Another magnificent victory from Rafael Nadal in Paris was offset by the sense that the tennis clock has stopped. The hierarchy of the sport remains unchanging, an autocratic regime that ruthlessly suppresses all challengers.
Much mileage remains in the race to finish with the most majors, especially as Nadal has closed to within two of Roger Federer’s tally for the first time since he opened his account in 2005. The women’s game – where the draws are contrastingly open and unpredictable – can only envy this historic set of rivalries.
Even so, there cannot help but be a hint of longueurs about watching an event for the 12th time, however brilliant Nadal’s all-court game might have been on Sunday afternoon. While French TV’s viewing figures for the men’s final replicated 2018’s 3.3m, they have been steadily shrinking from around 5m in the early years of this decade.
Nadal is only part of the story. Novak Djokovic had won the three previous majors, while Federer will be among the favourites to lift a ninth Wimbledon title in just over a month’s time. The point is that the Big Three have dominated tennis – with a little help from Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka – for ten years and more.
Four or five seasons ago, there was a popular theory that the “Big Four” – as they were then – would soon be reaching the end of their lease, and were about to be eclipsed by rising stars like Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic.
Yet that prediction fell flat, and even though we keep identifying eye-catching young talents, not one of them has yet been able to disrupt tennis’s establishment. Sunday’s French Open was the 11th straight major to be claimed by a thirty-something male.
During the tournament, host broadcasters Eurosport organised a 30th anniversary celebration breakfast, inviting some of their most eminent commentators. During a chat over coffee and croissants, one felt a sense of déjà vu – or, more precisely, deja entendu. We keep having the same conversations every time we meet.
“There’s a certain mentality that they [the younger players] don’t have yet, that the other three just have,” said Boris Becker, who famously won Wimbledon at 17. “It’s not the forehands. It’s not the fitness. It’s a certain attitude that makes the difference between winning and losing.
“I was just reading a stat from a colleague that no active player under 28 apart from [Dominic] Thiem” – Nadal’s victim on Sunday – “has been in a grand-slam final. That is not good. That is not a compliment for anybody under 28. And don’t give me that the others are too good. We should question the quality and the attitude of everybody under 28. It just doesn’t make sense.”
At least tennis fans can now point to a new, fresher-faced gang of three who occupy the places from No. 4 to No. 6 on the rankings ladder. Thiem is the most experienced member at 25, followed by 22-year-old Alexander Zverev and 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. Collectively, they have not yet built up the same thick scar tissue as the likes of Dimitrov.
Even so, there is one problem that keeps recurring. Beat Djokovic, Nadal or Federer in a best-of-five showdown, and you usually have to play another legend. Think of Tsitsipas in Melbourne four-and-a-half months ago or Thiem just this last weekend. On both occasions, their initial delight resembled that of Napoleon, after he had defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny. Just a matter of hours later, each man was chewed up by Nadal in their own personal tennis Waterloo.
“As much as I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak – who else?” asked Becker last week. “Show up. Give me something I want to talk about. Eventually they will be too old. But you want to see passing of the torch while they are still in their prime. You want to see Stefanos and Dominic beating them when they are still very, very good.
“There will be a ‘Wow’ moment,” added Becker, in relation to the period of adjustment that will inevitably follow a new world order. “But we said the same thing with McEnroe/Connors, Agassi/Sampras. There will be a dip and then the spotlight will be on the young generation to say ‘Who are you? Are you good enough, can you carry the sport, or was it all a bluff?’”