In a four-part series to end the 2019 season, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back not just at the last year but at the last decade in tennis. This week, he examines ten highlights from the last ten years.
The 2010s can be viewed as the second part of the true Golden Age of Tennis, especially men’s tennis, that has essentially been the story of the world’s greatest individual sport in the first 20 years of the 21st century. If the noughties saw the beginning of the greatest rivalry in the history of the game and arguably the greatest rivalry in any sport ever, between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, then from 2010 onwards that rivalry became the “Trivalry”, as Novak Djokovic muscled his way in on the act and actually ended up upstaging his two supposed superiors for most of the decade.
In the women’s game, the 2010s were largely the story of Serena, as the younger Williams sister first fully emerged from the shadow of her older sister, Venus, which had seemed to hang over her for much of the previous ten years, before experiencing a dramatic slump at the end of the decade (perhaps not coincidentally after giving birth for the first time) and losing four Major Finals in a row. As a result, her dominance of women’s tennis has now given way to a kind of glorious free-for-all in which there are multiple female Major winners and, as yet, no dominant women’s world No.1 to replace her.
Here, then, are the first 5 of the 10 terrific things about tennis in the 2010s.
- The Emergence At The End of the Decade of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jannik Sinner
Such has been the complete domination of the men’s Majors by The Big Three of Roger, Rafa and Novak (the last man besides them to win a Major was Stan Wawrinka at the US Open in 2016) that towards the end of the decade there had been much talk about tennis, especially men’s tennis, becoming “an old man’s game”, or even a gerontocracy, where the old ruled over the young seemingly in perpetuity.
That was why the end to the men’s season in 2019 was so refreshing and potentially so historic. First, Jannik Sinner came from seemingly nowhere (or at least the granting of a wild card) to win the NextGen Finals in Milan, in the process demonstrating both staggering hitting power and a Zen-like composure that completely belied his 18 years. Then, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is only three years older than Sinner and had won the NextGen Finals himself in 2018, won the ATP Finals in London to announce himself as a possible Major-winner in 2020.
Both Sinner and Tsitsipas are not just potential stars of tennis but potential megastars. Italian tennis is already on the rise, with the awarding of the ATP Finals to Turin and the rapid development of new stars such as Marco Berrettini, who qualified for the penultimate ATP Finals in London. However, Sinner looks like being the jewel in the Italian crown. And Tsitsipas, with his flowing locks and magnificent groundstrokes (including a glorious single-handed backhand), could just be a Bjorn Borg for the 21st century, the new King of Tennis who proves that there is life after the three Old Kings have finally retired.
- Caroline Wozniacki Finally Wins A Major (the 2018 Australian Open)
With uncanny timing for this end-of-decade round-up, Caroline Wozniacki has just announced that she will retire from tennis after the 2020 Australian Open. Of course, it was at Albert Park in Melbourne that Wozniacki finally achieved her lifetime ambition of winning a Major and it is hard to think of a single Major win in the 2010s, in either the men’s or women’s game, that generated so much – indeed, almost universal – goodwill.
That was partly because of Wozniacki’s own personal back-story, as she had been very publicly dumped by Rory McIlroy (famously after their wedding invitations had already been posted), and McIlroy had gone on to win several of golf’s Majors while Wozniacki had, relatively speaking, languished, never quite fulfilling her undoubted potential. However, it was also because as a player she had laboured somewhat in the huge shadow cast by the Williams sisters, particularly Serena, who seemed to have all the power and sheer striking ability that she, for all her other outstanding attributes (notably her mobility), simply did not possess.
So, if Wozniacki had just won a run-of-the-mill, straight-sets victory to claim her first Major, that would have been sufficient cause for celebration in the tennis world. The fact that she had to fight for nearly three hours in the searing Australian heat against the great Simona Halep (who was so affected by the high temperatures that she had to be hospitalised after the match) in what was arguably the greatest women’s Major final of the decade only made it even more memorable.
- The Rise of Asian Tennis, Especially Asian Women’s Tennis
Globally speaking, probably the most important development in tennis in the 2010s was the increasing importance of Asia to the world game. That was evident in all kinds of ways, from the Australian Open rebranding itself as “The Major of Asia Pacific” to the growing number of ATP and WTA events being played in Asia, particularly China. However, on the court the most important development was the breakthrough in the Majors of two hugely impressive Asian women.
