Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams started off the year as the overwhelming number one players in the world. In 2016, both made more history and each made three major finals, but, after long runs at the top of the rankings, both ended up as the number two players in the world.
With Davis Cup ending on Sunday, the shortest offseason in sports starts. Until the 2017 tennis starts the first week of January, here are the ABCs of the 2016 tennis world.
A is for Angelique Kerber. It was always a fun debate among talking heads. Who would replace Serena Williams at #1? She couldn’t stay on top forever. Raise your hand if you said it would be Kerber. No one? She was the #10 player in the world entering 2016 and had never won a major, let alone even reached a major final. She started off the year by beating Serena in the Australian Open final, becoming the first German player to win a major since Steffi Graf. After winning the U.S. Open in September, she became the first German to claim the #1 ranking since, you guessed it, Graf. Serena had a chance to reclaim the year end #1 ranking, but didn’t play another tournament so Kerber is the first player since, of course, Graf, to finish as the year end number one. She’s the first women other than Serena to finish as the year end number one since Victoria Azarenka ended 2012 on top.
B is for Bryan Brothers. Though 2016 was a down year compared to their lofty standards, they still moved up the record books. The most decorated team in doubles history won three titles this year moving their career total to 112. To put that number in perspective, the second place team of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde won 61 as a team. The Bryan Brothers also made the final of the French Open. Though they didn’t win, that final was the 29th of their career. The player in second place, Todd Woodbridge again, played in 20 major finals.
C is for Czech Republic. Since Fed Cup started in 1963, certain countries seem to dominate in certain eras. The U.S. won seven straight from 1976-1982. Spain made eight finals from 1989-1998, winning five. Russia won four of the five titles from 2004-2008. The Czech Republic is the latest country to dominate, winning five of the last six years.
D is for Djokovic, Novak. When he won the Australian and French Open titles, those were his 11th and 12th major titles, moving him ahead of Bjorn Borg (11) and behind Roger Federer (17) and Rafael Nadal (14) and Pete Sampras (14) for the most major titles in the Open Era. Roy Emerson (12) and Rod Laver (11) are also on that list but they won some of their titles before the Open Era started in 1968. With his win at the French, Djokovic became the first man to hold all four majors at once since Laver in 1969. He also joined Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal to win the career slam. With his wins in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Canada, he moved past Nadal (28) for first place with the most Masters wins with 30. He was also #1 for most of the year to extend his career total to 223 weeks at #1 where he’s bookended by two American legends – John McEnroe (170) and Jimmy Connors (268).
E is for Ex-Doubles Partners. When they partnered in March, 2015, Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza soon became the hottest team in women’s doubles. They won the first three tournaments they played – Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston. They went on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before ending the year on a four tournament win streak – Guangzhou, Wuhan, Beijing and the WTA Finals. When they finished the year as the #1 team, Mirza became the first woman from India to be ranked number one and became one of that country’s biggest stars. They picked up right where they left off by winning their first three tournaments of 2016 – Brisbane, Sydney and the Australian Open. Though they made a few more finals, they failed to win a title the rest of the year and announced their split in the summer.
F is for French Open champion Garbine Muguruza. When Muguruza lost to Serena in the 2015 Wimbledon final, many anointed her as Serena’s heir apparent. In 2014, Muguruza handed Serena the worst loss of her career with a 6-2, 6-2 win in the French Open second round. Though the rest of her season was up and down, she did finish on a strong note. In 2016, they again met at the French Open. Though Muguruza won her first major in straight sets, this was much closer than their 2014 match with a 7-5, 6-4 score.
G is for Great Britain. When Andy Murray won the U.S. Open in 2012, he became the first British man to win a major since the 1930s. When he won Wimbledon in 2013, he became the first British man to win Wimbledon since, well, the 1930s. When Andy and brother Jamie led Britain to the Davis Cup win in 2015, it was Britain’s first Davis Cup since, you guessed it, the 1930s. Andy would go on to win 10 titles in a season for the first time in his career which included wins at Wimbledon for the second time and a second straight Olympic gold medal. He finished 2016 by winning the last five titles of the year – Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris and the ATP World Tour Finals. By beating Djokovic in the ATP World Tour Final, he not only kept the #1 ranking he took over a few weeks prior, but he will finish the year as the #1 player in the world for the first time. Not to be outdone, but brother Jamie will finish as half of the #1 doubles team in the world. They are only the fourth pair of siblings to both earn the #1 ranking in singles and/or doubles in their careers. The others are Emilio and Aranxta Sanchez, the Williams sisters and Marat Safin and Dinara Safina. On the women’s side, when fellow Brit Johanna Konta broke into the top ten in October, Konta became the first British woman since Jo Durie in 1984 to break into tennis’ top ten.
