It couldn’t have been a more fitting end, for British tennis fans at least, to a dramatic tennis season: after seventy-nine years, Great Britain finally won the Davis Cup again, an even more impressive achievement when you consider that the 1936 winners, led by Fred Perry, only had to play in the final, as opposed to the four ties Great Britain have played this year. Unsurprisingly, Andy Murray spearheaded the charge to the title, ending with an unblemished 11-0 record in live Davis Cup rubbers, consisting of eight singles victories and three doubles wins with his brother, Jamie. But it was not always plain sailing. The five-set semi-final doubles matches against Sam Groth and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia in Glasgow, and the four-set win against France’s Gilles Simon in the quarter-final, a match in which Simon raced into a set-and-a-break lead, were two particularly nail-biting encounters.
While the Murray brothers won the doubles match in GB’s ties against France, Australia and Belgium, Andy did not play doubles in Great Britain’s first match, against the USA; James Ward won his singles rubber against John Isner on the first day. Ward, ranked 111th in the world at the time of the match, won 15-13 in the fifth against an opponent who is currently ranked 12th in the world and who, due to his phenomenal serving abilities, has had plenty of practice at playing very, very deep into a fifth set. Ward’s shock win also meant that Great Britain didn’t need to win the doubles match against the USA, all the more important because the USA’s first-choice doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan, have won sixteen Grand Slam doubles titles together. Credit for Great Britain’s victory must, of course, also go to Dan Evans, Kyle Edmund and Dom Inglot, who all played in the Davis Cup this year and have been part of the team throughout, and the captain, Leon Smith, who, in his five-year reign, has done a fantastic job of uniting the team together.
On the singles circuit, Andy Murray’s season was vastly improved from his one in 2014, and went better than many, including myself, were expecting; yet strangely, it is also one that can be classed as somewhat of a disappointment. The season started off strongly, with Andy achieving a remarkable level of consistency throughout the first half of the year. His efforts on clay far surpassed anything he has done on the surface before, as, over two consecutive weeks, he won his first two events on clay, in Berlin and Madrid, the latter a prestigious Masters 1000 tournament, in which he demolished Rafael Nadal in the final, before reaching the semi-finals of the French Open. But throughout that period, he was unable to beat Novak Djokovic in big matches. He lost in the finals of the Australian Open and the Miami Masters, and in the semi-final of the French Open. On each occasion, there were periods when Murray was in control, but he faded badly in the last set of each of the matches. The Australian Open final will particularly gall Andy, because at one point, Novak seemed to be physically weakening, handing Murray the advantage, but somehow Murray collapsed mentally, and was unable to cope with Novak’s renewed vigour.
Roger Federer was to compound this misery further by playing, in their Wimbledon semi-final, tennis of such quality that watching it almost bordered on being a religious experience to knock the Brit/Scot (I’ll leave you, the reader, to delete as appropriate) out of the tournament. Murray finally broke his hoodoo against Djokovic in the final of the Montreal Masters, playing some of his best, most attacking tennis of the year to win. After Montreal, however, Murray’s performances and results for the rest of the year dropped. He lost at the last-16 stage in New York and lost to both Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka at the World Tour Finals in London. The tendency to rant at his box became more prominent, and I felt that his groundstrokes became slower, and did not have the depth that they had had earlier in the season, meaning that the ball would sit up invitingly for opponents to hit. But he is now the number-two ranked player in the world, his highest year-end ranking to date, and after his Davis Cup exploits, and overcoming all of the pressure heaped on him to end Britain’s seventy-nine-year drought, and a good pre-season, he will be ideally placed to renew his attempts to usurp Djokovic as he seeks to add to the Wimbledon and US Open titles he has won before.
The second half of the year provided another reason for British tennis to cheer, though: the form of Johanna Konta. She entered the year 150th in the world rankings, and rarely appeared on the WTA circuit until mid-way through the year. Her run since then has included a stretch of sixteen unbeaten matches, which ended only after a defeat to Petra Kvitova in the last sixteen of the US Open. Konta’s form has been all the more impressive for the quality of opponent she has beaten; the past and current top-10 players defeated by Konta this year include: Victoria Azarenka, who, admittedly, retired after the first set of their match; Garbine Muguruza (twice); Andrea Petkovic; and the current world-ranked number two, Simona Halep. Konta has been rewarded for these performances by becoming a top-fifty player for the first time. On the other hand, this season will be one that Heather Watson and Laura Robson will want to forget quickly, the former because of her poor form (apart from that match against Serena Williams at Wimbledon), and the latter because this year has been another blighted by injuries and the slow recovery from them.
