The 2018 tennis season was certainly a memorable one. If there’s a word that could sum up the year, it just might be “vocal”. Both players and fans, on the court and off, were ready to express their opinion, most of it displeasure. Still, in what was rather an uneasy year, it still had its significant accomplishments and milestones.
Overall, 2018 saw some significant shifts in the tennis landscape, in terms of events and public perception. Most of the focus was on “growing the sport”, that phrase in quotes since that appeared to be the official justification for the biggest changes implemented, some planned for, and others not so much.
Despite a rather public outcry from a majority of tennis fans, the ITF approved a major revamp of the Davis Cup, doing away with the “home” final and instead creating a bigger team event, with less ties during the year, all leading up to a year-end final to be held at a predetermined site, for next year in Madrid, Spain. If this new version proves to be a success will be closely watched as team events continue to grow outside the regular tour, like the Roger Federer-led Laver Cup, now in its second year, along with the planned for ATP team event to start the 2020 season. With these team events throwing more dollars at the players to invite their participation, how it impacts the regular tour events and the Grand Slams, if at all, remains to be seen.
Another change in the game, though unexpected, occurred at of all places, Wimbledon, which is loathe to any kind of change.
In a men’s semifinal, Kevin Anderson and John Isner slogged their way through an interminable five set marathon, that definitely was not an epic, that ended with Anderson winning 26-24 in the final set after six and a half hours.
Naturally, Anderson had little left physically in the final against Novak Djokovic, who along with Rafael Nadal, was forced to play their semifinal over two days due to the length of the Anderson/Isner semi.
Afterwards, Wimbledon decreed that all fifth sets in the future will end with a tiebreak, should the final set reach 12-all. This change was necessary not just for the players’ health, but to keep future matches to a more tidy length for the television networks who essentially pay the bills at all the majors. The Australian Open is enacting a similar tiebreak rule as well for 2019, while the ongoing debate of having the men play best two out of three sets for some portion of the Grand Slams will likely continue until a change, borne out of necessity, is finally decided upon.
Speaking of outcry, what was up with all the angry crowds in 2018? From Wimbledon, to the US Open women’s finals (a crowd that seemed to not know or not care about the point penalty rules), to the ATP World Tour Finals and the ballboy incident that caused Alexander Zverev to apologize to an irate London crowd after he (how dare he) defeated Roger Federer. Tennis crowds are growing more and more vocal and hostile. We may not be heading back to the 1970’s in terms of bad crowd behavior, but don’t expect decorum to be back in favor next year.
The WTA once again relied on its depth rather than one or two marquee players to engage fans. Four different women won the majors with three of them (Caroline Wozniacki, Melbourne, Simona Halep, Paris, and Naomi Osaka, New York) winning their maiden major title. Angelique Kerber capped off her resurgence by adding the Wimbledon title to her resume.
Yet while the WTA embraced its deep talent pool, once again much of the women’s tennis narrative was defined by Serena Williams who returned to competition after giving birth to her daughter in 2017. While Serena rocketed back inside the top 20 by reaching two major finals, this year was definitely a roller coaster season for the all-time great.
By reaching the Wimbledon final, Williams was celebrated as a champion for mothers everywhere. But celebration turned to controversy a few months later when Williams returned to the US Open final. In a loud and surreal final that perplexed many casual tennis fans unaware of the point penalty system of the rules, Williams was almost defaulted out of the final, by umpire Carlos Ramos, after she berated him several times for giving her a warning about receiving coaching, (later admitted to by her coach Patrick Mouratoglou). Osaka’s deserving moment to celebrate winning her maiden major was marred by that and by the angry New York crowd.
The ATP, on the other hand, once again was all about the “big” names. In this case Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal.
Djokovic, who started the year as a question mark, ended up as the defining player of the year after winning two majors. Nadal won the French Open yet again for the 11th time, while Federer had to be content with another Australian Open title after edging out Marin Cilic in five sets.
While younger players like Zverev and Dominic Thiem (who reached the French Open final), made significant strides, 2018 was all about the “elder” or “thirtysomething” statesmen owning the biggest events of the year. What’s problematic for the ATP, is that unlike the WTA, the ATP is not showing the same amount of depth making the men’s tour increasingly more reliant on aging stars like the “big three” who have all admitted that they are at the end of their careers, not yet of course, but getting closer. 2019 may well be the year one of the “young guns” finally breaks through to win a major, but don’t count on it.
But after all this turmoil, let’s focus on the positive shall we? For me, the best match of the year was the Wimbledon quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro. For the tennis, yes, but also for the intensity and sheer class both men displayed. Let’s hope that 2019 has more of that throughout the season.
Happy New Year!