Is the closing gap in men’s tennis benefitting the game?

Pundits and bookies cannot pick a winner for Wimbledon 2017, but uncertainty could harm the game’s future.

Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Thomas Johansson. Only you tennis buffs out there will recognise these names as Grand Slam champions. In 2003, the face of the game changed with Roger Federer claiming his maiden Wimbledon title. It was poetry in motion watching the Swiss play, and he won three out of the next Slams until a 19-year-old Rafael Nadal turned up.

The Spaniard’s power was the only thing that could combat Federer’s perfect execution, with the pair sharing the 21 of the next 23 major titles. It was two contrasting styles; aesthetic beauty meets pure brawn, with both players pushing each other to improve. Their rivalry eclipsed those of Borg & McEnroe and Agassi & Sampras, and with Federer & Nadal raising the bar so high, it was always going take a while for another man to join the fray.

Enter Novak Djokovic. The Serb won a seemingly rogue Australian Open back in 2008, but back Down Under in 2011, another victory would catapult him into the limelight. Knowing he didn’t have the finesse or power to defeat Federer or Nadal consistently, Novak enhanced his defence, with his mobility and fitness rivalled by no other player.

After a power struggle over the next few years in which Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and even Marin Cilic managed to pick up the odd Grand Slam title, and the powers of Federer and Nadal began to wane, Djokovic reigned supreme. The Serbian now has 12 Slams to his name, sitting him fourth on the all-time men’s list, and he is the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Slam titles at the same time, doing so over 2015-16.

So, what now? Andy Murray is world number one, but is playing nowhere near the level that got him there. Yes, he got to the semi-finals of the French Open three weeks ago, but that has been the highlight of a disappointing 2017 so far. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are enjoying a second wind it seems, with the Spaniard waiting three years to achieve his 10th Roland Garros title in Paris, and Federer claiming his 18th Slam at the Australian Open at the start of the year.

As we head into Wimbledon, there are so many feasible contenders to lift the trophy at the end of the fortnight. Despite a shocking first round Queen’s exit, you would be surprised if Andy Murray didn’t launch a serious threat at The Championships. Rafa Nadal is back and in some fine form, with the most ranking points in 2017, but the lack of grass court tennis after Roland Garros will damage his hopes.

Roger Federer could be the favourite, electing to rest through the clay court season so he would be fit for Wimbledon. The 35-year-old just lifted his ninth Halle title, his chosen Wimbledon warm-up event. It seemed not long ago that Novak Djokovic was at the top of the game, but after winning four Grand Slams in a row, the hunger seems to have gone, claiming no slams since.

At the age of 30, he needs to be competing again immediately or his career could evaporate away very quickly. A victory at Eastbourne will stand him in good stead at the All England.

Novak Djokovic's triumph at Eastbourne was exactly what he needed after a troubled year
Novak Djokovic’s triumph at Eastbourne was exactly what he needed after a troubled year

Then it leaves us with the rest. Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic plus many others are now genuine contenders to lift a maiden Wimbledon title, which is great for tennis. We haven’t had this much excitement and uncertainty heading into a Grand Slam since perhaps before Rafael Nadal burst onto the scene in 2005.

It is a mouth-watering prospect if we have eight genuine contenders reach the second week, setting us up for some real humdingers for the quarter-finals. However, in the same breadth, Wimbledon would not be the same if none of the usual suspects go deep into the tournament, which could easily happen this summer.

Wimbledon is just one tournament, and even if someone did a Maria Sharapova or Boris Becker and take the field by storm, it would not be a disaster. But it does place the game in an area of uncertainty.

As much as Federer and Nadal obliterated the competition in tennis, they did wonders for game, raising interest for youngsters. Agassi and Sampras did the same during the 90s, as did Borg and McEnroe during the late 70s and early 80s.

Think how many players have been on the tour over the years, simply because they were inspired by those three pairs. Perhaps it is cyclical, and it is natural that two or three players will rise above the rest for a period, and then there will be a few years of a level playing field before a gap emerges once more.

Federer Nadal
The Federer-Nadal rivalry was the daddy of them all

Only time will tell, but with so many sports catching the eye these days, one so fine-crafted as tennis cannot afford to fall behind.

More is going on behind the scenes to make the game more appealing, but if you don’t have the players at the forefront, there will be trouble. The women’s game has suffered in this area, with Serena Williams too good for the rest of the field, and the entertainment has gone.

Let’s just all pray that a new rivalry is just around the corner, and maybe this year’s Wimbledon could be the first step for the new front-runners of the game.

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