Tennis’ Decade of Recovery

While I find it ultimately useful and educational — not to mention fun — to examine a certain period in tennis, the ultimate challenge arrives when I attempt to "grade" that period in comparison to the other similar ones in my analysis. Hence, looking back at the first 10 years of the new millennium and grading its place in history seemed exciting. We just finished the first decade of the 21st century. What did it mean to the tennis world? How did it compare to other decades?

I figured that I would only take into account decades that involved "Open Tennis." So I decided to take into consideration the 1960s, along with the next four decades, including the one that ended last week. As I advanced further in this exercise, it became obvious that this last decade paled in comparison to some of the others, but at the same time, it was also apparent that it could be the beginning of a brand new cycle of promising times to come.

As I mentioned above, the '60s presented a special problem. For more than half of the decade, professionals and amateurs could not compete together, resulting in major discrepancies when analyzing facts. How can you simply stick to the fact that Pancho Gonzales never won a Slam in the decade because he was a professional, and therefore not consider him as one of the best players of the decade? In 1968, at the French Open, the first Slam tournament of the Open Era, a 40-year-old chain-smoking Gonzales, playing only part-time tennis for the previous few years, reached the semifinals before losing to Rod Laver. Speaking of Laver, how do we account for the fact that he won a Slam in 1962, then came back and won it again in 1969 in the Open era? Can anyone in the right mind put Laver behind Roy Emerson, who won 12 Slam tournaments in the decade, compared to his 11 titles?

For a modern tennis fan, the '60s were in one word bizarre. How bizarre? Consider these examples: Jean Borotra, one of the original and legendary French Musketeers of the 1920s, was still playing competitive tour tennis even though his age was past his 60s. The winner of the 1965 Lyon tournament, a Swiss player named Mathias Werren, three years of before the start of Open tennis, took home three sets of Babolat Strings for the title. Forty years later, the tournament since then having become part of the ATP calendar, Andy Roddick accepted a winner’s check for $78,000 along with the title. For his travel expenses, Werren was reimbursed 300 Francs in 1965; in 2005, Roddick was guaranteed $150,000, whether he won the tournament or not.

In the '60s, there were no tiebreakers, so in 1969, you had a 41-year-old Gonzales playing a five-hour long match against Charlie Passarell in which the first set score was 24-22. Thank god, they got a 10-minute break after the third set! Furthermore, at the same Wimbledon, players stood at game changes. Yes, you read it right. Recently, I watched (again) a replay of 1969 Wimbledon final between Rod Laver and John Newcombe; they were drying their racket grips and drinking a bit during each game change, casually standing on their feet! In 1967, a Wall Street lawyer, Eugene Scott, who played tennis only on weekends due to his nine-to-five workdays, made it to the semifinals of Forest Hills before losing to Newcombe, and went on to become one of the most influential figures in tennis for the next three decades.

With all its oddities, the '60s remain arguably the most important decade in tennis because it was the end of the amateur era and the beginning of the Open era; a milestone in the history of tennis. Although this is the very character of the '60s, which makes it hard to compare to the others, it is also the one that makes it revolutionary and places it one step ahead of the others. It would be the '70s that would collect the fruits of the '60s' labor.

During the '70s, tennis' popularity would reach its apogee. Starting the decade in 1970 was Margaret Court, who completed the first Grand Slam in the Open Era by a woman, an accomplishment that only Steffi Graf could equal to this day. Filled with great personalities such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert, Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg, the trend toward the breaking of sexist and racial barriers was accelerated, producing some of the best rivalries that tennis has ever seen — like Navratilova vs. Evert, Borg vs. Connors — tennis became frontpage sports news and its stars enjoyed Hollywood type of attention.

The '80s began as promising as the '70s when McEnroe and Borg provided couple of historic Slam finals in Wimbledon and U.S. Open. However, Borg suddenly retired a year later and then Navratilova vs. Evert rivalry became more and more one-sided in the years to come, with the former winning 19 out of 22 matches in a three-year span (1982-85). Personalities such as Boris Becker were not enough to tickle the fancy of the tennis crowd, who were addicted by now to the boorish behaviors and fiery tempers of McEnroe, Nastase, and Connors, and yet had to settle, or not settle, for mechanic and bland characters such as Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, and Stefan Edberg — it mattered little if they possessed great skills or if they were nice guys.

On the women's side, the emptiness in the middle of the decade was temporarily forgotten by the exciting entry of Steffi Graf into the scene. But the excitement would soon be extinguished after multiple repetitions of the same scenario: Graf dominating anyone and everyone in the latter years of the decade. At the end of the '80s, everyone realized that the '70s left some big shoes to fill and that the obvious decline was perhaps inevitable.

