Dominic Thiem's breakthrough, Naomi Osaka's advocacy and Iga Swiatek's rise highlight 2020 tennis season

In a year full of ups and downs and stops and starts due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dominic Thiem had his breakthrough moment, finally capturing his first major title at the 2020 US Open. Al Bello/Getty Images

After a year like no other, we've made it to the tennis offseason. With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the ATP and WTA tours for months -- including the cancellation of Wimbledon -- and dramatically altering the schedule and conditions at the events that did take place, it is hard to know what to make of the year that was.

Who had the most impressive year despite the circumstances? Who managed to remain focused and have a breakthrough tournament or season? And who provided us with feel-good moments at a time when we so desperately needed them? It is time to look back at the best moments from the 2020 tennis season.

ATP player of the year

We know what you are thinking. You are weighing the 2020 résumés for Novak Djokovic, the year-end world No. 1 and reigning Australian Open champion, and Rafael Nadal, world No. 2 and the reigning French Open champion who tied Roger Federer with 20 major victories. There are compelling cases to be made for both players who will undoubtedly end their careers as two of the best ever.

But with neither one dramatically outshining the other, it's time to see who is behind door No. 3: Dominic Thiem!

Thiem had a career-defining year and finally won his first major title at the US Open. He also played in the finals at the Australian Open and the ATP Finals. The 27-year-old Austrian ends the year ranked a career-high No. 3 after becoming the first male player born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam and the first non-Big Three member since 2016 to win a major.

Yes, Nadal (and the injured Federer) didn't play at the US Open, and Djokovic was disqualified after hitting a line judge with a ball in the fourth round. That doesn't take away from Thiem's milestone in New York. His results for the rest of the year only added to his case. The fact is this: No one else played in three finals at the biggest tournaments of the year. Thiem's ability to sustain his level in a challenging and unprecedented season was more than impressive and vaulted him past the rest of his those in the under-30 category.

If there ever was a year for the unexpected, this was it.

WTA player of the year

The women's game has seen the rise of a number of talented young players over the past few years but has been plagued with inconsistency.

This season felt familiar in that regard with two first-time major champions and several new faces pulling off upsets. There was one player who made her way near the top of the rankings and not only stayed there but stepped up when it mattered most.

That would be Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion and French Open finalist. The 22-year-old American started the year ranked No. 14 and ended it at a career-best No. 4.

Kenin soared in Melbourne, dropping only one set en route to the final. She defeated world No. 1 and local favorite Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals before defeating two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza in the final for a three-set victory. Her post-Australia victory tour was cut short due to the pandemic. Instead of adjusting to life as a major winner and top-10 player, she was in lockdown at her home in Florida. Her run in Paris proved just how resilient she can be. Following a fourth-round run at the US Open and the worst loss of her career at the lead-up Italian Open (an astounding 6-0, 6-0 loss to Victoria Azarenka), a refocused Kenin arrived at Roland Garros with something to prove.

Not known for her dominance on clay, Kenin adapted to the unusual conditions and wild weather of the delayed French Open and found ways to win against tricky opponents. She needed a deciding set in four of her six matches heading into the final but never allowed her opponent to take more than three games in the final set. She lost to a red-hot Iga Swiatek in the title clash but proved she will be a dominant and stable presence for the foreseeable future.

Most valuable player

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Seven matches, seven masks standing up for social justice

Throughout her run at the US Open, Naomi Osaka wore a mask highlighting a different Black victim of racial injustice and police brutality.

Thiem and Kenin were phenomenal on the court, but Naomi Osaka was extraordinary on and off of it. The 23-year-old won the US Open for her third major title in a dramatic comeback over Azarenka, and that wasn't even the most noteworthy part of her time in New York. Osaka made global headlines for her decision to boycott and forfeit her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open (the first tournament in a two-event bubble in New York) following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in hopes of raising awareness about racial injustice. She was the first tennis player to speak out, and her actions resulted in the tournament pausing play for the day.

During the US Open just days later, Osaka chose to wear a different face mask ahead of each match commemorating victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Her decision to use her voice sparked discussions in the still-predominantly white sport, as well as with sports fans around the world.

While 2020 was undoubtedly a difficult year, Osaka proved she is a young leader ready to create positive change for years to come.

