The 2008 tennis season is already better than 2007. In 2007, things remained essentially the same. Roger Federer won three Grand Slams; Rafael Nadal continued to be dominant on clay—beating Federer in the French Open final again; the Williams sisters proved that when they actually play can still win slams and Justine Henin continued to be the best grinder in the women’s game.
In 2008, however, a new wind may be blowing. Maria Sharapova, hardly a new name, got back on track, winning her third career Grand Slam title and doing it without losing a set. Runner-up Ana Ivanovic will continue to get better. She’s now played in two Grand Slam finals and the guess is that nerves will become less and less of an issue in future finals. The women’s game still lacks the depth and for the most part, the early rounds remain a bore. But, the later rounds are becoming the crapshoot that sports fans love. Jelena Jankovic shows promise as does Daniela Hantuchova and with Sharapova apparently 100 percent, it will be unlikely that the Williams sisters can take months off, show up at a slam, and waltz to a championship.
The men’s side is even more curious. Last September, young Serb Novak Djokovic met Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final. He played well, and although he lost, was in every set and actually had a chance to force Federer to the brink. That match reminded me of the 1980 Wimbledon final. That year, Bjorn Borg was going for his fifth straight title at the All-England club. Standing in his way was a young Johnny McEnroe. Borg would prevail, 8-6 in the fifth set, but one could sense that a changing of the guard was nearing.
That fall, Johnny Mac took out Borg to defend his U.S. Open title, but the changing officially took place in July, 1981 when McEnroe beat Borg in four sets to win his first of three Wimbledon titles. Gone was Borg’s invincibility as well as his number one ranking. Borg retired later that year.
McEnroe took over the number one spot in the game, winning four more Grand Slam titles. Ivan Lendl became the man to eventually drive McEnroe from the game and the changing of that guard occurred at the 1984 French Open final. Down two sets to none, Lendl rallied past McEnroe to win his first Slam. McEnroe came back to beat Lendl in the ’84 U.S. Open final, but in 1985, Lendl cruised past McEnroe in the U.S. Open final and much like Borg in 1981, McEnroe was done. He would never make another Grand Slam final and in 1986, he left the game. He did come back, but the vintage McEnroe was gone and gone forever.
Lendl was eventually overtaken by German wunderkind Boris Becker and the cool and calm Swede Stefan Edberg (Sweden’s Mats Wilander deserves a plug as well), and those players were eventually toppled by Pete Sampras.
Did we see the next star in Djokovic? He certainly has a lot of things going for him. The ground strokes, the coolness to pressure, and more importantly, at age 20, he’s six years younger than King Roger. Tennis has always followed a predictable pattern. A player emerges, dominates, then another one topples him. Connors was toppled by Borg; Borg by McEnroe; McEnroe by Lendl and so on.
We live in an era where our country club sports—golf and tennis—are dominated by two people, a man who goes by Tiger and Roger Federer. As of today, nobody is near Woods and before the Aussie Open, nobody was near Federer.
But, change is in the air.