The National Bank Open, formerly Rogers Cup

Cox: Rafa reigns at No. 1

November 21, 2019

For the fifth time, Rafael Nadal will finish the year as the No. 1-ranked male player in the tennis world. Novak Djokovic will finish second, and Roger Federer third.

When will this remarkable era end? There’s no point in guessing anymore.

It used to be the Big Four, of course, but then hip problems knocked Andy Murray out of commission. Except now Murray is working his way back, and the way the men’s game continues to be dominated by players who should in theory be past their prime, it’s hard to rule anybody out.

Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have finished 1-2-3 in various orders in eight of the past 13 years. The only order that hasn’t occurred is Fed, Djoker and Rafa. Maybe in 2020? Who knows.

Even Nadal, 33, was left surprised by getting to No. 1 again after a season that featured two Grand Slam titles (Roland Garros, U.S. Open) and two Masters titles (Montreal and Rome). “I never thought I would get my hands on this trophy again,” he said.

Federer, 38, got to final of Wimbledon and won four titles (Basel, Halle, Miami, Dubai), finishing No. 3.

“I think I’ve got to keep on playing at the level like I have this year, and then I will create some chances,” he said. “I thought I played some consistent, solid tennis.”

Djokovic, meanwhile, had a terrific season with two Grand Slam wins (Australia, Wimbledon) and three other titles (Paris, Tokyo, Madrid). He battled elbow problems, and ended the season with a disappointing straight sets defeat to Federer at the ATP Finals.

“I’m not happy with the way I finished the season,” said Djokovic.

Federer still clings to the most Grand Slam titles with 20. Nadal now has 19, while Djokovic has 16.

Tsitsipas on the rise

It seems clear the 2020 season will begin with all eyes on Stefanos Tsitsipas.

A Grand Slam title is the next step.

Tsitsipas ended the 2019 season in style, defeating Dominic Thiem at the ATP Finals in a thrilling match that went down to the wire. Tsitsipas prevailed 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, becoming the youngest winner of the event (21 years, 3 months) in 18 years since Lleyton Hewitt (20 years, 9 months).

Not only does Tsitsipas have the game, he’s got the personality to go with it. As the men’s game looks to the future, the charismatic Tsitsipas appears set to be have a major impact with both his talent and his charisma.

Feature Photo: ATP

“It’s truly magnificent this final we put out today,” he said after his come-from-behind win over Thiem. “I think it makes our sport great. It’s all about this. Tennis is all about this.”

Tsistipas will finish the year ranked No. 6, just behind Thiem and Danil Medvedev. Like Tsitsipas, Thiem will go into 2020 in search of that first Grand Slam title.

“That’s a big thing I’m taking away, that even in very tough situations I can still play great tennis,” said Thiem after his loss to Tsitsipas.

Berdych bows out

While the Big Three keep rolling along, 2019 will be remembered as a tennis season that saw a long list of good players pack it in.

Tomas Berdych, 34, became the latest to join that list this month, bringing an end to a strong career that got him as high as No. 4 in the world. Like any number of elite players, Berdych will retire without a Grand Slam title, at least partly because he has the misfortune to compete in an era dominated by three of the greatest players ever.

Berdych’s last match was at the U.S. Open when he lost in the first round to qualifier Jenson Brooksby.

“I said okay, that’s it, that’s enough in terms of just my body doesn’t allow me to do so, and it’s very unpredictable,” he said. “There is no real point to continue.”

Photo: Camera Work USa

Berdych joins a long list of ATP retirements in 2019 that includes David Ferrer, Radek Stepanek, Max Mirnyi, Nicolas Almagro, Mikhail Youzhny and Marcos Baghdatis.

The Czech star’s lone Grand Slam final came at the 2010 Wimbledon tournament, where he lost to Rafael Nadal. He won 13 ATP titles, finished with a 640-342 record and led his country to Davis Cup titles in 2012 and 2013.

