It’s hard to know where 2014 will fit into the narrative of the history of men’s tennis. The emergence of two first-time Slam winners after nearly a decade of dominance by the Big Four (and much of that dominated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) is certainly a turning point. Yet, the continued presence of the Big Four at the business end of tournaments makes it seem too early to call it a changing of the guard. Regardless of where the season fits in a historical perspective, the combination of consistency from the top tier and breakthroughs from the second line made for an exciting season. Here are my favorite stories for 2014.
1. Stan and Marin’s Excellent Adventure
The flip side of the dominance of the Big Four is that it has deprived many talented players of the opportunity to realize their dreams of becoming Grand Slam champions. Faced with a world where players not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray, Stan Wawrinka famously memorialized the situation by getting a tattoo of a quote from Samuel Beckett, that said, “Ever Tried, Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better.” In 2014, however, Wawrinka did better than try – he succeeded in winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. And, even though Rafael Nadal was clearly compromised by his back injury in the final, Wawrinka earned this title by beating an in-form Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, after having lost two thrillers to the Serb at the 2013 US Open and Australian Open.
If Wawrinka’s win represents the reward after a long grind in the shadows of the Big Four, Marin Cilic’s win at the US Open was more like a fairytale. Banned from the tour for nine months (reduced to four after arbitration) due to a failed drug test, Cilic, like Cinderella, made it to the ball and left with its biggest prize. The way in which he won the title was equally remarkable. After barely surviving a five-set dogfight with Gilles Simon in the Round of 16, Cilic simply steamrolled his next three opponents – you know, just some guys named Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer, and Kei Nishikori. Even if that run to the title ends up being the highlight of his career, it’s an amazing highlight to have, and one that few outside the Big Four have been able to enjoy over the past decade.
2. Vive La France
From Suzanne Lenglen to Rene Lacoste to Yannick Noah, French tennis has always been synonymous with style, flair, and dare we say, panache. This season was no different. From Gael Monfils’ thrilling five-set loss to Roger Federer at the U.S. Open to Richard Gasquet’s throwing in the towel socks against Milos Raonic to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s red-hot week in Toronto, many of the year’s most interesting matches involved the never-boring French contingent of the ATP Tour.
Despite their significant contributions to the entertainment value of the ATP tour, the French players, like so many on the tour outside the Big Four, have had few opportunities to win the sport’s biggest prizes. This year, their depth and combined firepower helped them to reach the Davis Cup final. When Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka left the World Tour Finals under a cloud due to a well-publicized post-match argument and Federer’s troubling back injury, it seemed that the stars were aligned for “les bleus” to upset the Swiss Davis Cup team.
Yet, it was not to be. Federer managed to recover in time to play well in the doubles and to clinch the Davis Cup for Switzerland against Richard Gasquet. While the loss of a rare chance to win one of the biggest titles in tennis hurt for all of the members of the French team, one has to especially feel for Richard Gasquet. In a parallel universe, Gasquet would have spent the Davis Cup final weekend hitting sublime backhands against a wall, and someone else would have been called up to shoulder the burden of French tennis hopes. In this universe, however, Gasquet crumbled under the pressure of playing the deciding match against Roger Federer, and was understandably devastated at the outcome. Even if it was not meant to be in 2014, one hopes that, for all they have contributed to the sport, the French players will have another chance for collective glory next year.
3. Roger Federer: Don’t Call It a Comeback
He’s been here for years, but after 2013, it was unclear whether Roger Federer would truly be a contender again. Starting with his run to the final in Brisbane, and ending with his Davis Cup clincher against Gasquet in Lille, though, in 2014, Roger Federer put together one of the most inspiring years of anyone on tour, reaching 11 tournament finals, and winning five of them.
More impressive than the turnaround itself is the commitment Federer showed to shoring up his game with the addition of Stefan Edberg and a new racquet to his arsenal of weapons. The biggest surprise, however, may be the gritty play that was the signature of Federer’s 2014. From his incredible fourth set comeback against Novak Djokovic to nearly take the Wimbledon title, to actually completing comebacks from match points down to defeat Gael Monfils, Leonardo Mayer, and Stan Wawrinka, Federer unleashed his inner street fighter when his style and grace failed him. Far from his peak years, and without winning a Slam, Federer found himself in the race for year-end number one, and he closed out the year with an emotional Davis Cup win. Not bad for a guy who was supposedly washed up a year ago.
