A Week That Felt Like Two Decades

This past week at Wimbledon – a week unlike any other in the annals of tennis history – Doots titled her Federer mourning piece, “Why Is The World Still Spinning?”

After six days – most of them remarkable – I’m left to ask, “HOW is the world still spinning?”

The tennis world as we have come to know it over the past decade was blown to smithereens in suburban London. Television networks have made the point plain: This is the worst major tournament for top-10 seeds in both draws – men and women – in the entire Open Era, which dates back to 1968.

Perhaps at the U.S. Open, we’ll see three members of the Big Four plus Berdych or Tsonga in the men’s semifinals. Perhaps Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova will all reach the women’s semifinals. However, this tournament has thrown tennis fans 20 years into the past, to a time when a few top players retained their power… and the rest of each tour felt conspicuously precarious, subject to the randomness of chance and the way each player got out of bed on a particular day.

The 1980s proved to be a glorious decade for tennis. In the women’s game, the Evert-Navratilova rivalry held sway for most of the way, with Tracy Austin (early ’80s) and Hana Mandlikova (early-to-mid-’80s) proving to be more than formidable foes before Steffi Graf burst onto the scene in the latter half of the decade. The men’s game ushered in the 1980s with Borg, McEnroe and Connors, a trio that – in 1982 – became Lendl-McEnroe-Connors.  Mats Wilander became a clay-court demon and, in 1988, a player good enough to win three majors in a single calendar year. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg won hearts with their glorious Wimbledon clashes in the final years of the decade. Super Saturday at the U.S. Open is – today – a concept that is no longer charming or valuable (thankfully, it will die after 2014), but when the 1980s staged the three-match extravaganza, it delighted American tennis fans and a global community of viewers as well.

The 1980s (continuing through 1992) were great for tennis – they gave fans and journalists all the personality, contrasts and rivalries any lover of sport could ever hope for. The past decade of tennis borrowed from the 1980s template on its own terms, taking the same fascinating collection of riches but providing even better tennis while subtracting some of the personal nastiness that pervaded player rivalries.

In marked contrast, the 1990s – more specifically, the 11-year period from 1993 through 2003 – represented a clear departure from what the 1980s and the early 21st century have provided.

There were two brief periods from 1993 through 2003 in which tennis sparkled on both tours. From 1994 through 1996, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario – though not anything close to Monica Seles – did her level best to try to become a foil for Graf, engaging the German superstar in contentious major finals, and not just on the Roland Garros clay where the Spaniard felt at home. The Arantxa-Graf rivalry added much to the story tennis, and at the same time, the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi clash enjoyed its first period of greatness.

Agassi’s self-discovery – which began at the 1994 U.S. Open – led to a drama-soaked 1995 that culminated in a U.S. Open final with Sampras. That match, won by Sampras in four sets, sent Agassi into one of his multiple career tailspins, but the decisiveness of that moment was something men’s tennis usually lacked from 1993 through 2003. In those 11 years, there were few stretches of time when two great players with championship identities met on the mountaintop. The Sampras-Agassi period from 1994-’96 (with an older but still formidable version of Boris Becker playing the spoiler at times) was one. The renewal of Sampras-Agassi from 1999-2002 was the other, although the two men didn’t meet regularly at the majors the way today’s stars have managed to do. Had Agassi not fallen off the map from 1996 through 1998, the period from 1993 through 2003 could have been so much richer. Along different (and much more tragic) lines, the 1990s could have been different for the WTA had Monica Seles not been stabbed on that awful day in 1993.

Yet, for all that Seles wasn’t able to achieve (for reasons that had nothing to do with her quality, attitude or approach), women’s tennis did find a new golden age just as the 1990s were ending. A mostly flat decade gave way to an inexhaustible supply of riches when Serena Williams announced her presence on tour at the 1999 U.S. Open and big sister Venus took charge at Wimbledon in 2000, one year after Steffi Graf retired. Once the new century (and milennium) arrived, women’s tennis took off. Heavyweight confrontations involving each of the Williams Sisters, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters, and others – with players such as Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo picking off multiple majors – made women’s tennis a moveable feast. Fans had so many styles of play to choose from, with no shortage of box-office quality in the second week of a major. The period from 1993 through 2003 had its moments, and the WTA – over that 11-year span – offered the very best of tennis (better than the ATP Tour) from the end of 1999 through 2003.

Yet, to know the 1990s as a tennis fan – specifically, the period that began in 1993 – is to know a part of history in which the sport disappointed as much as it satisfied.

Here’s what the 1993-2003 era brought to the sport, in addition to the magnificence of its brief high points fashioned by Graf, Arantxa, Sampras, Agassi, Becker, Rafter, and the WTA boom that took off in the year 2000:

* Jana Novotna’s chokes. (I don’t like the word “choke,” but Novotna was an undeniable master of that dark art.)

* Cedric Pioline and Wally Masur in the 1993 U.S. Open semifinals.

* The diminishment of Roland Garros as a niche tournament where the best male players in the sport didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t flourish. (The women held up their end of the bargain, however.)

* Petr Korda as a major winner, later to be discredited. 

* Carlos Moya and Tomas Johansson as one-hit major-tournament wonders.

* Irina Spirlea and Manuela Maleeva as major semifinalists. 

* Nathalie Tauziat as a major finalist.

* Sjeng Schalken as a major semifinalist.

* Arnaud Clement as a major finalist.

* Thomas Enqvist as a major finalist.

* Rainer Schuttler as a major finalist.