“The plan is actually not to have any plans,” he said. “The last 15, 20 years was so hectic and so demanding that I just need to just breathe out easily after all those years.”

Court conundrum

At some point, Tennis Australia is going to have to address this difficult conundrum. How it does so will be fascinating to watch.

Margaret Court is threatening to boycott the 2020 Australian Open on the 50th anniversary of her 1970 Grand Slam unless she receives the same treatment as Rod Laver got this year when he was an honoured guest at all four majors.

“Nobody has spoken directly to me about it,” said the 77-year-old Court. “I think they would rather not confront it.

“I think I should be invited. I would hope they would pay my way to come like they paid for (Laver’s), and they would honour me. If they are not going to do that, I don’t really want to come.”

Court, who leads all tennis players of either gender with 24 Grand Slam singles titles, hasn’t attended the Australian Open since 2017. The Australian star has been bitterly criticized by many of the greatest stars in the women’s game for her controversial comments on gay rights and gay marriage.

Some, including Billie Jean King, believe her name should be removed from the No. 2 court at the Australian Open. She was given that honour in 2003, and continues to defend herself against attacks from the women’s tennis world. She says her opinions on homosexuality should not impact her status within the game.

“I won more Grand Slams than any man or woman,” she said. “I feel they shouldn’t bring all of that into my tennis.”

It’s a very tricky problem for Tennis Australia. If they don’t celebrate Court’s 1970 Grand Slam, they open themselves up to accusations of giving preferential treatment to men. If they do, it could lead to protests and more controversy.

Williams racquet up for auction

It was the broken racquet heard around the tennis world.

Now, it might be worth some serious dough.

We all remember watching Serena smash her Wilson Blade racquet at a critical juncture of her U.S. Open final loss to Naomi Osaka in 2018. It cost Williams a point, and ultimately, she lost the match in a cloud of controversy.

At one point after the conclusion of the match, Williams gave the broken racquet to ball boy Justin Arrington-Holmes. He sold it to a collectibles store for $500. Now, an anonymous individual has put the racquet up for auction with a starting price of $2,000, and the expectation is that the final bid will reach five figures. The bidding will close Dec. 7.

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Tennis Canada

“Looking back I wish I’d had someone help me with the process,” said Arrington-Holmes, now 22. “I was not familiar how any of this works. I just wanted to get rid of it.”

Arrington-Holmes knows he won’t get anything out of the auction, no matter how high the price goes.

“They could give a few thousand (dollars) to a charity or a place like Harlem Junior Tennis,” he told The New York Times. “I just hope they are looking out for the greater good.”

It’s unclear how high the bidding might go. In 2017, the racquet used by Billie Jean King in her 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match against Bobby Riggs sold for $125,000.

Cibulkova retires

It’s a good thing Dominika Cibulkova refused to listen to the naysayers.

From the first time she picked up a racquet, Cibulkova was told she was too small to make an impression on the sport.

Boy, were they wrong.

The 5-foot-3 ended up being a dynamic force on the WTA tour, one of the tour’s most fiery and entertaining players.

“When I started playing tennis, people would tell me . . .you are too small,” said Cibulkova. “It was something I was always hearing, and makes what happened in my career all the more unbelievable.”

“In the end, I felt like I gave enough and achieved things I never dreamed of in my career.”

Cibulkova, 30, has decided to retire after winning eight WTA titles and reaching 21 finals, including the 2014 Australian Open, which she lost to Li Na.

Her biggest win came at the 2016 WTA Finals in Singapore. She needed to win the Linz tournament to qualify, then started the round robin with two defeats. But she stormed back and ultimately beat Angelique Kerber to capture the title.

“Singapore was the moment when i could say, ‘This is why I was playing tennis my whole life,” she said.

Cibulkova won $13.7 million over the course of her career, played her last match at Roland Garros this year and has come out with a memoir. Her longtime doubles partner Lucie Safarova also retired this year.