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A writer reflects: Top 11 storylines of the past 10 years
Published May 05, 2021
Just this year, removed from the hyper-social life I like, I've picked up piano lessons. I may or may not be aiming to write one great song and, sure, live off of that forever. (We'll see.) For now, you can call this my Decade of Hits album. That's as, with this piece, I'm hanging up not my racquets but my tennis-covering notebooks. These forehand- and fashion-saluting phalanges are heading into a new venture, in a new sector. I'm excited about that.
My favorite players to watch, historically, are Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. Both had fresh approaches, steely focus, and a knack for delivering their shots on the rise. They sent their outputs to the corners and took time away from their foes. Here's hoping I can do that in life's next "set."
So this doesn't quite amount to going out on top, replete with mic drop, a la Pete Sampras or Flavia Pennetta. But this is mine, and it'll more than do.
I've been covering tennis a good while—for more than 10 years, though precisely 10 years for this family of platforms: Baseline and Tennis.com mainly, as well as TENNIS magazine and Tennis Channel.
My career as a tennis scribe started when Li Na was winning major singles titles, and Grand Slam doubles champs included such favorite tandems to watch as Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, and the aforementioned Pennetta and Gisela Dulko.
All the while, and incredibly, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer were racking up the men's singles crowns like a trio of greedy, sweaty mensches. (Well, not Fed on the sweat part.) And over these 10 years, voracious fans of each of them have amusingly determined-by-tweet that I absolutely, definitely hate their chosen guy. (Pssst. I love watching all three play, and play so differently.)
For me, there were dalliances with everything from kiddie T-ball to Lutheran-school kickball, tetherball, and dodgeball to league softball growing up. But nothing sports-wise truly stuck with me until there was tennis. At the late age of 15, lifting a racquet and hitting with my southpaw father, I loved it. (Because of those origins, I'm still that rare player who relishes playing lefties.) Then came the time when I actually beat Dad for the first time. You might be nodding along (hopefully not nodding off) here. When it happens, beating one's parent or coach in a chosen sport for the first time remains a life-changing event for each of us.
However subtly or severely, there will always be a shift, a changing of the guard, someone or something new on the scene. That's true for a family, and of sport at the amateur and professional levels. Nothing passes as quickly as the future.
About a decade later, I turned to writing about our fair sport, that for a li'l tennis-and-culture site called Tennis Served Fresh—thanks to my pals, cofounders Nick McCarvel and Erwin Ong—and this was a favorite tennis-meets-music report. Years later, I found myself talking-head realness on, of all places, CNN Philippines.
Those Skype showings were a blast, looking camera-ready at 7 a.m. to beam in for 7 p.m. Manila-time. And they, along with some Ball State broadcasting classes, definitely set me up for success in the COVID-19 pandemic's forced work-from-home culture.
I also came to find my own voice, and to relish championing the voices of others that are historically underrepresented in tennis. But enough rhapsodizing from me. Let's have it out with one last listicle, an on-court memory from each year that's seared into the back of my noggin forever. Let me know at @jonscott9 what strikes you most about these remembrances:
September 2011—US Open women's singles final
Ah yes, that US Open final in which, for many of us then-plebeians, the word "hindrance" jarringly entered our tennis lexicon. In that match, Serena Williams delivered an emphatic shot, then chased it with a punctuating yelp. Come on! A classic exclamation, but not one to go unvetted on that day. The chair umpire determined eventual champ Samantha Stosur's response to Serena's shot was hampered by the shout, an argument ensued, and Serena didn't so much drop that finale as Sam repeatedly wrenched it from her grasp. (Remember: A person's reach will always exceed their grasp. Thanks, Robert Browning.) It did feel here that Serena's previous exasperation with the officiating in Queens took a turn darker than the screwy line calls she suffered in a 2004 semifinal against Jennifer Capriati. (That drama catalyzed the advent of Hawk-Eye technology.) At latest, that match spawned the fan collective commonly called Rena's Army. And if they had already banded together, they learned on that day the way that Serena would approach each ensuing US Open. Achtung, baby.