H is for High Profile Coaches. Six-time major winner Boris Becker has been on Djokovic’s team for a while. Eight-time major champion Ivan Lendl guided Murray to major and Olympic glory before they split. They reunited this year in time for Murray to regain more major and Olympic glory. John McEnroe was added to Milos Raonic’s team for the grass court season and the young Canadian was rewarded with a place in the Wimbledon final for his efforts. Michael Chang helped guide Kei Nishikori to the 2014 U.S. Open final and in 2016, Nishikori reached a career high ranking of #4. Stefan Edberg has worked with Roger Federer. Three-time major champion Lindsay Davenport has worked with America’s most promising young female, Madison Keys. Former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic worked with 2014 U.S. Open Marin Cilic. Jimmy Connors, Amelie Mauresmo and Martina Navratilova are some other former major winner who have dipped their toes into the coaching pool. What started out as something trendy has turned into a trend.
I is for Into the Sunset. With 2016 being an Olympic year, many people thought there would be some high profile retirements announced at the end of the year. To the surprise of many, none of the high profile athletes surrounded by the retirement whispers made such an announcement. Will 2017 be the year that some of our favorite tennis players ride into the sunset?
J is for Juan Martin del Potro. When the then 20 year old won the 2009 U.S. Open, he was proclaimed as the future of tennis. After beating Nadal in the semifinals and Federer in the finals, he became the first player to beat the legends in back to back matches. Unfortunately, his career became a series of fits and starts. Injury after injury and surgery after surgery made even the most optimistic to wonder if he’d ever make good on his enormous potential. After starting the year outside the top 1000, he ended the year ranked 38. In between, he upset #4 Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon, won a silver medal at the Olympics, reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, and, at the Stockholm Open in October, won his first title in almost three years.
K is for Kvitova, Petra. Though not as injury prone as del Potro, Kvitova is another player who hasn’t been able, for whatever reason, to realize her enormous potential. The two-time Wimbledon champion dropped out of the top ten for the first time since early 2011. After dropping into the twenties, she won two of the last three tournaments she played to finish the year at #11. In 2016, it was when Kvitova played for her country where she really shined. She won a bronze medal at the Olympics and she’s the main reason the Czech Republic has won those five Fed Cups in the past six years.
L is for Latvia. Latvia is the home of the company that makes and distributes the drug, meldonium. The World Anti-Doping Agency added the drug to its list of banned substances at the end of 2015. In early 2016, Maria Sharapova tested positive for the drug, becoming one of the highest profile tennis players to ever be suspended from the tour. After speculation swirled as to whether she would receive the maximum four year ban from competition, she ultimately received a two year ban. After not playing a tournament since the Australian Open in January, she successfully appealed and her two year ban was reduced to one. She will be eligible to play in April, 2017.
M is for Madison Keys. In 2015, she reached her first major semifinal at the Australian Open and made her top 20 ranking debut. In 2016, she reached the biggest final of her career when she lost to Serena in Rome on clay. She soon followed that up with her second title on the grass in Birmingham. It was then that she made her top ten debut. Not only was that a momentous occasion for her, it was momentous for American tennis as well. Keys became the first American woman to debut in the top ten since Serena Williams in 1999. It had been a whopping 17 years since a new American face was seen in the world’s top ten. Will 2017 be the year when she takes the next step. Top five? Major final? Or higher?
N is for Nadal, Rafael. 2015 was the first time since 2004 since Nadal failed to win any of the most prestigious clay court titles – Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome or the French Open. His clay court season started promisingly when he won Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but he failed to win another title the rest of the year before calling it quits on the season after the U.S. Open. After winning at least one major every year from 2005-2014, he has gone title-less at the majors in the last two years. Not only that, he failed to even make a major quarterfinal in 2016, the first time that happened since 2004.