4. Rafa Makes It Nine
Sadly, when we think of 2014, it will be one of too many years where Rafael Nadal’s season was cut short by injury. Starting with his unfortunate back injury during the Australian Open final, and ending with a training injury that kept him out of the US Open and the indoor season, Nadal spent far too much of yet another season on the sidelines. But, in the time he did spend on court, Nadal impressively extended his legacy as the king of the terre battue with a ninth French Open title at Roland Garros. Especially when one considers how much time he has missed on tour with injury, Nadal’s ability not only to compete in the French Open consistently over the past decade, but also to win every title but one is a testament to his singular ability to wrench victory from an unforgiving surface and from his increasingly unforgiving body.
5. The Second Line
While we haven’t quite seen a full changing of the guard — after all the top three are still Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, there has been a lot of movement in the upper reaches of the ATP Tour over the past 12 months. Kei Nishikori put together an impressive season, with wins against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and a run to the US Open final. Grigor Dimitrov made it to the Wimbledon semifinals, but fizzled out towards the end of the year. And, Milos Raonic rode his powerful serve to the Wimbledon semifinals as well, but the significant weaknesses in the rest of his game were exposed as he lost to Roger Federer. Add US Open champion Marin Cilic to the mix, and the next generation of tennis players, whom Cilic perceptively called the “second line” have definitely staked their claim on the ATP Tour.
That said, the second line is missing the one thing that has defined the Big Four – or at least the Big Three – for the better part of the last decade: consistent play from all of its members. But, the emergence of the second line has made it less predictable that the Big Four will gobble up all of the glory on the tour, which makes for more exciting earlier round matches than we’ve seen in years. Whether the second line is able to establish a new set of rivalries and to challenge the Big Four effectively largely depends on their consistency, but in 2014, they have taken an important leap forward.
6. Davis Cup Frenzy?!
This year’s Davis Cup competition, and the final in particular, turned Davis Cup from post-season anticlimax to must-see-live-stream. The primary reason for the change in attitude, it must be said, was the storyline of Roger Federer’s quest for one of the few missing prizes from his collection. That said, top singles players have pursued Davis Cup glory before – Novak Djokovic in 2010, and Rafael Nadal’s numerous Davis Cup wins with the Spanish Davis Cup team. Yet, this year’s competition felt different. Buoyed by Wawrinka’s Australian Open win, Federer went all in on a competition that he had largely kept at arm’s length for the majority of his playing career. Given Federer’s age and the streakiness of Wawrinka’s play over the years, it seemed that this year was one of the few chances the Swiss would have a strong enough team to win the Davis Cup. When combined with the intrigue of the Federer-Wawrinka tiff and Federer’s back injury, the Davis Cup became, of all things, a highly anticipated end to the tennis season.
Of course, the question we all ask is, how can we recapture this excitement and bring it to Davis Cup every year? That is, of course, hard to say. Part of the reason this year’s Davis Cup competition was so compelling is that the narrative for the final focused on big, simple storylines for the sport’s biggest stars: Federer’s quest for an elusive title, the Federer-Wawrinka friendship, and the effort of the vastly talented, but perhaps underachieving French team to make good. It’s not to say that compelling storylines could not be drawn from the competition each year, but this year’s final owes its popularity in no small part to the cult of personality following Federer, and to the vibrant personalities of the French team. Let’s hope that the excitement around Davis Cup isn’t lost as it starts up again next year in a morass of rubbers, relegation matches, and world group qualification ephemera.
7. Love is All Around
Love this. End of match reaction from TRob. 2 gun salute + big smile. Sportsmanship at its best. Xx pic.twitter.com/SPhqoJzeZN
— judy murray (@judmoo) October 26, 2014
Every workplace has its tiffs, and the ATP has had a few this year. But, the most enduring images over the past year from the ATP have been of the genuine affection among the players on the tour. Much of the bonhomie is attributable to the Pax Fedal-ana – if the two guys at the top can giggle next to each other, and extend that friendliness to the rest of the tour, there’s simply not enough tension around to fuel the feuds that drove the tour in the 1970s and 1980s.
While many have longed for the fireworks that defined the tour in the McEnroe-Connors heyday, I am not among them. There are plenty of places in sports, and in life, to watch macho posturing and competitive animosity. By contrast, there are few places in sports, and in public life, to see the genuine camaraderie, and even tenderness among men that we routinely see between the top players on the ATP tour. Check out the Swiss Davis Cup celebrations and handshakes with the French team, or Andy Murray and Tommy Robredo after Tommy’s second straight loss after holding match points – we are lucky to live in a moment where warmth and fellowship coexists with high level competition, showing that ruthlessness is not a prerequisite either for manliness or success.