Roger Federer has always maintained that no player is bigger than the game of tennis. Historically, that has been proven true. At one time, Rod Laver was considered the pinnacle of the sport. Then came Borg and after Borg, Sampras came along. When he retired in 2003, Federer had exactly one slam. Even though he was considered the heir apparent – largely due to his playing style and his first slam win coming at Wimbledon – almost everybody thought 14 would last for a long time.
Fourteen years on, and fourteen has been blown out of the water by two guys. Federer and Nadal. They both have 19 and 15 grand slam titles, respectively. The scariest part of all this is they are both still active and if 2017 is any indication, those numbers might change before they hang up their rackets. Which brings me to my point.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have taken tennis to heights no other great before them ever has. And since they embarked on their respective slam droughts (5 years and 3 years respectively), we’ve looked to Djokovic and Murray as the somewhat new front runners of the game. We trumped up their rivalry as being equal to Fedal’s. The game would be just fine without the best of Roger and Rafa. Yet I wonder if we weren’t all in denial. Since the unbelievable resurgence of these two great champions, there’s been a familiar rush, a fever gripping the sport, that hasn’t been there for some time. If we are being honest with ourselves, we’ve missed it.
Still don’t believe it? Well think of the tennis world’s attitude to Djokovic and Murray possibly taking extended time off, vis-a-vis Federer and Nadal’s time offs last year. While I make no attempt to render Novak and Andy as less important or more dispensable, I am pointing out the important fact that they cannot fill in the void Roger and Rafa will leave in tennis, should they decide to hang up their rackets today. By extension, as I look down the rankings, I do not see any player or players, who can properly fill in those shoes and that begs the question. Is tennis as a sport, ready for a big let down, post the Fedal era?
I’ll pose this question to you, the reader. Who among the younger guys excites you right now? Dimitrov is obviously very talented, but with every loss to Federer, he comes across more and more as a cheap imitation. He can mimic the movement and the shots, but not the champion’s mindset. Kyrgios and Tomic come across as those stereotypical high school rebel students who cause nothing but trouble and seem to revel in the attention brought about by their mischief and controversy. They add nothing substantial to the game, and in fact take away from it. The tragedy is they have all the tools – talent wise – to add to the game, but choose not to. Their attitudes make me respect and appreciate the personalities Roger and Rafa have. I dread thinking of Tomic as world number one. He’d send tennis back to pre-Jack Kramer times. The only up and comers who get me optimistic are Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Zverev to a larger extent. Yet, their careers have still not crossed over that threshold from up and comer, to established ATP star and champion. They are tantalizingly close though.
Even so, we’ve been so spoiled by Roger and Rafa’s level of sustained greatness, that I think anything less from Zverev or Thiem, will feel like a let down. It might seem unfair to them, but the bar has been set tremendously higher and I don’t see any other young ones stepping up.
It’ll be interesting to see how tennis rides the high of its golden era when it, like all eras, comes to a close. But for now, the uncertainty gives me more reason to be grateful I was alive to witness this era.