In the 21st century, 18 different players have held the world number one in women’s tennis over a span of 19 years with the musical chair of players holding the number one position getting rotated 57 times among themselves. Out of them, only two could manage to cross the 100-week barrier cumulatively as world number one, Serena, of course, being one while her great rival Justine Henin being the other.
If Henin would not have retired at the peak of her career, women’s tennis would have had a storied rivalry between two champions battling not only each other but also the occasion. But she left Serena on her own, at the top, from where life sometimes can be boring.
Most of the times, Serena was chasing history. Every subsequent victory took her beyond a pantheon of greats that preceded her, including Evert, Navratilova and finally Graf. So good is Serena’s game that she could afford to take time off, come back and win Slams at will. She even had the audacity to win a Slam being pregnant. It felt winning sometimes became boring for her, and perhaps even for the audience. Because when Serena was not winning, anyone could win. Literally anyone.
The corresponding number in men’s tennis is 10 different players with 31 rotations among themselves.
Sport somewhere needs not one but multiple superstars to carry it along. And even a sport as popular as tennis needs ambassadors to fill stadiums which is why we should be grateful that we got Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic together. You need rivalries like these that can be stories, you need characters that can transcend the sport, you need motivation to bunk offices and go to a stadium to watch a match, you need passion to support your player when s(he) is playing against their greatest rival.
“Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Thomson don’t get ya, Lillee must” | read a Sydney Daily Telegraph cartoon caption during the 1974-75 Ashes. Men’s tennis players since 2003 have felt the same syndrome stunningly for 16 years and counting. Because if Federer won't beat you, Nadal will, and if Nadal does not, then Novak will. 16 years in tennis is literally two generations of domination but to think that three people are still the face of men’s tennis is sometimes scary.
Novak got injured at the end of 2016. A 35-year-old Roger and a 30-something Rafa shared the next 6 Slams between them before Novak came back and started collecting Slams as if he had given rent to others on a property he literally owns for a year and half. He now sits one win short of holding all 4 of them together; stunningly for the second time in his career.
The greatness of these players lies in their uniqueness. Each finds their own way to defy the odds, to defy experts and many times defy themselves.
There are fans of Roger who would have today supported Novak because if Rafa wins, he reaches 18. Rafa fans would go wild with a Rafa win and the GOAT debate will again be the focal point of every tennis writer’s and fan’s discussion. A Novak win will slowly solidify his stance that he is still the world’s number one player as well on his way to perhaps the best ever, dominating the other two who currently hold the mantle in discussion rooms.
But pause. For a moment, let's just enjoy tennis. Because a few years from now, we won't get this moment anymore. We sometimes feel how would Bradman have played because we can’t visualise Bradman in real terms. Although Youtube and technology will solve this problem for today’s generation, real time sports is still real time.
Imagine if Bradman, Vivian Richards and Sachin Tendulkar played in the same era. In true terms, tennis is lucky to have had these three 'together' at the same time.
Yes, Novak won today, he now holds 3 of the 4 Slams and might go on to hold the next 3 slamsto complete a calendar. Yet, for Rafa to not play a single match since the US Open and then to not lose a set till the final, speaks of how good Rafa is. And, then of course, there is Federer. The very fact that he is still playing at a level worthy of winning Slams at this age in today's generation of power hitting, speaks volume of the man himself.
Yes 20 is greater than 17 which is greater than 15. But for a moment, let us just throw hats of being die-hard fans and just be grateful to God that we got the chance to witness them ply their trade together. GOAT’s for a change can graze wherever they want. It doesn’t really matter who you coin one at the end of their careers.
But for the moment let's just sit back, enjoy and say thank you. The price tag of a Slam victory was always high. With these three around, it has reached stratospheric levels.
Ask Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro -- you will get the exact price of a Slam win.