The evolving world of men’s tennis: Predictable brilliance or wider competition?

The year is 2002 and the youngest ever World Number 1 sits atop the throne. Lleyton Hewitt, with his characteristic backwards cap, has won Wimbledon, yet he is by no means dominant. Swede Thomas Johansson has beaten Marat Safin in the Australian Open final, Albert Costa has defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero in the French Open and the great Pete Sampras has also won a Grand Slam, beating long-time rival Andre Agassi in the US Open final. The young, mercurial talent of Roger Federer is rising up the rankings at an alarming rate and is already a genuine threat, whilst elsewhere Tim Henman proves he is a dangerous player on grass and the big-serving American Andy Roddick has impressed with a few title wins. It’s a year of great excitement in tennis as the veterans of the tour mix with young, fiery blood and predicting a Grand Slam winner is just about as hard as it gets. Let us not forget the Goran Ivanisevic wild card Wimbledon win the previous year against Pat Rafter!

Skip forwards a year to 2003… Once again it is an unpredictable and exciting time as a whole host of players vie to get their hands on the much-coveted Grand Slams. Hewitt becomes the first defending Wimbledon men’s champion to lose in the first round, his demise coming in the form of Ivo Karlovic – Federer eventually going on to win his first ever Wimbledon. Juan Carlos Ferrero finally gets his hands on the French Open trophy at Roland Garros, Andre Agassi wins at a canter in straight sets against Rainer Schuttler in the Australian Open and Andy Roddick triumphs in his first Grand Slam win in the US Open after his victorious match against Juan Carlos Ferrero – reaching World Number 1 status in the process. Both 2002 and 2003 had different Grand Slam winners in each Championship, a trend that a young man named Roger Federer was about to change.

These years come sandwiched between two spells of great dominance, one being Pete Sampras and his devastating serve-volley style of play that saw him win 14 Grand Slams, and the latter being Federer. Having won his first Wimbledon in 2003, Federer went on to become a consistently dominant force until the arrival of Nadal and, more recently, Djokovic on the tour, created the so-called ‘big three’. Pete Sampras’ record at the time was incredible, yet it was an achievement Federer was to eclipse. Sampras’ dominance included winning 7 of the 8 Wimbledon Championships prior to 2002.

In the modern era of the ‘big three’ most tennis fans want to rightly see a Grand Slam final featuring 2 of them (or for British fans, Andy Murray who is well worth a mention having recently won Wimbledon and previously the US Open). Despite Federer now dropping to 7th in the rankings a lot of tennis fans would rather watch a household name who they have already formed an opinion on over a young star of the future. In this case, the predictability of tennis is a good thing as it pretty much guarantees two recognizable players will be battling it out in the final. When served up against one another the standard of tennis is simply incredible and the matches are more than just a battle of talent as physical strength, tactics and mental willpower play a huge part in how the game is to be determined. It is incredibly rare that the games are not a spectacle – unlike Agassi’s straight sets final win over Schuttler in 03 – and the greater the spectacle, surely the greater the sport. No player seems capable of consistently breaking into the current Nadal/Djokovic reign, Andy Murray being the closest but still some way adrift. This predictability makes the results in the beginning four or five rounds of any tournament almost a foregone conclusion. Players such as Del Potro (who has also recently won the US Open), Andy Murray, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer have beaten the top 2 before and can do so again but when it matters they are often found wanting. In an ideal situation there would be five or six players capable of breaching the gulf, ensuring suspense leading up to the finals of a tournament, whilst also avoiding non-recognizable names progressing into the latter stages of a tournament, thus sucking interest out of it. A Grand Slam is built for the best and it is definitely more interesting when the best are in it. However, tournaments have never been about winning rounds, and nor should they ever be. As long as the elite can continue to deliver the same standard of games as they have been doing, nobody will or should complain about the fact that since Marat Safin’s 2005 Australian Open win, every single Grand Slam, bar Del Potro’s US Open winning year in 2009, has been won by one of the top four seeds (Andy Murray being the 4th seed). Murray has only won two finals, meaning that in the last 31 Grand Slams (US Open 2013 is currently ongoing as the 32nd), 29 of those tournaments have incredibly been won by Nadal, Djokovic or Federer.

