and off the court.)

Year-End Competitions…

The Nitto ATP Year-End Championships move from London to Turin was a location change that well suited Alexander Zverev. The Olympic Gold Medalist defeated Daniil Medvedev, 6-4, 6-4 in the title round. With the decision, the German broke a five-match losing streak against the Russian and established a 2021 ATP tour records with his sixth tournament victory and 59 match wins for the year. (He also was the year-end championship winner in 2018.)

The French partnership Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, won their 20th career title, taking the Turin final, 6-4, 7-6, over Rajeev Ram and Salisbury, the US-Great Britain duo,

That the AKRON WTA Finals Guadalajara was held, at the Panamerican Tennis Center in Zapopan, Mexico, was just short of miraculous. The season-ending competition, originally scheduled to take place in Shenzhen was moved due to pandemic travel restrictions.

As a result WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon and the WTA board made a daring move finding another location for the tournament…and it proved to be an almost unimaginable success.

Garbiñe Muguruza and her coach Conchita Martinez, who was voted WTA Coach of the Year by the tour coaches. Image: WTA

Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain defeated Anett Kontaveit, 6-3, 7-5. Kontaveit was one of the last individuals to earn a spot in the eight player competitive and the first Estonian participate in a year-end final.

Krejčíková and Siniaková dispatched the ever-entertaining Taiwanese-Belgian duo, Hsieh Su-Wei and Elise Mertens, 6-3, 6-4

The ITF and the IOC, in order to sidestep the Olympic doping restrictions brought against Russia, created the anacronym ROC (Russian Olympic Committee) to ensure the participation of the country’s athletes in the Games. The Davis and Billie Jean King Cup competitions were both won by Russian Tennis Federation (another name for the Russians). In Madrid, Spain, the men defeated Croatia 2-0. In Prague, the women defeated Switzerland by the same 2-0 score. Both teams were formidable earning the prestigious trophies. But the successes were tainted by the “just learning to use the Internet” messaging ineptness found on both Cup websites.

Outing Mental Health Concerns…

In Australia, Naomi Osaka’s aura on and off the court was almost ethereal. She defeated surprise finalist, Jennifer Brady, 6-4, 6-3 for her second Australian Open Women’s Singles title. With the victory, she became a member of a rarified group including Roger Federer and Monica Seles, who won their first four Grand Slam championships in their first four final appearances.

Following her most difficult contest, a quarterfinal 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory over Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, the winner offered, “I felt the entire match I was overthinking. There was a moment when I got angry and hit my racquet on the ground. I am mad at myself for doing it. I was stressed but doing it, I released a lot of thoughts I had. It just made me go more into instinct-based tennis.”

After defeating Brady, Osaka, as only she can, added, “…You know, it’s really weird, when you get to that final point, you start trembling because you can think of the ‘what-ifs’. So, for me, I feel like I’m living in a ‘what-if’ right now”.

Followers of the game know well that Melbourne was Osaka’s last on-court trophy-moment in 2021. Off court she proved to a true Champion…becoming a mental health awareness advocate. Because she wasn’t embarrassed to “tell the truth…” more players began discussing the mental health issues that confound them.

Iga Świątek, the 2020 Roland Garros champion from Poland, has been very open about the crucial role sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, has played in her career.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova after her loss at Roland Garros this year.
Photo: Frank Molter

In 2011, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was, 19 years old and a Roland Garros quarterfinalist. She seemed to have a promising future. But since then, her career has meandered. Her results lacked consistency. There were times when her confidence dropped so low that she thought about leaving the game.

Following her Paris loss to Krejčíková, she was very revealing about her mental battle. She admitted having begun to work with a sports psychologist before the Madrid tournament this year. “I seriously felt a little sometimes desperate…Then I just said to myself, ‘You know what, I want to try everything. Like I want to improve my mentality. I want to improve my physical condition, my game, like everything.’ She just helps me to be myself on the court, as well, open up a little bit of my strong points, and also being myself off the court as well. That also helps a lot.” She added, “I didn’t expect that I would really feel so much better on the court”.

