The 2013 U.S. Open is here, and it’s a vivid reminder that the current generation of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic is not in position to dominate Flushing Meadows. Even the recent success of Andy Murray does more to reinforce the parity that is taking place at the top of men’s tennis.
Traditionally, the best champion of his era has usually dominated the second set of Grand Slam venues—Wimbledon or the U.S. Open:
Jimmy Connors had his greatest success in New York.
Bjorn Borg added five Wimbledon titles to his French Open dominance.
John McEnroe ruled Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Ivan Lendl took three straight titles in the middle of eight straight years as a U.S. Open finalist.
Pete Sampras took 12 of his 14 Grand Slam titles in the second half of the tennis season.
Roger Federer centered his dominance at Wimbledon and New York.
But the greatest champions of tennis in 2013 have reversed this trend. Long gone are the years of Roger Federer finishing off five consecutive titles (2004-08) in New York. In fact, since 2008 there have been five different champions in five years. Parity characterizes the faster courts.
Conversely, tennis now has its greatest dynasties on the slower courts. Consider that Djokovic has won three straight Australian Open titles and Nadal has won four straight French Open titles. It’s possible to lock down one specific Grand Slam venue, just not the U.S. Open.
New York State of Mind
Someone will win the 2013 U.S. Open, but not as part of a dominant era ranging for at least half a decade. The kind of player who can dominate the quick courts at Flushing Meadows must be offensively versatile and play a mostly aggressive game. He needs a great serve and forehand, but especially the ability to counter many kinds of tennis styles.
Today’s top three players, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, are all primarily built to play tennis from beyond the baseline, track down shots and grind out victories.
Oddly enough, it’s Murray who has had the most recent success with the latter Grand Slam venues, owing much of this to his versatility and greater commitment to be more offensive minded. He was better able to navigate the winds and fickle conditions that characterized his final two matches for the 2012 U.S. Open title.
It also takes excellent health to navigate deeper draws. Nadal was hurt in 2012 and has often been worn down by his early-season dominance. Federer has been ailing with a bad back in recent months.
The hard courts do not allow any player to completely maximize his greatest strengths, but rather invite more variety and all-court play from many worthy opponents. Djokovic, for all of his baseline aggression, has found it very difficult to cruise through any U.S. Open draw. There are more opponents who can impose their offense to make matches more difficult on the No. 1 player. They are not handcuffed into defensive tennis to the same extent as Australia.
The Age of Parity is Coming
Federer is trying to gather in one more Grand Slam title as his career sets off into the night. Eventually, perhaps soon, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will wear down and leave the championship podium unattended. None of them have the time to win four or five U.S. Open titles in a row.
By 2017, perhaps the generation of players born in the 1990s will finally arrive. To date, there have been few signs of arousal. Even with the Fab Four of tennis exiting the scene by 2017, there does not appear to be another champion in waiting. Nobody’s going to hold their breath while Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz gingerly traipse their way into second-week appearances at Grand Slams.
Even if one of them does begin to win by then, how likely would it be that one dominates the U.S. Open like Federer or Sampras? He might also only have a few more years left to try and establish his own mini-dynasty, which would already take tennis into the 2020s. It’s not likely that a young player with all-court skills will take over New York anytime in the next half decade.
Right now, Nadal and Djokovic are trying to rally their strengths for a title that has eluded them all but one year in their careers. And nobody would be shocked if Murray, Federer or Juan Martin del Potro ended up capturing the Big Apple’s top prize.
Parity has been quietly conquering the courts of New York the past several years, and it’s going to stick around for the foreseeable future.