Having looked back at both the highlights and lowlights of the last decade, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, now looks ahead to the next decade – the 2020s – and identifies 10 things that we can hopefully look forward to in the future development of tennis. Here are the final five.
- Serena Williams Matching And Then Passing Margaret Court’s All-Time Record Of 24 Majors
It might seem strange, even perverse, to argue that Serena Williams is currently engaged in the greatest battle of her tennis career. After all, surely her greatest ever battle was fought and won more than 20 years ago, when she and her sister, Venus, first emerged from the public courts of troubled Compton, CA to become the first female African-American Major Winners since Althea Gibson in the late 1950s.
However, the battle that Serena is currently engaged in is not as immediately obvious or identifiable as the earlier battle that she won against poverty and racism. Nevertheless, it is truly a battle for the ages, as she tries to first match Margaret Court’s all-time Major record for a woman of 24 singles titles (Serena is currently one behind on 23) and then overtake it.
The symbolism of this battle almost makes it one between “old tennis”, as it was played and watched for much of the 20th century, and “new tennis”, as it is now played and watched in the 21st century. As surely even the most unobservant tennis or general sports fan knows, Margaret Court, for all her undoubted achievements on court, has become in her old age an advocate of the most indefensible homophobic and transphobic views. Nevertheless, she is still due to be celebrated – not for those views but for her on-court achievements – at the Australian Open next month.
The only thing that can possibly obscure, or even obliterate, that celebration would be if Serena Williams, three years on from her last Grand Slam triumph (at the 2017 Australian Open), won the tournament, to draw level with Court on 24 Majors, before going on to pass her record at one of the other three Grand Slam tournaments in 2020 or beyond. Then, hopefully, Court’s hateful views can be forgotten about forever and women’s tennis will no longer have a “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time) whose world-view is little more sophisticated than that of an actual goat (and apologies if that is offensive to any goats or goat-owners who are reading).
- The Long-Overdue Formation Of a Unified World Governing Body For Tennis
Just as tennis lags behind almost every other major professional sport in lacking a true World Cup, so it lags behind them in lacking a unified world governing body. Instead, tennis is in the perpetual throes of an “acrobliz” – the acronym for a blizzard of acronyms – with the Four Major tournaments competing with the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), the WTA (the Women’s Tennis Association) and the ITF (the International Tennis Federation) for overall control of the game.
Occasionally, the argument is put forward that because it lacks such a unified governing body, tennis can never be subject to the caprice or whims of that body, in the way that football, for example, has long been humiliated by the antics, absurdities and flat-out illegalities of FIFA, its supposed “governing body”.
Ultimately, however, that argument is specious, because although the lack of a unified governing body might notionally prevent such a body from being overwhelmed by corruption, it also means that the game’s actual problems – from match-fixing to drug use to the absence of a true Tennis World Cup – can never be confronted head on.
Consequently, it can only be hoped that nearly 150 years since the first Wimbledon (which was in 1886) and more than 50 years on from 1968 (when the sport finally went fully professional), tennis in the 2020s can finally get the unified world governing body that it, like every other genuinely global sport, desperately needs.
- Roger Federer Winning An Olympic Singles Gold And Retiring While He Is Still The Most Successful Male Tennis Player Ever
Roger Federer’s desire to win an Olympic Singles Gold medal (he has already won Doubles Gold, with compatriot Stan Wawrinka at the Beijing Olympics in 2008) is a classic example of the sheer rapacity of the very greatest sportsmen and women, a select group that Federer, with his 20 Major Singles titles (the most for any man in the history of tennis), is undoubtedly a member of. More than what they have won, it is what they have not won that seems to drive them on, even if the actual prize that they so desperately seek may not appear remotely as glittering to others as it does to them.
Injury permitting, Federer will have a final chance to win the Olympic Singles Gold that he apparently craves in Tokyo next summer. For most of his millions of fans, however, the biggest prize that he can now win in tennis would be to retire while he is still statistically the most successful male tennis player ever. Rafael Nadal, of course, is now just one behind him on 19 and, having won both the US Open and the first ever edition of the revamped Davis Cup with Spain, Nadal is seemingly showing no signs whatsoever of slowing up. And that is without even considering Novak Djokovic, the third member of the Big Three, who may only be on 16 Majors currently but, given his form throughout the last decade, looks eminently capable of at least matching, if not overtaking, Federer and Nadal’s current totals.
