2014 MVPs: The players we couldn't stop talking about this year
From marquee matches to feisty feuds, to major meltdowns and the tennis Twitter, and all of fashion faux-pas and sexy, skillful shots in between, SI Tennis' Year-End Awards have the entire span of the 2014 tennis season covered. Check back throughout the month of December to see the best and worst of the season.
If you want to know who the best players of 2014 were, just look at the rankings. They don't lie. But when it comes to the players who drove the conversation and buoyed themselves with relevancy both on and off the court, that's an entirely different metric.
Here are the players, regardless of ranking, that we couldn't stop talking about in 2014:
Here are the players, regardless of ranking, that we couldn't stop talking about in 2014:
What didn't Djokovic do in 2014. Hire the most questionable of all the celebrity coaches in Boris Becker? Check. Win Wimbledon? Check. Get married and have a baby? Check. Finish No. 1? Check. Whether the conversation centered around his inability to find his best when it mattered in big matches -- his Wimbledon win snapped a four-match losing streak in Slam finals -- or whether the changes in his personal life would affect his tennis, you couldn't talk about the state of the men's game at any point this season without analyzing the State of Nole.
As anyone in the tennis business will tell you, what's good for Roger is good for tennis. At 33-years-old he staved off his 2013 slump -- with the help of Stefan Edberg, a new racket, and a healthy back -- to finish the season at No. 2 with five titles and the most tour-level wins (73) of anyone. He was resilient. He was happy. He played a lot of tennis. He had another set of twins, remodeled a house, and brokered a détente between his Davis Cup teammate and his wife. He couldn't have asked for more.
Has anyone ever had as massive a breakthrough season at the ripe old age of 29? First Slam, first Masters 1000 and first Davis Cup title all in one season. But the biggest test of relevancy (and one that Marin Cilic will go through in 2015) is whether people care when you're slumping. The curse for Wawrinka was he won the first Slam of the year in January. That gave him 10 months under the microscope, which he handled well even if he clearly wasn't ready for it. Early round losses were met with the standard post-match inquisition often left for the ATP's Big Four. Congratulations, Stan. You made it.
The Spaniard grabbed the headlines even when he wasn't swinging a racket, such is his starpower. But after a dominant 2013 season that saw him win ten titles, including the French Open and U.S. Open, Nadal's injury-laden 2014 could only be redeemed by his ninth French Open victory. The rest of the season was spent picking apart his early woes on clay (losses to David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Djokovic, and a near-miss against Kei Nishikori) and then wondering, once again, how much more tennis was left in his battered body.
If his tennis wasn't keeping people talking, his off-court decisions sure were. The man who kick-started the trend of hiring former champions was abandoned by his own after Ivan Lendl left the team in the spring. Then came his feminist coup as he unflinchingly brought on Amelie Mauresmo right before he was to defend his Wimbledon title. He spent the rest of the season under scrutiny for the hire and just when it seemed everyone was ready to write their "I told you this would never work" post-mortems, Murray decided to stick with Mauresmo and let his best friend Dani Vallverdu go. Somewhere amidst all that there was a poorly timed tweet about Scottish independence and a well-timed engagement announcement.
He spent the year checking off every Asian-born tennis player milestone that Li Na hadn't hit and did it all with such an unassuming air that it was all easy to miss. But Nishikori provided some of the most electric moments of the season with upset wins that suddenly weren't upsets anymore: a comeback win over Federer in Miami, nearly backing up a brutal win over David Ferrer by coming within a few games of beating Nadal in Madrid, and wins over Djokovic and Wawrinka at the U.S. Open. He capped it all off by making the semifinals in his ATP Finals debut. His results this season leave us pondering one question for 2015: How long until Nishikori becomes the first Asian No. 1?
The evolution of the 19-year-old shotmaker in three matches: blew a two-sets to love lead to Benoit Paire at the Australian Open; came back from two-sets to love down to save nine match points and beat Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon; beat No. 1 Nadal in four sets to make his first Slam quarterfinal. It's been a long time since a teenager made this dramatic a debut on the men's tour and the later half of 2014 was spent, in equal parts, checking tournament entry lists to see where Kyrgios was playing in hopes of getting yet another glimpse of his electric game (while still wondering if the kid was for real).
The Belgian may not have been at the top-level of the conversation, but if you were a fan following the sport on a daily basis, nothing was more impressive than what Goffin did in the second half of the season. All he did was win, compiling a 44-4 record at all levels after Wimbledon.
