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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, November 30, 2022

 
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Celebrating some of the players who inspired us with their competitive character in defeat in 2022.

Photo credit: Getty

Tennis Now counts down the days toward the New Year celebrating the best of this year.

Today, we honor winners who weren't champions.

More: Nick Bollettieri Tribute

In 2022, some of these players came achingly close to historic peaks—and faced stinging falls with class, character and candor.

There are no ties in tennis. That's why it's hard. That's why it hurts. That's why it's heart-breaking and life-affirming.

Unlike boxing, golf, hockey, soccer, chess, tug of war, tag, tic-tac-toe, twister and trash talk, tennis is devoid of draws.

When you step on a tennis court, you've entered a box bringing boundless opportunity and only two ways out: You're going to win or you're going to lose.

One reason tennis is toughest of all is because there's only one tournament champion so every other player in the field goes home a loser that week.

Don't believe it.

These are the players who inspired us with their competitive character in defeat.

The Minister of Happiness

Winning Grand Slams isn't easy— Ons Jabeur handled hard losses with major grace and gratitude.

First, Jabeur, of course, is a champion. Jabeur defeated Jessica Pegula to win the Madrid title then came very close to winning a maiden major at Wimbledon and the US Open only to suffer tight defeats in succession

It's Jabeur's clear-eyed response to those major final losses that makes her special.

Tunisian trailblazer Jabeur made history as the first Arab, first African and first Tunisian woman to contest a Grand Slam final at Wimbledon. Riding an 11-match win streak into the Wimbledon final, Jabeur was one set from realizing her Grand Slam dream before Elena Rybakina rallied behind commanding serving for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 triumph.

Nicknamed "Minister of Happiness" by fans in her homeland for her perpetually-positive disposition, Jabeur shared her pain, perspective and hope with fans all over the world.

“Elena played amazing her and her team great job,” Jabeur said. “I mean she deserved this, hopefully next time it will be mine….

“I love this tournament so much. I feel really sad. It’s tennis there is only one winner. I’m trying to inspire many generations from my country. I hope they’re listening. I also want to thank this beautiful crowd for their support throughout this tournament.”




In a solo sport, Jabeur is a crowd-pleaser because of her mischievous shot-making creativity, the respect she shows for her opponent and her fans and her sense of honor playing for something greater than herself.

"I’m a proud Tunisian woman standing here today," Jabeur said after reaching the Wimbledon final. "I know in Tunisia they’re going crazy right now.

"Hopefully, I just try to inspire as much as I can. I just want to see more Tunisian, Arab, African players on tour. I just love the game. I just want to share this experience with them."

Jabeur applied her experience with a run to her second straight major final at the US Open falling to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek 6-2, 7-6(5).

Credit the fifth-seeded Jabeur for fighting back from a near blow-out at 0-3 down in the second set to make a match of the Flushing Meadows final. Swiatek solidified her status as the world No. 1 scoring her 10th consecutive straight-sets finals win, including her second major championship of the year.

Ultimately, Jabeur couldn't overcome her slow start or Swiatek's finishing forehand as the 28-year-old Tunisian suffered her second Grand Slam final loss in two months.

Here's why we love Jabeur: She can make the ball dance and people smile. Jabeur holds her head high, credits her conqueror, and spreads good humor and good will after two painful major losses.




The charismatic Jabeur left New York fans smiling and issued a parting vow as well.

"I want to thank the crowd for cheering me up and I really tried but Iga didn't make it easy for me," Jabeur told US Open fans afterward. "She deserved to win today. I don't like her very much right now, but it's okay.

"Amazing two weeks backing up my final in Wimbledon. I know I'm going to keep working hard and will get that title sometime soon. It really means a lot. I try to push myself to do more. Getting a major is the goal. Hopefully I can inspire more and more."

Here's hoping Ons continues to inspire—and realizes her major dream too.

Team Australia

If gut check had an official emoji, surely it would be green-and-gold.

The Australian Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup teams both received heroic performances from unsung heroes in rousing runs to their respective finals.

Then came crushing finals losses to maiden champions.

Belinda Bencic and Jil Teichmann clinched Switzerland's 2-0 win over Australia to win its maiden Billie Jean King Cup championship in Glasgow, Scotland.

A week later, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov carried Canada to its maiden Davis Cup championship with a 2-0 triumph over Australia in the Davis Cup Final in Malaga, Spain.

It's pointless to ponder what Australia might have done if it its Billie Jean King Cup team had former world No. 1 Ash Barty, who retired after winning her third Grand Slam at the Australian Open, (and remember Australia lost a Fed Cup final at home with Barty on the team), and if the Davis Cup squad had Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios, who partnered buddy Thanasi Kokkinakis to the Australian Open doubles championship.

