69, yes 69, Tennis Storylines for 2019
People are already starting to complain about the impending end of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic and sometimes Murray era. The doomsday articles and tweets about how the sport will collapse or become a melange of trash Next Gen stars with no personality are already out there. In an attempt to stem the tide, Forget the Protocol has assembled no less than 69 tennis storylines or subplots for you to pay attention to in 2019.
1.Will Djokovic continue to dominate? - This is the basic storyline of men's tennis. Novak Djokovic spent the second half of 2018 looking like his old self, winning two Slams and taking two Masters 1000 titles. Will this be another vintage Djokovic season, or will "Bad Djoker" return in 2019. I call my cat Bad Djoker when she doesn't say hi to me at the door.
2. Will a player emerge to dominate the WTA?
The main storyline of the 2018 WTA season was a continuation of the previous season's total unpredictability. The last eight Grand Slams have been won by eight different players. Simona Halep has spent almost the entire year at No. 1, but poor performances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open coupled with a herniated disk in her back left the second half of the season wide open. Will one of those players (Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber) emerge to dominate the sport? Can Halep go back to her early season form? Or could Serena Williams or an upstart like Aryna Sabalenka, both Slam-less in 2018, rise to dominate. Sabalenka has already won a title in 2019 in Shenzhen, so she could be on her way.
However, there are still too many good WTA players for this to happen. Anyone in the top 20, on her day, can produce No. 1-worthy tennis. It's fun to watch, but dominance seems unlikely.
3. Alexander Zverev: Legit or not?
This should be Alexander Zverev's year. The young German star is coming off a huge win at the ATP Tour Finals and has shown himself to be a contender in every three-set tournament. But the Slams have still been a nightmare for Zverev, and he will need to at least make a couple semifinals this year to break that trend.
4. Elina Svitolina: Legit or not?
Similar to Zverev, Svitolina won the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore to close 2018 and has been having big event success for the past two years. Svitolina has also had serious nightmares in Slams, most recently an awful third set bagel at the hands of Sevastova at the U.S. Open. Can Svitolina edge her way into a Slam final or even a title?
5. Should we be worried about Caroline Wozniacki?
The short answer is, yes. Caroline Wozniacki finally did it. She silenced the doubters and won her first career Slam at the 2018 Australian Open. She briefly re-ascended to No. 1 in the world in February and looked to be Simona Halep's main challenger at the top of women's tennis. Since she fell back to No. 2 in the world at the end of February, Wozniacki has been inconsistent. She lost early at Wimbledon, Montreal, Cincy, and the U.S. Open. She won a big title in Beijing without dropping a set, but suffered two disappointing losses in the round robin stage at Tour Finals. To start 2019, she was upset by Canadian 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu. It has not been a good six months for Wozniacki, and she must turn it around quickly to defend her points early in the season.
6. Is this the end of the Federer Era?
My friend Ben Goren went into this at length in this excellent 2019 season preview, but this does seem like the beginning of the end of Federer's time on tour. Last year's shabby play combined with his age and and health has left Federer fans worried that the end is near. You'd figure he'd at least wait to retire until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (or Basel of that year), but if his form drops significantly in 2019, who knows what will happen.
7. Will Rafa stay healthy?
Well, we have experienced this storyline every year this decade, so you should know what to expect. If he is healthy, he is the best player on tour. If not, he comes one step closer to hanging it up. The latest list of surgeries and repairs (knee, ankle surgery, abdomen) in 2018 are not looking good, but Rafa has always found a way back. But that can't last forever, right?
8. Naomi Osaka's rise to international stardom
After her brilliant win over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open, Osaka has been the subject of a media flurry. She has been signed to lucrative sponsorship deals with Nissan and Adidas. With her spectacular success and appeal in both the Americas and Asia, she seems poised to become the most marketable and internationally known women's tennis player since Serena. But can she handle the pressure in 2019? She already suffered three bad losses at the Tour Finals and another mediocre performance in the semifinals in Brisbane. Osaka's struggles are more mental than physical: we shall see whether she can maintain her rise to superstardom.