There were moments this season when Monfils was unbeatable against anyone not named Nadal. There were also moments when he led Federer two-sets to love at the U.S. Open. Then there were those handful of decisive sets against Djokovic and Murray. He lost all of those matches. But then he ended his season with a demonstrative beatdown on Federer at Davis Cup. The Frenchman is the most exciting player in men's tennis because you have absolutely no clue what you're going to get on any given day. The mystery is what keeps it fun.
The young American is a bundle of question marks. Does he have the work ethic? Is he anything more than a forehand? Is he or isn't he dating Sloane Stephens? Then, just when you're ready to write him off for the year, he wins the Wimbeldon doubles title with Vasek Pospisil and finds his singles game reinvigorated. Sock's progress in 2014 was worth tracking every week. Who knows what happens if he's able to steal one or two of those tight losses to Milos Raonic or catch a break here and there in decisive tiebreaks.
As Serena goes, so goes the conversation. The first quarter of the season was marred with questions of injury and fatigue after 18 months of non-stop play. The second quarter was a whole lot of head scratching after two meltdown losses at the French Open and Wimbledon. The third quarter was spent watching her silence the critics by marching her way to her 18th major title. And the last quarter was a microcosm of the whole season, with injury retirements and shock losses, only to once again reign triumphant. Everything she did this year was dissected every which way, with every word, flinch and tweet quickly put under a microscope. That she somehow came out of it unscathed is amazing.
Candy baron, ATP WAG and most importantly, a now five-time Slam champion. It felt like Sharapova was everywhere this year. One minute she's blasting Tennis Australia for their asinine heat policy at the Australian Open, the next she's in Sochi as an NBC Olympics correspondent, and then in a blink of an eye she was losing to Camila Giorgi at Indian Wells in March. After that, she finally dominated the headlines with her on-court play through the clay season and then carried her glitz and glam through the end of the year.
No one was more consistent at the majors and if I were pressed to pick a sole 2014 WTA MVP, I might have to go with the 20-year-old Canadian. Her semifinal run in Australia seemed to come out of nowhere. So did her run to the French Open semifinals, where she pushed Sharapova to three sets. But by the time she got to Wimbledon, she was fully under the spotlight. And as the draw began to fall apart there was a sense of destiny surrounding Bouchard. Kvitova quickly put an end to that. But in a sport that is always looking for a new face, tennis found one this year. Add to that the intrigue of her personality, which rubbed the other players the wrong way, and her brash and unapologetic ambition and drive, and you have an incredibly compelling personality.
No one had more of a rollercoaster year on and off the court than Wozniacki. From announcing her engagement on New Year's Day to teetering on the edge of tennis relevance by mid-season and her extremely public breakup, Wozniacki shrugged off the pitying looks and channeled her anger into her tennis. She rekindled (or at least decided to make very public) her friendship with Serena, and the two took the second half of the season by storm. All of a sudden, people were back to talking about Wozniacki because of her tennis (OK, and her marathoning) and not because of her significant other.
Whether the process is complete or whether it's continuing is a question to be answered in 2015. But who could have foreseen that Ivanovic would finish the season at No. 5 after her prolonged five-year slump? The only knock to her season -- and why she wasn't grabbing the headlines she deserved this year -- was her poor performance at the Slams. But she finished the season with four titles -- the most in a single season for her -- and led the tour in match wins. For a player so painfully inconsistent in the past, that was a shocker.
From Grand Slam champion and career-high No. 2 to retirement in the span of months, Li was the feel-good story of the first quarter of the season. Her retirement during the fall Asian swing then forced everyone to take stock in the state of Chinese tennis and its outlook without her.
At this stage in their careers, Venus will always be overshadowed by her kid sister but she had her own standalone moments of glory. It was her best season by far since being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, highlighted by her win at the Dubai Championships and victory over Serena in the Montreal semifinals in one of the best matches the two have played. When all was said and done, after all the talk of Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and the talented crop of young Americans, it was Venus who finished the season as the No. 2 American behind Serena. Still teaching the kids a thing or two.
It speaks volumes about Bencic's talent that the 17-year-old Swiss phenom put in the hard work, won a ton of matches via qualifying and in the main draw, made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open and finished the year at No. 32 – all without a tremendous amount of fanfare. Maybe Bouchard overshadowed her, or her success was undercut by a lack of big wins, but Bencic is the real deal.
You got the sense that Keys felt the eyes on her this season. The expectations ratcheted up after she won her first WTA title at Eastbourne, and with Stephens mired in a tough year, Keys became the de facto representative and spokesperson for her generation. That's a lot of pressure to put on the affable 19-year-old, but she handled the increasing publicity well. But whether she was making yet another WTA quarterfinal run or suffering an inexplicable loss, she was one to follow no matter where she was playing, and her results felt more meaningful than ever before.