How to assess 2016 in the world of tennis? I answer unequivocally that it was a season of high intrigue and deep dimensions.
Three different men—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka—were victorious at the majors. In the women's game, they, too, had a trio of victors on the four most prominent stages, with Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, and Serena Williams claiming the top honors. Meanwhile, Argentina came through to win the Davis Cup and the Czech Republic triumphed in the Fed Cup. It was simultaneously a year of reaffirmation for some great players and a time when others broke down barriers and succeeded on the highest level for the first time. I present you now with my annual Flink Awards.
WOMEN'S PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Prior to 2016, the industrious and enterprising German Angelique Kerber had never been past the semifinals in 32 career Grand Slam tournament appearances, but this enormously appealing individual made amends and took both the first and last majors of the year gone by. She upended Serena Williams to secure the Australian Open title at the end of January, and claimed the U.S.Open title in September. This stylish left-hander also made it to the final of Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, and the season-ending WTA Championships.
Altogether, Kerber won 63 of 81 matches. She demonstrated numerous things in the process of rising to No. 1 in the world of women's tennis. First, her game improved decidedly. Her defense was, as always, stellar in every way. No one can surpass her propensity to run down balls directed wide to the forehand and get them back with interest. She reminded us that there is no better match player among the women. On that count, she got even better. But perhaps Kerber's largest strides were made as a competitor more willing than ever before to take control with offense at opportune times, to dictate off her forehand, to open up the court and finish off points on her own terms.
Angelique Kerber worked assiduously to establish herself as the best in the world for 2016. She played no fewer than 22 tournaments as well as Fed Cup. She won tournaments on clay and hard courts and nearly took the biggest grass court title of them all. Player of the Year for 2016? None other than Angelique Kerber.
MEN'S PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Andy Murray had dedicated himself whole-heartedly in 2015 to realizing a goal that was larger than himself and his personal pursuits. He wanted more than anything else to lead the British contingent to their first Davis Cup victory in 79 years, and he managed to do just that, sweeping all eight of his singles contests.
But that supreme effort left Murray somewhat depleted at the start of 2016, understandably so. He did manage to reach his fifth Australian Open final, but for the fourth time in a title round duel with old rival Novak Djokovic, Murray came out on the losing end. He then became a father not long after, and predictably his play on the American hard court swing at Indian Wells and Miami was not up to his normal standards. Thereafter, however, Murray was a man possessed.
He won the Italian Open, got to the final of the French Open, and then would not lose again until the final of Cincinnati against Marin Cilic in August, sweeping 22 matches in a row during that period. Murray collected three consecutive titles including his second Wimbledon and Olympic crowns. He was upended at the U.S. Open in a tumultuous five set quarterfinal against Kei Nishikori. The weekend after the Open, he fell in five sets against Juan Martin Del Potro in Davis Cup. But the British warrior would not be halted again in 2016. He finished the year with a stirring run, capturing his last five tournaments including the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, taking 24 matches in a row to close the curtain on his greatest season.
In the final of that prestigious tournament in London, he defeated Djokovic for only the eleventh time in 35 career showdowns. The two best players were battling head to head in the last tournament of the 2016 campaign with the No. 1 Emirates ATP Ranking on the line. That was unprecedented. Murray was the man who held up better under extraordinary duress, eclipsing Djokovic 6-3, 6-4. Down the stretch of a magnificent season, Murray had no margin for error if he wanted to overtake Djokovic and seal the No. 1 ranking. He flawlessly realized a monumental mission.
All in all, Murray was stupendous in 2016. He pocketed nine titles, by far the most he had won in any season across his sterling career. He won 78 of 87 matches. He left no stone unturned in his quest for preeminence, and was rewarded handsomely in the end. Andy Murray: Player of the Year for 2016. He has never been better.
Men's Match of the YearAlmost without exception, I pick a contest from one of the four majors as my Match of the Year, for reasons that are easy to understand.There were some compelling encounters on those stages this past year, including Roger Federer's spellbinding recovery from two sets to love down against Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, when the Swiss stylist saved three match points in the fourth set. That was a beauty, but in my view not quite a classic. In the four finals at those Grand Slam events, none went the distance; two (Djokovic-Murray at the Australian Open and Murray-Raonic at Wimbledon), were settled in straight sets while two (Djokovic-Murray at Roland Garros and Wawrinka-Djokovic at the U.S. Open) were decided in four sets.
After weighing this one carefully, I am choosing the Murray-Raonic semifinal at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, and here is why. Murray was going full force after that year-end No. 1 ranking, and he simply could not afford to lose this confrontation. If he had, Djokovic was more than ready to deal with Nishikori in the other semifinal. The Serbian won that match 6-1, 6-1. He was not going to lose to the Japanese icon under any circumstances, and Murray was well aware of that.
But perhaps the British competitor was slightly caught off guard by a top of the line Raonic, who came out of the blocks brilliantly. The burly Canadian served tremendously in the opening set, allowing one of the game's two best returners only seven points in six service games. Meanwhile, he opportunistically broke Murray at 5-5 on a double fault from the crowd favorite. Raonic took the set 7-5 and then established a service break lead as he moved ahead 2-1 in the second set.
And yet, he faltered, dropping his serve for the first time in the following game on a stream of unprovoked errors. That set was settled in a tie-break, and Raonic, unwavering, made a gallant stand from 1-4 down back to 5-5. There he was, two points away from a gratifying straight set triumph. But he played that critical point too conservatively and Murray sensed an opening, advancing to the net and angling a forehand volley into the clear with cool conviction. He took the next point to win the tie-break 7-5. And so they proceeded to a final set.
What a dandy it was. At 4-4, Murray broke at love as Raonic made three glaring unforced errors. But the Canadian broke back at 30 by chasing down a drop shot from Murray, approaching down the line. He then read Murray's passing shot, punching a forehand volley crisply down the line, setting up an overhead winner. It was 5-5. Raonic rallied from 0-30 to 40-30, but lost his serve again, and now Murray served for the match a second time at 6-5. In this case, Raonic played an outstanding return game to break at 15 for 6-6, and so it fittingly all came down to a final set tie-break for all the marbles.
That sequence was as gripping as it gets.Murray built a 5-3 lead before Raonic surged back to 5-5. But Murray created his first match point opportunity with Raonic serving at 5-6, and the underdog dealt with that situation firmly. Unswayed, Murray went up 7-6, but Raonic saved a second match point with a series of beautifully played inside out forehands that he kept both low and deliberately short. Murray faltered off the sliced backhand: 7-7.
Murray, however, remained purposeful and composed, moving ahead 8-7 with a third match point. Once more, Raonic stood his ground commendably. He served-and-volleyed and closed in exceedingly tight on the net after his first volley. Murray netted a passing shot under extreme pressure: 8-8. Raonic attacked his way to 9-8 and a match point opportunity of his own. Murray was serving and he missed his first delivery. Raonic was practically jumping out of his skin. But Murray's second serve was respectable. Raonic did not commit to attack it, so Murray easily took control of the rally. He approached confidently, punched a backhand volley down the line off a passing shot that was excessively high from Raonic, and the Canadian had no chance on the run. Now it was 9-9.
Murray had refused to blink when Raonic was on the verge of victory. The British player took the next point on serve and then played a strategically astute point, looping a ball to the Raonic forehand that looked more inviting than it actually was for the Canadian. Raonic netted his forehand down the line awkwardly. Murray had prevailed 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9) in three hours and 38 minutes of often enthralling tennis.
This one was a blockbuster. To be sure, both men exposed their frailties as well as celebrating their shining moments. The level of play fluctuated to a degree. But the fact remains that Murray and Raonic performed mightily. Raonic would finish the year at No. 3 in the world. Murray, of course, was the man at the top of the ladder. They gave us a riveting skirmish that hung in the balance until the very end. Match of the Year? In my mind, you bet it was.
Women's Match of the Year
The obvious choice here would be the dynamic encounter between Kerber and Serena Williams in the final of the Australian Open. That battle was played brilliantly in the evening on Rod Laver Arena, delighting the fully engaged fans, bringing extraordinary things out of both players, leaving everyone in suspense until the very end. Kerber was victorious 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, deservedly taking her first major title in style despite a late match surge from Williams that would have deflated lesser opponents. I thought seriously about making this my Match of the Year for the women.
But, after much analysis and reflection, I picked the Williams-Kerber Centre Court clash in July at Wimbledon. To me, this was such a high quality collision that it had to be put right up there at the top of the list. It was an outcome that was determined in straight sets. And yet, the level of play on both sides of the net was so extraordinary that it was a singularly appealing match to me. Had Williams not been at her very best, the American would not have prevailed on the British lawns. In defeat, Kerber was stupendous. In the end, it came down to one break in each set for Williams, who gave her finest serving display of the year.
