Tennis players tend to arrive in waves. Pete Sampras was so dominant that his generation, including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Sergi Bruguera, Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Muster, Michael Chang, and Richard Krajicek, more or less eclipsed the next group of promising players. To be sure, Gustavo Kuerten, Patrick Rafter and Yevgeny Kafelnikov made marks in the historical records, but most others failed to break through on the biggest stages of tennis. That led to the New Balls generation taking the reigns starting with Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt’s successes in 2000 and 2001. Guga could be placed with this group as he was part of the promotional campaign, but he was older than most of the featured players. Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick broke through in 2003, but Roger Federer’s 16 major titles set a benchmark for him as the greatest and last champion of the New Balls Era.
The Nadal-Djokovic Era
Federer has had more Grand Slam successes than Sampras did, but he did not crowd out most of the players 4-6 years his junior. This is mainly due to the preternatural motor that Rafael Nadal possesses. Nadal led a post New Balls wave of players into the elite levels of tennis starting in 2005. Novak Djokovic broke through in 2007 and early 2008. Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have all reached at least one major final. This generation players just now seem to be sinking their collective teeth into the tour. Federer is the lone hold out from the previous era who is still a plausible threat.
Still, that does not keep us from looking ahead. Last week, tennis fans saw Milos Raonic win a title over a top 10 opponent in a tense final. Milos impressed Pete Sampras during the off season. Alexandr Dolgopolov was runner-up at another Australian Open tune-up. Bernard Tomic earned Andy Murray’s praise. Ryan Harrison has some buzz. It remains to be seen if this next wave will produce a champion of Sampras, Federer or Nadal’s caliber. This next wave may end up with players more along the lines of Thomas Enqvist. Perhaps, a tandem of champions similar to Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg will emerge. I think the window for piling up majors is broader today than it once was because surfaces are much more uniform. Would Ivan Lendl have more than 8 majors if the Australian Open had been on a slow hard court for his entire career and Wimbledon had been slowed down? I think so.
However, I also think tennis has become so physically grueling, in large part due to the slower courts, that the youthful breakthrough wins one saw from Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, and Michael Chang are far less likely. Of the current players in the new wave, only Raonic seems capable at present of making consistent second week runs in majors because he generates so many free points. I could see Dolgopolov or Tomic pulling an upset of a top gun, but stamina becomes an issue if beating Federer in 5 sets then means playing Nadal or Djokovic. All of these younger players are developing that physical toughness needed, but by the time it develops and Djokovic, Nadal and Murray are declining it may only leave a 2-4 year window for winning majors. I don’t mourn for this new generation, but I do think the mountain facing them is steeper than what many previous generations faced.