Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tennis is More Competitive Than Ever

By Brad Oremland

This weekend, Serena Williams and Roger Federer won singles titles at the Australian Open. Together, they combine for 28 Grand Slam singles titles: 12 for Williams, and a men's record 16 for Federer. They have won nearly half of all such titles since the 2002 French Open. Would you believe that tennis is more competitive than ever?

Serena and Federer have combined to win 28 of the last 64 Grand Slams, yes, but the remaining 36 were split among 20 different players. At no other period in history have we seen so many different winners, so many players capable of stringing together two weeks of wins. For the entire decade of the 1980s, only 19 players won the singles title in a Slam.

My colleague Mert Ertunga has already addressed the topic of tennis through the decades, and Mert has probably forgotten more about tennis than I will ever know, so I'm going to look at this topic a little differently than he did.

In her Grand Slam singles victories, Serena defeated seven different opponents: Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Maria Sharapova, and Venus Williams. Those players have won a combined 25 Slam titles in singles. All of them have held the world No. 1 ranking. Davenport, Henin, Hingis, and Venus, at the least, are all-time greats. Sharapova has won three Slams and is just 22. Safina is just hitting her prime, and it's too early to tell how her career will turn out. Even Jankovic has been a consistently good player, finishing each of the last three years in the top 10. She doesn't appear to have Safina's upside, but Jankovic is only 24 and could still have a bright future.

Martina Navrátilová, in her 18 Slams over 13 years, also beat seven different opponents. Of those seven, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf are all-time greats. Hana Mandlíková was a very good player with multiple Slams. None of the other four (Zina Garrison, Andrea Jaeger, Kathy Jordan, Helena Sukova) ever won a Slam or held the No. 1 ranking. The challenge of beating opponents like Evert and Graf should not be understated, but they made so many finals partially because there was little real competition. Navrátilová is probably the best female player in history, but she made the Wimbledon final as late as age 37. That indicates a lack of competition as much as Navrátilová's greatness.

There are more great players now. From 1982-87, Evert and Navratilova won 20 out of 23 slams. From 1988-93, Graf and Monica Seles won 21 of 24. Prior to this decade, there were only two or three women at a time who were capable of beating the best players in the world with any consistency. Altogether, from 1982-93, the only winners were Martina (15 times), Graf (14), Seles (8), Chrissy (6), Mandlíková (2), Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (1), and Gabriela Sabatini (1).

Evert and Navrátilová faced each other 80 times from 1973-85. They rarely lost to anyone but each other, simply because there weren't a lot of top-caliber women in the game at that time. The same was true to a lesser extent for Graf and Seles. Martina Hingis once appeared poised to pick up where Graf left off, but then came the rise of the power hitters. Venus and Serena Williams are the dominant players of this era, combining for 19 Grand Slam singles titles and 22 doubles titles. That's very impressive, but it's also the first time in the history of the women's game that there were more than two or three players competitive at the highest level.

If someone asked you to predict this year's US Open winner, who would you pick? Serena is the obvious choice, I suppose, but she's only won the U.S. Open once in the last seven years. Venus hasn't won it in a decade. Henin and Sharapova would be reasonable picks, as would 2009 winner Kim Clijsters. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Safina might be good choices. The thing is wide open.

There are two ways to interpret that. One would be that there's a talent gap at the top of the women's game: we don't have anyone of Navrátilová's caliber. The other would be that we have a glut of talent: whereas 20 years ago, the best players were alone at the top, today's game has more depth, and it's harder for great players to dominate. Count me firmly in the second camp.

Roger and Serena aren't dominant because there's no competition. They're dominant because they are among the all-time greats. Federer is very probably the greatest player the sport has ever seen, and Serena now must be regarded among the very best women ever to play. She's dominant despite a deep and talented women's pool. The game's growing popularity, and access for women — especially in Central and Eastern Europe — is responsible for a broader field of talent, and that makes the kind of dominance we saw from Navrátilová and Margaret Court unrealistic. It's the difference between playing in a 10-team league and a 30-team league. An equally good team will win more titles in the smaller league.

Henin and the Williams sisters could be underrated because the high level of competition makes them seem less accomplished than they are. Federer could be underrated for the opposite reason: he has been so dominant that we could dismiss his dominance as lack of competition. Other than Rafael Nadal on clay, who has really challenged him?

Well, his 16 Slam titles have come against Nadal, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez, Mark Philippoussis, and Robin Soderling. Are there a couple guys on that list who aren't exactly Rod Laver? Sure. Win 16 Slams, and there are bound to be some duds in there. Sampras won his '97 Wimbledon title against Cedric Pioline.

Men's tennis probably hit its zenith in the 1980s. That decade saw Boris Becker, Björn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, and Mats Wilander all at or near the top of their respective games. The '90s were basically Agassi and Pete Sampras, and the early 2000s were just absent of real men's stars, with no man winning multiple Slams in a calendar year until Federer took all but the French in 2004.

His continued dominance has at least partially masked the rise of several other great players. Nadal has won every Slam except the U.S. Open, and is probably the best clay court player in history. Djokovic and Murray (both 22) have both established themselves as top players, legitimate challengers in a way that the Cedric Piolines of the world are not. And poor Roddick might have won half a dozen majors had his career not coincided with Roger's. The tennis world's answer to A-Rod has played in five Grand Slam finals. He won the 2003 U.S. Open, and lost each of the other four to Federer. Altogether Federer has knocked A-Rod out of eight Grand Slams. Roddick has won at least one tournament for 10 consecutive years and has been ranked in the top 12 continuously since 2002.

This is what Federer has done. He's turned a fine player like Roddick into an afterthought, a one-and-done champion. At Wimbledon alone, Federer has denied Roddick and Nadal a combined 5 titles. Nearly as scary, from 2006-08, Nadal defeated Federer in the Roland Garros final every year. Had he not been faced with the greatest clay courter in history, might Roger have four or more titles at every Grand Slam?

I would never want to diminish the greatness of Sampras or Agassi. Both were exceptional players who earned their success. But look at the guys they were going up against. Would Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter have become legends if only they hadn't been forced to contend with Sampras and Agassi? Were Thomas Muster and Yevgeny Kafelnikov denied stardom by Andre and Pete? None of those players dominated their peers the way Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray have the past few years. For that matter, none of them were Roddick.

Federer is 28 now, and his decline has begun. He's still a magnificent player, but realistically, he's five years past his prime. How much fun are the next couple of years going to be, with Federer still a trememendous force and the next generation ready to assert itself? Looking at the men's and women's games, the sport has never been more competitive.

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