The last four months of the ATP Men’s Tour has been riveting to watch for the tennis romantic. Two men, one 35-year-old and another 30-year-old, thought to be way past their prime, are dominating the season once again. Rivalry aside, they are winning the big tournaments, in an era where youth and fitness and physicality is supposed to nullify any artistry or nostalgia in any sport.
While this is a testament to their longevity and greatness, even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will be a little surprised at their resurrection. For more than three years, none of them were allowed to get back to the top despite their best efforts, and even in 2016, Andy Murray took advantage of Novak Djokovic’s slump. But come 2017, the two are on top of the world again.
There are a few reasons for this:
TOO MANY TOURNAMENTS
Sure, it’s easy to wonder why the World No. 1 and World No. 2 are falling off the pace and taking it slow this year. But we’ve heard repeated complaints from everyone on the tour about how grueling and unforgiving the current season calendar is. Last year, in particular, sucked out a lot from Murray, Djokovic and the younger lot. There was the Rio Olympics to contend with, as well as some Davis Cup play, in addition to the regular season. Murray played 17 tournaments excluding the Olympics, and became the first man ever to win a Grand Slam, Olympic title, Masters title as well as the season-ending World Tour Finals in the same year. He played 87 matches in total, winning 79 of them, including nine titles. By the end, he was a spent force, piping Djokovic to the No. 1 ranking towards the end of the year. Djokovic won everything possible till the French Open, and though he tapered off after that (and still reached the US Open final), he didn’t take a long break. He played 13 lesser matches than Murray, but won seven titles, missing only the Cincinnati Masters between Wimbledon and the World Tour Finals. This fatigue seems to have affected not only them, but many of the younger players, who’ve adopted physical games to outgun the higher-ranked, older players – and who believe that playing as many tournaments as possible will lend them the required experience.
Forced or not, both Nadal and Federer took the second half of 2016 off. You’d think they would be rusty and short of match play when back, but after playing more than 1300 matches each on the tour over their career, guys like them rarely need more than a few sets to get back into the competitive swing of things. A break, in this era, serves as pure rest to the body, not diminishing any of the ‘experience’ or court-time – while the others, jaded after a tough 2016, suffered from the heat in Australia before falling to the sunny desert weather of Indian Wells and Miami. As a result, Federer and Nadal have reached six of the finals out of the seven tournaments collectively played, winning all four of the ‘major’ titles (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo) in a clean sweep.
NEXT GENERATION WHO?
Even the telecasts have been promoting the #NextGen tag, repeatedly hoping that one of them makes good on their promises of challenging the cream at the top. Yet, only Aussie Nick Kyrgios has looked close to the man he was expected to become, challenging Federer heavily and defeating Djokovic twice in two weeks in the hard-court swing. 19-year-old Alexander Zverev, who everyone touts as a future World No. 1, was destroyed by Nadal in Monte Carlo on clay, while his Austrian rival Dominic Thiem (another contender for the future) was swatted aside a week later at the Barcelona final by Nadal. To be fair, Thiem did defeat Murray in the semifinals, his first ever World No. 1 scalp. But none of them could even challenge the Spaniard on his favorite surface. Grigor Dimitrov started the year with a bang, on a nine-match winning streak until he ran into Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open – and almost won that match. ‘Almost’ being the key word. Others like Borna Coric and Kyle Edmund have lost to the top players, too. One only hopes these losses serve as sobering reminders, and as big-match experience for the future. Even Federer had to lose a lot till he became a Grand Slam Champion in 2003. Andy Murray lost tough ones to David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal in 2006 and 2007 before turning into a “man,” and Djokovic did a lot of retiring and losing before going on his inhuman streak.
There have literally been no “new” Grand Slam champions since Marin Cilic’s 2014 US Open victory. Nobody has been able to break through the dominance of Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Nadal and Federer for the last decade. Not one player has managed to string together seven consecutive best-of-five match wins to challenge these players – all of who are now close to 30 or above. Murray has won two, Wawrinka three, Djokovic six, Nadal one and Federer one since the beginning of 2014.