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Steve Flink: 2013 Flink Awards

12/10/2013 2:00:00 PM

Looking back across the landscape of our sport over the last year, it has clearly been an extraordinary time in both the men’s and women’s games. Three different men—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—secured the four major titles in singles. Among the women, the Grand Slam championships were also ruled by a trio of diverse players—Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Marion Bartoli claimed victories on the premier stages. Some players made significant progress over the course of the season; others did not perform up to their expectations. But, all in all, it was a year that gave close followers of the game just about everything we could have wanted. Without further ado, here are the Flink Awards for 2013.

MAN OF THE YEAR


He was forced away from the game for what must have seemed like an eternity, leaving after a startling second round loss at Wimbledon in 2012 with a serious knee injury, remaining out of circulation until February of 2013, leading some seasoned observers to believe he might not ever replicate his feats of years gone by. When he returned after that disconcerting and burdensome seven month stretch, he lost in the final of his first tournament back to Horacio Zeballos in Vina del Mar on his beloved clay. His worldwide network of boosters was unduly worried, unnecessarily so. From that moment on, Rafael Nadal was nothing short of stupendous, turning 2013 into a showcase for his enduring greatness.

Nadal was ubiquitous for the rest of the year. He celebrated the finest statistical campaign of his renowned career, winning 10 of the 16 tournaments and 75 of the 82 matches (for an astounding .914 percentage), capturing two Grand Slam events including his eighth French Open and his second United States Open. He recorded six tournament victories on clay, but added four more on hard courts, taking three Masters 1000 crowns in addition to his spectacular “Big Four” triumph in New York. The 27-year-old Spaniard concluded 2013 as the No. 1 player in the world on the Emirates ATP Rankings, achieving that status for the third time in his career and for the first time since 2010. No one had ever recaptured the highly coveted No. 1 year-end slot after more than a one year gap since the men’s computer rankings were established in 1973.

Was this Nadal’s greatest year? The answer is debatable. In my view, Nadal played the best sustained tennis of his career in 2013, but both his 2008 and 2010 seasons were more top-loaded. In 2008, he took the French Open, Wimbledon and the gold medal at the Olympic Games; two years later, he swept the last three Grand Slam events of the season. This year, Nadal had one serious blemish on his record, losing in the opening round of Wimbledon to Steve Darcis of Belgium, a player stationed at No. 135 in the world. But this much is certain: Nadal was magnificent. He missed the Australian Open, had that stunning setback at Wimbledon, and did not win a tournament after the U.S. Open in four appearances.

The fact remains that he was unequivocally the best player in his profession, not to mention the Comeback Player of the Year. In 2013, he played the finest hard court tennis of his entire career. Moreover, Nadal’s forehand down the line was devastatingly effective at propitious moments in countless big matches on all surfaces. He now stands at No. 3 on the all-time list of men’s Grand Slam singles title victories with 13, one crown away from Pete Sampras, four behind the leader Roger Federer. He is climbing inexorably through history, in his own inimitable way, entirely on his own terms. Above all else, the redoubtable Rafael Nadal is my choice for Man of the Year for 2013—without hesitation.

WOMAN OF THE YEAR 


Who else but Serena Williams? In 2002, she claimed the last three majors of the season, and that was her most successful year. But her productivity in 2013 was in many ways more impressive. Williams appeared in 15 events across 2013, winning 11 of them, securing a pair of Grand Slam singles championships. Her 78-4 match record was astounding, and her .951 winning percentage was the best she has ever recorded in any year over the course of her distinguished career. That success rate did not occur by accident; Williams approached every tournament she played and treated each opponent she confronted with deep seriousness. In many ways, her temperament was transformed.

Williams lost to only three players in 2013: twice against Victoria Azarenka, once against Sloane Stephens, once against Sabine Lisicki. She played top of the line tennis on every surface, winning the French Open for only the second time in her storied career, coming through to capture the U.S. Open for the fifth time. Serena did not lose a match on clay. She was dominant on every kind of court. She remained explosive off the ground and on serve, but her prowess as a match player and her capacity to think her way through matches and devise the right tactics has never been better. At 32, she is irrefutably a better player than she has ever been before, a more astute strategist, a more complete player.

