2018 can be termed the ‘year of Nole’ as Novak Djokovic won two out of the four Grand Slams to take his tally to 14 majors -- three behind Nadal and six behind Federer. With Federer and Nadal also winning a Slam apiece, it was a clean sweep for the Big Three. Having broken a Grand Slam drought that lasted more than two years, the revitalised Serb is hot on the heels of his two great rivals and looks to be the man to beat next season.
The year started with Federer defeating Croatia’s Marin Cilic in a five-set epic to clinch the Australian Open. The Swiss maestro defended his 2017 Oz Open crown and added the 20th Grand Slam to his cabinet, extending his own all-time record. Federer subsequently decided to skip the clay court season including the French Open to prepare for his title defence at Wimbledon.
Having finished 2017 at no. 1, Nadal returned to his favourite surface at Roland Garros, winning a record 11th French Open title on clay. The Spaniard had breezed through his opening four matches without dropping a set - bettering his own personal best at the tournament by winning 37 consecutive sets - falling just short of Bjorn Borg's all-time record of 41 when he lost the opening set of his quarter-final clash against Diego Schwartzman. He beat next-generation star Dominic Thiem of Austria in the finals to lift the trophy.
Returning from a six-month injury lay-off, Djokovic crashed out early in the first two Grand Slams. The Serb lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to South Korea’s Hyeon Chung who went on to reach the semi-finals against Federer before retiring in the match due to blisters.
In the French Open, Djokovic lost in the quarter-finals to Marco Cecchinato of Italy, who had never won a Grand Slam match in his career before Roland Garros. Cecchinato became the first Italian in 40 years to reach a Grand Slam semi-final.
Coming into Wimbledon, Djokovic stormed into the semis where he set up a clash against old foe Nadal. It turned out to be the match of the season with Djokovic edging past Nadal in a marathon five-setter 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8 which extended across two days. The 5 hour 17 minutes epic was the second longest Wimbledon semi-final ever.
Remarkably, the longest had taken place just a day earlier when South African Kevin Anderson outlasted American John Isner after 6 hours and 36 minutes, winning the final set 26-24. Anderson had earlier stunned Federer in the quarters, coming back from two sets down and saving a match point in the third set. The final was an anti-climax, with Djokovic beating Anderson in straight sets to clinch his 13th Grand Slam title.
At the US Open, Djokovic struggled initially as he took four sets to see off his opponents in the first two matches before setting up a semi-final encounter with Japan’s Kei Nishikori. He went on to win his 14th career Grand Slam drawing level with Pete Sampras by defeating Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the final. After a terrific start to the year, Federer ran out of steam, suffering a shock fourth-round defeat here to John Millman.
Nadal’s season was marred by injury, ending prematurely with the Wimbledon semi-final loss to Djokovic. He was also forced to retire in the fifth set of the Australian Open quarter-final against Marin Cilic.
Nadal recorded his highest win percentage of the year in 2018, winning 91.8% of his matches. He led the ATP rankings through most of the season but was overtaken by Djokovic after the conclusion of the Paris Masters, which the Spaniard had withdrawn from.
Next-gen to watch out for
Alexander Zverev stole the show at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals as he became the youngest champion in London since Djokovic, who won it a decade ago. The 21-year-old Zverev also had the most number of wins this season with a win-loss record of 58-19.
Dominic Thiem is being seen as the heir to Nadal’s dominance on clay after reaching the finals at Roland Garros. Nadal praised the 25-year-old Austrian and said he has the potential to win the French Open title in the coming years.
Kei Nishikori had a good run after returning from a career-threatening injury that kept him away from the tour for five months. The 28-year-old Japanese finished the year at no. 9 in the ATP rankings after having made it to the US Open semifinals.
Stefanos Tsitsipas won the 2018 Next Generation ATP Finals after Alexander Zverev withdrew from the tournament due to his participation in the ATP Tour Finals the following week. With a career-high ranking of no. 15, the Greek is a player to watch out for in the upcoming seasons.
Nick Kyrgios is generally surrounded by controversy with his on-court behaviour but he made a great start to the year by clinching the Brisbane Open at home. Though the Australian is ranked no. 35, he has the potential to cause upsets if he can improve his temperament on the court.
Change in formats
Davis Cup 2018 saw a new format being introduced for the Group I and II zonal events, with ties being played as best-of-three sets over the course of two days. The format will be further
overhauled next year with all ties reduced to three best-of-three sets matches -- two singles and one doubles -- played on the same day, culminating in a season-ending 18-team tournament at a neutral site. Croatia won the 2018 Davis Cup by defeating France 3-1.
Both Wimbledon and the Australian Open will be introducing fifth set tie-breakers next year. While Wimbledon will feature the tie-breaker at 12-12 in the final set, the Australian Open will have it at 6-6. The tie-breaker in the deciding set in Melbourne will also be a first-to-ten points version.
With the veterans in no hurry to step out of the limelight, 2019 could again see Djokovic and Nadal -- and perhaps even Federer -- dominating the circuit and extending their rivalry. The next-gen stars can cause upsets but are they ready to take centre stage and dethrone the troika? We'll find out soon enough when the Australian Open kicks off in January.