Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2008 men's tennis season was full of highlights, but the biggest ones were provided by Rafael Nadal, who halted Roger Federer's five-year reign at Wimbledon and supplanted the mighty Swiss atop the rankings, a perch Federer owned for a record 4 1/2 years without interruption.
Nadal was easily the ATP player of the year, posting a brilliant 82-11 record and piling up a tour-best eight titles. Three of his championships came at three of the sexiest events, as the lefty captured his first-ever Wimbledon title by stunning Federer, secured a fourth straight French Open crown by besting Federer in the final for a third straight year, and also won Olympic gold at the Summer Games in Beijing. He became the first-ever male to win those three events in the same year, and did it on three different surfaces.
Rafael Nadal replaced Roger Federer as the new No. 1 and tallied championships at Wimbledon, the French Open and the Olympic Games.
So much for him being a one-trick (clay) pony.
FYI, Nadal became the first lefthander to win at least 80 matches in a season since Thomas Muster turned the trick in 1995, and only the third player this decade to win at least 80, joining Federer, who did it in 2005 (81 wins) and 2006 (92), and Lleyton Hewitt (80 in 2001).
The five-time major champion Nadal posted the biggest win of his career by outlasting Federer in arguably the greatest men's final in the history of Grand Slam tennis. It was practically dark at the All England Club when Rafa finally finished off the super Swiss, who fought back from two-sets-to-love down to force a fifth and deciding set, which Nadal ultimately pulled out to capture the world's most prestigious tennis tourney and halt Federer's amazing grass-court winning streak at 65 matches. A series of rain delays also played into the drama at SW19, which wound up staging its longest-ever final that day.
The 22-year-old Rafa became the first Spaniard in 42 years (Manuel Santana in 1966) to reign supreme at Wimbledon, and also became the first man to capture the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year since Bjorn Borg back in 1980. The iconic Borg won Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year on three occasions.
Things were a bit less dramatic for Nadal at Roland Garros, where he battered Federer in straight sets to become only the second man in the Open Era (since 1968) to rattle off four straight French Open championships. The only other man to win four consecutive French Open titles in the Open Era was Borg.
Nadal cemented his No. 1 status by dominating Federer with four wins in as many tries in his great 2008.
Rafa also captured three Masters Series events this year and was the runner-up at two other tournaments, as he appeared in 10 finals all told (8-2). All these accomplishments helped him become the first-ever Spanish year-end No. 1.
The fiery southpaw wound up with over $6.77 million in prize money in '08 and saw his career take eclipse $20.75 million.
That's some serious cake (unless, of course, you compare him to Federer).
Unfortunately for Nadal, a knee injury and fatigue forced the Mallorcan star from competing at the exclusive Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and the Davis Cup final between his victorious Spanish teammates and host Argentina in Mar del Plata.
Roger Federer won his 13th major title by capturing the U.S. Open for a fifth straight year.
Let's move on to Federer, who sat atop the rankings for a record 237 consecutive weeks before falling behind Rafa.
FYI, Pete Sampras holds the record for weeks at No. 1, with 286. He just didn't do it in consecutive fashion.
As far as Roger is concerned, he had what you would have to consider another great season, it just wasn't great for him if you compare it to his previous campaigns.
Roger settled for just one Grand Slam title, which came at the U.S. Open, where he became the first man in the Open Era to capture five straight titles in New York. He currently owns 13 major championships, which leaves him just one shy of Sampras' record haul of 14. Most "experts" assumed that Federer would break or tie Pete's record in 2008, but players like Nadal and Novak Djokovic kept that from happening. Djokovic stunned Federer in straight sets in the semifinals at the Australian Open, and he gave way to Nadal in both the French Open and Wimbledon finals.
Still, the exquisite Swiss has won at least one major title six years running, was the only player to perform in three Grand Slam finals this year, and is the only player in the history of the sport to reach 18 straight major semis.
The 27-year-old Federer posted a 66-16 record in 2008, including a mere (for him) four titles on his way to $5.88 million in prize money. The sweet- swingin' Swiss already holds a number of tennis records, but perhaps none is bigger than his career prize money one, as he surpassed Sampras this year to become the sport's all-time money leader.
Federer currently stands at just over $44.59 million.
In addition to his Wimbledon setback, the 57-time ATP titlist Federer also lost his two-year hold on the Masters Cup title, which went to Djokovic, who is only a few points behind the Swiss superstar for the second spot on the ATP rankings list.
