In a season that had the oldest year-end world No 1 and the youngest ATP Finals champion in 18 years, men’s tennis finally saw the dominance of the veteran champions being offset by the hope and hype over the youngsters.
In the final year of the decade that saw the golden era of the men’s game, it was the emergence of a possible golden generation – a bevy of youngsters that have both the game and the gumption to beat the top names consistently – that will go down as the enduring storyline. But the major plot remained the same: The Grand Slam titles and the top two rankings were shared between the usual suspects. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal further strengthened their legacy while Roger Federer continued to stay in the top three and fight for the big titles at 38.
Here’s a look the year’s biggest talking points from the ATP Tour, in no particular order.
Tsitsipas’ Tspecial Tseason
In the strictest sense of the term, Stefanos Tsitsipas’ breakthrough season was 2018 when he reached his first Masters 1000 final and won the ATP Next Gen Finals. But it was in 2019 that the ‘Greek freak’ really made the world sit up and take note.
In January, the then 20-year-old stunned two-time defending champion Federer in the fourth round and backed it up to make his first Grand Slam semi-final in Melbourne, where he lost to Nadal. He broke into the top 10 soon after and won two ATP 250, beat Nadal on clay at the Madrid Masters, before losing the final to Djokovic and went on to play an all-time classic against Stan Wawrinka at the French Open. But the five-set loss there seemed to plunge him down a rabbit-hole. A first-round loss at Wimbledon, Rogers Cup, Cincinnati and US Open followed and he started talking about not being inspired as the titles dried up.
One can’t say what changed but his season turned around after Laver Cup. He reached the last eight or better in completed matches at all events he played after even though he didn’t win a trophy. His list of opponents included Alexander Zverev at China Open and Djokovic at Shanghai Masters, although he lost to the Serbian at Paris Masters and Federer at Basel.
But the crowning glory came at the season-ending championship as the 21-year-old beat Daniil Medvedev, Zverev, Federer and Dominic Thiem to win his biggest career title. It was a sensational week, battling back from the brink and showing the grit that several young players lack at this level. In a way, his London triumph was a culmination of the lessons he learnt from this season’s mistakes and set up an exciting 2020 season.
Next Gen’s 2020 vision
The question of succession in men’s tennis has been pondered over for so long now that it almost feels pointless. An entire generation of players practically faded away in trying to break through the Big Four at Slams and had to be content with sporadic successes.
The question gained momentum after the last couple of seasons as Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev won the ATP Finals. Neither of them were able to sustain it though as the Bulgarian endured two torrid seasons while the German has won just one ATP 250 this year, despite making his title defence.
But for the first time in a long while, the future seems ready as a decade of Big Four dominance comes to an end. The difference is not in the winner of the year-end finale but the players who qualified.
In 2018, apart from the usual suspects, the top eight players included Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and John Isner (Juan Martin del Potro qualified but was injured). In 2017, the field had David Goffin and Jack Sock.
In 2019, the field is genuinely made up of the upcoming generation. While Zverev (22) and Thiem (26) made their third straight ATP Finals, Medvedev (23), Tsitsipas (21) and Matteo Berrettini (23) completed the young field. Other than Federer (38), the semi-finalists were all in their 20s and the winner was the youngest since 2001. Additionally, Tsitsipas and Thiem have both beaten each of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer in 2019; Zverev has beaten both Nadal and Federer while Medvedev beat Djokovic twice in 2019.
Of course, in talking of age, that of the Big Three should also be counted. At 38, 33 and 32 years old, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are not getting any younger and the odd losses are bound to occur.
But if the hegemony of the Big Three at the Majors is to be broken by a player born in the 1990s, 2020 seems to be the year.
Nadal and Djokovic fight harder to hold fort at the top
Djokovic started the year as world No 1 after a stunning second half of the 2018 and held the position throughout, winning what seems a routine two Grand Slam titles and two more Masters. However, for the last three weeks of the season saw Nadal – who won the other two Majors and two Masters of his own – upstage him after a season that seemed to surprise even the Spaniard.
But this was not just another successful season for Djokovic and Nadal, it was one riddled with setbacks and self-doubt. Both players lost matches they would not have a few years ago and were troubled with injuries. But both of 2019’s world No 1s ensured that the passing of the Major torch would have to wait.
