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.
- Andy Murray’s Two Wimbledon Wins
Of course, for any British tennis fan there can be only one player and one event that tops this list – Andy Murray, for his 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Singles win, which he repeated three years later. Indeed, for any British sporting fan in general Murray’s first Wimbledon triumph might just be the highlight of their entire viewing or listening career. It is certainly impossible to think of any other individual achievement by a British athlete of either gender that comes close in terms of both sporting magnitude and genuine historic importance.
Famously, prior to Murray’s 2013 victory it had been 77 years since a British man had won Wimbledon (the great Fred Perry in 1936). So long had been the sporting drought that it was quite reasonably argued that the only British sporting achievement greater than a British man winning Wimbledon would be the England football team winning another World Cup, to go with the country’s lone triumph in 1966. But of course football, unlike tennis, is a team game and so the pressure on Murray’s shoulders must have been uniquely heavy for an individual.
Murray had already won a Major a year earlier in New York, but, rather like Li Na’s maiden Major win in France in 2011, it did not have quite the impact on his home fans that it might have done, given that it took place in the middle of the night in a different time-zone. So the pressure was still there the following summer when he reached the Wimbledon Final for the second successive year, having lost to an inspired Roger Federer in 2012. However, since losing the actual Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final to the great Swiss, Murray had won a de facto “Wimbledon” by beating Federer in the 2012 Olympic Men’s Singles Final, which was played out at Wimbledon. Perhaps that prepared him for the task of defeating Novak Djokovic in 2013, which he accomplished in straight sets, to produce probably the single greatest British sporting roar since Geoff Hurst scored his hat-trick goal at Wembley in 1966.
- The Glorious Uncertainty of Contemporary Women’s Tennis
In the wake of Serena Williams’s (relative) fall from grace since winning the 2017 Australian Open, women’s tennis has entered a new and gloriously uncertain era, in which apparently anyone (or at least anyone in the top 20) can win a Major and indeed often does. A succession of women have won one Major, or at most two Majors, as they fight it out between them to become Serena’s natural successor as the dominant Women’s World No.1.
Of course, in one sense it is a shame that there has been no out-and-out or undisputed No.1 since Serena last won a Major, because that means for the casual tennis or sports fan that there has not been a readily or even easily identifiable “face” of women’s tennis, or perhaps more accurately “name” of women’s tennis, to follow the likes of Serena, Venus, Martina (Hingis), Steffi, Monica, Martina (Navratilova) and Chrissie, whose first names alone were enough to identify them, given their dominance of the sport.
However, for serious tennis fans (who, ultimately, are far more important for the well-being of the sport than casual tennis fans) the past three years or so have been incredible, especially in the women’s game. Indeed, the constant sense of change and flux in the women’s game has appeared very favourable in comparison with the apparent sense of stasis at the top of men’s tennis, with The Big Three still exerting a chokehold on the sport. In the years, indeed decade, ahead, it will be truly fascinating to see who, if any, of Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu or Belinda Bencic can emerge as the next dominant Women’s World No.1, or whether the fascinating state of flux in the women’s game is here to stay.
- FEDERER’S LATE, GREAT PHASE (2017-18)
If Roger Federer virtually “owned” men’s tennis in the noughties – winning 15 Majors in six years between 2003 and 2009 – the 2010s were much more difficult for him, as demonstrated by the fact that he has won “only” five more Majors this decade. That is a testament to the sheer scale of the opposition that he faced from his two great rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Now, at the end of the decade, Nadal (on 19 Majors) is only one Major away from catching Federer up and joining him as statistically the greatest male tennis player of all time.
Fortunately for FedHeds everywhere, there was one last truly great phase in the Swiss maestro’s career, as he emerged from a near five-year Major drought at the start of 2017 to win three Grand Slam tournaments within a year: the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017; and the Australian Open in 2018. The first of that hat-trick of victories was the most spectacular, as Federer not only rolled back the years but arguably improved upon his previous brilliance by beating Nadal in Melbourne, coming from 3-1 down in the fifth set to win the next five games in a row and take the title. It remains the only time that Federer has won one of the truly “Grand Finals” of the Fedalic era, but in that one victory alone (and arguably in that one crucial set, the fifth) he arguably played the greatest tennis that any man has ever played or ever will.
