London: In the months after the pandemic ended, the American Christopher Eubanks contemplated a change in career. His ranking in men’s singles had fallen to the mid 200s. The 6’7” African American with a huge serve started doing commentary on Tennis Channel. In a twist of fate, the task of match analysis helped him iron out the kinks in his game. He won the grass court warm up in Mallorca the week before Wimbledon to push his ranking to the low 40s. As Wimbledon entered the quarterfinals stage, the once little-known but instantly popular Eubanks led the tally of having struck the most winners (247) in the tournament. More consequentially, he had knocked out two seeds, home favourite Cameron Norrie, seeded 12th, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, the fifth seed to reach the last eight.
Roman Safiullin’s path to the quarters was much less dramatic but he beat Denis Shapopolov, the Canadian known for a game that is recklessly spectacular. Among the many remarkable numbers generated at tennis tournaments these days, alongside Eubank’s winner tally and a staggering 22% of all his serves being unreturnable, the one associated with Safiullin was simple enough. It was 92, the ranking the unheralded Russian had at the start of the tournament.
The performance of both players in a men’s tournament full of upsets was emblematic of the incredible depth in the men’s game. Wimbledon this year was famously the first in which we actually had to live in a tennis world without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after dreading the prospect for years. Yet, Wimbledon offered reassurance that there are plenty of players capable of fireworks of their own kind who cumulatively, if not individually, fill the huge void. Even as an agnostic, I am now certain there is a God who answers tennis prayers.
Everywhere one looked there were reminders of the diverse talent in tennis. The Pole Hubert Hurkacz, ranked 18 in the world, had Centre Court gasping late on Sunday night and on Monday as he thumped down seemingly effortless aces past Novak Djokovic, the best returner in the game. He lost in four sets so close that if one had turned a few points around, the result would have been different. As impressive as Hurkacz’s heavy hitting and efficient forays to the net was his sportsmanship. His friendly words with Djokovic when the Serb fell on the net trying to put a volley away early in the match and his gestures of concern when Djokovic slipped badly in the second half of the match a few times were touching. A profound politeness now pervades the men’s game. It is the very opposite of sledging in cricket and the hurly burly of football.
Two of tennis’ much discussed gen next—Carlos Alcaraz and the Italian Jannik Sinner—display this charm in the post-match Q&A introduced in Wimbledon a few years ago. Sinner, the gangly red-haired Italian, is 21 but looks like a clumsy teenager whose limbs have grown too fast. Until you see him on court, where he sprints like a cheetah. When he hits a forehand, the sound is of a gunshot because his timing and racket speed is exceptional.
After Sinner wins a point, he allows himself a quiet raised fist. He played to packed houses on Court 3 and Court 1, and chants of “Jannik Jannik” rang out. After his round of 16 match against a Colombian Daniel Galan, Sinner even apologised to the crowd for quietly arguing with the umpire twice about what were, in fact, very questionable decisions. Sinner is completely unassuming but that is part of his charisma. Early at Wimbledon, there were five men dressed as carrots who attend tournaments in Europe and were at Wimbledon early on as a kind of cheerleading squad for the Italian. The strange dress is a tribute to Sinner’s red hair and fondness for snacking on carrots.
Alcaraz’s game and demeanour is much more dramatic. He has Nadal’s swashbuckling spirit and the stroke-making ability of Federer, who he idolised growing up. The rapturous reception accorded him on Centre Court suggests the crowds are impatient to crown him king at Wimbledon. And tennis is lucky enough now to have a brat in the mix: the Dane Holger Rune, who has exchanged angry words with the Swiss Stan Wawrinka and hurled homophobic slurs at another opponent, all in the past 12 eventful months of his rapid rise.
Indeed, it is the depth and variety of the field that leads to an addictive unpredictability, akin to being at a casino. Last week, I found myself squeezed into the tiny press and players box on Court 18 with ninth-seed Taylor Fritz’s father and coach. It started out as a routine second round match for the American, who beat Nadal to win the prestigious Indian Wells title last year. Fritz cantered to a two sets lead. By the fourth and fifth sets, however, Fritz was turning to his box, shrugging in disbelief as the young Swede Mikael Ymer blasted winners. Given Fritz’s far superior fast-court record, the result was even more unexpected than the gap of 40-odd places between them in rankings would have suggested. When I asked the veteran tennis writer Richard Evans how the depth of today’s field compared with yesteryear, he said the 500th player today was probably better than those ranked No.10 from the 1960s and 1970s. Tennis should count its blessings.
Rahul Jacob is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.