Matt Zemek

In 1985, a 17-year-old won Wimbledon.

In 1989, a 17-year-old won Roland Garros.

In 1979, a 20-year-old won the U.S. Open.

In 1990, a 19-year-old won the U.S. Open.

In 1975, a 19-year old won his SECOND Roland Garros title.

From Bjorn Borg in the mid-1970s, to John McEnroe, to Boris Becker, to Michael Chang, to Pete Sampras in 1990, men’s tennis produced a number of teenage and 20-year-old major champions. Of those five men I just mentioned, four were largely spent before turning 30. Borg burned out early, and McEnroe’s pilot light as a singles player similarly went out in his mid-20s. He made a few deep runs at majors late in his career, when in his early 30s, but nothing sustained. Chang was not a factor on tour after turning 26. Becker’s last great season was 1996, when he turned 29. Then he relatively quickly faded away. Only Sampras did anything substantial after turning 30, making the 2001 U.S. Open final and then delivering his unforgettable walk-off moment, the 2002 U.S. Open title in the last major he ever played, one month after his 31st birthday.

Yes, there once was a time when hitting 30 years old meant the end of the line — or something very close to it — for a professional tennis player. This was hardly an automatic or fixed rule, but deeper runs were more exceptional and less commonplace.

Early in the Open Era, a lot of the older players who lost anywhere from 5 to 15 years of opportunities at major tournaments wanted to return to Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and Forest Hills. Coinciding with those first years of the Open Era was the fact that three of the four majors were played on grass, and none on hardcourts. Yet, the U.S. Open moved to hardcourt in 1978, and the Australian Open did so a decade later in 1988. Suddenly, the composition of the four majors — and of the tour as a whole — had dramatically changed in ways which made tennis more physical and less comfortable. Hardcourts are much harder on joints and invite more attritional baseline tennis.

Is this why Jimmy Connors’ 1991 U.S. Open semifinal run at age 39 created such a sensation? Is this why Andre Agassi’s post-30 career was so inspirational? No, not entirely, and not even primarily… but the ground had shifted in tennis. Ken Rosewall made the Wimbledon AND U.S. Open finals in 1974 at age 39, and those moments aren’t nearly as celebrated by tennis media outlets — on television or in print — as Connors’ comparatively more modest feat in 1991. Agassi’s run to the 2005 U.S. Open final at age 35 was not ridiculous or absurd, but it was unexpected, and it was also the last great hurrah of his career.

When Agassi played his most consistent tennis after age 30, it seemed to some — if not many — that “old-man tennis” had been redefined for the modern age. Agassi found a sweet spot in terms of training, nutrition, practice habits, and tennis IQ. A career marked by severe shifts in quality — soaring for a few seasons and then cratering, only to repeat the cycle — found stability after 30, not before it. Yet, if Pete Sampras — in 1990 — ended a decade-and-a-half-long period in which teens and 20-year-olds continuously won huge championships, it was hard to think that Agassi’s brilliance in 2005 was ending another decade-and-a-half period in which tennis careers ended fairly early. Agassi’s old-man excellence (in tennis terms) did not seem, at the time, to herald a new age in which elite champions would remain elite well into their 30s.

Here we are, nearly a decade and a half removed from 2005. It took a little longer for this new reality to emerge, but it has arrived: Longevity has in fact been redefined in tennis, such that the greatest players can hit age 32, 35, 37, and still be on top of their game, with few immediate signs of slowing down.

Did Rafael Nadal see himself when he looked across the net at Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday in the Toronto final? You would have to ask him that question. Yet, for those of us watching from a press box or — in my case — on television while I cleaned floors and bookshelves in advance of a family dinner with my brother and some of my mother’s friends, the sense of symbolic significance was powerful.

In the same year when Agassi forged his final masterful moments as a tennis player, Rafael Nadal was busy rewriting the book on late-teenage excellence in men’s tennis. He joined Borg (among others) as a teenage winner of the French Open. He piled up Masters titles on clay and showed how durable and consistent he could be.

Chang’s French Open title, as historic and special as it was, turned out to be his only major title. He would not rate as an example of a player who won a teenage major title and become a next-level star. The other examples mentioned earlier in this piece would qualify — Becker, McEnroe, Borg and Sampras all springboarded from their early-age major titles to forge careers with at least six major titles if not more, stuffing their resumes with trophies and laurels.

While Agassi wrote his old-man story of longevity in 2005, Nadal wrote long chapters of the next great late-teen superstar story on the ATP Tour. Novak Djokovic deserves to be included in this discussion — he won the 2008 Australian Open at age 20 and was a consistent factor on tour at that point in time — but Nadal obviously set a higher standard for late-teen quality in the 21st century. The exceptional nature of Nadal’s early-career mastery of tennis has created the question fans love to to ask:

“Who will be the next great young ATP player?”

No, this should not be framed as “The Next Nadal,” because there won’t be — there can’t be — a next Nadal. No one is like him, and no one WILL be like him. In broader terms, however, it is enticing and fascinating to wonder when another very young player will put all the pieces together in this sport.

Sascha Zverev has done so to a degree, but it is plain that he is still learning a lot about how to maximize his game at the majors. He is pointing in the right direction, but steadily, not rapidly, on a slow incline and not a steep one.

