Counterpunch – This is Not the Golden Era

As a fan, I have never enjoyed a period of tennis as much as I have from 2004-present. 2003 was a generational shifting year in which the New Balls players won 3 of the 4 majors.  In 2004, Roger Federer gave a dominating and aesthetically pleasing game to this new era.  2005 saw Marat Safin win his second major by staring Roger down and Rafael Nadal of the String Generation emerge.   While Federer continued to set the standard, Nadal increasingly exerted his force on the tour.  Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro each reached their first Grand Slam finals in 2007, 2008 and 2009.  Roger and Rafa put on a show setting records and producing instant classics such as the 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon finals and the 2009 Australian Open final.  Federer also played Roddick in a 2009 classic.  Djokovic took it to Rafa for awhile, and the two may have exceeded the 2008 Wimbledon final with their 2012 Australian Open classic.  Murray made history.  Rafael Nadal has reasserted himself in fantastic fashion with more records to pursue.  Pretty awesome stuff? Yes.

Best Era Ever?

Maybe.  When times are good, we perhaps over value them.  As I said, I have enjoyed this era a great deal.  Here are some reasons why other eras may deserve another look.

  1. Uniform Surfaces – If clay is playing faster than it used to and grass is slower and bounces better and hard courts are also slower, shouldn’t we expect players to pile up majors more quickly than they once did?  Virtually all top male pros can hit big serves.  Slowing courts and tennis balls down benefits the top players as they back-up their first serve with bigger games.  Under 1990s conditions, a lot more tiebreak sets and upsets would occur at the US Open and Wimbledon.  This would make it harder for players to predictably reach the final 4 of Grand Slams. This assault on history may be a function of surfaces as much as it is a function of players.
    Jimmy: Think you could slow this grass down?
  2. Top players now play the Australian Open religiously.  If top players play 4 Grand Slams per year instead of 3, they are likely to win more majors.  The Australian Open was such a mess that it was held twice in 1977 and was not held at all in 1986.  It is great that the Australian Open has rehabilitated itself, but previous eras should not be penalized for not taking this event seriously.  Heck, the French Open upgraded itself in the 1980s as well.
  3. There were other great story lines prior to 2004.  Jimmy Connors won 3 of the 6 majors he entered in 1982 and 1983 despite being in his thirties.  John McEnroe posted a tremendous year in 1984.  Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985 and 1986 as a teenager.  Ivan Lendl was very consistent at the top.  Mats Wilander won 3 majors in 1988.  In 1991 these players were all realistic Grand Slam contenders: Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Goran Ivanisevic.  That is quality depth.    
  4. Contrasting styles: Pat Cash recently lamented the lack of diversity in tennis strategy.  
  5. Ping Pong vs. Tennis: Players such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi hit groundstrokes with 1800-1900 RPMs.  Roger Federer hits with around 2500 RPMs. Rafal Nadal hits with 3200 RPMs (as high as 5000 RPMs). New strings and slower surfaces have made tennis look like a video game at times in recent years.   Instead of a Golden Era maybe tennis should be described as a new sport in its infancy.  These levels of spin make everything different.  Maybe the product is better than it was, but it is better due to equipment changes.

Try doing any of this on a truly fast surface and/or with older strings

Concluding Remarks

I do think tennis is in a special period of time and has been over the past decade.  Here are the factors that I think are most responsible for tennis’ recent flourishing.

  • Fan and Media Accessibility – Roger Federer has been more accessible to the US media than Pete Sampras was.  A lot of players on tour have helped to shed the old stereotype of aloof and/or petulant tennis champions.
  • Surfaces and Technologies Converging to Produce Long Points – Tennis had a boom in the 1970s when Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors were the top two players in the world.  Har-tru also became a reality on tour.  People like to watch long points.  It worked in the 70s and has worked again.  Had tennis not slowed things down a deluge of Greg Rusedskis would be busting brackets and putting on matches without a lot of variety.  Maybe today’s players are pretty uniform, but they are uniform about punishing each other with grueling points instead of punishing us with ace contests.
  • Personalities – Federer appeals to some fans.  Nadal to others.  Djokovic to still others.  Federer offers almost bloodless kills on court.  Nadal viscerally breaks an opponent down.  Djokovic is a counter-puncher with a side of humor.  Andy Murray even appeals to people who like tortured players.
  • Great Matches – The French Open is the only major that has not had a signature 5 set championship match over the past decade.  Wimbledon pulled in casual sports fans in 2007, 2008 and 2009.  The Australian Open had a great 2009 final and to my mind the best match I have ever seen in 2012.  The US Open went 5 sets in 2009.  A number of other very good 4 set matches have made Grand Slam finals must see television for many sports fans.
  • Historical Milestones – Federer won 5 straight Wimbledon titles in 2007 and 5 straight US Opens in 2008.  Federer tied Sampras’ 7 Wimbledon titles in 2012. Rafael Nadal set the French Open title record in 2012.  Federer played for a 52 week slam in 2006 and 2007 at the French Open.  Novak Djokovic played for a 52 week slam at the French Open in 2012.  Federer played for the career Grand Slam at the 2008 and 2009 French Opens.  Rafael Nadal played for a career Grand Slam at the 2010 US Open final.  Federer played to tie Sampras’ 14 majors at the 2009 Australian Open and French Open finals.  Federer broke Sampras 14 major mark at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships.  Andy Murray played for history at Wimbledon in 2012 and 2013.  Murray also played for Grand Slam glory at the 2008 US Open, the 2010 Australian Open and 2012 US Open.  All of these matches took on added importance for various media outlets and fans.  That is always a benefit to the sport.

Tell me this wasn’t awesome

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