The Big Downshift

by: Steve Tignor | September 25, 2015

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Is there a downside to Novak Djokovic's ATP dominance? (AP)

“Thiem Surges into St. Petersburg Semis”

“Cibulkova Has Ivanovic’s Number Again”

As of 10:30 A.M. in New York on Friday, these were the lead stories on the ATP’s and WTA’s respective websites. As far as headlines go, neither qualifies as banner-level stuff. Instead, they serve as a reminder of what stage of the season we’ve reached. Fall has officially arrived for tennis fans—not with a whimper, exactly, but certainly not with a bang, either.

Traditionally, “fall” was a code word in tennis. It meant, roughly, “The season is obviously too long, but there are still tournaments to be played and money to be made, so what are we going to do, not watch?” That’s not as true as it once was; over the last five years, both tours have helped make the fall more palatable by shortening it a bit. Still, because it doesn’t lead to a major, and because a good deal of it is played in Asia, this is the easiest stretch for Western TV networks to ignore and casual fans to tune out. Often, when players do their losing press conferences at the U.S. Open, they have to remind the non-tennis journalists in the audience that, no, the season is not over, and that, yes, they really do have tournaments to play before next year’s Australian Open.

Those of us who don’t forget about tennis as soon as the last ball is struck at Flushing Meadows know there’s plenty to reward our time and interest in the coming months. In 2014, we saw Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka nearly come to blows in London before leading Switzerland to its first Davis Cup title a week later. We saw the WTA successfully establish its year-end championships in Singapore. We saw Novak Djokovic lock down the No. 1 ranking, and set the stage for his blockbuster 2015, by winning three of four events. And, as always, a fair number of the best matches of 2014 were played in its closing weeks. Petra Kvitova-Angelique Kerber in Fed Cup, Federer-Wawrinka at the World Tour Finals, Serena Williams-Caroline Wozniacki in Singapore: Those alone were worth the price of fall admission.

If the thriller-heavy Open is any indication, there will be more memorable matches to come this year—these days Kerber and Victoria Azarenka are virtual epic machines. But as the sport downshifts after New York, the question is what story lines will be left for us to follow. We already know how the biggest of them—who will finish No. 1?—ends. Djokovic and Serena each clinched the top spot two months before the season’s end.

It’s hardly news that tennis' last decade has been one of (a) top-down domination and (b) aging. In 2015, both of those long-running trends reached new peaks. When Djokovic and a 33-year-old Serena won the Australian Open in January, some (not me) dared to speculate that we could see two calendar-year Grand Slams in the same season. It sounded like laughable hyperbole at the time, but it nearly happened. 

Domination is not a bad thing for any sport. People tune in to see all-time greats win, and even more tune in to see them lose. Serena’s quest for the Slam drew record ratings and attendance for the Open, and turned her semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci into the season’s most earth-shaking drama. On the men’s side, while neither the Wimbledon or U.S. Open finals were classics, the fact that No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Federer played them made sense, and grabbed people’s attention.

But domination can come with a downside, when its so thorough that it wipes out all plausible future challenges. As we look toward 2016, this is the flip side of the Serena and Djokovic stories. In years past, even if a player has clinched No. 1 early, there has been a jockeying for the most-like-to-succeed-next-year position just below. Since 2011, Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Li Na, and Simona Halep have taken turns trying to climb onto the podium with Serena. Among the men, Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal have traded the top spot among them, and fended off Murray and even the long-lost Juan Martin del Potro in the process. 

For now, Djokovic does still have Federer and Murray in his rear-view mirror; each recorded a win over him in a U.S. Open tune-up event in August. But Djokovic also stands nearly 7,000 ranking points ahead of them, an unprecedented number. He’s a full 10,000 points ahead of the only man to beat him at a Grand Slam this season, Stan Wawrinka.

More important and troubling than the quality of Djokovic’s current competition is the quality of his future challengers, if there are any. “How do you beat Djokovic?” is a question I’ve heard more than a few times from people lately. I’d say the bigger question is: “Who is going to beat Djokovic?” Federer did it twice this year, but he’s 34; Wawrinka may look like a new face to some, but he’ll be 31 in March; Murray is 28, Nadal 29. Even del Potro turned 27 this week. The latest hot shot to break into the ATP’s Top 10? Gilles Simon, a Frenchman who is 30 years old and 14,000 ranking points behind Djokovic. Of the Top 13 men, just two of them, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori, are younger than Djokovic.

There are plenty of women who are younger than Serena Williams; of the WTA’s Top 25, only her sister Venus is older. Yet the one woman to beat Serena at a major this year, Vinci, is nearly as old at 32, and she lost to 33-year-old Flavia Pennetta in the Open final. We seem to have reached the point where, instead of announcing their presence with a first major title, players announce their retirement instead. Pennetta did it after her Open win, and who would have blamed Federer if he had done the same had he beaten Djokovic for his 18th Slam the next day?

There were younger women who pushed and even beat Serena in 2015: Halep, Azarenka, Petra Kvitova, Belinda Bencic, Timea Bacsinszky, Sloane Stephens, Garbiñe Muguruza, Lucie Safarova, Heather Watson. Yet while it’s possible that Serena will finally have a letdown next year, when she turns 35, there’s no one in that list who stands out as a legitimate future rival or logical successor to her—Azarenka, a former No. 1, and the 18-year-old Bencic may be the closest. The women who showed so much promise in their losses to Serena in the French and Wimbledon finals, Safarova and Muguruza, have done little since. The world No. 3, 28-year-old Maria Sharapova, hasn’t played since Wimbledon.

Sharapova will join a strong field in Wuhan next week, and there will be matches worth watching there, as well as in Beijing and Singapore. Maybe she or Halep or Azarenka or Kvitova or Bencic will build some momentum for 2016. On the men’s side, the Davis Cup final between neophyte nations Great Britain and Belgium will be intriguing, and the mandatory weeks in Shanghai, Paris, and London will be enjoyable. Maybe Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, or even Nadal will build some momentum for next season.

Maybe. Maybe it’s also a blessing that the season’s big questions have been answered and we get to downshift even more than normal this fall, and just enjoy tennis for its own sake. I'm happy to see how Dominic Thiem and Dominika Cibulkova make out in St. Pete and Tokyo this week. But next fall we may want a little more for our viewing time. In 2016, we may want a little more rivalry, and a little less domination. We may be happy with the present, but we want to know there's going to be a future, too.

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