December 9, 2014

The 2014 Tennis Spin Awards: The Gentlemen

Man, if you thought things got intense for the ladies in 2014, you ain't seen nothing yet!

After years with a select few dominating the Majors, we got not one, but two first time Slam champions this season. We had records set, breakthroughs made, comebacks staged and upsets of all kinds. And when all was said and done there were plenty of contenders in all of these categories.

So, without further ado...

Hottest NewcomerMost Improved
One to WatchBest Comeback
Greatest LetdownMost Overlooked
Biggest SurpriseGutsiest Win
Greatest UpsetBest Slam Match
Doubles Team of the YearPlayer of the Year

Hottest Newcomer

During a season in which so many young stars emerged on the ATP Tour, it's hard to pick a winner in this category. All these guys made huge strides this year, caused some unlikely upsets and climbed up the rankings. While none of them has completely broken into the elite just yet, all their performances show they've got a lot still to give. And hopefully we'll see them continue their momentum into the New Year.

The Nominees

Jiri Vesely certainly started the year with a ton of promise -- having won six Challenger and Futures titles in 2013, the now twenty-one year old Czech was named the ATP Star of Tomorrow, and he was in a hurry to prove his worth. In his first Australian Open main draw he took the first two sets off twenty-first seed Kevin Anderson, before ultimately succumbing in the nearly four-hour long match. He wasn't discouraged by his loss though -- several weeks later he took Andy Murray to three sets in Indian Wells, then won his first Major match at Roland Garros and stunned Gael Monfils at Wimbledon. Vesely's slowed down a bit since then -- he lost in the first round of all but one of the ATP level events he played after London, but he has climbed to #66 in the world, just a hair off his career high ranking. And as he really starts to gain his footing at the Slams I expect that number to get even smaller.

Austria's Dominic Thiem had an even more successful rise up the rankings this year, finishing the season at #39 in the world, a full hundred spots higher than where he started it. The twenty-one year old had to qualify for most events early on, but wins over Gilles Simon in Indian Wells and Lukas Rosol in Miami put him on the map. His biggest victory, though, came on the clay of Madrid where he came back from losing the first set to Monte Carlo champ Stan Wawrinka to notch the first top-ten win of his career. In the weeks to follow he would reach the final in Kitzbühel and defeat twelfth seed Ernests Gulbis on his way to the fourth round in his U.S. Open debut. He's only won a couple matches since then, but I expect him to come back strong at the start of 2015, ready to add a couple more scalps to his take.

The Winner: Nick Kyrgios

The young Australian may not have climbed as high up the rankings as his contemporaries, but he sure made a louder splash than either of them. In his debut at his homeland's Major, the nineteen-year-old wildcard not only won his first match, but also took the opening two sets twenty-seventh seed Benoit Paire in the second round. He spent the next couple months on the Challenger and Futures circuit, but roared back onto Tour at Wimbledon. Still ranked well out of the top hundred, he weathered three long, grueling matches before stunning top seed and two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round. If that wasn't enough he took out Mikhail Youzhny in New York, becoming the first teenager to beat seeds at back-to-back Slams since Novak Djokovic did it in 2006.

Most Improved

The Nominees

Sam Groth has been around for ages, going pro some eight years ago, but never came close to cracking the top hundred until this summer. The six-foot-four Australian had actually spent most of his career all the way down on the Futures circuit, only winning his first Challenger event this March in Canada. But he started finding his footing on the ATP Tour as well -- he got to the quarters at his season opener in Brisbane and played his first Grand Slam main draw since 2009 -- only his second ever -- in Melbourne. He did well outside his homeland too -- on the grass of Newport, he stunned defending champion Nicolas Mahut to make the semis, and later in the summer he finally won his first Major match in New York. He did well in doubles too, partnering with Andrey Golubev to make the semis at the French Open and with compatriot Chris Guccione to pick up his only Tour title in Bogotá. Now #81 in the world, he could get direct entry to the big events now, which could give him a great opportunity to climb even higher. And with so many players thriving so late in their careers these days, he might just be hitting his prime now.

At twenty-two Jack Sock is a little bit earlier on in his career, but the 2010 Junior champion at the U.S. Open has arguably been on the radar much longer. Back in 2011 he won the mixed doubles title in the Big Apple with Melanie Oudin and he made my list of players to watch in 2013. But he languished mostly outside the top hundred in singles, cracking double digits for a brief period last year, but still ending the season at #104 in the world. He seems to have made a big leap into the higher levels this year -- Sock beat then-#12 Tommy Haas in Auckland and countryman John Isner in Newport. He put up a nice fight against top-ten players too, forcing third sets against the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, even taking out Kei Nishikori at a Masters event in Shanghai. If that wasn't enough, he teamed with Canada's Vasek Pospisil to win the doubles title at Wimbledon, stunning legendary champions Mike and Bob Bryan in the final. Whether his biggest successes are reserved for the paired discipline or he can achieve anything on his own is yet to be seen, but with a climb into the top fifty now he has a better shot than ever to prove his worth on all courts.

The Winner: Roberto Bautista Agut

It's easy to have been unaware of the Spaniard before the start of the season -- the twenty-six year old only broke into the top hundred in late 2012, amassed a losing 29-34 record during his career and only picked up three Challenger titles over the years. He started to gain a little footing last year, beating Tomas Berdych on his way to the Chennai final and notching a win over Grigor Dimitrov in Beijing. But he still ended the year outside the top fifty, in danger of dropping quickly if he didn't defend points off the bat.

RBA rose to the task, of course, and then some -- after reaching the semis in Auckland he stunned Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round of the Australian Open. He kept going from there, too, taking out Berdych again in Indian Wells, reaching the semis in Madrid and picking up his first Tour-level titles in Den Bosch and Stuttgart. Now ranked at #15 in the world, he fell just short of taking an alternate slot for the year-end championship and is a legitimate threat to the top players. While he certainly now has more to lose when the new season starts in a few weeks, something tells me he's going to come out swinging right out of the gate.

One to Watch

The Nominees

Don't be surprised if you haven't heard much about twenty-one year old Guilherme Clezar. Ranked just out of the top two hundred at the start of the year, he only played three ATP-level matches all season, losing the two first rounds he played in Rio and Sao Paulo and putting the only loss on the board in Brazil's Davis Cup Group 1 win over Ecuador in April. He spent most of his time on the Challenger circuit, and while he couldn't win a title this year -- he'd claimed two in his homeland the prior two years -- he was rewarded a wildcard spot in the Challenger Tour Final for the second straight year. As the lowest, eighth seed in the field in 2013, he notched an opening round robin win over top seed Teymuraz Gabashvilli -- this year, the underdog again at #331 in the world, he got two top-hundred wins over Blaz Rola and Joao Souza to reach the semis and then saved three match points in the three tiebreak, three-plus hour match against veteran Victor Estrella Burgos. He ultimately fell to Diego Schwartzman in the final, the only man who'd beaten him in the early rounds, but with a steadily improving results and a couple more matches under his belt, it might not be long before he starts getting some wins on the Big Boys' Tour too.

France's Lucas Pouille also flew under the radar for most of this season, but the twenty year old had a couple more chances to show us what he's got. While he spent the balance of the year at lower profile events, and did miss what could have been a great chance in Australia -- the wildcard in Melbourne opened against qualifier Dusan Lajovic and fell in four tight sets -- he got in some solid results at the Challengers early on. Later in the year he started getting traction, too, reaching the semis at events in Romania, the Slovak Republic and Poland before finally breaking into a final in Morocco. And though he still had to qualify for Tour-level tournaments, he finally took advantage of an opportunity at his hometown Masters. In Paris he effected four big upsets, notching wins over big-serving Ivo Karlovic and former world #13 Fabio Fognini before losing to Roger Federer in the Round of Sixteen. He hasn't yet cracked the double digits himself, but if he takes his momentum into the new year, it might not be long before he does.

The Winner: Borna Coric

Having just turned pro, the eighteen year old Croat wasn't on anyone's radar at the start of the year -- 2013's Boys champion at the U.S. Open was ranked outside the top three hundred at the end last season and spent most of the early part of this one at Futures events. But he showed promise from the start -- he took a set off veteran Michael Berrer in his ATP debut in Zagreb, reached the quarters and semis in subsequent events in his hometown and then beat then-#21 Jerzy Janowicz in Davis Cup action. He fell in early qualifying rounds over the summer but finally got a couple Tour-level wins in at Umag, beating top-fifty player Edouard Roger-Vasselin and former Viña del Mar champ Horacio Zeballos in the process. But he really hit his stride in the early fall, upsetting Lukas Rosol in his New York opener as a qualifier and reaching the semis in Tashkent. A couple weeks later in Basel he stunned an admittedly injured Ernests Gulbis and an appendicitis-afflicted Rafael Nadal, notching the biggest wins of his still young career. Of course, it remains to be seen whether he can pull off such victories when his opponents are at the top of their games, but it might not be long before we get to see him try -- now at #91 in the world and surely climbing, I'd expect him to make a much bigger statement at the big events in the new year.