O is for Olympics. Nadal, however, saved his year by winning a second gold medal. He followed up his 2008 gold medal in singles by partnering with Marc Lopez to win the doubles gold. He became the first male player to win gold medals in both singles and doubles. The Williams sisters are the only other players to accomplish that. Speaking of the Williams sisters, Venus became the most decorated tennis player in Olympic history by adding a silver medal in mixed doubles to her three gold medals in doubles and a gold in singles. Rajeev Ram was a last minute replacement for the Olympic team and was rewarded with the silver with Venus for his good fortune. And who was the only multiple medal winner at this year’s Olympics? Why that was American Jack Sock who won the mixed doubled gold with Bethanie Mattek-Sands and the bronze with Steve Johnson in men’s doubles.
P is for Puig, Monica. Speaking of the Olympics, in a little over a week, Monica Puig went from journeywoman to national superstar. She came out of nowhere to claim the gold medal over 2016 golden girl Angelique Kerber. She was the first unseeded woman to win since tennis was reintroduced as an Olympic sport in 1984. When the speaker played the Puerto Rican national anthem, that was the first time it had ever been played at the Olympics – ever. Puig became her country’s ninth medal winner but first gold medal winner. The closest Puerto Rico had come to winning a gold was a silver in boxing in 1984 and a silver in wrestling in 2012. Its other six medals were bronze.
Q is for Qatar Open. When Djokovic and Nadal met in the final the first week of the year, the stage seemed to be set for another year of the most prolific rivalry in the history of men’s tennis. This was the 47th meeting between the two greats. They would only play two more times in 2016 with Djokovic winning both additional encounters – the Indian Wells semifinals and the Rome quarterfinals. Their 49 career meetings are the most in men’s history ahead of the 46 meetings between Djokovic and Federer and the 37 meetings between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. For the record, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova hold the all-time record with 80 meetings.
R is for Roger Federer. 2016 was a down year but he still climbed up the record books. His semifinal finishes at the Australian Open and Wimbledon extended his major semifinal record to 40. Jimmy Connors and Novak Djokovic are tied for second with 31 major semifinal appearances. While struggling with injury for most of the year, he failed to win a title for the first time since 2000. And because of those injuries, he cut the cord on his 2016 season after Wimbledon to rest and get healthy for 2017.
S is for Serena Williams. Serena entered 2016 as the overwhelming number one player in the world and a staggering 21-4 record in major finals. That was an 84% winning percentage. For perspective, Steffi Graf was second with a 71% winning percentage with a 22-9 record. Though Serena lost the first two major finals of the year, she would gain some revenge by beating Kerber in the Wimbledon final. This would tie Serena with Kerber’s countrywoman Graf for the most major titles in the Open Era with 22. Margaret Court holds the all-time record of 24 though, for multiple reasons, Graf’s (and now Serena’s) 22 is given more weight than Court’s 24. The Graf/Kerber/Serena triad wasn’t done for the year. When Serena was upset in the U.S. Open semifinals and Kerber took over Serena’s #1 ranking with her U.S. Open win, it left Serena tied with Graf for the most consecutive weeks at #1 with 186. Serena ended the year as the #2 player in the world having only played eight tournaments. Of those eight, she had two wins, three finals and one semifinal. Even with those two finals losses, Serena still holds the record for the best winning percentage in major finals with 78.57.
T is for Tennis Australia. Pat Cash. Margaret Court. Roy Emerson. Evonne Goolagong. Lleyton Hewitt. Rod Laver. John Newcombe. Patrick Rafter. Ken Rosewall. Samantha Stosur. These Australian greats all won majors. And with the exception of Hewitt, they preferred to do their smack talking with their rackets instead of their mouths. Not so with the new generation of Australian tennis. Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic are more known for their boorish behavior than their on-court successes. They’ve been accused of tanking matches and have had run-ins with fans, police officers, fellow athletes and fellow athlete’s girlfriends. Though they are Australia’s two highest ranked men, neither played the Olympics this year due to differences with the Australian Olympic Committee. Just this week, neither was a finalist for the Newcombe Award – Australia’s highest award for a tennis player. Will either player turn it around in 2017?
