2020 tennis review: a sonic boom of a year

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Tennis in 2020: a sonic boom of a year, in more ways than one.

What has happened in tennis this year? Or, more appropriately, what hasn’t happened in tennis this year? There were certainly moments throughout 2020 when you’d be excused for forgetting that tennis does actually involve a ball, two rackets, two players, etc. – that is, you’d be excused for forgetting that tennis is an actual sport. The five-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic can only be considered partially responsible for the fact that, in this year of all years, tennis managed to generate more headlines off the court than it did on the court.

Let’s start with the more memorable narrative – none of which occurred on a tennis court. The season began, most appropriately, in front of a backdrop of a blazing furore: the Australian bushfires, which, at that moment in time, seemed about as apocalyptic as one could imagine – little did we know. This was followed in February by the all but inevitable retirements of tennis superstars Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. Names that transcend the sport, Wozniacki and Sharapova are not only Grand Slam champions, but for a long time have been the face of women’s tennis to a general audience.

Then, March arrived, and so did Covid-19. Indian Wells, the fifth biggest tournament on the calendar, was cancelled, sending shockwaves reverberating throughout the sport, and materialising all our worst nightmares about the impact of a pandemic on the sport. As a result, we were faced with a five-month tennis-less chasm of emptiness; yet somehow even this vacuum was filled by off-court drama. There was the ill-fated Adria Tour, an exhibition event in Eastern Europe, which led to a number of prominent players catching Covid-19, including the World No. 1 and main organiser Novak Djokovic. (This might partly have been to do with the fact that Djokovic et al. were videoed dancing in nightclubs, hugging each other and being surrounded by throngs of kids – yes, in a global pandemic as well. Supposedly self-isolating for fourteen days, the top ten-ranked player Alexander Zverev dropped a clanger of a faux pas when he was spotted dancing at a party only six days in, while Dominic Thiem continued to jet around the globe to play exhibition tournaments here, there, and everywhere (but at least, in his defence, he never claimed to be self-isolating)).

Tennis managed to generate more headlines off the court than it did on court

Thankfully, later in the summer, tennis demonstrated that there is more to the sport than these dim-witted actions, and this was largely due to sixteen-year-old Coco Gauff who spoke incredibly eloquently at a Black Lives Matter rally in Florida. And this was shortly followed by (the only slightly older) Naomi Osaka’s decision to boycott her semi-final match at Cincinnati to raise awareness about police brutality towards black people – a decision which prompted the historic move of both the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) cancelling a day’s play.

Then there was the Covid-19-secure bubble at New York when actual tennis returned – although this induced an overheated Djokovic to be defaulted in sensational style when he thwacked a ball into a line-judge’s throat (albeit by accident). This was promptly followed by the re-scheduled French Open in September, which looked more like a polar expedition than a tennis tournament (or it did if you saw what the players were wearing). Sub-ten-degree temperatures, a sonic boom, a newly installed roof, boa constrictor-like tracksuits, past-midnight finishes, heavy balls: it’s fair to say, the French Open was a weird tournament.

In stark contrast to the volatility of the drama off the court, there were reassuring parallels and patterns on the court.

If you thought the year had reached peak weirdness, you’d be wrong. The American player Sam Querrey fled Russia after testing positive for Covid-19 because of fears about hospitalisation. James Bond-esque, he sneaked out of a Russian hotel and escaped on his private jet to an unknown destination – yes, this did really happen, and no one knows where the fella ended up.

Unfortunately, the tennis year ended on a sombre note with the accusations of domestic violence towards Zverev by his ex-girlfriend Olya Sharypova – and a distressingly unresponsive ATP.

Surprisingly, tennis was actually played as well. And in stark contrast to the volatility of the drama off the court, there were reassuring parallels and patterns on the court.

The Australian Open started things off with a record eighth Djokovic title, counterpointed with a shock win for the largely unknown Sofia Kenin. This dichotomy between established greatness and unexpected brilliance continued throughout the year. At the French Open, the champions were, somewhat predictably, Rafael Nadal (joining Roger Federer on the all-time record of twenty Grand Slams) and, somewhat less predictably, the twenty-year-old Polish wunderkind Igia Swiatek. Sandwiched between these two tournaments was Thiem’s maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open, which included the strangest and tensest of finals against the fellow US Open virgin Zverev. Whilst combining style with social activism, Osaka managed to wear all seven of her Black Lives Matter masks on her way to winning her second US Open.

Looking ahead to 2021, there are questions aplenty. Will tennis even happen? Currently, it is looking likely – albeit with a much-adapted schedule. Presuming tennis does go ahead, will Federer make a successful return from his multiple knee surgeries? Will we see any of the almost forgotten-about Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 revelation who was unable to play a single match in 2020 due to injury? Will Serena Williams reach a record-equalling 24 Grand Slams? Will Nadal overtake Federer’s Grand Slam record? Will any of the other male players join Thiem in the Grand Slam winners’ club? Will women’s tennis continue its pattern of first-time, unexpected champions?

Most importantly, will we have a weirder year?

The answer to that one is you never know- or at least not until it happens.

Image: Mathieu Lebreton via Flickr.

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