Federer, who battled mono in the early part of the year, wound up going 4-4 in his eight finals this season, with all four losses coming against...who else...Rafa.
In the category of consolation prize for Federer, he failed to claim singles gold in Beijing, but he paired with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka to bring home the doubles gold from China. The "big" titles that have eluded Roger's grasp, thus far, are the French Open, Davis Cup and an Olympic singles championship.
Novak Djokovic broke through with his first major title and capped his fine season with a Tennis Masters Cup crown.
The "Big Three" in men's tennis has actually turned into the "Big Four," if you ask me, as Rafa, Roger and Djokovic have been joined in the upper echelon by quality Brit Andy Murray.
Federer still believes that he and Rafa are the players to beat on the men's tour, but Djokovic and Murray have basically proven otherwise.
The 21-year-old Djokovic had a solid '08 campaign, going 64-17, including four titles in seven finals.
The steady world No. 3 Serb captured his first-ever major by running the table at the Aussie Open, including the huge victory over Federer in the semis, and capped his season by capturing his first-ever Masters Cup crown. He also claimed a bronze medal in Beijing, and reached semifinals at the French and U.S. Opens.
That's some serious tennis.
But the Djoker's certainly going to have to do better against Nadal, as he's 4-10 lifetime against the Spaniard, including a 2-4 mark this past season.
Djokovic pocketed just under $5.7 million this year and has tallied just over $10.5 million since turning pro back in 2003.
Fiery Andy Murray landed in the U.S. Open final and has joined tennis' elite.
As for Murray, the 21-year-old Scotsman crossed the '08 finish line with a 58-16 record, including five titles in six finals. His only loss in a final came at the U.S. Open, where Federer beat the Brit, who was playing in his first-ever major finale.
Murray's biggest titles came at Masters Series events in Cincinnati and Madrid. And he went 3-1 for the year against Federer to improve to 4-2 lifetime against the former No. 1, including a victory in round-robin action at the Masters Cup, where Murray was playing for the first time and knocked Federer out of semifinal contention with an almost-predictable win.
Murray also had a winning record against Djokovic (2-1), but went just 1-3 versus the muscular Nadal. Fortunately for Murray, his lone victory against Nadal came in the semis at the U.S. Open.
The fourth-ranked Dunblane native went over $3.7 million in prize money for the year, easily his best season since turning pro in 2005, and played like a future No. 1 over the last four months of 2008.
Will Murray ever reach No. 1?
I'm sayin' yes.
Speedy world No. 5 Russian Nikolay Davydenko enjoyed another fine season. In addition to being cleared in an ATP investigation into a gambling accusation from 2007, the Russian went 56-21 and won three titles while reaching five finals, including a trek into his first-ever Masters Cup finale, where he ultimately fell to Djokovic.
The 27-year-old Davydenko notched his biggest championship at the so-called "Fifth Major" in Miami, which marked only his second-ever Masters Series title. He upset a heavily-favored Nadal in straight sets in the final in south Florida.
Davydenko also surprised the surging Murray in the semifinals at the Masters Cup.
Surprisingly, however, the gritty Russian star failed to reach even one Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time since 2004.
Aussie Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is France's best right now and appeared in his first-ever Masters Cup.
One of the pleasant surprises of the year was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The flashy Frenchman slugged his way into his first-ever major final, at the Aussie Open, where he shocked Nadal in the semis.
The sixth-ranked Jo-Willy, who entered the year ranked 43rd in the world, also landed in his first-ever Tennis Masters Cup, joining the eight-man field with the help of a big last-minute title at the Paris Masters. The 23-year-old Le Mans native went 34-14 in 2008, including his first two titles on the circuit.
The sky could be the limit for this ultra-talented, but oft-injured, star.
The quietest Top-10 performance was turned in by another 23-year-old Frenchman, Gilles Simon. The Nice native reached his first-ever Tennis Masters Cup when Nadal withdrew from the prestigious event due to injury the week before.
Simon is all the way up to seventh in the world, after opening the year at No. 29. He piled up 51 match wins (51-27) and took home three titles. Simon also reached a Masters Series final in Madrid (lost to Murray) and beat Federer twice this year, including a stunning victory in the round-robin portion of the Masters Cup. His other shocking win over the Fed came at a Masters Series event in Canada.
