What Am I Talking About?
Tennis players are transcendent of time when at their peak. We can’t imagine a player who could overthrow those currently at the top of the rankings; what sorts of weapons would such a player have? Think of when Pete Sampras was dominating the game, no one imagined the young Swiss named Roger Federer would build a career that eclipsed Pete’s. And now we can hardly imagine anyone over-taking Roger; but it will happen. One of the young guys like the long-haired Canadian, Denis Shapovalov or the dapper-punk Austrian, Dominic Thiem will capture all of our attention in the coming years. These guys seem to travel from tournament to tournament wreaking havoc not only on their opponents but also the courts they slide around on. They seem unstoppable; they may lose here and there, and injuries may plague them for a couple weeks, but we know they will have great careers. We are suspended in disbelief as we watch them; they are forever young to us.
But we can count on the coming and going of athletes like we can count on the changing of the seasons. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who need neither introduction nor description, no longer have that limitless, unconquerable air they used to. We see Federer choosing to skip the clay court season entirely; to play the clay season would take so much out of him that he would be ineffective the rest of the year. We are all but trained by the media now to question Rafa’s knees and to wonder which of his other body parts may be aching. These two guys used to be invincible; they were once what Jack Sock and Stefanos Tsitsipas are now. Rafa single-handedly ushered in the most physically demanding era of tennis we have ever seen.
The picture of who Roger and Rafa were going to be was painted early and often. Imagine Roger Federer - never has a player been destined for center court of Wimbledon like he has. I can see him now: freshly Gillette-shaven face, mild-but-noticeable Rolex dangling from his left wrist with his custom-made Nike coat and handbag walking out to play the Wimbledon final as if he were the Royal Prince having tea and a quick hit with the Queen. His silky smooth one-hander and rubberband like arm snapping through shots at ungodly speeds. He has spent his life floating around tennis courts, and our living room TV’s, flicking his hair back into place since he was 19 years old. Federer brings art, beauty and light into the tennis world. Always has, always will.
And then there is the bandana dawning life force that is Rafael Nadal. Sleeveless shirt and capri-wearing Rafa has bullied his way through opponents since his earliest days as a professional. He was prophesized to be untouchable on clay so many years ago, and now, at 31 years of age, he has an 80-2 career record at Roland Garros. He’s won the French Open 10 times, going for his 11ththis year. He is a Spanish bull-fighter tailor made for clay courts, and big moments. He has, seemingly through will power alone, adapted his game from being heavily clay court dominant, while impotent on fast surfaces, to all but overriding on all surfaces. There was never a hint that someone could outlast, outwork, or outsmart him; Rafa is the original Survivor.
As Roger and Rafa’s games have evolved over time, so have our reasons for watching them. We no longer view Rafa as a sinewy ball of entangled energy, muscle, and nervous tics who can play harder and longer than anyone else on Tour. And we don’t really believe that Federer can whip up 15 minutes of magic at the end of a set against anyone in the world the way he once could. Just by looking at Rafa we’re reminded of his imminent retirement; his hair is thinning, his once bulging biceps are now covered by a lame sleeve; Nike has taken his warrior look away and rebranded him as a wise veteran. And Roger? He’s chosen to forgo the clay court season all together. This leaves him to occupy some far off spot in the minds of tennis fans; we know he’s still great, but we also know he can’t move and play the way he used to. He’s conceded to the rest of the field that he cannot beat them physically anymore, but he looms as a major factor on any court where shot-making counts for more than physicality.
We savor watching both men play now the way we enjoy the last days of summer. We enjoyed June and July, but now that August is here we’re making sure to be outside in the sun as long as we can; we want to soak in all that Rafa and Roger have to give us. We cherish watching Federer sling fireballs at his opponents with the flick of his wrist. And we stand and cheer, fists clenched and jaw agape when Rafa hits passing shots from 15 feet behind the baseline. As we recognize their waning days we remember the players who have seemingly always been on the dark side of Roger and Rafa’s full moon. We see the flamboyant Frenchman, Richard Gasquet using his funky technique and mind-boggling grips to make his way to the Semifinals of events every so often. Then there’s the mean-looking-monster-thighed Czech, Tomas Berdych; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Memories of the absolute bomb-dropper that was Andy Roddick come to us every time we see the grass of Wimbledon. And we see on TV, every so often, the calculated German Philipp Kohlschreiber; the stereotypically French crowd-pleaser Gael Monfils; and the guy who made a career out of taking the hard road, the Spaniard, David Ferrer. These guys are still dangerous, but their time is dwindling. We’d be happy for them to ride into the sunset if they gave us just one more fantastic run of form.
The new guard is here though, and like a waxing moon they seem infinite and ever growing to us spectators. There’s the Belgian, David Goffin, who uses his racket as more of an exacto knife than a sledge hammer; Grigor Dimitrov, the devilishly handsome Bulgarian who slides and dives around the court combining gymnastics with track and field to end up as a great tennis player; the still boyish looking giant from Germany, Alexander Zverev, who is quite literally growing into his body and his game in front of our eyes. There’s the ever-mercurial Aussie, Nick Kyrgios, role-playing more of a mad scientist on court than anyone in recent memory. Not to mention by name the 10 players who have yet to celebrate their 20thbirthdays and are already ranked inside the world’s top 200!
Just as we look forward to the fall as summer comes to a close, we tennis fans have much to look forward to as the Roger and Rafa generation begin to fade away. It’s an interesting time for big time fans of the game – which player is going to replace what Roger meant to us? Who will be the new Tsonga? But remember, we once thought that about James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez. We thought serve and volley was put into it’s coffin when Sampras retired, but along came Mardy Fish, Mischa Zverev, Feliciano Lopez, Pierre Hugues-Herbert, and Nicolas Mahut who almost exclusively serve and volley. There is plenty to look forward to with this next generation of tennis players, we just have to look for them and pick up on what they’re putting down.