* Conchita Martinez as a one-off Wimbledon champion.

* Iva Majoli winning Roland Garros and then disappearing from sight.

* The 1996 Wimbledon tournament for the men.

* The 1998 Wimbledon tournament for the women.

* Jonas Bjorkman playing Greg Rusedski in a major semifinal.

* David Nalbandian playing Xavier Malisse in a major semifinal… on grass.

* Mark Philippoussis making two major finals and not doing much of anything otherwise.

Forget about Federer-Sampras comparisons. This tour of the past three decades in tennis history – with an emphasis on the 1990s – is not meant to delve into that kind of debate. This essay’s point of emphasis is on the fact that the 1990s (more specifically, 1993-2003) offered a lot of major-tournament draws akin to what we’re seeing here in 2013.

I don’t need to tell you what the two drawsheets look like after three rounds, do I?

Let’s just put it this way: We’re going to have at least one completely unexpected semifinalist in both the men’s and women’s events. We could have a completely unexpected women’s finalist… and that includes Petra Kvitova, which is such an odd thing to say in light of her 2011 Wimbledon title.

A handful of players on both the WTA and ATP Tours have already secured six-figure paychecks. Some of these players (Andreas Seppi for the men, Marion Bartoli for the women) have banked plenty of money in their careers by making second weeks of majors, but several members of the round of 16 in each draw – players with names of Puig, Flipkens, and Knapp; Mannarino, Kubot, and De Schepper – have transformed their careers and their bank accounts this past week.

In an immediate context, this is fascinating to behold.

Players such as Kvitova, Bartoli, Benoit Paire, Ernests Gulbis, and Jerzy Janowicz have been presented with golden-ticket, sent-from-the-gods opportunities to radically remake their careers. When the usual cast of heavyweights is waiting in the fourth round and quarterfinals, there’s not as much drama surrounding the first-week successes of second- or third-tier players. With these draws blown wide open in certain sections, however, the dynamic has become something altogether different. Matches like Kvitova-Cetkovska or Gulbis-Verdasco that would not register as a big deal in most major tournaments have been imbued with fresh levels of meaning and urgency at this tournament. Wimbledon 2013 has therefore given the global community of tennis fans a new look into the minds and hearts of the sport’s major-tournament underclass. Such a scenario has added to the average tennis fan’s knowledge base, and that’s a good thing.

What’s not a good thing? The second week of Wimbledon that we’re about to witness.

Novak Djokovic-Tommy Haas is a legitimate heavyweight matchup. Monica Puig-Sloane Stephens will be fascinating. Many fans will appreciate (and rightly so) how much it will mean for a journeyman or a fresh-faced youngster to make a first-ever Wimbledon semifinal. These stories will mean a lot for the individuals who forge such feats against a backdrop of opportunity. Yet, let’s not kid ourselves: The showdowns that make the second weeks of majors such a tennis treat will not come to pass.

First weeks of majors are meant to give the little guy or gal a much-deserved day in the sun, but the second weeks of majors are supposed to showcase the elites. For all the good things a mid-1990s kind of Wimbledon has given us this one time, the lack of box-office appeal in week two will certainly represent a drag on the tournament… and bring us back to Todd Martin and MaliVai Washington in 1996… or Jana Novotna and Nathalie Tauziat in 1998.

Those kinds of tournaments are fascinating to behold once every five years or so, but they’re not enjoyable when they unfold on a regular basis.

And so, we are brought back to this first week of Wimbledon, to a week when Roger Federer’s streak of 36 consecutive major-tournament quarterfinals – one of the seminal feats in the history of sports, akin to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in the 1941 Major League Baseball season – finally came to an end.

So many waves of shock and disappointment have flowed from this loss. ATP players have felt at liberty to comment about Federer when the better part of discretion suggests that they shouldn’t have done so. The glaringly aberrational nature of Federer’s loss – and of the twin absences of Federer and Rafael Nadal from the second week of the same major tournament – has generated such a tsunami of emotions throughout the global tennis community that it seems the tennis world as we have known it is over.

Has the tennis world come to an end? No — not really. It only feels like it.

Yet, there’s something instructive and revealing about a week that feels like the end of the world… and has reset the tennis calendar to a place that feels a lot like 1993. 

Steve Spurrier, a college football coach in the United States whom non-American readers likely know nothing about, was once the coach of an elite team at the University of Florida in the 1990s. On one of the few times his Florida team lost, Spurrier said something (I’m paraphrasing here…) that every elite athlete must remember in some way throughout his or her career:

People don’t talk about losers or mediocre players when they lose. Losers never threaten anybody or create feelings of insecurity. Only great players and great teams generate deep and widespread emotions. If you haven’t won at a high level, you haven’t made other people uncomfortable. If you haven’t won, you haven’t gotten under someone else’s skin. If people are laughing at you when you lose, it’s only because you’ve achieved greatness over an extended period of time. If people go out of their way to giggle at you when you get beaten on the playing field, it’s only because you have had the last laugh so many times before.

That set of thoughts offers us Federer fans and our brothers and sisters – the community of Rafael Nadal fans – a window into the aftermath of this first week of Wimbledon in 2013. There is much comfort to be found not just AMIDST the hysteria following this week of upsets and shocks and disbelief, but WITHIN that hysteria. 

After all, if it didn’t FEEL as though the tennis world was really ending (and shifting back to 1993), the careers of Federer and Nadal wouldn’t really be as special and momentous as they have been.

This is the true, no?

About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

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