As usual, tennis zigged when the rest of the world zagged. In this “age of rage” and time of polarization and deep division, tennis served up continued evolution of an enduring rivalry—the rare sports encounter that accommodates fondness for both players. Uniters, not dividers, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are.
As for the women, the first major ended with two familiar sisters hugging at the net. The final major ended with two friends doing the same. In an era of insta-fame and blazingly fast news cycles, tennis offered enduring champions playing deep into their 30s. At a time when nativism is on the rise and globalization is under attack, Bulgarians and Latvians and Venezuelan-Spaniards and African-Americans and a roving event, the Laver Cup—named for an Australian, seeded by a Swiss star who resides in Dubai, held in Prague—all broke through in 2017. Serena Williams became a mother and wife? Venus picked up the slack. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray struggled with injuries? Federer and Nadal were there to (happily) reclaim their spots atop the rankings.
Consider, too, what tennis lacked in 2017. Anthem protests. FIFA corruption. Head injuries. LaVar Ball. Perfect, it’s not. But too often we forget: as sports go, tennis’ winners-to-unforced-errors-ratio is pretty damn strong. Quick: name the sport’s biggest scandal in 2017?
While we’re waiting, let’s hold our annual Baggies Awards Ceremony. The cut and paste from years past: Before dispensing gifts to our winners, indulge the usual detour into sappiness. If you get half as much pleasure (guilty to be sure) from reading this column as I get from writing it, we're all doing pretty well. Your questions and observations and podcast guest suggestions are, reliably, thoughtful and informed and passionate, and please know that every last communication—even the ones wishing me incurable athlete's foot—are read. Think of this as a sincere invitation to belly up to the bar in '18 and we'll do it again.
So, the votes have been certified by PricewaterhouseCooper and Jack Valenti. The envelopes, please....
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The rankings can’t split top honors. We can. And if ever it applies, this is it. Both Roger and Rafa won two Slams. As far as Masters Series events go, Roger took three while Rafa won two. Federer wins the head-to-head and has the higher winning percentage. Nadal has the No. 1 ranking and wins more matches (and plays a full schedule.) Plus, splitting this pays homage to the best rivalry in sports.
Vacant. Let’s be clear: this is not a knock. There’s something to be said for parity and unpredictability. There was simply no player demonstrably superior to the others. Venus Williams deserved special recognition. But she did not win a tournament, much less a Slam. Serena Williams won the Australian Open, but she didn’t play another match. Simona Halep finished No. 1—and was really admirable in accepting both victory and defeat—but did not win a major. Let’s leave this open. And let’s acknowledge that it’s not a condemnation.
Most Improved, Men
Pablo Carreno Busta. No obvious candidate, but the steady Spaniard emerged from rankings hinterlands to crack the top ten.
Most Improved, Women
Her potential and her athleticism and her all-court skills—it’s been an open secret for years. CoCo Vandeweghe put it together in 2017, playing deep into three majors and finishing inside the top 10. (Special recognition: Caroline Garcia.)
Comeback player of the Year, Women
They could retire the award in honor of Petra Kvitova, who was winning matches at majors six months after a home invader stabbed her on her playing hand. Of course, they could also retire the award in honor of Sloane Stephens, who missed nearly a year and then returned to win the U.S. Open.
Comeback player of the Year, Men
Kevin Anderson. After an injury-fest ruined his 2016, the hard-serving South African finished at No. 14, including a run to the U.S. Open final.
Newcomer of the Year, Men
You’re never quite sure how/where/when to draw distinctions. But we'll pick Sascha Zverev, a terrific player who finished at No. 4 and now needs to announce himself at a major. A nod to Denis Shapovalov as well.
Newcomer of the Year, Women
Jelena Ostapenko. The Latvian turned 20 on June 8, the same weekend she won the French Open. Will she win another major? Who knows. But Lord knows she will try; and Lord knows she will conduct herself like a former major winner.
Professional of the Year Award, Men
David Goffin is endowed with few physical gifts. And he tripped on the tarp at Roland Garros. With no complaints (and no threats of lawsuits) he soldiered on. At the final event of 2017—the ATP WTF in London—LeGoff beat both Federer and Nadal to finish No. 7 in the rankings.
