By Steve Flink
The holiday season is always festive and uplifting, a time to ponder and reflect, yet simultaneously an opportunity to imagine what might be ahead. All of us who fervently follow tennis have much to appreciate about the year gone by. Eight different players ruled at the major championships, adding spice and drama to every Grand Slam event, widening the appeal of the sport across the board. Stan Wawrinka and Li Na took the Australian Open titles, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova were victorious at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova came through at Wimbledon, and Marin Cilic and Serena Williams were worthy U.S. Open champions. It was a season that seemed to provide something for everyone and the diversity and upheaval in the top regions of the game this past year can only heighten our expectations for the coming season.
With that spirit foremost, in my final column of 2014, after we have had so much to savor in the ever fascinating world of tennis, I am delighted to bring you the annual Flink Awards. Happy New Year to you all and may 2015 be as exhilarating in our sport as 2014. See you back here next year.
MAN OF THE YEAR: ROGER FEDERER
Let’s be clear: the world’s best player in 2014 was Novak Djokovic, who not only claimed the most prestigious championship of them all, but also won six other titles including the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Championships, and four Masters 1000 events. Djokovic struggled inordinately at times—especially across the summer on the hard courts—yet he was inarguably better than anyone else, garnering his third year end No. 1 world ranking in the last four years.
But this award goes to the central figure in the sport, a player who not only performed magnificently all year long but also stirred up the most interest, a man who widened the base of the game more than anyone else by virtue of his enduring greatness and a popularity worldwide no one else could surpass. In my view, Roger Federer is unequivocally Man of the Year in tennis. He was ubiquitous in 2014, a singularly arresting individual, and his revitalization was probably the biggest story of the year.
Federer won only one tournament in 2013, made it as far as the semifinals at a major just once, and suffered a string of humbling defeats—including a second round setback at Wimbledon against Sergiy Stakhovsky, who was ranked No. 116 in the world. That loss ended a streak of 36 consecutive journeys to at least the quarterfinals of majors by the redoubtable Federer. The Swiss was burdened by a bad back and a wounded psyche, and seldom looked in full command of his powers. In 2014, Federer strikingly recovered his confidence, brought in Stefan Edberg as his coach, switched to a larger headed racket, and remained essentially injury free.
Over the course of a remarkable season, Federer won 73 of 85 matches, playing 17 tournaments and winning five of them, losing in the final of six others. Moreover, Federer played all four rounds for Switzerland in Davis Cup, and joined forces with Wawrinka to lead his nation to a first ever triumph in that revered international team competition. Federer did not win a Grand Slam title for the third time in the last four years, and yet he acquitted himself admirably, reaching the final of Wimbledon, making it to the penultimate round at the Australian and U.S. Opens, losing in the fourth round at Roland Garros.
All in all, it was a very good year for Federer as he turned 33. His exploits were extraordinary, his standards were much closer to the Federer of old, and his utter zest for competing at the highest levels of the game was astonishing. Man of the Year for 2014? In the final analysis, measuring this award in terms of far reaching impact, who else could it be but Roger Federer?
WOMAN OF THE YEAR: SERENA WILLIAMS
The women’s campaign in 2014 was wildly unpredictable at times. Not only did they produce four different champions in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, but there were eight different competitors in the finals. Li Na removed Dominika Cibulkova in the Australian Open final. Sharapova ousted Simona Halep in the French Open title round match. The markedly improved Eugenie Bouchard lost to Kvitova in the Wimbledon final, and Caroline Wozniacki was runner-up to Williams at the U.S. Open. All of these powerful personalities added considerably to the landscape of the women’s game in 2014.
But the way I saw it, Serena Williams was the standout candidate for this award. She was far more dominant in 2012 and 2013. In the former of those years, Williams captured seven titles and never lost in a final, winning 58 of her 62 matches. In the latter, she secured no less than eleven singles titles, and was victorious in 78 of 82 matches. She won two majors in 2012 and two more the following year. Williams stood far apart from her rivals then as the preeminent player in the world of women’s tennis.
But 2014 was different. She performed dismally in the first three Grand Slam events of the season, and not once did she advance beyond the round of 16. She had some injuries that surely contributed to her woes, but it was primarily her state of mind and eroding self-conviction that mattered. Everything changed radically over the summer. Williams took two of the three tournaments she played on the hard courts leading up to the U.S. Open, and then came to New York with an altered outlook and a decidedly higher level of play and resolve.
