When Will Tennis’s Golden Age Be Over Already?

Oh, him again. Photo: Ella Ling/Shutterstock

On Sunday in Melbourne, 35-year-old Rafael Nadal notched perhaps his most breathtaking victory in a career full of breathtaking victories, coming back from a two-set deficit to defeat young Russian star Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final. The five-hour, 24-minute affair — why, oh why did I allot a mere five hours on my DVR? — was vintage Rafa. With his back to the wall, the redoubtable Spaniard dipped deep into his bottomless reservoir of self-belief, grunting, sweating, and scrambling his way back into contention and ultimately to victory. Nadal’s hair may be thinning, but as my colleague Ryu Spaeth put it:

His body appeared to be as indestructible as ever, all bouldered shoulders and pillared thighs, a superhero in a soaked fuchsia shirt. As he did the usual Nadal things — whipping that forehand over his head like a cowboy’s lasso, picking at the underwear that is always somehow a size too small — it was easy to imagine him stalking the court forever.

For Rafa partisans — and there were a lot of them in Sunday’s boisterous crowd — the prospect of a 55-year old, fully bald Nadal showing the kids how it’s done may be attractive. But from my perspective, Sunday’s result was a bit of a bummer. Over the last few years, I’ve found that the thrill of watching a trio of tennis demigods (Nadal, Novak “Novax” Djokovic, and Roger Federer) utterly dominate the sport has begun to mingle with a gnawing impatience for someone else to join the club already. With his convincing victory over Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open, Medvedev had looked on the brink of gaining full entry. But Nadal, coming off injuries and a spell with COVID-19, demonstrated that the guys who have already won everything would still like to win some more. This is not quite the story line I was hoping for. As a friend emailed after I expressed my astonishment at Nadal’s victory, “Yeah it is amazing blah blah. Greatness has never been so boring.”

Cards on the table: My ardent Federer fandom is a central reason I’m disappointed in Sunday’s result. I’m crestfallen that Nadal has leapfrogged Fed and Djokovic in the all-time Grand Slam rankings (especially given that there is no timetable for the injury-plagued Swiss’s return, and he’ll be on the wrong side of 41 come August). The realities of blind partisanship mean I would not be complaining at pitched volume if it were Federer, not Nadal, collecting his 21st major.

But I would still find it a bit unsettling. In a sport in which it used to be fairly commonplace for four different men to capture each of the year’s Grand Slam titles, the story of the past 20 years has been extreme consolidation at the top. Since Federer got the Big Three ball rolling with his Wimbledon victory in 2003, he, Djokovic, and Nadal have accounted for a difficult-to-fathom 61 of the 74 major titles. The two other players who figured out how to beat them in big moments on more than a single occasion, Andy Murray and the eternally underrated Stan Wawrinka, won three each. The remaining seven champions are one-offs, some flukier than others. (How Marin Čilić won the 2014 U.S. Open is still anyone’s guess.) And as spectacular as this two-decade oligopoly has been — a golden age of men’s tennis, most agree — even a riveting flavor of sameness gets a bit mundane after a while.

For many years, there has been an expectation that a new crop of stars would supplant the old guard any day now. The generation that hit its early 20s about a decade ago basically did nothing to unsettle the balance at the top. The one that has ascended in the past five or so years — Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem, and Medvedev among them — looked much more promising. But as in other sports, the best of the best in tennis are maintaining their peak powers far longer than was once the norm. Pete Sampras, the Grand Slam record holder before Federer came along, retired at 32; the Big Three have won a collective 13 after hitting that age. Their aura of invincibility only intensified as they defied actuarial tables to the point that most of the whippersnappers seemed to shrink from the chance to dethrone them. Zverev collapses at every Grand Slam; Tsitsipas blew a two-set lead to Djokovic in last year’s French Open final; Thiem won his sole Grand Slam at the bizarro no-fan 2020 U.S. Open during which Djokovic was disqualified for unintentionally hitting a lineswoman with a ball, and Nadal and Federer didn’t even play.

The 25-year-old Medvedev, the only one to actually defeat one of the champs in a major final, is in a different category, especially mentally. (This was true Sunday; even after blowing his lead, he did not self-immolate as many of his peers probably would have.) Watching him rise to the top of the game has been invigorating, and not just because of the newness factor. Medvedev’s idiosyncratic, ugly-effective style is strangely mesmerizing. He moves shockingly well for a big man. And his personality is a welcome change, too. Djokovic’s reckless COVID behavior may have vaulted him into supervillain territory, but he has mostly been a cordial on-court presence — ditto Nadal and Federer. Medvedev, on the other hand, has a penchant for trolling fans and hurling entertaining, if inappropriate, insults. Not that I condone the verbal abuse of officials, but have any of the Big Three called an umpire a “small cat”? Have any of them warned a fellow top player to “shut your fuck up?” I thought not.

This year may yet see Medvedev truly crack the pantheon with a second major. Perhaps one of his 20-something compatriots — or even the 18-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz — will hoist a Grand Slam trophy. But it is a little unfortunate that the biggest factor in their favor is Djokovic’s disregard for medical science, which could imperil his chances to play in Paris, London, and New York. Nadal would still be the heavy favorite at a Djoker-less French Open, and after Sunday’s display, it would be foolish to count him out at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open either. If we’ve learned anything in the past 19 years, it’s not to underrate the status quo.

To channel the 44th president, let me be clear: The Big Three have produced a bounty of rivalrous five-set masterpieces, many of which rank among the greatest matches ever. Complaining about any aspect of this seems a little churlish, and mine seems to be a minority opinion; the crowd at Rod Laver Arena, doubtless echoing worldwide sentiments everywhere except Russia, lustily cheered for Nadal and lustily booed his opponent. It’s also true that Nadal’s genuine aw-shucks modesty — plus his respect for public-health regulations — provide a nice bookend antidote to the bitterness engendered by Djokovic’s anti-vaxxer antics.

Still, it sure would be nice to see the young guns make a real move this year.  As long as they don’t interfere with Federer’s triumphant Wimbledon comeback. Hey, a man can dream.

When Will Tennis’s Golden Age Be Over Already?