Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The end of Federer-Nadal? Reflections on a golden age in men's tennis

[Did this summing-up piece for BusinessLine's BLink]

In the same way that many young film buffs are patronizing towards old movies – seeing them as creaky, mannered or generally incapable of matching the technical advancements and the edgier screenwriting of today – there is a species of sports fan who always trumpets the glories of the present over the past. Back in my cricket-watching days, when the Sachin Tendulkar-Don Bradman comparisons had just begun, a friend casually dismissed the idea that the Australian legend’s unbelievable batting average meant anything important. “The game was clubby and undemanding in Bradman’s time,” he said, with all the sagacity of someone who had studied cricketing history in depth (he hadn’t). Making vague sounds about the 1932 Bodyline attack “solving” Bradman, he neglected to acknowledge that the Don still averaged as much in that unsuccessful series as most top batsmen do overall, and that he faced the short-ball barrage without a helmet.

For such fans, modern athletes are by definition superior, and great contemporary matches are spectacles the likes of which have never before been seen. These perceptions are encouraged by a sports media that – faced with strong competition for eyeballs and click-throughs – never misses a chance to bulk up a current player’s or match’s credentials for “greatest of all time” (GOAT). In the process, while some statistics are overstated, some historical details are overlooked: for instance, that batsmen once played on uncovered, “sticky” wickets; or that tennis players had more demanding schedules 60 years ago, with far less cushy modes of travel and less time to get acclimatized to a variety of conditions.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that even someone who has been enthralled by men’s tennis over the past decade should be a little wary of the more dramatic narratives surrounding it. And yes, this comes from a card-carrying fan: since early 2006, I have followed the sport week in and out, tracking even the first-round matches of ATP-500 tournaments. Being a Rafael Nadal KAD (Kool-Aid Drinker, a sometimes disparaging term used for a huge fan of a player or team) during this period hasn’t stopped me from admiring the achievements of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and many others near the sport’s top tiers. There is little doubt that this era – which has also coincided with improvements in TV coverage and other viewing options, including sophisticated live streams – has been a stirring, special one.

What I’m not so sure about is whether it is the Golden Age of Golden Ages that it is sometimes made out to be, by fans crowding tennis websites, as well as by journalists. That Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are great champions is indisputable; but it is not uncommon now to find arguments that they are THE best male players ever (the order varies, depending on who you ask), a position that casually undermines the achievements of past greats such as Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. Here is current-day chauvinism hard at work.

Still, now is a good time to attempt a summing up: Federer and Nadal have both fallen out of the top 5 for the first time since June 2005, and given a combination of age, on-court mileage and injuries, there is no guarantee that either of them will return to the summit. Meanwhile, in another recent twist, Djokovic – who went from being solid supporting player to becoming an all-conquering champion in his own right – has shown low motivation and suffered a minor decline after completing his Career Slam at the French Open in June. Both he and Andy Murray – who has just reached the number one position for the first time, after years of playing in the shadow of the other three – will turn 30 next May; very few male players have won multiple Slams past that age. It certainly feels like the age of the Big Four is winding up.


In discussing what was so special about the last 10 years, one has to begin with Federer-Nadal, their names now linked together for all time. It wasn’t a very close rivalry, especially after Rafa rose from being a clay-court giant to all-surface excellence by 2008-09: his left-handed, top-spin-heavy game being laboratory-made to break down Federer’s one-handed backhand, the head-to-head between them is 23-11 in Nadal’s favour (and an even more lopsided 9-2 in Grand Slam matches). But the duopoly exercised by these men between 2005-2010 – and the best of their matches, such as the 2006 Rome Masters final and the 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon finals – left a huge impact on the sport, improving TV ratings and motivating other players, Djokovic, Murray and Stan Wawrinka among them, to raise their own games.

