What does the future hold for tennis?
Tennis arguably stands at a crossroads with a number of ageing champions and young emerging talents. RealSport ask what the future holds for the sport.
An Australian Open to remember
The Australian Open threw up some surprising results across the draws this season. Hyeon Chung was the architect of more than one of them. After making his way to the third round he recorded back-to-back upsets. First to fall to the South Korean was Alexander Zverev who again disappointed at Slam-level and lost in five sets. Chung backed that up with a straight sets victory over the great Novak Djokovic, who was returning from injury but did not look all the way back to fitness.
There were surprises on the other side of the draw as well, where Britain’s Kyle Edmund had easily his best fortnight at one of the Majors. Previously his best effort was a respectable run to the fourth round at the US Open in 2016 (lost to Djokovic) but that pales beside his Melbourne exploits. The South African born 23-year-old first defeated Kevin Anderson in the round of 128, before further victories against Istomin, Basilashvili and Seppi put him in the quarterfinals. He then shocked third-seeded Dimitrov to make the last four, although Cilic had too much for him there.
Whilst the men’s tournament saw some fine breakthrough performances, it was arguably in the women’s draw that the major achievements were made. Whilst a final between the top two players in the world may, on paper, seem predictable, when those two players are Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki it is anything but. Halep has been agonisingly close to victory for years now having twice fallen at the final hurdle at the French Open.
Wozniacki, meanwhile, had an impressive resume, including two year-end #1 finishes and two US Open final appearances, but none-the-less had to field questions for years about being a #1 without having won a Slam. That seemed to effect her, and prior to this year’s Australian Open she hadn’t made it past the quarterfinals of a Slam since 2014 despite initially promising so much in her career. For both players it was a huge opportunity to win a Slam, and with so much on the line an excellent final seemed likely.
And it lived up to those expectations. It was Wozniacki, from a break down in the decider, who triumphed in just under three hours with the deciding game being one of the best of the match. Her delight was evident and well-earned, and along with the Australian Open crown came the #1 ranking. But it was impossible not to feel some sympathy for Halep who had played some superb tennis. For her the wait goes on, but she seems to be getting closer.
The 2017 season
2017 truly was a remarkable year for tennis. Both the ATP and WTA tours kicked off in the grandest of fashions with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and Serena and Venus Williams meeting in their respective Australian Open finals. The combined age of the finalists at the time was 136, and tennis fans around the world revelled in the sense that we had stepped back 10 years into the past. The Bryan Brothers also made the final 14 years after their first in Melbourne.
It proved to be a year for winding back the clock on the ATP Tour. Although there were moments for the younger generation, with the twin victories of Alexander Zverev at Masters 1000-level and a Cincinnati final between Kyrgios and Dimitrov chief amongst them, it was the veterans who enjoyed most of the success. Nadal would complete ‘La Decima’ at the French Open, before Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title, breaking the record he had previously shared with Sampras.
Nadal then levelled the Slam scores for the year with his third US Open triumph defeating first-time finalist Kevin Anderson in the title match. On the women’s side, however, there were no clear frontrunners and every tournament seemed to have an open field. Jelena Ostapenko, then a teenager, shocked the tennis world with her run to the French Open title before Garbine Muguruza denied Venus Williams a sixth Wimbledon title. The US Open saw perhaps the most exciting tournament of all. It was won by Sloane Stephens, who at the start of the North American hard court swing, had been close to dropping out of the top 1000.
An ageing sport?
Tennis, once a young man’s game seems to be going the opposite way now. Many players seem to be peaking in what would have once been considered the latter stages of their careers. Perhaps most notable, is Stan Wawrinka who became a top ten regular only in 2013 despite turning pro in 2002. He didn’t win his first Slam until he was 29, but has won another two since. Compare that with Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe who both won their last Slams before turning 26.
The age of Major champions is also trending upwards in the men’s game. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have maintained, at one time or another, a stranglehold over the sport’s biggest prizes despite their advancing years. The only players who have been able to break into their dominance have been of similar ages. The last man under the age of 25 to win a Slam was Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open nine years ago.
It seems unlikely that we will witness another teenage champion like Boris Becker again. As tennis becomes an increasingly physical sport and greater awareness and funding allow players to continue to play and train at a high-level, it is increasingly difficult for younger players to match them. Ultimately, younger players simply aren’t able to maintain the level of physicality over two weeks that is required to win a Slam. One needs simply to look at the example of Hyeon Chung whose body failed him at the Australian Open after the better part of two weeks of grinding tennis.
What is perhaps remarkable is how Federer has managed to maintain his body with so few injuries over the years. Part of it must of course be attributed to luck, but his aggressive style must surely also have played a part. Whilst, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray were raised as a new breed of ultra-fit sportsmen able to cover ground for days, Federer comes from an older era where points were kept short. It seems unlikely then, that the sport will see too many 36-year-old Grand Slam champions in the future.
The state of the greats
So where does the sport take itself from here? Although the Federer seems almost untouchable at the moment and indeed is yet to lose a match this year, his dominance can surely only last so long. At 36, his body is fragile, requiring careful management of his schedule to avoid serious injury. Last year, after winning Wimbledon he elected to play Montreal, only for the power of Zverev to give him a back strain that cost him a realistic shot at the US Open. With each passing year those injuries become more likely.
Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka are all battling their way towards full fitness again, knowing that if they can reach it they will have the chance to unseat Federer. But only Djokovic has managed to make it to Indian Wells, and is still playing with doubts over the strength of his elbow. Even if any of that foursome do return to fitness and the top of the game, all are now over 30 and whatever they are still to achieve they can hardly be considered the future of the sport.
Serena Williams is joining Djokovic in making her return to the game in the Californian desert this week. Such is her quality that it would be no surprise to see her continue to dominate the women’s game again, but equally, the state of her game is effectively an unknown. And much like in the men’s game, regardless of her future successes she is already 36-years-old and cannot be expected to continue indefinitely.
What lies ahead?
That leaves the question of who will replace them at the top of the game. 2017 may have given some indication of that. Alexander Zverev won two Masters titles and climbed to as high as 3rd in the world last year. Though he is yet to make it past the fourth round of a Slam, his potential is undeniable. Austria’s Dominic Thiem has been inside the top ten and one of the best clay courters for two seasons now, but is still yet to have a breakthrough away from the ‘terre battue’.
If Grigor Dimitrov could establish more consistency in his game he could perhaps fulfil the potential that so many saw in him, but he is 26-years-old now and can hardly be considered a young gun. But that is not to say a Slam is out of his reach. The repeated injuries suffered by Nishikori and Raonic, who along with Dimitrov form something of a lost generation, have put a serious dent in their aspirations.
The ‘Next-Gen’ of ATP players under 21 also seem to have a bright future. Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov and Hyeon Chung have all impressed on the big stage, whilst Karen Khachanov, Frances Tiafoe and Daniil Medvedev have also shown their quality at times. Though they don’t seem ready to challenge the big guns yet, if a vacuum does develop at the top of the game, they seem well placed to fill it.
The WTA Tour is as wide open as ever as we go into the Sunshine Double. There is no shortage of young talent. From Jelena Ostapenko to Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza the women’s game is well stocked with talent looking likely to have a promising future. Indeed, the WTA, perhaps lacking the depth of greats that the ATP has been blessed with over the past decade-and-a-half, has never been short on youthful champions.
One can never be sure where exactly the future of tennis lies. But with a roster of all-time greats and some exciting young talents emerging, it certainly looks bright.
What do you think the future holds for tennis? Let us know in the comments below!