No two players grabbed more headlines in 2013 than Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal. Their seasons unfolded in a similar manner — they each won two Grand Slams, captured at least 10 titles, reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and finished the year in the top spot for the third time.
The similarities lead to this question: Who had the better season — Serena or Rafa?
Here’s the tale of the tape:
• Titles: 11 (Brisbane, Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome, French Open, Bastad, Toronto, U.S. Open, China Open, WTA Championships)
• Grand Slams: 2 (French Open, U.S. Open)
• Prize Money: $12,385,572 (third-highest single-season total in tennis history, men or women)
• Rankings rise: No. 3 to No. 1
• Tournaments: 15 (made final of 13)
• Record: 78-4
• Losses: Victoria Azarenka (Doha, Cincinnati), Sloane Stephens (Australian Open), Sabine Lisicki (Wimbledon)
• Longest winning streak: 34 matches
• Point lead on No. 2 Azarenka: 5,214 points
The skinny: Williams, who turned 32 in September, put together her most consistently dominant season, on the heels of a fantastic finish to 2012 that set her up for a return to No. 1. The Australian Open proved to be a rare 2013 disappointment for Williams, who lost to Stephens in the quarterfinals while dealing with an ankle sprain and back injury. In February, though, she recaptured the top spot for the first time since 2010 and became the oldest woman to hold the No. 1 ranking since the computer rankings were introduced in 1975. That milestone completed her climb back to the top of the game after injury and illness left her hospitalized in 2011.
Williams impressed with her consistency and commitment in 2013. She made the final of 13 of 15 tournaments, won a career-best 11 titles (the most of any player since 1997) and collected five of those titles without dropping a set. She won her first French Open title since 2002, part of a 28-0 season on clay. Whether it was the final of the U.S. Open or the first round of Bastad, Williams showed a level of day-in, day-out intensity that we haven’t seen before. She finished the year on an 18-match winning streak, with no letdown after the U.S. Open.
• Titles: 10 (Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, French Open, Montreal, Cincinnati, U.S. Open)
• Grand Slams: 2
• Prize money: $12,070,935
• Rankings rise: No. 4 to No. 1
• Tournaments: 17 (made final of 14)
• Record: 75-7
• Losses: Novak Djokovic (Monte Carlo, Beijing, London), Juan Martin del Potro (Shanghai), David Ferrer (Paris), Steve Darcis (Wimbledon), Horacio Zeballos (Vina del Mar)
• Longest winning streaks: 22 matches, twice
• Point lead on No. 2 Djokovic: 920 points (Djokovic can continue to close the gap this week at Davis Cup)
The skinny: Nadal missed the Australian Open with a virus, capping a seven-month layoff caused mainly by a knee injury. But when he returned in February, he proceeded to win nearly every tournament he played.
After falling to Zeballos in the VTR Open final in his season debut, Nadal won 18 consecutive matches over a four-tournament span. Djokovic stopped the streak in the Monte Carlo Masters final, but Nadal responded with a 22-match winning streak that spanned the rest of the clay season and culminated with his eighth French Open title.
In the surprise of the season, Nadal lost to No. 135 Darcis in the first round of Wimbledon. But he quickly regained his form during the North American summer hard-court circuit, winning back-to-back Masters 1000 titles followed by his second U.S. Open crown.
That Nadal was able to play such a high level of tennis so quickly after coming back is mind-boggling. His quality on hard courts was a revelation, especially over the summer when he won Montreal and Cincinnati, two tournaments that have never been easy for him. He ruled the season for eight months, from February to September, before fading a bit after the U.S. Open, failing to win a title in his last four tournaments.
Nadal’s season was incredible, and he faced stiffer competition on the ATP Tour than Williams did on the WTA Tour. But Nadal’s run also confirmed what we already knew: that he is an unrelenting competitor who continues to adapt and improve.
We did learn something new about Williams this year: At a time when we wondered how many good years she might have left, Williams proved that she could compile a top-notch season, from start to finish, with no bad losses or questions about her dedication or focus. Her .951 winning percentage was the WTA’s best in a season since Steffi Graf went 75-2 (.974) in 1989. I give her the nod over Nadal.
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