Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have performed in history-defining matches at the 2012 Wimbledon and French Open tournaments. It’s a strong reminder that men’s tennis is in the midst of a truly remarkable Golden era.
Since the advent of the Open Era, there have been two prior Golden eras:
1978-1984: Bjorn Borg became a Wimbledon superstar and dueled with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the last of the old wooden racket era. Flushing Meadows, New York brought tennis to prime-time TV. It was also an age of throwback heroes, thinking man’s tennis and classic battles enshrined by coming-of-age Baby Boomers.
1990-1995: Andre Agassi’s arrival to tennis brought a cooler image and revolutionary approach to baseline power tennis. The all-time King of Swing Pete Sampras crossed paths with McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and other late-prime stars including Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. The quantity of top players was high, but this would diminish with Agassi’s demise late in 1995.
2007-current: Tennis is now in its third Golden era. This will be expounded with many factors that surround the concentric forces of Federer and Nadal. The following 12 frames feature the case for this epochal time.
The world's great age begins anew…The golden years return…The earth doth like a snake renew…Her winter weeds outworn…Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam…Like wrecks of a dissolving dream. –"Hellas" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The clouds parted and the sun gleamed down on the mother of this Golden era, a classic Wimbledon trilogy.
It begat 2007 with bicep-rippling Nadal who pushed smooth champion Federer to the brink of his fifth consecutive title.
Drama climaxed in the 2008 middle act as Nadal finally upended Federer in an epic thriller, dubbed by many neo-historians as the “Greatest Match Ever.”
It spawned Federer’s heroic reclamation of the Wimbledon crown in 2009, but tragically denied Andy Roddick’s final bid to join the pantheon of immortals.
Nobody backs into a Grand Slam title. Grunts, fist-pumps, shouts and towel trips are the intermission between points.
Nadal’s monopoly on mental toughness has been cloned by recent No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic. Even cool-headed Federer was more vociferous in his “Come on!” comeback against über-intense Andy Murray at Wimbledon.
The rest of the ATP is taking notice. Juan Martin del Potro didn’t bat an eyelash in his 2009 US Open title.
No. 103 ranked Lukas Rosol served up his own dish of Greek fire to defeat its originator…Nadal.
At some point the maniacal intensity must inevitably cool as tennis transitions to a new era. But if you like hot-blooded adrenaline, the ATP is the one to see.
Alexander the Great sought to spread Greek culture through all of his conquests. Now tennis is experiencing its own Hellenization.
A decade ago, a tennis enthusiast was often confined to monthly articles in Tennis Magazine and ESPN's coverage of the Ford Australian Open. Often a local tennis club was the only vibrant connection with like-minded fanatics.
Watch Roger Federer's hair flop up with each heavy forehand on HDTV.
Stream in ESPN3 to watch Rafael Nadal swat tennis balls in Monte Carlo's red-dusted wind.
Sign in to Twitter to discuss Novak Djokovic's Aussie Open win with his fan-club members.
Offer insights and opinions on blogs, or critique angles from sportswriters.
Wallow in seven degrees of tennis if you choose.
Not long ago, tennis in Paris meant apricot jam crepes, ham on real buttered bread and red-clay specialists who played tennis like the Atari game, Pong.
Then came Rafa Nadal…
His reign on clay is the most dominant ever on any surface. He beats back one-dimensional or four-dimensional players with sliding footwork and a super-bludgeoned topspin.
All of Nadal’s exploits made Federer’s long-anticipated 2009 triumph a golden victory and perhaps the greatest of his career.
Most recently, Roland Garros hosted Djokovic’s bid to hold all four Slams, but Nadal erased this opportunity and moved ahead of clay legend Bjorn Borg.
Now the French Open has become the most difficult tournament to win, and it is worthy to be ranked alongside its Wimbledon Big Brother.
Skeptics who typecast men’s tennis as baseline bashing are missing tactics that should be ranked next to the cunning of Odysseus.
Federer alone would fill up a tome with strategies for all occasions and opponents. He has continued to introduce new methods and patterns with astonishing regularity.
There is also the wizardry and imagination of Alexandr Dolgopolov. Though his strategies are peculiar at times, he is aggressive and unafraid to change paces and spins and go for broke when all else is failing.
There are several other creative players on the deep ATP tour who experiment in hopes of moving into the upper echelon of the rankings.
Too much parity is a symptom of incompetent power. For that story, go watch PGA golf play Grand Slam roulette with its champions.
