(L-R) Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Photographs by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters and Gregorio Borgia.
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Lost in transition: imagining a world after tennis’s legends make their exit

As the first Grand Slam tournament of 2019 kicks off, a fan ponders the inevitable but long-dreaded changing of the guard in the great game of tennis.
Exie Abola | Jan 16 2019

Tennis is at a turning point. Its stars are getting long in the tooth, the ranks of its up-and-comers are swelling, and it feels like we’re at a point where some seismic shift is about to take place.

Or so we’re often told. It feels as if we’ve been asking “Could this be the year?” for the last five years or so. Jon Wertheim of SI.com, perhaps the one indispensable writer in tennis today, said in his end-of-2018 mailbag—when he was asked what he thought 2019 would bring to the game—that what concerned him wasn’t discrete events or stories but the “existential question”: “how is tennis transitioning from one era to another? . . . [A]t some point, and possibly soon, there will be draws at Majors featuring no Federer, no Serena, no Nadal, no Venus and no Sharapova. Those ain’t moth-eaten holes. Those are gaping chasms. This is the energy sector wondering where we go after fossil fuels.” Indeed, it’s just like climate change: cataclysmic yet slow as melting ice.

Serena Williams of the US (L) and Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) take a selfie following their mixed doubles match on day four of the Hopman Cup tennis tournament in Perth January 1, 2019. Photograph by Tony Ashby, AFP

 

The triumvirate still at the top

The hand-wringing over who will fill these “gaping chasms” has been with us for a while now, and it only gets more vigorous. In men’s tennis, speculation over that glaring absence tends to center on the figure of Roger Federer, universally acknowledged as the greatest player ever in the men’s game, and so loved and admired that he has the home court advantage whenever he steps onto it. At a gravity-defying 37 years old, the Fed is alive and well and still very, very good. He’s closer to 40 than to 30 now, an age when most top players of the past had long retired (Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, just to name a few of very many) or are barely hanging on to the remnants of a career.

Every year people ask if this is it, the year he finally falls off a cliff. Not likely. He’s still gleefully dancing on its edges. I can’t remember the last time a 37-year-old was ranked Number Three in the world. Federer had a downer of a 2018 after such a rousing 2017, when he returned from a six-month layoff to add the Australian Open and Wimbledon to his tally of majors. But he looked sharp at the Hopman Cup, the mixed-gender team competition that straddles the New Year’s. In the singles competition he dispatched youngsters Alexander Zverev (21 years old), Stephanos Tsitsipas (20), and Frances Tiafoe (20) without dropping a set. He looks ready to snatch a seventh Australian Open title.

Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, bottom, in action during their mixed doubles match against Frances Tiafoe and Serena Williams of the United States at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019. Photograph by Trevor Collens

The match against Zverev at the Hopman Cup was especially intriguing. Two years ago Federer went down against the young German in three tiebreakers. At the year-ending ATP Masters in London just two months ago, Zverev beat both Federer and Djokovic to take his first significant crown. Yet here he was, all of 21 years old, getting his tail kicked by the 37-year-old Swiss maestro.

But then again Federer may be the outlier that proves the rule. Or maybe the rule has simply changed. After all, when else did the tennis world feature a cohort of thirtysomethings (Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic) at its peak? Those three have changed the game and our expectations of it.

Rafa Nadal is still king of clay, and unless a freight train hits him (one named Dominic Thiem, perhaps, the only player to beat the Spaniard on clay last year), he is the overwhelming favorite to win a mind-boggling twelfth French Open crown in May. He isn’t so bad on hard courts or grass either, claiming the US Open title in 2017 and getting to the semis at last year’s Wimbledon, where he lost a five-set thriller, the match of the year (according to Tennis.com), to eventual champion Djokovic. At 33, Nadal is Number Two in the world and still damn good.

United States' Frances Tiafoe reacts after winning a point against South Africa's Kevin Anderson during their second round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Photoraph by Andy Brownbill

As good Federer and Nadal these past two years, 2018 belonged to neither of these titans. It belonged to Djokovic, who returned to the lofty heights from which he ruled the sport in 2014–16. After an injury-plagued lull that lasted some 24 months, in which he either didn’t play or didn’t play well, the Serb came roaring back in the middle of 2018, capturing Wimbledon and the US Open. By year’s end he was Number One again.

The eye test confirms it. He’s scampering like a jungle cat all over the court again, reaching balls that look out of reach, making impossible recoveries, blunting attacks with ridiculous ease. Tennis.com consulted seven experts to choose their favorite to win the Australian Open, the first of the four Grand Slam tournaments of the calendar, and which has started as I write this. For men’s singles, they were unanimous: Djokovic would go all the way.

 

My own long view

Maybe I’m not all that anxious about a changing of the guard. I began watching tennis when Bjorn Borg was in his prime, so my perspective is a little long. I’ve seen wood and metal rackets give way to graphite and other synthetic materials. You used to be either a baseliner or a serve-and-volleyer. Now most everyone plays the power baseline game, even Federer, who had to abandon the serve-and-volley style he broke into the game with.

Federer reaches for a backhand return to Britain's Daniel Evans during their second round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Photograph by Mark Schiefelbein

Conventional wisdom was to hit the ball deep and down the middle, to keep your opponent behind the baseline and to neutralize his power. These days players can rip winners off of such balls. I used to be shocked when someone would crack an inside-out two-handed backhand winner from the middle of the baseline; I’m not anymore. Long ago you were supposed to loft the ball six to ten feet over the net with your groundstrokes, to give yourself plenty of margin for error, in baseline rallies. Watch TV and you’ll see the ball zing over the net by mere inches, as players wallop the ball, relying on the massive topspin generated by their space-age rackets and uppercut swings to keep the ball in the court.

But of course the game is changing. The ice melts somewhere in a place far, far away, even if you don’t see it. Cataclysmic change is happening everywhere in the world, whether it’s in sports, politics, or the environment.

And we haven’t seen it, not for a long while. The Federer–Nadal–Djokovic stranglehold on the men’s sport (punctuated intermittently by Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, and Marin Cilic) has lasted so long the up-and-comers of a generation ago are still around, older, but no more accomplished. Their elders are still in the way. Guys like Milos Raonic, Gregor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, and John Isner surge into the top ten and fall out without ever quite rising to the ranks of the elite.

Rafael Nadal celebrates winning the match against Australia's James Duckworth. Photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

And now an even newer and younger crop has arrived, talented and hungry. Zverev won the year-ending ATP Masters in London, the unofficial fifth major, beating both Federer and Djokovic en route to the trophy. He is the youngest player in the top ten. Karen Khachanov of Russia beat Djokovic in November’s Paris Masters and sits, at age 22, just outside the top ten. Tsitsipas of Greece took Federer to tiebreakers in two tense sets at the Hopman Cup. He’s within the top twenty. Will they or any of the others knock the oldies off their perch?

 

The clock ticks for all

Maybe, but probably not soon. If it’s any consolation to them, they will have their time. The reign of the Big Three has been unusually long, but it too shall pass. Already they’ve spent swathes of time away from the game because of injury. Nadal battles nagging issues every year and played less in 2018 than he did in previous seasons. Federer has cut back on his schedule to preserve his energy, giving up on the midyear clay court tournaments. Djokovic, the youngest of the three, has already had surgery to his elbow. The continuation of his dominance probably depends more on his health than on the ascent of his younger competitors.

Federer is one of the men to keep an eye on at the Australian Open, Jan. 14-27, 2019. Photograph by Alastair Grant

Though the world warms slowly, sometimes a whole ledge of ice falls into the ocean. Andy Murray, born in the same month as Djokovic and forever tied to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic as the shortest leg of what is sometimes referred to as the Big Four (without those three he might have a dozen Slams in the bag), is calling it a career. Injury to his right hip led to surgery, a dicey procedure very few athletes have come back from. His attempts to return kept failing, and just a week ago he announced that he would retire by July’s Wimbledon, where he was twice champion, at the latest. Murray, gamely hobbling through his first-round match, a gutsy five-set marathon he eventually lost was a picture of fight, and of how fight isn’t enough when the body fails.

And we have enough images of the very best in the game failing. Federer slipping on the grass as he lost to Raonic at Wimbledon 2016, Djokovic dumping a volley off the throat of his racket into the net in a stunning defeat to the unremarkable Sam Querrey at that same Wimbledon, Nadal pulling up lame and retiring from a match because of another injury (last year in Melbourne and in Flushing Meadows).

Spain's Rafael Nadal in action during his match against South Africa's Kevin Anderson. Photograph by Suhaib Salem, Reuters

The clock ticks for them as it does for all, no matter how well they have kept up the illusion that they defy it. It’s only time, as they say, that remains undefeated. Murray, at age 31, has a career arc that looks like those of yesteryear’s champions. Federer and Nadal continue to thrive (and Djokovic too, if he keeps it up) in what should be the decline phases of their careers. But one day they will indeed decline. Maybe suddenly (thanks to an injury that can’t be overcome) or gradually (the slow deterioration of their skills). When they too will hang up their sneakers, it will be a sad, sad day. Their light will have shined so brightly and for so long they sometimes made us forget that they too are merely mortal.