9. Is the Next Gen actually here this time?
For the entirety of this decade, the answer has been a resounding no. The likes of Raonic, Dimitrov, and Nishikori have failed to make consistent breakthroughs, and Zverev's generation has shown promise and more consistency but no big results other than Zverev's Masters titles. But that changed at the end of 2018 with Karen Khachanov winning the Paris Masters and Zverev's win at Tour Finals. If you add the impressive wins from Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Borna Coric in the second half of 2018, it's looking like that generation has finally arrived. With the Big Four still around, they are still dark horses to win any Slams, but these guys should really start cleaning up the 250s and 500s and could easily break through in a Masters event this year.
10. The mystifying play of Sloane Stephens
GOOD SLOANE: Made the French Open Final, won Miami, made a Premier 5 final in Montreal, runner-up at Tour Finals
BAD SLOANE: Lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the Aussie, three first round losses in the Asian swing, bad U.S. Open QF loss to Sevastova, somehow lost to Stefanie Voegele
I have no clue how Stephens' 2019 will go. She could win two Slams. She could fall down to No. 25 in the world. Likely, it will average out and she'll hang around the top 10, but she's on serious upset alert in Australia next week after a bad 6-4, 6-3 loss to Konta in Brisbane. Eating a bagel from Ekaterina Alexandrova is not good either.
11, 12 and 13: ATP ZOMBIE SZN
You thought Tomas Berdych was done? Not so fast. Berdych looked 90 percent up to his former glory in Doha, losing a close final to Bautista Agut and defeating three top 50 players. It's easy to forget Berdych was ranked as high as No. 13 last year before he got hurt and also made the quarters at the Australian. If NECROBERDYCH is back to anything close to healthy, he could be dangerous. Or he could continue to be Tomas Berdych.
The same goes for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who looked very good in his first three matches of 2018 in Brisbane. Tsonga is ranked No. 177 in the world and lost four of his five matches in his late 2018 comeback campaign. But those were all very close, and his performances against De Minaur and even the first set against Medvedev showed he's still a force to be reckoned with. Tsonga's going to need to work very hard to return to the top 50, but he's shown some signs of life.
The final ATP comeback we'll discuss here is that of Andy Murray, who has the worst injury of the trio. But Andy Murray is still Andy Murray, and while his days of reaching No. 1 in the world are probably gone, he can still play lights-out tennis if he's healthy. But he's not even close to healthy, and you have to wonder if he should've taken more time off last season rather than rushing back to make the U.S. Open. He'll get wild cards at any tournament he wants, but he is a long ways away.
14. BONUS WTA ZOMBIE SZN
It's incredible that Venus Williams made two Grand Slam finals in 2017 in her age 37 season. 2018 was not as kind. Venus failed to make a round of 16 in a Slam and was forced to take the entire Asian swing off due to injuries. She then dumped her longtime coach David Witt at the end of the year. Her last match in Auckland, a 6-7, 6-2, 6-1 loss to Bianca Andreescu (we'll talk about Andreescu soon) might be a harbinger of things to come.
15. Kevin effing Anderson
Kevin Anderson is 48-18 in the last 52 weeks. It seems like the only players capable of beating him are Federer, Djokovic, and Nishikori. He has obliterated everyone else in his way, winning another title in Pune to kick off his 2019 in style. He can't do it again, right? Is Kevin Anderson a legitimate major contender now? Is this the world we live in? Is this the world we want to live in?
16 and 17. WTA Czechs and Balances
Petra Kvitova was a presumptive Slam favorite for much of last season. She won five titles in 2018 across three different surfaces, but she failed to make any dent at the Slam level, including possibly the worst Wimbledon loss of her career in the first round to Aliaksandra Sasnovich (6-4, 4-6, 6-0!!!). After her unfortunate stabbing in late 2016 derailed her career, the two-time Wimbledon champ has been very impressive in her return, but also very streaky. Can she break through in 2019? Can she even defend all those damn clay points?
The other Czech knocking on the door of Slam contention is Karolina Pliskova, who basically decided to roll with the "John Isner" mentality in 2018 and paid the price for it. Pliskova has the firepower and the talent to return to No. 1 and win a Slam, but she needs to improve her return game and start coming to net. New coach Renee Stubbs should help with that.
