Are We Witnessing the Golden Age of Men's Tennis?

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2015

The top eight players on the ATP Tour gather for the year-end championships in London.
The top eight players on the ATP Tour gather for the year-end championships in London.David M. Benett/Getty Images

Check out the ATP World Tour's elite eight in the picture above. All smiles, these players represent the best in men's tennis. Could they also be part of the greatest era in the history of sport? 

Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori are battling it out in a round-robin competition at the ATP World Tour Finals in London all week.

While the 2015 WTA Finals included three women playing in the year-end championships for the first time, none of these men are new to the finals. It's quite an accomplished group. 

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all reached double digits in Grand Slam titles, while that trio plus Murray and Wawrinka have combined to win 40 of the last 44 Slams.

All of them have at least reached a Grand Slam final. At least two of them have been the subject of Greatest of All Time debates. Another two—Murray and Nishikori—have achieved historic firsts for their country.

Impressive. But the best bunch ever? 

Tennis fans are so accustomed to debating the status of individual players. Does Murray belong in the Big Four? Who is better, Federer or Nadal? Sometimes fans overlook the bigger, broader question: Could we be witnessing the golden age of men's tennis?

When people speak of a "golden age," it's usually a bygone era when art, music or literature was at its best.

With sports, comparing eras includes factoring changes in rules, equipment and even leagues. 

It's easy to minimize or overemphasize the era in which we live. For every NBA fan who elevates LeBron James over Michael Jordan, there's some old-school basketball guy asking, "What about Julius Erving?"

Today's NBA fans consult the stat sheet and see "Dr. J" is not even in the Top 50 of all-time scoring list. He gets dissed and dismissed. Many are unaware that he played an entire career in another league, the ABA. When combining league points, Erving lands at No. 6. 

In tennis, comparing eras gets tricky. It's not just that athletes are bigger, stronger and faster. Surfaces, rackets and strings have changed dramatically over the years. Court speeds can change year-to-year. Basketball players have essentially been dribbling the same type of ball since the early 1990s.  

A tennis era is best defined by the level of accomplishment and competition. For the purpose of this article, we're calling this era 2005-2015.  

This age gets high marks from players of previous eras. 

Back in 2012, when Djokovic had already put his footprint on the game and Murray was starting to insert himself into the Big Four, Pete Sampras told Douglas Robson of USA Today: "This generation is incredible. We're going to probably have three players winning double-digit majors."

Sampras was right. This era also has three players among the top eight in all-time Grand Slam wins. 

In an article about the pending end of the "Big Four Era," Grantland's Brian Phillips described how the level of competition in this era separates it from others:

Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors during the 2013 ATP Heritage Celebration in New York.
Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors during the 2013 ATP Heritage Celebration in New York.D Dipasupil/Getty Images

"Whatever the reason for the consolidation of power—changing racket technology, the convergence of court speed, modern fitness regimens, a pure freak of genetics—the decade of big-tournament dominance by a single quartet of players was unprecedented in the history of men’s tennis." 

Indeed, in no other era did so few grab so many trophies. Phillips points out that even at the height of the Sampras-Andre Agassi run, they took home no more than half of the Grand Slam trophies. By contrast, Federer and Nadal won 11 straight. Djokovic has won four of the past six. 

Speaking with Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times in 2012, John McEnroe already thought we were witnessing the golden era. 

When (Nadal) came along, they pushed each other to a lot higher level. (Novak) Djokovic started to storm through, and (Andy) Murray finally made the break — you're looking at a very special period.

Then again, I wouldn't have expected someone to break Pete's records. I don't think Pete did either, that someone would come along as quick as Roger did and annihilate his records.

You never know, but it seems like this is one of the golden periods we're seeing.

That's high praise from McEnroe, who played with greats such as Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. 

The age that most rivals the current one is the time in the 1970s when two eras sort of overlapped. Connors, Ashe, McEnroe and Bjorn Borg led in those days. All of those men are iconic figures in the sport. However, iconic doesn't necessarily translate into the best. 

Consider how many "best-ever" players play in this current era. Nadal is considered by many as the greatest clay-court player ever. Federer, who has won seven Wimbledon titles, is, arguably, the best grass-court player of all time and holds the record for most Grand Slams won. Djokovic, winner of five Australian Opens and two U.S. Opens, might be the best hard-court player ever.

Shortly before Wimbledon this year, the Financial Times did an analysis of the most competitive tennis eras. Using a graph that charted winning percentage among the top players in a specific era, the Federer, Djokovic and Nadal era came out on top. 

It's that level of competition, according to Carl Bialik and Benjamin Morris of ESPN's FiveThirtyEight Sports, that puts Djokovic in the Greatest of All Time conversation. 

Bialik and Morris wrote: "Since his rise to No. 1 in the official rankings and in our Elo rankings in 2011, he (Djokovic) has competed with Nadal and Andy Murray in their primes, and a still-dangerous Federer. That competition has helped bring Djokovic today to the highest peak of anyone in our data set, edging just ahead of Borg and Federer."

The nostalgia and respect we have for players from yesteryears sometimes clouds our judgement when evaluating where current competitors fall in the pantheon of tennis history.

Although ranked No. 3, Federer's years left on the tour are numbered. Djokovic and Murray have at least four to five more solid years left in them. Even injury-prone Nadal could grind out another two to three years. 

Whenever the core group from this era decides to call it quits, they'll leave a legacy greater than any other. We'll remember this time, this age, as golden.

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