Williams was stupendous at the Open. She conceded only 26 games in six matches on her way to the final, and then dismissed No. 10 seed Wozniacki 6-3 6-3. Not once across the fortnight did anyone stretch Serena beyond 6-3 in a set, a feat she had never realized before at a major. To be sure, she had a favorable draw. The highest ranked player she met in the first four rounds was world No. 50 Kaia Kanepi. She then upended No. 11 seed Flavia Pennetta in the quarters and No. 17 Ekaterina Makarova in the semis. But the fact remains that Williams was playing her best brand of tennis, and no one was going to beat her in that form. Her triumph at the Open was Serena’s 18th at a major in singles, and now she is tied with icons Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list behind only Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), and Helen Wills Moody (19). She will at least tie and probably pass Wills Moody in 2015.
At the end of this year, Williams won the WTA Championships in Singapore. Her second half surge in 2014 guaranteed Williams the year-end No. 1 world ranking for only the fourth time in her career, but for the first time ever she has concluded two years in a row at the top of the ladder in the women’s game. Williams took seven of the 16 tournaments she played, and won 52 of 60 matches. It was an honorable year, but not her best one by any means. Be that as it may, she was the single most compelling player in women’s tennis. Serena Williams was surely Woman of the Year in 2014.
MEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR: MICHAEL CHANG
Perhaps there has not been a year quite like this one in the coaching industry. Boris Becker became head coach for Novak Djokovic, Stefan Edberg joined the Federer team, and Goran Ivanisevic stepped in to guide Cilic. Andy Murray boldly hired Amelie Mauresmo to be his coach. But the coaching change that made the most substantial difference for a player in the men’s game was Michael Chang going to work for and with Kei Nishikori. Nishikori was ranked No. 17 in the world at the end of 2013, and had spent a lot of time in that territory, finishing 2012 at No. 19 and 2011 at No. 25. It seemed entirely possible that the gifted Nishikori would remain an unfulfilled player across his entire career, falling short of his tallest goals, settling for a level that did not fit his outstanding capabilities.
But the Japanese star was wise to hire Chang, who settled right into his coaching role and did a first rate job for his charge. Nishikori reached his first career major final, upending Milos Raonic, Wawrinka and Djokovic in New York before bowing out against a top of the line Cilic. Moreover, Nishikori played with growing assurance on all the surfaces, winning tournaments on hard courts (three) and clay (one), triumphing indoors and out, playing well on grass. He captured 54 of 68 matches. He concluded the season stationed at No. 5 in the world, despite a range of injuries that curtailed his activities periodically.
Chang clearly got through to Nishikori with an encouraging but candid approach. Ivanisevic deserves high marks for helping Cilic win his first Grand Slam tournament title. Edberg was a voice of reason for Federer, quietly imploring the Swiss to come forward more frequently and exploit his agility, anticipation and sound technique around the net. But the highly intelligent Chang enabled Nishikori to make the most significant leap of any top player. Unreservedly, Michael Chang is my choice for Men’s Coach of the Year.
WOMEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR: NICK SAVIANO
As was the case with the men, the leading women players all had the benefit of extraordinary coaching. Williams might not have turned her year around without Patrick Mouratoglou. Sharapova would have been hard pressed to collect a second French Open singles crown if Sven Groenefeld had not been in her coaching corner. There were many other formidable coaches out there all year long, doing their jobs competently, sometimes not getting the credit they deserved.
My choice for women’s Coach of the Year was not difficult. Eugenie Bouchard had made significant strides in 2013, rising from No. 144 at the end of the previous year all the way up to No. 32. That was impressive to say the least. But what she did in 2014 was much more laudable. The Canadian turned 20 in late February, less than a month after reaching her first semifinal at a major in Melbourne. Bouchard also advanced to the semifinals of the French Open before losing a hard fought contest with Sharapova on the clay, and then went all the way to the final of Wimbledon, losing to an unbeatable Kvitova on one of the lefty’s golden days.
Bouchard did not have a good second half of the year. But she finished the season at No. 7 in the world, and in my view her coach Nick Saviano was one of the primary reasons why Bouchard was so successful. He was an invaluable advisor and clinician. He was her biggest believer. He was awfully good at what he did. Now he has moved on to other endeavors. But in my mind Saviano was clearly the women’s Coach of the Year for 2014.
SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR: NOVAK DJOKOVIC
I am not sure why, but Novak Djokovic has an enduring image as a brash and egotistical player who could sometimes offend colleagues and fans in his younger days. That image has no bearing on the reality of the Djokovic who stands today in the forefront of the game. They say that a player defines himself most meaningfully in the hard face of defeat rather than in the comfort of victory. When a great player loses, the sting of failure can be almost unbearable at times. The best competitors are expected to win with regularity, to come through steadily when it matters the most, to translate talent into success time and time again.
Djokovic has dealt well with those lofty expectations—both his own and those of his growing legion of boosters. But his propensity for handling defeats has been second to none in his profession. The year 2014 was no exception to that rule. He lost a heartbreaker to Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, coming out on the wrong end of a 9-7 fifth set. He lost his second French Open final to Nadal in the spring, and that was the fifth time in his last six major title round matches that the Serbian had been beaten.
Djokovic held back Federer in the Wimbledon final for his seventh career Grand Slam tournament title, but then was ushered out of the U.S. Open semifinals by Nishikori on an oppressive day. Plainly, Djokovic was not himself, and could not impose his physicality as he surprisingly wilted in the heat. But, typically, he offered no excuses when it was over, stressing that the conditions were the same for both players. He saluted Nishikori for a sterling performance. He conducted himself the way we wish champions always would when they lose big matches—with class, restraint and character.
I choose Novak Djokovic as Sportsman of the Year. One of these days, the public will realize that no one in the upper regions of tennis copes with tough losses better than he does. No one.
SPORSTWOMAN OF THE YEAR: CAROLINE WOZNIACKI
This commendable Danish woman wins this award hands down. In the spring of 2014, her fiancé Rory Mcllroy decided that he did not want to go through with their planned wedding. He broke it off, and it must have been gut-wrenching for Wozniacki to endure a breakup as a public figure of her stature. The wedding invitations had already been sent out when Mcllroy elected to walk away. But whenever she was asked about that painful topic, Wozniacki was unfailingly gracious and polite. She simply got on with her career, and rededicated herself to her tennis with more passion and purpose than she had shown in a very long while.
Wozniacki—despite never winning a major singles title—concluded both 2010 and 2011 as the No. 1 ranked woman player in the world, but then slipped to No. 10 at the end of both 2012 and 2013. The only time she had reached a final at a Grand Slam event was in 2009 at the U.S. Open. Some longtime observers were giving up on Wozniacki, but she was not giving up on herself.
In 2014, Wozniacki was runner-up to Williams at the U.S. Open. Her trimness was more apparent. Her game featured more punch. Her combination of not only superb defense but also a much greater ability to step up the pace off the forehand was unmistakable. Wozniacki ends 2014 in style, residing at No. 8 in the world, knowing that she is ideally positioned to move back into the top five next year. Her victories have been appreciated the most by those who have followed her the longest, and therefore understand who she is and what she represents.
Caroline Wozniacki must be regarded as Sportswoman of the Year for 2014.
MEN’S ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR: NADAL WINS FRENCH OPEN
After celebrating a banner year in 2013 when he took two majors, secured ten titles, and garnered the No. 1 world ranking for the season, Rafael Nadal endured a terribly disrupted campaign in 2014 after injuring his back during a final round loss to Wawrinka at the Australian Open. He hardly competed after Wimbledon because of a wrist injury and his ailing appendix, appearing in only seven more matches the rest of the year, dropping to No. 3 in the world behind Djokovic and Federer. The dynamic Spaniard had to settle for four added titles in his collection in 2014, and decidedly more disconcerting losses. And yet, he took away one high honor despite all of his misfortune.
At Roland Garros on June 8th, he toppled Djokovic in a four set final to collect a ninth French Open title in a staggering ten year span. Moreover, by claiming the world’s premier clay court crown, Nadal extended his record men’s streak to ten years in a row of winning at least one Grand Slam title. To put that accomplishment in perspective, Federer, Pete Sampras, and Bjorn Borg won at least one major for eight years in a row, so now Nadal has distanced himself from that elite group who are tied for second place in this important statistical category. Evert holds the women’s record, taking one major (or more) a year for 13 seasons (1974-86) in a row. Can Nadal match her record? He probably can’t, but Nadal still stands alone among the men for uninterrupted success on the loftiest stages, and that is no mean feat.