18 and 19: The ITF Transition Tours
The lower levels of tennis have been completely revamped for 2019. It's very hard to explain, but gist of it is the days of low-level Futures Tournaments being worth real ATP points are gone. Now, we have the ATP and WTA Transition Tour, built to combat tennis match-fixing and provide more money to lower-level tennis, as well as an entirely new format for the ATP Challenger Tour. It's a byzantine system, complete with 2019 Shadow Rankings and two separate entry systems, but its long-term effects in professional tennis could be far reaching.
Just try to figure this video out:
Someone is definitely going to mistakenly enter in the wrong tournament, at some point.
20. John Isner's inevitable regression to the mean
John Isner had the best season of his career in 2018. After losing six of his first matches, he went on a 32-16 run, won a Masters 1000 and made the semifinals at Wimbledon. He kept it up in the U.S. Open swing, picking up a hometown title in Atlanta and making the quarters in New York. This cannot continue. Isner is going to start losing some of those tiebreaks, and his ranking should suffer accordingly. But if he can manage to string together some matches in big tournaments, something he has been notoriously bad at, he can stave off a decline. It's safe to say he's the most likely top 10 player to drop out of the upper echelon this year though.
21. How ugly is this going to get for Denis Shapovalov?
Denis Shapovalov was the next big thing at the end of 2017. 2018 saw inconsistency and a string of awful losses to straight-up bad players. Shapo was buoyed by an amazing run to a Masters semifinal in Madrid on his worst surface, but the bad losses and underlying numbers (1.01 dominance rating, yikes) tell a different story. It's going to be a struggle for Shapo to maintain seeded status at the Slams this year. A three set loss to Joao Sousa in Auckland on January 7th was not an auspicious start to the season. This could get ugly. He still hasn't turned 20, so things should be fine long-term, but I'm selling here.
22. But Bianca Andreescu!
Don't worry Canada, the next young Canadian star (they seemingly have an endless reserve) has announced her arrival to the tour in the first week of 2019. Bianca Andreescu, just 18 years old, defeated Wozniacki and Williams in Auckland, making the final and taking a set of Julia Goerges. We've seen fluky runs by teenagers at WTA tournaments before, but Andreescu may be something special. Or not. No one knows.
23. Enough of that, Amanda Anisimova is the next big thing in women's tennis
Actually, the brightest young star in North American tennis is 17-year-old New Jersey native Amanda Anisimova, who made a WTA final in Hiroshima late last season and kicked off this year with an upset win over Barbora Strycova. Anisimova is really damn good. That's all there is to it.
24. Obligatory Nick Kyrgios Storyline
Nick Kyrgios is still playing professional tennis!
25. Stan Wawrinka Back?
Again, maybe. Sometimes Stan looks like peak Stan from 2014-16. Other times, he looks completely washed. I expect 2019 to similar, with no deep runs in Slams due to lack of consistency.
26. Maria Sharapova?
Maybe should start thinking about retirement...See her while you still can, though! She is still capable of producing elite tennis for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, they are rarely strung together.
27. Aryna Sabalenka
I was tempted to make this the No. 1 story, but I realize to the general public, a relatively obscure Belarusian women's tennis player with one Premier 5 title and no Slam quarterfinals is not big news. But Aryna Sabalenka is THE TRUTH. She is the No. 1 player on Tennis Abstract's Elo ratings and is a legitimate contender to win the Australian. She also just won Shenzhen and hits the ball like a maniac.
All that remains for her is the grind of seven Grand Slam matches. Can she remain consistent with her uber-aggressive style and massive game? Can she keep playing a gazillion tournaments a year? Whatever the case, Sabalenka could very easily be No. 1 in the world by the end of July even if she doesn't have a good performance in Australia. She's that good. Buy stock. Buy! [NOTE: She lost in straights to Kvitova right after I wrote this.]
28. Maybe the next young hope is actually Anastasia Potapova
Potapova made two WTA International finals last year. She's only 17. She gets a direct entry into Australia. Could be interesting?
