Changes of crowns and games of thrones across the Atlantic
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Well, the last thing I should have thought was that the 2022 US Open might be another predictable chapter in the game’s history.
Too many events both on and off the court swirled around. As a result, New York, in keeping with its chaotic, frenetic, and edgy reputation produced a tournament not so much “for the ages” , but one that may come to be regarded as the beginning of the new age of tennis.
The tournament was a week old when the death was announced of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. In December 1988, when Serena Williams and Roger Federer were seven, Rafael Nadal two and Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic one, Gorbachev visited New York and was greeted by the capitalist nation as a hero. Crowds on New York’s Fifth Avenue chanted “Gorby, Gorby, Gorby” Why? He was a man who did not just influence history after he came to power in 1985. Gorbachev’s radical policies of glasnost and perestroika- openness and restructuring-changed the world. They led to the Soviet Union folding the Iron Curtain without so much as a whimper and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet State. The abiding conflict between capitalist West and communist East was all generations had ever known. Suddenly, here was a Soviet leader who was the darling of American President, Ronald Reagan.
The day after Gorbachev’s death was the 25th anniversary of the death of England’s Princess Diana. She, like Gorbachev, behaved in a manner that saw a restructuring of the English Royal family as she sought to display an openness and candour unknown to many generations. Little did we know that by the end of the tournament the English Royal family would be mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who for most is the only English monarch people have known.
The parallels were clear on the courts of Flushing Meadow. This US Open was to produce a restructuring of the tennis hierarchy unlike any other known for nearly a generation.
As the quarter-finals began there was a prospect of an all-Russian Men’s final, despite their banning from Wimbledon. In the Women’s singles a Belarussian, Anya Sabalenka, flew the flag for another ostracised nation.
More remarkably, was that 15 of the 16 singles’ quarter-finalists had not won a Grand Slam title. This must be a record for the Open Era. With Serena gone, Ash Barty retired (is she not ruing that decision somewhat?) , Novak Djokovic serving another period of self-imposed exile and Rafael Nadal succumbing to the fates of time, the complexion of the tournament was unlike any we had seen for nearly a generation.
Consider these remarkable facts:
-this year’s US Open was the first Grand Slam tournament since 2003 when not one of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal made the quarter-finals;
-the tournament continued the curse of the defending champion, especially in the Men’s draw. Notwithstanding the dominance of the Great Three, no Men’s champion has defended their title since 2008;
-the Women’s Singles produced its seventh different champion in the last eight years: since 2015 only Naomi Osaka has won the title more than once; of these seven champions, only two had enjoyed previous Grand Slam success.
-Francis Tiafoe became America’s first Men’s semi-finalist since Andy Roddick in 2006 and America’s first African American semi-finalist since Arthur Ashe in 1972
-An Australian pairing, John Peers and Storm Sanders, won the Mixed Doubles title, the first Australian victory in nearly a generation since Todd Woodbridge’s and Renae Stubb’s victory in 2001.
There was, however, some continuity in the Doubles’ world. Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury retained their Men’s title. Katerina Siniakova and Barbora Krejcikova won their sixth Grand Slam title, their third for the year. Their first US Open title, following their maiden Wimbledon victory, completes a set of Grand Slam triumphs for the Czechian pairing.
Yet, aspects of the tournament were not wholly unexpected. It is time to reflect on the author’s pre-tournament predictions.
“Daniil Medvedev looks to defend his title, but given his poor form since winning his first Grand Slam there is more chance of Australians voting to pass a referendum than Medvedev successfully defending his title.” Right.
“We know Nadal will leave his heart on the court; however, in Grand Slam tennis Mother Nature and Father Time diminish the strength and passions of all.” Right.
“Australia’s anti-hero Nick Kyrgios has had a summer surge in America winning singles and doubles titles in Atlanta and the singles title at Washington, before a quarter-final loss in Montreal and an even earlier loss in Cincinnati. As always doubts exist about Kyrgios’ mental and physical fitness to win seven best of five set matches.” Right. The heroics of his Kyrgios’ fourth-round victory against the Daniil Medvedev could not be repeated in his quarter-final; however, his ability to tarnish his reputation was reinforced by his racquet smashing tantrum at the end of his last match.
“We must give Serena the farewell she deserves.” Right. Never has been a player so feted and lauded as Serena. Her introduction and reception at every one of the three matches was the equivalent of the Romans deifying a new Goddess in the Pantheon. How ironic that it was an Australian, Ana Tomljanovic, that ended her career, one Grand Slam title short of Margaret Court’s record.
“Only the brilliant could accurately predict who might reach this year’s Women’s final in New York, such has been the caprice of the Women’s game throughout 2022.” Wrong. In the end the two best credentialled Grand Slam players contested the final.
