The end of the tennis season is finally here, time for at least four weeks of non-competition. It all never seems to stop but let’s take a deep breath and look back at some of the biggest moments of 2016 before we get ready to go again.
Biggest dope of the year – Maria Sharapova
No other place to start the piece but to acknowledge that the WTA tour has been a poorer place without the intensity of Maria Sharapova. Her two year ban has been reduced to fifteen months and, rightly or wrongly, events will be falling over themselves to hand her wildcards come April. What message that sends out to up-and-coming players remains to be seen, but you do feel that Sharapova has been, and will continue to be judged differently to lesser-marketable players. She argues that she has been made an example of, whilst others will see it as her using her name and image to get a smoother transition back to the sport. The sport has missed her this past ten months, and the overriding admiration people have always held for her in the past will never quite be there again.
Moment of the year – Monica Puig winning Olympic Gold
There have been some amazing moments this year; a rejuvenated Juan-Martin Del Potro leading Argentina to the Davis Cup final, Sam Querrey ousting Novak Djokovic from Wimbledon with a huge-serving display, Angelique Kerber both becoming World number one and lifting the US Open within a matter of days and Andy Murray seeing off Djokovic in the ATP Tour Finals to make it to the end of the year as World Number 1. But it is the Puerta Rican Monica Puig’s stand-out Olympic Games run that trumps the lot. She had been knocking on the door of a major breakthrough for a few years, seemingly hitting a brick wall of being ranked around the top 30, but in Rio she defeated Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova to reach the final where she came up against Angelique Kerber. The look on Puig’s face as she won Gold, coupled with Murray and Del Potro’s slugfest final should see tennis safe as part of future Games.
Struggling to cope with superstardom – Garbine Muguruza
Where has the brave, free-hitting Muguruza of Wimbledon 2015 and Roland Garros 2016 gone? Since winning the French Open in majestic manner in June, the Venezuelan-born Spaniard has only won two Grand Slam matches, going out in the second rounds of both Wimbledon and the US Open. She seems to be struggling with being a Grand Slam champion to the extent that Petra Kvitova did in 2011. Hopefully, the malaise will be temporary, and she will go on to achieve as much as her game is capable of.
The ‘Isner v Mahut is this ever going to end?’ award – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga v John Isner
I’m not sure that anybody with a weak bladder should go anywhere near a John Isner match in South-West London. It’s a slight understatement to say that this didn’t come close to his 2010 marathon with Nicolas Mahut but Isner’s 17-19 defeat at the hands of Tsonga has to be the match of the year. There’s a style difference between the two, and Tsonga’s reputation as fan-favourite meant that this match had the atmosphere to match the play. They are two players that leave everything on the court in attempts to get to the latter stages of majors and the sheer drama of the final set has to make this the match of the year.
Rivalry of the year – Andy Murray v Kei Nishikori
The smart money would be on either Murray v Djokovic or Serena Williams v Kerber here, with maybe Del Potro v Murray as a possible shout too. But the fact that these guys played 13 supremely competitive sets out of a possible 13 across the Davis Cup, US Open and ATP Tour Finals edges it. I wouldn’t necessarily say they bring the best out of each other’s games but they do match up pretty damned well. Nishikori managed to get past Murray in New York but the new world number one edged the Japanese on home territory in Birmingham and London. If you get the chance to see these two at a major level, settle down and bring plenty of snacks because you’re in for the long haul.
Player of the year – Angelique Kerber
This was a tough call as Andy Murray won a Grand Slam, Olympic Gold and the Tour Finals whilst finishing the year as World number one, having a truly stunning final seven months of the season, overhauling Djokovic’s huge lead in the rankings race. Kerber has to be the player of the year though as she has been pretty faultless from the moment she saved two match points in the first round of the Australan Open back in the middle of January. The only real blips were a first round defeat to Kiki Bertens in Paris and having to settle for Olympic silver when she succumbed to the inspired Puig. Other than that, she reached the Wimbledon final and won her first two Grand Slams in Melbourne and New York, ending the year as a richly-deserved number one in the world. It’s both intriguing and exciting to see how she will fare in 2017 but whatever happens, 2016 will always be Kerber’s year.