29. Kei Nishikori needs to make his push now
Kei Nishikori's run to the 2014 U.S. Open Final was four years ago. He turned 29 in December. Nishikori was ranked No. 9 at the end of the last year, but played like a top-five in the second half of the year. He's had a good run of form, the break should help him save energy physically, and he has always been able to trouble the greats on his day. But Nishikori is rapidly running out of time. His style of play will only suffer more on the wrong side of 30. There is a small window here, with Federer and Nadal hobbled and only Djokovic standing, where guys like Nishikori and Raonic can finally get the Slam title they've been desperate for. 2019 needs to be Nishikori's best season, or else he may never reach the heights his talent seems to warrant.
30. Marin Cilic needs to make his push now.
Replace everything in the previous paragraph with "Marin Cilic."
31. David Ferrer, don't leave us!
David Ferrer is retiring at the end of this year. He's already said he's done with Grand Slams, and his schedule has been confined to select tournaments and a homecoming in Barcelona or Madrid. But man, am I going to miss DAVEED...
The funny thing is, after he tearfully walked off the court at the U.S. Open this year, he's started to play some amazing tennis for a supposedly washed-up tennis player. He won a Challenger in Mexico, and then took a set of Zverev in Hopman Cup. He beat Pouille later that week and just crushed Robin Haase in Auckland. Maybe Ferrer could stick around, just a bit, at least for one more French Open, right?
32. Name that player:
This WTA player won 21 matches between September 10th and the end of the season, including eight top 20 wins, two Premier SF appearances, and a title. Has to be a big name, right? Wrong. It's Qiang Wang, who put together one of the most unexpected runs in recent history in 2018. Heading into the French, Wang was ranked No. 91. Now, she's knocking on the door of the top 20. Is this for real? I think so, but an early season loss to Alison Riske was not encouraging.
33. Kiki Bertens hours
Simple stuff here. Bertens went from being a clay court specialist to an all-court counterpuncher making deep runs in big tournaments. Can she keep it up?
34. Jelena Ostapenko is in a terrible slump
For a while, Ostapenko was not a one-hit wonder after her 2017 French Open win. She had a solid Wimbledon that year and stayed in the top 10 even after a terrible first round loss in her title defense in Paris. I mean, she made the Wimbledon semis in 2018, against admittedly awful competition, but still, a semi is no joke. But now she's inarguably playing like garbage. 6-0, 6-0 against Qiang Wang? Really? A 6-0, 6-2 loss to Monica Niculescu last week? Are you serious? She's dropped out of the top 20 and is poised to drop far further if she can't pull out of this.
35. Hard court Thiem, will it work?
For five sets against Rafa last year, Dominic Thiem looked like a competent hard court player. This year, he needs to maintain those big strides in his game. He really didn't do that after the U.S. Open last year, and he's started this year with an exhibition blowout loss to Hyeon Chung and a loss to Pierre Hugues Herbert, who is still not a real singles player. It's not looking good, folks.
36. Pablo Carreno Busta, top 10 player, is done right?
37. What can we expect from Serena Williams this year?
Nothing and everything. I think she's going to win at least one Grand Slam this year. But she won't play a long enough schedule to really make a season-long impact. Feel free to prove me wrong, Serena.
38. What can we expect from Simona Halep?
Nothing and everything. Halep should stay at No. 1 through the French with some passable results in the Sunshine Double and without any semblance of a consistent rival. However, Halep was really, really injured at the end of last year, and she also may have done something to her confidence/health by trying to play through it so much.
39, 40, 41: OLD GUYS!
Gilles Simon. Richard Gasquet. Fernando Verdasco. You've heard these names forever. Surely, they must be on their way out. NOT SO! They are all still in the top 30! They are still getting seeds at majors! Combined age of 101! They will never go away. They will all somehow make the round of 16 at Roland Garros.
42. An even older guy!
Ivo Karlovic just made an ATP Final at the age of 42. You can read my profile of Karlovic from last year. He's back, folks.
43. Angelique Kerber?
Kerber must be the least-talked about three-time major champion ever. Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati only won three majors. Kim Clijsters only got to four. Kerber is going to have a Hall of Fame career while basically never being third-favorite in any Slam. Maybe she can get a fourth this year too!
44. Caroline Garcia?
Could be good, could be bad. Probably waiting for clay.
45. Kyle Edmund?
Could be good, could be bad. Almost certainly not defending his Aussie semifinal.
