Offseason Rally: Tennis' youth movement, and its graceful aging

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Andy Murray turned the tennis world on its head in 2016. (AP)

In Part Two of our year-end Rally, Kamakshi Tandon and I wonder which was the bigger development in 2016—the game’s youth movement, or its graceful aging? Click here to read Part One. 


Hi Kamakshi,

You’re right that the Djoker Slam didn’t get as much media love as it deserved. Like you said, he wasn’t helped by the fact that there were multiple stories coalescing around him in Paris at the same time. As someone who had been watching Novak Djokovic try to win the French Open for 10 years, and complete a career Grand Slam for five, those two quests were my main focus. And unfortunately for Djokovic, he won his fourth straight major at the French Open, which is followed immediately by Wimbledon, where he lost in the third round. There wasn’t much time for him to bask, or for the press to write their accolades, before he had his streak snapped.

Ironically, it was left to Andy Murray, after losing to Djokovic in the French final, to give him a proper tribute and put what he had done in perspective. Murray said that we were lucky to witness an achievement like Djokovic’s—he was the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight majors—and that we might not see it again on the ATP side in our lifetimes. Murray was right.

In Serena’s case, I think her 22nd major went slightly under the radar for two reasons. She tied Steffi Graf, but didn’t pass her. And, as you mentioned, there’s still Margaret Court’s 24 out there. It has become fashionable recently to downplay Court’s record because it makes Serena passing Steffi sound like a bigger deal, and because Court won 11 of her Slams at the Australian Open, back when it was a shadow of its current self. (Through the mid-1960s, the Australian Championships wasn’t even the most prestigious tournament in Australia.)

But that’s an arbitrary distinction; you can’t say that the Australian Open only qualifies during certain eras and doesn’t count during other eras. For years, Roy Emerson owned the men’s record for Slams with 12. Six of them came at the Aussie Championships during the 60s, but no one claimed they shouldn’t count. When Pete Sampras finally passed Emmo’s record, it was a widely celebrated accomplishment. We’ll see what happens if and when Serena passes Steffi. Serena has said she “doesn’t want to think about 24,” and I don’t blame her. Breaking Steffi’s 22 will be amazing enough, and not catching Court’s record doesn’t mean she’s below her on the list of women’s greats.

And let me just get a word in about the eternal question that is Davis Cup. I wouldn’t be opposed to changing the format; there’s no doubt that the competition is, as they say, underleveraged and under-marketed. But as a lifelong fan who watches tennis all year, I also like Davis Cup the way it is. I would actually prefer not to see the big-name players who have dominated at the Slams all year; in that sense, I thought this year’s final, where Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and Federico Delbonis got their shots at glory, was perfect. I may speak for a small minority, but I see enough of the stars the rest of the season.

Kamakshi, you asked what I thought were the biggest developments in tennis in 2016. I had to stop and think about that: What qualifies as a development these days? The sport has seemed very settled the last few years. The Big Four era continues on the men’s side; the Serena era continues on the women’s. The days when the tour calendars were constantly under fire seem to be over. The issue of compensation at the Slams that briefly roiled the game three years ago has passed.

The latest discussions revolve around the time that it takes to play the sport, and whether we should try to shorten it. That issue may start to heat up soon, but it was still on low simmer in 2016.

Even the style of play on both tours is settled: The baseline game rules. It reminds me of the mid-1960s, a time when serve and volley—“the Big Game” popularized by Jack Kramer two decades earlier—was the rule, even on clay. Reading articles from the 60s, you come across a lot of complaints about how one-dimensional tennis had become. But no one could imagine an alternative to rushing the net on every point.

There was no way to foresee that, by the start of the next decade, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert would begin the game’s long journey back to the baseline. Today there are certainly varieties of baseline tennis; Djokovic is different from Dominic Thiem, who is different from Gael Monfils, and Angelique Kerber is different from Karolina Pliskova, who is different from Agnieszka Radwanska. Personally, I don’t think the sport is dull or one-dimensional now, but no one is doing anything drastically new or different.

Which leaves me to ask: Can you imagine any possible future evolution, style-wise, for the sport? I continue to believe that serve and volley is viable for a talented kid who uses a one-handed backhand and commits to rushing the net at a young age. But the most successful of the ATP’s “Next Gen”—Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Taylor Fritz, etc.—are all baseliners with two-handed backhands. When you’re a junior, it’s tough to win any other way.

Even if the game itself seems settled right now, though, there were two other 2016 developments that do come to mind. The first one had to do with transparency. From match fixing to doping to silent bans to therapeutic use exemptions to the much-maligned International Tennis Federation Tennis Integrity Unit, there was a sense this year that tennis is too insular and secretive, too content not to rock its own boat or hurt its own reputation.

I think that criticism was justified, and it produced results when the ITF eliminated silent bans for players who fail a drug test. Like I wrote on Tuesday, I don’t believe tennis’ testing program is THAT bad, but the TUE issue remains murky. This year we found out, with a little unwelcome help from Russian hackers, that top tennis players are regularly granted them.

