As we approach the heart of the holiday season, I hereby announce the winners of the Flink Awards for 2015. Enjoy this piece, and I will see you back here in a couple of weeks.
MAN OF THE YEAR—NOVAK DJOKOVIC
This was, of course, a remarkably facile selection. Novak Djokovic took over the game at the upper levels and distanced himself from everyone else with sweeping assurance, extraordinary self-discipline and even majesty. He is indisputably “Man of the Year” for 2015 because he was an overwhelmingly dominant force. The Serbian appeared in 16 tournaments over the course of his outstanding campaign, winning 11 of those events, collecting three of the “Big Four” championships, reaching the final of every major. He amassed a record six Masters 1000 titles on the ATP World Tour, something no one else had done in a single year. After losing to Ivo Karlovic in the quarterfinals of Doha in January, he never missed another final for the rest of the year. His 82-6 match record speaks for itself. The 28-year-old’s $21,592,125 in prize money was a hard earned reward for the ceaseless excellence of his play.
Djokovic did it all in 2015. He was a decidedly better and more polished player than the Djokovic of 2011, who also took three Grand Slam titles. In that superb season, however, he won ten tournaments and also lost only six matches, but faded physically and emotionally after the U.S. Open and never won another event in that stretch. Novak Djokovic in 2015 had in my view the second best men’s season of the “Open Era” which commenced in 1968. Only Rod Laver in 1969—who won his second Grand Slam that year— has outdone the Djokovic of 2015.
The Serbian commenced the campaign with seven Grand Slam titles in his collection but finished 2015 in double digits. Djokovic was impenetrable and, in his own way, imperious. Although he vented his rage periodically at stressful times—most visibly and demonstrably after seven set points eluded his grasp in the second set of the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer—Djokovic was a decidedly more mature individual on a tennis court in 2015 than ever before. He was a towering champion. In my view, he can take his game to an even higher level in 2016.
WOMAN OF THE YEAR—SERENA WILLIAMS
The year 2015 was a bittersweet experience for an African American woman who was on a historical mission unlike any other in her career. Serena Williams knew full well that the so-called “Serena Slam” she recorded in 2002-2003 was admirable but not nearly as arduous a task as winning all four majors in one year. Williams recognized she had a once in a lifetime opportunity in 2015 to establish herself as only the fourth woman and the sixth player ever to sweep the four majors in a single year and thus achieve an authentic Grand Slam.
Serena took the Australian Open at the cost of only two sets, rescued herself time and again to win no fewer than five three set triumphs in capturing the French Open, won Wimbledon despite being on the brink of defeat against Great Britain’s Heather Watson in the third round, and then made it to the penultimate round of the U.S. Open. She lost in startling fashion to the wily Italian strategist Roberta Vinci, and that was the last match she played all year. Serena was up a set in that match and also led 2-0, 40-30 in the final set but could not finish the task.
Williams won five tournaments in 2015 and was victorious in 53 of 56 matches, but her failure to win the Grand Slam was a devastatingly potent blow to her pride. All Williams needed to realize that overriding goal was to win one more set against Roberta Vinci and two against Flavia Pennetta, and yet nerves crippled her to some degree (her feet were frozen in the latter stages of her startling loss) and Vinci produced perhaps the biggest upset ever in the women’s game with a stellar performance. Nonetheless, for only the second time in her fabled career, Serena Williams captured three Grand Slam singles titles in a year, and that was more than enough to leave her in a class of her own as the Woman of the Year.
MEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR—BORIS BECKER
Some might contend that Stefan Edberg should be the recipient of this award. The Swede finished the second and final year of a brief and very successful alliance with Roger Federer by helping his iconic charge to reach the finals of the two most prestigious events in tennis at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Federer was No. 2 in the world for most of the year, and he won six tournaments across the season. Edberg’s contribution to the Swiss Maestro’s list of triumphs was not insignificant. He encouraged the 34-year-old to increase the constancy of his attacking game, to more assertively get up to the net, to exploit his skills more regularly in the forecourt.
To be sure, Edberg was a strong candidate for Coach of the Year. But my choice is Boris Becker. For a large chunk of 2014, I felt that Becker did not seem to have found his range in the coaching corner as he embarked on his quest with Djokovic. If Djokovic had not managed to fend off Federer at Wimbledon in five tumultuous sets to claim the 2014 title, he might not have survived in that post alongside Marian Vajda because the primary reason he was brought in was to make Djokovic a better big match player. Coming into the 2014 season, Djokovic was 6-6 in major finals but now, after the Serbian’s magnificent 2015, he stands at 10-8.
Becker has grown immeasurably into his role as a coach for the world’s top ranked player, and he must be commended for the leadership he has demonstrated. Djokovic lost only one match of consequence all year long, and that was his Roland Garros final round setback against Stan Wawrinka, who played an unconscious brand of explosive tennis and would have beaten anyone on that particular day in Paris. But, outside of that jarring defeat, Djokovic was unstoppable when it mattered. Becker grew by leaps and bounds in his crucial role. Boris Becker is surely Coach of the Year.
WOMEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR—PATRICK MOURATOGLOU
Too many observers overlook the fact that in 2015 Serena Williams did not coast through many matches at the majors. In fact, she struggled inordinately at times, especially at the French Open when she was stretched to three sets in all but two matches as she battled an illness. Williams had to work hard to succeed as frequently as she did, and to move within striking distance of the Grand Slam. The feeling here is that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was invaluable to Williams in keeping her as stable, strategically focused and as motivated as possible.
Mouratoglou’s influence over the last few years has been enormously beneficial to Serena. Her court awareness, tactical flexibility and strategic acumen have improved markedly over that time. But Williams was often vulnerable in 2015, physically and emotionally, at both the Grand Slam events and in many other tournaments as well. She needed extraordinary guidance and sound coaching, and do not underestimate Mouratoglou’s contribution to her cause.
He was surely the Coach of the Year in the women’s game.
MEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR—ANDY MURRAY
The logical choice for this award would clearly be Djokovic, for all the obvious reasons. But Djokovic is deservedly “Man of the Year” on my list, so this one goes to someone else who is entirely worthy of the honor. It goes to a man born one week before Djokovic back in 1987. He is an esteemed individual who finished 2015 as the No. 2 ranked player in the world, the first time he had ever realized that end of season feat. He is Andy Murray.
Murray’s range of accomplishments was both deep and wide. He won four tournaments on three different surfaces during the year, was a finalist at the Australian Open, and advanced to the semifinals of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. His record was stellar. But the main reason why I have selected Murray for “Player of the Year” is due to his Davis Cup heroics.
This formidable man played all four rounds for Great Britain, winning eight singles matches without a loss, adding three victories in doubles alongside his brother Jamie. His combined 11-0 record was a staggering feat. Almost single-handedly, Andy Murray propelled the British to their first Davis Cup triumph since 1936. That was a monumental achievement. He displayed immense character throughout the season, recognizing this opportunity for precisely what it was. Murray has now won the sport’s two biggest events—Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He has an Olympic gold medal in singles. And he has put the Davis Cup into his growing collection of surpassing feats.
Andy Murray: Player of the Year, 2015. He wears that label very well.
WOMEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR—MARTINA HINGIS
Like Novak Djokovic in the men’s game, Serena Williams could have been a good fit for this award. She was, after all, the preeminent player in the women’s game by a wide margin.
But I have chosen a woman who no longer plays singles, someone who won five majors on her own in the old days, a classy individual who has already taken her place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She is 35, and her dominance in doubles was astounding on a number of levels. Martina Hingis took ten women’s doubles titles in 2015, winning nine of those championships with Sania Mirza. Hingis joined Mirza to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She won 62 of 74 matches she contested in women’s doubles. Moreover, she swept three of the four majors in mixed doubles alongside the redoubtable Leander Paes.
Hingis delighted the galleries everywhere she went in 2015. Her exuberance every step of the way was inspiring. Her quick hands at the net were often astounding. Her insatiable appetite to succeed was strikingly evident to one and all who watched her compete so joyously and entertainingly. Martina Hingis is unhesitatingly my Player of the Year for the women in 2015.
SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR—NOVAK DJOKOVIC
Nearly every year, Roger Federer receives the Sportsman of the Year Award from the ATP because he is the most universally revered player in the game of tennis, man or woman. In my view, however, the leading sportsman in tennis this past year was undoubtedly Novak Djokovic. To be sure, he lost very infrequently in 2015. The fact remains that he suffered probably the single most penetrating defeat of his distinguished career at Roland Garros, falling in four sets against a blazing Stan Wawrinka despite taking the opening set.
That was the third time the Serbian had been ousted in the final of the French Open in a four year span. He was absolutely determined to become only the eighth man ever to pull off the coveted career Grand Slam, hoping to join Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal in that elite category. He was the heavy favorite to topple Wawrinka on that Sunday afternoon. But, instead, he was denied the prize he wanted so genuinely and planned for so meticulously.
Afterwards, Djokovic put his acute disappointment aside and reminded us all why he is the best loser of any champion in the sport. He stepped outside of himself and greeted the Swiss with unmistakable grace as they shook hands. He was noble during the presentation ceremony. In the press conference that followed, he refused to make any excuses and showered Wawrinka with well-deserved praise.
Both that particular day and all year long, the underappreciated Djokovic was the ultimate sportsman.
SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR—FLAVIA PENNETTA
This award goes to Flavia Pennetta. I have always liked the way she has presented herself on the court. She was an honorable competitor, treating her adversaries with the utmost of respect, fighting for her victories without sacrificing her character, playing the game the way it should be played. This Italian stylist was always deeply emotional and extraordinarily passionate about her athletic pursuits, but never at the expense of the person on the other side of the net, and seldom to a point where she lowered her lofty standards.