After Williams had held in the opening game of the match, Kerber was in jeopardy on her serve but wiped away three break points in a four deuce game to reach 1-1. Now both players settled comfortably into the match with Kerber dictating off her forehand and Williams garnering one free point after another on serve. At 3-3, Serena was extended to deuce after leading 40-15 but she held on steadfastly. Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Kerber was not found wanting, granting Williams only one point in that game. The top seed then served at 5-5, 15-30 but she released three un-returnable first deliveries in a row to hold on. Perhaps shaken somewhat by that clutch display from her adversary, Kerber was broken in the following game. Williams took the set 7-5.
The second set was fought just as hard by both competitors. At 3-3, Williams saved a break point—the only one against her in the match—with an ace out wide at 117 MPH. Another ace—this one at 124 MPH—lifted Williams to game point and she held for 4-3. Kerber moved to 40-15 in the eighth game but Williams propitiously made her move, sweeping four points in a row. Now serving for the match in the ninth game, Williams was letter perfect. Three consecutive unanswerable first serves took the favorite to 40-0 and then she eagerly came forward to put away a forehand volley into a wide open space. With that flourish at the end, Williams gained a 7-5, 6-3 to win Wimbledon for the seventh time and tie Steffi Graf for the "Open Era" record for women with 22 majors.
Match of the Year? From my point of view, it had to be Williams-Kerber on the fabled Centre Court.
Men's Coach of the Year
A case could be made for Ivan Lendl in this category. After reuniting with
Murray prior to Wimbledon, the old duo had another great run together, and undoubtedly Lendl's presence alongside his charge made a considerable difference in Murray's rise to No. 1 in the world.
Be that as it may, my Coach of the Year for the men is someone else, a man of a quiet dignity and deep knowledge who is happy to stay in the background and out of the media spotlight. Magnus Norman, however, was once more instrumental in helping Stan Wawrinka to realize another lofty goal. In 2014, the Swiss took his first major title at the Australian Open. A year later, he came through at Roland Garros. And then in 2016 he took a third different Grand Slam tournament title, winning the U.S. Open with a come from behind four set victory over Novak Djokovic.
Wawrinka has established himself in this span as a formidable front line player who knows how to bring out his best work on the biggest occasions. The way I see it, Norman must be saluted for the role he has played in guiding Wawrinka through the latter stages of the most prestigious tournaments, and helping the Swiss to believe in himself more than he ever did before. Norman reached a career high of No. 2 in the world and was a French Open finalist in 2000, but his coaching capabilities are even more far reaching and consequential.
Women's Coach of the YearTo be sure, 2016 was not a vintage season for Serena Williams. She had more than her share of setbacks and injuries, and suffered some hard disappointments. She lost her No. 1 ranking to a worthy rival in Angelique Kerber. She played only eight tournaments and took just two titles, finishing with a 38-6 match record. As was the case in 2015, she nursed her injuries after the U.S. Open and did not compete again following Flushing Meadows. But the fact remains that no one was more consistent at the majors than Williams, who won the biggest title of them all at Wimbledon, reached the finals of the Australian and French Opens, and got to the penultimate round at the U.S. Open.
That is why I say Patrick Mouratoglou is Coach of the Year. He put her in a position to win every major she played, and even if Williams came away with only one of them, Mouratoglou deserves immense credit for what she achieved despite all of her difficulties.
Most Improved Woman Player
This one goes to the explosive and gifted Karolina Pliskova She was ranked No. 11 at the end of 2015 and that was admirable, but in 2016 her rise up the ladder to No. 6 was immensely impressive. She reached her first major final at the U.S. Open and pushed Kerber to her limits before bowing in the title round contest. She led the Czech Republic to victory in the Fed Cup. She secured two singles titles on the WTA Tour. And she won 44 of 67 matches across a stellar season.
Pliskova has one of the most deceptive first serves in the sport, and that is why she serves more aces than anyone else out there in the women's game. She has an outstanding forehand, one of the best in her profession. She improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the season. Karolina Pliskova was an easy pick as the woman who made the most significant progress in 2016.
Men's Most Improved Player
A number of individuals—including Dominic Thiem and Zverev— could have earned this award, but unhesitatingly I choose the Frenchman Lucas Pouille. He finished 2015 at No. 78 in the world but climbed remarkably to No. 15 upon the conclusion of 2016. This 22-year-old Frenchman won an ATP World Tour 250 event in Metz, France over David Goffin and Thiem. He was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, toppling Juan Martin Del Potro there. He also got to the last eight at the U.S. Open, upsetting two-time former champion Rafael Nadal in a stirring five set showdown that was resolved in a tie-break. He was a semifinalist in Rome after qualifying. All in all, Pouille had a spectacular 2016 campaign, and no one is more worthy of this honor.