Wimbledon is the most majestic of the four majors. It’s held to the esteem of the Royal Court, frozen in an imperial epoch when the British empire had spread its influence and power around the globe. In our current era, which values personal uniqueness more than collective tradition, Wimbledon provides us a two-week blast back in time where sport supersedes ego; where the manicured grass and Pimm’s cocktails and Strawberries and Cream is more important than the players under their non-negotiable white uniforms. It’s tempting for my Millennial brain to recount the many instances of prejudice and exclusion this scene of privilege represents, but I’ll leave it as the beautiful painting that it is, as its uniqueness is proof enough of how far the game and society has come.
It is not earth-shattering news to know who the favorites are heading into this tournament. Quite frankly, the parity on the women’s side of the draw has had many more interesting takes the last few years with huge surges in talent from a number of newcomers. Since Roger’s first Wimbledon win (and first overall major win) in 2003, the big three have won 53 of 62 majors played. They are currently on a 10 major win streak, which is the third longest of the era. The longest streak was 18 between 2005-2009 and the second longest was 11 between 2010-2012. There isn’t a single adjective left to describe their dominance anymore, which has spanned three generations of player talent and of which the current and youngest are the most talented (in my opinion). As has been asked with every major the last year and a half, is this the year a nexgen breaks through?
The NexGen Contenders
Dominic Thiem has emerged as the clear front-runner of the nexgen player group. He is the only player to make a major final and has done so the last two years at Roland Garros. Although he made significant strides in the 2019 final against Nadal versus 2018, he clearly did not have enough in the tank to go five. That’s normal playing Nadal on clay. However, the fact that he beat Novak in the semis and pressed Nadal early in the championship is definitely nothing he should be ashamed of. The troubling factor with Thiem heading into Wimbledon is endurance. Following the 2018 French Open final, he drew a 33-year-old Marcos Baghdatis (who will be retiring after the 2019 Wimbledon tournament) in the opening round and ended up retiring in the third set after being down two sets. Grass is certainly not his favorite surface and with only a little over three weeks between the two tournaments, I am curious to know if he has truly recovered enough to make a run.
There is a large swath of talent just below Thiem in the nexgen group that have shown flashes of being able to take the next step in their careers. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Karen Khachanov, Felix Auger Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, Borna Coric and begrudgingly Sascha Zverev. Most in this group have the pure talent to compete with the big three, but few seem to have the killer instinct to push through when pivotal moments are on their racquet. If you’re not watching every tournament televised on Tennis Channel like I do then you might not know who some or all of the above are. I’ll write some quick synopses of them below with a general expectation of how tall their ceiling is in the tournament:
Stefanos Tsisipas (2019 Record 34-14, Two ATP Titles) : He is a 20-year-old Greek god carved from marble and the number one heart-throb in tennis clubs throughout America. His father sits like Zeus in his player’s box striking down bolts of lightening in the form of grunts and facial expressions. Although he resembles Brandon Boyd, he has no zen. He’s fiery and ferocious with all of the tools necessary to beat any player on any day. His most impressive performance was against Federer in the 2019 Australian Open where he fended off 12 break points to secure a spot in the Quarterfinals.
Ceiling at Wimbledon: He has the best chance to win Wimbledon of the nexgen group. The grass is going to help him get through some of the early matches faster so he has a lot of energy when he runs into some stiff competition.
Daniil Medvedev (2019 Record 28-13, One ATP Title): He is a 23-year-old Russian from Moscow. To steal my brother’s description, he has perpetual bed head and always seems confused as to where he is at any moment. He’s strongest quality is his calm demeanor. Very rarely does he let moments get to him.
Ceiling at Wimbledon: I would’ve given him much more of a chance if he had managed his schedule better. Going into clay season, he had played more matches than anyone on tour. Realistically, a 4R or Quarterfinals would be his ceiling.
Karen Khachanov (2019 Record 16-15, No Titles): He is a 23-year-old Russian from Moscow as well. At 6’6″, he has incredible power and a very effective serve. At this point, he lives and dies by trying to outhit his opponent. When he is “on,” he can beat anyone, but when he’s not he has a hard time changing his tactics.
Ceiling at Wimbledon: 4R or Quarterfinals ceiling. This surface should reward his aggressiveness.
Felix Auger Aliassime “FAA” (2019 Record 26-14, No Titles): He is an 18-year-old Canadian. He is one of the more complete players at this age that I can remember. Even the great Roger Federer was a hot-head at a young age. FAA is smooth and calm. At 6’4″ he can do just about anything he wants with his serve and has great movement. Never looks like he’s trying that hard which is a great sign for an elite player.
Ceiling at Wimbledon: I see his ceiling as the semi-final. It is really going to depend on his draw being the 19 seed. As we’ve seen in the past, grass favors extremely big servers (more on this in the next section) and if he runs into one early it could cause some issues. He has everything it takes, but he may be a bit young for the moment, especially at the prestigious Wimbledon with the Queen in attendance.
Denis Shapovalov (2019 Record 15-15, No Titles): He is a 20-year-old Canadian. (Yes, Canada is 100 percent killing America in producing tennis talent. It is not even close.) He has a wicked one-handed backhand and hits in the top tier of highest average forehand/backhand speeds. Unlike FAA, he’s a bit moody and can get in his own head. Very dependent on first serves. Second serve percentage won is 52%, which is alarming considering he only gets 61% of first serves in. Meaning, he’s constantly in long battles holding.
Ceiling at Wimbeldon: 3R. He’s been known to drop an egg in the first round as we saw at the French Open 2019 (def. by Struff in straight sets).
Borna Coric (2019 Record 21-12, No Titles): He is a 22-year-old Croatian. He’s a fierce fighter with good credentials. He beat Federer in the 2018 Halle Open Championship. My favorite aspect of his game is his mental toughness. He never gives up on a match and makes every opponent beat him.
Ceiling at Wimbeldon: This all depends on his health. He has logged the sixth most on-court minutes in 2019 and it caught up with him in Halle 2019 as he had to retire against Herbert. A 100 percent Coric would have a legitimate shot at a Quarterfinals run. If he’s anything less than that then I wouldn’t think he makes it too far.
Sascha Zverev (2019 Record 25-13, One ATP Title): Last but not least, he is a 22-year-old German. I begrudgingly add him to this list because he has been the biggest disappointment so far from the nexgen squad. A lot of analysts crowned him very early on as the front runner to challenge the big three. Granted, he came in with the highest expectations so that could have something to do with how I’m evaluating him. The problem I have is the fact that he is one hell of a player with everything needed (physically) to win at the highest levels. However, his mental fortitude is a serious question. Zverev appears to waver in the majors when you have to secure 3 out of 5 sets. His focus dips in and out and he spends way too much time complaining to his box when he is in a rut rather than putting his head down and grinding through it (absolute opposite of Coric). He’s only 22 and there is definitely time, but when he tells the media he doesn’t care about tennis anymore, his trajectory starts leaning way more toward Nick Kyrgios than it does Dominic Thiem.
Ceiling at Wimbledon: From a pure talent ceiling, he could win Wimbledon. When you start imagining him getting into a dogfight with any other player in the top twenty, I find it hard to believe he could get through it. I’ll say Quarterfinals just to be nice.
New Rules and (Hopefully) New Era
As mentioned to open this article, one of the most appealing parts of Wimbledon is their commitment to traditions. When it comes to the uniforms, iconic snacks and drinks, and ceremony of those lush lawns the tradition is wonderful. There is no other tournament like it in tennis. You are transported to an earlier time in tennis when wooden racquets with 65 square inch heads were the industry standard. Superiority on the tennis court was tilted toward the player who had more crafty “hand skills” and mobility on the court. As the racquet technology developed so did the player that participated in the game.