Her 2015 run to the U. S. Open title was the product of hard work, fair play, good luck and perhaps even destiny. In her 49th and final appearance, at a major, she was seeded 26th, but Pennetta upended 2011 U.S. Open victor Samantha Stosur, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, No. 2 seed Simona Halep and then countrywoman Vinci in the final. It was a fitting Grand Slam tournament farewell for the 33-year-old, who concluded her last year at No. 8 in the world.
Through it all, Pennetta was a credit to her profession, and an outstanding sportswoman.
MEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR— NOVAK DJOKOVIC VS. ROGER FEDERER, U.S. OPEN FINAL
Across the entire 2015 season, there were no classic five set contests played at the four majors. It was simply not one of those years. But there was a rivalry at the top that was showcased from the beginning to end of the season, indoors and out, on clay, grass and hard courts, in every conceivable setting. Djokovic and Federer collided an astonishing eight times, facing each other in the finals of the two premier events, meeting in the title round clash at the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals at the end of the year, testing each other comprehensively time and again. Djokovic was victorious in five of those eight showdowns, including the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. The tennis they displayed against each other was riveting. The crackling intensity of their confrontations was unlike anything else in the men’s game during the year.
I have chosen the U.S. Open final as my “Match of the Year”. It was not necessarily their highest quality duel. But the show they put on was stupendous in many ways, and atmospherically this was almost off the charts. The capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was overwhelmingly pro-Federer. They willed him on at every intersection, and treated Djokovic with an antagonism that at times bordered on disdain. It was as if the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds were contesting a Davis Cup match, and that made a big occasion even larger.
Djokovic halted Federer 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, but the match was closer than the score. Federer had 23 break points in the four pulsating sets, but he converted only four. Every set was hard fought and suspenseful. Djokovic took a hard fall when he was up a break at 2-1 in the opening set, and Federer struck back boldly. But Djokovic gained the decisive break at 3-3, cleanly driving a backhand pass down the line for a winner after Federer served-and-volleyed. Set to Djokovic, 6-4. Federer won 91% of his first serve points and was not broken as he took the second set 7-5.
The third set was pivotal. Djokovic broke early for 2-1, but lost his serve immediately. At 3-4, Djokovic rolled to 40-0 but had to save a couple of break points to get out of that game. He broke Federer in the ninth game despite a 40-15 lead for the Swiss. Djokovic held on in the tenth game from 15-40 down to move ahead two sets to one. When Djokovic opened up a 5-2, two service break lead in the fourth set, he seemed certain to close it out swiftly. But Federer broke back and then closed the gap to 5-4 with an inspirational surge, buoyed substantially by the partisan audience.
Serving for the match a second time at 5-4, Djokovic found himself down 15-40. There was an almost palpable electricity in the air as the crowd sensed the possibility of a stirring comeback for the Swiss. But Djokovic came through with an unanswerable second serve and an unreturnable first serve to reach deuce. Federer would not surrender in some tame and fatalistic fashion. He sent a searing backhand down the line for a winner to garner a third break point for 5-5, but once more Djokovic was unwavering, eliciting a sliced backhand error from the Swiss. He then closed out the account with two more first serves of impressive potency and accuracy, and Federer could not make the returns.
Djokovic got the job done in three hours and twenty minutes. He has played better in monumental matches, but his willpower and big point mastery was what carried him to a second U.S. Open by eclipsing his foremost rival of the year in the last Grand Slam championship of the season.
WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE YEAR—SERENA WILLIAMS- MARIA SHARAPOVA AUSTRALIAN OPEN
As was the case with the men in 2015, the women did not produce any epic encounters, and they had no classic confrontations. But, the way I saw it, the skirmish between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the final of the Australian Open was the best match of the season. Sharapova could have played no better, and yet her honorable effort did not yield even a set. The fact remained that she sparkled throughout the encounter.
In the opening set, Williams was overpowering, and her second serve returns were too much for the Russian. Williams bolted to 5-2, with two service breaks in hand. Sharapova stepped up ably in the eighth game to break Serena, but the American retaliated forcefully to seal the set 6-3. And yet, No. 2 seed was undismayed by the outcome of the opening set. She fought on gamely and found her range off the ground and on her returns across a tremendous second set. Even more importantly, Sharapova kept Williams at bay with some clutch serving. Both women served exceedingly well in that set.
In fact, these two unflagging competitors—the toughest of their time in the women’s game—raised the stakes considerably, and neither woman was broken in a magnificent second set. Ultimately, fittingly, disconcertingly for Sharapova, the match ended with Williams releasing an ace at 6-5 in the tie-break. She was a 6-3, 7-6 (2) winner, defeating her rival for the sixteenth time in a row. Williams was given a comprehensive test by an indefatigable woman, but in the end the world’s best player was too good when it counted, and her victory was richly deserved. The Williams-Sharapova collision was an appropriate way for the 2015 season to start, and it set a good tone for a year that more than delivered on its promise across the board in both the women’s and men’s games.