Match of the year

During such a strange season, there was something so comforting about a Serena and Venus Williams battle in one of the first tournaments after the coronavirus hiatus.

Despite the months-long break from competition, the legendary sisters didn't disappoint in their second-round meeting at the TopSeed Open in Kentucky. Lasting 2 hours, 19 minutes, the sisters battled for every point with vintage intensity. Ultimately, Serena rallied from a set down and a 4-2 deficit in the final set to earn the 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.

When fans needed something to cheer for, the sisters delivered with one of the more competitive matches they've played against each other in their 31st showdown.

Comeback player of the year

The personal struggles of Azarenka, the former world No. 1 and two-time major champion, have been well documented over the past few seasons. A custody battle over her son, Leo, prevented her from playing a full schedule since his birth in 2016.

Due to her inability to travel, Azarenka's play suffered. She missed the start of the 2020 season and contemplated retirement. Entering the New York bubble following the coronavirus hiatus, the 31-year-old was ranked outside of the top 50 and hadn't won a competitive match in over a year. When critics counted her out, she put together one of the most impressive three-week stretches in recent memory. She won the title at the Western & Southern Open then advanced to the final at the US Open before falling to Osaka in three sets. She finished the year with another final appearance at the Ostrava Open and is now ranked No. 13.

Honorable mention:

Tsvetana Pironkova: Pironkova, who hadn't played a match in over three years following the birth of her son in 2017, used her protected ranking to gain entrance to the US Open. She shocked everyone by advancing to the quarterfinals. It was easily the Cinderella story of the year.

Vasek Pospisil: The Canadian missed much of the 2019 season due to back surgery, then made the final (his first since 2014) at Montpellier and had a career-best fourth-round run at the US Open with wins over fellow countryman and No. 25 seed Milos Raonic and eighth-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut. Off the court, Pospisil joined Djokovic as co-president of a recently formed Professional Tennis Players Association, a players-only organization that most resembles a players' union.

Best comeback moment

This is really the best revenge moment. After playing cards with Benoit Paire at the US Open, Kristina Mladenovic was forced to withdraw with doubles partner Timea Babos ahead of their second-round match after Paire tested positive for COVID-19. She was then forced to quarantine in her hotel room for much of the duration of the tournament. Understandably, she was less than thrilled by what transpired and not in prime playing shape weeks later at the start of the French Open.

But the duo -- the defending champions in Paris -- rolled through the tournament to win their fourth major title together with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Desirae Krawczyk and Alexa Guarachi.

"Just a few weeks after being unjustly disqualified from the US Open, being here with you and with this trophy is something very strong," Mladenovic said to Babos after the win. "Physically, mentally, I'm exhausted today. You carried me all the way, I'm proud to have you as a partner."

Best feel-good stories of 2020

Diego Schwartzman, a fan favorite and beloved by his peers, cracked the top 10 for the first time in his career and advanced to his first major semifinal in Paris. The 28-year-old, 5-foot-6 Argentine qualified for his first ATP Finals after more than a decade on tour and played in his first Masters final at the Italian Open.

Schwartzman's fellow countrywoman, Nadia Podoroska, also made her first major semifinal at Roland Garros in just her second Grand Slam event. Starting the 2020 season ranked No. 255, the 23-year-old needed to qualify to get into the main draw, but then won eight straight matches. She ultimately lost to Swiatek in the semifinals but nearly tripled her career earnings during her Parisian trip. Her own coach even called it "unbelievable." She followed it up with a quarterfinal run at the Linz Open in Austria.

Martina Trevisan, another unseeded qualifier at the French Open playing in just her second major, was away from the game for four years due to an eating disorder. In Paris, the 27-year-old Italian enamored herself to fans with her story of perseverance and her joy on the court. Trevisan upset Kiki Bertens, Maria Sakkari and Coco Gauff en route to the quarterfinals. She also fell to Swiatek but cracked the top 100 for the first time at the end of the tournament.

Breakthrough players of the year

There are breakthroughs and then there's what Swiatek did in Paris this fall. Ranked No. 54, the 19-year-old, who had never advanced past the fourth round at a major, destroyed everyone in her path, including a 6-1, 6-2 rout over 2018 champion and event favorite Simona Halep in the fourth round. If Swiatek had any nerves entering the first final of her career, she didn't show them, completing her fortnight with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Kenin.