From my point of the view, Nadal’s 2014 Roland Garros victory is the Achievement of the Year for the men. He had played four clay court events leading up to Roland Garros, winning only in Madrid when he escaped from 2-6, 2-4 down against Nishikori in the final. But when the chips were down in Paris, this ferociously determined left-hander was not found wanting, claiming a 14th major to tie Sampras for second place behind Federer among the men.
WOMEN’S ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR: PETRA KVITOVA WINS SECOND WIMBLEDON
I witnessed some spectacular demonstrations of court craft at all of the majors this year. Li Na’s third and last major title win in Australia showcased her excellent ball striking off both sides. Sharapova’s insatiable appetite for success on the premier stages was abundantly clear at Roland Garros as she stopped Simona Halep in the best played title round clash at any of the Grand Slam championships. Williams was almost letter perfect in clipping Wozniacki at the U.S. Open for the crown. But the finest performance I watched in a “ Big Four” final was surely Petra Kvitova’s resounding 6-3, 6-0 dismissal of Eugenie Bouchard on the Centre Court at the All England Club.
We talk frequently about players moving into “the zone” on given days, performing majestically in an almost unconscious state, making every shot in the book, sustaining their brilliance from the beginning to end of immaculate matches. That is the way it was with Kvitova this year during her dissection of Bouchard. Kvitova’s virtuoso performance featured everything she has in her arsenal— returns directed deep down the middle of the court to set up outright winners; two-handed backhands released at unimaginable angles crosscourt; southpaw serves that were unstoppable in both the deuce and ad courts; and lethal forehand winners driven on the run into empty spaces both down the line and crosscourt.
Kvitova thus won Wimbledon for the second time. Three years earlier on the same court, she crushed Sharapova in the final. If only Kvitova could play this kind of inspirational tennis more frequently, she would come away with several more major titles. Her Wimbledon triumph was the Achievement of the Year in the women’s game.
MEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR: DJOKOVIC-FEDERER, WIMBLEDON FINAL
For the third time in a seven year span, Federer found himself embroiled in a five set final on the Centre Court of Wimbledon. He had, of course, lost an epic duel with Nadal in 2008, bowing 9-7 in the final set on the edge of darkness. A year later, the Swiss held back Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set to win back the world’s premier crown. This time around, the Swiss was in search of an eighth title at the All England Club and an 18th Grand Slam singles championship.
On an idyllic day for tennis, Djokovic and Federer staged a classic. This was not Borg-McEnroe 1980 or Nadal-Federer 2008 in terms of quality from beginning to end, but it was exceedingly well played by both competitors, particularly across the first three sets. Neither man broke in the opening set but the Serbian had two set points in the tie-break, one on his own serve and one on Federer’s. Federer was marginally better under pressure and he salvaged that set. Djokovic broke early in the second and made it count to reach one set all. The third set was much like the first, dominated by the server, beautifully played on both sides of the net. Djokovic came through to win a tie-break this time, establishing a two sets to one lead.
By early in the fourth set, Federer was showing signs of slight fatigue. Djokovic broke to lead 3-1, lost his serve for the first time in the match, but then broke again for 4-2. He held on for 5-2, and seemed certain to close out the account in four sets. But, serving for the match two games later, Djokovic clearly got tight. Federer floated a backhand sliced return down the middle on the first point of that game, almost lobbing that return back in play. Djokovic was set up for a forehand inside in winner, but drove it long. Federer broke him at 30. Serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Federer was down match point when his first serve down the T was called long. He challenged that call, and the Swiss was right. Instead of having to hit a second serve at match point down, he had served an ace, and was back to deuce.
Federer was rejuvenated. He held on, broke Djokovic again, and held once more. On a spirited run of five consecutive games—aided by the deep apprehension of Djokovic—Federer had moved on improbably to a fifth set. At 3-3 in that final set, Federer had a break point, but Djokovic caught him off guard with a forehand inside out delayed approach. Federer chipped his backhand pass into the net. Djokovic held on gamely for 4-3. Federer served at 4-5 in the fifth to stay in the contest, and his ground game deteriorated badly. On the first point of that tenth game, Djokovic made a superb return off a first serve from Federer, who would lose that point with a timid backhand slice into the net. A flagrant topspin backhand unforced error (miss-hit) from Federer went wide to make it 0-30. He took the next point, but fell behind 15-40 with a running forehand error driven long down the line. On the following point, Federer sent another routine backhand into the net. Djokovic took this nearly four hour match 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4.
It was unmistakably the match of the year in the men’s game, and in retrospect it was the battle that decided the No. 1 world ranking for the year, tipping the scales in the Serbian’s favor. Both players served magnificently, but Djokovic was only broken (three times) in the fourth set, and did not drop his delivery in the four other sets. He largely outplayed Federer from the baseline for most of the match, and his return of serve was decidedly better. Djokovic won 65% of his second serve points while Federer stood at only 44% in that critical category. And yet, Federer nearly won the match. That was what made it so gripping and such a captivating spectacle.
In the final of the game’s showcase event, on a bright and balmy day, with the fans thoroughly immersed in the match, both players shined.
WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR: WILLIAMS-WOZNIACKI, SEMIFINAL, SINGAPORE
I thought seriously about going with the Sharapova-Halep Roland Garros final as the women’s match of the year. Both women fought valiantly for that title, and it went right down to the wire before Sharapova ultimately prevailed 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4. It was clay court tennis of a high order, with Halep defending tremendously and Sharapova going for her crackling shots ruthlessly. Both women competed obstinately and courageously from start to finish, and Sharapova deserved her win in the end. It was a terrific match.
But I must give the nod for outstanding women’s match of 2014 to Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. Their meeting in the penultimate round of the season-ending WTA Championships in Singapore was a beauty. Williams survived predominantly on willpower, winning with her supreme mental strength when she seemed to have been outplayed by her friend from Denmark. Wozniacki had the upper hand for longer in this absorbing clash, but she doubted herself ever so slightly down the stretch when victory was seemingly within her grasp. She hesitated, Serena refused to blink, and the American somehow emerged with a triumph.
Wozniacki came out of the blocks brimming with confidence, executing her ground strokes impeccably, beating Williams to the punch repeatedly. She raced to a 3-0 lead and won the opening set 6-2, making only two unforced errors in the eight games. A discombobulated Williams made 14 unprovoked mistakes. Wozniacki led 2-1 on serve in the second set, but Williams found her range and took five of six games to seal the set 6-3.
Wozniacki and Williams both played phenomenal tennis all through the third and final set, with the Dane breaking in the ninth game to lead 5-4. Serving for the match in the tenth game, Wozniacki seemed to let go of her aggression and was hampered by caution. Williams went on the attack, opening that game with a forehand volley winner, then driving a forehand groundstroke down the line for another winner. She eventually broke back for 5-5, but Wozniacki resolutely played on with verve. She had a break point for 6-5, but drove a two-hander down the line into the net with a good opening. Serena held on in that eleventh game and had a match point with Wozniacki serving at 5-6.
Fittingly, Wozniacki saved it with a dazzling point at the net. She tried to angle a backhand volley crosscourt, but Williams chased it down. Now Wozniacki went for a drop volley down the line, but a tenacious and unwavering Williams got to that ball as well. Yet Wozniacki did not panic. She closed off the net, punching a forehand volley into an open space, holding on with temerity for 6-6, and then moved ahead 4-1 in the tie-break, with two service points to come. Williams hit a forehand down the line that dribbled off the net cord and fell over the net for a winner.
That piece of good fortune got Williams back into the match. She marched on to 6-4 with two match points at her disposal. Wozniacki saved them both, but Williams steadied herself at 6-6, serving an ace out wide. A deep return from Williams on her third match point was too much for Wozniacki to handle. Williams triumphed 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6), and it was the third time in 2014 that she had rallied from a set down to defeat her tenacious rival. They call that gumption.
A day later, Williams avenged a loss in the round robin to Halep and took the title. But that match could not compare with the Williams-Wozniacki encounter, which in my view surpassed all others played in a memorable women’s 2014 season. For that matter, it was a sparkling year all around in the game of tennis.
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.