Professional of the year award, women
Venus Williams. Pick any of 100 angles to this remarkable—and, I would contend, still remarkably underrated—story. One of my favorite parts of this epic saga: for a player who once cleaved public opinion, there’s now zero polarization here. From fans to her colleagues to the allegedly objective media, fondness and respect is a tennis universal.
Welcome Back Award, Men
Tommy Haas. He’s now retired but, at age 39, he beat Roger Federer and ran the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, the largest tournament outside the Slams.
Welcome Back Award, Women
Ash Barty took time off to play cricket. (Who among us hasn’t felt the need to scratch that itch?) She’s now back in the top 20. And she’s only 21 years old.
Coach of the Year, Men
In his final year of traveling (allegedly), let’s send Toni Nadal out with some hardware.
Coach of the Year, Women
Simona Halep may not have won a Slam, but she finished No. 1. And—whether winning big matches or losing match that must abrade her psyche—she goes about her business like a pro. She deserves immense for this. As does her coach, Daren Cahill.
Doubles Team of the Year, Men
Luke Kubot and Marcelo Melo: We defer to the rankings. They won Wimbledon. They get bonus points for the celebration.
Doubles Team of the Year, Women
Two asterisks here. One: Lucie Safarova and Bethanie Mattek-Sands won the first two majors of 2017 but their season was wrecked by injury. Two: The latter is now retired, but Latisha Chan and Martina Hingis finished at No. 1 for a reason.
Quote of the Year, Men
When “innovators” foisting on-court coaching on fans tout the “insight” we get during these conferences, are they referring to this mid-match exchange in Milan between Denis Shapovalov and his coach, Martin Laurendeau? “Dude, I’m telling you, best coffee I’ve ever had in my life!”
Quote of the Year, Female
Say this about Naomi Osaka: When asked what occupies her thoughts during matches, she did not respond with a cliché. “Well, you know, once I was practicing, right, and my whole practice—you know, there is that commercial that says, ‘If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma,’ that's all I could think about for the whole practice. I was, like, why do I keep thinking this?”
Match of the Year, Men
We've all rapped rhapsodic about the Federer/Nadal Australian Open final and all the historical freight packed into that fifth set. But let's go off the board for selection 1a: U.S. Open fourth round. Juan Martin Del Potro d. Dominic Thiem: 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4. Contrasting styles, wild swings in momentum, the official christening of the Grandstand Court. This match had it all.
Match of the Year, Women
With no obvious choice, we’ll go the symbolic route. The Australian Open final, pitting Serena Williams against her older sister, gave us one more chance to pause and acknowledge The Greatest Sports Tale That Ever Was. The Williams family won. The scoreline indicates that Serena prevailed 6-4, 6-4.
Unforced Error, men
Saying the Next Gen draw ceremony was in bad taste would be like saying Rafael Nadal is a bad match-up on clay.
Unforced Error, Women
The WTA’s decision to decline a deal with both ESPN and Tennis Channel meant that it effectively hid its product from American audiences for much of the year.
So long, farewell
Martina Hingis, Benjamin Becker, Marco Chiudinelli, Mariusz Fyrstenberg, Sam Groth (after 2018 Australian Open), Tommy Haas, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Juan Monaco.
Five stories to follow in 2018
• How will Serena fare on her (presumed/anticipated/hoped for) return from maternity leave? If the past is a guide…
• How will Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray fare in their returns from breaks both physical and spiritual?
• Will Nick Kyrgios make inroads solving the maddening riddle that is...Nick Kyrgios?
• Will the World Cup of Tennis surmount infighting and objection and come to fruition?
• Will tennis continue benefitting from its globalized business model?
Five Wishes for 2018
• That tennis’s leadership will put compassion and common sense ahead of naked self-interest and address a level of player injuries that ought to be intolerable.
• That fans of the Big Four will practice the same civility and sportsmanship of the players for whom they advocate.
• That, at a time when media presence has never been more important, the WTA will cease playing hide-and-go-seek with its product.
• That the Williams sisters and Federer and Nadal and the other players north of 30 will continue their journey.
• That someone will make a documentary commemorating the Federer/Nadal rivalry.