Novak Djokovic and Ash Barty set the pace in 2021 -- and tennis' future looks just as bright

Ash Barty (right) and Barbora Krejcikova both won -- a lot -- in 2021. AP Photo/Alastair Grant

The 2021 tennis season is officially over, and what a year it was. From history-making quests to the emergence of what looks to be the next generation of superstars, this season was one to remember.

Even with the absence of household names such as Venus and Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from various majors and other tournaments -- and with heavy virus-related restrictions remaining at events around the world -- there were still too many incredible moments and players to print here. And trust us, we tried.

But who had the most impressive year despite the always-changing circumstances? Who finally broke through and surged into the upper echelon of the sport? Who went from unknown to consistent contender? We look at all those players -- and more -- as we name our top players of the 2021 tennis season.

Men's player of the year

OK, let's get this out of the way first: After falling in the US Open final in straight sets, Novak Djokovic didn't complete the calendar-year Grand Slam, or break the record for most majors by a male player. But you know what he did do in 2021? Practically everything else.

Djokovic won the titles at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon -- that's three of the four majors, for those keeping count -- as well as at the Paris Masters and his hometown Belgrade Open.

And, perhaps most impressive, he held on to the world No. 1 ranking for the entire season. He finished the year on top for a record-breaking seventh time in his career, breaking a tie with Pete Sampras.

So, sure, it would have been incredible to see Djokovic join Rod Laver as the only men in the Open era to complete the 4-for-4 feat, or to see him achieve the even-more-elusive Golden Slam with an Olympic victory -- something only Steffi Graf has ever done. But what he didn't do shouldn't overshadow what he did.

Djokovic's achievements were staggering in 2021. While the gap may have narrowed slightly with the younger generation, he remains in a league of his own and deserves all of the year-end accolades coming his way.

Women's player of the year

Like Djokovic, Ash Barty didn't win everything in 2021, but she sure won a lot. Barty opted out of the restart during the 2020 season due to virus concerns and didn't play a competitive match for nearly a year. But she quickly rediscovered her championship form, winning the first tournament she played at the Yarra Valley Classic in February. She fell in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, her home Slam, but she didn't lose much after that.

At the Miami Open in April, Barty needed to save match point in the opening round -- and then she went on to win the event. She immediately followed it up with a victory in Stuttgart and a finals appearance in Madrid. Injuries hampered her time in Paris, but she recovered with a win at Wimbledon, and achieved her childhood dream in the process. Before the season's end, she added another trophy to her collection in Cincinnati and nabbed the bronze medal in mixed doubles at the Olympics.

And she did it all while living entirely out of suitcase from April until September because she was unable to return to Australia due to travel restrictions.

Barty was the only WTA player to win titles on all three surfaces this year. Her season résumé was so strong, she had accumulated enough points to secure her year-end No. 1 ranking in October. She opted to skip the WTA Finals event and spend some much-needed time at home.

It marks the third straight year she's finished the season at No. 1, joining just -- wait for it -- Graf, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Serena Williams for such a distinction.

All-around player of the year

While Djokovic and Barty were dominant in singles play, there was one player who dominated in singles -- and doubles and mixed doubles. And frankly, we believe she deserves a category all her own.

Of course we're talking about Barbora Krejcikova, who won the French Open singles title, the doubles titles at the French Open and WTA Finals, the Australian Open mixed doubles title and Olympic doubles gold.

With her triumphs in Paris, she became the 14th woman in history to win both singles and doubles at the same major, and the first to do so in Paris since 2000.

She ends the year ranked at No. 5 in singles and No. 2 in doubles.

Krejcikova has long found success on the doubles court, particularly with longtime partner Katerina Siniakova, but she cemented her status as one of the true all-around threats in the game in 2021. She had never played in a singles final prior to this year -- and she played in four this season and won all but one. The French Open was just her fifth major main draw. She had never even qualified to play at the US Open previously until this year and reached the quarterfinals in her New York debut.

Yup, there might not be anyone quite like Krejcikova.

The most improved

The 2021 season was filled with a number of players who hit their stride on the court and made dramatic increases in the rankings, but no one came close to what Aslan Karatsev managed to do. Entering the new year, Karatsev had never been ranked inside the top 100 and had never played in the main draw at a major. The then-27-year-old had just three tour-level wins to his name.

