Is men’s tennis…worth it?

Perhaps it was something to do with my own ‘timetable’ as it were. I was at my parents’ place (father is a huge tennis fan too) and as the men’s final wound on and on, on a Sunday evening, Monday blues began to set in early. A work day beckoned on the morrow. Wife was ‘irritated’ with the players for not getting it done sooner. Perhaps, when you are not feeling hassled by things that have nothing to do with the match, you would enjoy it going to five sets more.

But I found that Jonathan Liew has voiced similar thoughts here. As he puts it: “We’ve all been doing this for 15 years. The muscle memory is too strong, the emotional liturgy too deeply ingrained. This is why, from the moment Rafael Nadal started to claw back his Australian Open final against Daniil Medvedev from two sets down, it never really crossed my mind that he would lose.”

In short, have I seen this movie before? Hell yeah and a thousand times over.

If you are a fan of Nadal, you’re gonna say this is just a Federer fan ranting because Nadal passed his record. But the fact is that at least speaking for myself, I knew the record was gone the moment Fed failed to serve it out at 40-15 championship point Wimbledon 2019. And in my eyes, Novak had already surpassed him and Nadal by tying the slam record last year. Because, again Nadal fans don’t like this argument, it isn’t just the slam record but weeks at no.1, years ended at no.1, Year Ending Championships and Masters won. Djokovic leads Nadal on all of these. Djokovic also leads the Head-to-Head against Federer and Nadal. To me, one extra slam won by Nadal does not trump all these factors. A few more might, it’s not set in stone.

Regardless, the point, as Liew says, is that this is the only conversation in men’s tennis almost since 2008-09 when Nadal upstaged Federer at Wimbledon and Australian Open and people first began to talk about him as not just one of the greatest clay court players (THE greatest today) but also a challenger to Federer’s claim of being the greatest overall. Yes, it became a three way conversation after 2011 when it became clear Djokovic would make up for lost time in a hurry. But that still makes it at least ten years now that we have talked about nothing but which of the Big Three will wind up the ultimate GOAT.

In that time, Serena Williams passed Graf’s slam tally, got married and became a mother and has failed for the last four years in her bid to draw level with Court since returning from maternity leave. Naomi Osaka broke through in 2018 and sits on four slams but finds her ranking down in the 80s as a result of skipping too many tournaments. Ashleigh Barty returned to tennis after a two year stint in cricket and has become the first Australian woman since Chris O’Neil in 1978 to win the Australian Open. At the 2021 US Open, Emma Raducanu became the first British woman since Virginia Wade in 1977 to win A singles slam. She is also the first qualifier to win a slam in the Open Era. Iga Swiatek became the first Polish player to ever win a slam.

To quote Liew, again, “What if a fraction of the marketing budget and column inches expended on the Big Three had instead been devoted to women’s tennis, which is quietly serving up a new era of gripping rivalries, compelling stories and new characters?”

And “With just a modicum of distance, it’s possible to observe what a strange and diminishing state of affairs this is: the men’s half of an entire sport reduced to the level of a pub debate, a swirling and interminable noise that seems to have sucked all the oxygen and a good deal of the fun out of the room.”

This is not mere pontification of subjective views but is reflected in commercial terms too. The US Open 2021 women’s final drew more viewers than the men’s final and this has been the case for the last few years. People may serve up a variety of reasons for this but the fact that more people watch the women’s final in tennis’ biggest market is telling. For example, you can point to the presence of Serena, Osaka, Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez (as well as Raducanu from ‘across the pond) in these finals but the women’s game can hardly be blamed for the fact that there are no British or North American hopes in the men’s game capable of dethroning the Big Three (actually just the Big Two and just Nadal at the last Australian Open). Nadal disposed of Shapovalov in a controversial match and Medvedev took care of Felix Auger-Aliassime.

I would add here that at the tour level, the women’s game is not half as valuable as the men’s game. ATP events get a TV telecast in many countries whereas a WTA TV subscription is the only way to watch WTA events in many countries, including India. So the fact that even so, at the slam level, more people are interested in the women’s game suggests that the Big Three’s stranglehold on slams has indeed become suffocating.

There is another, more aesthetic/technical, consideration. I wouldn’t mind watching Nadal and Djokovic win if I found it possible for myself to be excited by the likes of Medvedev, Tsitsipas or Zverev. But Medvedev’s display against Nadal on Sunday was instead a perfect demonstration of how not to win a tennis match. He only looked well on course to win two sets up and having triple break points on Nadal in the third because Nadal wasn’t playing well and making uncharacteristic errors. As Nadal picked up his own level, Medvedev made no adjustments and was pretty much a spectator in his own match as Nadal stole a slam win from right under his nose. Medvedev returned from well behind the baseline and failed to punish a not particularly great serving performance from the Spaniard and also hung back in the rallies. He did not go for short angles and struggled with down the line forehands. He showed good hands on the volleys but his positioning and footwork at the net were awful. So were his drop shots.

In essence, Medvedev played a monotonous tennis that Nadal eventually dismantled and it only took him so long because he was a far cry too from his vintage self. That is only to be expected of an over 35 year old player returning after months to tennis and just shortly after a covid induced hiatus. But for Medvedev, who will turn 26 in a few days from now, time is running out to convert his career from a 2-3 slam trajectory at best to at least a middle tier ATG like Lendl or McEnroe. And of course, that’s only by approaching it from a slam obsessed perspective. Because with his miserable record on grass and clay, he is not likely to have the versatility of an Edberg, let alone Agassi or the Big Three.

With Medvedev proving not much better than Tsitsipas or Zverev, it leaves men’s tennis high and dry again. Our only option now is to wait for Carlos Alcaraz to mature physically and grow into the player he promises to be. But we have seen many false dawns at this point and if he too were to disappoint, it would hardly surprise anyone. Nor would five more years of Djokodal domination.

There is, to reemphasise, nothing Djokovic or Nadal can do about the fact that they are so awesome. But as long as the twenty somethings in the top 10 or 20 (called NextGen) are content losing to Djokovic and Nadal and singing paens to their tennis godliness, any tennis fan who wants something other than the Djokodal show is doomed. I write Djokodal here only because Federer has been AWOL for way too long to be considered a significant factor in the tour. He may well have an unlikely miracle left at this point but his own prognosis isn’t the most optimistic anyway. But no, even if he returned, it would hardly improve matters for me and I am not alone.

I have followed tennis since around 1993-94. I am not likely to ever completely tune out of the game. But I did lose interest in the men’s game in 2002. And 2002 with its Sampras-Agassi and Costa-Ferrero finals was still a much better year than 2020 or 2021. And 2022 isn’t off to a promising start. What did I do in 2002? I tuned into the women’s game much more than before. That’s what I did this Australian Open and that’s what many others are going to do, at least the ones who didn’t permanently leave the sport after the retirements of Henin and Clijsters or the ones who don’t think scorning women’s tennis is somehow connected to their manliness or alpha-ness if you will.

But I remember Tiriac saying female tennis players should worship at the feet of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic or something to that effect when he voiced his opposition to equal pay. Well, Ion, be thankful there is a women’s tour now or many of us would be bored to death of the sport.

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