At 33, Nadal started the year after another injury layoff, was crushed by the Serb in the Australian Open final, withdrew from Indian Wells with injury, lost to Fabio Fognini on clay and was unsure of adding to his Roland Garros tally. He finished as the oldest year-end world No 1 winning his 12th French Open and fourth US Open to be just one behind Federer’s record of all-time Grand Slams for the first time.
At 32, Djokovic powered through his seventh Australian Open and fought for a fifth Wimbledon against a partisan crowd and a player who had match points. He had to pull out of the US Open with a shoulder injury but returned to win the Japan Open and the Paris Masters to finish as world No 2.
With these two warriors guarding the fort at the top, the younger generation will always need an extra special effort to breakthrough.
Federer and two sides of a coin
For the third straight year, Federer’s season ended with a semi-final loss in London to a younger player. In 2017 and 2018, fans wondered if this was a sign of age catching up. In 2019, the question has an answer: the passage of time has dimmed the light a little, but the 38-year-old’s fight is very much there.
There are two ways of looking at his season, both summed up in one match: He was one good serve away from a 21st Grand Slam and ninth Wimbledon title against the world No 1. He wasted two championship points in what was possibly his last Major final appearance.
Several times through 2019, Federer was minutes away from even more glory but he slipped up at crucial moments – the Indian Wells final against Thiem where he led by a set, the Australian Open and ATP Finals losses to Tsitispas where his wasted breakpoints went in to double figures, the US Open quarters against Grigor Dimitrov where he had a chance to end the match in four sets. And Wimbledon.
On the flipside, he reached and won the Miami Masters final a week after Indian Wells, beat Tistispas to win his 100th career title at Dubai and then again at Basel, becoming the first man to win 10 titles on two different surfaces as he lifted the Halle (grass) and Swiss Indoors (hard court) title, made the French Open semi-finals after a four-year break from clay and beat Nadal and Djokovic in the last match he played against them.
The choice is yours, to decide if 2019 was a good season or not for the world No 3.
Thiem sheds the clay-court grinder tag
Dominic Thiem made a Grand Slam final for the second straight year and this time and became the first player born in the 1990s to actually win a set in a Major final at French Open. But unlike 2018, that was not the highlight of his year. Fondly called ‘Prince of Clay’ and seen as Nadal’s successor at Roland Garros, the 26-year-old changed his coach, his approach (and schedules) and the results showed.
He won his first Masters title on hard courts after two runner-up finishes on clay, beating Federer at Indian Wells. He added ATP 500 titles on the hardcourts of Beijing and Vienna to with his Barcelona Open title and reached the title clash of the ATP Finals with superb wins over Federer and Djokovic on the fast hard-courts to end the clay-court grinder tag.
At the same he was also out in the first round of Wimbledon and US Open as well as Miami Masters and lost the ATP Finals after a mid-match lapse. This erratic play has held him back far too long and if he can become more consistent, there is no reason why Thiem and his potent one-handed backhand can’t dominate all surfaces.
Medvedev makes Next Gen’s first Major final
The 23-year-old from Russia became one of the stories of the season in a span of just two months as he reached six consecutive tournament finals – including a Major and two Masters – towards the end of the season, winning three of them. Overall in 2019, he reached nine finals and won four trophies.
The first of the Next Gen – in this case players eligible to play the ATP Next Gen finals started in 2017 – to reach a Slam final, he came agonisingly close at the US Open, where his behavior was much in the news as his results. But even in his misses, Medvedev showed that he has the game and mental make-up to be at the top.
After a career-high ATP of world No 4, his season wound down with fatigue but not before he gave us a glimpse into a future of both potential and rivalries.
Murray’s road from retirement to ATP title
No review of the 2019 season can be complete without a mention of how Andy Murray, part of the erstwhile Big Four, returned to tennis. In January, he tearfully announced that the Australian Open might be his last match because he couldn’t play through the pain. The former world No 1 then took a gamble and underwent hip surgery, returned to compete only in doubles, played ATP Challengers to restart his singles career and beat Wawrinka to win an ATP title. Talk about a full circle!
And finally, in 2019 we said farewell to two of Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer, the two almost-champions from the Golden generation of the Big Three. In any other era, they could have won a lot more than a one Masters each.