Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic stand alone in men's tennis. While the two superstars vie for the No. 1 ranking, the rest of the ATP has faded from relevant contention.
The Golden era of great rivalries, brilliant tennis and compelling stories may have already ended.
Golden Eras of Tennis
Since the advent of the Open era, there have been three Golden eras:
1978-1984: Bjorn Borg’s peak tennis years saw him dominate Roland Garros and become a superstar at Wimbledon. He inspired rivalries with Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and other veteran stars. Young stars like Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander arrived. It was strategic wooden racket tennis and epic matches at Wimbledon. It was prime-time TV at the U.S. Open.
1990-1995: The rising generation of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier emerged in a seasoned ATP tour with veteran champions Lendl, Wilander, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. There was graphite power, baseline bashing and arguably the richest Grand Slam field of contenders ever seen.
Recently, ESPN’s Matt Wilansky alluded to this top-heavy era when discussing Federer’s prime years, “Sampras also faced and beat stiffer competition. Aside from Nadal, Federer didn't have to compete against the likes of Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi.”
2007-2013: This third Golden era truly began with the Federer-Nadal rivalry launching an epic Wimbledon trilogy of five-set classics. It saw Nadal’s courageous 2009 Australian Open title and Roger Federer’s French Open and Wimbledon double. It produced the emergence of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray as superstars. There were warrior heroes and brilliant shot makers.
Signs of Decay in 2013
In February, Nadal swaggered back onto the tennis scene with an astonishing display of comeback tennis. In seven months, he ripped off 10 titles including five Masters 1000 tournaments and the French Open and U.S. Open titles.
Andy Murray had one shining moment with a Wimbledon title. Sandwiched around this triumph, he struggled through another injury-riddled clay-court season and was a bust at the North American hard court swing. His sudden departure for back surgery and withdrawal from the remainder of 2013 has removed the biggest X-factor from the battle for No. 1.
Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic played well enough to show his dominance, but fell in big matches that cost him titles at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He was close to total domination, but ultimately fell behind Nadal. His invincible 2011 aura was a distant memory.
The beautiful embodiment of this era may have ended for good with Federer’s back injury in February. Since then, he was unable to contend for Grand Slam titles, and he fell to unheralded players seemingly more often than he had in the entire previous decade combined. Age and injuries may have already sealed his career from renaissance rivalries with Nadal or Djokovic.
Don’t Blame Nadal or Djokovic
While the Spaniard and Serbian champions compete for the No. 1 ranking, the rest of the ATP field seems to have slipped into the sea.
David Ferrer has not been the same since his beating from Nadal at the French Open finals.
Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga continue to fall to injury or shrink away in big matches. Their talent is tantalizing, but their occasional flirtation with winning Grand Slam titles always proves to be a mirage.
Even promising young players like Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz continue to flounder more than flourish. Often tennis fans wonder who will emerge out of the rubble of an impending dark age.
All of which leads back to Nadal vs. Djokovic. They are the only compelling story, unless you count yourself among those who detest their grinding styles and baseline defense. They virtually drag the rest of the ATP far behind them as they war with each other for all of the foreseeable top titles in tennis. Who can stop them?
Brave New World Revisited
Right now the Fab Four of tennis has been cut in half. Unless Federer and Murray rebound from injuries and peak with their best tennis, they will be somewhere amongst the also-rans fighting for crumbs from Grand Slam banquets.
The last great rivalry may be as tenuous as Nadal’s knees. If he suffers another big injury setback, it could be the beginning of the end for him as well. His tennis mileage is much higher than his chronological age of 27. He has been the heart and soul of men’s tennis for over eight years, treating each match as if it were the French Open final. This is a heavy price; lesser champions would have been broken long ago.
The future is always in motion and the landscape in men’s tennis changes rapidly. Will there be a resurgence of compelling rivalries and epic matches to soon nurture another golden era? Is tennis even now perched on the precipice of a dark ages or transitional era?
Whatever happens tomorrow, it’s clear that yesterday is over.