Most news stories on men’s tennis in the past two years have been scraping the thesaurus for new ways to eulogize the current state of the game. And fair enough, it’s undeniable that in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, we are privileged to be witnessing three of the greatest players of all time doing battle on the biggest stages of all.
But after witnessing the Australian Open this year, I couldn’t help but wind back the clock a decade and think that in January 2003, things were altogether more exciting for tennis fans. Back then, we had a whole host of players capable of lifting the game’s biggest titles. Lleyton Hewitt was world number one, but was by no means dominant. Andre Agassi was still winning Grand Slams, Andy Roddick was breaking onto the scene, Tim Henman was a genuine threat on grass, Marat Safin was up there in the rankings, Juan Carlos Ferrero ruled the clay, and in Federer, there was a mercurial young talent waiting to mature and blossom into a serial major winner.
Nowadays, the Grand Slams are dominated by a select elite group of four players. And it’s been the case for some time now since Juan Martin del Potro managed to break through and win the U.S. Open in 2009. Before del Potro’s triumph, you had to look back to Safin’s 2005 Australian Open win to find the last time someone not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic won a ‘big one.’
Yes we’ve marveled at the standards the ‘Big Four’ have pushed the game to and the myriad rivalries have been intriguing, but unfortunately, it’s made everything a little too predictable and it’s robbed tennis of the very essence of what makes the sport exciting.
The Premier League (the English professional league for association football clubs) would be frankly rubbish if Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal won every single game apart from the ones between themselves and the title race was decided by a select handful of weekends. The fact that even the most dominant clubs slip up every so often keeps us watching. Formula One suffered a little in 2012 because Sebastian Vettel was so brilliant, he had the title sewn up halfway through the season.
With men’s tennis at the moment, it almost feels like a waste of time tuning in before the semifinals because you know who’s going to be there and that’s often reflected in much lower viewing totals during the first week as the top seeds go through the motions without breaking sweat. The first 10 days is one grand warm-up before the real event gets underway in the final three. The appetite for both quality and unpredictability was reflected by the media interest in November’s Paris Masters when qualifier Jerzy Janowicz came through nowhere to beat four top 20 players on the way to the final.
Unfortunately in the Slams, it seems like many of the draw don’t really believe they can beat the very best players. Just look at the easy ride Andy Murray had on the way to the semifinals this year. And the most disappointing match of the tournament was to see David Ferrer get brushed aside so comprehensively in the last four. While Djokovic in full flow is great to watch, he didn’t even need to be close to his best to win that match and Ferrer’s comments after the match suggested that he’d been a beaten man before he even walked on court … not the kind of attitude you want to hear from the fourth seed.
I find myself hankering for the days when a player ranked outside the top 10 could have a genuine shot at winning a major. The problem is partly the ATP’s decision to make the surfaces for the four slams more uniform and so it’s not too hard for the very best players to succeed wherever they go.
This probably all sounds a little pessimistic, but you have to wonder, would tennis be more entertaining if it was a little more unpredictable?