2021 will likely go down in tennis history as the year when the Big Three, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, became the Big One. Injuries to Federer and Nadal have left Djokovic all alone as the last still-dominant member of the sport’s greatest three-way rivalry, and in their absence, Djokovic nearly managed to fend off the ascendancy of the next-gen players all by himself.
The first full tennis season in two years also turned out to be the Year of the Qualifier. Three qualifiers made the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the most since it began keeping track in 1982. Dutch qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp made the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev made the Australian Open semifinals, and British qualifier Emma Raducanu, who had only just played her first Women's Tennis Association event in June, became the first-ever qualifier, male or female, to win a Grand Slam when she defeated Leylah Fernandez of Canada to win the U.S. Open.
2021 was also the Year of the 18-Year-Old, with Fernandez of Canada and Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz making historic runs of their own in New York. Let’s take a closer look at this past historic year in tennis by handing out our annual men’s tennis awards.
Player of the Year: Novak Djokovic.
At 34, the Serbian great had the best season of his career, tying Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s shared record for most-ever Slams (20), breaking a tie with Nadal for most-ever Masters 1000 titles (Djokovic now has 37 to Nadal’s 36), and breaking Pete Sampras’s record for most-ever year-end No. 1 finishes with his seventh. Djokovic also came within one match of achieving a calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in men’s tennis in over 50 years. Djokovic had not only one of the greatest seasons in tennis history in 2021 but one of the greatest seasons ever for an athlete in any sport. It will be fascinating to see whether Djokovic can continue his transcendent form in 2022 at his age and with younger players such as Alexander Zverev of Germany and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece eager to chip away at Djokovic’s dominance.
Breakout Player of the Year: The American male tennis player.
No American male has won a Grand Slam since 2003. But that could soon be changing thanks to a bevy of breakout seasons from the suddenly rejuvenated American tennis scene. Sebastian Korda, the son of former world No. 2 Petr Korda, has at 21 made the round of 16 at Wimbledon, won his first ATP title, and broke into the ATP Top 40. Brandon Nakashima, 20, made two straight ATP finals this summer (in Los Cabos and Atlanta) and broke into the ATP Top 70. Mackenzie McDonald, 26, made the finals of the Citi Open this summer in Washington, D.C., while the already-established Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, 24 and 23, respectively, also had some of the finest seasons in their still-young careers: Fritz made the finals of the St. Petersburg Open and his first Masters 1000 semifinal at Indian Wells, and Tiafoe made the finals of the Erste Bank Open in Vienna, beating three ATP Top 15 players (Stefanos Tsitsipas, Diego Schwartzman, and Jannik Sinner).
The most promising of all might be 24-year-old Reilly Opelka and 21-year-old Jenson Brooksby. The 6-foot-11-inch Opelka made his first two Masters 1000s semifinals this season (in Rome and Toronto) and became the top-ranked American player in September. Brooksby exploded like a firecracker onto the scene this past summer. After starting the year outside of the Top 300, he moved into the Top 150 by making the final of the Newport Open and then into the ATP Top 100 by reaching the semifinals of the Citi Open, where he didn’t drop a set in defeating Tiafoe, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Kevin Anderson, and John Millman. A month later, Brooksby became the youngest American man to make the round of 16 at the U.S. Open in over two decades, taking a set on world No. 1 Djokovic in the process. During Brooksby’s run, former world No. 1 Andy Murray tweeted that Brooksby, with his variety of shots and spins, unconventional defensive game, and high tennis IQ, is “the sort of player I love to watch.” (Incidentally, I happen to believe that Brooksby’s game is eerily similar to Murray’s. He even occasionally grunts like the three-time British Grand Slam champion.)
Brooksby and the rocket-serving Opelka present the United States with the chance of claiming its first Grand Slam title in over 18 years. While no one will be confusing Brooksby, Opelka, Korda, and Nakashima with Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, and the golden years of ’90s American men’s tennis, it’s safe to say that American men’s tennis is finally once again relevant.
Match of the Year: U.S. Open final — Daniil Medvedev defeating Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
This wasn’t necessarily the most epic match of the year, but it was the most historic. There was more on the line in this Flushing Meadows final than there has been in any match in men’s tennis in 50 years: a chance for Djokovic to surpass his longtime rivals Federer and Nadal in all-time Grand Slams, as well as the once-in-a-generation opportunity for a player to accomplish the first calendar-year Grand Slam since the ’60s. All that stood in Djokovic’s way of history was 25-year-old Russian tennis savant Daniil Medvedev.
In an incredible display of serving, strategy, precision, and power, Medvedev out-Djokoviced Djokovic, playing an even better version of Djokovic’s “beating me is the 13th labor of Hercules” brand of stifling defense and just enough offense. It was an awesome display of tennis to watch — especially in person, with a surprisingly pro-Djokovic crowd in Queens. (Djokovic, bizarrely enough for an athlete of his stature, typically does not get much fan support outside of Australia and his native Serbia.) Yet Medvedev, who had been blown out by Djokovic earlier in the year in the Australian Open final, managed to stifle the crowd, stand up to the pressure of the moment, and deny Djokovic the opportunity to make history. With so much on the line, it was almost an afterthought that with his victory, Medvedev became the first of tennis’s next-gen (the post-Big Three generation) stars to defeat a member of the Big Three in a Grand Slam final. But it should not be. In winning his maiden Slam and rising to No. 2 in the world, Medvedev is now poised to become Djokovic’s biggest threat on tour, as well as a threat to one day make some form of tennis history of his own.
Shot of the Year: Richard Gasquet’s 102 mph backhand winner off a Roger Federer baseline overhead in their second-round Wimbledon match.
Worst Shot of the Year: Daniil Medvedev’s underarm serve match-point down during his French Open quarterfinal loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Nick Kyrgios Moment of the Year: In the very first set of his very first match in over a year, his first-round Australian Open match against Portugal’s Frederico Ferreira Silva, turning to Silva’s box and shouting, “Tell your girlfriend to get out of my box!” — inexplicably catalyzing himself and turning an 0-2 hole into a straight-sets victory.
Runner-Up Nick Kyrgios Moment of the Year: Coming onto the court for his third-round match at Wimbledon without his tennis sneakers.
Stat of the Year: 0-56: Richard Gasquet’s combined record in sets during his last 18 matches vs. Federer and Nadal after Gasquet’s straight-sets loss to Federer at Wimbledon.
Bold Prediction for 2022: Carlos Alcaraz, currently world No. 32, will break into the ATP Top 15.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Salzburg.