‘Boring’ is a term that I never thought I would associate with men’s grand slam tennis, but that was my overwhelming reaction to watching this year’s US Open, one that saw Rafael Nadal prevail in a straight sets surgical dissection of South African Kevin Anderson.
The victory was yet another example of the renaissance of tennis’ ageing icons. Incredibly, in recent times Roger Federer and Nadal have split the four grand slams between them. The unexpected success of the beloved duo has set social media ablaze with rejoicing. Amidst this adulation, debate has again raged over who is considered the greatest player of all time with Nadal’s 16 grand slam victories three shy of Federer’s astonishing haul of 19.
Unfortunately this obsession for individual glory has been at the expense of the men’s game as a whole. There was the promise of new talent coming through at the beginning of 2017 with young phenoms Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev touted to lead the charge of ‘generation next’. The rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov was seen by many as finally living up to his nickname of ‘Baby Fed’. Incendiary Aussie Nick Kyrgios was also viewed as a grand slam threat, if he could only discover the dedication and drive to bring his outrageous skills to fruition.
The hope of any of these players ushering in a new generation has been exposed as a false dawn. Of these, only Thiem and Dimitrov have made it to the semi finals at a grand slam, only to fall short. The Bulgarian was desperately unlucky to lose to Nadal at the Australian Open in a 5 set thriller after failing to convert match points in the decider and Thiem was smashed by Nadal in a 3 set romp at the French Open. A grim precursor for the young Austrian was in the 4th round at the recent US Open, when Thiem had an obviously stricken Juan Martin Del Potro there for the taking but failed to put him away.
It brings to mind the struggles of the previous generation of players that were touted as being the ‘next big things’. Names such as Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Gael Monfils from France, Kei Nishikori from Japan and Tomas Berdych from the Czech Republic were all viewed as certain stars. These players came so close but failed to live up to their hype. Only Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic from that generation have delivered on the biggest stage.
Excuses for failing to reach the top were valid when Federer and Nadal were at their peak. During this period it was an impossible mission to usurp the two masters for grand slam glory. 2017, however, offered no reason for a youngster not to make a championship run. Federer and Nadal are playing fine tennis but are hardly the invincible players they were in the past. With both players well into their 30’s, it’s almost surreal that Federer is still winning championships at 36. Djokovic has been injured and seems to be lacking the relentless drive that saw him first break the stranglehold of the aforementioned icons and then go on to dominate with 11 majors over a 5 year period and 12 in total. Past winners and perennial threats, Andy Murray and Wawrinka have also been plagued by injury and have missed multiple grand slam events.
The reality is any of these ‘great hopes’ have been exposed as merely hype and this has damaged the appeal of the men’s game. Let us hope a much needed phase of transition is ushered in, led by the name on every pundits lips of late, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.