It's pointless because you can speculate with almost every nation—what if Spain had world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and second-ranked Rafael Nadal on a team playing the Davis Cup finals at home?

Instead, it's a testament to the commitment of the Aussie players who invested it all into their teams that both reached finals without a Top 20-singles player on either roster.

A week before her wedding back in Australia, Storm Sanders set off joyous Australian celebration in Glasgow leading the green-and-gold into the Billie Jean King Cup final.

Sanders and Samantha Stosur edged Alicia Barnett and Olivia Nicholls 7-6(1), 6-7(5), 10-6 in the decisive doubles to clinch Australia's trip to its 19th Billie Jean King Cup Finals final with a dramatic 2-1 decision over host Great Britain.




Sanders said strength in team unity is essential to Australia's success.

“I feel like in this type of team competition the rankings or what's on the paper. I feel like coming in, our goal, we are not here to participate, we are here to try and win this event," Sanders said. “Everyone on the team, it's a priority for us to win that.

"Even throughout the year, being an Australian, it's a huge honor to be here and play for our country and we really want to try and do the best we can."

Depth and desire were engines that drove both Australian finalists.

Jordan Thompson and Alex de Minaur overcame deficits to lead Australia over the Netherlands in its Davis Cup opener.

Max Purcell and Thompson rallied past Croatians Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic 6-7(3), 7-5, 6-4 to clinch Australia's trip to the Davis Cup final with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Croatia in Malaga, Spain.

Elevating under extreme pressure, Purcell and Thompson landed the green-and-gold a spot in its first Davis Cup final in 19 years—and soared for a Bryan brothers-style chest bump to celebrate the moment.

If you wonder how deeply Davis Cup passion runs through the veins of Aussie players, you need hear only Purcell's reaction.



"There's nothing f--king like it mate," a pumped Purcell told Lee Goodall in his on-court interview immediately afterward. "Honestly, nothing like it.

"That's the best thing I've ever experienced, ever. Yeah, anything for the green and gold."

Australia, a 28-time Davis Cup champion, which is second only to the United States on the champions list, fell to Canada but once again gained respect for honoring its tennis-rich tradition.




Captain Lleyton Hewitt, who joined forces with Mark Philippoussis and the Woodies to win Australia's last Davis Cup in 2003, paid tribute to his players.

"I'm gutted for the boys. You know, they put in their commitment and the work, and they did everything right," Hewitt said of his players. "They have done absolutely everything all year that we have asked of them as a coaching staff.

"We're just extremely proud of the effort and the commitment and dedication that these guys have shown.

"Yeah, they left it all out there once again. We came up slightly short, but, yeah, I couldn't be prouder. I know all of Australia should be proud of all five guys."

Australian players honor their nation's team tradition with commitment to the Cup cause and also infuse their pros with the wisdom imparted by past legends and champions including captains Hewitt and Alicia Molik and legendary Tony Roche, who was on hand for the Final. Australia and Spain not only honor and respect their past champions naming courts after them, their champions are often living resources for their pros to consult.

Good-Bye Gillou!

Au Revoir can be agonizing for tennis lifers.

Parting was positively poignant for Gilles Simon last month.

The 37-year-old French wild card's wondrous pro career came to an end with a 6-1, 6-3 defeat to buddy Felix Auger-Aliassime at the Rolex Paris Masters.

But Simon wore the smile of a winner afterward.




French fans showered the former world No. 6 with love, a standing ovation and rousing chants of "Gilou! Gilou!" in tribute to the man who registered 504 career wins and captured 11 career titles. Simon joined friends Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils as the third Frenchman to post 500 or more career wins.




Moments after ending Simon's career while stretching his winning streak to 15 matches, Auger-Aliassime spoke for many in attendance when he wrote on the court-side camera lens "Merci Gilou!"

Afterward, Simon said he's at peace with his retirement decision because he poured every piece of himself into tennis.

That spirit showed in his final tournament. The slender Simon went out as he played his entire career scraping, hustling and loving his time on court.

"I'm serene. Because I was sure about my decision, as I explained. I was certain I had made the right decision," Simon said. "This week, every match reminded me why I was so sure. The stress before the match, the pain after the matches, and one match after the other, it was something that was becoming difficult to bear, knowing that there is a part of the career where you do it, but you progress or you're in the middle of your career so it's normal, and you win matches and it's necessary and it's okay."




In the end, Gillou said he felt both empty and fulfilled simultaneously.

"And at some point you have the same stress, same pain, but then you don't win anymore," Simon said. "So it's no longer the same story when you feel that you are no longer progressing and it becomes really difficult. And because of that, the stress increases and the pain increases with age.

"So it was becoming hard. So I don't regret. This week has been very difficult with the three matches that leave me totally empty, so it reminds me why I stopped. So there is a part of me that is relieved that this will stop."

 

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