In Tennis, Bookends Of Drama In 2023

In Tennis, Bookends of Drama in 2023

There was no champagne courtside. So, as Matteo Berrettini embraced Jannik Sinner after Sinner’s victory over Alex de Minaur last month to clinch Italy’s first Davis Cup title in 47 years, their teammate, Matteo Arnaldi, did the next best thing: He shook a water bottle and poured it over Sinner and Berrettini.

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Sinner, 22, ended the season with his 20th win in his last 23 matches. This year, he had a 64-15 record, won four tournaments, reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, and was runner-up at the ATP Finals in Turin, Italy. He had wins over the three top-ranked players — Novak Djokovic, whom he beat twice in two weeks, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev. Starting 2023 at No. 15, he ended it at No. 4.

Djokovic sorely wanted to lead Serbia to just its second Davis Cup title. But in the semifinals, he fell to Sinner after squandering three match points and then teamed with Miomir Kecmanovic to lose the deciding doubles match to Sinner and Lorenzo Sonego. The loss sent Italy into the final, where it beat Australia.

Djokovic was devastated by the defeat.

“For me, personally, it’s a huge disappointment because I take the responsibility, obviously having three match points, being so close to winning it,” he said after the match. “When you lose for your country, you know, the bitter feeling is even greater.”

It is ironic that the season began and ended with exciting conclusions at the men’s and women’s team competitions. The Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup have been under siege in recent years as many of the game’s top players, including Alcaraz, Taylor Fritz, Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff, and Jessica Pegula, shunned the historically heart-thumping, pride-producing finals because of scheduling conflicts. The U.S. women lost early in the finals, and the U.S. men didn’t even qualify as one of the top eight teams.

Still, despite the player defections and a merry-go-round of format changes, both competitions provided some of the most striking moments of the year.

Leylah Fernandez rode a wave of patriotic passion, winning five matches to lead Canada to its first Billie Jean King Cup. Her teammate, then-18-year-old Marina Stakusic, who had never won a WTA Tour match, became an overnight star when she won three matches against opponents ranked in the top 70.

If 2022 was billed as the season of King Carlos when Alcaraz went from No. 32 to No. 1 on the strength of his U.S. Open championship, then this season mostly belonged to Djokovic.

He is considered by many in the game as the greatest player ever. The statistics prove it.

At 36, Djokovic had one of the best seasons of his career. For the third time since 2015, he reached the finals at all four majors, falling just shy of attaining the Grand Slam.

In January, a year after being removed from Australia because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, Djokovic returned to Melbourne Park and captured a record 10th Australian Open title by defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. With the 14-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal injured for most of the season, Djokovic won his third French Open in June by beating Alcaraz and Casper Ruud.

After falling to Alcaraz in a scintillating five-set Wimbledon final, Djokovic bounced back and beat Medvedev at the U.S. Open to earn his 24th major, surpassing Serena Williams. He is now just one win away from breaking the men’s and women’s major record held by Margaret Court for 50 years.

In all, Djokovic played just 12 tournaments in 2023 and he won seven of them. He did not lose from mid-July until mid-November when he fell to Sinner during the round-robin portion of the ATP Finals. He then beat Sinner in the final after assuring the year-end No. 1 ranking for a record-extending eighth time.

Alcaraz, who won six titles in 2023 on three different surfaces and reached the semifinals at the French and U.S. Opens, in addition to his Wimbledon win, ended the year ranked No. 2. But he was candid after he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals in Turin.

“I am not at his level on an indoor court,” Alcaraz, 20, said in November. “He has shown why he is the best player in the world. I have to practice more to be a better player.”

With his 66 wins, Medvedev led the ATP in match victories. He won 19 straight, and reached the finals at Indian Wells and the Miami Open, which he won. He also won at Rome and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and was runner-up to Djokovic at the U.S. Open. He ended the year ranked No. 3.

Two upstart players — the Americans Ben Shelton and Chris Eubanks — used their wide grins and whopping forehands to envelop the sport in a giant bear hug. Shelton, about two years away from leading the University of Florida to an N.C.A.A. championship, reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open. He then reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open before falling to Djokovic. Eubanks, another former collegian, upset Cameron Norrie and Tsitsipas to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

There was no shortage of compelling storylines among the women. Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka spent the season battling for tour supremacy.

Sabalenka, only a year removed from serving woes so severe that she resorted to serving underhand during matches, won her first major at the Australian Open, a day she called the “best of my life.” She grabbed the No. 1 ranking after reaching the U.S. Open final.

“It was amazing to see Sabalenka, who was basically laughed off that same court a year earlier, confront those demons and take responsibility,” Lindsay Davenport, three-time major winner and former No. 1, said by telephone last month.

Swiatek took her third French Open and won six titles. But she faltered at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before regrouping by the WTA Finals, snatching the year-end No. 1 from Sabalenka by beating her and Pegula to take the title. Pegula, for her part, was one of just two players, along with No. 4 Elena Rybakina, to notch multiple wins over Swiatek this season.

Marketa Vondrousova, who endured long stretches away from the game because of two wrist surgeries, became the first unseeded women’s Wimbledon winner when she beat Ons Jabeur in the final.

But it was Gauff and her wise-beyond-her-years attitude who transcended the sport in a way that only Williams has done. When Gauff, 19, beat Sabalenka in three sets to win the U.S. Open, the nontennis world, including the former first lady Michelle Obama, went wild. In her acceptance speech, Gauff, who had struggled early in the season, addressed her doubters.

“Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me,” Gauff said. “To those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it.”

It was the kind of bold statement that left even former major winners stunned. One of them was Davenport, who admitted to having tears run down her face while she did match commentary on television.

“To me, the story of the year was Coco,” Davenport said. “Players come along once in a generation. When you have all the expectations on you at 12 and 15 years old and you are able to handle everything and then elevate your game to win, then you really are truly something special.”

FOR THE WTA AND ATP, 2024 COULD BE A YEAR OF FORMATIVE CHANGE IN TENNIS

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