So Christmas is over, we’re all probably full to the gills with unhealthy food and in just a few days, the 2019 tennis season will be upon us.
In this week’s hit in the service box, I will review the tennis year and give my predictions on who may break through in 2019.
So let’s start big and go through the slams then the ATP Masters and the WTA Premier Mandatory/Premier Five events and I’ll finish with my thoughts on the Davis Cup.
Us humans can be fickle beings. On one hand, many people are saying the mens tour is struggling because the slams are still being one by ‘old timers’. Step forward Mr Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Some are saying it is a sign the ‘next gen’ are not high quality because nobody can break through during the slams. Sascha Zverev, particularly, seems to be have struggled in best of 5 sets matches with a quarter final at the French Open being his best slam result.
Then in the next breath, some are saying the women’s game is struggling because nobody is dominating. The 4 slams had different winners. In fact, the last 8 slams have had a different winner. Is this not great for the game? What do we want, dominance or success being shared around many different players? I’ll let you decide that.
So, in Australia we had Roger beating Cilic in 5 sets and, finally, Wozniacki breaking her duck and beating Halep to win her first slam. I have always been a fan of Caroline. She is a fantastic athlete and seems to be one of those people everyone likes. I met her very briefly at Wimbledon about 5 years ago and she was so authentically warm that it was easy to see why so many love her.
Standout performances included Kyle Edmund making the semis of a slam for the first time. Notably beating Anderson, Istomin, Basilashvilli, Seppi and Dimitrov before succumbing to Cilic in the semis. He had several brutal battles in extreme heat during the event and it was great to see him putting some of the doubters to bed. I always find it baffling how some label players early in their career. These are professional athletes who learn from their mistakes. It is, literally, their job to get better. I believe we could all benefit from believing the best in other people.
Onto the French Open….
In Paris, we had Rafa win an incredible 11th French Open title. His stats at this event are mind boggling. He has won 86 matches and only lost 2, Soderling and Djokovic are the only players to have beaten him. His dominance on clay in the last 11 years has seen him become the undisputed King of Clay. 57 titles, he’s won the French, Monte Carlo and Barcelona 11 times and won 400 matches just on this surface. Staggering.
In the women’s final, we had another popular winner. Simona Halep won her maiden slam at the 4th time of asking. She had suffered heartbreak on this court just 12 months earlier, losing to Ostapenko having been a set and a break up in the final. It was great to see Sloane Stephens make another slam final on a different surface. Simona and Sloane are my 2 favourite female players and I believe we may be seeing the start of a great rivalry for the coming years.
On top of the results, my standout memory was watching Novak’s press conference after he lost to Cecchinato in the quarter final. I had been impressed with Novak’s form coming into the French Open. We were starting to see the old Novak. When I say ‘old Novak’, I don’t just mean his play but his character. Novak went through a phase where he was, in my opinion, overly humble on the court. It was as if he had become spiritual and it detracted from his competitive nature. After this loss, he suggested he may avoid playing the grass season. He was in a filthy mood and I remember sitting watching it thinking, he’s got his mojo back. This tournament turned out to be the turning point of his year. He allegedly went on a trip with his wife after the loss and, in the words of a true Scotsman, had a word with himself. This leads nicely on to Wimbledon….
There were 4 standout memories for me at this year’s Wimbledon. The return of Novak (that only works if you sing return of the mack in your head), Serena reaching another slam final, Kerber finding her mojo again and the scoring format in 5th set matches.
In the quarter final, Kevin Anderson produced a magnificent display beating Roger Federer 13-11 in the 5th set, having been 2 sets down. This match lasted 4hr 14m and Anderson covered just under 10.5km of explosive movement. In the semi final he ousted Isner in a 5 set marathon, 26-24 in final set, covering 14.5km of explosive movement. Let’s think of that for a second. Running 14.5km is tough enough. Now make this short sharp, explosive movements and add powerful rotations involving your entire body. Now add the skill required to control a small, spherical, fuzzy projectile at the end of these explosive moments. Now add the emotional pressure of being in a Wimbledon semi final. This is a remarkable display of skill. This display lasted 6hrs 26m. Cue the debate on 5th set scoring formats.
My opinion on this is quite simple, every slam should have the same scoring format and I believe that format should be a tie-break at 6-6 in the 5th set. The reason? Kevin Anderson was absolutely done by the time he reached the final and it was a damp squib of a match. Now, granted Novak had also had an epic semi final, 10-8 in 5th set versus Rafa. Interestingly he covered 19.8km in this match alone so he was hardly as fresh as a daisy. However, I don’t know of any other sport in the world that uses different scoring formats for it’s major events. I don’t believe it is fair to the players or the crowd to have the possibility of matches last over 6 hours. It was interesting to hear Andy Murray speak about this when he commentated on the Delpo vs Rafa quarter final. He empathised with the crowd. Not on the tennis, the tennis was amazing and I’m sure everyone enjoyed it. He empathised with the knock-on effect of these long matches on the crowd and ultimately the event.
Let’s move on to the US Open….
The history books will show Novak Djokovic won his 14th grand slam in September 2018 and Naomi Osaka became Japan’s first ever grand slam winner. However, any tennis enthusiast will remember for Serena Williams having a meltdown in the final. Some will say this took the shine off Naomi’s win and even she has described it as a bitter sweet moment. I wrote about this in September so I have attached the blog link if you are keen to read what I thought. https://theservicebox.com/2018/09/10/serena-is-guilty-of-being-human/
Novak continued to show he was back to his very best, dropping a set in the 1st and 2nd round matches before winning the remaining 5 matches in straight sets. Many were delighted to see Del Potro back to his best and, personally, I was disappointed to see Rafa Nadal retire in yet another match. He only played 9 events in the entire year and, amazingly won 5 of them, winning over $8,000,000. He retired from matches with knee, abdominal and back injuries and could not compete in the end of season World Tour Finals. This was his lightest schedule since 2002 which was his maiden year on tour. The whispers seem to be he is predicting being fully fit for Australia. Fingers crossed as the tour is a much better place with him on it than sitting on a physio table.
So in summary, the 4 men’s slams were shared between Federer, Rafa and Novak(2). The women’s event saw Wozniacki, Halep, Kerber and Osaka taking home the trophies. For the first time in many years, I enjoyed watching the ladies matches more than the men’s at the slams. Perhaps an absent Mr Murray had something to do with that.
Let’s have a look at the ATP Masters events….
The 9 masters events were won by 6 different players. It was nice to see new names on the trophies.
Delpo won an epic match against Federer in the Indian Wells final taking it 7-6 in the 3rd set.
John Isner was a popular winner in Miami against Zverev. He was the oldest first time winner of a masters at 32 years old. John Isner is a massively underrated player in my opinion. He moves really well for someone so tall and is so much more than just a big serve. I was pleased for him and he delivered a very entertaining speech.
The clay court season was dominated by Rafa with Monte Carlo and Rome titles being snapped up by the Spaniard. Zverev was an impressive winner in Madrid beating Dominc Thiem. A great contrast in styles and a match up I believe will get better in the years to come.
The North American masters were dominated by the ‘old timers’ again with Rafa and Novak taking Toronto and Cincinnati respectively. Toronto saw the real emergence of the enigmatic Greek player, Stefanos Tsitsipas, where he became the youngest player to beat 4 top 10 players in the same event. I love watching him play as he looks like he is from another era. He looks like a cross between Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis and Errol Flynn. His tennis looks like a modern day version of what we saw in the 1960’s and 70’s. He is very philosophical for such a young man and he will be a great asset for the ATP for many years to come.
By adding Cincinnati to his collection, Novak became the first player to win every single masters title. This was affectionately referred to as the ‘golden masters’.
Shanghai was won by Novak, who has an incredible record at this event, winning it 4 times. I love how Novak can both start and finish the season strong. When he is fit, he is the most consistent player across the entire season. His body is designed for longevity.
Paris saw a new name on the trophy in young Russian, Karen Khachanov. Nobody believed he had a chance against an in form Novak but he proved everyone wrong winning in straight sets.
The same thing happened at the World Tour Finals. Zverev set up a final berth by beating Federer. Everybody had Novak as a shoe in but these younger players don’t appear to be ones for listening to the pundits. A straights set win for Zverev and a new name was on the end of season championship trophy. Will Zverev be the next number 1 outside of the ‘old timers’? I’ll let you decide.
Ones to watch in 2019….
I believe Tsitsipas, Khachanov and Medvedev will establish themselves at the top of the game and I think Kyle will break into and stay in the top 10. I would love to see Jay Clarke break through to the top 100 and get a crack at playing regularly on the main tour. At last count, he was 1st reserve for qualifying at the Australian Open. He is virtually guaranteed to get in and I would love to see him qualify and win a round in the main draw. I can’t see Shapovalov making a big breakthrough. I see him as a fantastic shot maker but I am not convinced he has the game to go deep in the slams. However, he is box office and I hope I am wrong. My big prediction for the men’s tour is Nick Kyrgios establishing himself firmly in the top 10 and to go deep at the slams. I’d love to see him win Wimbledon.
On to the WTA mandatory and premier five events….
The WTA have 4 mandatory events which sit below the slams and the WTA finals. They are in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing. These offer 1,000 ranking points.
There are 5 premier events held in Doha, Rome, Montreal, Cincinnati and Wuhan. These offer 900 ranking points. Together, these 9 events, could be considered the equivalent of the masters.
There was a common theme in the 4 mandatory events, with 4 different women winning them. Osaka showed a taste of what was to come by winning in Miami. Sloane Stephens won Miami resulting in a USA double in the mens and women’s event. Kvitova was an extremely popular winner in Madrid. Her well documented comeback from a horrific knife attack in 2017 has been nothing short of inspirational. I stood next to her in a lift in Singapore and I couldn’t believe how tall she was. Perhaps it was the 6″ heels but it made me realise how heavy her shots must be when she is firing on all cylinders.
