Another season of tennis has come and gone and so has another unanswered call for the younger generation to snatch the sport from the grasp of the old masters.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal shared 2017’s four grand-slam tournaments. It’s hardly far-fetched thinking to surmise that if they had played more tennis before the season-ending ATP Finals, one of them would have lifted that trophy too.
In the end, 26-year-old Grigor Dimitrov was the victor in London but the preceding 11 months still very much belonged to the Swiss superstar and his Spanish friendly foe.
This narrative is only a slight variation of almost every tennis season since 2004.
Out of the last 56 grand-slam men’s singles titles since then, Federer and Nadal have won 34 between them, Novak Djokovic has 12, while the remaining 10 have been shared between Gastón Gaudio, Marat Safin, Andy Murray, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka.
Nadal and Federer play tennis very differently, but both are spectacular in their own right. Regardless of what happens in the coming years, they have cemented themselves as legends of the game. They shouldn’t still be dominating though.
Federer is 36. From as far back as 2013 he has struggled with serious knee and back injuries that have prevented him from training and playing as much as he would like. He also has the welcome distraction of being a father to two sets of twins.
Nadal is 31 and isn’t a father (he’s not even married), but problems with his wrist, back and knees have forced him to him adopt a limited schedule to prolong his career.
Yet, despite all of this, these guys continue to win. They are still good. Very, very good. And they still entertain. The Australian Open final they contested this year was a magnificent coupling of skill and drama that will be hard to forget. However, they are not the players they once were and a mediocre younger generation is allowing them to win trophies they shouldn’t really be winning.
To provide context as to the lack of emerging talent, get this; Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev are the only two players inside the top 30 who are aged 22 or younger. Furthermore, the average age of the top 10 is 28.
Nadal was 19 when he won the French Open in 2005. Federer was 21 when he won his first grand-slam title at Wimbledon in 2003.
Why cant the youth get it done? Federer has criticised them for not being brave enough to vary their playing styles in order to try and disrupt the status quo. He singled out their reluctance to get to the net and shorten points as one of the primary reasons that none of them have won a grand-slam tournament yet.
For a long time, Federer and Nadal were sublime and were worthy of every piece of praise they got for being the flag bearers of tennis’ golden era. However, they are not the same players anymore and while their continued success must be applauded, it must also be understood in the context of a prosaic, younger generation.