- NADAL’S EXTRAORDINARY END TO 2019
For many years, the joke going around in tennis was that Rafael Nadal thought that the tennis season officially ended in September, after the US Open, because he was so seldom seen in the autumn. In reality, of course, he missed so many tournaments at the end of the season, including several ATP Finals events, because of injury, as his all-action, almost Terminator-esque style of play (like Arnie’s android, he simply will not stop coming at you) often reduced him to a limp by the time that autumn arrived.
All of which only makes the end to his 2019 season all the more extraordinary. Not only did he win the US Open for a fourth time, in the process resisting an inspired comeback from two sets down by Daniil Medvedev to claim the title in five sets, but he also spearheaded Spain’s triumph in the first edition of the “new” Davis Cup. With so many games shoehorned into just a single week, it was a near miracle that Nadal competed, let alone competed so magnificently. In the end, he won all the singles and doubles matches that he participated in, and Spain took what may well turn out to be a stranglehold on the revamped Davis Cup.
- DJOKOVIC’S “DJOMINATION” OF THE DECADE
Ten years ago, if anyone was likely to replace Roger Federer as “The Player of the Decade”, most of the smart money would have been on Rafael Nadal. Instead, it was Novak Djokovic who outstripped both Federer and Nadal in the Majors stakes, winning a total of 15 Majors since 2010 to Nadal’s 13 and Federer’s far less impressive five. (The next nearest male contenders were Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, with three Major wins apiece.)
Various reasons were put forward for Djokovic’s rise from relative also-ran in the noughties (during which he won only one of his current total of 16 Majors) to King of Tennis in the 2010s, including by the man himself: winning the Davis Cup with Serbia in 2010; being diagnosed with a health problem that necessitated a switch to a gluten-free diet; and even the calm and wise counsel of his great mentor, Marián Vajda, who was undoubtedly the coach of the decade. Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, the net effect was the transformation of Djokovic. And credit must be given to the legendary Nick Bollettieri, the coach and pundit, who at the start of the decade (when Federer and Nadal were still at their peak) claimed that Djokovic might just turn out to be the best all-round tennis player of the three of them.
The truly chastening thing for all his rivals, especially the other two members of The Big Three, is that Djokovic might have won even more Majors if not for his rather spectacular mid-decade slump. That came after he finally won the French Open in 2016 and completed the “Nole Slam”, whereby he held all four Majors simultaneously (even if he did not win them all in the same calendar year, as Don Budge and Rod Laver had in the past). Whether because of simply having his Major-winning hunger sated, or, as was widely rumoured, because of personal problems, Djokovic did not win another Major for more than two years, when he finally emerged from his slump to win the 2018 Wimbledon title.
Typically, however, as soon as Djokovic won the “first” Major on his comeback trail, he went on to win the next two Majors and in 2019 was on the point of repeating his “Nole Slam” until Dominic Thiem defeated him in a literally windswept French Open semi-final. Djokovic promptly made up for that loss by winning Wimbledon yet again (for the fifth time in total) and although he lost relatively early in the US Open (retiring through injury in the fourth round against Stan Wawrinka), he still seems set fair for at least the first half of the next decade.
As Federer is so much older than his two great rivals, there is every chance that within the next year or two he will finally retire, perhaps as soon as this autumn after the Tokyo Olympics and US Open. If that is the case, the field will be left open for Djokovic and Nadal to duke it out for the title of Best Male Tennis Player Ever. Although a host of younger players (including Sinner and Tsitsipas) may yet challenge them in the Majors, the likelihood is that they will continue to wage their own personal duel, and in the process it is probable that they will both go past Federer’s current All-Time Record of 20 Majors. That prospect alone ensures that the 2020s in tennis will potentially be roaring.
Next time: 10 TERRIBLE things about tennis in the 2010s.