For many people the tennis season is all about what happens at the Grand Slams, top-tier ATP and WTA events, Fed Cup, Davis Cup and the year-end championships.
If you have the good fortune to witness events firsthand, as many tennis writers do, it’s often the not the most obvious goings-on that remain in the mind at the end of a long year.
Looking back on 2014, it’s easy to say that the highlight was the way Roger Federer – after a 2013 when he won just one tournament (Halle) and slipped as low as No. 8 – turned the clock back with a resurgent year. The maestro was runner-up at Wimbledon, won two Masters 1000s and finished No. 2 in the rankings – much more Federer-esque than his underwhelming 2013.
Recalling the more obscure but still memorable moments of 2014, the name Grzejorz Panfil of Poland comes to mind. The No. 281 Pole beat Milos Raonic 7-6(1), 6-3 in Hopman Cup action in Perth, Australia, in the first week of the new season. A last minute replacement for Jerzy Janowicz, the almost 26-year-old lefthander sensed Raonic was having an off-day and surprised him with bold ball-striking. The best thing for Raonic was that Hopman Cup does not count in the rankings. As for Panfil, he ended the year 60 points lower than he started – at No. 341. When it was all said and done, Raonic finished up three spots at No. 8.
Court 15 at the Australian Open sometimes appears closer to the looming skyscrapers of Melbourne’s CBD (central business district) than Rod Laver Arena. Out there is where Genie Bouchard began her 2014 Australian Open – facing a set point in the first set against the unknown, pudgy Hao Chen Tang (above). Bouchard saved that set point in the opening set before winning 7-5, 6-1 against the No. 487-ranked Chinese. Who knew she would win five matches and reach the semis against eventual champion Li Na, all the while becoming the darling of the 2014 event?
As for Raonic, there was a slightly awkward movement at the south end of Court 8 during his four-set, first-round win over Daniel Gimeno-Traver. He tweaked something just above his left ankle and, though he went on to beat Victor Hanescu in the second round, he exited (above) in a thriller third round, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(10) to Grigor Dimitrov. Little could anyone have known then that he would not play again until Indian Wells in March.
And, of course, there was Frank Dancevic suffering heat stroke and passing out with visions of “Snoopy” dancing in his head during his first round match (after qualifying) against Benoit Paire.
Two words pretty well told the story of the Canadian Davis Cup’s team trip to Tokyo right after the Australian Open – “oh no.” Standing in the lobby of the team hotel waiting to go to the Thursday draw ceremony, I heard Tennis Canada board of directors member Hector MacKay-Dunn say them with obvious shock. I looked over and expected that the reaction related to Vasek Pospisil because of his wonky back but was soon surprised to learn Raonic was injured and would not be named to the team. With Pospisil ultimately unable to play as well, it became a huge challenge for the erstwhile favoured Canadians against a Japanese team led by an in-form Kei Nishikori.
At Indian Wells there was good and bad news for the Canadian men. It was painful to watch as Pospisil’s back was still a huge issue and he lost badly 6-0, 6-2 to No. 58-ranked Mikhail Kukushkin. It was the second in what would eventually amount to eight losses in a row, a streak that didn’t end until Queen’s Club in June after a doctor in Prague finally sorted out his problem.
In his opening match after his absence, Raonic beat Edouard Roger-Vasselin 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(2). The No. 42-ranked Frenchman knew Roanic was vulnerable in his first match in seven weeks, and he was really frustrated after losing. He didn’t face a single break point the entire match. But that still didn’t result in a win because Raonic was able to overpower him in the key moments. Raonic went on to record confidence-building wins over Alejandro Falla and Andy Murray before losing to a red-hot Alexandr Dolgopolov.
One of the most intriguing – certainly the goofiest – matches I saw in 2014 was Monica Niculescu of Romania vs. Ekaterina Makarova of Russia (later a semi-finalist at the US Open) at Indian Wells. I had gone out to watch a Nestor-Zimonjic doubles against Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, and discovered the women’s match on the court next door. Niculescu (foreground above) is a true original on the tour – chopping and slopping, slicing and dicing and driving her opponents crazy by providing no pace. Makarova was drawn into the trap and over-hit. She was nearly driven to near distraction but somehow came back from the brink to win 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-3. You sort of hated to watch someone like Makarova getting caught in Niculescu’s web – but it sure made for an entertaining match.
Bouchard had a real chance to win her first WTA title at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C. in April, but that would have to wait a month. She blew away Andrea Petkovic in the early going only to lose their semi-final 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 after holding point for 5-2 in the final set. But earlier tough three-set wins over Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams were all part of establishing herself as a credible top-echelon player.