Dominic Thiem is 24, soon to turn 25, and he is a clay-court specialist at this point. He has needed a long time just to master the finer points of clay tennis. He remains lost on other surfaces.

Nick Kyrgios? Until he solves his fitness problems, he won’t be a serious contender, in spite of his immense talent.

Borna Coric shows flickers of quality but is nowhere near the top of the sport.

Denis Shapovalov has been knocked back a peg or two in 2018 — not unexpectedly. He has a lot to process.

Emerging from these youngsters in 2018 is Stefanos Tsitsipas. He registered a first big win when he thrashed Thiem on Barcelona clay and made an ATP 500 final against Nadal. Tsitsipas’s game flowed very naturally on clay. He dismantled Shapovalov in Monte Carlo and was a step ahead of same-age peers with similar levels of talent. Thiem avenged the Barcelona loss against Tsitsipas at Roland Garros, but the Greek still made Thiem work for a four-set win which was hardly routine.

Coming from the clay season, it was easy to think that Tsitsipas — who had already exceeded expectations for 2018 by climbing so highly in the rankings — would lose his edge in the process of moving to other surfaces.

Instead, he has not only remained consistent, but improved. His run to the Toronto final — winning four straight matches against top-10 players, three of them in three sets, one of them against Novak Djokovic — is well documented, but it is well worth reminding you that he made the round of 16 at Wimbledon as well. Tsitsipas has done well on three separate surfaces this season, on multiple continents. He has shown that he can win away from his home continent, something Shapovalov — a Canadian — hasn’t done to the same extent. (Shapo made the semis in Madrid, but Madrid is often an outlier when tennis results are discussed.)

Is Tsitsipas — not Zverev, not Shapo, not Kyrgios — the real deal and the true torchbearer for young tennis players in modern times? The question might not be easy to answer, but the question itself is impossible to avoid asking.

When Nadal looked across the net, HE — Rafa — might not have inwardly thought that he was staring both into the future and his own luminous past, but a lot of fans certainly wondered.

Then the match started.

Nadal would have polished off a very routine 2-and-4 victory had he not committed four unforced errors when serving for the match at *5-4 in the third. He won 27 of his first 28 service points on Sunday, an indication of how well he was able to bounce back on short rest after his rain-delayed semifinal win over Karen Khachanov late Saturday (and early Sunday). As was the case with the Kevin Anderson-Novak Djokovic Wimbledon final, one man was very used to making the turnaround from a long or delayed match in the previous round, and the other wasn’t. So it also was in this case.

Yes, Nadal had a much shorter turnaround to this final, but Tsitsipas had never previously endured anything on the scale of what he faced in Toronto, winning a series of long matches in summer sun and heat against elite players. This wasn’t his first ATP final, and it wasn’t even his first ATP final against Nadal, since Barcelona had already checked that box. Yet, the larger experience of managing a full week against top-10 players was new, and it showed.

Nadal had been through this rodeo, Tsitsipas hadn’t. It mattered.

Nadal overcame his hiccup at *5-4, overcame more nervous errors to save a set point, and restored order in the second-set tiebreaker to bring home a 33rd Masters title and 80th overall title. The man who redefined late-teenage excellence in the modern era of men’s tennis prevented his opponent, Tsitsipas, from forging the kind of feat Rafa achieved 13 years ago, in 2005.

Nadal was intent on winning a championship on Sunday. His tunnel-vision focus enables him to focus on the essentials, while fans and commentators discuss the outside details. One of those “outside details” was the reality that Nadal — great in his teens, 20s and 30s — was standing in the way of Tsitsipas, a player intent on catapulting himself into the realm of legitimate stardom.

One could make the case that Tsitsipas is already a star. In Greece, he certainly is. Globally, I’m not sure he meets that definition YET, but I don’t even intend to litigate that question. What I mean to emphasize here is that if Tsitsipas had beaten Nadal to win a FIFTH straight match over a top-10 player and claim a first Masters title on his 20th birthday, the Greek WOULD have become a genuine star on the ATP Tour. He definitely would have had “The Moment” when a young player becomes marked with the sign of greatness, akin to Sascha Zverev beating Djokovic in the 2017 Rome final, or Roger Federer beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, just before turning 20.

Nadal wasn’t thinking about the importance of preventing that “Moment” from occurring, but just the same, it remains that Nadal DID prevent that moment, which in turn reinforces how rare and special it is that Nadal mastered so much of tennis before turning 20. Now 32, Nadal is still reflecting that mastery at a fuller and higher level.

How we view youth and how we view older age in tennis have been the central themes of this column. Stefanos Tsitsipas tried to steer the discussion back toward youth in Toronto, but the man who once redefined youthful quality in men’s tennis is now teaching lessons to young pups. He is now the instructor who is reminding us how tough it is to break through as a young man in a sport which is no longer a young man’s game… and must still wait for that next big plot twist which changes the balance of power in men’s tennis.

Source: Chris Hyde/Getty Images AsiaPac


1 comment

  1. Very nice piece, Matt. I’d be glad to see Tsitsipas become the Real Deal, but of course one has to be circumspect at this point, given the trajectories of so many players from the Dimitrov-Raonic generation onward. (It’s particularly sad that Dimitrov has had such an underwhelming year after winning Cincy and the year-end final last year.)

    One minor mistake: Becker won 6 majors (you have him listed in the group that won 7 or more)


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