Thanks to Osaka and the others, more players are coming to realize that “their secret…” isn’t really a secret at all. There are many on the “Doubts Team…”

Leading With Their Mouths…Not Their Minds…

Leading anything is demanding. Those in these positions supposedly have the necessary acumen and, more necessary in today’s world, reflect the public soul to make critical decisions. For those on the sidelines it is always easy to point fingers concerning seemed misjudgments. But, in the case of several of the Power Players, they completely failed the responsibility and accountability test.

IOC President Thomas Bach, the former Olympic fencer and German lawyer, established a new standard when it came to singular ineffectiveness. Because of the money involved, he made sure that the realities of the conditions and virus explosion in Tokyo did nothing to impact the profit margin his organization would realize from the Summer Games. He continue to sing, “It’s Money That Matters,” when he danced into the Peng Shuai sexual assault furor in the fall. He had two managed video chats with her, declared she was fine while shilling for “quiet diplomacy…” before admitting in early December that she was in “a fragile situation…” In short, he did nothing to exert pressure on the draconian Chinese rulers because the Olympic Games will begin in Beijing on February 4…Supposedly when Beijing was selected in July 2015 Bach offered, “This is really a safe choice…they deliver on its promises…” (Of course he made no mention of the fact that the Olympic Games provide more than 90% of the IOC operating budget).

David Haggerty, the President of the International Tennis Federation, was Bach’s teammate. Under his direction, the IFT finally consented to later Olympic match start times so that there was not a pile of heat withdrawal bodies left courtside. After Steve Simon, the WTA Chairman & CEO, reacted to Peng Shuai’s assault allegations against a Chinese government official and China’s contemptuous handling of her charges – and the jackbooted response to the desire of the tennis world to have open communication with her – by suspending tournaments in China in 2022, Haggerty made his bones. He told the BBC, “We don’t want to punish a billion people, so we will continue to run our junior events in the country and our senior events that are there for the time being. Then putting on his Bach, “Quiet Diplomacy” Tee-shirt, he went on to say that the IOC planned to “work behind the scenes…” re the Peng situation. (By mid-December, the ITF had reconsidered and decided not to hold any competition in the country in 2022.)

At Roland Garros, Naomi Osaka refused to do interviews in an effort to protect her fragile mental health. For not “Following the rules…”, she was fined $15,000 and threatened by the other Grand Slams with sanctions if she didn’t toe-the-line. Having explained that she had been dealing with anxiety issues for some time,  Osaka, being true to who she is, honorably withdrew from the tournament (and subsequently didn’t participate in The Championships).

Naomi Osaka at Roland Garros. Photo: Roger Parker
Naomi Osaka, representing Japan, lit the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremonies in Tokyo. Photo: Mike Egerton

Gilles Moretton, President of the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT), became the ultimate fall guy for the majors and their ITF master. A strong willed former player, in his initial statement, he became the “rules must be followed…” spokesperson. At his next speaking engagement, he followed up saying everyone’s concern was for her mental health and that of all the players…Then, in an effort to dig the tournament (and the majors) out of a public relations hole, a backhoe was used in an effort to minimize the depth of the problem that had been created.

Before its conclusion, Roland Garros, ordinarily renowned for its panache, attempted to rebuild the Osaka disaster by using the rubble that was already on the ground. A press conference was staged featuring Moretton, Tournament Director Guy Forget and Fédération Française de Tennis Director General Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, a former French player.

The result was unnerving as the trio went to great lengths to defend the treatment Osaka had received. The comments were so trite they bordered on insulting. Oudéa-Castéra summed up the situation, saying,  “I think we really cared for her. We really tried to engage. We were pragmatic in the way we handled the progressive approach to sanctions. We were very much aligned with all the slams to make sure there was not a Roland Garros position, et cetera. We took care of her since she withdrew from the tournament. It was a very sensitive and difficult situation, but we believe we really treated that with respect, with care.

“And yes, of course, on mental health, we can do better. This is part of the roadmap we have with the other slams.

“We will take the initiative on the matter together.”

Pragmatic means dealing with things sensibly and realistically…

The IOC and the IFT, along with Roland Garros (a.k.a. the majors) didn’t come close to practicing pragmatism the entire year. Leadership is not about maintaining control to ensure substantial  profits. It’s about character, integrity and ethics…Sadly, based on the performances, they were completely lacking…

Guy Forget. Photo: Getty Images

(Forget, who was responsible for major changes at Stade Roland Garros in recent years, such as the closeable roof on Court Philippe Chatrier, the building of Court Simonne Mathieu and the gardens surrounding the facility, and the court lighting so that night play was possible, resigned the first week of December. Having become Tournament Director in 2016, his contract set to expire at the end of the year. Communication difficulties with Moretton was the reason he gave for departing early. The FFT reacted quickly to the public relations fiasco, by naming former French star, Amélie Mauresmo, as the new Roland Garros Tournament Director.)

