2020 Tennis: Breakthroughs and Comebacks

Sari Eisen

Sports fans were disappointed when all sports were shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of the summer, however, many sports began their slow return to normal, with players living in “bubbles” along with their coaches and staff who are tested for the coronavirus regularly. The nature of tennis has made this transition surprisingly easy. When you’re 78 feet away from your opponent, 6 feet is not an issue. The tennis season began with the Western and Southern Open in New York. This tournament is usually in Cincinnati, but running it from New York the week before the US Open allowed players to stay in the same place for a few weeks, for their safety and their sanity. The players then played in their first major tournament since January, the US Open. 


Several players decided to hold off playing until later tournaments in order to stay healthy. It was a pretty good choice, I would say, not to come into the US in our current state. Former champions Bianca Andreescu, Ashleigh Barty, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer all chose to withdraw, alongside other highly-ranked players including Simona Halep, Nick Kyrgios, Elina Svitolina, and Kiki Bertens. Also, US Open officials disqualified 3-time winner Novak Djokovic during his fourth-round match after his ball inadvertently hit a lineswoman. 


With these major stars out of the way, up-and-coming young players got a chance to grab the spotlight. Jannik Sinner, a 19-year-old from Italy, has begun to show himself in recent matches. Although he lost in the US Open first round to Karen Khachanov, the match was very close and Sinner did not let his opponent off easy. Sinner went onto the Italian open in mid-September to beat Benoit Paire and 3rd seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, before losing to Grigor Dimitrov in the third round. Most recently, Sinner has proven his persistence even more in the French Open. Up until his quarter-final loss to 12-time champion Nadal, Sinner only lost one set in the whole tournament. 


Additionally, one young player has made quite a breakthrough on the women’s side recently: Iga Świątek of Poland. The 19-year-old is off to her first major final in the French Open against Sofia Kenin. Świątek already defeated French Open 2018 and Wimbledon 2019 champion Simona Halep of Romania, and breezed her way through the semifinal against Nadia Podoroska. Very few women of Świątek’s young age have made it this far in a major tournament. And while this is her first Grand Slam final, Świątek pushed her way to this year’s Australian Open fourth round, where she was defeated in three sets by Annett Kontaveit. 


In addition to young players pursuing their career breakthroughs, several veteran players have made recent comebacks. Among these are Andy Murray of Great Britain and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. Murray, 3-time grand slam winner who had announced his injury-driven retirement back in 2016, made a quick return to the court in 2018, but a full return this year, where he was selected as a wild card seed for the Western and Southern Open. He made it to the third round of that tournament and continued on to the US Open’s second round and French Open’s first. While Murray hasn’t won any titles since his return, his fans are hopeful that he will reach the level of play he showed before his injury. Azarenka, on the other hand, sprinted her way to this year’s US Open final against Naomi Osaka, defeating 23-time major champion Serena Williams along the way. After giving birth to her son in 2016, Azarenka hasn’t been seen in the final stages of a tournament in quite a while. Her comeback remains especially notable because she is among few players who have returned to the circuit after giving birth to a child. 


While football and basketball may present significant problems with coronavirus outbreaks, tennis remains a relatively safe sport. Current players have been stricken with boredom due to their tournament “bubbles,” but hopefully that’s the worst thing they have to endure.