By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – In many ways 2019 felt like a year of upheaval with a revamped Davis Cup, a shake-up in the ATP hierarchy and new faces lighting up the women’s game, yet some things – notably the furniture at the top of men’s tennis – refuse to budge.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal dominated the Grand Slams, Djokovic beating Nadal and Roger Federer to claim the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and Nadal sealing a 12th French Open crown by beating Dominic Thiem and then fighting off young Russian Daniel Medvedev to win the U.S. Open.
Federer missed out, most notably in heartbreaking fashion in Wimbledon’s longest ever men’s singles final, failing to convert two championship points before losing in a fifth-set tiebreak triggered at 12-12 – an historic first for a Wimbledon final.
It left the 38-year-old Federer stuck on 20 Grand Slam titles and when Spaniard Nadal, 33, won the U.S. Open a few weeks later he moved to 19 – bringing the world number one closer than ever to drawing level with his Swiss rival.
With Djokovic on 16 and the golden trio refusing to move aside, their battle for supremacy will recommence in a few weeks in Melbourne where a fearless new gang led by Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, winner of the ATP Finals title, Medvedev and Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, to name just three, will believe they can usher in a new era of Grand Slam champions.
No one is holding their breath for that, but in the women’s game the future has arrived.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka, 22, beat Petra Kvitova to win the Australian Open, backing up her 2018 U.S. Open title. Ashleigh Barty, 23, became the first Australian woman to win the French Open since 1973, beating Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova in the final, and ended the year ranked as the WTA’s number one.
At the U.S. Open Serena Williams had a fourth chance to equal Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles but lost to 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu who in turn became the first Canadian to win one of the four majors.
The tennis season culminated in Madrid where the new incarnation of the 119-year-old Davis Cup was won by the Nadal-inspired home side, beating Canada in an emotional final in which Nadal’s team mate Roberto Bautista Agut won his singles match just days after the death of his father.
It was a memorable end to a long week which saw 18 nations do battle over 25 ties in the soccer World Cup-type format that replaced the old World Group format spanning almost a year.
While it was an encouraging start, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and partners Kosmos, Barcelona soccer player Gerard Pique’s investment company which is bankrolling the event to the tune of $3 billion over 25 years, will need to make tweaks.
Many ties were played in front of banks of empty seats while the packed schedule meant play went on beyond midnight on most nights – one tie between Italy and the U.S. concluding at 4.04am.
“The most important thing by far is the soul of the Davis Cup,” Pique, whose partner Shakira sang before the final, said.
“I’m sure that for next year we will improve a lot because now people know what to expect from this new format.”
While the ITF wrestled with its flagship event, men’s governing body the ATP had a tumultuous year, with chief executive and chairman Chris Kermode being ousted after he failed to garner the required support from the Board.
Juggling the conflicting demands of players and tournament owners will now become the poisoned chalice of Italians Massimo Calvelli, confirmed as the new chief executive this month, and new chairman Andrea Gaudenzi.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Hugh Lawson)