Internationally, headlines on the men’s and women’s tours were dominated by Djokovic’s and Serena Williams’s, respectively, attempt at winning all four Grand Slams in the same year, a Calendar Grand Slam (CYGS); attempts which were both, ultimately, unsuccessful. Djokovic won three of the Grand Slams but lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in the final of the French Open, the second Grand Slam of the season. Wawrinka’s performance in that match was awe-inspiring—a sustained and relentless assault of powerful yet beautiful hitting that I doubt anybody would have been able to prevail against. The French Open is the only slam that Novak has not won yet, and while the defeat to Wawrinka was a painful blow, Djokovic’s response has been phenomenal: winning the year’s two remaining slams and raising his level in the last couple of months to heights that, at this moment, no other player can reach.
Williams, on the other hand, won the first three Slams of the years but, in the biggest surprise of the year, was knocked out at the semi-final stage of the US Open by Roberta Vinci. Before and during the tournament, Serena’s attempt at the CYGS was the main, and at times sole, focus of the media, and maybe this got to her, because in the match against Vinci, she won the first set comfortably, but seemed extremely nervous from then on and was, at times, unable to hit shots that she would deem regulatory. That is not to take away from Vinci: many players with the career she had had up until that point would have run Serena close but failed to finish off the match. It was a devastating loss for Serena, as can be seen from the fact that she decided to rest for the remainder of the season and return in 2016. But her dominance over the women’s tour this year suggests that even with the extended rest period, a long break from a competitive match in a seemingly all-year-round profession, she will be the name everyone will expect to win the Australian Open in January.
What about the other big names on tour? Roger Federer might be behind Andy Murray in the world rankings at the moment, but there is the sense that when it comes to the big occasions, Federer is still Novak’s biggest threat. It is a sign of the Serbian’s current stranglehold in the men’s game, therefore, that in the two Grand Slam finals they played this year, and in the final of the World Tour Finals, Djokovic was the player who dominated the big, important points. The US Open final was won in four relatively tight sets by Djokovic, but Federer converted only 4 of 23 break points. In 2016 he needs to improve that ratio if he is to stand a chance of winning his 18th Grand Slam, and, as with Murray, nothing less than a Grand Slam or Olympic singles title will constitute a good year for the man widely regarded as the best of all time. Rafael Nadal has improved and found consistency as the year has gone on and a profitable pre-season should see him regularly competing for a place in the finals of the truly big events, but whether that will be enough to topple Djokovic is another question entirely. Whenever he plays near to his best, Stanislas Wawrinka can beat any player, but it is just a matter of whether he can replicate what he has done over the past two years and play his best at a major event.
Apart from Serena Williams, the women’s tour was very evenly matched this year. A great story has been the resurgence of Venus Williams, breaking into the top 10 at the age of 35; old in tennis terms. Garbine Muguruza reached her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon this year, and Agniezka Radwanska won the WTA’s end-of-year championships in Singapore, so they will be looking to capitalise on that success at the start of 2016. Petra Kvitova, meanwhile, will hope to recapture her Grand Slam-winning form now that she has overcome her battle with mononucleosis. And 2015 could not have been as disastrous for many in the tennis world as much as it has been for Eugenie Bouchard, so the former top-five will now be able to concentrate on climbing the rankings, rather than counting how many other players have climbed above her.
Very early, I know, but here are my predictions for 2016: Novak Djokovic will win the Golden Slam (Olympic singles gold + the CYGS), becoming only the second person, after Steffi Graf, to do so; Murray and Federer will reach one Grand Slam final and Nadal two; Serena Williams will win just the two Grand Slam titles (Wimbledon and the US Open) and Olympic singles gold, with Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova winning the Australian Open and French Open, respectively.