My love for tennis is a classic case of nature versus nurture. I was first exposed to the sport because of my father, a former editor for both Tennis Magazine and World Tennis Magazine, U.S. Open ball boy for legends like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and 1982 Public Schools Athletic League finalist for Martin van Buren High School in Queens.
His passion for tennis speaks for itself.
He bought me my first tennis racket (an Andre Agassi model) at age three, and I went to my first professional tennis match (U.S. Open qualifying) at age four. However, I was also naturally drawn to the game. I would always ask my dad to take me to the park so that we could rip shots off of a wall to each other. Every night before I went to bed, I would go online and check the latest scores in the hopes that my favorite players had won their matches. I even tried out (and became) a ball boy at the U.S. Open for five summers.
I don’t need to be convinced that I should follow tennis — I’m already obsessed. My case is that if you’re not a tennis fan now, you should be. While an infusion of exciting young talent is starting to challenge the superstar veterans for the first time in years, the old guard remains stubborn in their attempts to hold off Father Time, at least for another season. This struggle for power makes it the best time to be a tennis fan in the sport’s history.
Ten years ago, if someone had asked, “Who are the best players in tennis?” the answer would’ve been easy. On the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. On the Women’s Tennis Association tour, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams. If someone were to ask that same question today, the answer would be pretty similar. Djokovic and Nadal are ranked number one and two in the world while Federer remains in the top 10 at the tender age of 37. Serena remains in good form (making two grand slam finals since returning from the birth of her first child) while Sharapova and Venus have stuck around despite a malady of injuries, albeit in significantly reduced capacities. However, a new generation of players who grew up idolizing these icons is forcing themselves into the conversation.
In the women’s game, the poster child for the youth movement is none other than 21-year-old Naomi Osaka. Born in Japan and raised in the U.S., the 5’11” dynamo had been hailed in tennis circles as the next big thing for a few years but had disappointed early on in her career. That all changed at last year’s U.S. Open when Osaka burst onto the scene by dropping only one set over the entire tournament and beating her childhood hero Serena Williams in the final (amidst plenty of controversy) to claim her first career grand slam in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4. While most college-aged kids would be phased at the thought of taking down the best player in the sport’s history and becoming an overnight sensation, Osaka showed that she wasn’t a fluke at last month’s Australian Open. She showed impressive grit by coming back from a set down in back-to-back matches before beating Petra Kvitova in three sets to win her second grand slam. The victory also gave Osaka the number one ranking in the world, the first Asian player to do so. With an already accomplished resume and boundless confidence, Osaka looks like the best bet to take Serena’s mantle after she moves on.
On the men’s side, Alexander Zverev looks like he’ll be the one to overtake the “Big Three.” At 6’6’’, the 21-year-old German certainly looks the part of a future champion, with his play on the court backing up this reputation. Zverev has already recorded three wins over Federer and two wins over Djokovic, won ten tournaments including last year’s year-end championship and is currently ranked third in the world. However, Zverev hasn’t played his best tennis when it matters most in the grand slams making it to the quarterfinals of a grand slam just once, in last year’s French Open while losing in the third round of the other three grand slams last year to unseeded players. He started this year off with a solid, if not unspectacular, trip to the fourth round of the Australian Open and he’ll look to build off of that and reach the sky-high expectations the tennis world has put upon him.
If Osaka and Zverev are the superheroes of the new wave, then there are plenty of potential sidekicks (or villains). American Sloane Stephens has a grand slam to her name, but at almost 26, she may be a bit too “old” for the movement. Evita Svitolina is 24 and has already reached number three in the world. Madison Keys, Aryna Sabalenka and Jelena Ostapenko fit the mold as well, but they’ll need to show more consistency before anyone mentions them in the same breath as Osaka. Stefanos Tsitsipas, a young Greek player who captured the imagination of the crowd due to his long hair and the fervent Greek support at the contest, made the semifinals while American Frances Tiafoe made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, but they both met the same fate: a loss to Nadal. Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric and Denis Shapovalov have also shown promise, but they’re still waiting for their big breakthroughs. Nevertheless, the Djokovics and the Serenas of the world aren’t quite ready to abdicate their thrones, and the ensuing struggle for the crown of tennis makes the sport more exciting than it has ever been.
The changing of the guard surely must be an exciting time to start watching tennis. What you will find, however, is that such drama might begin to occupy your time and thoughts, like it has mine.