Companion piece to Part 1, featuring del Potro, Federer, Osaka and Halep
Marin Cilic won on the pristine grass of Queen’s in 2012, and went on to win 17 titles, among them the US Open in 2014. He picked up his first Masters in 2016, made his first Wimbledon final last summer—where blisters wrecked his chances against Roger Federer—and then made the final in Australia this year to reach a career-high No3.
However, while he had made three big finals in the last 12 months, and was playing some of the best tennis of his career, Cilic had not won a title. That was about to change.
His final opponent in a tough Queen’s draw, Novak Djokovic, had beaten him in 14 of their 15 matches, but the Serb was only lately recovering his form after a year of elbow problems, and he had seldom played a grass tournament before Wimbledon.
Now, determined to put behind him a disappointing and fiery exit from Roland Garros, Djokovic took a wild card to help get back on track on grass—and he reached the Queen’s final without dropping a set. Indeed it was as though Djokovic had never been away.
His quick footwork, precision baseline striking, clear tactics, and increasing willingness to move forward in the court, professed to his fine grass-court skill. And while Djokovic twice faced break points in the first set, and saw 17 winners whistle by, it was he who broke in a long 12th game to grab the set, 7-5.
The two men continued to go toe-to-toe in the second set, both striking big and clean from the baseline, and defending for their lives. Cilic saved match point in the 10th game: It went to a tie-break. Djokovic had dropped only one point in 24 first serves in the set, and now opened a 4-1 lead, but Cilic won six straight points and the set, 7-6(4).
In the decider, an increasingly tired Djokovic faced break point in the sixth game while Cilic seemed to have energy to spare, and broke for 5-3. He went on to serve it out to love, after almost three hours, 6-3.
For Djokovic, it was just the beginning. He went on to win at the All England Club, then at the US Open, picked up the complete set of Masters in Cincinnati, and ended 2018 as No1. And although for Cilic, Queen’s would remain his only tour title of 2018, it proved to be part of a significant season for Croatia. Hours earlier, Cilic’s young compatriot, Borna Coric, had beaten Roger Federer to win the Halle title—and together, the two men would end the year with the Davis Cup.
Simona Halep, back at No1, was putting together a wonderful season. The semi-finals in Doha and Indian Wells, the final in Rome and the title at the French Open showed her stamina, sticking power, and confidence.
Come the hard courts of North American, her tennis en route to the Rogers Cup title was outstanding, and the final against Sloane Stephens touted as the best match of the year.
So she entered Cincinnati on a nine-match winning streak having won 18 of her last 19 matches dating back to Roland Garros. She was after her fourth title of the year, and led her final opponent, Kiki Bertens, 3-1, that only loss coming on Bertens’ hitherto favourite, clay.
However, Bertens, who only just made the seedings at the Australian Open at the start of the year, showed just how much her big game had evolved after winning her first Premier in Charleston and then making the final in Madrid. She went on to reach her first Wimbledon quarter-final and the quarters at the Rogers Cup, scoring her first top-10 wins on hard courts in the process: Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova. Now in Cincinnati, she added Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina and Kvitova again, on her way to the ultimate test, a showdown with the world No1.
Halep broke in the very first game, and went on to serve out the first set, 6-2, in just half an hour. The 6ft Dutchwoman towered over the 5ft 6in Halep, but there was no disputing who towered over this final.
But the powerful Bertens was about to step things up, and after an early exchange of breaks, they headed to a tie-break, where the lead switched several times. Bertens faced match-point, 5-6, but saved it with a bold forehand, and her attacking play earned its reward: the set, 7-6(6).
Again in the third, they exchanged breaks, but Halep was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, bent double, buckling under the weight of Bertens’ shot-making and her own hard season. Bertens broke again, but Halep did not give up: She worked two break points, courtesy of a tweener reply to a lob. Yet it was to no avail, despite yet another break chance in the last game.
Bertens served out her victory, 6-2, after more than two hours, to claim not just her first hard-court title, but her first Premier 5 title. She went on to win a third 2018 title in Seoul, broke the top 10 in October—a first for the Netherlands—and went on to reach the semis at the WTA Finals, this time losing a close three-setter to eventual champion Svitolina.
Halep’s exertions would live with her for the rest of the year. She did not win another match, and suffered first-round losses at the US Open, Beijing and Wuhan before withdrawing from Moscow and the WTA Finals with a back injury—which opened the door for the No9 ranked Bertens.
Wimbledon would funnel a number of big 2018 stories into its second week.
Roger Federer started as No1 seed and defending champion, and as many people’s favourite to win the title again. As he headed into a quarter-final against Kevin Anderson, he had yet to break a sweat let alone drop a set or face a tie-break, and he had yet to drop a set or face a tie-break against Anderson in five previous meetings.
Meanwhile, Anderson was, at 32, enjoying the best form and ranking of his life. He made the finals of three of his first four tournaments in 2018, winning in New York, and proved his grass worth in a three-and-a-half-hour thriller against Gael Monfils to set his Federer challenge.
Their quarter-final would be noteworthy on both sides: Federer led 6-2, 7-6(5), and had match-point in the third, only to face a gritty, confident fight-back from Anderson to level, 7-5, 6-4. It marked the first time the Swiss had been broken at Wimbledon since last year’s semi-final, and with his serve and forehand beginning to weaken, Anderson stepped up the pressure.
Federer produced his only double fault of the match at 11-11 in the fifth to hand over the decisive break, and Anderson advanced after four and a quarter hours, 13-11.
Meanwhile, the No2 seed Rafael Nadal had also cruised to the quarters, not a set dropped, not a tie-break faced, but against the resurgent Juan Martin del Potro, that all changed. The Spaniard also faced five sets, a four hour, 48 minute test, 7-5, 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, That would prove a big burden to carry into the semi-finals.
And two days later, those matches would be outdone by the semi-finals. First Anderson took on John Isner to play the longest Wimbledon semi-final in history, a six-hour, 36 minute marathon featuring over 100 aces and a 26-24 fifth set to the South African, in a remarkable and high-quality battle.
But it meant the second semi would not start until 8pm, under the roof, and what a match it was between the most played rivalry in tennis history, a 52nd meeting between two former champions, Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
After three sets, the match was halted, to be concluded on final Saturday, also under the roof, after five and a quarter hours—edged by Djokovic 10-8 in the fifth.
The finalists converged on Sunday, with Anderson in his first Wimbledon final and carrying many more hours in his body than Djokovic. The Serb’s long months away from the tour with injury surely now reaped some reward: Not only was his mind fresh but his body had deep reserves. He would win his fourth Wimbledon, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6(3), in a compact two and a quarter hours.
For champion and runner-up, it was a momentous fortnight—of resilience, of self-belief, of new milestones. Of course, Djokovic would go on to win three more big titles, in Cincinnati, New York and Shanghai, and end the year at No1—the player of the year.
But Anderson, too, achieved a career-high No5, played the ATP Finals for the first time—making the semis—and won his first ATP500 title.
Meanwhile, Nadal played just two more tournaments before injury caught up with him in the semis of the US Open—against del Potro, as it happens.
Federer’s form blew hot and cold as he reached and passed his 37th birthday, but he would fall short of the semis in only one more tournament, the US Open, make the final in Cincinnati, and win Basel—leading Europe to the Laver Cup along the way.
Will we see the like again at any of the Majors in 2019? So many marathon tests of such quality concertinaed into the closing days, and featuring three of the greatest men ever to wield a racket? One can only hope.
None of the top four players in the draw and none of this year’s Major champions made it to the last playing of the WTA finale in Singapore.
The stresses and strains of the tennis year had caught up with Petra Kvitova, winner of five titles and 47 matches, while Naomi Osaka, champion in Indian Wells and the US Open, picked up an injury that forced her to withdraw. And Karolina Pliskova had piled on the matches since the US Open, winning Tokyo, and making the final in Tianjin. That work-rate began to tell in the semi-finals.
It came down to No7 Elina Svitolina, who owned more titles over the last two seasons—eight—than any other player, and No6 Sloane Stephens, who had reached four finals in one season for the first time in 2018.
And from the very first in Singapore, both showed they were in great mental and physical shape. Each brought superb movement and footspeed to the court, Stephens with a fluid all-court power and Svitolina with a nimble, explosive lightness that made her so hard to pass.
Both had played two tough three-setters in the round-robins, and both had battled through three-setters in their semis. Now, playing one another for just the fourth time, something had to give.
What did not give were their intensity and work-rate. Svitolina looked the more nervous—this was by far the biggest final of her career. Stephens, for her part, was clearly determined to come out firing. She got a quick break, and went on to serve out the set, 6-3.
After an exhausting 49 minutes, Svitolina left the court, but she came back in a more proactive state of mind, and broke in the fourth game, 3-1, only for Stephens to level.
Now Svitolina got her business face on, upped the pace, and ran Stephens ragged with precision and persistence. Two breaks and she had levelled, 6-2, and she went on to wrench a nine-minute game for 2-0 in the third, then a 10-minute hold, 3-0. Stephens got a second wind, and won eight out of nine points for 2-3, but she could not sustain it. Svitolina sealed the biggest title of her career, 6-2, after almost two and a half hours.
An appropriate finale, then, to Singapore, and to the women’s tour of 2018—opening the prospect of so much variety to come next year.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge