2019 In Review: Nadal Back In Familiar Place On Top Of Men’s Tennis World

Rafael Nadal (photo: Diego Souto / Kosmos Tennis)

WASHINGTON, December 3, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

When Rafael Nadal lifted the Davis Cup with the rest of his Spanish teammates in Madrid last month, he ended the season in a familiar place: on top of the tennis world. In 2019, Nadal won two majors – four titles overall – plus the Davis Cup, and finished the year ranked No. 1 in the world.

While Novak Djokovic began the year strongest, winning the Australian Open with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 thrashing of Nadal for his third straight Grand Slam victory in January, it was the 33-year-old Spaniard who overcame injuries (chronic knee tendinitis, wrist) and played remarkable tennis in winning the French Open for a record 12th time in June and near season’s end when he won the US Open in a thrilling five-set battle over Daniil Medvedev, 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, in September. Additionally, he won a couple of Masters 1000 titles – at Rome and Montreal – and finished with a 58-7 win-loss record. After taking a brief sabbatical from the ATP Tour to marry his longtime girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perelló, in Majorca in October, Nadal returned to form, battled, and showed he’s a still a driven competitor.

He finished his season on an upswing by winning his last two group matches at the ATP Finals in London and overtook Djokovic for the season-ending No. 1 ranking. Then, he was dominant during the Davis Cup for Spain, both in singles and doubles, going undefeated at 8-0. Nadal is now 29-1 in singles in his Davis Cup career and has not lost a singles match in the competition in more than 15 years.

“With nothing left to prove at this stage,” wrote New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey, “Rafael Nadal went out and proved something more.

”That at the end of another grueling season he could shrug off nagging injuries, middle-of-the-night finishes and inspired younger opposition and still lead Spain to a Davis Cup title by winning all eight of his matches.”

Looking back, it’s encouraging to note that there were four first-time year-end Top 10 players: the 23-year-old Medvedev from Russia, who strung together a remarkable run of success in the second half of the year by reaching six straight finals – winning three of them – and achieving a career-best No. 4 ranking. Also, Stefanos Tsitsipas, 21, of Greece, who a year ago won the Next Gen ATP Finals, captured the ATP Finals and beat all three of the Big Three during 2019. He reached a career-best No. 5 ranking. Plus, 23-year-old Italian Matteo Berrettini finished ranked eighth and won three titles after starting the year at No. 54, and Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain reached a career- high No. 9 by the end of the season after lifting the trophy in Doha. Meanwhile, Austrian Dominic Thiem, 26, enjoyed a breakthrough season with five titles and wins over Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Indeed, youth was served in tennis this year. Look no further than to Canada’s one-two punch of 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who almost single-handedly willed the Canadians to their first Davis Cup final, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, 19, who excited many with his style and grace and reached the finals of three tournaments. Shapovalov finished ranked 15th and Auger-Aliassime 21st. Perhaps, the biggest impact among young players was made near season’s end by 18-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy, who rose from No. 553 to No. 78 – thanks to winning three titles on the ATP Challenger Tour – plus, he won the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan as a wild-card entry. While 2019 was a year to celebrate youth, let’s not forget the accomplishments of venerable 40-year-old Ivo Karlovic of Croatia. One of the elder-statesmen on the ATP Tour, he bookended his season by reaching a pair of finals, in Pune, India, and Houston, Texas, and finished the year ranked 95th.

If you’re looking for a match of the year, look no further than Djokovic’s five-set victory over Federer in the Wimbledon final for his 16th career Grand Slam triumph. He saved two match points on Federer’s serve en route to a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory that required an incredible four hours and 57 minutes to decide its outcome. It was the longest singles final in Wimbledon history. This was also the first Wimbledon final where a final set tie break rule was introduced.

With the resurgent popularity of doubles, Colombian pair Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah finished the year ranked No. 1. They won five titles and became the first from their country to win a Grand Slam championship when they captured Wimbledon in July. They repeated their success by winning the US Open in September.

As a new decade looms for the ATP Tour, in which the sport continues to grow across the globe, it’s worth noting that the Big Three of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer finished ranked in the Top Three for the eighth time. Next year, each will be part of the ATP Player Council, and the ATP will have a new president, Andrea Gaudenzi. The former Italian tennis pro succeeds Chris Kermode on January 1.

Speaking of the Big Three, their decade-long dominance has meant that no active men’s player under the age of 30 has won a major singles title. Can there finally be a new Grand Slam winner next year? Maybe. While Federer remains on top with 20 career major titles, Nadal is just one behind him at 19. Could 2020 be the year that Nadal finally catches the Swiss maestro? It’s quite possible. Certainly, it’s anyone’s guess how much longer Federer continues to play, but his enthusiasm remains unchallenged and he doesn’t seem ready to retire. After all, Federer won four titles during 2019 – Dubai, Miami, Halle and Basel – played competitively in the majors, and continued to help grow the Laver Cup. Next, Federer will chase after an elusive Olympic Games singles gold medal in Tokyo.

Speaking of team competitions, the new ATP Cup, whose format resembles the new-look Davis Cup, begins the 2020 season on January 3 across multiple Australian cities, less than three weeks before the Australian Open in Melbourne. In the year since its introduction, there’s been plenty of talk about its merit and criticism about its position on the tennis calendar – less than six weeks after the Davis Cup Finals. Is there room for the ATP Cup, Laver Cup and Davis Cup to all coexist? Or, should the Davis Cup and Laver Cup be played in alternate years and share the same coveted, post-US Open September date? Stay tuned.

Finally, while Andy Murray returned to competitive singles by season’s end after undergoing successful hip resurfacing surgery and won the European Open in Antwerp, the sport bid good bye to the retiring David Ferrer, Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych and Janko Tipsarevic. All were former Top 10 players, and collectively they won 45 ATP titles.