The sport of tennis, when categorized by men and women, seems to be in a state of two extremes.
Men’s tennis finds itself in a unique position with 29 of the last 30 Grand Slam tournaments won by one of three athletes, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. This three-way dominance is not bad for the sport on the whole, but the lack of a level playing field seems to suck the intrigue out of any given tournament until the semifinals.
Women’s tennis, on the other hand, finds itself lacking a central dominant figure or figures, with the last seven tournaments being won by seven different women, with 10 different women playing in the seven finals matches.
No one would ever deny the impressive nature of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal’s dominance of the sport, but men’s tennis needs fresh faces on the winner’s stand.
The success of these three athletes has made their compatriots almost unrecognizable to the casual tennis fan. Outside of eternal bridesmaid Andy Murray and now-retired Andy Roddick, few figures outside the Big Three have risen to prominence in the sport.
In fact, it is easy for tennis fans to assume that the semifinal will feature Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and (most likely) Murray. This predictability takes a lot of the intrigue out of earlier rounds, and in the rare case that another name does crack the final four, his defeat at the hands of one of the Big Three is all but assured.
Juan Martin Del Potro is the only player outside the Big Three to win a Grand Slam event since the Australian Open in 2005. His 2009 U.S. Open championship featured a semifinals victory over Nadal and a championship defeat of Federer, making him the first man to defeat both athletes in the same tournament.
Del Potro’s victory was as exhilarating as it was shocking. It felt as though a new dominant athlete had finally burst onto the men’s tennis scene, and if it weren’t for a wrist injury that affected Del Potro’s play for the next two years, that may have been true.
If another athlete can make a statement at the 2012 U.S. Open, be it Del Potro or Murray or Tomas Berdych, who upset Roger Federer in the quarterfinals last night, the floodgates will symbolically open up again. Each tournament would no longer be Federer/Nadal/Djokovic’s to lose. They would surely remain favorites, but the collective becomes mortal.
And when the collective becomes mortal, as Federer became last night, every round of every tournament becomes that much more interesting.
At the other end of the spectrum, women’s tennis lacks its dominant athlete. No female tennis player has won three Grand Slam events in a calendar year since Serena Williams beat her sister Venus at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2002.
Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have been the most recognizable female tennis players in the last decade, but both were anything but dominant in the last two years. Thankfully, Sharapova and Williams have won the last two major tournaments and remain alive in the U.S. Open, and Serena, specifically, is making a strong argument that she is returning to the pinnacle of the sport.
Despite what I have said about the dramatic impact of the sheer dominance of men’s tennis’s Big Three, reliably competitive athletes are good for the sport.
Casual tennis fans do not follow many tournaments outside of the Grand Slam events, giving them little time to learn about athletes like Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska and become familiar with their stories.
The winners of the three majors in 2012 are all in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, a great sign for women’s tennis. Australian Open winner Azarenka will face French Open winner Sharapova, while Italy’s Sara Errani is the only thing that stands between Serena and a shot to win a second consecutive Grand Slam tournament after her victory two months ago at Wimbledon.
The continued success of these three athletes is vital to the sport, as women’s tennis needs role models, rivalries and familiar faces. These storylines build intrigue around every tournament and give women’s tennis a recognizable image.
Analysts can certainly enjoy a chuckle at the fact that men’s and women’s tennis face completely opposite obstacles in terms of growing their sport, the men needing more diversity at the apex while the women need more consistency.
As the 2012 U.S. Open marches forward, women’s tennis finds three of its top four seeds in the semifinals, while the men face a semifinals without Nadal or Federer, with Djokovic set to face Juan Martin Del Potro today.
Whether or not the trends hold up in 2013 remains to be seen, but tennis fans everywhere must take in and enjoy the state of the sport as the 2012 season winds down. In this ever-evolving game, it appears the best for men’s and women’s tennis is just over the horizon.