Tennis season kicked off last week, headlined by a tight, three-set match between world no. 2 Novak Djokovic and world no. 1 Andy Murray at a tournament in Doha, Qatar. The match, which Djokovic won on his fourth championship point, made for great combat. Murray and Djokovic, for all the marketing flash they lack, are incredible shotmakers, the latest development in the evolution of the power baseline game. Finals contested by the two of them are, by quite a margin, the ATP’s most compelling product — and because they’re the two most dominant players right now, we can expect plenty of those finals this year. Basically, tennis in 2017 is going to be a lot like tennis in 2016.
The tired story of the modern tour made me think a lot about this match, a quarterfinal from the 2001 U.S. Open between 19-year-old Andy Roddick and 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt. Both were slam-less, and Roddick wasn’t even ranked in the top 10 at the time, but there were real expectations that the winner of the match had a good shot at winning the tournament. “The future of American tennis against the future of Australian tennis” was the announcer’s very-accurate pitch at the beginning of the broadcast. Hewitt would win this particular match in five sets and then win the tournament, and Roddick would lift the trophy two years later. Of course, Roger Federer would go on to ruin the tennis futures of both countries, going 16–0 in majors against Roddick and Hewitt over the course of their careers, but the two would become consistent competitors at important fast-court tournaments. They created an important secondary narrative on the men’s tour, especially in their early years.
Tennis is losing its secondary stories. In November, I wrote about how various physical factors have influenced a shift in the game toward older, more learned players who dominate year-round. The Big Four started life as a Big Two in 2006, and now, 11 years later, it’s a Big Two again. Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer aren’t regular contenders anymore, and Murray and Djokovic win almost every important title, even as they leave their primes. (Between the majors, Masters 1000 events, and the World Tour Finals, there are 14 tournaments each year that could be called “big.” Last year, the duo combined to win 11 of those titles.) When another player has won a slam, like Stan Wawrinka in recent years, or Marin Cilic in 2014, it hasn’t been a signal of any larger shift in the sport — just a temporary aberration that could be explained away by injury or unrepeatable redline play. The same is generally true on the women’s tour, where there are no ascendants to regularly challenge two clearly dominant players in Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber.
So, even as the game’s two best players leave their 20s, they continue to drive the sport’s only non-nostalgic narratives: their rivalry and Djokovic’s pursuit of history. Since 2010, Djokovic has won at the season’s first major five times and Murray has been the runner-up five times. When Djokovic loses before a final, the tournament, more often than not, loses its pulse. If previous performances are any indicator, that’s unlikely to happen during this year’s Australian Open, but our issue before the tournament’s final weekend stays the same: What the hell do we have to get excited about?
For one, it helps that Roger Federer is playing competitive tennis again. After losing his Wimbledon semifinal match to Milos Raonic last year, Federer shut himself down for the rest of the season to nurse a nagging back injury. Now, he’s back, uncharacteristically stubbled, and seemingly capable on court. Even for late-period Federer, early major upsets haven’t been a regularity. But more than six months away from the tour dropped the Swiss’s ranking to 17th, which is why Federer received his worst seeding in a major since the 2001 French Open. To even reach the semifinals in Melbourne, he’ll have to go through fifth seed Kei Nishikori and Murray. For the first time since he broke through in 2003, Federer will be starting from an outside lane. His absence has been so long and un-maestro-like that even if Roger Federer is not quite Roger Federer, it will be refreshing.
That still says nothing about the future of the game. Dominic Thiem is 23 and by far the youngest player in the top 10, but the Austrian sputtered to the finish last season and is relatively unproven in majors. Last year, he reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, but faced only one seeded opponent before being soundly beaten by Djokovic. Alexander Zverev is 19, the youngest player ranked in the top 50, but it’s too early to say whether he’s something special or just another temperamental, tall server. Nick Kyrgios, only 21, won three titles last year, but it often seems as if he has been anointed the “next big thing” because he behaves badly or because he talks about how he doesn’t like tennis, rather than because he is particularly good at playing it. The tour isn’t the stomping ground of teenage athletes that it used to be. And now, even when promising youngsters come along, they make little impact on the competitive balance of the sport.
Dominance in sports is most interesting when it is challenged and fleeting. In 2002, Andre Agassi was ageless as ever. Pete Sampras was slower, but still quick at the net. After more than a decade in the spotlight, they still represented the best of the game — that year’s tournament in Flushing, of course, ended with Sampras’s career-capping win over Agassi. But we could see the changing of the seasons coming: The American with the flamethrower for a serve, the excitable Australian who was already the world’s top ranked player, and maybe even the Swiss kid who’d knocked Sampras from the mountaintop at Wimbledon a year earlier were all around and hungry.
Murray and Djokovic are not yet in decline; we know exactly where we’ll end up next year. But, for the first time in the Open era, we don’t have the slightest idea of where we’ll be in the years after that. Now more than ever, tennis is built for seasoned athletes. And now more than ever, tennis is in desperate need of a young heir.