Made An Impact…

I first became aware of Carla Suárez Navarro at Roland Garros in 2008. She qualified then surprised Amélie Mauresmo of France in the second round, Casey Dellacqua of Australia in the next round then Flavia Pennetta of Italy before being to Jelena Janković. I was taken by the unbridled determination that belied her 5′ 4″ stature. Though diminutive, she had presence…she was much bigger than any measurement.

In September 2020, revealed that she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would undergo chemotherapy treatment. In April this year, she revealed the cancer was in remission and she would play her final season beginning at Roland Garros and conclude her career at the US Open.

Her court results only included two singles and three doubles titles, but she was much more than wins and losses. As the saying goes, “She was good people…” which was certainly the reason the she was selected the WTA Comeback Player of the Year.

Carla Suárez Navarro won the 2021 WTA Sportsmanship Award by the players’ vote, as well as Comeback Player of the Year. Image: WTA

So much has been written about the Original Nine, individually and as a group, that they enjoy institutional status. Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kristy Pigeon, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey and Val Ziegenfuss were going to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2020. The pandemic made holding the ceremony very risky so this past July the Original Nine received their long-overdue recognition. Simply stated – Without their courageous commitment the women’s game would not be what it is today.

Changes…All About Money

The Championships is steeped in tradition. Foremost is its almost religious-like observance of the mostly white clothing limitations that players must observe when they are competing on the hallowed lawns at the All England Lawn Tennis Club cathedral. Similarly, the “Middle Sunday” of the fortnight had been sacrosanct. It was a day of rest. During the tournament’s 134-year history, “People’s Sunday” took place on only three occasions in 1991, 1997 and 2004. Brought about by weather extremes (which was tournament-speak for days of rain) that mucked up the scheduling, it enabled anyone and everyone to enjoy privileged seating for the day.

Now, with two covered courts Middle Sunday has been shown the door. According to Alexandra Willis, a spokeswoman for the AELTC, “There are no longer concerns about the playability of Centre Court with the added day. We just felt like the tradition of not playing on Sunday had served its time. If we were confident in Centre Court being able to handle the extra day’s play, why wouldn’t we open it up so all those people who are available on weekends would have another chance to watch and engage with Wimbledon and come to Wimbledon?”

The announcement strongly indicates that those in power had spent little time in the past decade looking at the courts. By the end of the first week the courts have been as tattered as the grass in the tee areas found at a golf driving range. What’s more, the conditions worsened during the second week in 2021, even though the courts had not been used since the 2019 tournament.

The “It’s time for change” oration claimed the decision was based on research and added that television broadcasters probably would concur. More to the point – Why go dark from Wimbledon on a day when viewers in most parts of the world have a day off?

Because of the new format, Roger Federer posted a selfie video on Instagram saying that he and his team had walked the grounds on the last ever Middle Sunday and enjoyed the final opportunity to be in a sacred place.

Screen shot from Roger Federer’s video for the last Middle Sunday.
Video: Roger Federer

The ATP decided to make Rome, Madrid, Canada, Cincinnati and Shanghai Masters championships 12-day events, like the format at Indian Wells and Miami. The make money-move has been disguised as good for the players and scheduling. Besides “increased profit-sharing”, during the second week of Masters tournaments, ATP 250 championships have been proposed (and they may be subsidized by the ATP Tour). Off the top, the expansion seems to be a positive move but somehow little or no mention was made of the increase in ticket sales prices, along with the additional television coverage and sponsor involvement revenue that would result. In the end – who really is going to benefit and at what cost to fans of the game?

Two That Were Extraordinary…

It reflects an individual bias to pick only two matches from the entire year of high-level, gripping competition. So, I will ask readers to indulge me. Both contests involved Novak Djokovic, who proved to be “All-Everything” in 2021.

