Since the dawn of the Open Era, the greatest of greats have filtered into the world of tennis in a steady and unbroken flow. The likes of Laver, Newcombe, Ashe were quickly replaced by names like Borg, Connors, McEnroe and more. Then came Wilander, Becker, Lendl and Edberg who were eventually usurped by the supreme dominance of Sampras and Agassi. The year of Agassi’s final slam doubled as the season of Federer’s first as the Swiss began his unrivalled dominance, before he was slowly joined by the final three pieces of the jigsaw.
The exact same can be said of the women. The years of King, Court and Goolagong were quickly annexed by the legendary rivalry that was Evert and Navratilova. Graf would then rise and dominated until a woman by the name of Monica Seles strolled in as her equal. Eventually, a 16 year-old called Martina rose to prominence and ushered in an era which included the likes of the Williamses, the Belgians and even the Russians as they stamped their names indelibly into the history books.
What made these different eras special was that, as the technology accelerated and the game was irreversibly transformed, each new group of players remained one step ahead of the rapid change surrounding them. With every generation came a new focal point in tennis – greater athleticism, more destructive serving, increasingly breathtaking returns or simply the baseline. Even during the numerous transitional lulls, there was always the heart-pumping anticipation and expectation of a bright, new supernova to save the day.
Presently, professional tennis paints a whole different picture. Whether or not today is truly the “golden era” remains a hotly-contested point, but undeniable is the fact that – with the combined athleticism, ability and talent they possess – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have pushed tennis to levels unseen. It’s difficult to imagine any other player as perfectly complete, naturally talented and efficient as Federer, as supremely athletic as Nadal or as scarily machine-like as Djokovic, or anything even remotely close.
But that’s the least of our worries. More concerning is that the drop-off between the level of this generation and the next appears to be the equivalent of tumbling off Mount Everest. The current rising generation spearheaded by Tomic, Raonic and Dimitrov are hardly the most convincing bunch themselves, but beyond them is a damning dark pit of nothingness. For the first time in history, not a single teenager inhabits the top 240. Unless the youngsters of the next few years make the transition onto the main tour, and complete it with haste, the ATP’s future appears woefully bleak.
The WTA’s so-called golden days can be traced back to around decade ago, between the end of the 90s and perhaps 2007 or 2008. These times were also characterized largely by hybrid-type elite players who possessed a combination of incredible athleticism, weaponry, variety and ability in all areas of the court. There was something for everyone. The Williams Sisters with their unrivalled athleticism, power and ability in the forecourt; Hingis and her perfectly-timed early ballstriking, unmatched intelligence and variety or the modern-day dynamic variety utilized by Henin and Mauresmo.
In contrast to the ATP’s startling drop, the women’s tour has been on a slow but steady demise for half a decade. As most players from the previous generation have bowed out, they have slowly been replaced by more one dimensional players. Some are capable of attacking, others specialize in defence, the rest can execute both to a limited extent, but how many are truly great? The rising stars have been the hot topic so far in 2013, spearheaded by Sloane Stephens’ Australian Open semifinal and 16 year-old Donna Vekic comfortably establishing herself in the top 100, but so far the young players too appear to fall straight into the same mould.
It just appears tennis has collided into a brick wall and is slowly moving in reverse. The sport remains enthralling and the players impressive, but ultimately almost every up-and-coming player appears to lack the quality required to make them truly memorable. When this and similar topics are brought up, many are quick to toss around phrases like “age eligibility rule” and “increased physicality”, but the issues are likely far more complicated and inherent. For example, the talent pool is probably smaller than ever before, as the best athletes make a bee-line for easier, cheaper and more popular sports.
So, as the new generations rise and we scan the derelict and broken landscape for a bright spark to guide us thorough the scarily imminent post-Williams and post-Federer eras, at least for now, I won’t be holding my breath.