WATCH—What happens when the world’s best are no longer around?
The living eulogies being given for Andy Murray this week in Melbourne are early warning signals of tennis mortality. Many other greats who have given us a dazzling 15 years will soon enough end their careers too. A major question as the ‘10s draw to a close: Who will step up and begin to grab major titles? No one knows. But what’s certain is that many rising stars possess a pleasing range of stylistic possibilities that go back decades.
Imagine an eight-year-old boy. Picture him hitting on a backboard. He lives for the four majors, of days and nights capturing the world’s attention at Melbourne Park, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the US Open. His body and mind vividly envision great shots, spectacular retrievals, sharp serves, lunging volleys, leaping overheads.
This boy occupies the present. But he dreams about the future. The way the game is played now? These are the giants he must slay, the statues he loves, but also seeks to destroy. His teachers talk about today’s game. But he doesn’t want to play today’s tennis. He wants to play tomorrow’s tennis, tennis the likes of which the world has never seen.
He will not fit in. Not on your life will he fit in. To fit in is something reserved for the team sports, where you must, at least initially, conform to the collective.
But tennis is different. Tennis, many a Hall of Famer has told me, is a sport you play because you don’t want someone telling you what to do, or how to do it, or what the proper style for you is.
This is the story of tennis: Think different. Roger Federer, experimenting with a rainbow of shots. Rafael Nadal, heeding his uncle’s advice to become a lefthander. Don Budge, a baseball-loving teen that took that same swing and taught himself a topspin backhand. Justine Henin, fashioning a playing style all her own. Richard Williams, training two girls to conquer the world. Martina Navratilova, rolling the clay at her home club and eventually becoming an American citizen.
“You take in what you can from those greats who came before you,” Jimmy Connors once told me, “and then you go out there and try to be yourself.”
Over the last three years, a number of men have begun to assert themselves—and the great news is that they each play tennis quite differently from one another.
Nearly five years ago, at Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios sounded the bugle call with a slash-and-burn mix of serves and forehands. Unfortunately, at this point, the burn is overtaking the slash, Kyrgios now about to sink to his lowest rank since his emergence.
Then there’s Alexander Zverev. If in some ways, Zverev’s powerful groundstrokes—his two-handed backhand most of all—make him appear in the contemporary mode ala Novak Djokovic or Kei Nishikori, his big serve puts him in a slightly different realm.
But even more recently, we have witnessed the ascent of men with such eclectic playing styles as 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas; a pair of 19-year-olds, Alex de Minaur and Denis Shapovalov; two intriguing 21-year-old Americans, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka; and another American who’ll turn 21 on Sunday, Frances Tiafoe.
Tsitsipas has spoken eloquently of his affection for Federer. Fair enough, but the high doses of energy he brings to his tennis are quite a contrast to the clinical Swiss.
If de Minaur owes a stylistic debt to compatriot Lleyton Hewitt, he also brings his own mix of tactical ingenuity and passion for competition.
Shapovalov? A lefty Gustavo Kuerten? A 21st-century Rod Laver? Who even knows?
As for Fritz and Opelka, each on the surface appears familiar, at least at first glance. Fritz evokes Andy Roddick, armed with a big serve and an aptitude for finding the answer on a big point. The 6’ 11” Opelka is obviously comparable to John Isner, but even Isner has admitted that Opelka is far better, especially in the transition area, than he was at age 21.
Tiafoe has concocted his own unique blend of power and guile, assets revealed brilliantly in his upset win here over Kevin Anderson.
Even more exciting is that these men are still in the early stages. Styles are being formed. Rigorous fitness has only just begun. Many more great matches remain to be played. Just think back, for example, to the headband-clad Federer or the teenaged Nadal; all that youthful potential, rapidly ripened, but also, year by year, greatly enhanced, be it Federer’s improved backhand or Nadal’s new service motion.
Better yet, neither of these young players has become jaded. Neither has yet to suffer from the scar tissue of defeat that has so often turned ambitious hopefuls into the tennis equivalent of middle managers. Who in their early 20s wants to settle for anything?
In recent years there has been much talk about the aging of tennis, that the sport’s physicality has made it possible for experienced pros to last longer and preclude youth from bursting into the elite.
I’d held that view for a long time too, until one day I heard these words from Tennis Channel colleague Jim Courier: “Genius will happen if it’s meant to happen. That’s why it’s genius.”
As the fourth member of a generation that also included such prodigies as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, Courier well understood youthful excellence (and he himself won Roland Garros at the age of 20).
All this variety is a sign that perhaps the world is not so flat after all and that our beloved sport is not doomed to become increasingly homogenous. Because when a boy starts on that backboard, he’s not concerned about the world. All he wants to do is hit another ball and stand out from the pack.
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