What was your favorite tennis moment from 2018?
JANE VOIGT – @downthetee
Nothing beat the fourth-round match between 20-year-olds Naomi Osaka and Aryana Sabalenka at the U.S. Open. Osaka withstood a thundering three-set effort from the year’s It Girl at the most optimal time in Osaka’s career.
The win defined Osaka in a way that elevated her worth on tour, announcing a new Naomi who could bear down and create out-of-the-ordinary tactics while progressing from point to point without succumbing to what seemed to be an always-lurking negativity that dashed hopes at previous majors.
Osaka, seeded No. 20, and Sabalenka, seeded No. 26, had never met before. “I knew she hits really hard, and she has a good serve,” Osaka said after the match when questioned about her game plan. “[I knew] she would attack my second serve. I was just trying to weather the storm. If I had chances, try to do something with the ball.”
The third set was a gem, the best tennis fans can expect, with both players in full-out aggressive mode. Sabalenka served from behind. Down three game points at 2-3, she ran off five consecutive points to even the score. At 4-5, and down three match points, she edged ever-so-close to an upset, at 40-40. But here’s where Osaka’s it moment burst onto the scene. She funneled her frustration and fought on the next two points, converting her fourth match point. Before the two reached the net, Sabalenka had thrown her racquet to the side chairs and Osaka had begun to cry.
Osaka overcame her propensity to slip into her darker mental side through perseverance, a quality that champions cherish and exercise in moments like this one. Osaka experienced such a moment for the first time that Labor Day. She was so determined, she told ESPN afterward, she was willing to “break a leg… to get to balls.”
There is a well-worn trend that follows monumental matches, though. The winner disappears in the next round, mentally and physically bruised from a blowout win. Not so for Osaka. She defeated Lesia Tsurenko, 6-1, 6-1, Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-4. In the final, Osaka took out the queen, Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4. The fourth-round win over Sabalenka was the only round that pushed Osaka to three sets. However, it was the defining win of her career and this year’s U.S. Open.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
I have been a longtime believer in (and fan of) Simona Halep, mainly due to her work ethic and high IQ when it comes to on-court tactics. Hence, you can imagine why I would choose June 9 and Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros as my favorite moment of 2018. After several heartbreaking losses in majors, and her mental toughness being repeatedly questioned, seeing Simona lift the trophy following her three-set comeback victory over Sloane Stephens was a delightful experience for anyone who has followed her path closely over the last several years. The way she managed to turn that match around after being outplayed in the first set was nothing less than impressive, and in some unfortunate way, it overshadowed her stellar sequence of wins leading up to that Saturday.
She began the second week by dominating an in-form Elise Mertens in the fourth round (6-2 6-1). I chronicled that match here.
Then, in the quarterfinal against Angelique Kerber (do I need to remind anyone of their unforgettable semifinal encounter at the Australian Open a few months earlier?), Halep recovered from a terrible start (0-4) and a disappointing tiebreaker in the first set to play a couple of clean sets to earn the victory (6-7, 6-3, 6-2). I evaluated that match here for Tennis With An Accent. Then, in the semifinal against Garbine Muguruza, she survived a slow start (2-4) in the second set, winning 6-1, 6-4.
I am not sure if a week qualifies as a “moment,” therefore I choose Simona lifting the trophy on that Saturday as my favorite moment of 2018, but as an ex-player and coach, I would put that whole second week of Halep on the same pedestal as that final match.
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
Halep d. Stephens, Roland Garros final.
Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki had both entered 2018 as members of an exclusive club not many players wish to belong to — players who had held the No. 1 singles ranking and not yet won a major title. In January the two women faced off in the Australian Open final, and Wozniacki came through in a high-quality but grueling three-set battle. It was Halep’s third defeat in a major final: Last year at Roland Garros she was a heavy favorite against Jelena Ostapenko, but she allowed a set lead and break advantages in both the second and third sets to slip away.
This year she again reached the French Open final, but found herself staring down the barrel of a set-and-a-break deficit to Sloane Stephens. It was Halep’s turn to rewrite the script this time. Consistency, conditioning and sheer bloody mindedness paid off with a 6-1 victory in set three. Stephens’s final return in the net was greeted by a roar from the Paris crowd and a yelp of delight by this fan in Houston.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
When the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics to win the 1985 NBA Finals, the Lakers finally won their first NBA championship series against the Celtics after losing each of the previous EIGHT meetings between the two storied franchises, dating back to 1959.
Then-Laker owner Jerry Buss caressed the NBA championship trophy as he told a worldwide television audience, “This has removed the most odious sentence in the English language: It can never be said again that the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics!”
The Laker locker room roared. A 26-year period from 1959 to 1985, marked by failure and frustration, dissolved into complete exultation and ecstasy. A burden had been lifted. A cloud had been removed. The Lakers would never have to sleep the uneasy sleep of a team which couldn’t overcome the one obstacle it dearly wanted to conquer. After years and years of chasing a dream and trying to dispel a foremost demon, a bunch of athletes did exactly that.
In tennis, a team doesn’t chase these dreams or try to kill its demons. Yes, there is a team of coaches and trainers and support staff, but the tennis player walks her (or his) journey fundamentally alone on the court. The athlete in the arena bears the burden at a level no one else (with the possible exception of a parent) can match.
The most odious sentence in the English language for tennis players is this: “She (or he) is the best player never to have won a major.”
The sentence is a big, black cloud which hovers over a player’s career until it can be chased away.
In 2018, two players – after periods of waiting which were roughly as long as the period the Lakers needed to finally beat the Celtics – finally removed that most odious sentence from their careers in tennis.
Caroline Wozniacki waited 27.5 years to finally win her first major. Simona Halep waited 26.7 years to win her first major.
It can never be said again that they are the best women’s tennis players never to have won a major. Those are always my favorite tennis (and golf – hello, Sergio Garcia!) moments. They were my favorite tennis moments in 2018.