Monday, November 2, 2020

Looking back on a bizarre 2020--my top 10

Perhaps there was a stranger tennis year than 2020, but I don’t recall it, and I’ve been paying attention for a long time. We had no Wimbledon (not a great loss, from my standpoint, though very bad for the sport), we had bubbles, bubbles in bubbles, spontaneously produced exhibition matches, an absent defending champion, and some heartbreaking retirements. The talented Ons Jabeur became the first Arab player to reach a major quarterfinal (Australian Open). Petra Kvitova defied her own long-held expectations and reached the semifinals of the French Open, and Garbine Muguruza reached the final of the Australian Open. Oh—and, of course, Tsvetana Pironkova popped up (with an improved game) after a three-year absence from the tour, and reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

Here is my list of the top 2020 occurrences and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. The Original 9—Women with Spine
: 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the act that would change tennis forever. Nine determined women each gave promoter Gladys Heldman one dollar to seal a contract to compete in a women’s-only tournament in Houston. This simple transaction led to the eventual formation of the Women’s Tennis Association, arguably the most successful women’s sports organization in the world.

But it wasn’t an easy decision. When the Original 9 made it clear that getting 1/8 of the prize money given to men was unacceptable, and that they would have to break away, they were threatened with being banned from majors and from all meaningful tournaments. Male players who the women thought were their friends turned against them (no one ever mentions it, but Arthur Ashe was a leader of the charge against women earning any kind of reasonable prize money). So, knowing that they would probably have no career to which they could return, these nine brave women changed the sports world for women.

To celebrate the Original 9, the WTA put together a very fine series of articles, tributes and media about the women and the history that they made. The International Tennis Hall of Fame presented an Original 9 exhibit, and there were a number of charity events and panel discussions dedicated to the recognition of the Original 9.

9. Diede De Very Good: We call Diede De Groot “Diede De Great,” but this year, she had what, for her, was a slump. The defending champion at both the Australian Open and the French Open, she won neither of them. In Australia, De Groot was upset in the opening round by China’s Zhenzhen Zhu, playing in the first major of her career. At the French Open, the Dutch star was upset in the semifinals by Momoko Ohtani of Japan. Yui Kamiji of Japan won both titles.

De Groot and her partner, Aniek Van Koot, were the defending champions at all four majors (Wimbledon, of course, was not played, nor were the Paralympic Games). They won the French Open, but lost the Australian Open to Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley. De Groot teamed with Marjolein Buis (Van Koot did not play) for the U.S. Open, and they made it to the final, but were defeated by Kamiji and Whiley.

One obvious problem with De Groot’s 2020 tennis was the disintegration of her serve. She double-faulted repeatedly, which cost her a lot of games. One hopes that the serving issue (often caused by nerves) will be resolved by 2021.

8 Look who’s back!: During many periods throughout her career, it seemed like Victoria Azarenka just couldn’t catch a break. Injuries (a few of them out of the ordinary), ongoing sexism, a vicious child custody battle—so many things kept getting in her way. It hasn’t looked that good for the Belarusian star in the last few years, but—after a shaky start—2020 was a different story. Azarenka withdrew from the Australian Open for personal reasons. She won the Western & Southern Open, and then reached the final of the U.S. Open.

7. We’re here!: Are they ever. Elena Rybakina, Coco Gauff, Dayana Yastremska, Karaolina Muchova, Leylah Fernandez, Iga Swiatek, Anett Kontaveit—we’ve been watching them for a while. This year, there were even more upstarts with which established players had to contend.

Jennifer Brady began 2020 by beating both Maria Sharapova and Ash Barty in Brisbane, where she was a qualifier. She upset Elina Svitolina in Dubai, and reached the semifinals, a first for her at a Premier event. She was also the only player to go undefeated at the Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston. Brady won her first WTA title in Lexington, then reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. In the 2019 off-season, the U.S. player, determined, she said, to maximize her potential, trained in Germany, and emerged with increased fitness. She’s definitely someone to watch in 2021.

A couple of dramatic introductions occurred at the French Open, when Italian player Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podoroska of Argentina blazed through the first week of the event, and then reached the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

Trevisan wasn’t fooling around. She took out Coco Gauff, Maria Sakkari and Kiki Bertens. Podoroska’s story was even more dramatic: She was a qualifier, so she had to win three matches before the tournament even began. In the main draw, she upset the likes of an on-fire Yulia Putintseva and 3rd seed Elina Svitolina. Both of these amazing players were eventually defeated by someone on that “watch” list (more on that later).

6. It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons: Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic, one of the two hottest doubles teams on the tour, had a rather dramatic season. They won both the Australian Open and the French Open. Unfortunately, though they were the top seeds, they were forced to withdraw from the U.S. Open when the county government stepped in and declared that their “bubble within a bubble” status disqualified them (an ATP player who had also been double-bubbled because of a Covid contact had been allowed to play the day before).