The first was China’s Li Na. She won her first Major, which was the first ever won by an Asian woman, at the 2011 French Open, defeating the reigning champion, Italy’s Francesca Schiavone, in straight sets in the Final. However, because of the considerable time and geographical distance between Europe and China, that first Major triumph did not quite have the impact in her homeland that it might have had. Fortunately for Li Na and for Asian women’s tennis in general, her second Major certainly did, as she won the 2014 Australian Open by beating Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulková (again in straight sets) in a time-zone that allowed her fellow Chinese to watch her in their many tens of millions.
Li Na retired at the end of the 2014 season, her tennis legacy sealed by those two Major triumphs, and it would be another four years before another Asian woman won one of the four grand prizes of tennis. That was Naomi Osaka, the Japanese-born/American-raised teenager who, by virtue of her “dual” identity, might just appeal to Western audiences as well as Asian audiences in a way that Li Na did not quite manage. Osaka won the 2018 US Open, riding out Serena Williams’s excruciating on-court meltdown, and then backed that up by winning the very next Major, the 2019 Australian Open. If she has not quite maintained that dominance since (partly, perhaps, because of an acrimonious split from her long-term coach after winning in Melbourne), she still has every chance of establishing herself in the long term as the new face of women’s tennis – not just Asian women’s tennis, but women’s tennis globally.
- The Big Three’s Davis Cup Wins
If, as Pierre-Hugues Herbert’s father said in Spain recently, “The Davis Cup is now dead” (which he attributed to the change in the century-old format to a new week-long competition in Spain), then at least it went down fighting, with the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all leading their respective countries to triumph in the last 10 years.
Indeed, Novak Djokovic arguably jump-started the whole tennis decade and reanimated his own career by leading Serbia to their first (and so far only) Davis Cup win in 2010. Djokovic himself has identified that victory as one of the main reasons for his own reinvention as a player, from being the most famous Third Man since Harry Lime for much of the noughties to being the most dominant male player in the 2010s.
Federer’s Davis Cup win with Switzerland in 2014 was arguably the most emotional of all The Big Three’s Davis Cup victories in the last decade, as he effectively formed a two-man team with Stan Wawrinka to triumph on French clay in Lille. The fact that barely a week earlier the two greatest Swiss players ever had allegedly been squabbling in the dressing room after an on-court falling-out during the ATP Finals only made their subsequent teamwork all the more impressive.
Nevertheless, arguably the single most impressive of The Big Three’s Davis Cup triumphs was the most recent one, that of Rafael Nadal at the first ever edition of the “new” Davis Cup in his home country of Spain. Unlike Federer and Djokovic, Nadal had won the Davis Cup before (several times in fact), but to do so in front of his adoring home crowd and in an utterly unforgiving format that tried to cram a year’s worth of Davis Cup matches into one week was truly astonishing, especially given his own injury record in the past.
- Serena Williams’s Glorious Mid-Decade Run
Frankly, it is staggering that Serena Williams won her first Major (the 1999 US Open) more than 20 years ago, proving that her own longevity is even greater than that of The Big Three in men’s tennis. However, even though she has consistently won Majors in the two decades since that initial triumph, the mid-part of the 2010s (roughly from 2012 to 2017) was undoubtedly her own personal imperial phase.
In that period, she won 10 Majors, including nearly winning the legendary Grand Slam of winning all four Majors in one year (and not just repeating the “Serena Slam” that she had achieved earlier in her career of holding all four Major titles simultaneously). In 2015, she won the first three Majors of the year before mysteriously capitulating against the unseeded Roberta Vinci of Italy in the semi-finals of the US Open. Since then, she has won two more Majors, including her last Major to date, the 2017 Australian Open, when, as she revealed later, she was already pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.
Of course, nearly three years on from that 23rd Major victory in total, which took her to within just a single Major of Margaret Court’s all-time record for a woman of 24 Majors, Serena has struggled, losing the last four Grand Slam Finals that she has reached to a variety of younger opponents. Nevertheless, even if she never quite matches Court, let alone overtakes her, the memory of her marvellous mid-2010s is so powerful that there can no longer be any reasonable debate about the identity of the greatest female tennis player ever. It is Serena, and her greatest period of dominance proved that.