Best Comeback

The Runner-Up: Viktor Troicki

The long-time Serbian #2 was ranked as high as #12 in the world at his peak, and in the first half of last year he scored wins over the likes of Marin Cilic and then-#14 Janko Tipsarevic. But after failing to submit a sample during drug testing in Monte Carlo, he was forced to serve a suspension which pulled him out of the game for twelve months. As points started falling off this July he dropped precipitously, first out of the top fifty, then out of the top hundred, bottoming out over the summer at #847 in the world. When he returned to Tour after Wimbledon, though, he put in some big man-hours on court -- he got to the quarters in Gstaad, banged through qualifying rounds at Challengers, even winning a couple titles on that circuit. By the time autumn rolled around he had gotten much of his groove back, taking out David Ferrer in Shenzhen, Mikhail Youzhny in Beijing, and reaching the semis in Vienna. He's now ranked just outside the top hundred, but any success in the early months of the New Year will send him soaring, and it might not be long before he's back contending with the big guys on the big stages once again.

The Nominees

The Winner: David Goffin

We might pay more attention to what happens on the ATP circuit, but you can't ignore what a player does at the Challenger level -- results may not give them a ton of ranking points or prize money, but it sure gives athletes some much-needed match play. And the young Belgian certainly was able to parlay what he learned at smaller events into big things on the main stage. The erstwhile wunderkind got all the way to the Roland Garros fourth round in 2012 as a qualifier and even put up a fight at Wimbledon, taking out then-#28 Bernard Tomic in their opener. But he fell way off the radar after that -- the now twenty-four year old lost in the first round of seven straight Majors, dropped as low as #113 in the world and notched just one top-twenty win over the next two years.

But after losing to Andy Murray at the All England Club this year, something in him switched. He won three Challenger events back-to-back during the summer, and then stunned the world for his first Big Boys' title in Kitzbühel. His stretched his win streak to twenty-five straight games, qualifying for and reaching the quarters in Winston-Salem and even put up a nice fight against Grigor Dimitrov in the third round at the U.S. Open. And he didn't slow down from there -- loyal to the courts which spring-boarded him to the big leagues, Goffin picked up another Challengers' trophy in Mons, beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to his second career title in Metz, and scored his first top-ten win, beating Milos Raonic on the way to the final in Basel. His ranking now stands at #22 in the world, a far cry from the sub-hundred spot he occupied at the start of the year, and well higher than his previous peak in the mid-forties. And I don't think he'll let himself lose his grip so easily this time around.

Greatest Letdown

The Runner-Up: Fabio Fognini

The brash Italian didn't fall completely off his game this year, picking up his third career title in Viña Del Mar in February, reaching the final in Buenos Aires and finishing the season at #20 in the world. He even pulled off an impressive, straight-set victory over then-#8 Andy Murray in their Davis Cup quarterfinal. In March he hit a career high ranking of #13 in the world.

But his temper and on-court antics sure seemed to garner more headlines than his quality of play. At times it made sense -- his clash with an umpire in Indian Wells seems largely justified -- but also had some less appropriate outburts, melting down during a loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov in Madrid, incurring a fine almost as large as his winnings from his first round Wimbledon win, and actually flipping off the crowds after being defeated by world #533 Chuhan Wang in Shanghai. He only has one win since the U.S. Open and hasn't notched a single victory over anyone in the top-forty since July -- not the first time he's lost steam toward the end of the season -- so he certainly hasn't put up the numbers to excuse his behavior. And having shown so much promise over the years, it's high time Fognini proved he can be consistent in areas that have a little more to do with his talent and ability and less with his attitude.

The Winner: Benoit Paire

The twenty-five year old Frenchman had quite an impressive season in 2013 -- he scored wins over the likes of Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon, Milos Raonic and top ten players Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin Del Potro. He reached the final in Montpelier and the semis in Rome and by the French Open had risen high enough to merit a twenty-fourth seed.

This year, however, was a bit of a different story. After eking out a win over Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open, he notched three opening round exits during the spring, retiring from matches in Barcelona and Madrid. He didn't do much better during the summer, winning just three main draw matches between Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. He had to qualify for Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati, and though he did manage a win over Julien Benneteau in New York, he skipped the rest of the season with a knee injury. His #118 ranking is a far cry from where he peaked last season and he could have a hard time getting into the tournaments that once made him a star. But hopefully he'll be able to recover and rebound when the new season starts -- otherwise his time among the elite could be more short-lived than he could ever have expected.

Most Overlooked

While plenty of players grabbed headlines this year -- both good and bad -- a couple lesser known names were slogging away on both the ATP and Challengers' Tours and racking up a bunch of always-significant ranking points. Sam Querrey, who struggled against the big guys most of the year, sneakily managed to claw himself back to #35 in the world on the heels of a trio of smaller titles. And Argentina's Diego Schwartzman finished the season at a career high #61 after winning the Challenger Tour Finals in São Paulo. And they're not the only ones who've flown under the radar.

The Nominees

Santiago Giraldo may be the highest-profile name on the list -- he reached his second career final in Barcelona with wins over clay-court specialists like Fabio Fognini and Nicolas Almagro and then stunned Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray on his way to the Madrid quarters. He still hasn't done much at the Majors -- his third round appearance at Wimbledon is the only the second time he's won two matches at a Slam, but he did earn his first seed at the U.S. Open, ultimately falling in four sets to Teymuraz Gabashvili in his opener. Still he seems to have a lot of potential, especially on clay. And hopefully in the coming season he'll be able to harness that talent and finally make a big statement.

Portugal's Joao Sousa also put up some solid results this year, and across all surfaces. He scored an upset of Gilles Simon on the Miami hardcourts, reached the semis in Den Bosch as a qualifier and finished runner-up on the dirt of Bastad. After a couple early exits over the summer, he rebounded in the fall, taking out former champion Gael Monfils before finally losing in the Metz final to David Goffin. He's struggled a bit since then, winning just one match in a tight three sets in Beijing, but like Giraldo he's shown some promise and could be primed for big things in the new year.

The Winner: Pablo Cuevas

Unlike these other guys, the twenty-eight year old Uruguayan has a little bit of bling to show for his efforts this year. Ranked outside the top two hundred at the start of the year, he made a big push to return to double digits during the clay court season. He picked up a couple Challengers' trophies in Barranquilla and Mestre but then really hit his stride over the summer -- he went on a fourteen match winning streak after Wimbledon, quietly adding his first two ATP-level titles in Bastad and Umag, notching wins over Fernando Verdasco, Fabio Fognini and Tommy Robredo. He picked up two more smaller trophies to end the season, scoring enough points to finish the year at #30 -- a huge improvement from where he started. Like with these other guys who thrive most on clay, he's so easily overshadowed by one man who dominates the surface, but Cuevas certainly poses a threat to the favorites and it might not be long before he puts that ability to good use.

Biggest Surprise

I always find it difficult to award prizes in this category -- a "surprise" can take so many forms, after all. It can highlight a great achievement from an unexpected source, the precipitous fall of a long-time great, or really anything strange that happens on -- or off -- the court. And this year's candidates really run the gamut.

The Nominees

Feliciano Lopez has long been an also-ran in this sport -- though he'd previously peaked in the top twenties a few years ago, by and large he spent his time in the mid to low double digits and almost never reached the second week of a Major. And at thirty-three years of age, you had to think the handsome Spaniard's best playing days were behind him. But things seemed to fall into place somehow this year -- always a grass court specialist, Lopez stunned former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych on his way to the Queen's Club final and rebounded quickly to take the title in Eastbourne. He only made the third round at the All England Club, but took out marathon man John Isner and put up a nice fight against Stan Wawrinka in the process. Feli even extended his success to the hardcourts -- he reached the semis at the Rogers Cup and in Shanghai, adding a couple more top-ten wins to his resume by beating Milos Raonic and Rafael Nadal. He ends the year at a career high #14 in the world and accepted a second alternate's ticket to the Barclays World Tour Finals. We may be in an era of veteran success these days, but to see a man play his best so late in his career is really something to admire.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, has been at the top of his game for years, picking up a couple Major titles, scoring Olympic Gold in his homeland and rising as high as #2 in the world. Back surgery at the end of last year put him at a big of a disadvantage at the start of this season, and he briefly fell out of the top ten in the early fall. But he really got himself back on track after the U.S. Open -- he won his first title of the year in Shenzhen, beat New York champion Marin Cilic in Beijing and added a couple more trophies in Vienna and Valencia. His late season surge was enough to qualify for the year-end championships and seemed to suggest momentum was on his side. That's why his meltdown during the last round robin match was so unexpected -- with a chance to reach his fourth semi at the World Tour Finals he should have been able to put up a fight. Instead he won just one game against Roger Federer, not even notching a point on his opponent's first serve and after less than an hour was sent home. He did get to play an exhibition match against eventual champion Novak Djokovic after Roger pulled out of Sunday's final, but it was clearly not the ending he wanted after the comeback he'd launched over the last few months. Hopefully, though, he'll be back and kicking in 2015 -- it would certainly be a shame to have all the effort be for naught.

