by John Furgele (The Official 228)
Where are they? Where did they go? When will they arrive? Are they even out there? How much longer can this go on?
McEnroe stopped Borg. Lendl stopped McEnroe. Becker stopped Lendl and then Edberg and then Sampras stopped both of them. It has happened for years, but for some reason, it no longer happens.
Roger Federer, at 35, is the Australian Open champion. He is 35. His opponent was 30-year old Rafael Nadal. This, in a Grand Slam final. Bjorn Borg retired in 1982 at age 26. Why? Because he knew that staying at the top would have required 10,000 more hours of blood, sweat and tears. But, for some reason, this isn’t happening anymore. Federer is still reaching—and winning—Grand Slam finals. The man missed the last six months of 2016, and still, nobody could beat him. Nadal, the finalist, had a rocky, injured plagued 2016, yet here he was, nearing 31 years of age, playing in the fifth set of the Aussie Open final. The other guy with double-digit Grand Slam titles is Novak Djokovic and he will be 30 on May 22 right before the French Open begins. And, just for nice, the fourth guy who has four Slams is Andy Murray, who turns 30 on May 15.
Where are the up-and-comers? Marin Cilic? Jo-Wilifred Tsonga? Miles Raonic? Kei Nishikori? We keep waiting for them to breakthrough, to be the next big-thing, but it never happens. Look at Tsonga. Everybody says he has the game, has the fitness and has the tenacity, but seems to be the perpetual quarterfinalist and sometimes semifinalist. He reached the Aussie final is 2008. 2008! And, since, he is 0 for nine years.
Cilic won a US Open title, beating Nishikori, but since that, nothing. In fact, both haven’t even advanced to a Grand Slam final. Remember Juan Marin Del Potro. He defiantly defeated Federer in a five-set US Open final, but injuries have taken its toll along with the fact that in a big spot he can’t beat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
There have always been the big four, the big three or the big something. In the mid to late 1970s, most of the slams were won by Borg, Connors and towards the end, McEnroe. But you had a Guillermo Vilas who won four (he did win two Aussie titles when the big guns stayed away); you had Manual Orantes, Adriano Panatta and Roscoe Tanner who were able to snag a few Grand Slam titles along the way. Now, you have Federer with 18 slams, Nadal with 14, Djokovic with 12 and Murray trailing with 4. After that, you have a handful of players with one.
Borg’s last slam came at age 25 when he won the 1981 French Open. He would later lose both the Wimbledon and US Open Finals to McEnroe and in 1982, he had retired. McEnroe, the superbrat from Queens never won another Grand Slam after 1984. He was 25.
Ivan Lendl took over tennis in the late 1980s. He won eight Grand Slam titles, and played in every US Open final from 1982-1989. Lendl’s last slam title came at the 1990 Australian Open at age 27.
Stefan Edberg: 26. Boris Becker: 28. Jimmy Connors: 31. Andre Agassi: 32. Pete Sampras: 32. Jim Courier 22. These are the ages of the game’s best players when they won their last slam. And, here is Federer—and on the ladies side—Serena Williams—winning titles at age 35. What is going on?
Borg knew that to stay at least even with McEnroe, he would have train even harder, put in more hours, maintain an even stricter diet and in the end, it was something he didn’t want to do. There comes a time when deep down, the player knows that he is past his peak and when that happens, retirement is not far away.
Connors was the only guy that really wanted to put the hours in. He kept churning, training and churning some more. We all remember his great run at the 1991 US Open when he reached the semifinals at age 39. There, he was blitzed by Courier, but this was a guy defying Father Time. After winning the US Open in 1983 (he turned 31 during the tournament), Connors never won another, and in fact, only made one other final, losing to McEnroe in the 1984 Wimbledon final. He would play through 1992 and he would make some semifinals, but in tennis, there is a huge difference between losing in the semifinals and making the finals.
This is not a knock on the game’s greats, but rather, a testament to the immense talent that is Roger Federer. Not only is Federer winning at age 35, he still dismisses lesser opponents along the way. You can count on one hand how many times Federer failed to reach at the very least, a Grand Slam semifinal since breaking through at the 2002 Wimbledon Championships.
This could be Federer’s swan song. He may go downhill quickly, but even if that’s the case, to win a Grand Slam final at age 35 is more than astonishing. The other wild card is the competition. Novak Djokovic has been the game’s dominant player in recent years but he now appears to be showing cracks in his armor. He put so much into the career Grand Slam, and it appears that the 2016 French Open title has taken some steam out of him. He was ousted early at Wimbledon and then was rolled by Wawrinka in the US Open final and then this year, in Melbourne, another early round exit. Has he reached his peak?
The 2016 tennis season just got a lot more interesting. Federer has the first slam; Nadal looks like he is primed for a comeback and we all know that clay and the French Open is his best chance to win a 15th slam. Murray will be defending his Wimbledon title and Wawrinka, with three slams is more than capable of a winning fortnight. And, I certainly do not think Djokovic is done.
The question is where is the next wave and what I mean by that is when will we see four players not named Murray, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic (and okay, Wawrinka) playing in the final four of a slam? It has to happen, but it can’t happen when Federer is 40 and the others are 35. It has always happened in tennis. When Boris Becker powered his way to consecutive Wimbledon titles in 1985 and 1986 at ages 17 and 18, we thought that his raw power would carry him to multiple titles. Becker won six slams, but was only 3-4 in Wimbledon finals, losing two of three to Edberg and then eventually being overpowered by a young lion named Pete Sampras.
The day comes when the young guy permanently removes the old guy from the perch of tennis, but as we just saw at the 2017 Australian Open, Roger Federer has decided to stay on the perch for at least a few more months.