By Christopher Clarey
Men’s and women’s tennis are in drastically different phases. The men have a triopoly that could quickly transform into a monopoly if Novak Djokovic stays fresh and focused. The women have something closer to mob rule with new winners emerging at a madcap clip.
In the past 12 Grand Slam tournaments, the women have had eight first-time major singles champions. Joining that list Saturday at the Australian Open was Sofia Kenin, an assured American seeded just 14th.
In the past 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the men haven’t had any first-time major singles champions.
Nonetheless, the winners in Melbourne did share some common ground.
Djokovic and Kenin both had to come back to win in their finals, staring down break points and playing boldly when it mattered most.
Both have been visualizing success since their rackets were nearly as tall as they were.
Kenin was a wide-eyed 6-year-old in 2005 when a film crew recorded the personal tour she was given of the Miami Open by Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters. A year later, she was giving interviews and talking about becoming No. 1 (why she was giving interviews at age 7 is another question).
Djokovic never got that kind of early exposure, but when he was 7, he fashioned a makeshift Wimbledon trophy and staged a mock victory ceremony even though he came from a family of Alpine skiers, not tennis players, in Serbia.
“Visualizing that victory was a very powerful source of energy that was paving the way for me to actually achieve that one day,” Djokovic said in December. “It’s 100% possible, but you have to feel it in the heart, not just in your mind.”
Perhaps the heart — and a tremendous amount of practice and conditioning — helps explain why men in their 30s continue to dominate. Younger stars like Dominic Thiem have to know in their heads by now that they have the firepower and skills to rival the Big Three: Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Thiem, 26, has beaten each of them on more than one surface and has beaten Nadal and Djokovic in best-of-five-set Grand Slam play. But he is now 0-3 in Grand Slam finals after his loss to Djokovic late Sunday night.
It was a five-setter that was more epic in length than mood, with Thiem failing to push Djokovic for long at the end of the fourth set or the fifth. The suspense never approached the high-anxiety levels of last year’s Wimbledon final, when Djokovic beat Federer in a tiebreaker after they won 12 games each in the fifth set, a first for a Wimbledon final. Sunday’s duel also fell short of the five-set U.S. Open final in September, when Daniil Medvedev, 23, rallied from two sets down to push Nadal remarkably close to his physical limits.
But the theme remained the same: the old guard holding off new blood, though now just barely.
“I think it’s only small details,” Thiem said. “It could have gone either way for Daniil in the U.S. Open and for me here.”
The blockade of Grand Slam ports is still real.
“It’s unique in sports history that the three best players by far are playing in the same era,” Thiem said. “That’s what makes it very, very difficult for players to break through.”
It is, of course, not quite right to proclaim the Big Three the best ever based on their major-tournament counts. Stars in earlier eras often skipped the Australian Open or turned professional, rendering themselves ineligible for the Grand Slam tournaments, which were reserved for “amateurs” until 1968. It is only since the mid-1990s that participating in all four of the events has become the rule.
Federer, the oldest of the Big Three at 38, holds the men’s record of 20 singles titles. Nadal has 19 and Djokovic has 17. The next best active players in Grand Slam titles are Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray with three apiece.
The French Open, the next major on the calendar, seems the logical place for Nadal to win his 20th. He has won a far-fetched 12 singles titles on the red clay in Paris. Djokovic and Thiem are likely to pose big threats, but even if Nadal succeeds, that does not mean Djokovic won’t soon catch him and Federer.
Djokovic wants the record and also wants Federer’s record for total time at No. 1. Djokovic reclaimed the top ranking from Nadal by winning here and is now in his 276th week at No. 1, behind Pete Sampras with 286 weeks and Federer with 310. Federer’s tenure once seemed untouchable; Djokovic could surpass it in October.
“The No. 1 was not really in the equation for me until I successfully finished as the year-end No. 1 for several years in a row,” Djokovic said of the record. “That’s one of the two biggest goals for sure. I mean, there is no secret in that.”
At the end of the 2009 season, the top three players in the rankings were, in order, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. This week, a decade later, the order is Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
That the names have not changed, only the order, is unprecedented. It also helps explain why only seven men have won major singles titles since the start of the 2006 season. During that same span, there have been 25 different women’s Grand Slam singles champions.
The temptation is to attribute the disparity to the men playing best-of-five sets and the women best of three with the shorter format lending itself more easily to upsets. But best of three did not keep Serena Williams from winning 23 major singles titles and twice winning four majors in a row.
Federer has speculated that the switch to 32 seeds instead of 16, which came in 2001 at the majors, was also a factor in the increased stability at the top. But the women also have 32 seeds.
It seems, above all, cyclical, and Williams’ decline has coincided with a new generation’s rise. Ashleigh Barty is 23, Naomi Osaka is 22, Kenin is 21 and Bianca Andreescu is 19. All of them have won majors in the past 13 months, and best of luck to those who want to predict the winner at upcoming majors.
Kenin, a Russian-born American, was hardly an unknown threat. She won three tournaments last season and also defeated Barty when she was No. 1 in Toronto and Osaka the following week when she was No. 1 in Cincinnati.
Kenin is at her best on hard courts but had not been past the fourth round in a major tournament before. In Melbourne, she defeated the fastest-rising young talent in the game, 15-year-old Coco Gauff. She then beat Barty, who was seeded No. 1 and had huge Australian crowd support. In the final, Kenin faced down the more powerful and aggressive Garbiñe Muguruza, a former French Open and Wimbledon champion.
It was quite a run, and the pièce de résistance was the fifth game of the third set of the final. At 2-2 and down 0-40, Kenin produced four groundstroke winners and an ace to hold serve. “That game is going to be with me forever,” Kenin said.
Now ranked No. 7, she could become a top 10 regular if she remains healthy, but to surmise that she is now ready to dominate is a stretch. She has pluck and a serve that is surprisingly hard to attack. She has exquisite timing from the baseline, an improved forehand and a nasty drop shot. The past two weeks she was unflappable. But others have bigger weapons and more speed, and others, like Andreescu, have shown a knack of their own for coming up big on the grand occasion.
“Sonya hates to lose,” said Alex Kenin, her father and coach, using her nickname. “It’s just not an option, so she just refused to do that.”
No one likes losing, of course, and his daughter, for all her fire and hunger, will surely no longer catch any would-be champion by surprise.