Djokovic and Raducanu shine but Laver Cup falls flat: Highs and lows of 2021 tennis season

Reviewing the best and worst of the ATP and WTA Tour seasons

The ATP and WTA Tour seasons came to their respective conclusions this month with the season-ending Finals. While this week’s Davis Cup extends the tennis year for another seven days, most players are taking a well-earned break before doing it all over again in January.

With the 2021 campaign now consigned to the record books, here is a look at some of the highs and lows from the past 12 months.

Highs

Djokovic (almost) unstoppable

Such has become the expectations of dominance associated with Novak Djokovic that 2021 will be viewed as an opportunity missed to complete the calendar Grand Slam, rather than the fact he put himself in a position to achieve it in the first place.

Djokovic, 34, was within one win at the US Open to joining Rod Laver as the only men to win all four majors in the same season. He had cruised to a record-extending ninth Australian Open title and was similarly untroubled on his march to a sixth Wimbledon crown. The Serb was pushed much closer by Stefanos Tsitsipas in a five-set epic at Roland Garros, but his brilliance and resilience ultimately shone through.

Daniil Medvedev may have prevented Djokovic from attaining that particular piece of tennis history, but it was still a phenomenal season from the world No 1, who moved level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 Grand Slam titles and ended the season top of the rankings for a record seventh year.

Throw in another two titles, in Belgrade and at the Paris Masters, and a win-loss record of 51-7, and it was another remarkable year for the game's best player.

Norway’s trailblazer

Norway has long been a powerhouse in winter sports, and has produced its share of top-level footballers too, but tennis players from the Scandinavian nation have been few and far between. Step forward Casper Ruud, who must be accustomed to creating Norwegian tennis history by now.

Ruud, 22, became the first Norwegian to win an ATP Tour title last season and he has built on that in 2021 in fine style, winning five titles and surging to No 8 in the world rankings. He is the highest-ranked player in the history of Norwegian tennis, surpassing his father Christian, who reached a career-high 39th.

Deemed a clay-court specialist, Ruud proved he has the game for different surfaces by winning the San Diego title and reaching the semi-finals at the ATP Finals in debut. A bright future awaits.

Masters prizes get shared around

Outside of the four majors, the biggest prizes on the ATP Tour are found at the nine Masters 1000 tournaments dotted across the globe.

During the 'Big Three' era, these titles were largely shared between Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, with Andy Murray helping himself to a few along the way. This year, though, the eight Masters titles (Shanghai was cancelled due to the pandemic) saw a variety of winners.

Alexander Zverev was the only multiple champion, winning both Madrid and Cincinnati as part of a superb season that also included the Olympic gold medal and ATP Finals title. Hubert Hurkacz, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Cameron Norrie all won their first Masters titles in Miami, Monte Carlo and Indian Wells respectively, while Medvedev was triumphant in Canada.

Of course, there were still the obligatory titles for Nadal (Rome) and Djokovic (Paris), so the old guard is not quite done yet. But this year suggested that, in a post-Big Three era the bigger prizes might be contested by a wider field of players.

Murray’s reasons for optimism

The past three-and-a-half years have largely been full of uncertainty and setbacks for Andy Murray as the former world No 1 underwent two hip surgeries in a bid to save his career.

It has been a long road back for Murray, and he still has some way to go until he rediscovers the form that won him three major titles. But there have been reasons for optimism in 2021.

Murray, 34, claimed two victories over top-10 opponents in the space of two weeks this Autumn and pushed Tsitsipas to five sets at the US Open. Most importantly, he was active this year, competing in 16 events across the ATP and Challenger tours.

As the season entered its final weeks, it was clear the Scot was making huge improvements and as one of the most popular players among his fellow pros and fans alike, there is widespread hope that he can continue trending in the right direction in 2022.

Raducanu’s New York history

If the 2021 season was to be remembered for one story alone, that accolade will undoubtedly go to Emma Raducanu's US Open triumph.

The British teenager had already hit the headlines for reaching the Wimbledon fourth round on debut, but no one could anticipate what would happen in New York two months later. After navigating her way through qualifying, Raducanu, then 18, proceeded to march through the main draw to win her first major title without dropping a set. It was her first WTA Tour title of any kind.

Having created several pieces of history and established herself as tennis' next big star, Raducanu's form has dipped since the US Open, which is hardly surprising given her lack of experience. Still, it appears that the sky is the limit.

Barty quietly stays top

Ashleigh Barty ended the season as the WTA Tour's top-ranked player for a second successive year, and while it felt like an understated season from the Australian, in truth it was hugely successful. Barty, 25, only competed in 13 tournaments all year but won four of them, including a second Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.

Perhaps it was her absence from the WTA Finals and the fact she called time on her year after the US Open, but with Australia loosening its travel restrictions, hopefully 2022 will see more of Barty - although her rivals may disagree.

