Federer winds back the hands of time as Serena and Djokovic keep old guard in the ascendency
It was, ultimately, another ripper of a season. In both men’s and women’s tennis, this was a year when the next generation of players – from Eugenie Bouchard to Kei Nishikori – made significant steps towards a big prize.
And yet, by the end of 2014, the ancien regime was still holding firm. The two world No 1s were Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, with Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova sitting on their respective shoulders. New balls have been ordered, it seems, but they are still on their way to the court.
The most romantic and satisfying story was surely Federer’s return to red-hot form. After the battles of 2013, which reached a nadir with his third-round exit from the US Open at the hands of Tommy Robredo, he began the year with his cranky back healed, his racket-head expanded by five square inches and his coaching team boosted by Swedish great Stefan Edberg.
(The rise of the “supercoach” was another theme of 2014 as most of the top male contenders followed the model established by Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl. At the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in November, Tomas Berdych was the only man not to have a former top-three player sitting at courtside.)
The result was that Federer climbed back to No 2 in the world, winning five tournaments, and coming devilishly close to landing an 18th grand slam title in a magnificent final at Wimbledon. His opponent, the inescapable Djokovic, had to reach deep into his own well of self-belief before claiming a mesmerising five-set win.
That was a significant moment for the Serb, who saw a match point snatched away in the fourth set, and must have wondered whether he was about to go down to his sixth defeat in seven grand slam finals. Failure here, under the most agonising pressure, would probably have ended his new coaching partnership with Boris Becker and sent him into his summer holiday – which included not only his wedding to Jelena Ristic but also a bachelor party in Ibiza – in the blackest of moods.
Yet Djokovic held firm, as he so often does. He later told Telegraph Sport how much psychic energy he had burnt on the way to that Wimbledon title, resulting in a hangover that lasted through August and early September. “It was a very turbulent, very emotional, very tough first six months of the year,” he said. “Then through Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open – I didn’t have that feeling of freshness inside me. I felt very tired.”
But Djokovic still finished the year in magnificent fettle, becoming the first man to defend the Paris Masters event before cleaning up at the World Tour Finals for the third successive season.
We may have seen two new names enter the elite club of grand slam winners, with Stan Wawrinka triumphing in Australia and Marin Cilic in New York, but the world No 1 will remain the man to beat in 2015. (It almost goes without saying that Rafael Nadal won the French Open, although the second half of his year was disrupted by a wrist injury and an infected appendix.)
There were certain parallels in the pattern of the women’s tour, as Serena Williams drove home her superiority over the final furlong of the season. Earlier, she had failed to reach the quarter-finals of any of the first three grand slams. Williams also supplied the most bizarre images of 2014 when she tried to play a doubles match at Wimbledon with sister Venus, despite being in such a discombobulated state that she could neither serve the ball over the net nor catch it when it was thrown to her. This alarming situation was later blamed on a virus.
Sharapova and Petra Kvitova each won a major title, though they took drastically different routes: Sharapova needed 3hr 2min to subdue a determined Simona Halep in the French Open, while Kvitova blitzed past Bouchard in just 55 minutes at Wimbledon. And then there was Li Na, who lifted the Australian Open crown only to quit the game in the summer as a result of persistent knee trouble. The sport misses her broad smile, wicked sense of humour and delectable backhand.
On the men’s side, Murray provided enough drama in his own comeback from injury – in his case, the back surgery that had brought a premature end to his 2013 season – to fill a book. He lost Lendl from his support staff in March, and then, after a protracted search for a replacement, announced Amelie Mauresmo as his new head coach on the final Sunday of the French Open.
It later emerged, however, that Murray’s loyal assistant coach Dani Vallverdu, as well as his long-serving fitness coach Jez Green, had been blindsided by the decision. The atmosphere in the camp during Murray’s defence of his Wimbledon title was chilly at best, and surely contributed to his limp quarter-final exit at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov.
It was only after the US Open – which found Murray lacking the physical conditioning to sustain a serious challenge – that he clocked on and produced a stunning sequence of three ATP titles in five weeks, winning in Shenzhen, Vienna and Valencia. This ensured that he qualified for the World Tour Finals at the O₂, but the year ended badly as Federer whopped him 6-0, 6-1 in his final match.
Within three weeks, both Green and Vallverdu had left Murray’s employment, sending him into 2015 in a state of upheaval. “It will be fascinating to see how he starts the new year,” Mats Wilander told Telegraph Sport. “If he works on the right things for the next month and a half, he could be as strong as anybody in Melbourne, maybe even stronger. But if he doesn’t come out with a different mindset at the Australian Open, he has to be careful that the train hasn’t left the station.”
2014 in numbers
7: Grand slam titles held by Novak Djokovic after the world No. 1 ended a sequence of five defeats in six major finals by beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon.
73: Federer’s tally of victories in 2014 (to place against 12 defeats), the highest on the ATP Tour.
2003: The last season, before this one, to welcome two new faces to the club of male grand-slam winners. Then: Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick. Now: Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.
38: Successive grand-slam finals to feature at least one of the holy trinity of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. The run ended when Cilic beat Kei Nishikori to land the US Open.
46: Highest ATP ranking for a Japanese player before Nishikori, who was thus dubbed “Project 45” in his youth. He finished the year at No. 5.
7: Singles contenders at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals with a former top-three player on their coaching team. Only Tomas Berdych lacked a “supercoach”.
0: Women who reached more than one grand-slam final in 2014, making this the most unpredictable season since 1977.
20: Matches won at the grand slams by Eugenie Bouchard, the most consistent woman in the four big events, whose best result was her runner-up finish at Wimbledon.
182: Minutes occupied by Maria Sharapova’s 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 victory over Simona Halep in the French Open final. It was the first women’s final at Roland Garros to reach a deciding set since 2001.
28: Clean winners hit by an inspired Petra Kvitova in her 55-minute rout of Bouchard in the Wimbledon final, which represented 46 per cent of her total points.
17: Points played in the second-round doubles match at Wimbledon involving the Williams sisters before a strangely unco-ordinated Serena – who later claimed to be suffering from a virus – was persuaded to withdraw.
2: Successive years that Serena Williams has now ended the year as No. 1 on the WTA rankings. For all her extraordinary feats, she had never previously finished on top in consecutive seasons.