The curse of the year-end Finals? A look at first-time year-end Finals champions who have struggled to kick on in subsequent seasons

Leye Aduloju in Features 21 Nov 2018
  • First-time winners at the year-end Finals have generally struggled to kick on in subsequent seasons
  • Grigor Dimitrov and Dominika Cibulkova are among the prime examples
Grigor Dimitrov. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Alexander Zverev and Elina Svitolina won the ATP and WTA Finals respectively in very impressive fashion, and are expected to kick on next year, but recent history suggests that Finals success doesn’t necessary translate into bigger things for first-time year-end champions.

Some first-time titlists have gone on to enjoy relative success in subsequent seasons, most notably, Caroline Wozniacki, who backed up her 2017 WTA Finals victory with a maiden Grand Slam triumph at the Australian Open in 2018, but there have been quite a few other players who have sharply declined after winning the year-end title for the first time, as seen in the list below. (The list is in no particular order).

Nikolay Davydenko (ATP Finals champion, 2009)

Nikolay Davydenko. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Former top-ten star, Nikolay Davydenko earned his biggest career title in spectacular fashion at the 2009 ATP Finals, beating Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro in a stunning week at the O2 Arena, but rather than the expected boom, what followed was a sharp decline in form and results. A wrist injury early in 2010 did not help, as Davydenko, who had contested the championship match at the ATP Finals in back-to-back years, failed to qualify for the season-ending tournament for the first time in five years, and was out of the top 20 by the end of the season. He never made it back into that bracket until his retirement in October 2016.

Andy Murray (ATP Finals champion, 2016)

Between Davydenko’s success in 2009 and Andy Murray’s first-time triumph in 2016, Roger Federer claimed his fifth and sixth titles, while Novak Djokovic had surged to five titles, dominating the O2 between 2012 and 2015. 

Andy Murray. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Andy Murray broke that streak in 2016, capping a sensational late surge with a very popular victory in London, dislodging Djokovic as the No. 1 in the process. Murray, who had claimed his second Wimbledon title during a career-best season finished the year on a 24-match, five-title winning run- clearly the best player in the world.

However, as was the case with Davydenko, injury struck in the next season, with the Brit ending his year after limping through a five set quarter final loss to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. He underwent hip surgery in January 2018 and didn’t return to action until June 2018- almost a year after he was last seen. He played just six tournaments in a stuttering comeback, reaching an emotional quarter-final in Washington and another in Shenzhen before closing his season. Murray fell as low as 839th in the ranking, and finished the year ranked 260th. Great thing for Andy Murray is that he had three Grand Slam titles before winning the ATP Finals!

Agnieszka Radwanska (WTA Finals champion, 2015)

Agnieszka Radwanska. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images for WTA)
Before Agnieszka Radwanska won the WTA Finals title in 2015, she had made one Grand Slam final, three Grand Slam semi-finals and four other quarter finals, but following that success in Singapore, she went past the fourth round of a major just once (a semi-final at the 2016 Australian Open) until her retirement in 2018. Radwanska actually had a very good back-up season in 2016, winning titles in Shenzhen, New Haven and Beijing, and making marquee semi-finals at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Singapore, during her title defence, but the decline kicked in sharply in 2017, when she went the whole season without winning a title. She was down at 28th by the end of the year- the first time she would finish a season outside the top ten since 2010. 2018 wasn’t much better as the Pole struggled with injuries, and subsequently announced her retirement at the age of 29.

Dominika Cibulkova (WTA Finals champion, 2016)

Dominika Cibulkova’s one and only appearance at the WTA Finals (so far) ended in title-winning glory, as the Slovak overpowered Angelique Kerber in the final to lift her biggest career title. That remains her biggest career title, as the former Australian Open finalist has made just one Grand Slam quarter final since then.

Dominika Cibulkova. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Cibulkova finished the 2016 season inside the top 5 by virtue of that WTA Finals success, but she struggled for form and fitness in the following year, with the player later admitting that she had failed to deal with her new status in the upper echelons of the rankings. Cibulkova was down at 26th by the end of 2017, and while she finished just one spot higher in 2018, there were signs of improvement, with the 29-year-old making a couple of WTA finals, and a quarter final at Wimbledon. 

Grigor Dimitrov (ATP Finals champion, 2017)

Grigor Dimitrov produced a career-best season in 2017, reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open- matching his previous best Grand Slam record, claiming his first Masters 1000 crown in Cincinnati, and rounding it up with success at the Nitto ATP Finals. The Bulgarian ended the year at No. 3 in the world, and looked finally set to go on and fulfill the potentials he had had since he was a youngster. But things went south again in 2018.

Unlike Murray and Davydenko, Dimitrov cannot really point to any major injury problems as reason for his alarming slump- although he did have a few niggles to contend with. A title-less Dimitrov was well short of qualification for the Nitto ATP Finals, ending 2018 with a tame 24-19 record, and a year-end ranking of 19.

Will Zverev and Svitolina kick on from their maiden successes at the year-end Finals, and make their first real impact in a major, or will they follow the paths of the players above?

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The curse of the year-end Finals? A look at first-time year-end Finals champions who have struggled to kick on in subsequent seasons

A look at first-time year-end Finals champions who have struggled to kick on in subsequent seasons

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