Jabuer continues making history

Ons Jabeur's immense talent has never been in doubt, but previously her results perhaps did not reflect her ability and potential. That all changed in 2021 as Jabeur set about making more history as the Arab world's leading tennis star.

The Tunisian ticked off another milestone as the first Arab woman to win a WTA Tour title when she lifted the Birmingham Classic trophy, before becoming the first woman from the region to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals.

Jabeur reached a career-high No 7 - the highest-ever ranked Arab player, female or male - before injury toward the end of the season scuppered her shot at reaching the WTA Finals. The 27-year-old is one of the most exciting players on tour and after her 2021 breakthrough, 2022 looks primed to be another big year.

Osaka starts mental health conversation

Naomi Osaka looked set for a season of domination when she captured her fourth major title at the Australian Open, but her impact on tennis - and professional sport in general - went far beyond the court after admitting to struggles with anxiety and depression, and in turn starting a conversation about mental health in tennis.

Osaka, 24, caused a heated debate when she opted to shun media obligations during the French Open to protect her mental health - a decision that resulted in a fine from the organisers, before she withdrew from the tournament. The Japanese star took a six-week hiatus after Roland Garros and returned for the Tokyo Games, where she lit the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony.

She played just two more events this year and the scenes from her press conference at the US Open, when she tearfully admitted she didn't know when she would return to tennis, laid bare her ongoing struggles.

As one of the most high-profile athletes on the planet, Osaka's courage to speak openly about her mental health struggles would no doubt have inspired many others engaged in similar battles.

Lows

Superstar absences felt

It has certainly been refreshing to see new players enter the winners' circle this year, although it has felt at times a season that has lacked for star power.

The most notable absentees on the ATP Tour have of course been Federer and Nadal, who have both been struggling with serious injury. Federer, 40, called time on his limited season after Wimbledon and has since undergone another knee surgery which is expected to keep him sidelined until the middle of next season. Nadal, meanwhile, has been troubled by a foot injury and ended his year in August.

It was also a season of irregular action from popular players like Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic (again), and Kei Nishikori.

On the WTA Tour, several of its top stars were absent for large parts of the season, including Serena William who played just nine tournaments. Simona Halep, Osaka, Azarenka, Bianca Andreescu, and Madison Keys, Johanna Konta also endured limited seasons.

Laver Cup falls flat

Team events have generally struggled to establish themselves long-term in the calendar, aside from the Davis Cup and Fed Cup - and both of those have needed revamps to keep the fans somewhat interested. Now the Laver Cup is threatening to go the same way.

The Europe v Rest of the World tournament played out its fourth edition in September and it was a largely forgettable weekend. Shorn of box office players like Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, it failed to capture the imagination, and the 14-1 scoreline in favour of Europe was hardly a ringing endorsement of its competitiveness. The highly-anticipated Ryder Cup falling on the same weekend did not exactly help it attract casual fans, either.

If the Laver Cup is to have a long-term future, perhaps it's time to make it a mixed event. Not only would it even out the teams but it would engage it with a larger audience. Whatever its strategy moving forward, it feels like something already has to change.

Olympic organisers and ITF feel the heat

Given the extraordinary circumstances in which the Tokyo Olympics were staged this summer, most would agree that the Games were an unqualified success.

It wasn't without hiccups, though, and the tennis event was responsible for one of its more controversial episodes. With matches being played in the searing afternoon heat, several players complained about the conditions - Russia's Medvedev went as far as to suggest he could die if he continued.

The ITF, tennis' global federation, initially ignored players' concerns and insisted the tournaments continue at the scheduled time, before backtracking and changing their minds. They may have made the right decision eventually, but not putting players' safety first was hardly a good look for the ITF.

Covid still lingers

The ATP and WTA Tours were able to resume almost to normal in 2021 after a year severely disrupted by the pandemic. The season started with players undergoing quarantine at the Australian Open and they still competed at many events inside empty stadiums, but thankfully fans returned at different capacities depending on that country's guidelines.

Still, 12 tournaments were cancelled on the ATP Tour, while the WTA Tour saw 20 scrapped this year, largely due to the amount of events played in China. While the world feels like it's gradually returning to normal, there were plenty of reminders this tennis season that Covid still lingers.

Match-fixing allegations rear ugly head

Match-fixing has been a scourge in professional tennis for a number of years, and 2021 saw fresh allegations brought against players. Two matches at Wimbledon were investigated, while a Russian player was detained by police at the French Open in relation to an investigation from the previous October.

In April, Argentine player Franco Feitt was handed a lifetime ban after admitting to nine breaches of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program rules, while back in January Roman Khassanov from Kazakhstan was given a 10-year suspension for instances dating between 2014 and 2018.

While it is encouraging to see tennis authorities dish out severe punishments for match-fixers, surely more must be done to prevent the crimes from being committed in the first place.

Updated: November 24th 2021, 11:52 AM
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