In a way, 2021 was even stranger than 2020. More tournaments were played, but with a limited number of fans, and often with very limited (or no) media. In fact, so much happened this year that I found it unusually hard to formulate a top ten. There were the Olympics, and the return of the Billie Jean King Cup--or rather, a ridiculous, crippled version of it, and the International Hall of Fame induction (finally) of the Original Nine. The media went all-out fabricating and promoting a non-story, and--this came so close to making the top ten--Camila Georgi won a premier event.
It's also worth noting that 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek was the only player to reach the second week of all four majors, a quiet accomplishment that causes me to believe that her future remains very bright. And let's not forget Garbine Muguruza's topping off her comeback by winning the WTA Finals (also a top ten contender).
There was also the forced disappearance of Peng Shuai, which became an international story, and--while it's the tennis story of the year--it deserves its own place in the world of tennis events, and is therefore not on this list of happenings, which focuses on accomplishments.
Here, in ascending order, are my top ten 2021 happenings:
10. Mixing metals is so on trend: Ask Belinda Bencic--she won a gold medal for Switzerland in women's singles, and a silver medal in women's doubles (with Viktorija Golubic). And Brazil surprised a lot of people by earning a medal. Here is the complete list of medal winners:
gold--Belinda Bencic (Switzerland)
silver--Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic)
bronze--Elina Svitolina (Ukraine)
gold--Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova (Czech Republic)
silver--Belinda Bencic/Viktorija Golubic (Switzerland)
bronze--Laura Pigossi/Luisa Stefani (Brazil)
gold--Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, with Audrey Rublev (Russia)
silver--Elena Vesnina, with Aslan Karatsev (Russia)
gold--Ash Barty, with John Peers (Australia)
9. The Russians are here!: The Russians didn't just dominate mixed doubles at the Olympics. For the first time since 2008, they won the Billie Jean King Cup, defeating Switzerland in the final. The standout player was Ludmilla Samsonova, who was sent in as a substitute when Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was unable to play. Samsonova and her big serve went at it for two and a half hours against Belinda Bencic, and emerged the victor, and the hero of the Russian Tennis Federation's winning team.
8. They will all be missed: Sadly, it was a big year for retirements. Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro and Barbora Strycova--all long-time treasures of the WTA--announced their retirement earlier this year. And just days ago, Johanna Konta announced that she, too, is retiring from professional tennis. Konta brought a lot of tennis pride back to the UK, reaching as high as number 4 in the world in singles. Her most memorable win was in Miami in 2017. (She also modeled for the WTA how to handle offensive members of the media.)
7. She does it with mirrors: Watching Naomi Osaka win a major is always a little like viewing a magic show. Her fluidity, her serve, and her strategic command of the court sometimes make it appear that she she's winning matches effortlessly. This year, she won the Australian Open by running through an especially difficult draw. In order to get to get the trophy, she had to beat the likes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ons Jabeur, Garbine Muguruza, Serena Williams, and Jennifer Brady. This was Osaka's second Australian Open championship; she also won the event in 2019.
6. R-e-s-p-e-c-t/it find out what it means to her: Desirae Krawczyk is not a WTA household word, but it certainly should be. This year, the USA doubles specialist came out one major shy of winning the Grand Slam in mixed doubles. She won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open--with three different partners (a new take on "Mladenovic and Anybody"). This was a huge accomplishment (though undoubtedly somewhat disappointing for her), but the sports media, including the tennis media, seems to not even know that she exists.
5. They're all coming for you!: The upstarts took over in 2021. Ons Jabeur, Anett Kontaveit and Paula Badosa all went on a tear, and close behind them were Leylah Fernandez, Katerina Siniakova and Viktorija Golubic, all making their marks (Fernandez's mark was huge). Jabeur has steadily improved, in both skill and confidence, over the last few seasons, and is now the highest ranked Arab player of all time. Jabeur is also the first Arab woman to reach the WTA top 10 (no. 10). Kontaveit, from whom some of us have long expected great things, gave a dramatic master class on how to close a season, winning four titles, and practically willing herself into the WTA Finals. As for Paula Badosa, she won Indian Wells. Watch out.
4. She's number 1!: Ash Barty hasn't been on the scene too much because of Covid restrictions. But she did two very big things this season, in spite of that. She retained her number 1 ranking, and she won Wimbledon. Barty knocked out two big Czechs--Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova, as well as an on-fire Angie Kerber (who I thought was going to win her second Wimbledon championship), and Karolina Pliskova.
3. The Golden Slam--so 1988: It's really, really hard to win the Golden Slam. A player has to win all four majors and an Olympic gold medal--next to impossible. But let's say that a player does that, but then--just to put the icing on the cake--also goes on to win both the singles and doubles championships at the prestigious end-of-year Masters event, and also leads her team to World Team Cup victory. How is that even possible? As Diede De Groot. She won all four wheelchair singles majors, both gold medals at the 2021 Paralympics, and the both the singles and doubles championships at the Masters.
But wait--she almost won the Grand Slam in doubles, too. She and partner Aniek Van Koot, the defending champions, lost in the semifinals at Wimbledon.
It's hard to imagine that anyone could repeat this feat, but if anyone could, well--it would be De Groot. Diede the Great absolutely rules (and for this reason, she is also 2021's Ms. Backspin).
2. Ranking really doesn't matter: Emma Raducanu was ranked number 150 in the world when she entered the qualifying rounds to compete at Wimbledon. Earlier in the year, she had received a wild card into Nottingham, but had lost in the first round. But then we saw the young Brit come out of nowhere to make it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and she might have gone even farther if she hadn't had to retire.
Raducanu, not surprisingly, won all three of her qualifying rounds, and she did it without dropping a set. That was when we should have taken note, but how were we to know what was about to occur? She would go on to win every match she played (and she played a total of ten) without dropping a set. Raducanu beame the only qualifier in history to reach the final of a major. She won that, too, defeating a brilliant Leylah Fernandez, who had taken out such formidable opponents as 3rd seed and former champion Naomi Osaka, former champion Angie Kerber, 5th seed Elena Svitolina and 2nd seed Aryna Sabalenka.
Raducanu's draw wasn't as tough as Fernandez's, but it was no walk in the park, either. She had to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo (whom to my shock, she blew off the court), Olympic gold medal winner Belinda Bencic, and a very in-form Maria Sakkari. It was astounding enough that the two teens made it to the final (though we already knew about Fernandez's talent), but then Raducanu won that in straight sets, too.
Raducanu's victory was so historic in nature that we'll be talking about it for years.
1. All that glitters is Czech: 2021 was the year that Barbora Krejcikova glided onto the big stage, kocked down the sets, dismissed the other actors, and took enough bows to make even a dancing Czech dizzy. The Czech doubles star entered the French Open singles draw as an unseeded player, and left with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. In achieving this unexpected accomplishment, Krejcikova took out, among others, 5th seed Elina Svitolina, former finalist Sloane Stephens, young star Coco Gauff, and Maria Sakkari. She then defeated a resurgent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final. To add to the drama, the Czech champion also became the third woman in the Open Era to win the French Open after saving a match point (against Maria Sakkari).
But why stop there? Krejcikova and her partner, Katerina Siniakova also won the French Open doubles championship (the first Roland Garros sweep in 21 years), then went on to win an Olympic gold medal. But why stop there? The Czech star qualified for the WTA finals in both singles and doubles, and she and Siniakova won the doubles trophy. Krejcikova also entered the top 10 in singles, rising as high as number 3 in the world (she is currently number 5).
Krejcikova also won Strasbourg and Prague; prior to 2021, she had never won a singles title. She was a very busy woman this year: She won the Australian Open mixed doubles title (with Rajeev Ram), and she and Siniakova were the runners-up for the women's doubles title. Also, she and Siniakova won titles in Gippsland and Madrid. Krejcikova is currently ranked number 2 in the world in doubles, but has been ranked as high as number 1.
The Czech star was the protege of the late Jana Novotna, and remains inspired by her.