The Winner: U.S. Open Semifinals

As I've alluded to above, there used to be a time -- especially in the men's game -- where experience meant something. Before the start of this year, three players had won thirty-two of the previous thirty-six Majors. Just two men combined to with twenty-six of them. A championship hadn't been contested by two newbies since Rafael Nadal met Mariano Puerta at the 2005 French Open.

So when five-time Big Apple champion Roger Federer and 2011 winner Novak Djokovic -- who, just two months prior, had put on a classic display at the All England Club -- made it to the semis at this year's U.S. Open, it seemed inevitable we were in for another battle between the two greats.

But that, of course, was not meant to be. Then-world #11 Kei Nishikori, who'd spent his last eight-and-a-half hours on court upsetting both Milos Raonic and Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka, seemed to rebound effortlessly to take out Djokovic in four fairly straightforward sets. A few hours later Marin Cilic, who started the year ranked all the way down at #37, took the court against Roger, who'd won each one of the pair's five earlier meetings. But Fed had been pushed to the limit by Gael Monfils in the quarters and couldn't put up much of a fight for a spot in the final. With their wins we were guaranteed a second first-time Major winner this season, and the first time since 2002 neither Slam finalist was ranked in the top ten.

Of course, it was Cilic who eventually walked away with the title, but while both men went on to make their year-end championship debuts, Nishikori ended up with the better season, picking up titles in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur before reaching the semis in London. Still, no matter how well these guys did all year, no one would have expected both to pull off equally unlikely upsets on the same day. And their achievements might just have set a new tone for the start of the upcoming season.

Gutsiest Win

The Runner-Up: Gilles Simon d. Marin Cilic, Australian Open Second Round

Do you remember how hot it was at the Australian Open this year? With high temperatures in Melbourne climbing well into triple digits and on-court thermometers clocking in above 120°, multiple matches were halted and a couple players were forced to retire mid-play. So when some players stayed on court for three hours or more -- even as the sun began to set -- you have to give them props. And former world #6 Simon and then-unseeded Cilic fought out the longest match on the hottest day of the tournament.

Neither man was playing his best at the time -- The Frenchman had notched losses to players like world #111 Alejandro Falla and #147 Marius Copil in recent matches and had just endured a four-and-a-half hour marathon against Dustin Brown in his Aussie opener. The soon-to-be crowned Grand Slam champ, meanwhile, was still coming back from a four-month suspension and had gotten precipitously close to falling out of the top fifty. He'd squeaked through his own five setter in the first round, coming back from two sets down versus a higher-ranked Marcel Granollers to get the win. And both were unwilling to concede this match.

Cilic was the first to draw blood, nabbing the only break in the first set, but his opponent was able to even the score, taking the second in a tiebreak. Both men struggled on serve in the next set, each winning three games on return before the Croat finally took the lead with another breaker. But Simon was revitalized from there -- with Cilic only getting six first serves in during the fourth set and winning just two of them, Gilles was the tougher through the final hour -- ultimately closing out the match 6-2 in the decider. His run wouldn't go much farther -- he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets in the next round -- but he did manage a couple top-ten wins on his way to the Shanghai final this fall, and while he's still a ways off his career high ranking, but if he can deliver a few more wins in similarly tough situations, it might not be long before he's back in the mix again.

The Nominees

The Winner: Andy Murray d. Tommy Robredo, Valencia Final

How frustrating must the veteran Spaniard be? Robredo, who hit his peak ranking of #5 in the world way back in 2006, had been climbing his way back into relevance the last few years, stunning Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last summer and taking out Novak Djokovic this past August in Cincinnati. Earlier in the fall he'd made his way to the final in Shenzhen, took the first set and, against all odds, earned five match points versus two-time Grand Slam champion and heavy favorite Andy Murray. But he ultimately couldn't convert, getting breadsticked (breadstuck?) in the final set and falling in the two and a half hour match.