In the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Williams was upended in three sets by Sloane Stephens. At Wimbledon in the fourth round, she won nine games in a row against Lisicki after dropping the first set, moving ahead 3-0 in the third. Williams later was up 4-2 in that final set never won another game. That was largely a self-inflicted wound. Lisicki was bold, aggressive and impervious to her situation and surroundings, but largely Williams beat herself.

The fact remains that she won deservedly at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, ousting her two most formidable adversaries—Maria Sharapova and Azarenka—in the two finals. Williams turned 32 in late September. Her dedication to her craft was indisputable. She achieved the No. 1 year-end ranking for only the third time in her career, following up on her 2002 and 2009 seasons at the top. Her year was outstanding. Serena Williams was indisputably the Woman of the Year for 2013. She was the ultimate professional, fully engaged in her work, unshakable on all but a few occasions. The view here is that she might be even more successful in 2014.

MEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR

The way I saw it, this was not a difficult choice. The semifinal duel between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros surpassed all other contests. The two best players in the world staged a clay court classic in Paris. It was a skirmish that never should have been fought out in the penultimate round. Nadal was still working his way back up the rankings after his long layoff, and the French Open authorities did not exercise their option to put the Spaniard where he belonged as the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Here was a man who had ruled on the red clay of Roland Garros seven of the eight times he had played the world’s preeminent slow court event, and yet he was seeded third behind Djokovic and Federer.

That was fundamentally unfair to both Djokovic and Nadal. The winner of their duel would face David Ferrer in the final and it was almost inevitable that either Nadal would seal an eighth crown in Paris or Djokovic would emerge victorious for the first time, and thus complete a career Grand Slam. The stakes could hardly have been greater, and both players approached this seminal contest as if it was a final round clash.

Nadal held the upper hand convincingly in winning the first set before Djokovic struck back boldly to take the second. Inexplicably, Djokovic wandered into a bad patch and the third set went swiftly to the Spaniard. Nadal probably should have won the match in four sets. He served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth and unleashed a pair of dazzling inside-out forehand winners to reach 30-15. Two points from victory, he made a rare miscalculation, going for an inside-in forehand that wasn’t in the cards, driving that shot long. Djokovic broke back with gusto and took that set in a tie-break, then broke Nadal at the start of the fifth set.

Djokovic pressed hard to get an insurance break, taking Nadal to deuce twice with the Spaniard serving at 1-3. But Nadal was both obstinate and courageous in that corner, going for audacious winners, particularly off the forehand. He held on gamely for 2-3, but Djokovic was closing in on victory, serving at 4-3, deuce in that stirring fifth set. Djokovic had a sitter at the net, but was conflicted: should he play that shot as an overhead or a high forehand volley? What he attempted to do was almost a cross between the two, but he was too close to the net. His body touched the net before the ball could bounce twice on the other side. The point belonged to Nadal.

Although Djokovic admirably took the next point for deuce, Nadal still broke back for 4-4 and eventually registered a dramatic and hard fought 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 triumph. The victory had lasting implications for both players. Nadal routed Ferrer in straight sets to take the crown, and later in the summer he overcame Djokovic in a final set tie-break in the semifinals of Montreal. Nadal blazed through summer while a humbled Djokovic was mired in a cold slump. Nadal toppled Djokovic in the final of the U.S. Open, winning in four sets.

Although Djokovic upended Nadal twice in straight set finals at both Beijing and the year-end Barclays ATP World Tour Finals (winning both duels 6-3, 6-4) and thus finished the year at 3-3 head to head against the Spaniard, Nadal had won their two biggest battles in Paris and New York. Many wondered what might have been if Djokovic had beaten Nadal at Roland Garros. Would he have won Roland Garros and perhaps one more major after that? Could Djokovic have made a strong bid to become the third man ever to win a Grand Slam?

I believe Djokovic would surely have stopped Ferrer in the final at Roland Garros. He would have been a more confident competitor across the summer months. Yet I seriously doubt he would have won the Grand Slam. Nadal’s summer was spectacular, and even if he had lost to Djokovic in Paris he would have bounced back emphatically thereafter, and he most likely would have had the same superb hard court results. The bottom line is that Nadal’s resilience and indefatigability is unlike anyone else in the sport. His mental toughness is the single biggest weapon in the game of tennis.  This much is certain: Nadal’s triumph over Djokovic in Paris was the most important tennis match of 2013.

WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR

This was a highly unusual year in the women’s game. To be sure, there was diversity at the top with the three different victors at the majors. The level of play in three of the four major finals was impressive, with Azarenka overcoming Li Na in Australia, Williams halting Sharapova at Roland Garros, and Williams besting Azarenka in the final of the U.S. Open. There was some high quality tennis played by all of the leading women at the Grand Slam events. But there were no epics, no real classics, no contests in the latter rounds that lingered long in our imaginations.

That is why my standout match of 2013 for the women is not from a major championship, but rather from a Premier 5 event. Williams and Azarenka squared off in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. They had split two head to head matches earlier in the year, and the U.S. Open was right around the corner. Here were the two finest players in the women’s game, facing each other in a neutral setting on a hard court that suited them both, looking to gain the psychological edge heading into Flushing Meadows.

Williams was commanding at the outset. She was overpowering her opponent all through the first set, serving with pinpoint precision, driving the ball off both sides impeccably, dictating the flow of the match with uncanny instincts. But Azarenka found her range in the second set, moving out in front 4-1. Williams then survived a strenuous, 12 deuce game, saving seven break points to hold on for 2-4. But Azarenka was unbending. She took the next two games and won the set 6-2.

In the third and final set, Azarenka built a 4-2 lead before the American collected three games in a row. Williams was serving for the match at 5-4 but Azarenka’s excellent returns off both sides were too good. She broke back for 5-5. Both players held on to set up a final set tie-break. Once again, neither woman could maintain the upper hand for long. Williams was serving at 5-4 in the tie-break with the chance to end it all there, but she lost the next point despite seemingly being in command, and then double faulted. It was match point for Azarenka at 6-5, but she drove a backhand long.

Azarenka dealt with that disappointment admirably, making a fine volley to move to 7-6 and then profiting from a forehand mistake from Serena. Azarenka prevailed 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) for her second triumph of the year over Williams. It was a first class battle, as suspenseful an encounter as there was in all of 2013 in the upper echelons of the women’s game. In the end, Azarenka’s consistency off the ground and her excellent return of serve brought her home to victory.

When they met again a few weeks later, however, Williams turned the tables on her chief adversary, winning 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1. Williams twice served for the match in the second set before Azarenka rallied bravely to make it one set all. But Williams was decidedly superior in the third set. It was a very good match, but not as enticing as their Cincinnati showdown.

MOST IMPROVED MEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR

I give this one to Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland. Despite residing among the top ten in the world briefly back in 2008, he had never made it to the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and in 2013 he finished a year for the first time among the exclusive top ten company. He got there this year for more than a few reasons. His coach Magnus Norman has clearly made a substantial difference. Wawrinka’s shot selection has improved markedly. He competes with a resolve and purpose that he had lacked for too much of his career. His forehand is not the liability it once was.

To be sure, Wawrinka can still have days when he sprays the forehand wildly out of court. That shot can let him down periodically. But he has improved it immensely and the forehand is a bigger weapon than it once was. Moreover, his first serve has improved immensely and his one-handed topspin backhand is a majestic stroke. Wawrinka lost a blockbuster five set collision against Djokovic in the fourth round at the Australian Open at the start of the year, and closed the Grand Slam season with his first ever semifinal appearance at a major, losing another five set clash to Djokovic. He was a stellar performer all year long. In my view, no player in the sport’s upper reaches made larger strides in 2013 than Stan Wawrinka.

MOST IMPROVED WOMEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR

At the end of 2011, Romanian Simona Halep was ranked No. 53 in the world. She moved up modestly in 2012, concluding that campaign at No. 47. It seemed entirely possible that she would remain in that territory for some time to come, earn a decent living, knock off higher ranked players periodically, and perhaps settle permanently for mediocrity. But this industrious and enterprising player made amends in 2013 across the board. She won six tournaments, toppled the likes of Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Sam Stosur, and now resides as No. 11 in the world.

She has established herself as a genuine threat to become a consistent top ten player in 2014. At 22, her best tennis is ahead of her and of us. Halep moved past a wide range of accomplished players in 2013, and the view here is that she has the talent and the temerity to progress even more next year.

