The 2020 tennis season, just like the rest of the year, might have an asterisk next to it. But in a year where even hosting a Grand Slam was an achievement, the accomplishment of a top trophy shouldn’t necessarily be dimmed.
In an unpredictable year, men’s tennis largely remained comfortingly constant. In the coronavirus-curtailed calendar, even though there was no action for close to half a year, the rest of the season maintained the balance between familiar and fresh on the ATP Tour.
Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open and ended the year as world No 1 despite new ranking parameters while second-ranked Rafael Nadal reigned supreme at Roland Garros despite the schedule, season, court and balls changing. Roger Federer played just the one tournament in a year he needed two surgical procedures but still kept his record of reaching at least one Grand Slam semi-final intact.
The young guns who fire in fits and starts were consistent in the top 10. Dominic Thiem fittingly ended the Big Three and 1980-born monopoly at Grand Slams by winning the US Open while Daniil Medvedev took home the ATP Finals, continuing the recent trend of young year-end champions.
Promising new stars emerged as teen Jannik Sinner, last year’s Next Gen champion, and Andrey Rublev shone through even as Alexander Zverev ended his Grand Slam semi-final duck but has been a controversial figure off the courts.
Here’s a look at the big storylines from the few months of tennis we saw in 2020:
Djokovic’s near-invincible season
World No 1 Djokovic played just nine tournaments in the year and won five of them. Even in a shortened season, the utter domination Djokovic enjoyed before and after the break was phenomenal, almost close to his 2015 run. He had a 29-match unbeaten streak to start his season, winning the ATP Cup for Serbia followed by an eighth Australian Open and Dubai Championship before the break and Cincinnati after.
His winning run was finally snapped at the US Open, but not by a loss. He was disqualified from the fourth round in New York after hitting a line judge with a ball he chucked in anger between points. It was one of the most controversial moments of the season, as he was the prime contender for the title.
However, Djokovic bounced back from that setback with supreme confidence as he went on to win a record 36th Masters title, effortlessly transitioning to clay at Rome and reached the French Open final with ease. But with everyone, including Djokovic and his team, expecting a titanic tussle against Nadal at Roland Garros, it was the Serb who was crushed with a bagel to boot.
The clash against Nadal seemed to become a tipping point for him as post that, his season dipped and he didn’t win another title. But his goals were clear as he chose to skip his Paris Masters defense and took a wildcard in Vienna to ensure a record-equalling sixth year-end No 1 rank. He won the two rounds required for it and was stunningly shocked by lucky loser Lorenzo Sonego in the third. In the year-ender, he went down to Thiem in the semi-final after playing a sensational 12-10 tiebreak in the second set.
Off court, Djokovic has been involved in more than one controversy due to the Adria Tour and PTPA, but on court he was virtually touchable for most part of the season with a 41-5 record.
Nadal equals Federer’s Grand Slam record
Nadal won just two tournaments in 2020 (played seven) but arguably won his the greatest title yet – the 13th Roland Garros and 20th Grand Slam final.
Only rarely has Nadal’s ability to win the French Open been in doubt pre-tournament. With 12 titles from 12 finals in 15 years before 2020, only a fool would not count Nadal in Paris. But in the strangest of years, it looked like the Spaniard’s streak was nearing its end due to factors out of his control.
Nadal, who had barely picked a racquet during lockdown and chosen to skip Cincinnati and US Open for safety reasons and to focus on clay, was beaten by Diego Schwarzman at Rome Masters, the only clay-court tune-up event he played.
Despite conditions not quite in his favour, when Nadal faced in-form world No 1 and Rome Masters champ Djokovic in the final, he crushed him in such a lopsided win. His Roland Garros connection seems extra-terrestrial at this point but it made for the most poignant moment of the season.
Later on, he reached the semi-finals at both Paris Masters and ATP Finals – the two big titles missing from his resume. But the indoor hardcourts and young legs (Zverev and Medvedev) proved to be his undoing yet again. He is now the joint-highest in terms of Grand Slam titles and there is every chance he’ll topple Federer’s count next year.
Thiem’s Major breakthrough
Thiem, true to his career trajectory, played exceptional tennis for most of the season but just didn’t have the right returns to show for it.
The world No 3 won just the one trophy but he’d be mighty relieved that it was the big one: his first Grand Slam title won in a hard-fought if ugly five-set battle at US Open. However, his success in this year cannot be quantified on titles alone, as 2020 is the year Thiem convincingly established himself a top dog. If 2019 was the season he finally shed the ‘clay-court grinder’ tag with consistent success on hard courts, 2020 was when he justified his top-billing of the last four years with regular wins over top players and less erratic play.
Building up on his final finish at 2019 ATP Finals, Thiem reached his first non-clay Grand Slam final at the Australian Open and stretched Djokovic to the fifth set before ending up with his fourth Major runner-up plate.
He had below par showings at his next two events but came into his own at the US Open, where he turned 27 in September. With no Nadal or Djokovic at the other end, the Austrian won a nervy fifth-set tiebreak against Zverev to finally win a Grand Slam. He couldn’t replicate it at the French Open, where he was the finalist in the last two years.
In a strange symmetry, he lost in the third set of the ATP Finals summit clash for the second straight year after beating two of the Big Three. But the way he has elevated his game, especially against Djokovic and Nadal means he is now become a player to beat in their league. Sample this: Thiem is only the second player after Murray to win at least five matches against Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. Now that’s a uniquely telling yardstick of consistency in men’s tennis.
Rublev on the rise
In January, during a routine video interaction with Tennis TV, players said who they think will have a big year in 2020. Roger Federer answered “Rublev is going to do something special... he played great against me at Cincinnati, impressed me a lot there.”
The 23-year-old was ended as the player with the most individual ATP Tour titles in 2020. (Not counting ATP Cup for Djokovic). Admittedly, Rublev won ATP 500 and 250 titles where he didn’t play the biggest names, but he made his top 10 debut, qualified for ATP Finals and ended his season with a win against world No 3 Thiem in London. After a brief dip due to injury last year, this was a promising return for him and sets him up nicely for more highs in the coming season.
Medvedev’s biggest career title – After a breakthrough 2019, the Russian had a torrid 2020 season for most part. But he ended the season-ending event with a record triumph – beating the top three players (and the three Major champions in 2020) to win his biggest career title so far. It was a special performance and a remarkable late comeback from the gritty Russian, setting himself up for a better 2021.
Zverev’s Slam graph – For so long seen as the future, Zverev finally made good on his promise at the highest level. At the Australian Open, the 23-year-old reached his first career Major semi-final and then his first final at US Open, going down to Thiem both times. The world No 7 also won two titles, his first in over a year, and reached Paris Masters final but his on-court success was shadowed by allegations of domestic violence in October.
Indian tennis moment of the year – Sumit Nagal’s US Open run
Sumit Nagal, who had made his Grand Slam debut as a qualifier against Federer at 2019 US Open, had more to cheer in New York. He became the first Indian in seven years, since Somdev Devvarman at the US Open in 2013, to win a singles match at a Grand Slam when he defeated American Bradley Klahn in the first round. This time, he gained direct entry by virtue of his world No 127 rank, as US Open had no qualifications and a spate of withdrawals due to health reasons. He went down in the second round to eventual champion Thiem, but not before playing a second time on the Arthur Ashe.