Sports narratives have always thrived on contrast, and here was an irresistible one, even if it was founded on clichés about style and aesthetics. Federer-Nadal was seen as a face-off between an elegant, versatile, preternaturally gifted champion who was to the manor born versus a brutish young caveman who slogged his way to the top through sheer grit and a repetitive game. This was simplistic and unfair to both players, implying as it did that Federer didn’t work extremely hard to get where he did, and that Nadal didn’t have much natural talent; and also neglecting basic facts, such as that the Spanish “beast” comes from an old-rich background and lives a mollycoddled life in a family mansion. But the narrative made for exciting theatre and brought more viewers into the sport, both to watch and to have impassioned online arguments about the perceived characteristics of their favourite player vis-à-vis his nemesis.

The rivalry is still seen as the high point of men’s tennis over this period, even though it was followed by two others – between each of these players and the rapidly ascending Djokovic – that were more competitive. (The Djokovic-Federer head-to-head is currently 23-22, while Djokovic-Nadal is 26-23; in both cases, the younger man took the lead after trailing the more established player for years.) In fact, Djokovic and Nadal have played each other in the finals of all four Slams – something Federer and Nadal didn’t do – with more evenly matched results.

Part of the reason why the matches involving only Nadal, Djokovic and Murray didn’t capture the imagination in the same way as Federer-Nadal had was that there wasn’t enough variety involved. Unlike Federer – whose primary game was a crisp, attacking one aimed at finishing points quickly – the other three are all, to varying degrees, baseline players with extraordinary defence-to-offence skills. If the much-feted 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal was hailed for its contrast in styles, the epic 2012 Australian Open final between Nadal and Djokovic was an intense, sometimes exhausting exercise in watching two players cut from the same cloth finding mad angles from every corner of the court.

This sort of play – often described by vexed Federer fans as boring and unappealing to the eye – has been on prominent display recently, in Slam finals between Djokovic and Murray. And to understand the nature of this game, and the era as a whole, one must factor in something that had a huge impact on the sport: the slowing down of playing surfaces around the world.

Around a decade and a half ago, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) responded to the charge that too many matches were “serve-fests”, with not enough long rallies, by making changes to the faster courts: Wimbledon used a variety of rye-grass that made the surface dry (especially after the first few days of play) and caused the ball to bounce higher and slower than before; the US Open added more silica sand to its acrylic; other tournaments followed suit. Some of the most notable characteristics of the modern sport – including all those eye-popping rallies with seemingly impossible-to-retrieve balls being put back into play – have been a direct result of this slowing down.

This homogenization has also aided the all-surface success of the top players. Between 2009 and 2016, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic each completed the Career Slam – winning all four majors at least once – which used to be among the rarest of tennis’s achievements. Many excitable fans regard this as further proof that we are in an age of unparalleled riches; the more circumspect point out that when most surfaces play similarly it becomes easier for the leading players to do well round the year. When Bjorn Borg won Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back thrice between 1978 and 1980, the two tournaments – one on slow clay, the other on genuinely fast-playing grass – involved very different skill-sets, and different sorts of players tended to excel at each; this was what made Borg’s achievement so remarkable, and it also helps explain why someone as good as Sampras reached the French Open semi-final only once, though he won Wimbledon seven times. When Federer and Nadal achieved this same “Channel Slam” in the 2000s, the surfaces were more similar. Even during one of his great career years, 2010, when he eventually won Wimbledon, Nadal struggled in the first week – when the grass is fresher, moister and plays more like it did in the past – being taken to five sets by the much lower-ranked opponents Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner.


But every sport goes through cyclical phases; if the last decade was marked by slowing down, there is now, inevitably, talk of speeding up – and not necessarily by changing surfaces again. Recent exhibition matches, some featuring top players like Federer, Murray and Lleyton Hewitt, have experimented with new scoring systems, such as one where you need a minimum of four games (rather than six) to win a set, a tie-break is won by the player who reaches five points (instead of seven) with a difference of two, and there are no “advantage” points (at 40-40 or deuce, whoever wins the next point wins the game).

If any of these ideas are implemented in official matches – and it will probably take a while for that to happen – we might, with hindsight, view the past decade as the final showcase for the truly epic match: the Slam final or semi-final that stretched over four or five hours. It would also be a reminder that tennis needs to be jazzed up for the young, impatient viewer. If some people viewed the Sampras-Ivanisevic serve-and-volley points of the 1990s as one-dimensional, then long-drawn-out battles of attrition can be just as dull; perhaps the sport needs a middle ground.

What else does the future have in store? If Djokovic and Murray start to wind down soon, we could be in for a cooling-off period where the next dominant champion is hard to identify – something like the sport saw in 2002-03, when the ball was in the air between Hewitt, Federer, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Juan Carlos Ferrero and the aging Andre Agassi.

Some young players who showed terrific promise a few years ago – Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic among them – haven’t quite been able to break the Big Four stranglehold. But there is a generation just behind them, which has made big strides this year. There is the Australian Nick Kyrgios, supremely talented but already with a well-earned reputation as a bad boy, churlish on the court, capable of tanking a match if he doesn’t feel too motivated on the day. There is the much steadier Austrian, Dominic Thiem, who has had a terrific 2016 – even making it to the prestigious year-end championships featuring the top eight players – but who may also have over-played and tired himself out. The German teenager Alexander Zverev, who already has some impressive wins against a number of top 10 players – including Federer – to his credit. The Frenchman Lucas Pouille who beat Nadal at the US Open this year, and shortly afterwards won his first ATP tournament in Metz.

It’s hard at the moment to imagine that any of these players could forge rivalries as dramatic as the ones involving Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, but sports-followers must always expect to be surprised. When Sampras retired with a record 14 Slams as recently as 2002, no one could have thought that three different players would overtake or threaten that record within the next 15 years. When Djokovic was world number one with a buffer of several thousand ranking points over his nearest competitor in June, it didn’t seem conceivable that he could lose the top position this year. Perhaps, a couple of years from now, we could see finals that are high-octane and intensely fought, but still take up only 80 minutes of our time and have scorecards that read 4-2, 4-2, 4-5(3), 4-2 – at which point even those who once complained about the length of Nadal-Djokovic matches might get dewy-eyed about the good old days.

[A few earlier tennis posts are here – among them, this long piece about narrative-making in sport]


  1. It's so very hard to engage in GOAT debates in Tennis. In Cricket, you have measures of success like Batting and Bowling average which have exhibited remarkable stability over time. No such metric exists in Tennis. Also it's a far far more physical sport than Cricket placing a far greater premium on athleticism than pure skill. It's possible to sport a tummy and still be a great batsman or bowler even in our times (Inzamam ul Haq for instance)...But next to impossible in Tennis

    My top 10 in Tennis at this time of the day (in no particular order) : Laver, Sampras, Federer, Gonzales, Borg, Don Budge, Kramer, Nadal, Djokovic, Rosewall/McEnroe

  2. Interesting list. You'd put Rosewall that far down? Not that I'm an expert on the details of that era and the amateur-pro schism that has made it so difficult to assess records/stats, but knowledgeable old-timers always seem to place him very close to Laver

  3. It is in no particular order :)

    I havent heard of Rosewall being ranked with Laver. But an all time great nonetheless. Some names I missed out on, in that list -

    Bill Tilden, Jimmy Connors, Ellsworth Vines, Lew Hoad, Newcombe, Agassi

  4. Just came across Jack Kramer's personal list of the greatest players of all time (he was writing in 1979) :

    Writing in 1979, Kramer considered the best ever to have been either Don Budge (for consistent play) or Ellsworth Vines (at the height of his game). The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. After these six came the "second echelon" of Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Jack Crawford, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors. He felt unable to rank Henri Cochet and René Lacoste accurately but felt they were among the very best.