Let's get this squared away at the outset: Of all the surprises that this pandemic-ravaged 2020 harbored, it swiftly became obvious that an abbreviated season was at hand. A couple of the top (or, in some cases, "top") surprises of this calendar year in tennis arrived as direct—and on one level or another, considered—results of this COVID-19 era. The collective item perched at No. 1 might have been catalyzed by the global health crisis, at least in some cases.
Surprises aplenty took place within the lines of the court as well, and they make up six of the 10 entries. The truth is, we can be grateful that there was professional tennis at all this year.
Here's a look at the 10 biggest surprises of the season:
It wasn't shocking that he won a major, rather than it came at such a time as this. Perennially living in the harsh glare of three icons' spotlights, Dominic Thiem captured his first major singles title—and in New York, not in Paris where many expected he would first break through. Topping Alexander Zverev 8-6 in a US Open final-set tiebreak, Thiem won with a flourish, even if the nearly empty Ashe Stadium's title match wasn't always beautifully played. And while he won sans playing any of the Big 3, that's not his fault. To paraphrase Tennis Channel's Jon Wertheim's words over time, one can't be faulted for beating the seven foes placed before him. Rafael Nadal was a quarantining no-show; the GOAT tennis oracle Roger Federer was recovering from surgery since March; and Novak Djokovic fell on his own proverbial sword in Queens.
Gone was the Thiem who dropped a two-set lead to a hobbled Juan Martin del Potro on the Grandstand court in 2017, succumbing fairly meekly in that round-of-16 match. Arriving in full was one who might be The Usurper, that backhand assassin the tennis world has waited for, at long last.
It was the prudent, sensible thing to do, so no surprise there. Still, it was downright jarring that, for the first time since the World War II era, the Wimbledon championships would not be held at the All England Club. SW19 will have to wait for '21 to see its gorgeous grass courts rendered one-fourth dirt by an army of largely baselining pros. At least this decision (read: necessity) was, well, precedented.
Not since 1940 through 1945, as wartime wreaked havoc on Europe, had the tournament remained in bed, as did Roland-Garros from 1940 to 1945 and the Australian Open as of just one year later than the others and also through 1945. Here's hoping that, from wherever one regards it with a Pimm's in hand, Wimbledon's greenery will be all the more lovely to lay eyes on when it can happen next year.
Vera-ly, a lovely outcome
Raise your hand if, at the start of 2020, you had Vera Zvonareva on your card as a major champ in waiting. OK, thought so—and that was one of this year's beauties. Still, while Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens were formidable opponents intent on defending their 2019 title at the US Open, they lost at the quarterfinal stage to the resurgent, doubles-loving Zvonareva and partner Laura Siegemund. What's more, the latter pair followed that up with another victory before beating former Wimbledon winner Nicole Melichar and two-time major finalist Xu Yifan for the title.
That made Zvonareva—now 36 and married, with a 4-years-young daughter—a three-time major doubles champion, with three different partners between two Slam events. 2020 certainly managed to have its bright spots.
The No-Shot Heard 'Round the World
Novak Djokovic's unintentional lesson in frustration-meets-trajectory made for dramatic moments and a linesperson's health scare in Ashe Stadium. We all know what happened. Still, to see the No. 1 player in the world—who would retain that mantle through year's end—make such a careless mistake at the expense of another person's well-being was certainly shocking.
That it was Djokovic, who broods often and was not without a lead-in moment of angry ball action outside of the points earlier in that match, made for a lower spot on this list. Most important in all that is that the linesperson's throat appeared to remain intact hours and weeks later.
Daniil Medvedev was having an abysmal little season—until he wasn't. Righting his so-called ship in the O2 Arena, in the ATP World Tour Finals' London finale, made for an artistic full stop on his (and everyone's) year. In the round-robin stage, he topped Djokovic decisively. In the semifinal, he quasi-avenged his 2019 US Open five-set final loss to Nadal, rebounding from losing the opening set to edge out a second-set tiebreak and then outlast Rafa, of all people, in the decider. Then, in a fitting WTF denouement, Medvedev likewise dropped the opening set, this time to Thiem, as he had weeks earlier in New York at the same tournament stage.
But he flipped the narrative by winning the second-set tiebreak (he lost that also to Domi in Queens) and then taking the final set. This also meant quasi-avenging a recent major defeat. Thus Medvedev became the first man to beat the world's top three players in the ATP year-end event, and he did so with his usual cerebral flair.