So you can imagine when the pair met again a few weeks later in his homeland, Robredo was out for revenge -- and he got off to a good start. With the crowd's support he denied six break opportunities in the opening set and converted his own to get the early lead. He earned himself another couple match points in the second set breaker, but was again pushed to a third when the Scot powered through. Robredo wasn't through yet, though -- in the deciding set of what would become the longest non-Slam final of the year, he again got the first break. But Murray came out swinging when he was under the most pressure -- capping off an amazing late-season surge, he evened the score again and saved another three championship points in yet another tiebreak -- that's ten in all during those two matches -- finally closing out the match after three and a third hours of play. After a fight like that, you can understand Robredo's "salute" at the net:

The win, of course, should have been routine for the one-time world #2, but facing a motivated and inspired opponent and coming out ahead took more than a higher ranking and more hardware in his trophy case. The match featured some of the best play we've seen outside the Grand Slams this year and, though only one contender walked away with the title, you could argue that both were winners that day.

Greatest Upset

The Runner-Up: Lleyton Hewitt d. Roger Federer, Brisbane Final

Lleyton Hewitt is one of those players who just refuses to go away. Though he hasn't been a force at the Majors in years, he's nevertheless not someone any of the favorites wants to see in his section of the draws -- last year he got another win over Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open and this year he pushed both Andreas Seppi and Jerzy Janowicz through five long sets. And while he's still hovering in the mid double-digit rankings, he can still bring it against the top guys when he wants to.

Such was the case this year in Brisbane where the unseeded Australian took out Feliciano Lopez and Kei Nishikori on his way to the final in his homeland. There he met a slightly slowed-down but still heavily favored Roger Federer who, ranked #6 in the world at the time, had made at least the semis of the last three events he played. The pair had played twenty-six times before, with the great Swiss holding a commanding 18-8 lead, and Hewitt had only one win in the last ten-plus years. But the underdog took command early, running away with the first set easily and yielding his only break of serve in the second. After just over two hours, Hewitt was left the victor, earning his first trophy since 2010 and his biggest win since defeating then-#3 Nikolay Davydenko in Hamburg five years ago. He went on to win a title in Newport over the summer, making this his most prolific year in a decade. And while he may not have done a lot with the back half of his season, I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out and cause a little more damage once the new year starts.

The Winner: Alexandr Dolgopolov d. Rafael Nadal, Indian Wells Third Round

To be sure Rafa notched a lot of losses this year to players you'd never expect to put up a fight against the reigning year-end #1 -- Dustin Brown in Halle, Martin Klizan in Beijing, not to mention those two teenagers ranked outside the top hundred -- but this was his first big reality check of the year. Despite a shocking upset in Melbourne, the defending champion at the BNP Paribas Open had put together a more-than-solid year, reaching the final of every event he played, and even taking out Dolgo for the Rio title.

The man from Ukraine, on the other hand, was trying to claw himself back into relevance -- a stone's throw from the top ten about three years ago, he struggled to hold onto form in 2013, losing his opening match at thirteen events. He started this year at #57 in the world, wasn't seeded at the Australian Open and only scored one full win over a top hundred player early in the season. He seemed to get his footing on clay, though, beating David Ferrer in Rio and reaching the semis in Acapulco. Still, no one thought he'd give Nadal any trouble in the desert -- in their five previous meetings he'd never even won a set. But this time things were very different -- Dolgo got off to an early lead and though Rafa was able to force a decider, he stayed stronger in the third set tiebreak. He rode his momentum all the way to the semis, beating Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic along the way, and then made the quarters in Miami, briefly cracking the top twenty again in June.

It's been a struggle for both men since then, of course. Nadal was injured again (and again), missed the U.S. Open and had to pull out of the season-ending championships after appendix surgery. And Dolgopolov had his own knee operation late in the summer, winning just one match since his return to Tour in September. Hopefully we'll see both return to form in the New Year -- after all, knowing what they're capable of, everyone would benefit from seeing more of what they've got to show.

Best Slam Match

The Runner-Up: Ernests Gulbis d. Roger Federer, French Open Fourth Round

The young Latvian has had a roller coaster of a career, first breaking into the top thirty in 2010 with his maiden crown in Delray Beach, scoring wins over Mikhail Youzhny and Roger Federer that season, but then losing early at events a year later, citing fatigue or illness as causes for defeat. At the end of 2012 he'd fallen out of the top hundred, had to qualify for events in Cincinnati and Winston-Salem, and needed a lucky loser entry to get into a Challenger tournament in Eckental, Germany. He spent much of last season rebuilding, reclaimed the trophy in Florida and picked up another in St. Petersburg. By the time this season started he was ranked back in the top thirty, and he continued to climb -- he beat Juan Martin Del Potro in Rotterdam and Grigor Dimitrov in Indian Wells. By the time he made it to Roland Garros he'd claimed the eighteenth seed, his best yet at a Major.

