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Rafael Nadal, Bianca Andreescu and the best tennis in 2019

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Tennis is now in its annual offseason, but don’t blink, lest you miss it. It says something about this 12-month sport that the 2019 season hasn’t even really ended — it’s been quietly humming along in the background with Challenger (ATP) and 175K WTA Tour events, offering both rankings points, prize money and some familiar names in the draws. The ATP main tour kicks off for 2020 on Jan. 3 in Australia with a new team event, the ATP Cup. The WTA launches three days later with three events.

So, while we’re catching our breath, let’s review the best tennis of 2019.

ATP player of the year

Rafael Nadal: Year-end ranking, No. 1

2019 record: 57-7 with four titles, including two Grand Slams

The player of the year can be the individual who was most successful or the one who had a significant impact on the game in general. Our choice this year qualifies on both counts.

The 2019 season began ominously for the then-32-year-old King of Clay. Nadal missed the entire 2018 fall swing due to ankle surgery, standing idly as Novak Djokovic ran amok. Upon his return in January, a thigh strain curtailed his preparation for the year’s first Grand Slam. He still managed to belt his way to the final, where Djokovic humiliated him in the most lopsided blowout of their historic rivalry, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

“I needed something else,” Nadal said afterward, citing the effect of limited playing time. “Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, That something else — probably today, I don’t have it yet.”

Nadal found that “something else” as he has always at the French Open. He gobbled up the now traditional press room birthday cake along with his 18th major title at Roland Garros. But he suffered yet another tough loss on Wimbledon grass to Roger Federer. Perhaps, as in some years past, Nadal was done with his heavy lifting for the year. Not so.

Nadal had a glorious summer, capped by a blockbuster US Open final win over an on-fire Daniil Medvedev. He’s now within one Grand Slam title of Federer’s 20 — a feat Nadal will probably be a prohibitive favorite to earn in Paris in June.

“I don’t like to look that far ahead,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. “But sure, if Rafa is healthy, can anyone stop him?”

Of equal historic importance, Nadal played well enough in the fall to lock up the year-end No. 1 ranking for a fifth time, denying hard-charging Djokovic the opportunity to join Pete Sampras as the only six-time year-end No. 1. The Serbian star remains in second place on that list along with Jimmy Connors, Federer and now Nadal. The great GOAT debate just got a whole lot more interesting.

And think, Nadal has suffered more injuries and paid a heavier price in Grand Slam opportunities than any of his Big Four rivals. Sure, everybody deals with injuries, but the numbers don’t lie: Federer has missed two majors on account of injury or surgery. Djokovic has lost out on just one chance. Nadal, by contrast, has missed eight majors outright, and that isn’t even counting majors during which he had to pull out, like last year’s US Open or the 2016 French Open.

“I always find a way to keep going, you know, and to do my route,” Nadal said after he won the French Open in June. “And here I am at the age of 33, enjoying, playing good tennis. Let’s see for how long I am able to manage and to hold this.”

WTA player of the year

Bianca Andreescu: Year-end ranking, No. 5

2019 record: 46-7, with four titles including the US Open

Our WTA player of the year had a profound impact on the game, emerging out of nowhere at 19 to become the game’s latest supernova, powering Canada’s emergence as a tennis power as well as the putative career rival of that other blazing young star, Naomi Osaka.

Andreescu played no WTA Tour events in 2018, and started the new year ranked outside the top 150. Her attempts to qualify at all four majors fell short, but she punched through qualifying and was runner-up in the first event of 2019, the WTA’s ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. Just two months later, Andreescu became an overnight sensation as she claimed the title at the prestigious Indian Wells combined event.

Less than three weeks later she was forced to retire with a sore shoulder — no doubt due to her heavy early-season workload — during the fourth round in the back half of the “Sunshine Double” at the Miami Open.

Before Andreescu pulled out of Miami, her young Canadian compatriot Denis Shapovalov — who, along with Canada’s Felix Auger Aliassime, would reach the men’s semifinals — said, “I got the chance to grow up with Bianca [in Toronto], I know she’s had some injury struggles coming up, so it’s insane what she’s doing. Not even I could believe it, and I know how good and talented she is.”

Andreescu was unable to complete for the next four months due to her shoulder injury. Questions percolated around her return at the Rogers Cup in August, but she won her native championships in Toronto when Serena Williams retired because of an injury.

At the US Open, Andreescu met Williams again in the final and overcame a case of the jitters to win in straight sets, preventing the American icon from earning a record-tying 24th major singles title. Nine months into her first year on the tour she was a Grand Slam champion.

Andreescu managed to stay in tune following her stunning win and capped her year with a tantalizing glimpse into the WTA future. In the quarterfinals at the China Open in Beijing, Andreescu and Osaka slugged it out in of the best WTA matches in recent memory, Osaka winning in three sets. It was Andreescu’s first loss in 18 matches stretching all the way back to Miami.

“The one thing I worry about is her injuries,” 18-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN analyst Chris Evert said of Andreescu’s bold style. “But I love her game. She plays in-your-face tennis. I love that aggressiveness.”