She finally got her first title in Nuremberg right before the French Open, defeating big-hitting Czech Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 in the final.
Both Bouchard (semis, lost to Maria Sharapova) and Raonic (quarters, lost to Novak Djokovic) capped impressive clay-court seasons at Roland Garros.
There we two interesting moments on the Saturday before Wimbledon began. Above, I was able to sit in Court 18 (the Isner-Mahut court) and watch Bouchard in a practice set with Victoria Azarenka. The two played hard and the Belarussian, out of action much of the year with a foot problem, won the up-tempo session 6-3. It sort of shows you how unimportant practice can be – Azarenka went out in the second round at Wimbledon to Bojana Jovanovski while Bouchard had that amazing run to the final.
You won’t find Raonic and Pospisil practicing together very often, but there they were on Court 12 on the Saturday before Wimbledon started. It was an historic Wimbledon for Canadian players because on the Monday, when ‘The Championships’ began, the two would both be seeded – Raonic No. 8 and Pospisil No. 31.
The summer Rogers Cup tournaments were disappointing for Bouchard and Raonic – just too much pressure for Bouchard in Montreal, and Raonic never really got going, losing to Feliciano Lopez in the Toronto quarter-finals, after winning the ATP 500 title in Washington (against Pospisil) the previous weekend.
The final result at the Rexall Centre was not as most of the crowd would have preferred – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga outplaying a sketchy Federer 7-5, 7-6(3). But that didn’t stop the loser, Federer, hanging around the players lounge for about an hour afterward. Relaxed and approachable, he talked to everyone from Tennis Canada president Kelly Murumets to tournament volunteers.
There’s nothing quite like the night session crowds at the US Open – especially on a Saturday night as pictured above.
And one thing that’s fun for reporters at Flushing Meadows is that, if a player from their country is playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium, they can sit right down in the front row behind the umpire. It’s not the greatest spot for observing the tactical side of a match, but it’s a great location for really feeling the tension and the emotions of the match. Also, you get to listen to nearby ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert give his courtside analysis and then sign autographs for fans seated in the expensive courtside seats.
Bouchard, not at her best with fitness issues entering the US Open, played in Ashe for her hard-fought wins over Sorana Cirstea and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova but was beaten on Louis Armstrong by Makarova.
Raonic’s only match in Ashe was against Kei Nishikori – and he lost a mammoth 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-4 cliffhanger that finished at 2:26 p.m.
Francoise Abanda, 17, qualified for her first Grand Slam event at Flushing Meadows and played well in losing 6-3, 7-5 to world No. 28 Sabine Lisicki. She also took Dominka Cibulkova to a third set at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, but her finish to the year was disappointing and she’s aiming for bigger things in 2015.
With Canadians, led by Daniel Nestor, generally doing well in doubles, a fair bit of time is spent watching that event at tournaments. In 2014, Gabriela Dabrowski (above with Alicja Rosolska of Poland ) wound up the year at No. 58 in the doubles ranking, including winning her first WTA doubles title, with Shuko Aoyama of Japan, at the 250 CITI Open in Washington.
After the US Open, Canada defended its position in the Davis Cup World Group by beating Colombia 3-1 in Halifax. After the first night’s matches, yours truly was headed to the hotel when he passed a bunch of people and heard someone call “Tom.” It was Raonic also walking back with friends and family that included his young nephew David. He asked if I would take a picture with David, and above is how it turned out.
Things calm down after the US Open and Davis Cup, and the only firsthand tennis for this reporter was at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Raonic wasn’t really part of the completely one-sided avalanche of results – losing in two sets to both Roger Federer and Andy Murray in reasonably competitively matches.
He then had to pull out of his final match with Kei Nishikori. As per his meticulous nature, his explanation was appropriately detailed: “Through extensive sort of research with the doctors team here, we found that I have a slight tear on the vastus medialis on my quad. Just a large area of swelling, about five centimeters long, three centimeters wide, and one centimeter deep of swelling and bleeding.”
That’s all history now as he trains – even on Christmas Day – for his 2015 debut in Brisbane next week. Bouchard, who has yet to announce her new coach, will start the year in Perth at the Hopman Cup where her teammate will be Pospisil.
And finally to come full circle, here’s a picture of Federer from last January before the Australian Open. What’s interesting is the relative size of his arms – the left one is scrawny compared to his meaty right, the one he uses to propel those magical shots off his racquet.
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL – next Tebbutt Tuesday (Jan. 6) from Down Under.