The first word-defying encounter took place at Roland Garros. In the semifinals, the Serb “out-willed” (if there is such a thing) Rafael Nadal, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. In four hours, testament to his tenacity, he handed the Spaniard only his third loss in 108 matches at the tournament. It was such an enthralling duel that tournament officials announced during the third set tie-break that the nightly curfew would be ignored, and fans could stay until the match concluded. (Mary Carillo, the delightful word-machine television commentator offered, “Oh, this is so French…)

Following the match, Nadal said, “Have been amazing, the support, no? I can’t thank enough the feelings. I have been super tired some moments, but the crowd gave me some energy to keep going, no? Yeah, it’s super emotional for me to feel the love of the people in the most important place of my tennis career, without a doubt. So, thanks a lot to them.”

The winner candidly admitted, “Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros for me, and top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15 plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing”.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic after their remarkable match at Roland Garros.
Photo: Roger Parker

In the final, another four-hour tussle (four hours and 11 minutes to be precise), Djokovic downed Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in the final. The Greek earned props when it was revealed shortly before entering Court Phillipe Chatrier to play the match, he learned that his beloved grandmother Stavroula Tsitsipas had passed away in the village of Proasti.

The Paris victory set the stage for Djokovic to attempt to become the first player to win all four majors in a calendar year since Aussie legend Rod Laver did it in 1969. New York is all about being Big and the Best all rolled into one. Leading up to the US Open, Djokovic didn’t want to discuss the “Serbian Slam” possibility but, of course, that’s pretty much all he did. (Honestly, it was not completely his fault since tennis journalists made the topic an unrelenting interview subject.)

The enormity of what he was attempting to accomplish is difficult to comprehend. The task the 34-year-old was facing in New York can’t be adequately or simply defined or detailed.

An complex individual, throttled by personal issues, he regularly “talked himself” into corners. He added to his plight, offering quotable quotes like “…I thrive under pressure…Pressure is a privilege, it truly is”, (which he expounded on after Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles admitted having mental health concerns earlier this year). He went on to say, “This is what you work for day in, day out, all your life, to put yourself in a unique position to win Grand Slams and to make history…”.

Reaching the final wasn’t an easy go. He lost at least one set in five of the matches he played before the trophy round. He was stressed…and rightfully so. For all his talent, the No. 1 player in the world was unable to let his play bring about deserved applause.

In a “ready to be an epic” confrontation, he faced No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev. In the Australian Open title round in February, Djokovic drubbed the Russian, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

In New York, Medevev played against Djokovic with mathematically calculated steadiness. As he had throughout the event, he returned serve from the outskirts of Queens yet had the lanky speed to reach drop shots and craft effective responses. He dealt in the same way with the groundstrokes his opponent used to “windshield-wiper” him around the court.

While sitting in his chair at the final change of ends Djokovic was distraught. He covered his head with a towel to hide his erupting emotions. He fully deserved the moment of respite – after going 27-1 at the majors, he’d had an extraordinary year.

Prior to the tournament the personable Laver, who attended the final, repeatedly said that he would welcome Djokovic as a “Slam Club” member with open arms. However he cautioned that “All it takes is one bad day and it’s gone”.

Medvedev’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory was not the outcome of the Serbian having a bad day. The champion played a thoughtful and creative match. There were a few shaky moments but he gathered himself and stayed strong through momentary stalls. On his second opportunity to win the title, he served the match out then, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, he collapsed in Leaning Tower of Pisa style to the court (imitating a FIFA video game “dead fish” goal celebration).

Daniil Medvedev does a dead fish/brick wall after winning the US Open. Photo: AP

Like most things he does, Medvedev was measured in his post-match comments. He acknowledged having a plan and that it seemed to have worked. He was quick to add that Djokovic, in his mind, is the best of all-time. He went on to say that his opponent  may not have been at the top of his game because he was dealing with so much pressure. But the winner pointed out – “I had a lot of pressure, too”.

A Grand Slam title is the most cherished achievement in tennis. In Medvedev’s case his victory was even more significant. As he told the audience, on September 12th, three years ago, he had married Daria (“Dasha”) but had not had time to find an anniversary present, “So, I have to win this match…”

When Djokovic had his opportunity to address the attendees he said, “My heart is filled with joy, and I am the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel that way on the court… You guys touch my soul. I’ve never felt like this in New York, honestly.”