46. Alex de Minaur?
Definitely good. Just look at this video. He might also just end up being the next Diego Schwartzman.
47. Stefanos Tsitsipas
Everyone's favorite wannabe vlogger turned tennis prodigy is lining himself up to be the next big European crossover tennis star. And yet, despite his flowing locks and perfect one-handed backhand, there are some major flaws with his game. His serve disappears at big moments. His conditioning and five-set ability are in doubt. He's only really done it for seven months. And yet, there's something intoxicatingly brilliant about Tsitsipas' game. He just looks like he should be in the top 5 by the end of the year, even if somewhere around No. 9 seems more likely.
48. Juan Martin Del Potro
The guy can't catch a break with injuries, and he's also on the wrong side of 30 now. This is not a good situation.
49, 50. Give me an over-ranked player, women and men:
Marco Cecchinato on the men's side for sure. The guy has virtually no hard court experience and is living off his French Open semifinal points.
On the women's side, you probably need to go with Elise Mertens at No. 16. She's about to lose a ton of points from her Aussie semi last year, and her record has been mixed since then. She's 3-10 against top 20 players last year, no titles, and two major R16s. She has two clay titles, but she didn't beat a single player in the top 50 in those runs.
51. American men's tennis?
Tiafoe is okay right now. Fritz arguably still has more potential but no consistency. Querrey is old and bad. Johnson is Johnson. Tennys Sandgren sucks and is about to fall back into Challengers, thankfully. Reilly Opelka is about to become the new John Isner to replace the old one. Jared Donaldson has disappeared.
52. Jack Sock?!?!?!?!
After having the worst season of anyone who has won a Masters title of all time, Jack Sock is ranked 105 heading into the Australian Open. He will likely need to play qualifiers at the Sunshine Double, and might disappear into doubles forever. American men's tennis, folks. Harrison might be doing the same thing soon.
53. Talk about Fab Fog for us
I'm not sure Fognini deserves his ranking of No. 13 right now, but he once again will feast in the South American clay swing and the regular clay season this year. For all his antics, Fognini has been steadily rising, and he's finally matching his clay success with decent hard court runs.
54. Is Muguruza ever going to be good again?
Muguruza's loss to then No. 202 Karolina Muchova in last year's U.S. Open was the single worst loss of any player men or women who had won a Slam in their career. Yes, worse than Fed/Millman. Muguruza has a long way to go before she's back to Slam-winning form. Her serve has desiccated, and her movement still looks tardy and unsettled. I'm selling stock.
55. Under-ranked man and woman:
I feel like Johanna Konta should be better than No. 37 in the world. She still has some game, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her back in the top 20.
56. INTERRUPTION: GENIE BACK???
Uh, yeah, Bouchard looked really, really good in Auckland and is definitely better than the No. 79 player in the world. She's still only turning 25 in 2019 and has a lot of career left. With her inconsistency, she's liable to lose to anyone, but she's a dangerous opponent for any seed in Round 1 in Melbourne.
57. Under-ranked man
The correct answers are Berdych, Wawrinka, or even Fritz, but I'll pick someone new and go with No. 84 Andrey Rublev. It hasn't been that long since Rublev made a Slam QF and played in the Next Gen Finals against Chung (who, by the way, is totally screwed next week).
58. Give me some men's doubles takes:
The Bryans are back, which means Jack Sock is going to need to win a Slam with Rajeev Ram or Jackson Withrow now. This should be Herbert/Mahut's year, honestly, unless we get a wonky team or Murray and Soares turn back the clock. McLachlan and Struff are also building some steam, but I don't believe in them one bit.
59. Women's doubles:
Krejickova and Siniakova won two Slams last year, but it's hard to say they are actually a significantly better team than Babos/Mladenovic, whom they lost to at Tour Finals rather convincingly. You could easily say the best doubles player in the world is Ashleigh Barty, who is too good at singles to have a regular partner and yet won a Slam last year anyway. Women's doubles is pretty much impossible to predict from year-to-year, but I'd say Barty is a near lock to win another title with someone...