January 2012—Australian Open men's singles final
Defending Aussie Open champ Djokovic (a readily reusable phrase for the nine-time winner) eked it out over Nadal, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5, to win the longest major men's singles final in history. It clocked in a few minutes short of six hours. Yes, both these GOAT-chasers were ushered to seats during the trophy presentation, understandably cramping as they stood in place. And yes, no one seems to remember that, a round earlier, Djokovic uncannily defeated Andy Murray (again a reusable saying Down Under) in a semifinal bout that itself went four hours, 50 minutes. Makes you want to stand up and cheer for one who they practically had to tell to sit down awhile after it was all over.
Repeatedly, 2013—Bryan brothers take three of four Grand Slam men's doubles titles
Having interviewed this duo a few times, including this favorite conversation from that same year, I can say with certitude that they're among the most unpretentious, fun, generous pros ever to grace the game. They're positively ruthless in match settings, too, despite the initially guffaw-inducing chest bumps they shared. (As with singing harmony, there's no timing quite like sibling timing.) Stunted in 2013 only at the US Open, that by Paes and Stepanek, the self-dubbed "Bryan bros" had previously seized on the Aussie and French Open and Wimbledon titles. They dropped sets in two of those three championships, and along the way at each, but they kept trucking and, yes, chest bumping. By end of year, they must have had bruised pectorals. Here, it seems Mike, if one of us regular hackers, would have strained one:
May 2014—a Wimbledon women's singles third-rounder ne'er to forget
What a szn this was, an embarrassment of between-the-lines riches. In a few weeks' time, a trio of my favorite performances of the past decade: Maria Sharapova outlasted Simona Halep for the Roland Garros title; Petra Kvitova stormed to her second Wimbledon fete; and that same name-Czeched, two-time titleist engaged in a barrage of beautiful power with Venus Williams in the most overwhelming, exhilarating third-round bout I may ever witness live. Both that narrative and the numbers tell no lies: Kvitova won by a 5-7, 7-6(2), 7-5 score, but Venus made her turn in a virtuoso performance to do so, while also delivering one of her own. Kvitova would drop just 16 games across the four matches on either side of the London bombing that she and Venus conducted. Meanwhile, in that standalone match, Queenus took 18 games from her.
Highlights be damned, though here you go. Carve out some time to watch this entire thing again, or for the first time:
September 2015—that entire US Open women's singles event
Serena was campaigning for a calendar-year Grand Slam, as we all know and praise to this day and/or have PTSD over. She fell two matches (or perhaps a flurry of points) short, though, as Roberta Vinci's slice-it-up game quite literally upset her. Even then, a lovely episode of nighttime drama awaited at the finish: Vinci's compatriot, Pennetta, won the the title, her first and last in singles, and promptly retired from the sport on the spot, authoritatively wielding the mic as she had her racquets in front of 23,000 stadium attendees. Such a boss move by the multi-Slam winner turned mom, forever full of grace.
Various, 2016—all four major women's singles finals
Yes, I'm drawing overwhelmingly from the Slams, but this is my exit article, not yours. A trio of the WTA's solitary stars staged somewhat violent coups in all four major finales. First, Angelique Kerber gobsmacked the world, Haus of Williams included, when she overcame Serena in Melbourne. Then a game Garbine Muguruza did the same against Serena in Paris. The younger Williams sister gave Kerber her decisive comeuppance at Wimbledon before, of course, Kerber clawed back in New York. She courageously bookended her year with two of her three major titles. (She'd add Wimbledon two years onward.) All this served as a proof point: Sometimes tennis giveth and taketh away ... but sometimes also, its elite shamelessly seek to devour each other.
Repeatedly, 2017—the elder Williams makes a yearlong run
Indeed, Serena's race to the year's Aussie Open title while pregnant goes into the sport's canon. Her career constantly provides new lore, as does that of her elder sister. It can't be overstated how, in the decade's back half, a late-30s Venus rising at the majors at most all of the right times inspired many fans and general-sports onlookers. That she just missed, thrice, near the final stop forever lionized her fitness and work ethic. Yes, she fell to her sister in Australia's final. Then Roland Garros remained a foil. But to follow with a Wimbledon championship appearance and come up just a few points short of reaching the Flushing final made for a study in self-belief. She told the BBC a year earlier at Wimble-time, "The first time you win, nobody picks you. The last time you win, nobody picks you. You just have to pick yourself." If those words give you goosebumps, then kudos—you're human. Venus didn't and won't stop believing them.
Various, 2018—a calendar chock-full of notable breakthroughs
Here, a few events fly into the mind's eye like postmodern microfiche—namely a notorious US Open women's singles finale. I'm not going to belabor that literal "he said, she said" disaster. It's a squirm-inducing memory for many, mainly Naomi Osaka. What I will salute here is the series of career-defining performances that took place over that year's major events. Caroline Wozniacki triumphing at the Aussie Open. Halep victorious at Roland Garros. Osaka the champ on that fateful New York night. Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova seizing the "middle majors" in Paris and London. And, well, that otherworldly troika of men's singles winners: Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic (twice). Through it all, beaten in straight sets in grass- and hard-court title rounds, Serena's armor began to show its vulnerable spots in new and gaping ways. For a lot of observers—yea, even detractors—that was becoming hard to watch.
September 2019—US Open women's singles finish
"Hurricane" Bianca Andreescu descended upon Arthur Ashe Stadium, with the precocious Canadian lighting up the eyes and hearts of many with her varied ways of dicing and thrashing the ball. Up a 6-3 set and with a match point at 5-1, ready to be fused with the US Open trophy, she saw Serena pull even at 5-all. Millions the world over said, Now she's got her. They didn't say this of Bianca—but they should have. Andreescu reeled off the next two games for a 7-5 decision and claimed her first major crown. She also became the first player to arrest the US Open field in her event debut. Further, she did this while Venus, Anna Wintour, and Meghan Markle cheered on their sister and friend. Serena and her fans went away without that elusive No. 24, but tennis found a delightful newcomer to major glory, one hopefully to rival the likes of Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, and Iga Swiatek for a decade to come. Sometimes the younger set demands that the guard be changed, if for a day. That's what we got with Bianca.
February 2020—Australian Open men's doubles finish
My fellow Hoosier/Indianan, Rajeev Ram, partnered Joe Salisbury and ran the proverbial table for his first taste of major men's doubles glory. That arrived in the same beloved place, Melbourne, where a year earlier he had first captured a major title, then with Krejcikova, his recurring mixed-doubles partner. This time, Raj went all the way over two weeks for the first time since his father passed due to cancer. "If you're watching, I love you," he said to his dad, Raghav, and somewhere a spirit surely moved.
April 2021: Here, quite literally, is my parting shot. Forget the sum of those Grand Slam stories above for a moment. Competitive fire is forged at all levels, and this singular swat off the racquet of Martin Fucsovics is itself major. Though, based on his 2020 US Open shot against Frances Tiafoe, we shouldn't be shocked.
At this time, the above items are not so much reported as felt. Tennis remains the greatest game I have found for myself, and in this I'm hardly alone or unique. There are niche community organizations of players the world over, and each has its reasons for celebrating the beauties of sport and togetherness.
You might be saying, How can your 12.5 fans miss you if you never truly go? And I hear you. I shall take my leave. I should say the same to you, though: Pick up a well-strung stick of your own, a few fuzzy yellow orbs, and a friend. Go outside and get after it.
Postscript: Covering the match, I was in the stadium's photo pit when so many waved goodbye to Venus after her 2012 Cincinnati semifinal loss to Li Na. That's me, accidentally delivering side-eye, at bottom left. Today I'm glad to say that, in a way, this great one has outlasted me in the sport as well.