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Perfect '10s: The ceiling was lifted on what fans thought was possible

Perfect '10s: The ceiling was lifted on what fans thought was possible

Isner-Mahut. Serena’s 23 Slams and Roger’s 20. Rafa’s 12 French Opens. Novak’s sweep of the majors and Masters. Epic matches galore.

Some eras begin auspiciously. The last decade in tennis went a step farther: it began astonishingly.

The setting was, in hindsight, not auspicious at all. It was June 2010, and John Isner and Nicolas Mahut were facing each other in the first round at Wimbledon, on distant Court 18. Neither had made it past the third round at the All England Club before, and neither was expected to do anything memorable that year. But over the next three days, the American and the Frenchman made themselves the center of the world’s attention. 

When their 11-hour plus marathon was over, and all 82 inches of the victorious Isner had tumbled to the grass in joyful exhaustion, the two men had played the longest tennis match in history. They had also added a new pair of iconic numbers to the game with their mind-boggling fifth-set score: 70–68. 

“Nothing like this will ever happen again—ever,” Isner said. 

Isner and Mahut change ends during their 2010 Wimbledon first-rounder, the  longest tennis match in history. (Getty Images)

Isner may have been redundant, but he was right, and the proof could be seen nine years later in the equally astonishing match that closed out the decade at Wimbledon. It’s possible that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, in the fifth set of their 2019 final on Centre Court, could have played for days before a winner was declared; but we never had a chance to find out.

Wimbledon, in an attempt to avoid schedule-wrecking epics like Isner-Mahut, had instituted a final-set tiebreaker at 12–12. As fate would have it, Djokovic and Federer would be the first singles players to make it that far. The decade that kicked off with the implausibly long War of 70–68 would close with the implausibly dramatic War of 13–12. 

Isner-Mahut set the tone for a decade of astounding tennis feats. Over the next 10 years, Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams would all follow suit. They would force us to rethink our ideas about how long the best players can stay at the top, how many majors they can win, how dominant they can be on one surface, how many comebacks they can make, and how many classic matches they can stage. 

Novak Djokovic won 15 of his 16 Grand Slams in the 2010s. (Getty Images)

It’s easy to forget now, but on January 1, 2010, Djokovic had just one Grand Slam title to his name. Nadal was plagued by knee pain that many thought would end his career early. Williams and Federer were 28, which, historically speaking, meant they were nearly past their primes. 

As 2009 became 2010, it was possible to believe that Federer and  Serena’s best days were behind them. But they wasted no time in putting their stamps on a new decade right away, at the Australian Open. There Federer won his 16th Grand Slam singles title, and Serena won her 12th. The message, to paraphrase The Who, was clear: Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses.

The best players of the 2000s would be the best of the 2010s. Along the way, they would discover new aspects of their talents, and assemble career numbers that may never be matched.

“I hope I give other people the chance to believe at 37 it’s not over yet,” Federer joked at Wimbledon this summer. Federer long ago made believers of his top rivals, who have spent the last 10 seasons defying all of their perceived limits.

Nadal began the decade by defying his reputation as a one-dimensional dirt-baller. In 2010, he completed a career Grand Slam by winning three straight majors—Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open—on three different surfaces. Since then, Rafa’s career has been, as he would say, one of “suffering” and resilience.

In 2013, he bounced back from a long injury layoff to finish No. 1. In 2017, he came back from a two-year slump to do the same. After an extended run of futility at Wimbledon, he challenged for the title again in 2018 and 2019. The shots that were once weaknesses—his serve and back- hand—he has stubbornly turned into strengths. And thanks to those shots, Nadal closed out the decade the way he began it: by winning the US Open.

All through that time, Nadal has dominated on clay in a way that no one has ever dominated a single surface. Before Rafa, Bjorn Borg’s men’s-record six French Open titles seemed unbreakable; Nadal not only broke it, he doubled it. With his boundless passion for the sport, Rafa at 33 has become the personification of what fighting spirit looks like on a tennis court.

If you only count Nadal’s 2010s French Open wins (eight), it would tie for ninth on the all-time major list. (Getty Images)

Djokovic has spent the 2010s defying his early status as the third fiddle in the Roger and Rafa show, the Led Zeppelin to their Beatles and Rolling Stones. He caught up to his two rivals in 2011, when he opened the year with 41 consecutive wins and finished with a 70–6 record and three major titles. Since then, Djokovic has set a standard for all-surface excellence that even Rafa and Roger can’t match.

During this decade, Djokovic won 15 major titles, and became the first man to win four in a row since Rod Laver in 1969. He has been the year-end No. 1 five times. He owns winning records against Federer and Nadal, and he beat them in the decade’s two best men’s matches, the 2012 Australian Open final (over Nadal), and the 2019 Wimbledon final (over Federer). In 2018, Djokovic became the only man to win all four Grand Slams and all nine of the ATP’s Masters 1000 events. The fact that he wasn’t the decade’s most popular player only makes the fact that he was its best player that much more impressive.

Serena began the 2010s by defying the critics who once believed she had squandered her best years to outside interests. She finished the decade as perhaps the greatest female athlete in American history, and one of the few to be mentioned in the same breath as a cultural icon like Muhammad Ali.

Serena was the decade’s undisputed attraction from start to finish. (Getty Images)

Serena did it the hard way, by making her 30s more productive than her 20s. Her numbers in this decade alone—12 Grand Slam singles titles (including four in a row during one stretch), 37 titles overall, 231 weeks at No. 1—are better than all but a handful of players’ entire careers. Serena has weathered controversy and suffered injury and illness, yet no one has come along to challenge her supremacy. If her 23rd Grand Slam title, which she won at the 2017 Australian Open, proves to be her last, it will be an appropriately superhuman one to go out on: Serena did it while pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Jr.

As for Federer, succeeding in the 2010s meant defying a constant stream of speculation about his supposedly imminent demise. Year after year, talk of his decline has proven to be premature. Instead of giving way to younger stars like Nadal and Djokovic, Federer continued to set the pace for them. In the process, he has lengthened what we think of as a tennis player’s normal lifespan.

Before Federer, the idea of a male player winning 20 majors and spending 310 weeks at No. 1 seemed fantastical; he made them both a reality, in 2017 and 2018. Before Federer, the idea that a player already widely considered the greatest in history could develop a vastly better topspin backhand at age 35 was hard to imagine; he did it in 2017. Before Federer, the sight of a 37-year-old coming within one point of winning his ninth Wimbledon, 16 years after his first, would have been difficult to believe; he did it this summer.

Who’s to say he won’t get that ninth title in the next decade? With Federer, the possibilities for improvement with age seem limitless.

Federer's five-set win over Nadal sparked a late-decade resurgence—another Wimbledon and Australian Open title followed, among other championships. (Getty Images)

Is there a downside to a decade in which three men won 33 of the 40 Grand Slam tournaments, and one woman finished with 16 more major titles than her nearest rival? Many lament the lack of a youth movement on the men’s side, and the failure of a new rivalry to emerge on the women’s. They will appear eventually—tennis will always have a future, even if we can’t see it yet. For now, we can only sit back in awe at the sport’s never- ending, record-shattering present.

What makes this era of dominance special is that it has been defined by success rather than failure—by longevity rather than burnout, by comebacks rather than career-ending injuries, by professionalism rather than petulance. Just when we think the matches can’t get better or the performances more historic, they do.

“Nothing like this will ever happen again—ever.” Isner could have been speaking for an era, rather than just a match, when he said those words in 2010. We should all be proud to say we saw this age of astonishments, when giants roamed the courts, with our very own eyes.