December 24, 2020

2020 Tennis Spin Awards: Matches of the Year

It may have been a short season for tennis, but that still didn't leave us lacking for really great matches. From nail-biting five setters, to the ushering in of new talent, to battles reminiscent of the glory days, we certainly got to see some of the best that this sport has to offer in 2020. And it sure gives us hope for what's to come.

So as we close in on the last Tennis Spin Awards for the year, it's time to salute...

The Women

The Winner: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams, Lexington, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4

Over the last twenty-two years these sistens have faced each other 31 times, twelve times in a final, nine when a Major trophy was at stake. And their their latest battle in the second round of this year's inaugural Top Seed Open could rival any one of those for a place in history.

Serena, of course, was the favorite in this one, still ranked in the top ten and holding the #1 seed at the event. Venus, meanwhile, had started to slow down, falling out of the top sixty and going winless in her first three matches of the year. But she was coming off a win over a then on-the-mend Victoria Azarenka in the first round of Lexington and might have brought that confidence with her into the next match.

She got off to a good start, too, taking the first set and building a 4-2 lead in the decider before her younger sister came roaring back. Breaking serve immediately after losing hers, Serena won the last four games of the match, and after nearly two and a half hours extended her lead in this four-decade-longrivalry to 19-12.

Of course, at 39 and 40 years old respectively, there is only so much time left that Serena and Venus will be able to play at such a high level. But reminding us of what they can do -- and seemingly bringing out the best in each other -- gives us hope that we might just see a little more meetings like this one. And hopefully the quality will be just as high as we've gotten so used to seeing.

Honorable Mention: Maria Sakkari d. Serena Williams, "Cincinnati", 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-1

Serena Williams didn't always come out on the winning end of her battles this year. Though she did end a nearly three-year title drought in Auckland to start the season, her quest for Grand Slam #24 remains unfulfilled and she proved she was eminently beatable on a couple fronts. But Maria Sakkari's win at the Western & Southern was more a triumph for the Greek than a breakdown of the American. The thirteenth seed fought back from a 2-5 deficit in the first set and held strong after losing an early break in the second. She came within two points of defeat before taking the tiebreak and storming through the decider. Well-placed shots, solid ground strokes and a firm resolve helped her come out the winner of that match, and while she did lose her next match -- and her next meeting with Williams -- I have high hopes she'll come into the new season strong and swinging.

The Men

The Winner: Dominic Thiem d. Alexander Zverev, U.S. Open, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6)

Dominic Thiem was starting to get a reputation. Long heralded as the face of the next generation in men's tennis, he had, the last two years, come within one match of that elusive maiden Grand Slam, losing twice to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. And while those losses might have been expected, he very nearly could have broken the seal this year in Melbourne, when he took a 2-set-to-1 lead over Novak Djokovic in the championship match. He fell short again.

So, you could imagine the pressure on him at this year's U.S. Open, with Rafa and Roger Federer both skipping the event and Nole so spectacularly ousted in the fourth round. We were guaranteed a first-time Major winner by the quarters and of course the 27-year-old Austrian, the second seed, was the favorite.

But it looked at the outset that things would not go his way. After a relatively drama-free run to the final he found himself down two sets to Alexander Zverev, who seemed to have put his summer troubles behind him. The German, who'd come back from two sets down to Pablo Carreño Busta in the semis, appeared the better-rested of the two combatants, and Thiem, who'd joked earlier that he'd have to call Andy Murray for advice on how to deal with losing his first four Major finals, seemed headed for the door.

It turned out, though, that Thiem had a little more fight left in him. He stormed back to take the third and fourth sets and in a decider full of service breaks -- six total in the set -- became the first man to win the U.S. Open in a fifth-set tiebreak. He was also the first to win in New York from two sets down.

The win made Thiem one of just five active players not named Roger, Rafa, or Nole who can call themselves a Grand Slam champion. We'll have to see if the win opens the floodgates for him over the coming years -- but as we get deeper into the Big Three's careers he seems in the best place to take over the reins.

Honorable Mention: Roger Federer d. Tennys Sandgren, Australian Open, 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-3

We all know it's never a good idea to count out Roger Federer. Many tried after that stunning Wimbledon victory in 2012, saying that 17th Major trophy was looking to be his last. But, starting with the 2017 Australian Open, he then picked up numbers eighteen through twenty. Still, like many of the greats, he has proven he can be beaten in recent years, losing to players like John Millman, Kevin Anderson, and a #78-ranked Grigor Dimitrov. So when Tennys Sandgren, ranked just in the top hundred at the time, earned seven match points during their quarterfinal in Melbourne, you'd think he'd have a shot at converting one of them. But Roger showed us why he's Roger, holding tough for the win before falling a match later to Novak Djokovic. And while that was the last we saw of him this year, you have to believe he'll come back stronger and fitter in the new year.

We've almost made it -- only two more Tennis Spin Awards left to hand out! Up next: the doubles teams of the years. It's always better when we play together!

And to see all of the winners this year and in years past, click here.

No comments: