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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Wednesday November 24, 2021

Barbora Krejcikova

2021 was a bounce back year and today we give thanks to the players that made it special both on the court and off.

Photo Source: GEtty

By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Wednesday November 24, 2021

2121 was a special year for the sport, as it rallied back from a most dismal 2020 that was slashed in half by the coronavirus; even if the pandemic roared on and life was still not quite normal, not quite as we know it or would want it to be, the tennis community impressively still found a way to thrive.

It's a great time to take stock: have a look at our list of 2021's most fantastic highlights.

Tennis Express

1. Djokovic’s Quest for the Calendar Slam

In retrospect, does it even matter that Novak Djokovic’s quest for the Calendar Slam came up short in New York, when he fell to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final? Of course it does, but in the process of trying to rewrite the history of men’s tennis, Djokovic approached the untouchable. He was one victory from doing the GOATiest thing that had ever been done by any member of the Big Three.

Even in defeat Mr. Djokovic deserves deification for his achievements in 2021. He tied Federer and Nadal on the all-time Grand Slam title list with 20, he broke the all-time record for year-end No.1 finishes with his seventh, and he broke the all-time record for weeks at No.1, and now is in his 348th week at the top of the ATP rankings. Do we hear 400 weeks, twenty something Slams and an eighth year-end No.1 finish?

However things turn out for Djokovic as his career winds down, we must remember that he showed up at the Tokyo Olympics and represented his country this summer – of course he did – and at this very moment he is in Innsbruck, helping Team Serbia at the Davis Cup. Now that's dedication to country.

Djokovic may have been better off making his run at the calendar Slam in a non-Olympic season, but when faced with the ultimate decision: should he skip the Olympics to preserve himself for the US Open or not? Djokovic threw caution to the wind and went big. I’ll remember that right along with the three Slams and 27 straight victories at the majors.

2. Krejcikova emerges. Holy crap does she ever emerge.

Barbora Krejcikova had never finished a season ranked higher than 65 in singles prior to 2021. But this season the Czech went on a magic carpet ride that took her to singles and doubles titles in Paris – with Jana Novotna, her perma-inspirer, riding shotgun on her shoulder – the doubles title at the Olympics, and a career-best finish of five in the world.

All the while, as we caught up with Barbora at various stops along the way, she couldn’t believe the success she was having. She expressed surprise, we expressed surprise as well, but as the dust settled and the last words of Krejcikova’s moving speech about the Velvet Revolution faded into the rafters at Guadalajara, we were hit by the recognition that this woman is a true triple threat – singles, doubles and, perhaps most important: humanity.

She’s a good egg and deserves what she got in 2021. Bonus points for playing Fed Cup during the week before the WTA Finals, patriot that she is.

3. A note on the Zoom pressers that kept us in the loop all year long

Many tennis journalists lament the rise of virtual press conferences and long to be back on the tour, travelling from city to city and speaking with players face to face. Put me in that category as well – I travelled to zero tournaments this year (sad face emoji goes here) – but don’t count me among those who bash the virtual press conference. This year, weirdly, I spoke to more tennis players than ever before. And, even with the pandemic sinking its claws deeper into our society, was able to experience the sport in an authentic way.

I got to know Danish teen Clara Tauson as she raced to her first career title in Lyon in March, and frequently met up with Sebastian Korda and Jenson Brooksby as they experienced the best seasons of their young careers. As always there were favorites. Speaking with the world’s best tennis players is always an amazing privilege, but some of the players really impress you in all the right ways.

