Beginnings happen very quickly in tennis. During a spell of dominance, for instance, it can be hard to remember what the landscape of the sport looked like beforehand. The last time Iga Świątek lost a match, it was February. Ash Barty was the world #1 then, and had you told any tennis fan she’d be retiring in a month, you’d have been laughed at.
Doesn’t that seem like a completely different universe? Barty’s retirement aside, all that’s really happened since February is that Świątek clicked into warrior-robot mode and stopped losing tennis matches. That singular event, though, has totally altered what the sport looks like. We’re now living in the Świątek era, where her supremacy is so total that it’s difficult to remember how things felt before she became what she is now. Such beginnings separate tennis history into befores and afters. Roger Federer’s rise in 2003 ushered in the Big Three era; before he rose to prominence, men’s tennis was a mishmosh of one-time major winners, aging legends, and “which American man will be the successor of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi?” (Answer 1A turned out to be Andy Roddick; answer 1B was “awkward silence”.) It’s night and day, but those two extremes aren’t separated by much.
Carlos Alcaraz is another bridge between eras — for years, no, over a decade, tennis fans and pundits lamented the weakness of the next generation in men’s tennis. “Who will dethrone the Big Three?” rang out as young guy after young guy tried and failed to ascend to that elusive top level. After Alcaraz played a couple good matches, it was obvious to everyone that he was the guy they were waiting for, whether he made the most of his many gifts or not. All that waiting, and then the payoff emerged quickly enough to not just extinguish the flame of anticipation but turn it on itself.
Endings work differently than beginnings. When a great tennis player is faltering, the media can be ruthless, but there’s also an obligatory grace period before everyone declares that the next era has begun. The first uncharacteristic loss is just that, a reminder that the champion is human, that they can lose, after all. The second is weirder, and it gets people talking, but it’s hardly a death knell. Decline is usually a slow process — if you’re good enough to dominate tennis at your best, your 80% is easily enough to keep you relevant. Brian Phillips constantly marveled at how long Federer spent in the “still” phase, where he was visibly not as good as he once was, but still had plenty of skills to work with.
Federer’s “still” phase didn’t end until 2019, and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are currently riding their own seemingly endless afterburners, keeping up with their full-speed rivals with ease. We are still in the era of legends — Nadal and Djokovic have won 14 of the last 17 majors. Younger guys have moved in to win everything from Masters 1000s to the World Tour Finals to even a major title here and there (Thiem in 2020, Medvedev in 2021) but the shift feels partially due to a tactical retreat from Djokovic and Nadal. They can feel their bodies groaning at tasks they would have once sung at, so they’re cunningly ceding territory that doesn’t matter as much as the rich fields everyone covets the most. As impressive as some of the NextGen are, you get the sense that they’re winning Masters 1000 titles as much due to Djokovic and Nadal’s indifference as their own good play.
This era is ending, but it’s been ending for over a decade, and it hasn’t actually ended yet. We’re watching it happen in real time; that finish line is on the horizon, but we can’t quite estimate when the runners are going to cross it. We can evaluate a conclusion almost before it arrives. Federer has expressed a desire to make a comeback later this year, and indeed play on through next season, but someone could probably write a fantastic Federer eulogy right now.
And it’s not just Federer — other big players like Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray are nowhere near the height of their powers and are unlikely to return, but they’re still kicking around on tour in hopes of getting something going, probably because they also understand that even their weakened kicks are as strong as others’ at full power. They, too, have completed the vast majority of their careers, but they insist on continuing, willing the finish line farther away in the distance.
Or take Serena Williams, who has had a long, glorious, career whose ending seems to be approaching. She recently announced that she’ll be playing with a wild card at Wimbledon, which the tennis world is over the moon about. The excitement isn’t due to the possibility that she could win the tournament — she hasn’t played a competitive match in almost a year now — it’s because she’s Serena Williams, a 23-time major champion who took tennis to levels no one knew it could have. (She was somehow simultaneously the best server and the best returner on tour, the insanity of which words cannot do justice.) She had her own still phase, making four major finals in the 2018-2019 period but coming away winless and setless. Currently unseeded, she will be a nightmare first-round draw for someone at Wimbledon, but she may not be more of a factor than that. She is still around because she wants to be, even though her invincibility has receded in the process.
My point is this: while breakout performances and the height of dominance can appear scripted in their splendor, endings rarely feel fitting from a viewer’s perspective. The 2002 U.S. Open is widely regarded as a sort of farewell victory for Pete Sampras, but he didn’t retire until late the following year. He lived in a victorious haze for months after his win, still feeling like he could contend for the biggest titles, only to discover that his will to compete had faded when he tried to train. He retired in late 2003 despite not having played a major after the 2002 victory in Flushing Meadows. “It may sound odd coming from a guy who was often said to lack emotion,” Sampras wrote in his lukewarm (it must be said) autobiography A Champion’s Mind, “but my decision to quit was an emotional one. The love of the battle had gone from my heart.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it’s not a cookie-cutter retirement. For all the uproar about legacy-tarnishing (which is not a thing) when a player refuses to “go out on top,” the reality is that it barely ever happens. Few tennis players care about preserving an invincible reputation after they retire — the goal is to squeeze every last drop out of their careers, and to do that, they have to play until invulnerability fades into fragility. The process is slow, like a renowned author writing book after book for hungry audiences until they gradually realize their series really isn’t as good as it used to be. By the end, players are always so different from how they were early in their careers — since 2003, Federer has seen his ponytail disappear, his forehand and movement get worse, his serve and backhand get better, and his rivals grow from upstarts into fellow titans of destruction. Does today’s Roger Federer — or even the 2019 version, when he was still active and capable of beating anyone — resemble his 2003 self much at all? He’s a ship that’s replaced its flag eight times, its mast six, its hull five, and its crew once. Is it the same ship? The fact that the question can even be asked is all the answer I need.
To me, none of this is a bad thing. Love for a player, I think, tends to be immune to renovations in game style or a trophy flow slowing. It can be scary to watch players we care about changing before they retire, but really, they’re the same as us — they miss the glory days and want to get them back. Even when they try for so long that it becomes obvious to everyone and their goats that the lost peaks are never going to make a reappearance, a side effect is that we get to watch these players for longer. The trade-off is more than worth it.