We are in a ‘golden age’ for tennis, period. We have the pleasure of watching the greatest tennis player of all time (Federer) and perhaps the 2 next best on a regular basis. The elite three winning all the time may never be particularly exciting in terms of general competition in the sport but one cannot substitute greater competition for less quality. These three have pushed the boundaries of tennis standards to a level never before seen – In the 2011 season Djokovic finished the year with a record of 70W – 6L and number 1 in the World – Pete Sampras calling it the best season he had ever seen. Federer widely regarded as the best player ever and his 17 Grand Slam titles certainly explain that accolade.

So apart from the arrival of these top talents, what else is different from the early 2000s? Surfaces have become much more uniform resulting in specialists having significantly less chance of causing an upset. A perfect example of this is Tim Henman who was a grass court specialist. Back in his prime his win percentage would greatly increase during the grass court season and then he would struggle during, for example, the clay court season as this period was traditionally dominated by Spaniards. Nowadays, excluding the remarkable record Nadal has at the French Open, the great players can adapt to each surface since the ATP decided to make them more similar (despite being the ‘King of clay’ Nadal is no stranger to Grand Slam wins on other surfaces).

In tennis, because it is an individual sport, generally the most talented player wins, whereas in a team sport there are lots of factors to include and the best teams don’t always win. Unless there are special circumstances such as injury, the best tennis player normally wins the match, hence why Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have been so colossal. The ATP seeding system also works in their favour as top ranked players don’t play each other until the latter rounds of a tournament – there are positives and negatives for this: as mentioned before this results in the qualifying rounds mostly becoming a formality, however on a positive note it means the best players should reach the semi-finals. Casual tennis fans would most likely not recognize a lot of players outside of the top 15 as they rarely get a chance to showcase their talents on the big stage, unless drawn against one of the elite. Occasionally there are of course great battles in qualifying rounds – John Isner vs Nicolas Mahut being the standout as the two played the longest tennis match ever at Wimbledon 2010, Isner eventually winning the final 5th set 70-68 in games.

To conclude I find myself leaning toward both sides of the argument. Put it this way: as a Championship tournament, was Roland Garros 2003 more exciting when Juan Carlos Ferrero lifted the trophy or when Nadal won it the eight time this year? As a tournament I would say 2003, yet Nadal is clearly a much better player than Ferrero… The standard of tennis is certainly better now, the quality of games between Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and now Murray have been ridiculously high – top drawer rallies and matches lasting hours. I would say it is probably better to have dominance by brilliance rather than sharing out titles between good but not great players. I think it comes down to: do you swap brilliance in the latter rounds for straight sets snoozes in the earlier rounds? In my opinion, yes. However, in an ideal world I would love to see the rest of the top 10 ranked players breach the gap created to create a more exciting tour. Tennis is ready for new challengers having had a prolonged period of domination from the same players. If there were more genuine contenders then people would be more interested in the whole tournament rather than just the later rounds. Unfortunately as Nadal and Djokovic are that good I can’t really see it happening, but because of their quality it is not disastrous.

My final thoughts are: A decade or so ago the sport was possibly more exciting, but the standard was definitely not as good. The elite have caused us to marvel at the quality they have pushed the game to, and their myriad rivalries, but in them being predictably superb I feel tennis has been slightly robbed of the very essence of what makes sport exciting. There isn’t really a definitive answer but if you asked me who I would like to see in the final of the US Open currently ongoing I would without doubt say Nadal vs Djokovic.

 

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Chris Smith
Founder of Vivi Nation, sports enthusiast, occasional triathlete, keen cyclist and optimistic Liverpool FC fan.

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