Gone are the Giants: The Decentralization of Men’s Tennis is upon Us (D Balke)

2 Jan

The decentralization of men’s professional tennis is upon us. Roger Federer remains brilliant, but is growing older, and the small edge that allowed him to almost invariably beat back the bids of younger challengers seems almost certain to fade in 2013 or 2014. Rafael Nadal’s knee, and his health more broadly, raise serious concerns (the Spanish lefty has just pulled-out of this month’s Australian Open, the first major of 2013). Novak Djokovic, who appeared the likely heir to Federer’s and Nadal’s dominance, has recently been stymied by Andy Murray. But the Briton, for all his skill and intrigue, simply lacks the game to dominate tennis over a sustained period.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a men’s field that is more wide open than at any point since the early 2000s, and likely much earlier than that. This offers opportunities to extraordinarily talented players – like Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Nicolas Almagro, Janko Tipsarevic, Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic, among others – to shake off their long-worn, and much-detested, second-tier status, and reach the pinnacle of men’s tennis, by winning major tournament titles.

The process of decentralization will not take place overnight. It is likely, or at least probable, that each of the “Big Four” will win additional major championships. And, one would be hard-pressed to envision a world in which anyone not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray finished 2013 as the number one-ranked player in the world (my money is on Murray, by the way). But, you will start to see these players lose more often on the big stages to players against whom, until now, they had always found an extra gear, delivered the goods, and finished on top.

Some – including your correspondent – will lament the passing of the era of domination in men’s professional tennis. Not only did it bring extraordinary achievements from extraordinary competitors. It also brought breathtaking quality from some of the classiest, most humble champions the game has ever known.

In Roger Federer, you have the greatest, most dynamic player of all-time, who could win on any surface, against any opponent (save Rafa at the French), and do it without breaking a sweat.

In Rafa, you have history’s greatest clay-court player, whose unimaginable run at Roland Garros, during which he has accrued seven French Open titles and lost, absurdly, on only one occasion, ranks as one of the most dominant reigns by any athlete at a sporting competition, well, ever.

Djokovic’s winning streak during the first half of 2011 saw him compile 41 consecutive victories and come one match shy of tying John McEnroe’s all-time mark, not to mention rack up four major titles from January 2011-January 2012, and finish both years as world number one.

Murray’s talent has now bloomed in full with his triumph over Djokovic at the 2012 U.S. Open, and it seems reasonably certain that additional major titles lie in his future.

The “Big Four” have achieved extraordinary feats, the end of which we have not yet seen.

But the winds of men’s tennis are changing. Mental factors play a big role in explaining why so few could beat the “Big Four” at majors over the last decade. As formerly second-tier players begin to knock-off the giants more and more, the latters’ sheen of invincibility will being to fade.

This process could begin in earnest at the French Open, in May. I am not ready to bet against Rafa; notwithstanding his persistent and worsening injuries, Nadal has proven so dominant at Roland Garros over the last eight years that one would have to be a lunatic to count him out, even now. Still, on a surface in which mobility is key, Rafa’s limited movement could make him vulnerable not only to big-hitters like Berdych and Del Potro, whose style has given the lefty trouble in the past, but to clay-court specialists like Spanish scrapper David Ferrer and talented Argentine Juan Monaco, whose ability to stay out there, grind, and trade punishing blow after punishing blow for north of five hours could finally prove too much for a hobbled Nadal.

Rafa’s loss of control at the French could usher in a water-shed of once-unthinkable triumphs. One can imagine big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic blasting his way to a Wimbledon title, and Del Potro digging deep at Flushing Meadows to capture his second U.S. Open crown. Meanwhile, former major finalists Berdych and Tsonga remain hungry for their first brush with glory, while Ferrer, who has reached the semis in every major tournament (a remarkable achievement unto itself), wants nothing more than to cap a career of over-achievement with a grand slam victory. I also look for absurdly talented Frenchman Richard Gasquet – who has the game’s most electric one-handed backhand, but who has struggled mightily to live-up to his huge potential – to make a run at one of the majors, and can see him doing so on his home turf, in Paris, or on the lawns of Wimbledon, where he made an unlikely run to the semis in 2007.

Many reading this post will label my analysis utter poppycock. I can scarcely blame them. Betting against the “Big Four” has long proven a fool’s errand. It would be far from shocking if it did once more, in 2013.

But, if this year does herald the decentralization of dominance in men’s professional tennis, fans should appreciate that we have just witnessed one of the game’s most remarkable eras.

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One Response to “Gone are the Giants: The Decentralization of Men’s Tennis is upon Us (D Balke)”

  1. balkebros January 2, 2013 at 1:28 am #

    Despite being a hardcore Fed fan, any development that may open up a Grand Slam opportunity for Tipsarevic thrills me.

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