2005-2017: The greatest era in the history of tennis?
2017 has been a surprising year in tennis, to say the least. After a Grand Slam drought in the preceding two years of 2015 and 2016, the old lions, the two GOATs came back roaring to split the four Grand Slams between them.
Enough has been written about how Rafa Nadal and Roger have dominated the tennis landscape in the last decade and how they are probably the greatest players that have ever played the game.
But what has probably escaped attention has been that this era of tennis has seen the fewest number of Grand Slam champions. What this means is that from 2005 to 2017 (a 13-year gap), the 52 Grand Slams have been won by just eight players i.e. Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Marat Safin).
If you scrounge through the past years winner lists, there isn't another 13-year period or even a decade in the last century where the number of grand slam winners is that few. The closest is the 1920's, where the Grand Slam winners in total have been 11.
The top 4-5 players have played a level of tennis that has been difficult to match up for the rest. But the genesis to this concentration of Grand slams has been due to the original maestros Roger and Rafa, whose dizzying craftsmanship gave birth to the Novaks, Stans and Murrays who probably would not have hit those levels had it not been for the blazing standards set by the two.
What does that mean for a tennis fan? For someone like me who started watching tennis from the days of Becker, Edberg and then marvelled at the Agassi-Sampras era, what always stood out was the depth in men’s tennis and how the Top 10 in the world on their day could beat each other.
A world #50 could easily upset the world #1 -- and this happened with regularity in the pre-2005 era. However, with Roger and Rafa pulling away from the pack with sheer talent and dominance, the gap within the Top 10 became very pronounced. Then Novak stepped up, raised his training and focus to inhuman levels and consistently broke the Rafa/Roger duopoly.
The gritty Murray, the graceful Wawrinka and the mercurial Del Potro also stamped their legacy during this era by becoming Slam champions. But none of them could match the longevity or the sheer consistency of the top dogs, Roger and Rafa.
Consider this: Rafa has won at least one Grand Slam in each of 10 consecutive years, which is a record. Roger has reached 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals and 36 consecutive Grand slam quarter-finals – that’s nine years of consistency which I don’t think will be replicated, ever.
Also consider this: it was 1905 when all four Grand slams became operational in one calendar year. After Rod Laver won the career Grand Slam in 1968, it took 31 years for Agassi to match it. In the next 17 years, 3 players have done the same – Roger, then Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, all of them within this 13-year golden era.
2018 may turn out to be the year when the guard changes with Zverev or Thiem taking over, or it may signal the return of Novak and Stan. Or it just might be the year of a final swansong in the Roger-Rafa rivalry. Nevertheless, it is the best era to be a tennis fan.