10 tennis takeaways from 2021: From Emma Raducanu’s US Open success to Novak Djokovic becoming human

Delight for Emma Raducanu as she wins US Open

The 2021 season is not done yet – there’s still the Davis Cup too – but the ATP/ WTA Finals always have an end of term feel to them. This year’s tennis takeaways features Emma Raducanu, Novak Djokovic, tantrums, timeouts, tears and Andy Murray at SW19.

1) Red (white and blue) alert! Great Britain has a major talent

Emma Raducanu came from nowhere (if a ranking of 338 counts as nowhere). Such stealth undoubtedly helped. Her opponents at the US Open should have watched Wimbledon a little more closely.

The way this teenager blasted through the defences of every obstacle at Flushing Meadows without ever looking likely to lose composure, or even a set, was breathtaking. That shouldn’t happen. But it did. Thing is, she is a super smart match player. After September, every defeat will seem like a crisis. It isn’t. She ends the year in the top 20.

2) Whisper it, but Roger Federer is almost out of juice

After an extended absence, nobody was expecting miracles at SW19 for the eight-time champion. Reaching the quarters was not a bad effort for the Swiss. It was just the nature of the drubbing from Hubert Hurkacz that rang a few alarm bells.

And the breaking news is, he doesn’t expect to be there in 2022. When Roger is saying unlikely, this far out, it spells trouble. When asked about the best way to say goodbye in a recent interview, the 40-year-old revealed: “I’m having a hard time quitting.” Quitting might be out of his hands now…

3) Novak Djokovic becomes human

Tennis is one of those reactionary games where tears often flow on court. The joy. The despair. It’s all out there. It changes perception of how we see that individual. Look at the empathy for Andy Murray after losing to Roger Federer in 2012 at Wimbledon.

When Djokovic was welling up on his way to falling short of the magic 21 in September, the New York crowd got onside. As Arsene Wenger said in his recent documentary, champions remember the defeats because success is easy to absorb. However, the defeat to Daniil Medvedev for the world No 1 didn’t hurt him half as much as it helped.

4) Rafael Nadal is alive and well

It’s easier to spot Rafa and Roger off the courts these days. This year, more energy was expended on speculating when they will play. However, it is Nadal that appears a more genuine contender to challenge for that next major should his injuries abate.

Melbourne will be missing Federer and Djokovic has yet to show he has fully complied with local vaccine rules. After being hobbled for much of 2021, tennis needs one of its Fedal flag carriers to fight the good fight. Rafa is still only 35. It’s just how old is that 35 compared to a supreme 34-year-old?

5) New gen coming up fast

Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez’s US Open final was about the new generation and the gung-ho confidence that teenagers possess. Serena Williams is still there or thereabouts – well, there’s a film out about her somewhere – but the baton is changing. Ashleigh Barty is almost old-school compared to the swell of twenty-somethings that are gathering to assault the top spots. Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin are so yesterday…(that’s a joke).

6) Alexander Zverev zooms into view

It’s been a rough time for Sascha Zverev in respect of allegations about his personal life and a heartbreaking loss to Dominic Thiem in last year’s US Open. 2021 saw a happier version of the man. He made Wimbledon laugh just before Germany got knocked out by England at the Euros. He’s got a bit of Boris’s banter. Maybe there’s a crowd favourite waiting there.

Alexander Zverev Tokyo Olympics gold medallist

The Tokyo Olympics truly saw the best of the German. Having defeated a racket-throwing Djokovic in the semis, his seamless play crushed Karen Khachanov in the final. Andy Murray’s Grand Slam success can be traced back to that confidence-boosting gold medal win over Federer at London 2012. Zverev could be about to land his maiden major title 10 years later.

7) Naomi Osaka and mental health

“I’m sure there’s quite a few people struggling. More than we know,” said former world No 7 Mardy Fish, who once pulled out of a 2012 US Open match against Roger Federer due to an anxiety attack.

Naomi Osaka is the mental health case that we know about after she originally pulled out of the French Open, citing “huge waves of anxiety”. While media and organisers demand their interviews and protocols, the players get richly rewarded. But players are humans. Tennis is a sport that has a wandering lifestyle with total commitment needed every other day during major tournaments. Sometimes the circus should stop.

8) Crowds

Sport isn’t supposed to be played in silence. This year’s Australian Open had five whole days without spectators because of Covid. Court Philippe-Chatrier only allowed 1,000 spectators until someone told them to tear up the rules because Djokovic and Nadal were playing a semi-final.

Even Wimbledon missed its cosmopolitan feel as queues of fans lined up with their vaccination passports at the ready. The virus is still amongst us, but the crowds will be back in fuller force in 2022. All things being equal. As Rafa Nadal said: “This sport is a show, the sport is a party for a lot of people, for the fans.”

9) Andy Murray refusing to go quietly

Do you ever look back at that emotional “retirement” montage of Andy Murray at the 2019 Australian Open and think “this is a bit OTT?”. A bit premature? While it remains unlikely that the Scot can win majors with a metal hip, he’s at least giving himself some hope of being in the equation having beaten a couple of top 20 players.

Murray is making all the right noises about coming back better prepared. The competitive spirit is still burning very hot, but if the body says “no” then we better enjoy him while we can. It was fun seeing him play under the lights at Wimbledon. An encore is in order.

10) 2021 timeout

The ATP is reportedly making plans to change the rules for bathroom breaks and medical timeouts. 2021 certainly caused bad feeling as proved by Stefanos Tsitsipas’s antics against Murray in the first round at New York. The Greek had so many delays and disappearances, Murray could have read a Tolstoy novel.

Likewise, Leylah Fernandez wasn’t too crash hot on Emma Raducanu taking time over a knee problem although that incident was more innocent. On the other hand, who doesn’t love a bit of extra drama and needle? Melbourne, here we come…

Follow Tim Ellis on Twitter @Timotei365