Are we safe to assume that men’s professional tennis is secure in its ability to parade for us generational greatness and feed us, so to speak, this insanely delectable meal of world class tennis that seems perpetual, eternal? We have had an amazing run. The 70s and 80s to the 90’s and early aughts to the three amigos (Fed, Rafa and Nole). Think about that for a second. The Open Era technically began in 1968, when professionals could then compete with amateurs in the Grand Slams. Laver actually won a calendar GS in 1969. Then began “the run.” The 70’s included Rosewall and Conners, Borg and Nastase, Gerulaitis, Villas, and onto McEnroe and the 80’s: more Conners, Borg and McEnroe along with Wilander, Lendl and Edberg. Becker helped define power tennis, gave the profound introduction to Sampras, Agassi, Courier, et al. Finally, the next/last 13 years or so have been phenomenal (where that word actually works), need less to say. Roger, Rafa and Novak have put-on a show for the ages.
Many of us think Novak has officially taken over (this happened a year or two ago really, but the Serb seems to have been a little reluctant to take the proverbial reigns). He has fierce competition from several current players, but the direction of this era appears to be telling a particular story of Djokovic, his family’s chosen one, his country’s tennis pride. Who is here, now, to challenge Djokovic and then succeed him at the end (it’s okay to see it that way – this “end” will take 2-4 years to apply 😉 of this latest chapter of tennis nobility?
What does the men’s game look like in four years? I am comfortable making these assumptions knowing full well things could change tomorrow. If you live long enough you understand that (naturally) odd and sometimes crazy (terrible/fantastic) things can happen in the blink of an eye. At the same time, predictability exists big time. You just have to read the story.
The questions we might ask about Djokovic’s chances (and the assumptions we make) to make a run at GOAT sound similar to the questions about the future of tennis. Here’s one: who is going to prevent Djokovic from winning 7 more majors? Chances are he will win 3-5 just because that’s most likely. Individual health, family and life in general (see remark above), can easily and often does foil a plan. But let’s say his mental and physical lives are ideal and he continues to develop, get stronger, without having to deal with Roger and Rafa (outside of medical miracles, mind you). Who you got beating Djokovic in September? How is he not winning his sixth Aussie, and finally winning the French and three-peating Wimbledon, etc.? People will beat the Serb. The question is who?
Here’s a random list of players and their age: Stan (30), Murray (28), Cilic (26), Del Potro (26), Tsonga (30), Nishikori (25), Dimitrov (26), Raonic (24), Kyrgios (20), Kokkinakis (19), Gulbis (26), Thiem (21), Sock (22), Goffin (24), Coric (18), Berdych (29), Gasquet (29), Nadal (28) and Federer (34), et al. There are many missing but this is pretty representative, I’m afraid.
The premise that I really want to use here to open this discussion is that the player has won, has made progress, whether it’s a Del Potro who has won a major and had several legitimate battles (wins and losses) with, in his case, the top of the sport; or even a Dominic Thiem. I would argue he is legit because he’s still so young, yet he’s collecting hardware. We might say he’s “coming.”
I am not using a computer to calculate averages/percentages/chances/bullshit. I am using the “I watch a lot of tennis (but need to watch more), have for years, have a lot of context to help in this determination of future stars/people who can strike one iota of fear into the Djoker. Again, this discussion is one in the same. Like it or not.
Murray is an interesting case. He has two majors and SEVERAL SF and F appearances. Bad timing for this bloke. And despite this success (because he has been successful, in the end), like I’ve said, I just don’t see the class to tangle with Djokovic (Murray win a major) at this point. Common sense says he could definitely win another one, but another 2 or 3? Not buying it. He is the one guy who will consistently challenge Djoker. Tough to argue otherwise unless you think Nadal is going to reinvent himself and make 2-3 finals in a year and win one or two more majors. Exactly. This is good news for Murray (being mentioned on this blog as Novak’s biggest challenge ha aha ahah). It is good news for him, indeed, that he only has to deal with one monster rather than all three. At 28, he’s not over-the-hill at all. Bottomline, we may have seen the best from Murray, but he’s still going to be around here bugging Djokovic while the Serb attempts to make history.
Cut to the chase. Del Potro’s refreshed insistence that he return to form is perhaps the most interesting thing out there for me. His wrist might be too much. But this desire to find a new coach and get healthy is interesting news. Even though Novak is 11-3 vs. Del Potro, the Argentinian is a man. He plays him very tough recently and the wins come at SF Indian Wells, Olympic finals, and Davis Cup. Those are fairly high stakes events. 11-3 is still pretty dominant. And Juan needs to get healthy.
Cilic. He won the USO and like Del Potro, he’s 26. Both men’s 6′ 6” dimensions undermine the value a bit in my opinion, but they have time on their sides. Del Potro’s 2009, at age 20, was near scary: QF AO, SF FO and win at USO. Twenty years-old. He and Cilic seem right where they want to be. They need to get consistent.
I watched Cilic play today at the Citi Open, play a tight first set vs. Chung, young Chinese player who held his own in the first. Cilic was 100% on first serve points won. Strong. His ground strokes looked deep, good distribution of shots; he won the TB 7-2 and easily won the second set to move on. He is worth watching, for sure. At the same time, Ted Robinson and Courier pointed out how he is 0-6 vs. the top ten since winning the USO. Robinson, on Cilic pursuing a #1 ranking, “You gotta beat people to get there.”
That is the premise for this entire article. You have to beat people.
Stan is a well known commodity. He’s great when he’s great. I read recently his backhand is 1 mph slower than his forehand (when operating on all cylinders). That’s balance, scary balance given the weight and power of his ground strokes. Big serve. But he’s 30 and inconsistent. Certainly, a very relevant opponent for the next couple of years, folks.
Thiem, yes. He’s winning and has a big game. Athletic, controls and wins points, good serve and only 21. Ru-an has been talking this kid up for a while. Good stuff. I watched him finally control and dominate the Swiss final vs. Goffin, who is #15 in the world. Thiem, yes.
Dimitrov, not as much. Changes are on the horizon, but at 24 he needs to get into some majors finals. He’s seen a Wimbley SF. We love his game, the baby Fed. But he has to start winning. He was promising, like Thiem, but he has to progress. Will be interesting to see who coaches him.
There’s much to be said about more players, their stock, the quality of their games and maturity. Think of what Fed did at 19 (beat defending champ Pete at Wimbledon), or what Novak was doing in his early 20s, getting to USO and AO SF and F, winning his first at 21. These aspiring stars need to win, get those Ws on their resumes, into their confidence lockers. Learn a few things from your elders! Rafa was a freak, winning his first of many FO at 18. The greats win early and often. That’s where Del Potro is most interesting, perhaps.
I will say, lastly, that the two young Aussies will be interesting to watch – Kyrgios and Kokkinakis. Very young. Kyrgios I have seen play and has tremendous game. A little squirrely (immature), he needs good coaching (as do they all and what specifically seems to be affecting Murray and Dimitrov – similarity in the work of Lendl. One benefitted briefly and one made a pitch, but could not land the champion coach). A little shout-out, too, to Jack Sock’s game (a rare American). He’s 22 and has been seeing some good tennis in bigger tournaments. He took a set from Nadal in the 4R at FO this year. Okay, a long shot. But one to watch just in case.
What do you think of the game, currently? Who can withstand the Djokovic attack? Who takes the baton from Novak and defines their place in the sport? Whoever can has to follow quite a circus, the GOAT air show of tennis artistry that we have appreciated all the more when it elevates into intensely waged tennis court world wars.