By Isabel Wing
I do not need Novak Djokovic to watch tennis.
The drama at the yet-to-begin Australian Open over the weekend has raised a lot of questions for fans and government officials alike. Why did Novak receive an exemption? Did he really have covid-19 less than a month ago? Is it necessary to hold him in a migrant hotel? Is he really Jesus?
It’s been implied in the chaos that Craig Tiley assisted Djokovic with his exemption because Tiley felt the tournament would suffer without the world number one. His fans in Australia would not attend matches if he wasn’t there, or those viewing at home wouldn’t tune in for the final if Novak weren’t there to fight for his historic 21st Grand Slam. Even Nick Kyrgios, currently ranked 93rd, said “For the sport we need him here. He’s one of the most influential sports people probably of all time.”
I’m not here to argue Djokovic’s influence on sports or vaccines. However, if Tiley and Kyrgios think that tennis would suffer without him, I am here to say they are wrong.
I have been watching tennis since I was in the womb, having come to consciousness around 2003 when Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon. I have been hooked on the sport ever since. When I proved to have little talent for it on the court, I dedicated myself to the history and fandom, becoming something of a walking encyclopedia for vintage matches, spouting off facts and opinions on players whenever someone asked what I was interested in (and sometimes when they didn’t ask). I have not missed a grand slam final in my adult life, whether I listened on the radio while driving across the country, awoke at three in the morning on a school night to turn on the television, or propped my phone on a stack of dirty dishes so I could watch while on the clock. When Roger, my forever favourite, began to slip away from finals and from tournaments altogether, I wondered if I would still love tennis without him.
As entertaining as it is to watch the Big Three play intense match after intense match against each other and fight for GOAT status, the last few years of men’s tennis have felt a bit drab. Djokovic destroying his enemies or Nadal handily beating everyone on clay felt like a roundabout I couldn’t get out of. There’s no joy in matches that were foregone conclusions from the first set. I started to pay more attention to smaller tournaments, looking for up-and-comers, trying to find the future of tennis. Women’s tennis has been leaning that way for many years since the arrival of players like Sloane Stephens, Ash Barty, and Naomi Osaka. Women’s tennis feels impossible to bet on with a new young woman coming out of nowhere and winning a Grand Slam event every year. Though watching someone fight for history and glory above the odds is exciting, as a fan I’m ready for a change. We have seen the top players on the men’s and women’s side fight for the most of everything for the last decade. Nadal has a record 13 French Open titles; he, Federer, and Djokovic are all tied at 20 grand slam titles a piece; Serena holds 23 Grand Slam titles. There is a never-ending debate on the men’s side of who is the GOAT. We may never come to agreement on that. At this point, I don’t care who the GOAT is, I just want to watch a good match.
In the last few years, there have been small surprises on the men’s side. Dominic Thiem getting a set off Nadal in the 2019 French Open final; Berrettini gaining a set in the 2021 Wimbledon final; and Daniil Medvedev getting two sets off Nadal in the 2019 US Open final, to name a few. The Next Gen players are slowly breaking apart the Big Three club and turning themselves into real threats. The 2021 French Open final between Djokovic and Tsitsipas was a doozy, and for a minute I thought we might see Stefanos swipe the 19th title away from Novak. It was not to be, but that didn’t make the match less exciting. When Daniil Medvedev soared through the 2021 U.S. Open final and took away Novak’s chance at a calendar slam, I was pleased. Not because Novak had lost; because I thought the future had arrived.
One of the finest matches I’ve seen in the last few years, however, didn’t include Nadal or Djokovic. At the 2020 US Open, with both top players out of the way, Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev took the stage for a five-set match. It was everything I could have asked for in a final. The fight for the first Next Gen Grand Slam event win; a heroic comeback from two sets down; a tiebreaker in the fifth. It was incredible, and not a Big Three player in sight.
Since that match, I have found more delight in men’s tennis. I want to see younger players win. Novak, Nadal, and Federer will always be legends; they have secured their status and we may never see such stars again in the sport, but we have seen all there is to see. I am not asking them to step aside and retire, they should play for as long as they are able to. But no matter who is playing, fans just want to see a good match. There will always be people who boycott tournaments if their favourite isn’t there, but that just means they aren’t fans of the sport, they are only fans of the player. There are enough lovers of tennis to maintain viewership, and Craig Tiley should have more respect for us. Tennis CEOs and conglomerates should trust that we will show up for our sport. Novak and his fans are not holding the world of tennis together. For us, tennis is greater than any individual.