I am 5’10” and weigh 145 pounds. A rather small fella’ along the lines of David Goffin. In the 1960’s, the average height of the Wimbledon champions was exactly 5’10”. In our current decade, the average height is almost 6’2″. In a chicken or the egg scenario, as racquet technology has increased so has the average height of the players. With the higher contact points on a serve toss, the velocity and effectiveness of the serve has increased dramatically, as the serving player has many more options on angle to make the ball practically unplayable. Grass is a particularly fast surface, which also lends advantage to the server. Thus, unlike the 1960’s through John McEnroe and the Jimmy Connors era, the game at Wimbledon has transformed from being a “handy,” maneuverability chess match to a serving contest.
One may recall a match between John Isner (6’10”) and Nicolas Mahut (6’3″) in 2010 that lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes and took three days to complete. This was due to a Wimbledon tradition that there would be no tie break in the fifth set. You would have to play until one of the players broke the others’ serve. Considering my explanation above, this can be a very daunting task given the surface and quality of serving from today’s players. The fifth set was finally settled 70-68 in Isner’s favor, but with it came questions about whether the fifth set tradition should continue. Not only is it extremely boring tennis to watch, as there is minimal ground-play, but the question was really about how fair was this to the winning player who would be required to play another match in at most 48 hours from the completion of the marathon? Keep in mind as well that there are no lights at Wimbledon (with the addition of the roofed courts they do have lights, but still institute a curfew.) If the match does not finish before dark or by curfew then it is moved to the next day. In 2010, Wimbledon did not budge.
In the 2018 Wimbledon tournament, Kevin Anderson outlasted Roger Federer in the Quarterfinals 13-11 in the fifth set only to face Isner in the semi-finals where he had to beat him 26-24 in the fifth set. Going into the championship match against Novak Djokovic, Anderson had played 166 games through the previous two matches while Djokovic had played only 93. He likely wouldn’t have had a real shot at beating Djokovic in the championship anyway, but with the extra workload there was no question. Djokovic dispatched Anderson in straight sets easily. This time Wimbledon listened to the players’ pleas for a change and have now instituted a tiebreak if the match is tied 12-12 in the fifth set.
Does this solve the issue?
It solves some issues. For one, it prevents ridiculous marathons like Isner v. Mahut in 2010 to ever happen again. If you re-watch that match (which I highly do not recommend) then you will understand why this isn’t named “the match of the century” or “the greatest match ever played.” It was terribly boring. The greatest takeaway from the match is the mental will that both players had in order to not throw in the towel at some point during the fifth set.
Another issue it will solve is the fan experience both on the grounds and at home watching on television. It is an extremely “bad” form of tennis in my opinion. Not only do they seem to go on for ages, but it is so slow and choppy. Almost no points are played out and when they eventually do get a rally going, it’s almost as if they are extremely rusty from not having to hit ground-strokes or outwit their opponent for the large part of the match. Go back and compare Rafa vs. Delpo Wimbledon 2018 with Anderson vs. Isner 2018 and tell me which is more compelling from a pure viewer standpoint.
Looking throughout the history of the great matches on the lawns of All England Club, the three that stick out to me are John McEnroe def. Bjorn Borg in 1980 (1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7, 8–6), Roger Federer def. Andy Roddick in 2009 (5–7, 7–6(8–6), 7–6(7–5), 3–6, 16–14) and obviously Rafael Nadal def. Roger Federer in 2008 ( 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5–7), 6–7(8–10), 9–7). In all three matches, the Wimbledon fifth set rule was in play. The only one of the above that could be considered a “serve contest” is 2009 where Andy Roddick had a historically great serve vs. Roger Federer who somehow quietly has the greatest serve ever in the game. After reviewing that match, it seems preposterous to send it to a tie-break after 12-12. As can be seen through the scoreline, break of serve was not impossible during this match. It was bound to happen one way or another. A significant factor that has to be considered with Wimbledon going to a tie-break is individual performance in tie-breaks. It is a unique part of the game that some have managed a lot better than others.
Roger is the absolute king historically in a tie-break, (432-232, 65.1%). Of the top five best percentages, Roger has played the most tie-break scenarios at 664. The next most is Pete Sampras who played 522 tie-break scenarios and ranks fifth all-time at 62.8%. Roddick actually is not that far behind with 488 played at 62.1% The point here is some players are better at a tie-break scenarios than others. In a Wimbledon final, is it really fair to go this route at deciding a champion? If the Andy Roddick vs. Roger Federer 2009 Final would have gone 70-68 in the fifth set and lasted three more days, would that not be considered “the greatest match ever?” The only way you get to the championship of a Wimbledon is by being a complete player… theoretically. My hope is that the the talent in a championship would be able to break before it goes three full days. And if not, it would create a “Seven Days of Hell” scenario that would actually be compelling because it determines a major champion, not simply an advancement to the next round. It would preserve the tradition, but not disturb the weeks leading up to the final. All in all, it is a very exceptional situation to go further than 12-12 in the fifth set in the final. The only occurrence in the open era is the one I have referenced between Roddick and Federer above, which makes my solution to leave the “win by two” scenario in the championship all the more interesting.
It should be noted that all four majors have different ways of handling this fifth set tie-break situation. At the Australian Open, they do a “champions tie-break,” which extends the winning point from 7 to 10. Roland Garros has kept the traditional “win by two” fifth set rules. There is not as drastic of a mechanical advantage for a server on clay than there is on grass and break of serve is more common so it has not been an issue (not to mention, Nadal has been kicking the shit out of the field on that surface for 15 years). The US Open has a standard tie-break to 7 if the fifth set goes the distance.
As excited as I am to get the balls flying on the lawns of Wimbledon, one of the things I am dreading (as an American) is watching ESPN fumble the coverage of this event. The group that they have assembled is tennis-credentialed (aside from Chris Fowler) and 100 percent capable of delivering a solid production. The problem for an avid Tennis Channel enthusiast is that ESPN assumes everyone watching their coverage knows exactly nothing about tennis. I hate to be the guy that criticizes coverage, as I believe the public can be a bit too harsh at times (save Jason Witten’s MNF commentary, which was hilariously bad), but tennis, like hockey, is a specialized sport and, more than likely, you are speaking to an audience that understands the general rules of the game. I can appreciate ESPN’s position that during highly publicized matches involving superstars of the sport there will be a percentage of the audience that is tuning in because it is an “event.” During those moments, it’s debatable that a dumbed-down version of the call could be warranted. As an avid tennis follower, listening to Fowler and Evert discuss rudimentary parts of the game such as challenges, imparting emotional ups and downs between points, and continuously highlighting how amazing every winner is makes me feel like I’m watching hockey with my dad who has zero working knowledge of the sport. “I can’t believe how fast they skate!” or “They’re beating the shit out of each other!”
The exhaustion from John McEnroe when he calls a match with Chris Fowler is almost palpable. Fowler talks between (and during) every point like it is a college football game. This isn’t Fowler’s fault. He serves as the liaison between the regular American meathead and this weird sport of nuance. This surely has to be a conscious choice by the producers at ESPN for ratings. Even knowing that, it is still distracting from the poetry in motion on the court. He asks very simple questions to McEnroe and I wonder at points if he is even watching the match in front of him. McEnroe does an amazing job at keeping the color commentary flowing, but I urge you to notice how many times he stops talking in the middle of an answer and is actually watching the play work itself out on the court. Don’t worry John, Fowler will follow up on the pressing question of “Where does Nadal’s two-handed backhand rank historically in the pantheon of backhands?”
Because I get so infuriated at the constant jabbering, I watch most of the important matches on mute. This worked for some time. Then, as if ESPN wanted to deteriorate the experience even further, they have started split-screening matches. This is all well and good if it is done during important moments of the match (which is exactly what Tennis Channel does), but they do it at random. You will be watching Roger Federer and they will split screen to Taylor Fritz who is at 0-15 on serve in the first. Why? At this point, you have Fowler and whomever he is with trying to call two matches at the same time and they have not shown the capability to satisfactorily call one. It is appalling and, frankly, distracts from the quality of the game.
All of this leads me to my last bitching point regarding ESPN’s coverage of Wimbledon: the constant over-hype and focus on American players. On the women’s side, it is warranted. We have a great crop of players that have a legitimate shot every time they take the court, i.e Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Sofia Kenin, Amanda Anisimova, Danielle Collins, etc. But, on the men’s side, it is much more bleak. John Isner is coming off of a pretty serious fracture in his left foot. At 34-years-old and 6’10” it is devastating. The brightest player we have in America is a 21-year-old named Frances Tiafoe. He’s aggressive and has shown signs of being able to play with the big dogs, but there’s a reason I left him off of the nexgen list. He doesn’t possess the well-rounded skills of someone who can legitimately make a run at a major at this point. He’s well behind 18-year-old FAA in raw talent. He works really hard and is fun to watch, but ESPN will surely have him in the nexgen list as a contender at Wimbledon. If you watch tennis at all, it’s simply favoritism. Again, I understand why this is a prerogative for ESPN. They want ratings. Much like soccer and hockey, this is an international sport and right now we do not have an Andy Roddick type player that can make a serious run at a championship.
To clear my conscious on ESPN’s coverage for lambasting them above, John McEnroe, Pat McEnroe, Darren Cahill, Brad Gilbert and Mary Jo Hernandez are exceptional. They are the beating heart of the production. The things that ESPN does “around” the actual match-play is not bad. The commentary is solid before and after matches given you have one or more of the above involved. I do not believe that Chris Fowler wants to come off as meathead-ish as he does, but I have to realize he’s serving a purpose for ESPN. As a tennis enthusiast with what I would consider “above-average” tennis acumen, it’s simply too elementary for me. Perhaps I watch too much Tennis Channel and notice how they let the matches breathe for long periods of time without making comments. It’s serene, calm and soothing to watch the players smack the ball around and maneuver their opponents around the court into prime position to win the point. The game is beautiful without someone speaking on top of it. Let it be just that.
Quick aside: I cannot wait for Cliff Drysdale to gush over the strawberries and cream. His accent gives it so much more flavor when he says it.
To the tennis laymen that have watched from afar and noticed that three individuals have won 53 out of the last 62 majors played over the last 16 years, please do not find this era boring. We are solidly in a golden era of tennis where the three best males in the sport are playing at the same time. That would be like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Lebron James playing at the same time. It’s clear that one of them would win the championship every year (barring the possibility they joined the same team, as one is wont to do in today’s era). Roger Federer is going to be 38 this year. This is not normal. You have to keep reminding yourself of this.
What would have been more “boring” is if we didn’t have Rafa or Novak and Roger is going for his 38th grandslam this year. Or, any combination that two were removed from the equation. There was a point in time when I was a college student at the University of Kentucky and Andy Roddick was my favorite player on tour. This guy Roger came around and I thought he was a dick because he was “stealing” these majors from my guy. It became apparent between 2005-2009 that what was happening was unprecedented, never seen before. I became a Roger fan and just as I was settling into that this Spaniard with capris came along and started stealing majors from my new man and then the Serb with a carpet head of hair did the same. It all came to a head a few years ago when I stopped hating Rafa and Novak and enjoyed watching how all three play tennis.
When these guys have exited right and are gone for good, the tennis community will never stop talking about it. Every single champion moving forward will be compared to the golden era of tennis when the three best champions in the game battled each other and dominated the field so comprehensively that all three left with more majors than Pistol Pete who held the crown before they signed on tour. As we watch Wimbledon, the most majestic of all majors, and we see RF, RN, and ND move through the brackets towards the center, let’s remember that they are the Royal Court of tennis today and, much like the British Empire, they, too, will disappear and leave behind a tradition of glory like we have never seen.