Monday, July 2, 2012

In search of the 'Next Big Thing' in Men's Tennis

Rafa made ‘HIS7ORY’ with his 7th triumph at Roland Garros. It is quite likely that he will do ‘H17tory’ with his 17th slam by 2014. Despite a shuddering exit for Rafa at Wimbledon this year, it is likely that we  see a lot more Rafa – Nole heavyweight tussles in Grand Slam finals in the coming years.

If we look at tennis by decades, the decade when Bjorn Borg was accumulating Grand slam silverware, Newcombe & Connors shared much of the remaining spoils. Then came the enigmatic McEnroe only to get his glory cut short by Wilander and Lendl. They were then succeeded by Edberg & Becker. Then came the era of Sampras and Agassi who were perturbed only slightly by the likes of Courier and Rafter. When the baton was passed from Pistol Pete to a feisty Federer, it was Hewitt and Roddick who were hogging the limelight before Federer could bloom into the champion he went on to become. Federer was not even 24 years old when the ‘freak from Majorca’ (as Agassi once said) started competing for Grand Slam glory. When Rafa was around 25, Djokovic was handing out to Nadal what Nadal was handing out to Federer: trouble! A close observation on all these top-level transitions would reveal the emergence of the next big thing. With the current scenario however, it doesn’t appear that this pattern at the top is going to continue. The top-2 are set to rule the roost. Evidence below.

Rafa is 26, Djokovic is 25 and the most likely slam contenders are Murray (come on, give him a chance, at least on paper!) who’s 25, Del Potro who’s 23 (his doctors might not agree) and maybe the likes of Tsonga (his level of play in the quarters at RG gets him the space here) who is 26 again! Where are the 20-21 year olds? Are there any champions likely to emerge? Will 2012-13 be a breakthrough season? The answer to these questions, looking at performances, is pretty straight-forward – ‘not likely’. We see the ‘big four’ close to being unreachable at the top. A pattern that seems to be emerging is that the ‘next four’ are getting pretty consistent too. They appear unreachable too. This means the same Ferrer, Tsonga, Berdych, Del Potros of the world are the ones to bite the dust in the quarters against the big four. Much worse, those who appear to threaten them too are the Tipsarevics, the Almagros and the Isners of the world. And these players that have been mentioned are not getting any younger either.

That shows us why the first line of the article is not some impractical babbling. Do we see any young out-of-their-teen threats in the top 20? The first name that would cross one’s mind is probably Milos Raonic, who is actually just outside the top-20. (Unless you are an Australian who upon reading this piece is furious for not mentioning Bernard Tomic). Raonic is good, yes. His serves are almost impenetrable, yes. But can he handle the Rafa – Djoker slug-fests if he were to meet them on the second week in a Grand Slam? Common sense would say, ‘probably not’. And to the flag-bearers of Tomic – I’m sorry. He loses to relative unknowns in early rounds of the tournaments and he needs a much better arsenal than his fusion of 70s-2000s tennis to trouble the top players. To the Americans who place their bets on Ryan Harrison, the only words I can think of are ‘keep hoping’. For people who feel ‘The Dog’ has it in him to breakthrough, his performances over the past few months is all I will put on the platter.

The only contenders who can break the beastly duopoly of Djoko-Rafa are either 23 or 25 years old (no prizes for guessing the two); Am I forgetting someone.. Oh, Yeah. There is one more. If a certain gentleman from Switzerland can re-surge for one last hurrah, the first statement tI have made becomes null and void. With due respect to Stanislas, no, I’m not talking about him here; not about Chiudinelli either.

Second Monday beckons at SW19. Let us see if that yet to be known ‘out-of-the-teens’ slam champion emerges at the sacred church of the sport. There have been occasions when such things have happened. If not at Wimbledon, where else to expect?