Novak Djokovic congratulates Daniil Medvedev at the trophy presentation.
Photo: Jo Becktold

Player appeal is very individualized. There is no question that Djokovic is bright and at times, can be charming. Unfortunately, his insecurity regularly takes over and becomes a petulance, which is a disservice to his talent. As Pete Sampras, the shy Hall of Famer always said – I let my racquet do the talking…Novak Djokovic should consider becoming more Sampras-like.

Daniil Medvedev should not only be praised, but he should be commended for earning his first major championship. What’s more, he ought to be lauded for joining Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall, a truly illustrious duo of Grand Slam deniers. Rod Laver’s record is still safe going on 53 years now. As for Novak Djokovic, let’s hope he finally realizes how good he is. Tennis’ love that can’t be bought, but by now surely should have been earned.

Heroes Just For Being Who They Are…

Naomi Osaka spent the year opening her soul instead of solely hitting tennis balls. Following her third round 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 loss to Leylah Fernandez in New York, she explained, “I feel like, for me, recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief. And then, when I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal.”

After pausing to steady her emotions, she continued, “This is very hard to articulate. Well, basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”

Steve Simon at the AKRON WTA Finals Guadalajara. Photo: Rob Prange

Steve Simon is the epitome of a “Non-Hero…” The WTA Chairman & CEO (a friend for more than 30 years) is the last person in tennis who would want to be receiving headlines. He has always been steady…and out-of-sight. A competent intercollegiate tennis player at California State University Long Beach, he became a respected teaching professional then the adidas Tennis Representative. Due to his choosing, he was never in the spotlight. Even as the Tournament Director at BNP Paribas, Indian Wells, California, before he became the head of the WTA, he followed the policy of maintaining an unseen presence.

China’s silencing of Peng Shuai after she called attention, in a Weibo post, to having been sexually assaulted by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, put the world on notice (particularly with the Beijing Winter Olympics set to begin February 4th). The reaction by leaders of sports organizations was as numbing as it was dumbing. Not only did they seem to lose their tongues, their souls were included in the indifferent reactions offered by the IOC and initially the ITF. They adopted the “we continue to analyze…” dodge. (Meanwhile, both the NBA and ATP were basically mum and earned a “Courage Disappearance” default.)  

There was quite a public outcry concerning the safety of the 35-year-old, who was the Women’s Doubles winner at The Championships in 2013 and Roland Garros in 2014. Sadly, bending-over backwards in an effort to maintain a place in China’s economic landscape became the practice.

Peng Shuai. Photo: WTA

To his credit, Simon never wavered. Though the numbers on the China tournaments profit ledgers are uncountable for ordinary individuals, he (the WTA) stayed the course. The 2022 tournaments in China and Hong Kong were suspended. Simon offered, “We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”

He added, “None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

On a personal level, I first learned that Peng Shuai had become an “outlier” in 2005. She was spending time in Florida working with countryman Jack Ma, who encouraged her to break away from the strangulating restriction of the Chinese Tennis Federation which dictated her playing schedule and annually “entitled itself” to more than half of her tournament earnings.

For a quiet individual, Simon defines being ethical as this statement brings out, “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegations of sexual assault.”

“The Pillar of Shame”. Photo: BBC

(There is only one word to use when it comes to describing the way China regularly deals with sports and the world – Ruthless! Before Christmas, when Peng Shuai was an everyday news topic, “authorities” decided to remove and destroy the “Pillar of Shame”, the 26 foot tall sculpture that had been on display at the University of Hong Kong campus for last 24 years. The celebrated monument, created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, served as a reminder of those killed during pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The “landscaping change…” was spurred by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing landslide election result that was announced in mid-December. No one was surprised by the fact that every one of the new representatives was a dedicated “Party Patriot”. Thankfully Simon and the WTA have stood strong against the swings of the Chinese “Wrecking Ball…”) 


The pandemic and its accompanying concerns, along with collection of social situations, forced the game to be adaptable and creative in 2021. For the most part it was…and the outcome, in the end, justified the effort. In the coming year – Only one thing is certain. The pandemic, whatever the variant, will, once again, be a major factor which means tennis will have to be even more adaptable and creative…

Title photo of Emma Raducanu at the US Open by Susan Mullane

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