Still I'm not sure anyone would have predicted the results he got -- after losing his first set in Paris, he rolled through the next nine without breaking much of a sweat to set up his first meeting with Roger since his breakout 2010 season. They split the first two sets in tiebreaks but Gulbis roared back in the third to take the lead. The far less-experienced Latvian also stayed strong after the great Fed evened the score, securing the only break of the deciding set, and after nearly four hours of play reached his first Slam quarterfinal since 2008. It might have been Roger's most surprising loss of the year, but more importantly it could have been Ernests' most inspiring -- he went on to score his fifth top ten win of 2014 by beating Tomas Berdych and even took a set off Novak Djokovic in the semis, by far his best showing at a Major to date. His performance brought him to within a stone's throw of a single-digit ranking, but unfortunately more injuries hampered his results the rest of the year -- he declined an alternate's ticket to the London final to nurse his shoulder. Still, he ends the year at #13 in the world, and if he's fully recovered when the new season starts, there's no reason to believe he won't climb even higher.

The Winner: Stanislas Wawrinka d. Novak Djokovic, Australian Open Quarterfinals

There were a lot of players who turned the tables on long-time rivals in Melbourne this year -- Ana Ivanovic, who'd lost all four of her previous meetings with Serena Williams, pulled off a stunning three-set victory in the fourth round; Wawrinka ultimately got his only win to-date over Rafael Nadal in the final. But this match might have trumped them all.

Stan had met Nole a round earlier the year before in a match that lasted over five hours, went 12-10 in the final set and was still going strong deep into the early-morning hours, New York time. It was the closest the Swiss had come to beating the world #1 in years -- his only two victories came way back in 2006 before either really had established a presence on Tour, and he hadn't managed to take even a set off him since 2009 -- but fans were on the edge of their seats until the end of this one. And a couple months later they were treated to yet another display between the two powerhouses -- at last year's U.S. Open they went another five sets, another four hours, before Djokovic was again awarded the win. So when the pair split the first four sets this year Down Under, there was a feeling we were in for a doozy.

They did not disappoint.

Djokovic came into this match more than the on-paper favorite -- he'd barreled through early rounds, spending less than two hours on court in his each of his first four matches while Wawrinka had been pushed to tiebreaks by both Alejandro Falla and Tommy Robredo. He was better rested, though, benefiting from a retirement in his opener and a walkover in the third round, so this time he might have had the advantage. After losing the first set, he came back to take the lead and overcame a break in the decider after Nole had evened the score -- at almost midnight in Australia, while the Serb was serving to stay in the match, Stan broke again, his fifth time during the meeting, and finally, after fourteen straight losses to his opponent, finally came out the winner.

Wawrinka went on, of course, to make his first career Grand Slam final and take home that all-important maiden Major. He rose to a career high #3 in the world after the Open, went on to score a win over compatriot Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and came ever so close to reaching the final at the year-end final in London. And I can't help but wonder if any of it would have been possible if he hadn't reversed the course against his long-time rival.

Doubles Team of the Year

The Runner-Up: Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock

This might be a controversial choice since these two weren't an exclusive couple this year and, like with the ladies who won this category, together they fell just a bit short of qualifying for the year-end tournament of champions. Still, for a couple guys still looking for their first big break on the singles circuit, they sure got things done when they teamed up.

Sock, of course, had tasted success in the past -- in 2011 he teamed with one-time darling Melanie Oudin to win the U.S. Open Mixed Doubles title and picked up a couple smaller trophies last year with my dear James Blake. This year he also reached the final in Stockholm with the Philippines' Treat Huey. Pospisil had some nice results with other partners himself -- he and veteran Nenad Zimonjic claimed a crown in Basel while London semifinalist Julien Benneteau helped him to a runner-up finish in Beijing. But their biggest successes by far came together.

Unseeded at Wimbledon -- Pospisil was ranked #94 in doubles at the time -- the team took out some heavy hitters during their run. First the Indo-Pak powerhouse of Rohan Bopana and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, then second seeds Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares, multiple Major winners Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, and finally to cap off an amazing fortnight they went five sets and three-plus hours against the legendary Bryan Brothers, ultimately winning the match 7-5 in the decider. They repeated most of those wins in Cincinnati, adding a Benneteau/Edouard Roger-Vasselin scalp to their kitty, but fell this time to the Bryans in the final. Still the pair's meteoric rise over the year -- they end the season as the tenth best team -- and the high-profile victories they logged along the way show what they're capable of. And you can't help but feel that the more time they spend together, the higher and higher they will climb.