Finally, I thought the most positive overall development of the year was the emergence of the ATP Next Gen that I mentioned above. The men’s game, it seems, is going to have a future after all.

What was your development of the year, Kamakshi?

*****

Hi Steve,

I must say I wasn't expecting you to respond with that kind of sweeping analysis, but it's fascinating to look at the game from a broader level. We have definitely had to get used to more graduated change in a sport once known for its phenoms and specialists, not to mention stylistic and surface variations.

The biggest shift at the top was the rise of Kerber, who reached after being a perennial Top 10 player. But her age and experience means even that wasn't what would typically be called a changing of the guard. What Kerber does seem to have done is find a way to play consistently and at a high level, while most of the upper ranks are only doing one or the other. It would be good to see others do the same, because there's a lot of talent around. My desk neighbor at Wimbledon, for example, asked me at one point if a certain player could win a Slam. Yes, I replied. Same question about a second player. Yes, I replied. Sensing a pattern, I said it might be simpler if he asked who couldn't win a Slam—and as it happens, there were only about three players in the third round I was willing to put in that category.

There does seem to be more variety in the games of the younger players, like Simona Halep, Daria Kasatkina and Belinda Bencic, even as there are others taking power hitting to another level. I wouldn't say we're going to see a lot of serving and volleying, but we could see the incorporation of more spin, changes of pace and more net play during points.

On the men's side, it's still a bit much to say that the younger players have turned the tide, but it does finally look like they're starting to establish their presence. The younger young guys—Thiem's schedule notwithstanding—are actually winning titles and moving into rarefied rankings territory. Don't look now, but Kyrgios is in a Top 15 player. A couple of youngish guys in Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori now look like they're just a step away from the big boys, even if it’s a big step. The not-that-young guys like Del Potro and Cilic have shown that they can hang with the very top players, even if they can't do it consistently. (Cilic also really has to do something about his five-setters.)

But what I think we saw more than anything was that the Big Four, collectively, is still just a lot better than the field, and that Murray has been one of them all along. With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal injured, and Djokovic shaky, he stepped in and dominated. As you suggested, getting to No. 1 gives him full admission. And while Djokovic didn't get some of the plaudits he should have, there actually could have been more scrutiny, not less, of the way he seemed to subsequently unravel. As it was, it was haphazard and sometimes oddly timed, but hardly unusual. Nadal was scrutinized when his parents were considering divorcing, Murray has been picked on for everything from playing video games to slouching, and some are still holding Federer's cardigan against him. If Djokovic is going to ask the crowd for a group hug, there are going to be questions.

Either way, his game seemed to return at the ATP Tour Finals, though I don't know if his confidence can get back to the same height. As for Federer and Nadal, I think they showed they still have what it takes—there's the way Federer finished that match against Cilic at Wimbledon, and if Nadal had not choked in that fifth-set tiebreaker against Lucas Pouille at the U.S. Open, he might be in a different position.

As far as how the sport is run is concerned, it's getting more independently scrutinized, which, as you said, has prompted more concessions to transparency. Another emerging issue is the economic problems of small tournaments, and by extension, the lower-ranked players. I've had two players on the Challenger tour insist unequivocally to me that one of the reasons there are fewer younger players is because most don't have the funding to play and train to get their ranking up, to where they can play ATP tournaments and qualifying. So it's just the same players over and over.  

But you did ask me to pick a development, so while it's a little obscure, I've been fascinated by the number of ATP players in their mid-30s who are having some of their best career showings. There’s Ivo Karlovic, Feliciano Lopez, Nicolas Mahut and Radek Stepanek, who is still making a comeback. I wondered why, so I figured I would do what tennis journalists usually do when they want something in the sport explained: Ask Federer. But he was injured, so I did the next thing you do: Ask Murray. But even he admitted that “it's hard to explain."

I mentioned two examples. One was a player who, at 36, recently broke into the Top 50 for the first time. The other was a 34-year-old who had just become the oldest first-time winner on the ATP tour. Murray elaborated, but he couldn't find a specific reason.

"Stephane Robert has a different game style,” the world No. 1 said. “I can understand why he would make it very difficult for guys to play against him. [Paolo] Lorenzi, I'd say his is maybe more surprising because a lot of guys play that way ... When you win an ATP title at that age, maybe you realize I'm much better than I thought. Sometimes that can happen."

Intrigued, I accosted most of them on the subject this season. And while they pointed to different things, it was interesting that they often saw themselves having success not despite their age, but because of it. According to Stepanek, they're aware of it, and it leads to jokes in the locker room. Karlovic said he now enjoys playing on the tour more. ("It's good to be old,” he said.) A fascinating interview, Robert talked about embracing the experiences of traveling and being on tour—whether it's the Challengers or ATP tournaments—rather than focusing on wins and losses. Mahut said that having kids and winning some titles has helped him to become calmer, and he agreed that playing a different, throwback style helps. Lorenzi said he's been building on his experiences to get where he is. Lopez talked about training and, of course, avoiding injury.

But what they seemed to be most interested in was improving and going even higher, often sounding just like the young players starting on tour. That's something we can all take from this season, I'd say.

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