The unexpected drew me to tennis in 1985
Rafael Nadal Forever Young?
Rafael Nadal has always been a revolutionary figure in tennis. Whether it is his method for hitting the ball with record RPMs, his ushering in a new level of athleticism, or his raging bull persona, Rafa has always seemed to be young. He’s chased and in some ways surpassed an all-time great nearly 5 years his senior. Roger Federer’s longevity has left Rafa as the notable younger party in a rivalry between two men who hold a combined 31 Grand Slam singles titles. While Nadal is slightly older than Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, no one would say either make Rafa look old. Juan Martin del Potro has never been healthy long enough to suggest that Rafa is getting older. Even after Rafa cut his hair and ditched the clam diggers, even after all of his injuries, he’s seemed young to me.
Nadal has changed the way people look at tennis players as athletes with a style akin to a footballer or matador
Nick Kyrgios 2014 & Rafael Nadal 2005
These two men are the last two teenagers to defeat a world #1 in a Grand Slam match. Rafa in 2005 was becoming a known commodity as he had won Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona prior to the 2005 French Open. Rafa had also lost a 5 set classic to Federer in Miami and a 5 set thriller to Hewitt in Melbourne prior to his first big clay court run. Nick Kyrgios also beat a world #1, but he does not have a top 10 ranking or Masters 1000 title to his name (let alone 2). In other words, what Rafa did in 2005 was far less shocking.
A new wave
I am not predicting Kyrgios to become a world #1 or to win multiple Grand Slam titles. I’d love it if he does achieve those things because he has a lot of charisma and a great game. Still, Milos Raonic reaching his second consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal and solid play in 2014’s Masters 1000 events, Grigor Dimitrov winning 3 titles on 3 surfaces this year and having reached his second 2014 Grand Slam quarterfinal, and even Alexandr Dolgopolov beating Rafa at Indian Wells mean that Rafa will soon be the older party in many showdowns. It may not specifically be Raonic, Dimitrov, Kygrios, or Dolgopolov, but someone or some set of younger players will end the Big 4’s reign and unravel strategies and tactics that were the state of the art.
1974, 1977, 1985, 1990, 2000/2001, 2005, 2007
I picked 1985 for my title because I vividly remember Boris Becker’s rise, but each of these years ushered a revolutionary figure or set of figures to the biggest stages of tennis.
1974 – Jimmy Connors was a top 10 player at the end of 1973, but no one knew that he’d win all 3 majors he was allowed to play in 1974. He took the ball on the rise, hit a two-fisted backhand and used a steel tennis racquet. Beyond Connors, Bjorn Borg won his first Roland Garros title in 1974 when Connors was barred from playing the event.
1977 – John McEnroe raced to the Wimbledon semifinal round before losing to Jimmy Connors in 4 sets. His brash style, unique service motion, and touch at the net all pointed toward future success.
1985 – Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17 by overpowering Kevin Curren, a player who had just served John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors off the court.
1990 – Pete Sampras beat Thomas Muster, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi in succession to win the US Open. His serve was as powerful and accurate as Becker’s, but Sampras had Edberg’s fluidity of movement to partner with his power game.
2000/2001 – The New Balls arrived. Marat Safin mugged Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final (a kid named Andy Roddick won the 2000 US Open junior title). Juan Carlos Ferrero reached the semifinal round at Roland Garros in 2000 and 2001. Roger Federer ended Sampras’ reign on Centre Court in 2001. LLeyton Hewitt won the 2001 US Open title by routing Sampras, but he had to overcome Andy Roddick in 5 sets to reach the quarterfinal round.
2005 – Rafael Nadal proved to be a force of nature on clay heading into the French Open. He toppled Roger Federer, the world #1, in 4 sets in the semifinal and won the first of his 9 French Open titles. By 2006, he was reaching the final round at Wimbledon.
2007 – Novak Djokovic took the Miami crown, was a semifinalist at both the French Open and Wimbledon, won the Canadian Open by beating the top 3 players in the world and then finished as the US Open runner-up. He’d capture the 2008 Australian Open to cap this rise.
I Could Go On
Generally, when a pack of young players emerge and make a move, the majority never quite get to the top. Richard Gasquet and Fernando Verdasco were hot commodities in 2005 along with Rafael Nadal. Marat Safin never had a disposition for dominating tennis despite humbling Sampras in 2000 and staring down Federer in 2005. One can already see Dimitrov and Raonic creating at least some temporary distance between themselves and players once considered to be their peers.
Becker’s 1986 dive and improvise vs. Lendl: The constant possibility of something akin to this happening keeps me hooked on tennis
Boris Becker’s 1985 Wimbledon victory is a big reason why at 9-years of age I started to pick up a tennis racquet more and more frequently. Becker’s win was exciting and unexpected. The Big 4 and a new era of more physical tennis have blunted the stream of teens breaking through. Kyrgios’ win was reminiscent of an era in which this sort of result was more common. Still, age is going to continue to take a toll on players, and tennis will always hold the promise of a player coming of age and changing the game. For me as a fan, tennis is a lot like it was when it captivated me in July 1985. I never know when someone is going to dive for a volley, to hit a slam dunk overhead, to play like a platonic form, to hit a buggy whip forehand, or to do what Kyrgios did today and shake up the tennis world.
Roger’s 2009 US Open tweener did not exhaust what can be done on a tennis court