And now, a brief interlude to present my metaphor for 2020:


5. It hurts to say goodbye: The great Maria Sharapova retired this year, and that would have been enough for me, in terms of sadness, but so many other players also chose 2020 to say goodbye. Caroline Wozniacki retired from the sport, as did Julia Goerges. But these stars weren’t the only ones to leave: We also lost Ekaterina Makarova, Magdalena Rybarikova, Johanna Larsson, Pauline Parmentier, Teliana Pereira, Jamie Hampton, Vania King, Silvia Soler-Espinosa, Jessica Moore, Rika Fujiwara, and Anna Tatishvili.

4. The strength behind the mask: Naomi Osaka won her second U.S. Open title this year, further establishing herself as the player to beat at a major. She also further established herself as a force for equality and justice, which was a breath of fresh air. Not that long ago, Osaka was an awkward young woman who was afraid to speak in front of a crowd, but then she found her voice, and what a voice it is. Tennis history will long remember the U.S. Open champion’s array of face masks; each represented an individual who was murdered by the police. Osaka brought seven masks to New York, and she was able to wear every one of them.

3. The value of attitude
: Perhaps no one on the tour is a better “forgetter” than Sofia Kenin. She makes a mistake, she moves on. She loses a big point, she moves on. She loses a tournament, she moves on. This mindset has enabled the U.S. star to scrap her way to the top five (she is currently number 4 in the world). It also helped her to win the 2020 Australian Open and to reach the final of the French Open. Kenin possesses a wide variety of skills and an aggressive style that do a lot to create a champion. But her other “weapon,” mental toughness, is just as significant.

2. Time violation: Covid-19, and the accompanying denial and mismanagement of it, wreaked havoc on everything this year, including professional tennis. Several elite players opted not to play at the U.S. Open, including world number 1 Ash Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens, and defending champion Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu, who seems perpetually injured, missed the entire 2020 season (a source of great disappointment for me). Barty, after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, also opted out of the remainder of the season because of the pandemic.

The Wimbledon event was canceled, and the French Open was rescheduled so that it began shortly after the U.S. Open ended. On the up side, some exhibition events popped up, including the entertaining Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston (from which Andreescu also withdrew). For the most part, the U.S. Open was credited with having handled health and safety issues well; the French Open, not so much. There was no Fed Cup (now the Billie Jean King Cup) and no Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The pandemic is still raging, so it remains to be seen what type of damage it will do to the 2021 season.

1. The Wonder Woman sequel arrives early
: We knew that Iga Swiatek was very talented. What we didn’t know was that she would go to Paris and mow down the anticipated champion, Simona Halep. And we didn’t know that she would play seven matches without dropping a set, losing only 28 games—and make it all look effortless. But that’s what happened, and it was stunning. Moreover, the Polish teen (not unlike that other young wonder, Andreescu) appeared to have such a good time doing it. Swiatek is now number 17 in the world—keep an eye on that number.


Todd.Spiker said...

Another candidate for the "Best/Worst" might be Hsieh/Strycova. They were 17-0 with four titles in non-slam events, but failed to win a major, losing to Babos/Mladenovic in the AO final, skipping the U.S. Open and then losing in the 3rd Round at RG.

Overall, they were 24-2 and are ranked #1/#2, but one wonders if given the choice they might take the two majors won by Babos/Mladenovic instead. :/

Diane said...

I did think about tossing them in there and then didn’t. It was indeed a tough season for them

colt13 said...

The Original 9 getting their deserved due is the best off court happening.

Osaka's slam title, with all of the other things that surrounded it, was most impressive.

Diane said...

I've never seen a maturity leap like Osaka's before. She went from being a 21-yr.-old who seemed to be around 15/16, developmentally--to this calm, determined voice for change.

jwr said...

I would suggest that the WTA is INARUGABLY the most successful women's sports' organization in the world. When the top ten highest paid female athletes are listed every year, tennis players never number less than seven and in 2019 they were the entire top eleven--with fourteen to fifteen of the top 20 every year as well. No other sport is close.

And while I always give Chris Evert credit for mainstreaming tennis (women's or otherwise), it was indeed the Original Nine who took the risks to build the platform and it was good to see them honored, especially because all but Billie Jean have been all-but-forgotten by everyone but tennis junkies!

Nondisposable Johnny

Diane said...

I agree that the WTA would be considered the most successful and should have said that--not just because of the income factor but also the overall popularity factor.

Yes, BJK couldn't have done it alone, and every single member of the Original 9 has a story. Also Gladys Heldman!