Here are a few that I enjoyed personally:

Matteo Berrettini is such a genuine human and he always gives a thoughtful answer. I just find it easy to ask him questions... Victoria Azarenka always drops wisdom, almost matter-of-factly, she has one of the more fascinating minds on tour and it’s been so cool to watch her evolve... Daniil Medvedev is a delight to talk to as well – he’s becoming a great ambassador for the sport and a truly unique character that is unafraid to say what’s on his mind... Iga Swiatek is always ready to look closely at herself and one can see why she’s such a talent – her curiosity and her intelligence allow her to approach the sport with a wide open mind... Maria Sakkari’s immense fire is evident both after losses and victories, and Coco Gauff’s maturity and warmth is nothing short of mind-blowing. There’s the young energy, the intelligence, the presence – and she’s still 17? ... Andrey Rublev, like everybody says, is kind of hilarious.... Stefanos Tsitsipas seems a bit fed up with the media at times, and who can blame him? He puts himself under a lot of pressure, with the highest expectations, and we can feel that take a toll on him as he has transformed from a player that was just thrilled to be in the conversation a few years ago to someone who holds himself to the highest standard.

Some random ones: Mikael Ymer was such a pleasure to speak with this year at Roland-Garros. A genuine kid with a big heart, and one that I didn’t know very well prior to having a few moments with him while he was at Roland-Garros.

There were many others: Maria Camila Osoria Serrano – what a 2021 she had and what a fun conversation. Elena Vesnina, it was just an absolute joy to have her back on tour. Andy Murray, always thoughtful, always inspiring. Casper Ruud, a genuinely good natured human and always with time to talk. Reilly Opelka, he may say the media sucks, but he gives great conversation and is a genuinely decent human.

I could go on. I won’t. I’ll get back to random highlights of 2021, in no particular order.

4. Shapovalov at Wimbledon - what a run

It was great to see Denis Shapovalov make hay at Wimbledon in 2021. It’s been something that he envisioned for himself ever since he tore up the juniors at SW19 in 2016. It will be the moment he takes with him into the off-season, the sign that he has what it takes to go where he wants to go in this sport.

5. Barty’s journey

Speaking of Wimbledon, everything fell together for Ash Barty at SW19 this year and the World No.1 honored Yvonne Goolagong in the most perfect way by becoming the first Aussie woman to win the title at Wimbledon since Goolagong in 1980.

Barty, who had retired from Roland-Garros with a serious injury in round two, called it a miracle that she was in good enough shape to go the distance in London. Maybe it was from that perspective, but from a tennis-filtered lens, she was head and shoulders above the field, pretty much all season long. Did you know she went 14-1 against the Top-20? Wow.

And Barty did it all without going home for over six months!

6. Alcaraz coming on strong

We’re witnessing the rise of so many young players on both tours, but only one other rise was as spectacular (we’ll get to Emma later) as the push that Carlos Alcaraz made at the US Open. The 18-year-old, who became the youngest men’s singles quarterfinalist in tournament history, can shred on fast-playing hard courts at the end of a long season? Just wait til he gets back to the clay next spring, with another productive off-season under his belt. The kid gets the hair on the back of your neck standing up when he plays. Beast mode is perpetually engaged – watch out world.

7. Konjuh can, yes she can!

By the end of the season Ana Konjuh was telling people that her comeback is over – she’s just another player inside the Top-100 now – but we knew better. Every time this determined woman wins a match it is cause for celebration. The Croatian, with four elbow surgeries in her past, got wind in her sails for the first time in a long time and rose from 538 to a year-end ranking of 66. Quietly courageous Konjuh is one of the truly remarkable stories of perseverance on tour in 2021. The follow-through next season could be even sweeter.

What’s truly moving about Konjuh’s return to relevance is notion of how much she is willing to risk for success in the sport. It’s fascinating to watch her fight against the demons of the past as she attempts to write another chapter of her career. The dream of success, in Konjuh’s mind, far outweighs the possibility of failure. She is motivated by what can go right rather than what can go wrong, and there are lessons in that for all of us.

8. The hurdles of Sakkari and Sabalenka

Watching Maria Sakkari and Aryna Sabalenka blossom in 2021 was remarkable. Both finish the season at career-high rankings, with their maiden Grand Slam semifinals under their belts. As both rising forces saw their season conclude bitterly at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, I could not help but be moved.

Sabalenka and Sakkari’s willingness to get up, battle past adversity and take more punches as they search for their perfect competitive selves is admirable. In 2021 we saw that each is progressing rapidly in the right direction, even if the losses in big moments were tough to swallow.

These are the stories that develop over time, as the years stretch out like oil on canvas, creating a work of art that is a career arc. It’s just starting to take shape for both.

9. Roger and Serena passing the torch

This was the year that was tougher than any other for Roger Federer and Serena Williams. We were face-to-face with the reality of gravity as these great champions, who had seemingly walked on water for much of the two previous decades, were suddenly slogging around the court with heavy ankle weights. It wasn’t pretty, but if you really watched with perspective, it was beautiful. Their failings in 2021 only shine a brighter light on their successes of the previous two decades and the 43 Grand Slam singles title between them.

10. Pavluchenkova with a banner year

In her 52nd appearance at a major, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reached her first career Grand Slam final. A remarkable show of perseverance from the Russian, who made good on her enormous array of talents like never before – and she finished the season with an Olympic gold medal in mixed doubles and a Fed Cup crown. Hands down, one of the best seasons on tour in 2021.

11. Medvedev rising oh so steadily

Daniil Medvedev has demonstrated real staying power at the top of the men’s game and he solidified his role as challenger No.1 to Novak Djokovic’s ranking hegemony by defeating the Serb in the US Open final. The charismatic, unorthodox Russian has been winning hearts and minds for a few seasons now. He’s also winning tennis matches – and tournaments – by the bushel.

As he makes a push to overtake Novak Djokovic at No.1 we now see Medvedev as cut from a different cloth. He’s taken the bull by the horns every stop of the way and is now working on a Hall of Fame career – it’s impressive to watch.

12. Osaka takes a step forward and a step back

Naomi Osaka got a lot off her chest in 2021, and by doing so moved the conversation on mental health in tennis forward by leaps and bounds. She helped foster an environment where players can now think before they talk at press conferences, not just about what they are going to say, but about protecting their own privacy and mental health. In the end, Osaka’s brave actions might prove to be more therapeutic than controversial. The message to a tour of young stars about to be thrust into the limelight? Take time for yourself.

It’s no surprise that Osaka’s tennis suffered this season as she was in the throes of some very serious mental health issues. We wait for her return with in 2022 with baited breath. There are no guarantees, but it’s clear that Osaka’s legacy will be about more than tennis moving forward, and she should be proud of that.

13. American men sitting pretty...

Personally, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the way the American men performed in 2021 – are you reading this Reilly Opelka? From Sebastian Korda to Brandon Nakashima to Taylor Fritz to Jenson Brooksby to Opelka himself, it was a year of breakthroughs and breakouts. Not only was the tennis fantastic, so were the personalities. Some of my best memories from the indoor season were chatting up Frances Tiafoe during his run to the final at Vienna.

When it comes to pure inspiration, Frances is a true double threat. He has the capacity to do it with his actions and his words. As far as personality goes, Reilly Opelka brought his A game all year long, to every match and interview. It’s something the 24-year-old just does naturally. Brooksby, Korda and Nakashima went the shy-guy route, basically saying shucks I’m just happy to be out here racking up wins, but every one of the Americans is an interesting story and the future does look very bright indeed.

14. Have we lost Nick Kyrgios?

Nick Kyrgios has steadily matured and become such a genuinely thoughtful conversationalist over the years. That’s been a wonderful development – the Aussie keeps it real, and keeps it interesting, and he is skewing a bit more politically correct these days.

In short, Kyrgios has gotten older and wiser. The sad part is, he’s also contemplating retirement. Are we going to lose this guy just when his personality and his influence are peaking? Hope not. But he does seem to be trending in that direction based on his words and his tennis.

15. Raducanu from outta nowhere!

What Emma Raducanu achieved at the US Open in 2021, we may never see it again. Even if the British teen never again rises to the heights that she achieved in New York, history will be kind to her. The immensity of her achievement, the sheer improbability of what she achieved, makes her run to the US Open title one of the craziest moments of the season, the decade and the century.

How Raducanu found what was needed to achieve her extraordinary feat, well that says everything about what she could potentially be. But for now, we’ll focus on what she is – a very bright star in the tennis galaxy.