U is for U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka. It wasn’t too long ago that tennis was a young person’s game. If you hadn’t won a major by your early to mid-20s, chances were slim to none that you never would. Times have changed. Tennis players are having unprecedented success in their late 20s and early to mid-30s, that would have been unheard of 20 years ago. Wawrinka is a prime example of that. He turned professional in 2002 at the age of 17. He reached his first major quarterfinal in 2010 at the U.S. Open. He reached his first major semifinal in 2013 at the U.S. Open. He won his first major in 2014 in Australia. The following year, at 30, he became the oldest French Open champion since Andres Gomez in 1990. At 31, this year, by beating Djokovic in the final, he became the oldest U.S. Open champion since Ken Rosewall in 1970 and the oldest major champion since Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open.
V is for Victoria Azarenka. Though Azarenka only had a 3-17 record against Serena going into 2016, many pundits thought Azarenka would be the player to snatch away Serena’s crown. Her three wins all came in big finals (2009 Miami, 2013 Doha, 2013 Cincinnati). And most of her losses were closely contests that could have gone the other way if not for a point or two. When Azarenka beat Serena in the Indian Wells final it looked like the tide had turned. Azarenka would go on to win Miami right after. She became only the tenth player in history to do so after Jim Courier (1991), Michael Chang (1992), Pete Sampras (1994), Steffi Graf (1994, 1996), Marcelo Rios (1998), Andre Agassi (2001), Roger Federer (2005, 2006), Kim Clijsters (2005) and Novak Djokovic (2011, 2014, 2015, 2016). Not long after she joined this exclusive list, she got injured and then announced her pregnancy, ruling her out for most of 2016. Like Federer, Nadal and Sharapova, all eyes will be on these four multiple major winner and former number ones to see what happens when they come back in 2017.
W is for Williams, Venus. We already talked about her achievement at the Olympics. When many other tennis players are living off their 401Ks, she keeps plugging away. When she won the Taiwan Open earlier this year at the age of 35 years, 7 months, 28 days, she became the fifth oldest woman in history to win a tennis title. In 2015, she made her first major quarterfinals (Australia, U.S.) since 2010 when she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease. In 2016, she did that one better by making the semifinal at Wimbledon, her first major semifinal since the 2010 U.S. Open. She was also the oldest major semifinalist since Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1994. Though she didn’t make a ninth Wimbledon singles final or win a sixth Wimbledon singles title, she teamed with Serena to win a sixth Wimbledon doubles title. This was also their 14th major doubles title as a team tying them for second place in the Open Era with Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva behind Navratilova and Pam Shriver who won 20.
X is for eXhibitions. This is a stretch, but come on. There just aren’t that many things that start with X unless you’re talking about music (xylophone), medicine (x-ray), comic books (X-Men) or irrational fears (xenophobia). Anyways, players say the playing season is too long, resulting in more, and more serious, injuries. Some of those same players fly around the world in the offseason playing exhibitions in exotic locales for seven figure paychecks for a day’s work. Fly me to Fiji to hobnob with sponsors and fans and leave with a fat check. Sign me up. But then I’m not sure I can complain about flying to Australia in January when the real competition begins again.
Y is for Young Americans. After Andy Roddick retired, the American men have been waiting for the next big star. John Isner has reached the top ten and is consistently in the top twenty. The Williams sisters have seemingly always been around but they are closer to the end of the careers than the beginning. Along with 21-year-old Madison Keys, you have Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe and Allison Riske all show some promise sitting at numbers 35, 36 and 39. One the men’s side, you have 24-year-old Jack Sock at #24 and 26-year-old Steve Johnson at #33. The real future of American’s men’s tennis might just be turning professional however. In 2014, Noah Rubin won the Wimbledon junior title. Then in 2015, Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka and Taylor Fritz won the junior French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open titles respectively. Also at the 2015 U.S. Open, Brandon Holt and Riley Smith were runners-up in boys’ doubles. Will one of those boys/men be the next great American champion?
Z is for Zagreb, Croatia. The Davis Cup final was held this past weekend in Zagreb. Argentina was in its fifth final. It was the first country to be in four finals without winning the Cup. This was Croatia’s second appearance in the final, though they had won that title, back in 2005. The other Davis Cup finals for Argentina were plagued with infighting among the Argentine team. Rumor has it that in the 2008 and 2011 finals, alpha males Juan Martin del Potro and David Nalbandian weren’t exactly the best of friends. This year, however, Argentina managed to overcome all adversity. It is the second country in history to win the Cup after playing all four annual ties away from home. Argentina is the third country in history to win the final after being down 1-2.
See you January in Australia!