ATP match of the year

Wimbledon final: Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3)

If a player of Djokovic’s caliber can be said to have a career-defining moment, this Wimbledon final must be it. In winning, the 32-year-old Serb completed a Wimbledon hat trick against the most successful Open-era men’s singles champion at the All-England Club (Federer has eight titles). It was the first men’s singles match decided by a fifth-set tiebreaker and also the first time since the 1948 tournament that a man won Wimbledon after being down championship points.

For many, this match has replaced the Wimbledon final of 2008 as the finest of all-time. At four hours, 57 minutes, this was the second-longest Grand Slam final, surpassed only by Djokovic’s 5-hour, 53-minute mastery of Nadal in the Australian Open final of 2012. Both men were at or close to their very best the entire way. If they were knights in King Arthur’s court, Federer would have been wielding a broadsword, Djokovic a mace. Djokovic responded to every slash and slice from Federer with a heavy swing, pushing him back.

The key stats: Federer logged a whopping edge in winners, 94-54, but he committed just 10 more unforced errors (62-52) and still lost. It tells us that Djokovic outfoxed, outmaneuvered or outhit Federer to win a lion’s share of the points not decided by winners or unforced errors.

But it was those two match points that many fans — and Federer — will not soon forget. Serving for the match at 8-7 in the fifth at 15-all, Federer smacked a pair of aces that earned him two match points. He was a shade slow dancing around his forehand to go inside-out and just missed on his first opportunity. He attacked too early behind too weak a ball on his second chance, and Djokovic hit a clean crosscourt pass winner. The errors proved fatal.

“It was mentally the most demanding match I was ever part of,” Djokovic said afterward. “I had the most physically demanding match against Nadal in the finals of Australia that went almost six hours. But mentally this was different level.”

Asked later if he saw any similarity in the two epic Wimbledon finals he’s been part of, Federer grimly said, “I’m the loser both times, so that’s the only similarity I see.”

WTA match of the year

China Open quarterfinal: Naomi Osaka d. Bianca Andreescu, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4

It was not a grand occasion like a French or US Open final. The quality of the tennis was very high, but it wasn’t exactly a knock-down, drag-out event. The match lasted a reasonable two hours, 14 minutes, but the combination of backstory and preview embodied in this match puts it over the top in another tumultuous year in the WTA.

Osaka, just 21, won the Australian Open, rose to No. 1 and soon thereafter admitted to entertaining thoughts of becoming just the fourth woman in history to record a calendar-year Grand Slam. The new kid on the block seemed poised to rule the neighborhood. Then the wheels fell off, as Osaka’s drive sputtered.

Meanwhile, Andreescu crashed the elite ranks, embracing the pressures that seemed to constrict Osaka. It all came to a head at the US Open, where Osaka failed to get as far as the quarterfinals for the third time since she won Down Under, and Andreescu triumphed over all.

Skeptics rolled their eyes, but Osaka went on high alert to the threat represented by Andreescu. The Japanese-Haitian star declared her intent to “dominate” in the fall, and she was well on her way when she met Andreescu in Beijing. Their meeting was the first in 2019 between reigning Grand Slam champions.

The match featured numerous momentum swings. Andreescu bolted to a 5-1 lead, but Osaka battled back to level at 5-all. Andreescu still won the set, but Osaka lifted her game another notch and carried the second set. She fell behind 1-3 in the third but regained the lead in a blaze of heavy groundstrokes and serves. For the first time in 18 matches, Andreescu’s answers were insufficient.

“It [the win] meant a lot because I feel like people counted me out after the Europe thing,” Osaka told reporters afterwards, referring to her previous failures. “I’m just, like, I still won a slam this year. I’m still here.”

Story of the year

Two words: Coco Gauff.

In the early stages of the year, Andreescu and 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova blossomed, but the most electric WTA thrill was yet to come. It was delivered at Wimbledon by Gauff, who was just 14 and ranked No. 684 at the time of the year’s first major.

A wild card in the Wimbledon qualifying event, Gauff won six matches and made the fourth round in the main draw before she was stopped by the eventual champion Simona Halep. The well-rounded, exuberantly athletic game of the 15-year-old was astonishing, but it was Gauff’s sincerity and open, expressive nature that put her over the top with the public. “Coco-mania” was born in a few short days at Wimbledon.

The adulation and attention, officially in the media and organically among fans, trailed her everywhere. By the time she arrived at the US Open, Gauff was a full-blown phenomenon. Legions pleaded aloud for her attention, long lines of fans waited just to get a glimpse of her on a practice court or in a doubles match with partner Caty McNally.

Gauff came crashing back down to earth at the US Open, where she was soundly thrashed by Osaka in a third-round 6-3, 6-0 blowout that left the youngster in tears — and Osaka consoling her on the sideline.

“I definitely was wanting to leave the court because I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” Gauff said. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from her, as well.”

It was an unscripted, mature reaction. The tears Gauff cries on court in the future will almost certainly be those of joy.



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