Wozniacki put in a fantastic week of play in Beijing and announced she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. This was a huge shock as she is such a super fit player. It seems like she has embraced this and has mentioned she will do all she can to raise awareness of the condition.
Guess what happened in the 5 premier events? Yep, you got it, 5 different winners.
Kvitova took the Doha title. Svitolina won in Rome. Halep won in Montreal.Kiki Bertens won in Cincinnati (she absolutely wails on the ball) and, the huge prospect, Sabalenka won in Wuhan.
I was lucky enough to work at the WTA finals again this year so I got to see the tennis first hand. Svitolina made her breakthrough by winning the biggest title of her career beating Sloane Stephens. I particularly liked the ‘f-you’ mentality Svitolina throughout the event. Some had suggested she didn’t deserve to be there and she was clearly motivated by proving these people wrong. It was nice to see a young Brit, Andrew Bettles, in Svitolina’s playing box. Andrew was a 14 year old on a trip I attended to the 2006 Orange Bowl Championships in Miami. It was slightly surreal to see him in the coaching box just 12 years later. It looks like he has been kept on by Svitolina so I wish him all the best for the coming season.
Ones to watch on the WTA….
I really believe Sabalenka could make huge strides in 2019. She has effortless power on both wings and really chews up the court with her feet. I absolutely love watching Ash Barty play as she has so much variety. I am hoping for a few good runs from her at the bigger events. I get the feeling she is starting to believe she belongs at the top of the game. Imagine a clean sweep for Australia at Wimbledon. One of my favourite players to watch is Kasatkina as she has so much time on the ball and isn’t scared to mix up the speeds, spins and heights of the ball against big hitters. However, at the end of the day, I believe a fully fit Serena will be tough to beat but the players that can do it are Stephens, Halep and Kvitova. Bold prediction, Sloane to finish 2019 world number 1.
I believe the WTA is in a fantastic position for the future. What it needs are a few of these young players to breakthrough and transcend tennis just as Serena, Venus and Maria have done in the last 15-20 years. There is no doubt, Naomi Osaka has everything required to do this but I think you need a rival from somewhere else in the world to make this come to life. Step forwards Sloane Stephens.
What about the Brits….
I’ve already predicted Kyle will get and stay in the top 10. If Andy is fit and plays a fairly regular schedule, I believe he will be top 20 by Wimbledon. I’ve mentioned Jay Clarke, I believe he has wheels and could prove a handful if given the chance. It would be nice to see Dan Evans back up on the main tour. Let’s hope he’s put in a decent off season and is happy to work his way up through the challengers to earn his spot on the main tour. He is definitely good enough. I hope Cameron Norrie will stay where he is in the rankings but my gut is he will struggle. I do not wish it, I just feel he won’t be a surprise any more and he may find it tough.
Jo Konta has said she is enjoying the working relationship with her new coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, stating he is helping her be more self-sufficient on the match court. Personally, I believe this is work you do at a young age. There is 20 years of hard wiring to undo here and I will be surprised if she can add this to her game. For clarity, self-sufficiency on the match court is working things out for yourself and adapting your game depending on what is happening. Jo Konta has got game and she is a great athlete. With those tools alone, she is a solid top 20 player. With the ability to tactically change in the match, she could be a top 10 player and go deep at any of the big events. I hope she can make these developments to her game. I really hope Katie Swan can stay healthy as I believe she could easily handle it between 50-100 WTA. Katie Boulter is sitting at 97 on the rankings and I would imagine she would stay around this mark. Her game has fairly low margins so it is hard to see her having the consistency to string results together. She could have a big win here and there but it is consistency that would see her make another move up the rankings.
Finally, the Davis Cup….
On 16th August, the ITF nations voted in favour to change the Davis Cup format to a week long event, involving 18 teams, at the end of November 2019. Money seems to be the main motivating factor in the changes. Footballer, Gerard Pique, is the chair of Kosmos who have said they will stump up $3 billion over 25 years. Again, this is just my gut but I find this hard to belief. Already it feels like things haven’t been planned out well. It feels like a decision has been made without basic logistics being thought out. The only positive to this situation is, the fact big decisions can be made in tennis.
At the same time the ATP have announced they will have a new ATP World Team Cup, starting in January 2020. I believe the most obvious way forward is for these two events to pull together and create an event that all the main players will compete in. The Davis Cup is such a historic event and for the ITF to shred over 100 years of history to shoehorn, what is essentially, an exhibition event in at the end of a packed year is craziness. However, I wish it well and hope it can evolve into something special in the years to come.
Wow, that turned out to be a lot longer than I initially anticipated. It has been another interesting year of tennis, on and off the court. I have a feeling 2019 will be another cracker. You never know, maybe the old timers will be knocked off their perch. Maybe not.
Have a great time over the New Year and I hope 2019 brings you everything you wish for.