To put it in fiscal terms, we’ve reached the end of Q1 in 2019. The season is three months old, the spring hard-court events in the U.S. are over, and the clay swing, which will occupy us until the middle of June, has tentatively begun.
What should the biggest story in our first quarterly report be? Novak Djokovic’s third straight Grand Slam title, or Naomi Osaka’s second? Roger Federer’s resilience, or Serena Williams’s misfortune? The rise of a young Greek player, Stefanos Tsitsipas? Or the rise of two even younger Canadians, Bianca Andreescu and Felix Auger-Aliassime?
All of these developments are intriguing, and to a degree surprising. Taken together, though, they point to a more important and seemingly unprecedented storyline: The mind-boggling parity that has leveled out both tours this season. Of the 34 tournaments that have been played in 2019—20 on the men’s side, 14 on the women’s—33 have been won by different players. Only the oldest among those champions, Roger Federer, has managed to win two.
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
The appeal of parity in any sport is in the eye of the beholder. Do you take satisfaction in seeing familiar champions dominate, or are you a sucker for the sugar rush that an upset brings? In the case of tennis in 2019, I’m guessing your opinion will be colored by how much you already watch the sport.
Dominant champions, whether it’s Serena in tennis or Tom Brady in football, attract casual fans. Celebrity, personality, fame, infamy: They all move the needle, pack the stands, bring people to their TV sets. As much as we like to see a beautifully struck drop shot, we like it even more when it’s struck by Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Plus, the top players all bring huge global fan bases of their own with them.
But if you already follow the tour on a weekly basis, regardless of who’s playing, this season and its seemingly endless possibilities are probably right up your alley. You might have been waiting for talented players like Ash Barty or Dominic Thiem or Elise Mertens or Reilly Opelka or Nick Kyrgios to win titles and fulfill their promise. You might have been excited to watch new talents like Andreescu or Tsitsipas or Alex de Minaur or Dayana Yastremska upset the apple cart. Or you might have been pleased to see the return of old favorites like Gael Monfils and Belinda Bencic to the winner’s circle.
I put myself squarely in the second, and admittedly smaller, camp of fans. I like a sense of possibility. Of course, parity, like dominance, can be taken too far. What you don’t want is to have a tour whose results feel random, or where the determining factor is the inability of the top players to find any consistency.
We’ve had moments like that in the past on both tours, and we will again. But that’s not how the sport has felt to me so far in 2019. I think there are two reasons for that.
First, despite the astronomical number of different tournament winners, a sense of order at the biggest events has been maintained. At the year’s only Slam, in Australia, Djokovic won his third straight major, and Osaka won her second; both are currently ranked No. 1. Nadal and Petra Kvitova, two multi-Slam winners, reached the final in Melbourne, while Federer won one Masters 1000 and reached the final of the other. There have been plenty of surprises from week to week, but the elite have done what we expect them to do: Elevated their games when it has mattered most.
Second, this season, like last season, has been one of successes rather than failures, of memorable runs rather than random results. A new generation is vying to establish itself, while an older one is vying to hang on to what it has. The result has been an appealing mix of the familiar and the surprising. I loved listening to Laslo Djere’s moving post-win speech in Rio; seeing Bencic’s magical return run in Dubai; marveling at Kyrgios’s weeklong redemption in Acapulco; reveling in Barty’s all-court mastery in Miami. A tour with 33 winners is a tour that gives fans a chance to see 33 different ways of winning. So far this year, it has felt good every time.