Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, begins his customary look back at the year with the highlights of 2023.
1. Carlos Alcaraz winning Wimbledon
Carlos Alcaraz’s 2023 was not quite as spectacular as his 2022, the season in which he won his first Major (the US Open) and became the youngest ever world No.1, aged just 19. However, his highlight of 2023 was the highlight of the whole tennis year, as the brilliant young Spaniard won one of the greatest Wimbledon Men’s Singles Finals ever, defeating the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, who was trying to equal Roger Federer’s record of eight Wimbledon Men’s Singles titles, in a match that was truly one for the ages.
Djokovic nearly bagelled Alcaraz in the first set, winning it 6-1, before Alcaraz fought back to win the second on a tie-break. Then came the third set and in particular the genuinely epic fifth game of that set, which lasted for over half an hour, before Alcaraz eventually won it and then romped away with the third set just as Djokovic had with the first, winning it 6-1. Indeed, it seemed as if Alcaraz would run away with the whole match, until Djokovic did what he always does and struck back, winning the fourth set 6-3.
Thus, there was an amazing fifth set, which Alcaraz eventually won 6-4. It was the finest post-Big Three Major Final so far, arguably the greatest maiden Wimbledon win of the Open Era and a reminder of the sheer greatness of five-set tennis, which in its epic and sustained intensity is the sporting equivalent of a Shakespeare play.
2. Novak Djokovic winning every other Major
When Djokovic lost the Wimbledon final, there was much talk of the changing of the guard in men’s tennis, with the 20-year-old Alcaraz replacing the 36-year-old GOAT at the top of the sport. But just over a month later, Djokovic won the best non-Major match of the year, defeating Alcaraz in the final in Cincinnati 5–7, 7–6 (9–7), 7–6 (7–4). And just a couple of weeks after that, Djokovic won the US Open, defeating Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final after the gangly Russian had dispatched defending champion Alcaraz in the semi-final.
It was a reminder, if it were needed, that Djokovic’s defining quality (his equivalent of Federer’s flair or Nadal’s competitiveness) is his resilience. After the Covid pandemic and all the other global crises that have followed it, resilience is almost the word of the decade already, but no human being better personifies it than Djokovic.
It took enormous resilience to leave Serbia as a child (and he did so alone, because neither of his parents could afford to go with him) to pursue his tennis dreams in western Europe; it took even greater resilience to break the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top of men’s tennis more than a decade ago; and it has taken unbelievable resilience to come back from a defeat as crushing as the one he suffered at Wimbledon this year to win the very next Major, to go alongside the first two Majors of the year, in Melbourne and Paris, which he also won.
That is why few, if any, will bet against Djokovic becoming the first tennis player, male or female, to win 25 Major Singles titles when the 2024 Australian Open starts next month.
3. Coco Gauff winning the US Open
For so long (indeed, since before the Covid pandemic shut down tennis and the entire world), Coco Gauff has been the bright young hope of US women’s tennis. As an African-American, she was naturally seen as the heir apparent to the Williams sisters, particularly Serena. And yet until 2023, she had not quite fulfilled all her abundant promise.
That changed on the north American hardcourt circuit this summer. First, Gauff beat Iga Świątek (after losing her previous seven matches against the mighty Pole without even winning a set) en route to winning in Cincinnati. Then she maintained her momentum in New York to win the US Open, beating Aryna Sabalenka in the final 2–6, 6–3, 6–2. In the first set, it looked as if Gauff would be blown away by the big-hitting Belarusian, but she withstood the storm, fought back and eventually reduced her opponent to such impotent fury that after the match Sabalenka was caught on camera smashing rackets in the locker room.
4. Markéta Vondroušová winning Wimbledon
Czech tennis, especially Czech women’s tennis, is one of the great sporting production lines; it is akin to Brazilian football and South African rugby in consistently producing world-class players, and from a relatively small population (just over 10 million). Yet it is precisely because it is such a production line, constantly churning out new competitors, that there was a fear that Markéta Vondroušová might become yesterday’s woman, a former teen star who had failed to fulfil her obvious talent. Fortunately for Vondroušová, she completely changed that narrative in 2023 by winning Wimbledon.
