Dominic Thiem battled back from the verge of defeat to down world No.1 Novak Djokovic in a three-hour, three-set semi-final classic at the ATP Finals.
Grand Slam tennis is done and dusted for another year.
Contrary to many casual observers, there is still a lot of tennis to play out in the next two months. However, now that the silverware for the four majors have been given out, what has 2019 given us?
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Our alumni of Grand Slam champions on the men’s side this year are Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal. If you woke up from a nine-year coma and saw these results, you would think you’ve just had a quick power nap.
But the reality is, as much as the next generation of players are pushing for titles throughout the year, when it comes down to a two-week, best of five-set, seven-match marathon, there are only three men (possible only two considering Roger Federer hasn’t won a major since Australia last year) currently capable of holding the trophy.
At the US Open, Rafael Nadal edged closer to Roger Federer’s total of 20 Grand Slam titles (making Federer’s narrow Wimbledon loss hurt all the more). By defeating Daniil Medvedev, Nadal is now only one behind in the chase to become the greatest major winner in history, and with Nadal seemingly still untouchable in France, next year is going to be a massive year for the Big 3 as they jostle for position to become the greatest of all time.
Whether it’s a blight on the younger generation that they can’t break through or an absolute credit to these tennis legends is always up for debate. But a more pertinent question might be…what will we see first, a Grand Slam winner in their 40s, or one in their 20s?
While there are signs in various matches throughout the tournaments that the Big 3 are vulnerable, at the end of two weeks, for someone else to win they’ll likely have to beat one, two, or three of these all-time greats, and right now that just isn’t happening.
It wasn’t all bad news for the next generation
There may not be any silverware in the cabinet for the young kids, but there have been some solid performances at the majors, which augurs well for the future.
Medvedev has had one of the best US summers in memory, culminating in a run to the US Open final, where he dealt with fatigue, the US crowd, and returned from the brink of a straight-sets defeat to push Nadal to a fifth-set thriller.
In Australia, Stefanos Tsitsipas emerged as a threat to the elite echelon of players by defeating Roger Federer in the fourth round before succumbing to Nadal in the semi-final. While Tsitsipas had a wonderful tournament, the way Nadal brutalised him in the semis just highlighted how hard it is to back up match after match against the best of the best.
Matteo Berrettini enjoyed a breakout year, reaching the semi-finals of the US Open on the back of some blistering forehand power. While he went down to Nadal in straight sets, anyone watching that match could see how vital that first set tie break loss was, and I can’t help thinking, maybe if he got that first set in the bag, he may have gone on with it.
Even so, he has taken his ranking up to a career-high 13, and is a huge reward for a year which also saw him reach the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Rule changes and other controversies
The Australian Open introduced final-set tie-breaks, which saw the end of the marathon final sets on both the men’s and women’s side. Players now play a ‘first to ten points’ super tie-break when the game’s score reaches six-all in the final set.
While some lament the end of the 12-10 or 16-14 scoreline, it is probably a correct decision and will help to protect the health and fitness of players as they progress to the next round.
The 25-second serving shot clock was introduced and designed to speed up the play. As we are now nearly at the end of the tennis year, there hasn’t seemed to be much correlation in increasing the speed of play since it was brought in.
However, it does make it easier for the umpires to keep track of time, and overall it’s a good initiative.
At the French Open, the main talking points were the wet weather and the lack of crowds. Roland Garros is the only major tournament without a roof over any courts, although that is being rectified for next year. A whole day’s play was washed out during the tournament, showing the need for an indoor alternative.
The sparse crowds in the main stadium have long been a visual problem for the television coverage. Quite often the Parisian crowds don’t wander in until after lunch, which is regularly well into the second or even third match on court. With this year’s weather also doing no favours, it is something that the officials need to take a look at.
When the best players in the world are playing to a seemingly half-empty (at best sometimes) stadium, it is not a great optic for the tournament.
Wimbledon also introduced a tie break at the end of the final set, meaning the French Open is the only major who plays the advantage rule. However, unlike the Australian Open and the US Open, the tie break at Wimbledon doesn’t kick in until the score is 12-all in the final set.
Wimbledon has a foot in both camps here. They are trying to avoid the prospect of another 26-24 match like what occurred in the semi-final last year between Kevin Anderson and John Isner.
This had a lasting effect on Anderson, who was no match for Djokovic in the final, creating a real anti-climax. However, I don’t feel there is a need to go to 12-all. Surely 6-all or perhaps 8-all would be enough?
Overall, the 2019 Grand Slam year on the men’s side, has been good without being spectacular. There are definitely some storylines and threads running through the year, but with the big names still taking all the silverware, there is starting to become a real thirst for some new names to breakthrough.
I feel as though 2020 will be a much more exciting year, with some of the younger players getting closer and the older players vying for pole position in the ‘most majors won’ category.
While there’s still plenty of tennis left in the year, I’m already looking forward to January in Melbourne.