In February, he came through Australian Open qualifying and made it all the way to the semifinals. He became the first man in the Open era to reach the round in his major debut, and the lowest-ranked male player to reach the final four at the event since 1991. It was the ultimate Cinderella story in the oft-predictable men's game.

Since his star turn, Karatsev won two ATP singles titles, a doubles title and took home the Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles. He finished the year at an astonishing No. 15. Not too shabby for a guy whom few had even heard of at the start of the year.

If it's truly not how you start but how you finish, then there might be no one more worthy of praise than Anett Kontaveit. Her overall season was decent, with a COVID-impacted split title with Ann Li at the Grampians Trophy event and a run to the Eastbourne final in June. She reached the third round at three of the four majors.

But the fall is where Kontaveit truly shined. Since August, the 25-year-old has won four titles and, after nabbing the final spot in the elite field by winning 10 straight matches, made it all the way to the championship match at the WTA Finals.

She won a WTA-leading 48 matches this season, and after rising 24 ranks since May to a career-high No. 7, Kontaveit is the highest-ranked Estonian tennis player of all time.

Honorable mentions:

Cam Norrie: Entering the season, the 26-year-old Brit had played in just one ATP career final. He advanced to six in 2021 and won his first two titles, including at Indian Wells in October. Norrie's success catapulted him from No. 74 at the start of the year to a career-high No. 12.

Paula Badosa: Like Norrie, Badosa, 24, won the first two titles of her career this year, including at Indian Wells in October. She had her best showing at a major with a quarterfinal run at Roland Garros and reached the semifinals at the WTA Finals. Badosa started 2021 ranked No. 70 and ends at No. 8.

The breakthrough players

It's no secret that men's tennis has been dominated at the Grand Slams by Djokovic, Federer and Nadal for the past 19 years. The Big Three have combined to win 60 of the past 73 major titles and, with the exception of the 2020 US Open in which Djokovic was disqualified in the fourth round and Federer and Nadal didn't play, no one outside of the group had won a Slam since 2016.

That is, until the 2021 US Open. Playing in his third major final, and second against Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev showed the world he is the worthy heir atop the sport with a stunning straight-sets 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Djokovic.

The title separated the 25-year-old Russian from the rest of his peers, many of whom had their opportunities against Djokovic over the course of the year, and put him as the front-runner to eventually fill the very big shoes once the Big Three retire.

Ending the year ranked at No. 2, a spot he's owned since March, the expectations will be sky-high for Medvedev in 2022 but if this season was any indication, he'll be more than ready to live up to them.

And while Medvedev broke through to reach the top level of the sport, Emma Raducanu broke through just about every level of the sport this year. After finishing school in the spring in her native England, the now-19-year-old made her first WTA tour-level appearance at the Nottingham Open in June and lost her first-round match. Weeks later, and ranked well outside the top 300, Raducanu was given a wild card into the Wimbledon main draw -- and she made the most of the opportunity by reaching the fourth round before having to retire from the match.

And if her major main draw debut was impressive, her US Open debut was downright legendary. Ranked No. 150 at the start of the tournament, she had to come through qualifying. Raducanu won 10 matches -- and never dropped a set -- en route to the most improbable of titles.

She became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam in the Open era, and the first British woman to win a major singles title since 1977. It was as star-making a turn as they come, and she literally was the belle of the ball two days later at the Met Gala. The Queen even sent her a congratulatory message.

She won just two more matches in three tournaments but still ends the season at No. 19 -- 326 spots higher from where she began the year -- and the top-ranked British woman on tour.

Honorable mentions:

Leylah Fernandez: The fellow teenager had never made it past the third round at a major but pulled off staggering upset after staggering upset in New York to make it all the way to the US Open final. She lost there to Raducanu but did nab her first WTA title this year at the Monterrey Open in March. The Canadian ends the year at a career-high No. 24.

Carlos Alcaraz: As a 17-year-old, Alcaraz came through qualifying to become the youngest male player in the Australian Open main draw. He reached the US Open quarterfinals, won the title in Croatia and at the Next Gen ATP Finals and has his best-ever end-of-season ranking at No. 32. If you require visual documentation of Alcaraz's rise, we suggest watching his five-set upset win over the third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round at the US Open. We're still not over it.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: After reaching six major quarterfinals and being ranked in the top 50 for over a decade, the Russian finally reached her first major final at Roland Garros. She lost to Krejcikova in three sets but returned to the top 20 and went on to win Olympic gold in mixed doubles with Andrey Rublev. The 30-year-old heads into the offseason at a career-high No. 11.

Sebastian Korda: The 21-year-old made a name for himself in 2020 with a fourth-round run at the French Open, but he cemented his status as the leading man to watch in a group of talented young Americans on the rise with his 2021. Korda won his first ATP title in Parma, reached the title match at the ATP Next Gen Finals and recorded two victories over top-10 players. He's currently ranked No. 41 - three spots behind his career-high mark set in October.

The history-maker

In October, Ons Jabeur of Tunisia became the first Arab player in professional tennis history to crack the top 10, following a semifinal run at Indian Wells. The accomplishment instantly drew praise from legends like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, as well as from her peers and Tunisian and Arab leaders.

Jabeur, known for her versatile playing style, entered the year at No. 31 and climbed her way up the rankings, winning her first career title at Birmingham in June and reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Jabeur reached No. 7 in November, and called her breakthrough a "dream come true" -- but made it clear she expects even more from herself next season and in the future.

"This is something that I've been wanting [since] I was 16," Jabeur said at the BNP Paribas Open after cementing the ranking. "Even before, I always wanted to get there, to be No. 1 in the world.

"Top 10 I know is the beginning. I know I deserve this place [for] a long time since I was playing well. But I want to prove that I deserve to be here, I deserve to be one of the top 10 players."

The upset of the year

Entering Wimbledon, Frances Tiafoe was coming off a first-round loss at Eastbourne and hadn't played much on grass since losing in the first round in 2019. Stefanos Tsitsipas, his opponent and the tournament's No. 3 seed, was coming off of the best major result of his life following a final run at the French Open.

Tsitsipas was undisputedly the favorite to win the match. But Tiafoe had other plans.

The 23-year-old American has long proved he has the talent and the game to compete with the best, so in many ways the result wasn't a total surprise, it was more of how he did it. Tiafoe never dropped serve and was in complete control of the 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 match. It was the first top-5 victory of his career -- and he celebrated accordingly.

The partnership of the year

Elina Svitolina and Gael Monfils have a combined 26 singles titles -- and all those trophies must look pretty nice on their mantel. Tennis' most beloved and social media savvy couple -- g.e.m.s. life! -- made it official over the summer and got married in Switzerland. Instead of going on a honeymoon, the two almost immediately went to Tokyo for the Olympics, and Svitolina was able to add a bronze medal to their collection.

The change-maker

Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open to start the season -- and still managed to have an even bigger impact off the court. The four-time major champion became an important advocate for mental health after withdrawing from the French Open ahead of her second-round match. Sharing on social media that she had experienced "long bouts of depression" following her breakthrough victory at the US Open in 2018, Osaka's candor inspired a wave of other athletes to share as well, and started a conversation in sports about the topic that remains ongoing. The US Open even launched a mental health initiative at the tournament this year for the first time.

The best farewell

Six weeks after announcing she was cancer free -- "¡ESTOY CURADA!" -- in a post on social media, Carla Suarez Navarro returned to the tennis court at the French Open. Facing Sloane Stephens in her first match in 15 months, the then-32-year-old reminded the world why she has been one of the most fun players to watch throughout her career. Suarez Navarro dominated the first set 6-3. While she ended up losing the match, which lasted nearly 2½ hours, she proved to be one of the sport's greatest champions even in defeat.

Suarez Navarro, a former world No. 6 and seven-time major quarterfinalist, had planned on retiring following the 2020 season but the pandemic halted competition. While training at home in Spain over the summer, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. When the season resumed in August, she was beginning treatment and was unable to return to the tour.

But she was determined to return to tennis and walk away from the sport on her terms. She did just that.

Suarez Navarro played at Wimbledon and the US Open, where she lost in the first round at both events, and represented Spain at the Olympics and the Billie Jean King Cup. She didn't replicate some of her previous success on the court in any tournament, but that wasn't what was most important.

"I lost, but this year for me was a gift," she said at the US Open. "Last year on these dates, I [didn't] know if I [could] be here one more time or not, and I'm here. I'm happy for that."

She was showered with ovations and praise from her peers, teammates and the fans throughout the year and received the send-off she fittingly deserved. After Spain had been eliminated from play in Prague at the Billie Jean King Cup, marking the end of her career, Suarez Navarro posted a picture of herself surrounded by her teammates and various members of the federation and wrote simply: "Gracias."