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 looks at ten lowlights from tennis in the 2010s.
In the men’s game, the 2010s were – sadly – the decade in which effectively a whole generation of men (with the honourable exception of Marin Cilic) failed to fulfil their potential and at least make a meaningful challenge for the Majors, such that The Big Three of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer maintained their stranglehold on the sport’s biggest prizes. Moreover, the original Big Two of Nadal and Federer maintained their stranglehold on the tennis public’s affection, so much so that there was little affection (let alone love) for the new dominant force in the men’s game, Novak Djokovic.
In the women’s game, the most negative headlines and stories surrounded two great former champions, Margaret Court and Maria Sharapova, who through their offensive comments and offensive drug-taking respectively brought the sport into considerable disrepute. And there was also the horrendous stabbing of Petra Kvitova, which might well prevent one of the greatest contemporary women players from ever winning another Major.
Throw in match-fixing, institutional and administrative crises, and the death of the Davis Cup, and it is clear that tennis has faced some very serious challenges in the 2010s, and that some of those challenges may persist in the decade ahead.
Here, then, are 10 terrible things about tennis in the 2010s.
- The Ongoing Threat To Five-Set Tennis
Among the many failings of the new Davis Cup format that was unveiled in Madrid at the end of the season, the single most important one went largely unnoticed, because it was a change that had been agreed by the sport’s governing bodies (most importantly the ATP and the Davis Cup itself) before the revamped tournament began. It was the end of five-set matches, in both singles and doubles, in the Davis Cup, which means that the only remaining part of the game where the traditional five-set format persists is the Majors, and even in that arena, which is the most important in the game, there is an existential threat to five-set tennis.
There were numerous attacks on the five-set format throughout the decade, most notably by Billie Jean King near the end of the decade when she called for an end to five-set matches for men in the Majors, before going back to the start of the decade to find evidence to support her argument. King claimed that the truly epic 2012 Australian Open Men’ s Singles Final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, which Djokovic eventually won in five sets in just under six hours, had taken at least “a year” off both players’ careers.
The fact that nearly eight years on from that match both players continue to be ranked in the top two of the world would appear to completely undermine King’s argument. Moreover, such a magnificent final, which was arguably the greatest final in all of tennis (men’s and women’s) in the 2010s, was the best possible advert for tennis. Why on earth would anyone, let alone someone who was one of the greatest players ever herself, want to see less of that? Five-set tennis, at least in the Majors, must be preserved, quite simply to preserve the very best and hardest-fought tennis. Reduce the Majors to three-set matches and they will no longer be truly major events.
- The Dismissal Of Chris Kermode By The ATP
Chris Kermode, the outgoing Chairman and President of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was another prominent figure in tennis who consistently questioned the five-set format in men’s Majors, as part of his attempts to refine and even “future-proof” the sport. And there were other causes that he championed, such as the abolition of the service let, that were also against the true spirit of tennis, raising the awful prospect of a Major title being decided on a dead ball that hits the net on serve and just dribbles over. Nevertheless, Kermode was not only the most high-profile administrator in tennis but one of the best, whose innovations – notably the rebranding of the season-ending ATP Finals in London over the last decade and the introduction of the NextGen Finals in Milan – often contributed to the growth of the sport.
Unless he is bound by a gagging clause (which is entirely possible), the real reasons for Kermode’s departure from the top of men’s tennis will probably not be revealed until he writes his autobiography. Until then, speculation will continue as to the precise reason why he is leaving his position at the end of the year, with a “power grab” or “palace coup” by Novak Djokovic being cited as one of the most plausible reasons.
Whatever the reason, Kermode’s departure is a loss, not only for men’s tennis but for tennis as a whole. It is often said that the proliferation of organisations (and their acronyms) that run tennis, from the ATP to the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) to the ITF (International Tennis Federation), prevents the sport from ever adopting a united front on the most important issues facing it, notably drug use and match-fixing. Nevertheless, individuals are important too, and in losing Kermode when he appeared to have so much more to give to the sport already looks like a terrible, self-inflicted wound for tennis.
- The General Lack of Love for Novak Djokovic
Given that the average tennis fan has little or no interest in the overall administration of the sport, it is extremely unlikely that Djokovic’s possible involvement in the ousting of Chris Kermode from the ATP has had anything to do with his general lack of popularity. In any case, Djokovic’s disgruntlement with Kermode only came to light in 2019, whereas the Serb’s general lack of popularity among tennis fans, especially when compared with the genuine love and warmth that exists for his two main rivals (Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer), has been evident for almost the entire decade, so it has clearly not just been caused by clashes with the sport’s administrators.
It was Russell Fuller, the BBC’s tennis correspondent, who probably hit the nail on the head regarding Djokovic’s lack of popularity when he discussed the issue at Wimbledon 2019, another Major that Djokovic would go on to win, taking his total of Slam wins to 16 and 15 for the decade as a whole, the most of any male player. Fuller simply suggested that because Djokovic had only really emerged as a great player after the rivalry between Federer and Nadal was already long established, that meant that there were not that many neutral tennis fans left for Djokovic to win over. Instead, he has had to labour in Nadal and Federer’s shadow, as it were, in terms of on-court popularity, even as his actual on-court achievements have outstripped theirs.
- Margaret Court’s Continually Offensive Comments
Margaret Court did not just become offensive in the 2010s; her homophobic, transphobic and generally un-Christian views (despite the fact that she is apparently a “Christian” minister) had been widely aired beforehand. However, it was in the 2010s, and particularly towards the end of the decade when Serena Williams closed in on her all-time record for a woman of 24 Majors, that those views became more widely known and, thankfully, more widely condemned.
Nevertheless, Court’s status in the game – as the “winningest” woman in the history of tennis – continues to cause the whole sport problems, especially in Australia where one of the three main show courts at the Australian Open in Melbourne is named after her. Next month, she is due to receive a special on-court presentation in the Margaret Court Arena to mark her historic achievements. However, it will be fascinating to see how many spectators and/or other famous former players either refuse to attend such a ceremony or even boo her during it, which many great former champions (notably gay ones such as Martina Navratilova) would argue is completely justified.
- Serena Williams Stalling on 23 Majors
Of course, as yet Serena Williams has failed to match, let alone overtake, Court’s record of 24 Singles Majors, as she has lost her last four Grand Slam Finals to a succession of different opponents, leaving her stuck on her current total of 23. In general, Serena’s relative fall from grace has been good for the women’s game, because her previous dominance has now given way to an apparently ceaseless state of flux, in which a number of much younger women (notably Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu) have taken their chance to win Majors.
Nevertheless, Serena’s relative fall from grace has still been regrettable for several reasons. Above all, it means that the “winningest” woman in the history of women’s tennis remains an incredibly embittered and unpleasant white Australian woman who is largely unknown to today’s tennis fans (other than for her offensive comments), in a way that generally does not happen in other sports, where the most successful figures historically – from Ali to Pele to Bradman – are usually feted and celebrated in a way that maintains their legend for younger generations.
It would be far better for tennis in general and for tennis history specifically if Serena can gird herself for one last attempt at a Major, perhaps starting at the 2020 Australian Open (the scene of her last Major triumph, in 2017), so that she can at least draw level with Court. If she can do that, she will surely finally replace her as the infinitely more acceptable face of women’s tennis for tennis fans and tennis historians alike.