If I May: The Peculiar State of Men’s Pro Tennis

The state of men’s tennis today is, in a word, bizarre. For most of the season, the No. 1 player in the world was Andy Murray. This year, Murray won just one tournament (the Dubai Open in February). In the four Grand Slam tournaments, he failed to make it to a single final and lost before the quarterfinals in all but the French Open. He didn’t even play in the U.S. Open, the year’s final Grand Slam. This made for an interesting dynamic, since the top player in the world was rarely considered a favorite in any of the biggest tournaments. Now, rightfully so, Murray is no longer the No. 1-ranked player.

Adding to the confusion was the ever-perplexing Novak Djokovic. From 2011 until 2016, Djokovic essentially dominated the men’s game. In that time, he won 11 Grand Slam tournaments to make for a total of 12. In 2015, he made all four Grand Slam finals, winning three out of those four. Last year, he made three out of four Grand Slam finals and won two of them. While this level of dominance is not unprecedented by any means (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both reached similar heights earlier in the 2000s), it is still incredibly impressive. Then, all of a sudden, Djokovic grinded to a complete halt this year. He lost in the second round of the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, a tournament he has won six times in the past ten years. In the French Open, where he was the defending champion, Djokovic was ousted in the quarter finals in straight sets, including an 0-6 loss in the third set.

At Wimbledon, Djokovic seemed to return to form; he advanced to the quarterfinals without losing a set. However, in his quarterfinal match, he lost the first set in a tiebreak, then withdrew after dropping the first two games of the second set, citing an elbow injury. This injury kept him off the court for months, resulting in his withdrawal from the U.S. Open. Djokovic had gone from an unbeatable tennis savant to an injury-riddled and mentally broken player. His and Murray’s lack of contention in the past year’s majors left the door wide open for a new era of young players to step up and make a name for themselves.

Or so we thought. Instead, what we got was a throwback to the mid-2000s. Thirty-six-year-old Federer, enjoying a late-career revival, won the Australian Open in emphatic fashion. Rafael Nadal held court at Roland Garros, where his electric play led him to his eleventh French Open title, cementing his status as the greatest clay court player of all time. At Wimbledon, Federer played brilliant tennis to secure his eighth title.

Going into the U.S. Open, the season was straight out of 2009. In those days, it was understood that Federer or Nadal would probably win every Grand Slam tournament. Then in 2011, Djokovic threw a wrench in the works, beginning his reign as the world’s best player. Soon after, Andy Murray began to win tournaments, and a two-man fight had become a four-man brawl. In 2012, this brawl reached an apex as each of the four men won a Grand Slam title. However, as the 2010s wore on, Federer and Nadal began to falter, the former with age and the latter with injury. It seemed as if the torch would be passed to Djokovic and Murray. For about a year, this seemed to be the case. In 2015 and 2016, neither Federer nor Nadal won a Grand Slam. The torch had been passed.

Except it hadn’t been, apparently. Right now, neither Murray nor Djokovic, the supposed torch-bearers, have won a Grand Slam title. Their losses have been in dramatic, and at times downright embarrassing, fashion. Not only that, both men did not even participate in all four tournaments. However, it is not as if the torch was dropped mid-pass and a legion of youngsters or glossed-over veterans have swooped in to claim their Grand Slam titles. Rather, Nadal and Federer snatched the torch back, playing the marvelous tennis that we had seen in the mid-2000s.

The fall U.S. Open arrived with the anticipation of a potential Federer-Nadal semifinal match. The two tennis titans had never met in the U.S. Open. The number one ranking would be on the line, and the winner would almost certainly go on to be the eventual U.S. Open champion. We had seen a thrilling Federer-Nadal matchup in the Australian Open earlier this season, where Federer was victorious in five sets, but this match felt more important, as it was the culmination of the duo’s torch-snatching, statement-making season. This match was how the 2017 season was supposed to end.

Except the meeting never happened. The peculiarity of the 2017 season struck again. In an ironic twist of fate, Roger Federer was ousted in the quarterfinals by Juan Martin Del Potro, the only person other than Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray to win a Men’s Grand Slam tournament 2006 to 2013. He had nearly withdrawn from his fourth-round match due to illness, only to rally from two sets down and win. The U.S. Open was the epitome of the 2017 season: just when you think you have it all figured out, the tennis gods throw another wrench in the works.

What a lovely story it would be for the aging Del Potro to come back from such adversity and capture his second U.S. Open title. Apparently, it was a story Nadal had no interest in, as he easily dispatched Del Potro in the semifinals. Nadal went on to defeat South African Kevin Anderson in straight sets and win the U.S. Open, capping a year in which he and Federer took all four Grand Slam titles.

This is a perplexing but exciting time for the men’s tennis world. There are so many questions regarding the future: will Djokovic and Murray put this failure behind them and come back with a vengeance in 2018? When will Federer’s age get to him? For how long can Nadal continue to win French Open titles? When will the next heirs to the torch announce themselves? This season has shown that there is no way to predict the answers to these questions.