There is one big tennis debate that has been raging for generations, just when was the strongest era for tennis? Many point to the great Rod Laver and his contemporaries Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe, others cite the legendary battles between Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Some people preferred the quartet of Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, but other spectators were enthralled by the titanic duels between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Most recently the dominance of Roger Federer is being challenged by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and now Andy Murray who has won his first Grand Slam and looks to make it a four way fight for number one. Is this then the strongest ever era?
2012 has been a momentous season for tennis. There were four different Grand Slam winners; Djokovic carried on his scintillating 2011 form to take the Australian Open, Nadal continued his modern day clay court supremacy by winning the French Open, Federer had a renaissance and captured Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam since January 2010 and finally Andy Murray confirmed his talent by winning his first ever Grand Slam in New York. These four have been at the top of the men’s game for the last few years, indeed in 2011 only two other men made a Grand Slam semi-final. Their incredible consistency has kept very talented players such as Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga from winning a Grand Slam, even Andy Murray lost four finals in the majors before finally triumphing.
Roger Federer has won an incredible seventeen Grand Slams, which is the most ever, and he doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon. At just twenty six Rafael Nadal already has eleven titles, putting him equal third on the all time list for the Open era and Novak Djokovic has won five so far putting him just one Grand Slam title behind legendary names such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. Along with these three Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro have both won the U.S Open and have the talent and time on their side to add more titles to their resume, which shows the pedigree on the men’s tour at the moment. Is it due to their talent that these players are dominating the men’s tour or is it due to a lack of opposition? In other era’s there were a lot of one off winners such as Thomas Johansson, Goran Ivanisevic, Gaston Gaudio, Pat Cash, Richard Krajicek, Carlos Moya and many others. However recently there has been a distinct lack of unexpected winners; in the last thirty one Grand Slam tournaments dating back to 2005 there have been just five different champions.
However you cannot compare one era against another. Technologies change from decade to decade, there have been major changes in rackets, strings, tennis balls, court surfaces and scheduling. These have varied massively over the years and mean you simply cannot judge an era by their statistics alone. For instance Bjorn Borg won eleven Grand Slams but they were all at Wimbledon and the French Open. He only played in the Australian Open once as in the 1970’s it simply wasn’t feasible for him to travel there. Borg also retired from the game at the age of twenty six, who is to say he couldn’t have won double the amount of titles he did if he had continued playing? You could also ask if Rafael Nadal would have been as successful as he has been in a different era. His heavy baseline game may not have been as successful when the courts were considerably quicker, would he have found a way to adapt his game? These are questions that cannot ever be answered.
Players can only beat what is on the other side of the net, indeed some say Roger Federer has won some ‘cheap’ Grand Slams as the standard of opposition was considered poor. Many of Federer’s opponents in Grand Slam finals have never won one, whereas nowadays players usually have to beat multiple winners such as Nadal, Djokovic or even Federer himself to win a Grand Slam. However that is not Roger’s fault and who is to say it was not his brilliance that made his opponents look so far below his standard? He won so many Grand Slams during the 2000’s that he simply denied anyone else the chance to win one.
In the end this debate can never be settled. When Pete Sampras won his fourteenth Grand Slam many declared it could never be topped, then a man named Roger Federer came along and re-wrote the history books and now Rafael Nadal threatens to do the same if his body allows him to. Put simply tennis fans should just appreciate the era in play, as you never know when the next generation will come through.