Juan Martin del Potro established himself as a Top-10 star in 2008.
Yet another rising star jumped into the spotlight this year -- 20-year-old Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.
JMdP went 46-15 and captured the first four titles of his career, all in succession. He rattled off four titles in as many tourneys just prior to the U.S. Open, winning no less than 23 straight matches at one point.
His torrid win streak finally ended with a quarterfinal loss against an equally-as-hot Murray at the U.S. Open.
The 6-foot-6 del Potro appeared in five finals (4-1) and crossed the finish line at No. 9 in the world, after opening the year at No. 44. Unfortunately, a fatigued "delPo" closed out his season by dropping five of his last seven matches, including a crucial one in the Argentina-Spain Davis Cup final.
The once-mighty U.S. still has two guys inside the Top 10, but Andy Roddick (8th) and James Blake (10th) have just not been serious threats at the majors. An American male hasn't won a Grand Slam event since Roddick prevailed at the 2003 U.S. Open.
Roddick parted ways with coach Jimmy Connors and will head into 2009 with Larry Stefanki at his side. The 51-year-old Stefanki has worked with the likes of Fernando Gonzalez, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marcelo Rios, Tim Henman and the legendary John McEnroe. Stefanki mentored the 2008 Olympic silver medalist "Gonzo" for the last three years.
Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick is still the best America has to offer.
The 26-year-old former U.S. Open champ and former top-ranked Roddick went 49-18 in 2008, including three titles in four finals. He finally got off the schneid against Federer, as he beat the smooth Swiss in a quarterfinal at the Masters Series event in Miami to improve to 2-15 lifetime against him.
But in a disappointing move, A-Rod decided against playing at the Beijing Olympics, preferring to stay at home in order to prepare for a run at the U.S. Open. The American star bowed out at the hands of Djokovic in the quarterfinals in Flushing, which marked his lone quarterfinal appearance at a major this year.
Roddick's prize money came in at a paltry (paltry?) $1.337 million.
Note: One of Roddick's three titles this year came at an ATP event in Beijing, a month after the Games concluded in the Chinese capital.
Another Note: Roddick was one of three players to beat Nadal, Federer and Djokovic this year. Murray and Simon were the others.
When it comes to Blake, you have to think that this is a guy that will never win a major. He continues to hang around the Top 10, but it has become increasingly obvious that a Grand Slam title is not in the offing for the former Harvard student.
His season was highlighted by a big victory over Federer at the Olympics, but the 28-year-old Yonkers native failed to title anywhere, while going 47-24, with a pair of runner-up finishes at Delray Beach and Houston.
Aside from Roddick and Blake, the Americans place only two more men inside the world's Top 50 -- Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey.
Where have you gone David Wheaton?
Honorable mention this year goes to a pair of men who finished just outside the Top 10 -- Argentine David Nalbandian and Spaniard David Ferrer. The former Wimbledon runner-up and former Masters Cup champion Nalbandian went 44-16 with a pair of titles in five finals, while Ferrer came in at 44-23 with two titles (and a Davis Cup championship).
Gustavo Kuerten called it a career this year after playing in one last French Open, where he was a three-time champ.
The new Davis Cup champs hail from Spain, which upset the host Argentines 3-1 in the final, with Fernando Verdasco, playing in place of Ferrer, outlasting Jose Acasuso in a five-set thriller in the fourth rubber. The Nadal-less tie featured three of the Top-12 players in the world, but the final match was decided by a pair of players outside the Top 15. Including the doubles rubber in Mar del Plata, Verdasco went 2-0 for the week, as did his fellow lefthander Feliciano Lopez, who played alongside Verdasco in the dubs and won his singles match on Day 1 of the final.
Did You Know? Australia does not have a player in the Top 50 for the first time since 1991. The aforementioned former world No. 1 Hewitt is currently ranked 67th and failed to win a title of any kind for the first time since joining the ATP in 1998.
Where have you gone Wally Masur?
And some ATP veterans rode off into the sunset (retired) this year, including former world No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, long-time Swedish performer Jonas Bjorkman and Spaniard Felix Mantilla. "Guga" is best known as a three-time French Open champion and is the only Brazilian player and one of only two South Americans (Marcelo Rios) to ever reach No. 1. He was one of the most popular players in the history of the sport, on and off the court.
The men's tour will rev up again in the first week of January.