The men’s tennis season finally concluded on Sunday as Croatia broke French home hearts to lift the Davis Cup trophy in Lille.
Players – and fans alike – barely have five weeks to reflect on the year that passed and prepare for the new season, which means I just have enough time to hand out some 2018 alternative awards for the men of the ATP circuit.
These awards are not based on numbers, victories, losses and the like. They are a nod to some standout behaviour, encounters, anecdotes and experiences I’ve come across during my year of traveling the tennis tour.
MOST FUN TO WATCH IN PRACTICE
I spend a significant amount of time during the season watching players practice, which I sometimes find more captivating than an actual match. One of the most enjoyable practice sessions I’ve watched this season featured Canadian teen Denis Shapovalov. The young lefty was sharing a court in Rome with Jelena Ostapenko but that didn’t stop him from swinging from side to side along the baseline, hitting jumping forehands and backhands on every single shot. ‘Air Shapo’ is entertainment gold!
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 16, 2018
Murray stepping away from Twitter and embracing Instagram is the plot twist we never knew we needed this season. The Scot’s posts have been nothing short of legendary. Whether he’s drawing attention to gun violence issues in America, posting childhood photos of himself accompanied by emotional messages about his injury struggles, bantering with other players in the comments, sharing videos of his impressively acrobatic workouts, and his most recent contribution: A photo of himself on the beach standing next to an inflatable ice cream lilo. Murray on Instagram could be a show on Netflix.
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Whether he is defeating Roger Federer and is ranked inside the top-10, or is clinging onto the top-300 and asking for qualifying wildcards at Challengers, Gulbis is always an intriguing character to talk to. He’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, can delve into deep topics on demand, and generally has strong opinions he’s always willing to share.
This year, as a new dad, Gulbis has been playing with a purpose and has made his way back into the top-100. His improved results meant that he made quite a few appearances in the press conference room, and as always, he did not disappoint.
In Dubai, he advocated for the lower-ranked players on tour, and how “the amount of people feeling safe and secure about their future in tennis is too little”. In Paris, he hit out at tournament organisers for testing the shot clock only in qualifying.
“I like when they have the same rules for qualifying and main draw. I don’t like it when they try to test something on the weaker players. I don’t mind any of these rules, I just don’t like it when somehow qualifiers or somehow the weaker tournaments are being pushed less, it’s a hard enough life for them,” he explained.
At Wimbledon, he sheepishly made fun of himself when he went to the wrong bench during his opening round against Jay Clarke.
“I tried to joke, you know this panic joke, when you’re nervous and you don’t know what to do but then you panic? And then I tried to joke but something came out probably very stupid. Not funny at all… I was completely out of it. I lost the break and I was completely out. I was nervous,” confessed the Latvian.
In a more philosophical tone this is how Gulbis explains the motivation behind his current pursuit of a tennis career.
“As soon as I understand that I can’t gain anything from doing this thing I’m going to stop doing this. I’m not doing this for earning money or for earning popularity. I’m doing this because I know that this makes me, right now, a better man,” he says. “As soon as I understand that, okay that’s it, this instrument, tennis as an instrument will not help me anymore to become a better man I’m going to stop.”
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 3, 2018
People often say that such is Djokovic’s popularity back home in Serbia, that if he ran for president today, he would win. Well if he ever decided to get into politics or foreign affairs, judging from his press conferences alone, it seems Djokovic would highly excel in the field.
The world No. 1 has a smooth skill of giving long, analytical answers to difficult questions without really giving much away or rocking the boat. When you’re listening to him speak, you’re often impressed and inspired. When you start transcribing his quotes, you sometimes realise how cleverly he sidestepped a core issue, or a controversial topic. Considering how much press he has to do throughout the year, this is definitely a handy skill to have!
MOST LIKELY TO GET ANNOYED IN A PRESS CONFERENCE
The ATP Finals champion is only 21, but when it comes to press conferences, Zverev sometimes makes it seem like he is a 20-year veteran of the tour, who has been facing the same questions from the media for decades and has had enough of it. Granted, repetitive questions can get boring, but unfortunately for the German, it comes with the job. The world No. 4 has a tendency of responding to questions by first noting that he’s already answered them “150 times before”. He doesn’t like it and isn’t afraid of showing it.
There have been exceptions this year of course. At Roland Garros, he found the accent of a reporter from Yorkshire particularly amusing and it kept him in a good mood. In Washington he was chatty and reportedly urged the media to ask him out-of-the-box personal questions. And in London this month, he pretty much answered the same question about being booed three times in the same press conference. Of course he was the one who pointed out that it was three times, but still, he answered. There is hope for us just yet!
While he isn’t as acrobatic as Gael Monfils, who is always a candidate for best dancer on tour, Schwartzman has got moves and they made him one of the most ‘GIFable’ players these past couple of seasons. Scan the internet for his videos and you won’t regret it!
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) November 26, 2018
Bonus footage included in the upcoming deluxe on-demand release: Diego Schwartzman. pic.twitter.com/xUwRLr4cLo
— TroubleFault (@troublefault) August 31, 2017
I adore Diego Schwartzman 😂😂😂 (from his instagram) pic.twitter.com/XOP4zhVMCe
— Rena (@_irenka23_) April 28, 2017
The Aussie wasn’t always like this, but in 2018, Tomic was a man of few words. His peak moment probably came at Roland Garros where he said a total of 64 words in a press conference of 10 questions. When I asked him during Wimbledon qualifying why he wasn’t being too chatty with the media this year, Tomic smiled and said, “I’m always chatty, what are you talking about?” before walking away.
As the curtain closes on another tennis season, we’d be remiss if we don’t hand out some awards to the protagonists of the WTA tour who kept us entertained throughout the year.
But instead of sticking to forehands and backhands, wins and losses, comebacks and flops… here are some alternative awards for the ladies of the circuit, to commemorate an eventful 2018 season.
QUICKEST TO COME TO PRESS
The Belarusian, who was named WTA Newcomer of the Year, is unrivaled when it comes to how fast she gets to her post-match press conferences. Win or lose, Sabalenka walks off-court straight into the interview room, with her racquet bag on her back and sweat still dripping from her face. Her coach Dmitry Tursunov is often found wondering the hallways trying to find her after her matches and by season-end he finally figured out where she is most likely to be found right after a match. It is a habit that is much appreciated by most journalists, especially when it comes to those working on tight deadlines.
Andrea Sestini Hlavackova
Sestini Hlavackova’s Instagram probably wouldn’t be the gem that it is without her doubles partner, the second half of the ‘Angry Birds’ duo, Barbora Strycova. Sestini Hlavackova’s account was a continuous feed of hilarious moments from the Czech pair, whether they’re singing Czech lyrics we cannot understand, or are taking votes on which restaurant to go to with their teams in the evening. Their energy is infectious and their posts all seem natural and unstaged. More of the same please, next season!
There isn’t enough space on a newspaper page to contain all the brilliant quotes Osaka has blessed us with this season. The Japanese US Open champion is one of a kind and her take on things is always not what you’d expect.
When she tried to explain her complicated feelings after she won the US Open under stressful circumstances that involved Serena Williams’ standoff with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, Osaka said this to a journalist in Beijing: “Have you ever eaten green tea ice cream? This is a serious question. When you bite into it, it’s, like, sweet but also very strong. Like, that’s how that memory feels to me.”
In an interview with Sport360 in Dubai earlier this year, this is how she reacted when she was asked about being a role model.
“If there’s anyone that looks up to me, I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better so that they can have something to look up to. But the me right now is a little bit immature,” said Osaka.
When she was asked in Indian Wells how it felt to reach a final of such a big tournament, she said it felt “lonely” because most of the players are already gone.
While the WTA tour has plenty of engaging personalities (the list is long), Osaka definitely stands out among the lot.
The Ukrainian finished her season with a bang, clinching the WTA Finals crown, but earlier in the year, Svitolina impressed us with her trivia knowledge when it comes to her fellow top players. She aced a Sport360 quiz about the top seeds of the Madrid Open in May. We respect her commitment to keeping tabs on her rivals. It’s what true champions do!
The Czech is a firm believer in saying it like it is. Pliskova wastes no time beating around the bush. You ask her a question, you can expect a straightforward and honest answer. She doesn’t shy away from stating her opinion and doesn’t worry about saying the thing that will earn her the most popularity. If she believes she is struggling with her famously lethal serve, she will break it down to you and admit it. If she is particularly proud of defeating archrival Petra Kvitova, she will allude to their complicated “history” and confess that even her parents are thrilled with the fact that both Pliskova, and her twin Kristyna, claimed wins over their fellow Czech. Honesty like that is hard to come by sometimes in professional sport, so when you witness it, it’s very refreshing.
Many players on the WTA tour can scoop this award but Kasatkina has got to be one of the most cheerful women to encounter off court. She’d typically greet journalists with high fives and hugs, even after defeats, and loves a good laugh. After she lost the Indian Wells final to Naomi Osaka in March, it was Kasatkina who told me to cheer up when I was asking her a question in a serious tone. ‘Why so serious? I’m going to be okay. It’s all good,” she assured.
One thing I’ve learned this year: When Krunic speaks, you listen, take lots of notes, and learn. The Russia-born Serbian world No. 55 is as knowledgeable as she is eloquent and her interviews can all be compiled together to form a podcast called ‘Life Lessons with Aleksandra Krunic’. If you want measured opinions, and well-thought insight, Krunic will more than likely provide it.
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While it’s impressive how athletic the players are, and how they often seamlessly transfer their skills from one sport to another, Jabeur is arguably the most gifted on tour when it comes to her footy skills. A quick visit to the video section of her Facebook page will show you why.
MOST LIKELY TO WIN AN ARGUMENT
Keys spoke this year about what it’s like being the daughter of a lawyer, how she always insists on knowing the explanation and reasoning behind something rather than taking it face value, and how that sometimes makes it tough for her to find the right coach. Because not all coaches would go to the lengths she needs in order to be convinced by something. The American says that trait does have its advantages though.
“Being the daughter of a lawyer, if I don’t understand something and I ask a question, there’s no answer of, ‘This is why I’m saying that’, sometimes I’m like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know if I like that’… I think my mom was great because she didn’t just say, ‘Because I said so’. She gave you all of the reasons as to why you were doing what you were doing. But I also think that it makes you great at arguing,” said Keys.
“I think just my mom’s mentality of how she dealt with us was very, Okay, you did this, so this is going to happen, this is the consequence. It was always super non-emotional, like, ‘This is how it is. If you break the law, this is what happens’. In that sense, it was very interesting. But I will say as far as questioning things and arguing things and finding loopholes in things, it was always really helpful in other situations away from my mom.”
When Ons Jabeur started her 2018 season with a 0-5 record, she probably wasn’t expecting she’d end her year by winning seven matches in seven days to reach her first WTA final – at a Premier-level event no less.
The Tunisian history-maker became the first Arab woman to make a WTA semi-final or final thanks to a magic run at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last month, where she made her way through qualifying and took out three top-eight seeds before falling to Daria Kasatkina in the title decider.
It wasn’t just that she was winning but it was the manner in which she was doing so. Jabeur showcased her flamboyant brand of tennis at Moscow’s Olympic stadium and the world finally got to witness what her golden hands can do.
From jumping backhands, to conniving slices to the no-look, behind-the-back half volley that earned her the WTA Shot of the Month award, the Jabeur Show was on full display and everyone was eating it up.
Even more impressive is the fact that she had that run without her coach Bertrand Perret in her corner due to his three-month suspension for an issue that occurred when he was coaching Peng Shuai last year.
— WTA (@WTA) November 9, 2018
Her season may have ended with a loss to Kasatkina – after leading the Russian 6-2, 4-1 – but Jabeur can take great confidence from her last few months on tour, which saw her reach her current career-high ranking of 61. It is the highest ranking ever achieved by an Arab woman in singles, as she eclipsed her compatriot Selima Sfar, who peaked at 75 in the world in 2001.
“I’m really proud of the fact that physically I was ready, I played eight matches [in Moscow], I’m not known as the most athlete that’s really ready for a long run but I proved to everyone that I can be physically ready, that I can beat top-10 players, and I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of the level I showed,” Jabeur told Sport360.
“Of course I’m proud that I didn’t have a tennis coach there but I played my game and I improved myself, I was auto-correcting myself, which is something I’ve been looking to improve from a long time ago.”
After commencing the year with a 1-9 win-loss mark through the first three months, Jabeur slowly started to find her form, but it wasn’t until the grass season that things really started to look up for the 24-year-old. She won the $100k ITF title in Manchester, which earned her a wildcard into the Wimbledon main draw.
At Wimbledon, she became the first Arab woman to win a singles match at the All England Club since Sfar in 2005.
“Beginning of this season wasn’t successful for me of course,” admits Jabeur. “But I’ve been hurt a lot and I told myself to be patient and to learn from these bad losses, especially sometimes it was really, really tight. But I think the way that I believed in myself, the way I kept myself patient, and I was able to continue to do the hard work and to be in a good position, especially at the end of the season, and starting from the grass, and a little bit of clay – the fact that I was able to continue working hard without seeing the results paying off, I was able to continue, this is really good.
“I got to say the team with me, they were also patient. I think now the hard work is paying off. I’m happy that I didn’t give up and put myself in another position, like not wanting to practice because I wasn’t getting good results. So I’m happy with that.”
A few weeks after Wimbledon, she reached the quarter-finals of the WTA event in Bucharest, then qualified for the US Open later in the summer. Last month at the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing, Jabeur qualified for the main draw then defeat world No. 1 Simona Halep via retirement in the first round before losing a tight affair to Donna Vekic. It was all just a prelude to a stunning week in Moscow.
“I’m really proud, I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time ago, and it’s time to show the world who I am, to show the game I’m trying to play on the court, the fun stuff, to do the fun stuff,” said Jabeur, who has won over a lot of fans globally after her Russian adventure.
“I think a lot of people reacted. A lot of people are happy with the way I played, they’re surprised, they didn’t know me, they didn’t know the level that I have. It’s amazing to feel this way, to hear people what they’re saying about me, especially commentators on TV.
“I was happy to find out that Tunisians also were watching me in the cafes, usually they watch football, they don’t watch tennis. So seeing all of these people watching the final, and people in hospitals asking about the TV to watch my final, I was happy to hear that and hopefully this can give me the opportunity to go really far.”
It wasn’t just Tunisians in cafes who were following Jabeur’s progress in Russia, President Beji Caid Essebsi was also keeping tabs and he congratulated her after the final.
“Yes, I got a call from the President of Tunisia, I was really surprised. But it made me feel happy, it made me feel that he cares and he wants me to be one of the greatest players in the world. That’s something amazing and of course to hear from the President of our country is something I’m really proud of,” she says.
Kasatkina, now ranked 10 in the world, believes it was important to showcase the entertaining kind of play, which she describes as “not the usual women’s tennis”, from both her and Jabeur in the Moscow final. The 21-year-old Russian has spent several offseasons training with Jabeur in Slovakia, and is not surprised by the level she displayed at the Kremlin Cup.
“Of course I know she can do this,” says Kasatkina. “We were practicing a lot and she’s very talented, I know the things she can do. I don’t know why she has so many ups and downs but I’m pretty sure that in one moment she will make a big improvement.”
Joined by Perret, and her husband and fitness coach Karim Kamoun, Jabeur has already started her 2019 preseason preparations as she looks to start next year far better than how she began this one. Her higher ranking means she can get into most tournaments directly and she has a few months early in the year where she can pick up some serious points.
“My goal is to enter the top-30, I’m not that far. But that’s just a number, for me it’s to keep improving my game, to keep improving my level,” she asserts.
“Because my level can speak for me, if I’m really good than I won’t drop in the rankings. I gained so much experience from this year so hopefully next year will be much better, especially in the beginning.”
Asked what the biggest lesson learned was from her roller coaster 2018, Jabeur said: “The biggest lesson is to be patient and to enjoy playing. For me, the hard work will pay off anytime. Hard work and keep believing. I didn’t stop believing in myself which is something that has helped me now, because if I didn’t do that probably I wouldn’t have arrived to this level now.”