16. Iga Swiatek - a consummate pro

Iga Swiatek was the only WTA player to reach the second week of every Slam in 2021, and while that pales in comparison to what she might have wanted for herself deep down in her heart, it is such a solid base from which to build out her already brilliant career. The Pole took her losses in stride, as lessons rather than failings, and this is another strong trend that she has put in place. 2021 was a steppingstone year for Swiatek, just as it was for Coco Gauff, the radiant American who just devours her tennis homework with the zeal of a lion just before the hunt.

17. Italian men storming the top 100 (and top 10)!

Watching Jannik Sinner push Daniil Medvedev to the brink during round robin play at the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin I suddenly had a vision of an all-Italian final between Matteo Berrettini, that lovable human who was dealt so much BS injury news in 2021, and Sinner. It really feels like both players have a Grand Slam title or two in their future. Berrettini and Wimbledon is a perfect match and Sinner, well, we know he has future No.1 written all over him. Toss in a Musetti on the rise, a Sonego still blooming and you’ve got another decade of brilliance for the Italian men. Forza!

18. A Grand Slam opening for experienced women?

With Victoria Azarenka reaching the BNP Paribas Open final a year after she made her first Grand Slam final appearance in seven years at the 2020 US Open, and Garbine Muguruza climbing all the way back to No.3 in the world on the heels of her WTA Finals title, it’s difficult not to see these two players making a play for filling the openings in the business end of Grand Slams in 2022. With no dominant figure in the women’s game – Serena’s not it, Naomi’s not it, Simona’s not it – Azarenka and Muguruza seemed primed for a follow-through. Perhaps one – or both – nabs a third major title to further cement their already Hall of Fame legacy in 2022?

19. Ruud on hard courts - a revelation

One of the most impressive stats in men’s tennis in 2021: Casper Ruud was 16-27 on hard courts prior to 2021. This year? 25-10.

That gives you an idea of the explosive growth that this young star is making. The Norwegian, still 22, will be even more confident when he finds his way back to his beloved clay next spring, now that he’s proven there really are no limits to his rise.

20. Ons owned it!

Ons Jabeur wasn’t just a trailblazer for Tunisia and the Arab world in 2021, as she soared into the Top-10 and made history for herself and her country at the Slams. She was also a poster child for growing at your own rate. Jabeur needed time to develop into the player she is now on the tour at 27, but she needed no time to be a class individual and a dignified ambassador for the sport. Now that she’s blossomed, both as a player and as a personality, look out, because she believes the best is yet to come.

Same for Anett Kontaveit, who slammed through the gears this summer, backing out of a tailspin after she hired Dmitry Tursunov as her new coach and speeding off into one of the most impressive year-end runs in WTA history. All the Estonian did is win four titles and reel off 29 victories in 33 matches to finish as the year-end No.7. From where she was this summer, to playing the title match at the WTA Finals – just extraordinary stuff.

21. All of us, together

The 2021 tennis season was quite a journey, and, like many of you, most of it was witnessed from the home office, as we laughed and cried and continued reading and writing the story of the season, making the most of another pandemic year and staying logged into Zoom and Twitter like fiends.

It was far from an ideal scenario but we got it done. 2021 was a bounce-back year and the tennis was memorable in every way, as were the people behind the racquets, the ones that made the tennis and the stories that went with it.

I’ll forever be thankful to have access to the tour, to the wonderful characters who pour every ounce of their blood, sweat and tears into achieving their dreams on the court, and in those rare moments that I do take it for granted (mostly due to fatigue) I’m thankful that there are so many good people who are with me as we share and experience the moments and memories together. I can’t even begin to mention the myriad times that another tennis journalist has done work that inspired me this year. Great photographs, clever tweets, animated commentary, a cheering crowd, a sassy on-court interview, a crying coach in a player’s box, a player on his or her back, soaking up the moment, the applause, as history marches on, sagging ever so slightly beneath the weight of another brave and bold season, before straightening up and walking proudly over the threshold as another year begins.

See you then, my friends….


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