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Did Wimbledon 2021 mark the end of an era?

The Big Three rivalry seems to be over as Novak Djokovic marches on. Ashleigh Barty's win could mark the beginning of an exciting rivalry with Naomi Osaka

Ashleigh Barty holds the winner's Venus Rosewater Dish trophy after winning her women's singles match against Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova.
Ashleigh Barty holds the winner's Venus Rosewater Dish trophy after winning her women's singles match against Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova. (AFP)

Last year, Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since the World Wars. This year, two of the sports’ biggest names, Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal, had announced that they would not be playing before the draw was even made. Days before the tournament started, the champion of 2019, Simona Halep, pulled out because of a calf injury.

All this made for an ominous start, but sports and the magic of full stadiums have a way of rising above bad news. When ‘the fortnight’ ended, history had been made. Novak Djokovic had continued his triumphal march to equal Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s 20 Grand Slam titles, while Ashleigh Barty’s win repeated history in perfect symmetry. Her victory came exactly 50 years after her mentor, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, was triumphant at Wimbledon. After Djokovic won, images flashed on social media of the 60 titles amassed by the big three of this era, comparing that tally with the 59 garnered by a constellation of stars including Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras.

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This was followed by a ritualistic round of fans giving thanks for bearing witness to what many view as a golden era for tennis. Yet, it is also now clear that the best is behind us in terms of great rivalries. Men’s tennis is a unipolar world that revolves around Djokovic. On Sunday, his coach Goran Ivanišević even theorised that the Serb could win 30 Grand Slam titles. McEnroe predicted a more modest 25.

Wimbledon 2021 had begun with plenty of forecasts, many of them worrying. Centre Court this year featured grass that was unusually slippery and took down all the top stars as if a celestial prankster was yanking them around in a tragic-comic puppet show. Serena Williams was forced to withdraw as a result, while Federer slipped and missed a volley in the second set tiebreaker during his quarter-final match against Hubert Hurkacz, and crashed out of the tournament soon after. The courts also played noticeably slower than before. A slower, higher bounce has been true for years now. Along with rackets and strings that favour playing from the baseline, this has reduced serve and volley tennis from 37% of all points played 20 years ago to about 4-5% this year. Commentators exulted when the Italian Matteo Berrettini served and volleyed for the first time – in the final. Increasingly, the best place to watch serve and volley tennis at the All England Club is at the Wimbledon museum.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the winner's trophy after beating Italy's Matteo Berrettini during the Wimbledon men's singles final.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the winner's trophy after beating Italy's Matteo Berrettini during the Wimbledon men's singles final. (AFP)

The other omen hanging over Wimbledon was a problem that seemed solved just months ago; the rise of Generation Next. The erratic performance of Stefanos Tsitsipas, who reached the French Open finals in June, and Dominic Thiem’s continuing year from hell since he won the US Open last September, was alarming. After all, tennis needs rivalries to sustain spectators’ interest. That is what made the matches between Borg and McEnroe or between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic so addictively watchable. Tsitsipas sounded beaten at the pre-tournament press conference. Fresh from his win on grass in Mallorca just before Wimbledon, Daniil Medvedev, the second seed, looked in good from before being upended in the round of 16 by 24 year-old Hurkacz, who then went on to defeat Federer in the quarter finals. Anyone who watched the delightful matches that led to Indian American Samir Banerjee, 17, winning the junior boys title will wish we could speed up time to see if he has what it takes to win on the men’s tour.

Also Read: Is Novak Djokovic already the best tennis player of his era?

In a reflective media session at the All England Club the Saturday before Wimbledon started, Federer recounted a conversation he had with Pete Sampras over a decade ago, when Federer was just about to turn 30. Sampras had asked then how much more Federer had “in the tank.” This year, the Swiss has looked like his tank is running close to empty and that his famously flawless forehand was misfiring as often as not.

His loss to Hurkacz looked almost a rerun of his loss on grass in Halle in June to the Canadian Felix Auger Aliassime, who will turn 21 on the day Federer turns 40 on 8 August. Meanwhile, Djokovic’s dismantling of Nadal at Roland Garros last month, which included a run of six straight games at the end, may also mean he has begun to mentally dominate the Spaniard just as Federer did versus Nadal on fast courts after his victory at the Australian Open in 2017. In other words, the Big Three rivalry could be over. As Ivanišević boasted on Sunday, the Greatest-Of-All-Time debate certainly is.

Also Read: Ashleigh Barty's amazing grace

Ashleigh Barty’s win at Wimbledon, though, could mean the resurgence of a rivalry in women’s tennis with Naomi Osaka, something that the women’s game has missed for years now. Since 2018, Barty and Osaka have met just three times, with Osaka winning twice on hard courts and Barty winning once on grass. If Barty’s Wimbledon win, only her second Grand Slam title after the French in 2019, gives her the confidence to routinely make Grand Slam finals, their different styles and personalities would make for a spectacular match-up. Serena Williams’ quest to equal Margaret Court’s tally of 24 Grand Slam titles now looks implausible, especially since Williams is turning 40 later this year. More than ever, women’s tennis needs a narrative. While doing commentary last week, the former British player Annabel Croft and 18-time Grand Slam winner Martina Navratilova were unwilling to make predictions, even at the stage of the quarter-finals, on who might win the tournament. After all, inconsistency at Slams has become routine among the top women with the exception of Osaka.

The good news is that Osaka, the reigning Australian and US Open champion, sounds more upbeat than when she pulled out of the French Open in May, saying that she wanted to protect her mental health. Osaka chose not to play at Wimbledon for the same reason, along with her continuing objection to post-match press conferences. In a Time magazine cover essay last week, Osaka, the highest paid female athlete in the world, said she was buoyed by the support of her fans, her “brand partners” and people such as Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle. “It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does,” Osaka wrote. “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up, I may have saved a life.” Last week, Mattel launched a Naomi Osaka Barbie doll as part of its role model series. Osaka’s Time essay made clear, however, that she has no intention of attending post-match press conferences as all other stars of the game routinely do. This leaves her on a collision course with the Grand Slams in particular.

Also Read: Who said what at Wimbledon 2021

Also on course for an off-court clash is Djokovic. In late June, he said that his plans to set up a rival players union are moving along speedily. Djokovic believes that players ranked outside the top 100 are paid too little and have difficulty making ends meet, a predicament made worse by the pandemic. A New York Times report at the end of June confirmed that Djokovic’s union has financial backing from a renowned American hedge fund manager and Canadian tycoons. A showdown with the existing Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which is backed solidly by Federer and Nadal, has been simmering for some time and now seems inevitable. The big four tournaments will be drawn into the battle. Rousing cheers and a full house on Centre Court last weekend may have suggested otherwise, but like all golden eras, tennis’ is coming to an end.

Rahul Jacob is a former South China correspondent for the Financial Times.

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