The 11th-Hour Fallout
It's not here due to its recency factor; it's a staggering, that's-so-tennis result, no matter which side of it one was on or cheering. Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram had an ATP World Tour Finals doubles semifinal victory on their racquets, racing to a 7-1 super-tiebreak lead. If they won three more points, they had not just a berth in the championship match in their grasp, but also would clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking. But it was not to be for the 2020 Australian Open champs. Their competitors, Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Jurgen Melzer, had other designs, and rattled off 10 of this tight match's final 12 points to make the final. (They would lose that, somehow fittingly, in a super-tiebreak.)
Not the finish to a weird year that they wanted, Ram and Salisbury had to feel almost that the court had been pulled out from under them. Even so, they will be back in 2021 to make more major noise such as the below shows.
Victoria Azarenka got tuned by Venus Williams in Lexington's Top Seed Open, winning just five games. She seemed adrift both psychologically and strategically on court by that point of the year, and some observers murmured that her best tennis was behind her. Commenced a wild-for-a-while US Open, where Azarenka, trounced 6-1 by Serena Williams in the opening set, came back to beat her friendly nemesis. That marked the first time Vika defeated Rena in a major event, as her four previous rivalry wins had come in WTA Tour–level finals.
By-the-numbers tennis can be odd sometimes: Naomi Osaka would best Azarenka in the final by the same score that Vika had defeated Serena. But far beyond that, and that their head-to-head remains 19-5 in Williams' favor, this particular match had to feel forever-sweet to Azarenka. Moms clash, and moms unite.
Rogue Roland Garros
The French Open's organizers moved its pandemic-delayed dates to late September, appearing to inform few persons, including their fellow major-event keepers, ATP and WTA tour leaders, other events' directors, and most players. (One who did know a bit ahead of time: Nadal, then merely a 12-time title winner on Court Philippe-Chatrier.)
Laver Cup statement on schedule. pic.twitter.com/wMWUVOnhtz— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) March 18, 2020
The US Open and Laver Cup statements were sufficiently sassy in response, deservedly so. We'll see what the 2021 calendar wields, when all's said and struck, though surely what we had here was a failure to communicate. Sacre merde.
Youthful Yet Major Milestones
Iga Swiatek, 19, and Sofia Kenin, 22, become major singles winners this year, of course, the former without dropping a set in terrorizing her foes on the terre battue. The unseeded(!) Swiatek won in the fashion of her idol Nadal, foisting her ferocious forehand spin upon the opposition until all had acquiesced, including No. 4 seed Kenin in the final, in what came off as the most self-contained yet amazing singular performance of 2020. Kenin's claim to a Slam was muted only by comparison, as she lost two sets en route to her—against Coco Gauff in the fourth round, and early in beating superstar Garbine Muguruza in the final.
Still, she upended Ashleigh Barty, who would be the WTA's year-end No. 1 thanks to new, pandemic-inspired rankings math, and asserted herself as a Slam-hungry force for the next 10 to 15 years at least, if she so desires. Don't look now—OK, do—but combined in age, these two are a year older than Venus. The future of women's tennis isn't brightening; it's already shining strong.
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?" Many tennis players, in their own thinking, took to heart an ideal akin to that put forward in the poet Mary Oliver's immortal words. For all the perpetual, rightful grousing about pro tennis lacking an overt, at-length offseason, many had downtime to get pensive—to stop and consider the ramifications of COVID-19's impact, their home lives, and outside interests (side projects and hobbies, even) that they had compartmentalized for years. A pandemic's uncertainties appeared alongside worrisome injuries impacting the futures of some, among all sorts of additional factors. So it's quite simple to understand, really. Did you recall that Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki retired just this year? Feels like three to five ago.
Also on the WTA side, Ekaterina Makarova, Vania King, Julia Goerges, Magdalena Rybarikova, Jamie Hampton, and more respectively called it a career. For the ATP, this year's departures of Mike and Bob Bryan on tour greatly impacted (and will for years) the doubles game. They packed up their racquets, as did a few more fellows.
What 2021 holds in store couldn't be foreseen by a Nostradamus type figure, as with this year. Here's to the hopeful return of more events, though not the season calendar in full, as we already know. There will come a day when tennis—and sport, and culture, and life in general—sees its full immersion again.