Racquet Royalty

June 09, 2017

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Racquet Royalty

Next year it will be half a century since tennis went open, with the distinction between amateurs and professionals abolished. Previously it was a sport either for the very young or for the rich; now it’s one that makes the best players very rich indeed. In the amateur days you had to turn professional to make money from the game, which for the best young players meant joining what was known as Jack Kramer’s Circus, an elite group who played each other repeatedly, often indoors, because they weren’t permitted to tread on the sacred turf of Wimbledon or Forest Hills.

This is why some of the greatest players, like the American Pancho Gonzales and the Australian Lew Hoad, don’t feature high on the list of multiple winners of the four Slam tournaments; having turned pro young, they weren’t allowed to compete in the American and Australian championships, or at Wimbledon and Roland-Garros. In the twenty years before the game went open, there were seventeen different winners of the men’s singles at Wimbledon, only three of whom—Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, and Roy Emerson—won twice. There were ten champions in the first twenty years of the open era, Bjorn Borg winning five titles and John McEnroe three. Only seven different players have lifted the cup in the past twenty years, two of them—Lleyton Hewitt and Goran Ivanisevic—doing so only once. Since 2003 the title has been won by Roger Federer (seven times), Novak Djokovic (three), Rafael Nadal (two), and Andy Murray (two). Federer and Nadal have each been the defeated finalist three times, Djokovic and Murray once each. The unluckiest challenger to the quartet was Andy Roddick, who lost three finals, all to Federer.

“Comparing players of different eras is a fascinating, though perhaps futile, exercise in any sport.”

This group dominance is unprecedented. Borg had four different opponents in his five winning finals, Pete Sampras seven in his seven. Nobody would confidently bet against one of the quartet extending his Wimbledon dominance for at least another year. This is all the more remarkable because the youngest of them, Djokovic and Murray, have just celebrated their thirtieth birthdays; Nadal is a year older, while Federer is now 35.

Federer is hailed by his admirers as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). He may well be that, and not only on account of his longevity. Eighteen Grand Slam titles makes his case. On the other hand, Nadal has always beaten him on the red clay of Roland-Garros, and may fairly be considered the GEOC (Greatest Ever on Clay). Pete Sampras won fourteen Slams, but never the French title, and some might argue that several of those he beat in finals were not as good as Federer’s opponents. Yet it has to be said that on grass or the fast hardcourt of the US Open, there is little to choose between Sampras and Federer.

Comparing players of different eras is a fascinating, though perhaps futile, exercise in any sport. Circumstances change. Technology advances. You can (if you’re good enough) do things with today’s tennis racquets that were impossible with the old wooden ones. Training routines develop, and today’s players have the support of a team of a variety of coaches and fitness experts not available to players in the past.

But, without going back to the golden era of amateur tennis between the two World Wars, the days of the Four Musketeers, of Bill Tilden and Fred Perry, a case can be made for two Australians, both of whom bridged the amateur and open eras. Rod Laver is the only player to have won two genuine Grand Slams—by genuine I mean the four major titles in the same year. He did this first as an amateur in 1962 before turning pro, then repeated it in 1969. In all he won eleven of the Slams, four Wimbledons, three Australian titles, two US Opens, and two French titles. That indicates excellence, and his score might have been higher if he hadn’t been ineligible to compete in them between the ages of 24 and 30. I say “might” because if the game had been open when he started playing, it’s possible, even probable, that he wouldn’t have won as many as six Slams, 1960–62.

The other is my boyhood hero Ken Rosewall, whose record is in a way the most remarkable of all. He won his first two Slams, the Australian and the French, in 1953, and his last, the Australian again, in 1972, when he was 37. He won the US Open twice—in 1956 and 1970. He never won Wimbledon but lost in the final four times—1954, 1956, 1970, and 1974. In that last year, when he was 39, he also reached the US final again, losing there—heavily, as at Wimbledon—to the young Jimmy Connors. For three or four years in the early ’60s he was ranked No. 1 on the professional tour, which, in truth, made him the best player in the world. What makes his record all the more remarkable was that he had few natural advantages; he stood only 5 foot 7 inches and never had a big serve. His nickname, “Muscles,” was ironical. But he was clever, and gosh, he was fun to watch. He may not have been the GOAT, but there have been very few indeed with a better claim to that unofficial accolade.

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