Federer has been such a truly great champion, for nearly 20 years, that it would be a shame if he did not go out on top, while he still holds the all-time record for most Majors won by a man, even if that record is soon overtaken by his two great rivals. That is why for many Federer fans – the millions, if not tens of millions, of “FedHeds” around the world – the main event next year will not be the Tokyo Olympics but the three Majors (the French Open aside) that he still has a realistic chance of winning, to give him one last shot at Major glory before finally retiring from the game that he has graced for so long.
- The End of The Big Three In Men’s Tennis
There are many in tennis – both professional participants in the sport and plain old amateur fans – who fear the end of the Big Three era (the “Threera”?) rather than look forward to it, because it will represent the end of undoubtedly the greatest ever era in men’s tennis and arguably (indeed, almost certainly) in tennis as a whole. As has often been pointed out, to have the three greatest male players ever competing simultaneously and for so long against each other has made tennis in the early 21st century arguably the greatest sporting show there has ever been.
And yet change must come, and will come. It won’t take the entire decade for Roger, Rafa and Novak to finally quit the sport (as suggested above, Federer’s retirement might even come within the next 12 months), and it might even take a substantial part of the decade for all three of them to finally take their bow, but inevitably they will finally all stop playing. The challenge for tennis then, especially men’s tennis, will be the challenge that heavyweight boxing has faced ever since its own golden age of the 1970s, when Ali, Frazier and Foreman formed arguably the original Big Three in sport – namely, how to ensure the show goes on without its greatest ever showmen.
Fortunately for tennis, it is highly unlikely to face the same kind of existential threat that boxing has faced ever since the hey-day of Ali, Frazier and Foreman. Although boxing, particularly heavyweight boxing, has never again had such a talented group of fighters all in the ring at the same time (the closest that it has come was “The Four Kings” of the 1980s – the great middleweights of Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran), it has not been the absence of its former stars that has most affected boxing’s popularity but the entirely justifiable fears about the safety of its participants, such that almost all doctors now agree that boxing should be banned. Even after Federer, Nadal and Djokovic finally hang up their rackets, no-one will seriously propose that tennis should be banned.
Instead, the greatest threat that tennis, especially men’s tennis, will face will be to create new stars who can somehow claim Planet Sport’s attention in the way that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done for the last 15 or so years. And yet, given the quality of the next generation, or “NextGen”, of male players coming through, that should not be impossible, which brings me neatly to No.1 on this list of things to look forward to in tennis in the 2020s…
- The NextGen” Of Men’s Tennis Becoming “The NowGen” (As Has Already Happened With Women’s Tennis)
It could even happen as early as next month, let alone next year or next decade, if Stefanos Tsitsipas can continue the form that he showed at the ATP Finals in London and win the 2020 Australian Open. Of course, in 2019 he reached the semi-finals in Melbourne, so it is not inconceivable that he can go one or two steps further and win his first Major, especially in a city with a huge expatriate Greek population who will make the Australian Open as close to a “home” Grand Slam for Tsitsipas as he will ever get.
Nevertheless, even if Tsitsipas cannot win his first Major in Melbourne, or anywhere else in 2020, the likelihood is that he or one of his fellow “NextGenners” can finally make the breakthrough that has unfortunately eluded the slightly older generation of Nishikori, Raonic and Dimitrov. Daniil Medvedev, who had such a spectacular second half of 2019, Alexander Zverev (if he can ever overcome the demons that seem to afflict him in Majors) and even Jannik Sinner, winner of the 2019 NextGen Finals, have all shown that they at least have the potential to go deep in Majors and maybe even win them.
The obvious model for men’s tennis is women’s tennis, in which the supposed “NextGen” have already become the “NowGen”. Serena Williams may still be the favourite, for the next year at least, to win most Majors that she competes in, but Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and others such as Garbine Muguruza have already shown that they are capable of winning the greatest prizes in tennis. If young male tennis players can look at their female counterparts (most of whom are even younger than them) and draw inspiration from their Major-winning achievements, then they too can become the “NowGen” before the 2020s are even in their infancy.