There are those who would love to shatter tennis’ ruling triumvirate of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic. Yet, these players have built powerful factions of supporters.
Someday, like the old Roman Republic, the tennis triumvirate will be broken. But be careful what you wish for.
Socrates and other elite thinkers sometimes acknowledged the common laborers who herded, harvested and laid pipe to bring greatness to Greek civilization.
Some words of praise are now in order for a few of the less heralded but talented tennis also-rans:
Andy Murray: Your all-court skill brushes so agonizingly near to greatness.
David Ferrer: To see you scamper puts shame to the Energizer Bunny
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Bear-like stature and cat-like grace—skills and strokes aplenty.
Tomas Berdych: Powerful, smooth and so maddeningly inconsistent but lethal.
Juan Martin del Potro: Giant flat groundstrokes that captured one Grand glory.
Andy Roddick and Milos Raonic: Carrying on the big-server tradition.
Spaniards and Argentines: For daring on the clay and creative style to play.
Tommy Haas: A reminder of talent despite adversity. Undefeated 2012 vs. Federer on grass.
The ancient Greeks told a story of the courier Pheidippides who ran his final 25 miles to announce the joy of an Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon.
In this Golden Era of tennis, there have been special tests of endurance to put the marathon to shame.
Welcome to Aussie Land where a once-neglected Slam venue has now spun two tall tales of titanic tennis.
2009: Nadal with the endurance of Pheidippides and the strength of Hercules, took this title with two five-set matches over Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer. Nadal’s feat was sheer desire. His postmatch commiseration with Federer is a timeless commemoration of sportsmanship.
2012: The new king of Australia is Novak Djokovic who delivered his own back-to-back five-set victories over tough minded Andy Murray and the irrepressible Nadal. Djokovic’s victory was the ultimate high-stakes endurance test, and another candidate for Greatest Match of All-Time.
As the Open era began, Australian legends championed their skills on grass.
Sweden offered Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg and others to add 24 Grand Slam victories and cool-headed style.
America has had its share of champions, ranging from the Jimmy Connors/John McEnroe era to the Sampras/Agassi era.
Now the power has shifted to Western Europe with Spain and Switzerland featuring their legendary champions.
Spanish and French players continue to bring creativity to tennis, and Scotland nearly produced a Wimbledon champion.
Other regions of Europe are growing including Serbian and Russian stars.
Cyprus's Marcos Baghdatis has also been an ambassador for tennis.
Argentine players have had success for several decades beginning with Guillermo Vilas and currently represented with Juan Martin del Potro and Juan Monaco.
Tennis will undoubtedly continue its expansion into other hot pockets as the game becomes even more global.
Tennis champions have all brought unique conventions and style to the game.
Christopher Clarey of the New York Times describes Nadal's unique topspin forehand as a slapping action to create more vertical spin speed. His reverse forehand finishes high and above his head or shoulder for more spin and better angle.
Djokovic hits the ball on the rise and flat with a backhand up the line at an unprecedented pace and efficiency. Tennis guru and coach Nick Bollitieri called him "the most complete player of all time."
And while technology, athletes and conditions change, tennis fans will always recognize some old-school forms embedded within these new techniques.
Wimbledon has become Wimbledome. This eighth wonder of the world recently created a split match of conditions for grass. Mother Nature can shake her fist but tennis will play on at SW19, London.
Wimbledon’s current grass recipe has also provided a greater variety of champions, which widens the pool of contenders. No longer can champions win with only serve and volley.
The US Open has increased visibility with blue courts and improved decorum, graced by a statue of the late Arthur Ashe.
The Aussie Open has improved its surface with the new plexicushion surface over the former and sticky Rebound Ace.
Three words for Roland Garros: Get a roof!
In 1995, tennis writer Peter Bodo published The Courts of Babylon, citing numerous examples of greed and poor sportsmanship in the early years of professional tennis.
Now? Tennis players are not perfect, but by and large, they exhibit upstanding character and sportsmanship. They are a standard for sports and represent the world with class and dignity.
How often has Federer lauded his opponents through victory or defeat? During his post-Wimbledon praise of Andy Murray, he also paid tribute to Andy Roddick's valiant effort from 2009. He respects his predecessors Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, crediting their games as helping to shape his own.
Nadal often deflects talk of those who call him the greatest ever, instead citing Federer as his example.
Djokovic often embraces his opponents after his own tough loss and credits their success.
Tennis players are often good role models off the court, signing autographs and inspiring kids. And maybe this is the evolution of tennis that today's fan can be most proud to witness.