Then came the '90s, during which most tennis authorities and fans could not help but talk more about the "heyday" of tennis rather than the current happenings in it, which is never a good sign. One of the greatest players of all-time not to have an on-court personality, Pete Sampras, dominated the men's scene. His main rival, Andre Agassi, only showed up sporadically throughout the decade, never beating Sampras at the U.S. Open and earning only one win in a Slam final against him.

TV ratings sank lower and lower, some late-round matches in Slams began to be televised on tape-delay. On the women's side, tragedy struck with the stabbing of Monica Seles and halted completely the development of possibly the best rivalry in women's tennis outside of Navratilova vs. Evert. The '90s was a decade during which everyone looked for something to happen, someone to emerge, just something, anything. It never came.

Thus, tennis entered the new millennium at its lowest point in the Open era. It really could not get any worse; the question was rather “could it get better, please?” The women showed every sign that it could. Jennifer Capriati made a comeback for the ages, winning three Slam tournaments in the beginning of the decade. But by that time, the Williams sisters were on top of the tennis world to stay. Two talented players from Belgium, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, were added to the mix, along with a slew of players from Russia. Women's tennis had all the ingredients for a fantastic recipe; talent, personalities, and drama.

A rivalry resembling Navratilova vs. Evert was still not to be, but the quality of tennis reached new levels, especially once the other players began to catch up to the Williams sisters, who seemed to widen the gap between them and the others in the earlier half of the decade. As the decade ended, Clijsters re-entered the tour and it seems that her compatriot, Justine Henin, is joining her with her own comeback beginning this week in Brisbane. Serena was still the best player in the world, but she was far from being alone at the top. The pieces seemed to be in place for some thrilling competition to flourish in the upcoming years.

On the men's side, signs of recovery began with the most unexpected run to the Wimbledon title of a wild card, outside-the-top-100 crazy guy named Goran Ivanisevic. Very soon, however, the tennis world witnessed the arrival of arguably the best player of all-time, Roger Federer. A year or two later, Rafael Nadal, "un-arguably" the best clay-court player of all-time, joined Federer. Together, they created the best rivalry that men's tennis has seen since the golden years of late-'70s and early-'80s.

The main difference between then and now was that these two guys actually happened to be class acts, modest champions who respected the game and its fans, and furthermore, to whom profanity and outrageousness were foreign concepts. A few sporadic and interesting characters gravitated around the two champions, notably Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Roddick. Late in the decade, Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro arrived to complement the best top 10 men's tennis has seen since mid-'70s.

The next few years will prove crucial in the cycle of tennis popularity. This past decade was not only a decade of recovery, but also a decade that put forth solid foundation for what could possibly be the second golden age of tennis. As long as tennis stays away from scandals, drug-related incidents and unnecessary criminal activities such as cheating, I have no doubt that we are about to witness some of the most remarkable years in the history of the Open era.

Looking forward to 2010 and beyond...

Comments and Conversation

January 8, 2010

Scott Dunlop:

Great article. I think tennis is going to take off like no other sport and will soon be, if it is not already,the world’s second most popular sport after soccer. Pro tennis has multi-cultural players with a variety of styles of play, so there will continue to be a fascinating array of stars coming up each year!

January 9, 2010

Nnamdi Ngwe:

I love the article. Many great things have been acomplished in this sport. I look forward to many more fond memories.

January 10, 2010

Davan S. Mani:

You had a Pauline Betz who had an undefeated career in pro tennis. She beat Althea Gibson in a exhibition match when she was 5 months pregnant at 40 years old.

January 11, 2010

Mert Ertunga:

Hi Dawan,
Betz played in the 40’s (see 2nd paragraph)

Scott & Nnamdi,
Thanks for the comments


January 14, 2010

Enis Oksan:

What a great time travel and an excellent crash course. Loved it as usual.

January 27, 2010

Umit Oraloglu:

Awesome article.

Mert, I’ve got a question for you.

Obviously every decade, the game will change from its equipment to its training programs, however I’m wondering, will the serve and volley game come back or will it be dead forever.

Some experts and past legends of the game, say that it will come back, however it will take a special player to do it because the players hit the ball so hard these days.

So what are your thoughts, is the serve and volley game dead and buried forever??

February 14, 2010

Mert Ertunga:

Hi Umit,

I think the main problem with the serve-and-volley game is that the serves have gotten too fast, so the server can’t get to the net in time to hit a decent first volley. It started with Ivanisevic and Sampras who, later in their careers especially, would nail their first serve for an ace or would stay back. Last two guys to effectively serve-and-volley, Rafter and Henman, did not have huge first serves.
I don’t think serve and volley is dead forever, you will always find a serve and volleyer here and there in the top 75. But as to a guy who can dominate playing that way, I am not sure.
Mert E.

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