The Golden Era of men’s tennis: long believed, now official
Many of us felt it.
Many of us thought it.
Many of us said it.
Now, it’s very hard to deny it: This is the Golden Era of men’s tennis.
It’s still an opinion, but now the subjective statement contains the feel and flavor of an objective truth.
Novak Djokovic’s capture of his first French Open title on Sunday gave this period of the sport’s history its latest measure of massive masculine meaning.
Just exactly how can anyone argue against the Golden Era idea at this point?
In terms of entertainment value and newfound commercial respectability, perhaps 1976 through 1984 remains the most significant period in men’s tennis history. The sport — previously amateur, almost always played on lawns when outdoors, and therefore still tethered to a genteel identity in the eyes of most (the image persists for some Americans, even today) — became rough, tough, gruff and highly colorful in the late 1970s.
Borg. Jimbo. Mac. Lendl. Vitas. Splashes of originality, abrasiveness and pugnacity enabled tennis to come alive. Racquet technology began to evolve. Hardcourts busted up the grass-and-clay singularity of the major tournaments. Television began to give the sport mainstream visibility in an era before (and during the infant years of) CNN and ESPN. Tennis reached a lot of fans in that first period. People who might not have given tennis a second thought as a sport — as a fan, as an aspiring athlete, or as a sportswriter — gravitated to the game in those years.
If your motto is “the first movement is the biggest movement,” perhaps one can say — in a very narrow and specific context — that 1976-1984 is the greatest era of men’s tennis.
Otherwise, what began in the 2005 Roland Garros semifinals — when a teenage Rafael Nadal defeated top-ranked Roger Federer and began to build The Citadel known as Court Philippe Chatrier against his Swiss rival — is the finest and most luminous era men’s tennis has ever known.
Sunday’s events in Paris — on that same piece of crushed red brick — confirmed the notion.
The story of the Big Three is not a completed story.
We have seen both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal bounce back from injuries before. Yes, the older they get, the harder it will be to reclaim past glories, but if nature and luck can conspire to usher them safely through the next three years, who knows how many delightful surprises they can provide?
Legends have been known to do things most mortals can’t. It is in the nature of a legend to transcend ordinary expectations.
Yet, let’s offer — just for the sake of creating parameters — the notion that Federer and Nadal don’t win another major title. (I know no non-Serbian person wants to think about that idea, but let’s briefly introduce it.)
Even if the two pioneering figures of the Golden Era don’t deliver another large-scale thunderbolt, this is what we can already say about Roger, Rafa, and the man — Novak Djokovic — who has both joined and eclipsed them with his championship at Roland Garros:
The Big Three:
- All won at least 12 major titles. Moreover, it’s a near lock that Djokovic will make this number 14 within the next year. Just contemplate that: Three men will win at least 14 major titles apiece. Three men will match or exceed Pete Sampras’s major-title haul. Three men — when they retire — will all share the the following distinction: None of their historical predecessors, not one, will own more major titles.
- All won career Grand Slams. Three of the eight men to ever collect championships at all four majors will have existed in this era, this 12-year period which still has a few years left.
- All tied or set the Open Era record for the most championships at one of the four majors. Djokovic owns the most Australian Opens with six. Nadal claims the most French Opens with nine. Federer doesn’t own an outright record, but he shares the record for most Wimbledon (7) and U.S. Open (5) titles in the Open Era.
- All set the match-streak record at one major: Djokovic won 25 straight Australian Open matches; Nadal 39 straight French Open matches; Federer 40 straight U.S. Open matches.
- All own or share the record for the most consecutive singles titles won at each of the four majors: Djokovic (Australian); Nadal (French); Federer (tie, Wimbledon, and tie, U.S. Open).
Even if Federer and Nadal don’t win another major, the two — with Djokovic — will create more records at the majors in terms of longevity, winning percentage, annual streaks, rounds reached, and more.
None of this includes the 81 combined Masters 1000 titles — placing the Big Three in the top three.
None of this includes all the times these three have left Andy Murray — owner of 10 major finals appearances, 19 major semifinals, and 12 Masters 1000 titles — at the altar of tennis history.
None of this includes some of the titanic matches in the sport’s history — Wimbledon 2008 (Federer-Nadal), U.S. Open 2010 (Djokovic against both Federer and Nadal), U.S. Open 2011 (Djokovic against both Federer and Nadal), Roland Garros 2013 (Djokovic-Nadal), and Wimbledon 2014 (Djokovic-Federer).
This is an unofficial statistic more than an official one, but if roughly two-thirds of the planet Earth is covered by water, roughly two-thirds of the book of tennis records has been covered by the Big Three since this era began… and that book will only acquire dozens of additional records in the years ahead.
Borg and Connors and McEnroe and Lendl knew how to fight and entertain, but the best player of the lot (Borg) didn’t stick around long enough to establish his legend in the stratosphere. Lendl is an historically underrated player, but he did lose all those major finals while enduring his Wimbledon curse. McEnroe burned out, an artist whose creativity was as fragile as it was brilliant once he reached a certain point in his career. As remarkable as he in fact was, Connors won only three majors outside New York and the U.S. Open. Even though he didn’t travel to Australia for a tournament whose prestige didn’t rise to a higher level until 1988, Connors still missed out a lot on the French Open and Wimbledon.
Never before has men’s tennis featured such dominance — primarily at the majors, but also in its second tier of tournaments — among a small group at the top. Never before has this sport formed such a brick wall, keeping underdogs out of the premises with near-total regularity. If one or two members of this Big Three faltered or suffered an injury, the other was there to hold the fort.
Each player could retire as the historical leader on one surface. Rafa is “El Rey de Clay,” Federer the top brass on grass, Djokovic poised to become the Elite of Concrete if he can stack together just two more hardcourt majors in the coming years. (He currently trails Federer in hardcourt major titles, 9-8, but he’s likely to hit 10 before he’s done.)
Getting tired of all these milestones?
They do all tend to blur together, don’t they?
Yet, that’s precisely the point: It’s impossible to keep track.
We were dazzled by Borg and McEnroe and Lendl and Connors 35 years ago, but we weren’t bewildered by the extent to which they swallowed up the record book.
Maybe the tennis fan of 2016 lives with a mindset that’s different from the tennis fan of 1981, but if the record books define a sport’s history, this era of men’s tennis has defined the profession with a sweep and scope we’ve never seen before… and won’t soon see again.
This is the Golden Era — no, it’s not a fact, but if ever an opinion felt like a fact, it does today, after Novak Djokovic completed one of this group’s final (and few) historical loopholes.