Eighteen is the New Black

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It’s become pretty clear that in tennis, 18 is the new black. Like Pete Sampras before him, Roger Federer wasn’t content to break the all-time Grand Slam singles title record—he shattered it. And it’s a shame in many ways that he did it so soon after Sampras’ epic feat.

Roy Emerson, whose mark Sampras surpassed in 2000, won 12 Grand Slam singles titles—the final in 1967, the year before tennis went Open. It was a greater effort than it may appear today, because in Sampras’ era nobody thought Emerson’s record would be broken. The players, it was thought, had just gotten too good for anyone to enjoy such spectacular success; even John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg couldn’t break it, they said.

Sampras added a final major title for emphasis in 2002, less than a year before a Swiss upstart won his first Wimbledon title. Federer would go on to see Sampras’ bet and raise him three majors, winning his 17th Grand Slam title in 2012. And here we are.

One thing this unexpectedly quick revision of history demonstrated is that tennis’ record book is fraught with deceptions because of the transition to Open tennis. A lot of that comes down to two factors that changed the game profoundly once the Open era began: First, players who once were minions of their respective national federations were suddenly free to pick and choose where they played. They also suddenly had a wealth of new playing and earning opportunities as tournaments sprouted like mushrooms. They began to follow the money, and it did not lead them to Australia in December.

As a result, the Australianna Open rapidly lost its appeal, and tennis became a three-Slam game. It remained that way until the Australians moved their tournament from December into January; then, in 1988, built what is now the best facility in tennis—the National Tennis Center in Melbourne Park. Since then, the Australian Open has re-claimed its original, eminent status.

All that helps explain why titans like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, McEnroe, and Borg look like relative pikers in the Grand Slam record books—heck, they didn’t even hit double figures! It also makes these reflections on the significance of the number 18 more credible.

If you told someone in the 1940s that we would put a man on the moon within three decades, he or she probably would have called you crazy.

If you told a tennis fan in the 1980s that within three decades, two men would break the major singles record, you probably would have gotten the same reaction. But here we are, with Federer sitting pretty at No. 17.

This subject is a lot like the young vs. old debate. Just as older players have been sending shock waves through both the ATP and WTA in recent years, turning our smug assumptions and theories on their ears, our concept of Grand Slam greatness has been exploded.

But that also raises the question, why should the number 18 be greater than any other number? Why not 19?  Maybe some stud will win 22 majors within the next decade. Or a pony-tailed wonder will make Serena’s record seem anemic.

What’s so special about 18?

Well, for one thing, it’s one better than 17. Yet two players, Federer and Williams, have recently hit that lower mark, diminishing its juju.

For another, we know 18 is possible simply because both Federer and Williams are still going strong, and both of them have missed some opportunities along the way. Most important, though, is that the number could play a significant role in the future and legacies of the three players who have a clear shot at reaching it: Williams, Federer, and Rafael Nadal.

Right now, Margaret Court leads the women’s Grand Slam tally with 24 majors, while Steffi Graf owns 22 and Helen Wills Moody 19. I respect the records of Court and Moody, but don’t think they should be lumped in with the Open-era players because of all the asterisks attached to the work they did in tennis’ B.C.—Before Chrissie—era. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are right behind Graf if you count just Open-era players with. . . 18 majors each.

Now, the next most prolific female champ after Williams is Billie Jean King, at a distant seventh on the list with “just” 12 majors. So if Serena wins an 18th Grand Slam title, she will join her two fellow Americans to make up a trio of Open-era players who rank right behind the greatest female player of all-time, Graf. That’s pretty good company, even if it seems unlikely—but not impossible—that Williams will catch Graf.

More important, with two more majors, Williams would eclipse both Evert and Navartilova. That’s not just possible; based on last year’s results, it’s likely.

Federer could really use major No. 18, and not only to add still more shine to his resume. Nadal’s strides last year have opened up an entirely new line of debate, as he now appears to have a good chance to catch and perhaps even surpass Federer at the top.

At the moment, Nadal has 13 majors. That puts him one better than Emerson, and has given the men a kind of clarity the women may never enjoy in the record books. The men’s top three are all from the Open era; Federer, Sampras, and Nadal have created a new class of uber-champion. The big question at moment is, how they will finally rank?

If Federer manages to bag No. 18, he would create significant, further insulation from the threat of Nadal. Right now, Federer’s attitude is much better than Sampras’ in the final two frustrating years preceding his last major triumph, at the 2002 U.S. Open (Slam No. 14). Number 18 for Federer would mean that even if Nadal wins the Australian Open in a few weeks’ time, Rafa would still need to win four more majors after he turns 28 during the French Open.

Federer turned 28 in August 2009, and has won just two Grand Slam titles since then. Sampras, who turned 28 in August 1999, also won just two majors after that birthday. Even among the greats, performance at the highest level tails off at around the age of 28. Perhaps significantly, Federer and Sampras both won Wimbledon immediately before they turned 28 (both have August birthdays).

Should Federer fail to win major No. 18, Nadal’s chances of surpassing him look much better. And with Nadal you have to add a caveat: The man has been well-nigh unbeatable on clay. Nobody since Borg, also at Roland Garros, has seemed so superior to his competition, year-in, year-out. Nadal’s prowess in Paris makes the gap separating him from Federer look that much narrower.

Eighteen is just a number. But it’s a nice, even number, and to youngsters (at least here in the U.S.) it’s magical for many different reasons. In tennis today, it’s also a number with special meaning, now that 17 is so yesterday.

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