Vondroušová had already reached a Major Singles final, the 2019 French Open final, which she had lost meekly to Ash Barty, 6–1 6–3, as the Australian won the first of her three Major Singles titles. Four years on, Vondroušová had shown little in the intervening period to suggest that she could finally win a Major. But in London SW19 in 2023, she became the great disruptor, with her unique combination of slices, dices and moonballs first frustrating and then defeating a succession of more highly ranked players, culminating in Ons Jabeur in the final.
Although it was heart-breaking to watch the universally popular Jabeur lose a second Wimbledon final in succession (and third overall), the result was vindication of Vondroušová’s talent and, even more importantly, her incredible, even Djokovic-like resilience, as she became the first unseeded woman to win Wimbledon.
5. Jannik Sinner (virtually single-handedly) winning the Davis Cup for Italy
If there was a real possibility that Vondroušová would become yesterday’s woman, there was a slight fear that Jannik Sinner would become yesterday’s man, or rather boy-wonder, as his own surge up the rankings was eclipsed by that of Carlos Alcaraz. The Spaniard had followed Sinner’s 2019 Next Gen triumph by winning the end-of-season tournament for the best young male players in 2021 (after it hadn’t been held in 2020 because of the pandemic) and then translated that Next Gen triumph into a Major Singles win the following year, whereas four years after winning in Milan, Sinner is yet to reach a Major Singles final, let alone win it.
However, as Arthur Miller famously (and poetically) put it, “Everyone has their own personal velocity”. In other words, people develop at different speeds and so do tennis players. And just as Alcaraz suffered a second end-of-season dip in succession, so Sinner seemed to grow in stature, in an extraordinary autumn that culminated in his leading Italy to Davis Cup glory.
It all began in Beijing, where he won the tournament after beating both Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev (who he had never beaten before); it continued at the ATP Finals, where he defeated Djokovic in the round-robin stage before succumbing to the Serb in the final; and it all reached an absolute crescendo with The Miracle of Malaga. Sinner was deserving of such epic epithets as he became the first man to defeat Djokovic twice in one day, first in singles and then in doubles, as he powered Italy to the Davis Cup final, where, despite having no rest (unlike Australia who had won their semi-final a day earlier), he continued his spectacular autumnal or fall form to secure the biggest prize of his career so far.
6. Aryna Sabalenka winning the Australian Open
“Slabalenka” (because she hits the ball so hard that it sometimes seems she is wielding a paving slab rather than a tennis racket) has been the hardest-hitting woman in tennis for so long that it seemed bizarre that she had not even reached a Major Singles final, let alone won one, before 2023. However, that all changed at the start of the year, when she won her first Major Singles title in Melbourne.
Even though it was the first women’s Major final of the year, the Australian Open Women’s Final was probably the finest women’s Major final of the year, as Sabalenka went toe to toe and shot for shot with the woman who is probably the second hardest hitter on tour, Elena Rybakina. The 2022 Wimbledon champion reached her second Major final and for a while looked as if she would make it two Major wins from two Major finals, as she took the first set 6-4.
In the past, Sabalenka may well have imploded, but emboldened by firing her sports psychologist (on the basis that she alone had to perform on court) she recovered superbly to win the match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. If she failed to add to her Australian Open title later in the year, notably at the US Open where she won the first set of the final but then faltered against Coco Gauff, Sabalenka has already shown that she is a viable alternative to Iga Świątek as the dominant force in women’s tennis.
7. Leylah Fernandez leading Canada to the 2023 BJK Cup
Nearly two and a half years on from their meeting in the 2021 US Open Women’s Singles final, it is fascinating to compare and contrast the career paths of the two finalists: Britain’s Emma Raducanu and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez. Raducanu, of course, shocked the world (and not just the tennis world) by winning in New York, but she has done virtually nothing since, as her career has been severely hampered by injuries and a seemingly endless succession of coaching changes. And the truth is that Fernandez had also done little of note since, until she regained her individual mojo in a team event and led Canada to BJK Cup success.
For the finals of the tournament in Sevilla, Canada first defeated hosts Spain and Poland (albeit a Poland without Iga Świątek) to top their group, before defeating the powerful Czech Republic in the semi-final. In all these matches, Fernandez was to the fore; like Jannik Sinner soon afterwards in Malaga, she excelled in both singles and doubles. In the semi-final, for example, she not only defeated reigning Wimbledon champion Markéta Vondroušová in the singles, but then, alongside Gabriela Dabrowski, beat Barbora Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková, a multiple Major-winning doubles team.
