Right now, it seems absurd to suggest that the golden generation of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will end anytime soon. Along with Andy Murray, this triumvirate has dominated men’s tennis by obliterating the rest of the ATP.
Even when it seems that a dynasty will reign forever, the end comes suddenly. The Roman Empire, in all its glory and world mastery, crumbled beneath internal decay and barbaric invasions.
Soon, the Big Three of tennis will also watch their ruling sun sink beneath the ruins of its awesome legacy. New stars will come forth, pick up the pieces and construct another age of tennis, one that will unlikely resemble the recent past.
A new age will dawn soon enough.
A Reverse Retrospective Look
Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the last of the great American legends, dueled one last time in the 2002 U.S. Open. The signs of their aging had been apparent for a couple years, but they still found ways to win during a time of tennis anarchy.
There were a few other promising young Grand Slam champions, including Marat Safin, Gustavo Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt, but it was a time of flux and transition when greybeards could still reach for their share of the spoils.
Few tennis aficionados predicted that within two years, a young Roger Federer would siege, conquer and rule the entire ATP tour. His great rival, Rafael Nadal, would truly arrive in Spring 2005, and the tennis landscape changed forever.
Suddenly, the old era of Sampras and Agassi seemed to be a long and forgotten age, as distant a time as chariots and gladiators.
Or consider that in 1988 Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker dominated the tennis scene while many wondered if American tennis was dead.
Then in 1989, Michael Chang won the French Open.
In 1990, young Agassi competed in two Grand Slam finals and fell in the U.S. Open to babyface Sampras.
Along came Jim Courier to win his first Grand Slam in 1991 at the expense of Agassi, and suddenly the future was in motion.
A champion's reign can end so suddenly. How many tennis fans at the 1984 U.S. Open would have believed they were watching the last Grand Slam title for 25-year-old John McEnroe?
Or that a few years prior had seen the end of Bjorn Borg’s superstar career?
The end comes swiftly, and even when things appear to never change, they are already fading like yesterday's newspaper. New forces emerge and point to uncharted territory. It’s inevitable.
Peering at a Brave New Tennis World
Social media and blog discussions examine thousands of angles regarding modern athletes. Tennis fans are no exception to scrutinizing, extrapolating and opining about their favorite champions. They rant about player comparisons of greatness. And they overreact to whatever latest development shifts the tides of popular opinion.
For example, opinions on Swiss legend Federer have ranged dramatically from his past two Wimbledon performances.
In 2012, many asserted their belief that he had strengthened or reaffirmed the mythical tennis tag of “Greatest Player of All Time.”
One year later, Federer was hobbled by a back injury and struggled to perform at his past level. Many tennis fans were quick to proclaim that he was an aging player who was closing in on retirement.
Such radical judgments could be applied in reverse to injury-prone superstar Nadal. In early 2013, many tennis fans wondered if his time as champion had expired.
By the close of 2013, many were citing his credentials to put him at the top of tennis’ historical pantheon.
Even now, the consensus amongst many tennis fans is that Federer is soon to retire and that Nadal could be one more significant injury away from handing in his scepter.
Will tennis soon be controlled by the feisty grinding play of Djokovic and Murray, who has also been noticeably hobbled by back injuries the past two seasons?
It could be next year, two years or more, but other players will find the opportunity to fill the voids.
We can expect that a talented journeyman like Juan Martin del Potro might be rejuvenated by the optimism of opportunity. After all, somebody has to rule, even if they are not large enough to fill the shoes of Federer or Nadal.
Or it could see the sudden rise of a young player like talented Grigor Dimitrov, big-serving Milos Raonic, powerful Jerzy Janowicz or troubled Bernard Tomic. Who will mature into a confident winner when the time is ripe?
And though the ATP has not seen a teenage phenom since Nadal, it’s possible that one of the youngsters floating somewhere in the nether regions of the top 500 might burst onto the scene and take control.
For a fine analysis of what Jovica Ilic calls “The Young Guns of Tennis,” see his article and the empirical data he has compiled.
Stop to Smell the Roses
Exluding the Big Four, Which Group of Players will Produce the Next Grand Slam Champion?
The future will arrive soon enough without anyone trying to kick dirt over players’ achievements.
For now, we are witnesses to spectacular champions and unique, powerful tennis. We can maximize our enjoyment by appreciating the latter years of the Big Three.
How much longer can they continue to win before the championship well runs dry?
If you are tired of this triumvirate, at least respect and applaud the determination they have modeled for the future of the ATP. Soon enough, others will follow their lead and provide original competitive fire and fantastic stories.
It could all happen as quickly as a service ace.