60. Is Ashleigh Barty really good?
Yeah, she is! She doesn't have enough pure weaponry to become No. 1 in the world (in singles), but she's young and is one of the smartest players I've ever seen. A major semifinal at Melbourne or Wimbledon could be in the cards.
61-66: Challenger and WTA 60K City
In this section, we are only highlighting six interesting players who will start the year in Challengers/the WTA equivalent. Remember, Tsitsipas started 2019 playing in obscure French Challengers and then ended the year ranked in the top 15. You need to keep half an eye on those.
First up we have Ugo Humbert. Humbert has essentially graduated from the Challenger level at this point. From No. 381 to start 2018, the man has won an astonishing 73 matches in the last 52 weeks. He's played 81 matches in 2018 alone, and seemingly won't stop until he's vultured every hard court Challenger in existence. It's really hard to say whether Humbert's rise is just pure volume or actual skill. He has some real bad first round losses, and seems to lack confidence in big moments. But you can't argue with 73 wins across Challengers and Futures, and that serve is a huge weapon.
Next up we have the man next to Humbert in the rankings, Reilly Opelka. I've mentioned Opelka before, but he's pretty much a younger John Isner with an even better serve and a worse return game. Still, that should be good enough for the top 50 this year.
Finally, we're going to talk about Miomir Kecmanovic, the 19-year-old who finally scraped his way into the top 125. Kecmanovic was Junior No. 1 in 2016 and picked up a Challenger title late last year. He reminds me of Borna Coric, and frankly, more like a poor man's Borna Coric. Still, that should be top 100 worthy.
Aside from Potapova and Anisimova, I think Margarita Gasparyan, who has the best one-hander in the women's game, has the best chance to rise quickly from the primordial ooze in the lower tiers of the rankings. Gasparyan has two WTA titles and breached the top 50, but two years of injury have robbed us of her development. I expect her to make an impact fairly quickly.
Next, we are probably watching the end of Svetlana Kuznetsova's long and distinguished career. She's ranked No. 103 now, and it's hard to see her coming back for 2020. Maybe a miracle happens, but it's winding down for her.
Lastly, we have 16-year-old Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk, who became the youngest player to win an Australian open match since Martina Hingis last season. Good luck predicting how she'll play on a match-to-match basis. She's really good at tennis, though.
67. What even is the ATP Challenger Tour anymore?
So, every Challenger now has 48 players. The qualifying rounds, which sucked and were unwatchable anyway, are mostly gone, replaced by a tournament between good ITF Transition Tour players. In addition, there are now 16 seeds who all get byes, and all hotel expenses must be played. This means that players ranked in the 350s are now routinely getting first-round byes, which is hilarious. Unfortunately, we're nearing the death of my favorite occurrence, which is when career doubles players come out of singles retirement to loaf around in a singles match for like, 50 dollars. And sometimes, they won. With fewer qualifying spots to hand out, it's going to die. Random colleges also can't handout Challenger quali spots to their Nos. 3-7 spots either. What a shame. At least more Challenger players are getting paid, though.
68. When will there be a WTA Challenger Tour? Also, why is the Hopman Cup dying?
I have no idea. There's a serious problem, at least for me, the tennis purist, right now in tennis where the men's and women's games are growing further apart. The WTA dropping out of my Tennis TV subscription sucks. The ATP dropping the Hopman Cup and events like the Team Cup and Laver Cup going men-only sucks. This is the only major sport in the world where men and women share the spotlight, at least relatively equitably, some of the time (obviously we know there are still major inequalities).
There is very little reason for these two organizations to compete against each other for a relatively small pot of tennis investment money, especially when the joint aspects of the game are a boon for casual tennis fans. So, with the ATP and the federations pouring even more money into men's Challengers and giving HUGE perks like free housing, there seems to be little equivalent money going to expanding WTA $125ks and the mid-tier on the women's side. It's just another sign that the gender gap might start widening again in tennis.
69. I can't believe I actually made it this far. I'm talk about whatever.
Paolo Lorenzi is 37 years old and is back into Australian Open qualifiers. It appears we've reached the peak of Lorenzi, and he's going to recede into the dust and play Italian clay Challengers until his body disintegrates. If this is the end of direct-entry Paolo Lorenzi, we need at least one more Paolo face to close this article.
Farewell, sweet prince.