The Winner: The Bryan Brothers

Bob and Mike Bryan have a much longer history together, of course -- thirty-six years, to be exact. And with at least four doubles titles a year in each of the last fourteen, theirs has been one of the most prolific partnerships in sports history. Since 2005 they've ended eight seasons ranked at the top of the game, never dropping below #3 in the world in almost a decade. This year they added ten trophies to their mantel -- six of them at Masters 1000 events -- notched title number one hundred together appropriately at the U.S. Open, bringing their Grand Slam total to sixteen, and capped off their run by taking the doubles crown at the World Tour Finals -- their fourth year-end championship, but surprisingly their first since 2009. Sure, they had some surprising losses over the course of the year -- to Pospisil and Sock at Wimbledon, to otherwise unseeded teams in Tokyo and Toronto -- but when you consistently play your best tennis against the very top players in the discipline, you far and away establish yourselves as the pair to beat at any event you enter. And the way these guys are going, I wouldn't expect them to concede that reputation any time soon.

Player of the Year

The Runner-Up: Novak Djokovic

Like for the women in this category, the year-end #1, despite all his accomplishments and accolades, only came in second in my eyes. And also like for the women, that's not meant to take anything away from what Nole acheived this year.

While he may have failed to capture his fourth straight Australian Open title, he nevertheless laid claim to seven crowns this season -- one Grand Slam, four Masters 1000s, and yet another year-end championship. He was dominant against the brightest stars in the sport, winning a stunning nineteen of twenty-four matches against top-ten players, and his biggest "upset" was in Cincinnati at the hands of then-#20 Tommy Robredo, a man who's been pretty amazing all year long. Djokovic hasn't lost before the quarterfinals at any Major in over five years and has now gone four straight adding at least one big trophy to his mantle -- that's the second longest active streak going today.

And, not that this has anything ostensible to do with his on-court successes, but Nole also hit two major (small "m") life milestones this year, wedding long-time girlfriend Jelena Ristic just days after winning his second Wimbledon title and welcoming baby boy Stefan to the family days before heading off to Paris to finish the rest of the season unbeaten. Now a husband, a father and a year-end #1 for the first time in his career, he might have some sort of superpower that propels him even further in the new year -- as if he didn't already have one before!

The Winner: Roger Federer

Okay, okay, I know he only finished the year #2 in the world, but again, like with the ladies, the man who will likely go down in history as the Greatest of All Time, he pulled off so much more than what ranking points suggest. Roger started the year "all the way down" at #6, his lowest ranking in eleven years, and fell ever so briefly two spots below that. On top of that he was coming off a year in which he'd only won one title all season -- his least prolific result since 2001. At thirty-three years of age it was easy to think King Fed was inching closer to the exit and that it might not be long before he's fully out the door.

But Roger was quick to silence the critics this year -- after a surprising loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane and a loss in the Melbourne semifinals, he got a big win over Novak Djokovic on his way to the title in Dubai, reached finals at Masters events in Indian Wells and Monte Carlo and put on a stunning performance in the Wimbledon final -- his first Major championship match in two years. And it got better from there -- he pulled off an amazing come-from-behind victory over Gael Monfils in New York, picked up his twenty-second and twenty-third Masters titles in Cincy and Shanghai and went an impressive 3-0 during round robin matches at the year-end championships. Clearly he was saving his best for the very last moments of the year.

To be fair, when Roger pulled out of the London final with a back injury and got demolished in his first, albeit exceedingly uncertain, Davis Cup rubber I very nearly demoted him to runner-up in this category. But his stepping up to get the doubles win and clinching the trophy with a Day Three singles victory over an always-tough Richard Gasquet proved to me he was nowhere near losing steam. And with just a couple events worth of points separating him from the top spot, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a big play for it as soon as the new year starts.

After all, is there anyone on the planet you think would be more capable of pulling something like that off?

And so that does it for this year's action on the ATP Tour. With so much going on, of course it's impossible to capture everything, even in a post as long as this. So let me know who you think has claim to top billing in these categories, and be sure to check out which ladies took home this year's awards.

With just a few weeks left before the new season starts, it's time for all these guys and gals to gear up for another round of drama. And after the efforts and performances they put up this year, you can bet they'll all come out swinging in 2015 -- which gives next year's awards the potential to be even more exciting than we could ever expect.

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