Tennis has been hard work, minus the rewards, for a vast majority of players over the past decade. The monstrous consistency of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic has forced the working class on the ATP World Tour to hunt for scraps as the big three carried away most of the big prizes on offer. The retirement of Lleyton Hewitt Thursday last week, when he walked into the sunset with just two grand slam titles to his name, underlines the plight of many of his ilk this past decade.
A vast majority of hard working tennis players have been relegated to fighting for the crumbs, laying waste years of hardwork and leaving them with shattered dreams. Ask Andy Roddick, David Ferrer, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga about the pain of perpetually being overshadowed by zealous opponents who refuse to tire of winning.
Going back to Hewitt – the Aussie was tipped for a career at the top when he won the US Open in 2001 and followed that up with victory at Wimbledon the next year. But as he laid down his tools this summer in Melbourne, he had a battle weary body and plenty of tan, but no more grand slams crowns to his name since that triumphant run in 2002.
Unlike Hewitt and Roddick, several other tennis players have barely managed to feel the velvety touch of the most coveted silverware in tennis. Sample these numbers – between the Australian Open 2006 through the US Open last year, just 15 players have managed to reach the final of a grand slam event.
Only seven of them have won titles. Four of those seven players have accounted for six titles while the remaining 34 grand slam titles have been taken by an oligarchy of three men. Their success has crushed aspirations with an iron fisted regularity that is difficult to fathom for people outside sport.
Now compare those numbers with what happened in a shorter duration between the Australian Open in 2000 and the US Open in 2005. As many as 25 players reached the finals of the 24 grand slam events played during this period.
There were 13 men that managed to taste the joy of winning a grand slam tournament. That is nearly twice the number of players in just a little more than half of the tournaments from this past decade.
A quick glance at the numbers in the table clearly showcase the drought that has strangulated the aspirations of the working class tennis player of this generation. Several players were rewarded in the past for their consistency, in the form of an opportunity every time one of the big stars stumbled on the biggest stages.
It was part of the narrative decade after decade, till they were confronted by the current crop of greats, who turned themselves into indefatigable warriors winning with a relentless regularity that was rarely seen since the days of Rod Laver during the onset of the open era.
In the early part of the millennium, tennis was in a period of transition. With Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in their twilight years, a new generation was looking to establish a new order. But with no player able to stamp their authority, several players took advantage of the vacuum at the top of tennis.
Players such as Albert Costa, Gaston Gaudio and Thomas Johannson took advantage and laid their hands on prestigious silverware. Winning a grand slam is one of the primary aspirations of every tennis professional and their solitary victories helped emancipate these players of their labour on the tour, with a major trophy on their shelves.
In stark contrast, a player such as Ferrer who have been a picture of consistency for years now has been dealt repeated blows by Nadal (6-24 win – loss), Djokovic (5-16) and Federer (0-16) with some of those losses coming in the late stages of the major tournaments, denying Ferrer any taste of true tennis glory.
Berdych, who is also yet to win a grand slam, has a similar story to narrate. He has a 4-19 record against Nadal, 6-15 to Federer and an even more miserable 2-22 record against Djokovic.
Tsonga and Monfils are also players of significant pedigree, long acknowledged as players with the potential to compete at the highest levels of tennis. Tsonga is 4-8 to Nadal, 7-14 to Djokovic and 6-12 to Federer. Monfils is 2-11 to Nadal, 0-12 to Djokovic and 4-9 to Federer, with several of the French players’ losses coming on the biggest stages of the sport.
You get the point.
The suffering is not just restricted to the contemporaries of the troika who have been ruling tennis with an iron fist. The younger generation has been trying to break through for a few years now with very limited success.
Just this past week, Federer has stuffed out the aspirations of Alexander Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin on his way to a 12th Australian Open quarterfinal and the 47th grand slam quarters of his career.
Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic have been playing some good tennis over the past two years, but their best hasn’t been enough to break the hegemony of the big three players that have been dominant in an overwhelming manner.
But tennis may be on the verge of a new era – Nadal is clearly struggling to retain his stranglehold on the red dirt and Federer at 34 is beginning to deal with the changing dynamics of his tennis geometry, slowed down by advancing years.
Djokovic is clearly dominant, but as we saw with Gilles Simon last week, the players on the tour are working overtime to try and solve the riddle of excellence served up by the rampant Serbian. When that happens, we could yet again witness an era of flux similar to the one at the start of the millennium.
Unfortunately though, this past decade has been witness to several wounded warriors who were denied the best prizes in tennis despite their valiant efforts throughout their lengthy battle against the three dominant players of our generation.
And for that, players like Lleyton Hewitt deserve a big pat on their backs for keeping at it.