MEN’S UNDER-ACHIEVER OF THE YEAR

Way back in 2002, 21-year-old Roger Federer ended the season at No. 6 in the world. For the next ten years, he never finished a season lower than No. 3, achieving the year-end No. 1 ranking five times. In 2013, Federer fell upon some very tough times. He won only one tournament all year long, taking the ATP World Tour 250 title in Halle. Not since 2001—when his lone tournament triumph was in Milan—had Federer failed to garner multiple titles.

In 2013, Federer made it to the Australian Open semifinals, losing in five sets to Andy Murray. He fell in the quarters at Roland Garros to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, was ushered out of Wimbledon in the second round by Sergiy Stakhovsky, and was upset in the fourth round of the U.S. Open by Tommy Robredo. He did recover some confidence across the autumn indoors, going to the final of Basel, reaching the semifinals in Paris, making it to the penultimate round in London. That was his best sustained tennis of the entire year.

Federer turned 32 in August. His decline in form was considerable. He found himself back at No. 6 in the world at the end of the year. It was apparent that 2013 was going to be an arduous year for Roger Federer, but no one envisioned just how trying it would be for the Swiss—whom I regard as the underachiever of the year in the men’s game.

WOMEN’S UNDERACHIEVER OF THE YEAR

As long as I live, I may never fully comprehend Petra Kvitova. This gifted left-hander is a dazzling shotmaker with a propensity to do almost anything she wants on a tennis court. In 2013, she won a couple of tournaments, moved from No. 8 at the end of the previous season up to No. 6, and remained in the forefront of the women’s game. But I still grade her as the biggest underachiever there is in women’s tennis. Kvitova won Wimbledon in 2011, defeating 2004 champion Maria Sharapova in the final. She was No. 2 in the world for 2011, and deservedly so.

It is my belief that Kvitova should be a top five player at all times, and a serious threat to all of the leading players—including Serena Williams. But she can be her own worst enemy. She doesn’t lose that many matches because her opponents are so much better; she beats herself too frequently. At Wimbledon in the quarterfinals this year, she lost to the Belgian Kirsten Flipkens. That should not have happened. One of these days, Petra Kvitova will do herself justice. I hope she can have a more fulfilling year in 2014.

MEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR

Will Ivan Lendl please stand up? The eight-time major champion began working with Andy Murray early in 2012, and the highly charged British player won the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open that summer. In 2013, Murray established himself as the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon, toppling 2011 champion Novak Djokovic in the final. Irrefutably, Lendl has made a crucial contribution to the advancement of Murray. He has a singularly astute mind that is tailor made to suit his player. Lendl must have been overjoyed by Murray’s long awaited triumph on the British lawns. Wimbledon was the only major he never won, although he twice got to the final in 1986 and 1987. Lendl would insist that Murray must get all the credit for a landmark triumph on the most fabled stage in the sport. But the view here is that Ivan Lendl played no small role in that victory. I regard him as the men’s Coach of the Year because he surely played such a pivotal role in allowing Andy Murray to realize his largest dream.

WOMEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR

Watching Serena Williams playing the game with such increased strategic awareness in 2013, I have often wondered if she would have become such an excellent student of the game without having an outstanding coach. Patrick Mouratoglou has had an obvious influence on Williams. When she is interviewed after her matches these days, she talks about the game more expansively and precisely than was ever the case in the past. Her entire thought process has been altered. In her teens and twenties, Serena often sounded as if she had very little clue whenever she was asked to describe a match she had just played, a loss unexpectedly suffered, or a victory hard earned. But this year she has come across with surprising clarity and depth when speaking about her skirmishes on the court. I am convinced Mouratoglou has turned Williams into a different kind of champion, a player fully aware of what she is doing, a competitor who candidly assesses why she has won or lost a given match.

Moreover, Mouratoglou’s role in the late career evolution of Williams can be seen through the prism of her more composed demeanor and her far superior point construction. Mouratoglou is fortunate to be guiding an all-time great player who now owns 17 Grand Slam singles championships, but he has been invaluable in shaping strategy and revitalizing Serena Williams as both and athlete and a champion with a growing awareness of her capabilities, strengths and options. Patrick Mouratoglou is the Coach of the Year in women’s tennis.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.