search

A lost (tennis) generation

Embed from Getty Images

We are witnessing a historic changing of the guard and not just in London. Within a few momentous and symbolic tennis days, 19 year-old Carlos Alcaraz won the U.S. Open Tennis Championships and 41 year-old Roger Federer finally announced his retirement.

The triumvirate of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovitz has reigned so supreme over the past two decades, it begs the unanswerable question: Have the 3 best players of all time been fighting toe-to-toe with each other? And the verdict will forever be out on the question as to how many Grand Slam titles, the ultimate measure of tennis greatness, each would have won if they had not been born in the same generation.

It is pretty certain that they have spurred each other on, producing a level of physical, technical and tactical skill unknown before in the history of the game. If you don’t believe me, check out videos of Pistol Pete, Rocket Rod, Ice- Borg or anyone else who have won the major titles ever since “play” was called at the first Wimbledon tournament in 1887. Technology, nutrition, prize-money, inclusion and other factors have all contributed to a phenomenal rise in standards.

Rafa vs. Joko in the 2013 French Open semi-final, Joko vs. the Fed in the 2019 Wimbledon final, the Fed vs. Rafa in the 2008 Wimbledon final… any number of their head-to-head meetings reside enduringly as priceless jewels in the minds of all who have witnessed their artistry. As of now, they stand side by side, with 63 collective “Grand Slams” titles in their kitbags. Remembering that there are just 4 on offer per year, this number is staggering.

The great Australian Men’s quartet of the 1960’s was dominant but the 38 combined titles of Laver, Emerson, Rosewall and Newcombe do not come close. Tilden, Coche and Lacoste of the 1920’s lag further behind. Among the women, there has been a succession of great players in their generations. Serena Williams succeeded Steffi Graf (dueling with Monica Seles for a while,) who succeeded Martina Navratilova who overlapped with Chris Evert-Lloyd etc. But for the main, they held court alone in their time. Yes, we are coming to the close of one of the greatest sporting rivalries of all time.

Yet this Golden Age has come at a cost. For all the immense enjoyment from, and admiration for the near-fabled threesome, we must give thought to an entire generation of male tennis players who have dissipated because of the domination of these European giants. In each era there are millions of players who play the game for enjoyment, tens of thousands who excel and a few hundred who make a living from it. And then there is a cadre who reach the highest echelons, their names engraved on the iconic silver trophies of the great tournaments.

Federer is now 41, Nadal, 36 and Djokovic 35. The fact that they have sustained their levels of excellence to such an advanced age is unprecedented. Before their era, winning a Grand Slam tournament beyond the age of 31 was extremely rare. And perhaps Nadal and certainly Djokovic are not finished yet. But as they gradually make their way off center court you would think that there would be a bunch of outstanding 25-35 year-olds at the top of their games, waiting in line for glory.

Yet of the 13 top ranked players in the world today, besides our said heroes, Daniil Medvedev aged 26, is the oldest! It seems that almost a decade of tennis talent has evaporated, exasperated by the domination of the big three. Men born between 1988 and 1995 have won a total of one solitary Grand Slam, Dominic Thiem winning the 2020 US Open.

Contrast that with the twenty nine different women evenly spread across the age spectrum, who have shared the last 80 corresponding titles.

Often sporting “legends” create huge interest and spawn a large cadre of would be pretenders to their thrones. But in the 2010’s this just did not happen. It is difficult to argue the superior merits of motivation as opposed to a cyclical downturn in talent in explaining this lost generation. Could it be that the triangle of dominance was just too overwhelming? How long can one maintain the punishing regimen of competitive momentum when the older guys refuse to wane? So instead of creating a slipstream behind them they are leaving a vacuum of lost promise.

Modern sports science and huge income incentive are producing a spurt of career longevity. Not that long ago, no-one would have predicted a 43 year-old Super Bowl winning quarterback. Messi and Ronaldo, the two greatest soccer players of our time are at the peak of their powers aged 35 and 37 respectively. Shelley-Ann Frazer-Price, soon to celebrate her 36th birthday, recently won the 100 meters at the World Championships in 10.67 seconds, a more than remarkable achievement.

On the flip side we are witnessing the emergence of very young, exciting tennis stars, highlighted by the two stand-out winners of the recent US Open, Iga Swiatek (21) and the above mentioned Alcaraz. On the men’s side Medevedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev and others, all 26 and younger, will be filling the vacuum left by the veterans and given their youth, may illuminate this illustrious game for many years to come. On the women’s side, the draw is more evenly age-balanced and inclusive.

It is unlikely that we will exhilarated by another sustained, long-term tennis rivalry produced by these three “GOAT” contenders in our lifetimes, but with promising youngsters waiting to step up, the future of the sport is bright. How fortunate for us fans!

About the Author
Richard Shavei-Tzion is a widely published poet and is the author of "Poetry in the Parasha" and the Prayer for the Preservation of the Environment. His occasional articles on human and Jewish topics have been published around the Jewish world and his photographic images have been displayed in solo and group exhibitions. For 26 years Richard was the director of the Ramatayim Men's Choir. He manages commercial property and a medical center in Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts