Tennis Takes An Exciting Turn
The contrast cannot be more obvious. In the men’s section the charge of the young brigade will have to wait as the ''golden oldies’’ have made it clear that they are in no hurry to abdicate. In the women’s section the charge of the young brigade can be said to have started in real earnest and there are signs that the reign of the Williams sisters could well be drawing to a close.
Oh yes, whichever way one looks at it these are exciting times for world tennis. After all surprises in any field are always welcome. If in the men’s section the surprise was that the Roger – Rafa era is still not over the unexpected happening in the women’s section is that suddenly there are a whole lot of new faces fighting for the top slots.
Now with the year’s final Grand Slam done and dusted, perhaps it is the right time to examine the rankings scenario some nine months ago when at the end of 2016 Rafael Nadal was ranked ninth and Roger Federer 16th. Their tennis obituaries were being written and it looked just a matter of time that the reign of the ''Big Four’’ would be over and the younger players would take over at the top.
Instead what happened? Federer won the Australian Open and Wimbledon while Nadal won the French Open and the US Open. Whoever would have envisaged such a scenario? At 36 and 31 the two great friends and rivals are right back where they always seemed to belong – at No 1 and No 2.
Rather than any reflection on the opposition for the competition in the men’s event is always strong one would like to believe that it is the two all-time greats who have been able to raise the level of their game when it matters most. Nadal made a succinct observation after his third US Open title on Sunday. ''There are things that Roger and I probably share - a passion for what we are doing, passion for tennis, passion for the competition and the spirit of improvement all the time.”
Yes, the true champions have always had it in them to pull off something extra special and that’s what Federer and Nadal have done. As Nadal put it quaintly ''Perhaps I should not say this as I am part of it but we are in an era where some players have performed incredible things in the sport. It’s difficult to win a lot of titles and Roger and me and Novak have won much more than we ever dreamed of.’’
Nadal’s point is driven home by one incredible fact. From Wimbledon in 2003 an incredible 53 of 58 Grand Slams have now been claimed by just five players - Federer (19), Nadal (16), Novak Djokovic (12) and Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka with three apiece. Only Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic have broken the spell. Surely this kind of dominance is unprecedented in tennis history.
And to think that in 2016 one saw the injury-hobbled Nadal lose in the first round at the Australian Open, withdraw after two rounds of the French Open with a wrist problem, skip Wimbledon and exit the US Open in the last 16 while Federer’s last Grand Slam triumph was the US Open in 2012.
But if there is considerable interest in the men’s section thanks mainly to the comebacks of Federer and Nadal the distaff side has suddenly come to life with the emergence of a number of talented young women who in racing parlance could well be stayers and not sprinters.
After Serena Williams won the Australian Open and then retired temporarily for the birth of her first child the young brigade took over symbolized by the fact that three of them won each of the remaining Slam titles. Jelena Ostapenko a 20-year-old Latvian enthralled the world with a sizzling run to the title at the French Open unveiling an adventurous style of play.
Garbine Muguruza of Spain followed by taking the Wimbledon title and then most miraculously of all Sloane Stephens of the USA wrote herself in the history books by becoming the first American woman apart from the Williams sisters to win the US Open since 1998 and even more significantly the first American woman other than the Williams sisters to win a Grand Slam title in 15 years.
Sloane’s triumph was even more praiseworthy as it was a culmination of a fairytale. In January her left foot encased in a massive cast, she watched the Australian Open from her couch. She battled back from the injury and as she said her 11-month hiatus gave her a new appreciation for how lucky she was to play a sport for a living. As she recuperated her ranking plummeted to 957.
Starting her comeback trail she suffered a couple of first round defeats including one at Wimbledon. And yet a couple of months later the 24-year-old coming into the tournament ranked 83 won the title defeating her ''best friend’’ and compatriot Madison Keyes in a dream run that could only be straight out of the fiction books. She in fact joined Ostapenko as the second unseeded player to win of the four majors this year. Her victory meant prize money of $3,700,000 whereas prior to arriving in New York, her 2017 earnings stood at $310,000 and her career earnings were $4.5 million.
Besides, Sloane emerges as a true character going by her witty comments at the post match press conference and that is something tennis can do with. But going by performance on the court Muguruza has emerged as the leader of the pack and in the absence of Serena is now perched on top of the rankings. Throw in another gifted American in 25-year-old Coco Vandeweghe who made it to the semifinals of the US open and it can be seen there are enough newcomers to make a strong challenge for the top slots even after Serena returns next year.