Back in January, Juan Martín del Potro was ranked No. 1,041 and Maria Sharapova had just reached the quarterfinals of another Australian Open, with all of her sponsors in tow.
Only a time traveler could have predicted then that del Potro would finish the season Sunday on the highest note possible and that Sharapova would finish it with no ranking at all after being penalized and suspended for using the newly banned drug meldonium.
It was that kind of tennis year: an uncommon brew of the deeply troubling and the deeply reaffirming.
There were concerns about widespread match-fixing, particularly at the game’s lower professional levels. All too aware of the credibility crises afflicting the global governing bodies of soccer and track and field, tennis’ leaders agreed under duress in January to authorize an independent review of the sport’s integrity and make the exceptional commitment to adopt all of the review panel’s recommendations when they are issued in 2017.
There was also concern about tennis’ less-than-exemplary antidoping efforts in the past and about the leadership and structure of its current antidoping effort.
“Sport really is a very simple business model,” said Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of ATP, in a recent interview. “It relies on caring who wins over someone else, and it has to be real.”
Keeping it real, or more precisely keeping it fair, has proved quite a long-running challenge for the sports world. Tennis, one of the most international games, has not been immune, but there was ample evidence in 2016 that the game’s power brokers were at least communicating more regularly — even weekly — about solutions.
“Sometimes you need something like this to make that happen,” Kermode said, referring to the match-fixing allegations.
There was also plenty of evidence that people — for now — still cared who won and who lost.
Angelique Kerber’s unexpected rise to Australian Open champion, U.S. Open champion and world No. 1 made her a genuine star in Germany. Monica Puig’s stunning gold medal in singles at the Summer Olympics in Rio led to an island-wide celebration in her homeland, Puerto Rico. Andy Murray’s best season yet — nine titles, including an Olympic gold in singles — took him to a new level in Britain and in the rankings, where he edged past Novak Djokovic and became the last member of the supergroup known as the Big Four to reach No. 1.
A prominent member of that group, Roger Federer, had an injury-marred season in which he played little and dropped out of the top 10, generating both old-fashioned hand-wringing and newfangled social media angst.
But no one produced raw emotion quite as effectively as del Potro, the great lost talent of the men’s game who somehow returned to prominence in the second half of 2016 even without the big-bang backhand that was once quite an acoustic complement to his thunderous forehand.
Del Potro made his first unexpected move by upsetting Stan Wawrinka in the second round of Wimbledon; made another in upsetting Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to a silver medal in singles in Rio; and then capped it all by leading Argentina to its first Davis Cup title after a 93-year wait.
Argentina had to win all four of its matches on the road in 2016. In the semifinals, del Potro upset Murray in a five-set, five-hour classic in Glasgow, Scotland. In the final, del Potro won both of his singles matches in Zagreb, Croatia, defeating Ivo Karlovic on Friday and then rallying from a two-set deficit in singles for the first time in his career to defeat Marin Cilic in five sets on Sunday.
After beating Cilic, which leveled the final at 2-2, del Potro was in tears and pointed to his chest to indicate that his heart had played as critical a role on Sunday as his post-operation wrists. He might also have pointed to his left pinkie finger, which he broke in the fifth set while blocking a missed Cilic serve with his hand.
“I don’t know much about fingers, but when it comes to wrists, I can tell you plenty,” del Potro said after his lesser-known teammate Federico Delbonis had beaten Karlovic in straight sets to secure the 3-2 victory for Argentina.
Davis Cup has lost its mojo in the United States, the nation that founded the competition in 1900, but it remains a shiny object of great desire in some other tennis nations.
Consider the beginning of a front-page story in Argentina’s La Nación newspaper after Sunday’s victory: “This was at the same level as the great conquests of Argentine sport, up there with the World Cups of soccer in 1978 and 1986, the gold medal in basketball at the 2004 Summer Olympics and the five world championships won in Formula One by Juan Manuel Fangio.”
That must sound like hyperbole to the many North Americans, but the cheers from the sizable Argentine contingent were loud, clear and real in sold-out Arena Zagreb, which had many wondering why the International Tennis Federation, which runs the Davis Cup, is considering a shift in format for 2018.
Instead of having one of the finalists host future finals, the ITF would select the site well in advance — Super Bowl style — in an attempt to help visibility, planning and, above all, revenue (successful bidding cities would presumably pay a rights fee).
Prominent players, including Djokovic and Cilic, oppose the change, fearing it will rob the event of its unique atmosphere. The move requires approval from the ITF’s member nations next year, but David Haggerty, ITF president, said Monday that if a change is made, preserving a partisan atmosphere is a top priority.
“What would keep me up at night is making sure I in no way hurt the history and heritage that makes Davis Cup so different,” he said in a telephone interview from Zagreb.
To that end, ITF marketers are using the term “fixed final” instead of “neutral final” to describe the change.
“Because it could be in a country that is in the final, and if not, it could be in a country where you still have a home nation and an away nation,” Haggerty said. “Say we were in London, and Croatia was the home team. It could have choice of court surface and ball, and we could also give them what a home nation would have in terms of ticket allocations to try to replicate what happened in Zagreb with thousands of fans from Argentina traveling here.”
Champions League finals and World Cup finals — often played with both teams far from home — typically do not lack for nationalistic fervor. But the unknown has long been disproportionately scary to tennis officials.
“The tennis world doesn’t like change but then says we have to change,” Haggerty said. “Nothing is decided but I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I weren’t trying to look at ways to improve events. I’d rather make decisions based on facts and a hard look at where we are rather than saying, ‘Jeez, what a great final! Let’s forget it.'”
Come what may, it was indeed a great final as well as a crescendo finish to a tennis year that had no shortage of downbeat moments.
No shortage of big surprises, either, with Sharapova and del Potro setting the tone.