Swiatek didn't drop a set or allow an opponent to win more than five games during her run to become the youngest champion at Roland Garros since Nadal in 2005. She also became the lowest-ranked French Open victor in the history of the WTA rankings and the first Polish player to win a Grand Slam singles title. Not to mention, she also advanced to the semifinals in doubles with partner Nicole Melichar. Swiatek didn't play again this season, but she finished the year at No. 17 and is a likely front-runner heading into the 2021 Australian Open.

The men's game has long been dominated by the Big Three and that didn't exactly change in 2020. But Russian Andrey Rublev did his best to interrupt the status quo.

Rublev, 23, started his 2020 season by winning back-to-back titles at the Qatar Open and Adelaide International and never slowed down. He won three more titles, making the quarterfinals in New York and Paris, and cracked the top 10 to qualify for his first ATP Finals. It's not quite as good as winning a major, but it feels as if he's not far off from achieving that, too.

Honorable mention:

Jennifer Brady: The former UCLA player won her first WTA title at the Top Seed Open and made her first major semifinals at the US Open before losing a thriller to Osaka. The American finished the season with a career-high ranking at No. 24.

Sebastian Korda: The 20-year-old American and son of former Australian Open champion Petr Korda (and brother of LPGA stars Jessica and Nelly Korda) made it through qualifying in Paris and upset veterans John Isner and Andreas Seppi as he rolled through into the fourth round. He ultimately lost to Nadal, his idol, but made a dramatic rise in the rankings.

Jannik Sinner: The 19-year-old Italian became the youngest French Open quarterfinalist since Djokovic in 2006 (and the first to do so in his debut at the event since Nadal in 2005), as he knocked off sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev in the fourth round. He also fell to Nadal but followed up his Parisian debut by notching his first ATP title at the Sofia Open in November, becoming the youngest to do so since Kei Nishikori in 2008. He ended the year ranked No. 37 -- more than 40 spots higher than where he opened the 2020 season.

Players to watch in 2021

Bianca Andreescu: The 2019 US Open champion didn't play a match in 2020 as she recovered from a knee injury. She kept fans guessing during the tennis restart about her status but ultimately decided not to risk playing. She promises to be back and 100 percent for the Australian Open.

Matteo Berrettini: After reaching the US Open semifinals and making his first ATP Finals in 2019, the 24-year-old looked poised for a big year. But instead he struggled before and after the restart. His best result was a fourth-round run at the US Open. Will 2019 Berrettini return in 2021? He has to hope so.

Madison Keys: A staple of the second week at majors over past several years, Keys was lacking her normal spark this season. She opened the year with a final appearance in the Brisbane International but failed to make it past the third round in any of the other four events she entered.

Federer: Federer, the 20-time major champion, hasn't played since losing in the Australian Open semifinals. He underwent surgery on his right knee in February and had a follow-up procedure in June. He also plans to be back in time to play in Australia. Now 39, his career obviously is winding down. Hopefully he has another high-producing season (or two or three) left in him.

Gauff: After becoming the sport's latest teen phenom following her incredible 2019 season, Gauff opened the new year with a fourth-round run in Melbourne, including a win over defending champion Osaka. But the 16-year-old never seemed to find her rhythm in the restart -- losing in the first round at the US Open and in the second round at the French Open. She didn't fare much better in doubles with partner Caty McNally. Gauff is too talented and focused to struggle for long and she'll be motivated in 2021.

Serena Williams: The fan-less US Open looked to be the perfect scenario for Williams to tie Margaret Court's record of 24 major victories. She was a favorite entering the event. Then she fell to Azarenka in the semifinals and had to withdraw from the French Open before her second-round match due to an Achilles' injury she sustained during the Azarenka match. Although Williams won the Brisbane International, her first tournament title since coming back from childbirth, the season still feels like a missed opportunity.

If there's one thing tennis fans can say with certainty, no matter how unpredictable everything else seems, don't ever count out Serena. Will 2021 be the year she makes history? We will just have to wait and see.