Tennis fans have been spoilt over the last decade and a half. Not only have they watched and admired the Greatest of All Time (with apologies to Serena Williams), Roger Federer, take the game to a whole new dimension, they have witnessed some of the best of all-time give him a run for his money over a long period of time. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic can safely get into any such shortlist, while Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have been worthy opponents for the Big Three. Life of a tennis player at the top is generally limited to 10-12 years, hence one needs to be thankful that the Golden Generation has thrived for as long as it has. But all good things come to an end, and judging by the events of this season, we should savour it while it lasts, as there is not much time left.
Federer’s dream comeback after knee surgery has been the story of the 2017 season, but his tournament schedule betrays the fact that the 36-year-old knows he is on borrowed time. Skipping the whole clay-court swing was a sensible move, as he is no longer a favourite on the surface. But even then, his struggles with the body on the American hard-court season, including the ongoing US Open, prove that is no guarantee against injuries. Nobody knows more about injuries than Nadal. His playing style puts enormous strain on his body and when he burst onto the scene, many pundits predicted a relatively short career at the top. But the Mallorcan has returned stronger after every setback and currently sits on top of the world rankings. But even he would know that at 31, he is closer to the finish line than the beginning.
Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka—all past 30 now—have been victims of their own success over the past several seasons. Sometimes playing more than 80 matches a year and a bid to maintain their rankings comes at the cost of their bodies, which after a certain point, just refuses to co-operate. All three are missing from New York and may not be seen in action again this year. Federer took a long layoff to get his body right, and feels other top players could also take a leaf out of his book. “The guys who are hurt lately, it’s mostly because they are 30-plus,” he said before the start of the US Open. “I don’t think there needs to be that much addressing because the players, they have the option not to play as much as sometimes they have to or want to.” Where does it put men’s tennis in the present situation? The US Open provides a few pointers. With Federer and Nadal in the same half of the draw and consequently playing on the same days, it leaves the remainder of the schedule significantly short of star power.
It has not helped that the next generation expected to rise to the challenge hasn’t done so yet. Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori are skipping the event while the bonafide NextGen star Alexander Zverev, tied with Federer at a season-high five Tout titles, was bounced out in the second round, as was Baby Fed Grigor Dimitrov. The organisers will be praying that Nadal and Federer can stay in the draw for as long as possible, or the tournament, already missing Serena, may prove to be a damp squib on the TV networks towards its business end. After the second round of matches, Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem are the only other members of the Top 10 remaining in the field. The likes of Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych don’t have what it takes to grab the biggest prizes any more, while temperamental brats Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic make headlines for their errant behaviour rather than exploits on the court.
Developments in sports science and injury management has drastically lengthened playing careers of late, despite the sport becoming physically more gruelling by the day. Pete Sampras retired at 32 and Bjorn Borg did so when he was just 26. Andre Agassi played on till he was 36, but won his last Grand Slam title at 32. John McEnroe played well into his 30s, but his last Major title came aged 25. So, if Federer and his peers have flourished at the age they have, it is important to appreciate that they have already exceeded the average. But science and support staff can only help a player to a point. As the examples of Kyrgios and Tomic show, one has to be willing to go through the grind to be a top tennis professional. After Kyrgios lost in the US Open first round, McEnroe teed off on him saying the combustible Australian will be finished in five years if he doesn’t change his ways. Top players need to make great sacrifices to excel in their sport. The rewards of success are rich, but other facets of their life have to take a back seat. Nobody knows it more than the top five who have ruled the sport for most of the 21st century.
Federer is the father of two sets of twins, while Djokovic, Wawrinka and Murray have offsprings too. Though returning to the family after a tough match could be a great stressbuster, after a point the player may not want to go through the endless training sessions, media commitments and high-pressure matches any more. That is when they will choose to walk away. Recurring injuries can only bring that day nearer. When the current top five exit the scene, it will leave a large vacuum in the sport. But it will not last long. After all, Sampras was feted as arguably the Greatest of All Time when he retired. But Federer took over the mantle in a little over a year’s time, and now the American hardly features in discussions about the best ever. In years to come, there will be newer faces fighting it out for the sport’s biggest honours. But it is unlikely that such an extraordinarily dominant quintet will ever come to the fore again.
By Tushar Bhaduri