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Friday, December 2, 2022

Are we entering a new era of tennis greatness? All We Can Do Is Hope

Everyone might find something to their liking. The linen elegance of Roger Federer. The devastating ability of Rafael Nadal. It’s impossible to underestimate Novak Djokovic’s unwavering resolve. The relentless manner in which Serena Williams tore down stale traditions.

For more than two decades, professional tennis was bathed in the golden light cast by an unalterable hierarchy of players, each with their own unique style and personality that came together to define the game in the twenty-first century.

Federer and Williams are both 40 years old and recovering from injuries when the Australian Open takes place in the sweltering Melbourne heat. It is the second major tournament in a row that they have been forced to stay at home. It’s possible that they’ll never again compete at the highest level of tennis.

In the meanwhile, it’s unknown when the world No. 1 will return to major championship action, or how the hatred of fans will effect a player who has spent his whole career begging for affection. It is possible that, depending on how the pandemic plays out, tennis’ most famous vaccine refusenik will be barred from travelling to countries hosting the year’s most important tournaments, jeopardising his quest to break through the 20 Grand Slam logjam that he is currently trapped in with Federer and Nadal.

Only Nadal was able to make it to Melbourne, while the other three players were unable to. He is a well-seasoned 35-year-old who is returning from a foot ailment that kept him out of the lineup for the most of last season.

During the first stanza of the Australian’s match, he seemed sharp, possibly good enough to conjure greatness once again and hoist the championship trophy for a second consecutive time. Even if he does, how long will the Nadal we have come to know and love be the Nadal we revere?

When the game relied on its rock star quartet’s show-stopping ability to attract spectators and generate excitement — when they were pencilled in as sure bets to reach at least the quarterfinals of every major championship — those days are over.

Remember when Naomi Osaka was tipped to be the next great thing on the tennis circuit? Right now, her most recent major championship victory, the Australian Open last winter, seems to have happened a decade rather than a year ago, thanks to this time distorting stretch.

She abandoned the French Open in the middle of the tournament last year, taking advantage of the opportunity to speak openly about the worry and despair that had been weighing heavily on her shoulders. She opted out of Wimbledon because she needed a break from the grind and the spotlight of the tennis world. She was eliminated in the first round of both the U.S. Open and the Tokyo Olympics. Last week, Osaka’s ambition to win a second straight Australian Open title came to an end at the hands of the world’s 60th-ranked player.

Remember Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, the upstart youngsters who thrilled the U.S. Open by reaching the finals of the women’s singles tournament last summer? Since then, neither has done much. Fernandez was eliminated in the first round of the tournament last week. Raducanu was ejected from the game in the second.

Perhaps there is a silver lining to the game’s increasing inconsistency after all. It’s much simpler to get excited about a larger ensemble when they’re not surrounded by the spotlight of the top performers.

During the first week of the tournament at Melbourne Park, it meant marvelling at Amanda Anisimova, 20, as she fired backhand winners past Naomi Osaka in an upset victory. Alternatively, witnessing Carlos Alcaraz, 18, gallop, slip, and stretch to keep a point alive before suddenly pulling off and smashing a full-throttle winner is an unforgettable experience.

As he worked his way through the draw, the uncertainty added to the brilliance of the young Italian Jannik Sinner, who is one of the most spectacularly brilliant upstarts there is.

It drew greater attention to Ashleigh Barty, the Wimbledon winner from the previous year and the one with the smoothest game this side of Federer.

Do you think Daniil Medvedev, who dashed Novak Djokovic’s Grand Slam aspirations by defeating him and winning the 2021 US Open, will dethrone Djokovic as the world’s top-ranked player? What happens if he establishes himself as one of the game’s most reliable standard-bearers?

At the Melbourne International Tennis Tournament last week, Medvedev demonstrated his eccentric and often incomprehensible game. The reflex volley with one hand on the racket’s neck, the gawky forehand that occasionally finishes with legs spread and a strangulating follow-through are all strokes that seem to have been self-taught and refined in a rugged public park by playing with duffers, among other things.

He demonstrated, as he has done so often at Flushing Meadows, that he can be a fascinating champion — humorous, approachable and more than prepared to play the villain with a smirk.

During matches at the Australian Open this year, the normally boisterous audience has chanted Cristiano Ronaldo’s famous “Siuuu!” celebration cry, which has become synonymous with the tournament. The cries were misinterpreted by numerous players, including Dmitry Medvedev, who believed they were booing during his win against Nick Kyrgios. The audience erupted in applause when Medvedev reprimanded them for the chant during an on-court interview, as we could have expected given his previous misdemeanours at the Open.

“It’s not everyone who’s doing it,” he subsequently clarified, displaying his characteristic propensity to provoke outrage: “It’s not everyone who’s doing it.” However, people who are doing it most likely have a low intelligence quotient.”

Imagine Federer saying anything like that about his followers. Impossible. However, it’s possible that this is a positive and invigorating development.

It’s tough to say goodbye to a generation of people.

The dawning of a new age has been heralded. All we can do now is accept it, wait patiently, and pray for the best outcome possible.

Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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