Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 10, 2022

Change Was In The Air At The All England Club

It is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, and while all four of the sport’s Grand Slam events are given equal billing, Wimbledon remains, for players and fans alike, the most prestigious.  Aside from the history, there is the venerable setting in southwest London, the grass playing surfaces that have been abandoned save for a handful of events leading up to the third major on each year’s tennis calendar, and the assorted traditions from all white apparel for players to strawberries and cream for spectators – all of which set the fortnight of play at the All England Club apart from the national championships of Australia, France and the United States that share Wimbledon’s status as career-defining tournaments.

Yet no amount of prestige can guarantee drama on the court or joy at the outcome, and as play concluded this weekend one sensed that for many fans this year’s tournament was lacking in both.  That assessment takes nothing away from the achievements of Elena Rybakina and Novak Djokovic, winners of the single’s titles, nor from the twenty-seven other players who emerged victorious in the various doubles, juniors, seniors, and wheelchair competitions.  Rather it reflects the current state of a sport that is irrevocably moving out of a long period of dominance by a handful of heroes.  Change, as the saying goes, is hard.

It has been more than five years since Serena Williams, eight weeks pregnant at the time, won the 2017 Australian Open, her most recent Grand Slam victory.  It has been almost three years since she last appeared in the finals of a tennis major, losing the championship match of the 2019 U.S. Open in straight sets to Bianca Andreescu.  And while Williams has made it as far as the semifinals at two Grand Slam events since then, her recent record shows a pair of first round losses at Wimbledon both last year and this, sandwiched around three straight majors at which she did not play. 

The various injuries that have kept Williams off the court, declining performance when she has played, and, of course, her age – she is 40 – all strongly suggest that the era in women’s tennis that will always bear her name is over.  Yet Serena is still the center of attention whenever she does play, even if, as was the case during Wimbledon’s first week, it is only for a single match.  That is both a testament to her long dominance of the sport and a recognition of the wide open state of the women’s game.  There have been fourteen different winners of the twenty-one majors since that 2017 Williams victory in Melbourne. 

In addition to that relative parity – Williams alone accounted for ten of the twenty-one titles up to and including the 2017 Australian Open – the two women who seemed most likely to take her place as the clear leader of the sport have not done so.  Ashleigh Barty won three majors in that timeframe but stunned tennis fans by announcing her retirement shortly after triumphing at home in this year’s Aussie Open.  And Naomi Osaka has four majors and counting but has gone through her own series of physical injuries and taken breaks from tennis to deal with the emotional strain of her celebrity.

This weekend’s women’s final featured two fine players in Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, and perhaps in time one or both will become familiar names to more than just the most ardent tennis fans.  But for now, each found herself in a Grand Slam Final for the first time, just as each had been in their first major semifinal two days before.  That lack of familiarity left some fans grasping for a good storyline to root for, and many settled on Tunisian Jabeur’s status as the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final and the first woman from Africa to do so in the Open Era.  That, plus Jabeur’s consistently sunny personality – her nickname is “the minister of happiness” – put most of the crowd in her corner, which resulted in polite applause but hardly adulation when the stoic Rybakina pulled away for a three set victory.

If the result of the women’s draw only added to the sense of change on that side of the sport, the men’s final, at least on the surface, would appear to reflect business as usual.  The four set victory by Djokovic over Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios was the seventh Wimbledon singles title and fourth in a row for the player who less than a year ago came within a single match of winning the calendar year Grand Slam.  The win was Djokovic’s twenty-first major title, nudging him one ahead of Roger Federer but still one behind Rafael Nadal, the two players who along with Djokovic have been the Big Three of men’s tennis for the last two decades.  The trio have won more than eighty percent of the Grand Slam singles titles since Federer first announced himself on the same Wimbledon center court in 2003. 

Yet even in victory there was the inescapable sense of change.  Djokovic won despite being generally outplayed by Kyrgios.  He was also the tournament’s top seed only because Wimbledon barred Russian players from this year’s event after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.  That meant Daniil Medvedev, the current number one who denied Djokovic that single-year Slam in last September’s U.S. Open final, didn’t compete in London.  The final matchup was also not what fans hoped to see, with Kyrgios advancing to his first ever major final on a walkover after Nadal was forced to withdraw prior to the semifinals with a torn abdominal muscle.  That injury, along with Federer’s absence as he recovers from knee surgery, reminded fans of what they already knew, that the Big Three are all trying to outrace time. 

That Djokovic won and Nadal advanced as far as he did after arriving in London having won the year’s first two majors suggests these greats don’t plan to go quietly, as does Federer’s stated determination to appear on center court in tennis whites rather than the suit he wore at a ceremony commemorating the tournament’s long history.  But he will be 41 by next year’s Wimbledon, and Nadal and Djokovic recently turned 36 and 35, respectively.  That was why a sense of change pervaded this Wimbledon fortnight.  In the long history of tennis’s oldest tournament, grand and glorious chapters for both men and women players are coming to an end.

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