Against Italy in the final, Fernandez did not need to play both singles and doubles, as her singles win against Jasmine Paolini sealed a 2-0 victory to give Canada its first ever BJK Cup (or Fed Cup) a year after its men had won the Davis Cup for the first time.
8. Alfie Hewitt continuing to win Majors in men’s wheelchair tennis
As a tennis obsessive, I am obviously biased, but I do genuinely believe that wheelchair tennis is the best Paralympic sport, because it possesses something that able-bodied tennis lacks, namely ultra-manoeuvrability, which is surely the only word (or compound word) to describe the extraordinary ability of competitors to power and manoeuvre a wheelchair with both hands before then playing a tennis shot with one of those hands. And the finest men’s wheelchair tennis player for the last few years has probably been England’s Alfie Hewitt.
Hewitt first emerged as the doubles partner of Gordon Reid, but he has long since surpassed the great Scot, winning eight Major Singles titles and (alongside Reid) 18 Major Doubles titles. And yet in Hewitt’s own eyes, the Big One – namely the Wimbledon Singles title – continues to elude him. He has now lost two Wimbledon Singles finals in succession, with the 2023 loss proving particularly painful as he was beaten 6-4, 6-2 by the Japanese wheelchair wunderkind, Tokito Oda, who at 17 is nearly a decade younger than the 26-year-old Hewitt.
Nevertheless, Hewitt remains determined to win Wimbledon, the only Major Singles title to elude him, and given his ability to overcome all the other obstacles he has faced in his career, not least the possibility that he would be prevented from playing wheelchair tennis after a controversial reassessment of his disability (a decision that was later rescinded), only a fool would bet against him doing it.
9. BJK calling for a real tennis World Cup
Billie Jean King is probably the most important player, male or female, in the history of tennis, because in addition to her 12 Major Singles titles, she was instrumental in the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, as documented in the film Battle of the Sexes (2017). And that is why her call for a real tennis World Cup near the end of the 2023 season was so important, because if anyone can make it happen, it’s surely BJK.
Tennis remains the only major professional sport that does not have a real World Cup, i.e. a quadrennial tournament to decide the best nation in a sport. Even traditionally insular US sports such as baseball now have their equivalent of a World Cup, so it remains bizarre, to say the least, that tennis, which is arguably second only to football or soccer for being a truly global sport played in virtually every country, does not have one.
King stressed that she would like to see a tennis World Cup in which both men and women competed together for their national teams, which would be its USP among all other World Cups. But whether it is one tennis World Cup for both men and women, or more likely two separate tennis World Cups (one for men and one for women), it is an idea whose time has surely come.
10. Hamad Medjedovic winning the 2023 ATP Next Gen
And finally, the last significant tennis event of the year saw the emergence of a potential new tennis superstar, Hamad Medjedovic, who won the 2023 Next Gen and in the process proved that he is so good that he’s been nicknamed twice: first, the relatively prosaic “Hamad The Hammer”; and, secondly, the more poetic “The Serb With The Serve”. But whatever he is called, Medjedovic has demonstrated that he has the potential to follow previous winners of the tournament, notably Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, to the top of the men’s game.
The two young French stars, Arthur Fils and Luca Van Aasche, had been most people’s tips for the tournament after they had both excelled on the ATP Tour in 2023, particularly Fils, who had actually won an ATP tournament in Lyon, just before the French Open. However, Fils was ultimately defeated in the final (the first one in the tournament’s history to go five sets, albeit five abbreviated sets, as is the custom at the Next Gen) by Medjedovic, who not only served astonishingly well but showed astonishing self-control to regain his composure after losing his temper (and any semblance of self-control) at various points. If he does become the next big thing in men’s tennis, then you have to pity the rest of men’s tennis, because having waited so long for one giant Serb, namely Novak Djokovic, to retire, they may immediately have to face another one in Medjedovic.
Up Next: 10 Terrible Things in Tennis in 2023.
Main Photo Credit: Susan Mullane – USA TODAY Sports