“Swiatek has lost her dominant swagger.” Well, she had; however, she clearly, she regained it winning her second Grand Slam title of the year against Ons Jabeur who lost her second grand slam final of the year. It was Jabeur who staggered in the final. After fighting back from 2-6 to force a second set tie break Jabeur led 5-4 with two serves to come, but lost the final three points of the game. Swiatek is Poland’s first US Women’s champion.
“The following players who comprise the ‘next gen’ of the game will never have a better chance to claim a maiden Grand Slam title: Alcaraz, Rublev, Fritz, Sinner, Hurkacz, Norrie and/or Ruud. “ Right.
As the British Crown passed to King Charles III, the game’s young princes, Alcaraz and Ruud won their way to a Grand Slam final both seeking their first Grand Slam title. It was to be a final that would, for the first time in the Open era ,decide who would be crowned the world’s new No.1 male player.
Alcaraz had the tougher road to the final winning five set fourth round, quarter and semi-final matches against Cilic, Sinner and Tiafoe that all ended in the witching hours. For a brief shining moment, Alcaraz became the world’s No.1 ranked Men’s player by reaching the final, wresting the crown from Nadal. And now the ranking will endure for longer. By defeating Ruud in the final, Alcaraz has become the world’s youngest ranked No.1 male player. The previous youngest numero uno was Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, then the enfant terrible of Australian tennis.
Alcaraz has claimed the crown of Men’s tennis at 19 years, a younger age of his “salad days” than when the Queen came to throne in 1952. How long will he reign over us? Ruud ascends to the No.2 ranking having, like Jabeur, played his first two Grand Slam finals in 2022 and lost them both.
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on the eve of the finals, millions around the world had to accept the beginning of a new regnal age. Her death came just two days after she passed the Prime Minister’s Crown to the fifteenth of her reign, Liz Truss.
The reaction to her death may be comparable to how tennis fans may be thinking about the ending of the era of Serena Williams and the ‘Big 3.’ We knew it had to happen, but somehow could not quite believe it ever would. The Queen, Serena and the ‘Big 3’ “are all most of us have ever known.”
When the Queen ascended to the throne in 1952 hers was a more straightforward world. Politically it was bi-polar as the Cold War permeated East-West relations. India, the jewel in the British empire, had recently become independent and the winds of independence were about to blow through Africa. During her reign men went to the moon and beyond.
The contraceptive pill, personal computers and mobile, then I-Phones arrived. Morality changed remarkably. The Queen forbid her sister to marry a divorcee, only to see three of her four children’s marriage dissolve and the new King marry his mistress. Capital punishment was abolished in England as was the crime of male homosexuality. A few years after performing at Princess Diana’s funeral, Elton John was able to marry his male partner.
Despite the shrinking of Britain’s world influence, the Queen steadfastly demonstrated the duty, durability and stoicism that will come to characterise her reign. She is the only English monarch to have reigned for 70 years. In her final year she was able to witness another Commonwealth Games. In 1952 there was barely a female member of the House of Commons. As noted, the Queen’s last official act was to commission the fifteenth, and third female, Prime Minister of her reign.
When the Queen came to the throne in her “salad days,” she was an atypical female presence in the political hierarchy of her country. The England she departed has a female Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. For the first time in its history none of the positions of English Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary are held by white men.
The Queen would have been delighted that the nation’s most senior politicians are descendants of ‘empire and commonwealth’: the Foreign Secretary’s mother is from Sierra Leone, the Home Secretary’s parents have Indian heritage, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer parents were born in Ghana. Speaking of Sierra Leone, it is also the ancestral home of Francis Tiafoe.
England’s Chancellor the Exchequer- Kwasi Kwarteng
Although the Queen was not a natural fan of tennis, she saw three English female champions during her reign: Angela Mortimer 1961, Ann Jones 1969, and Virginia Wade in 1977. She also lived long enough to see a player from the United Kingdom claim the Men’s title for the first time since Fred Perry in 1936. 1936 was the year that the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the English throne, setting in motion her unexpected path to monarchy.
Although Andy Murray was a self-proclaimed Scottish secessionist, his Wimbledon victories in 2013 and 2016, were widely and wildly celebrated in the Queen’s still united kingdom. Add Andy Murray’s three Grand slam titles to those won by Roger, Novak and Rafa and you have 66 triumphs, almost one for every year of the Queen’s reign.
Add Queen Serena’s 23 titles and you have 89 victories, almost one for every year of the Queen’s life. Such regal and on-court longevity and dominance we will never see again.
Boris Johnson, one of the last to see the Queen, is reported to have breached the confidence of his weekly meetings with the Queen by telling people that upon his swearing-in in 2019, the Queen had commented that “she was surprised anyone wanted the job.” Through fate and lineage, no-one else but the Queen could have had her job.
Even the most arch of Republicans probably concede that none could have done it much better. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, the 21st anniversary of which occurred on finals weekend in New York, the Queen commented that “grief is the price we pay for love.” For many these words must now be used in her honour.
FURTHER READING IS FOR TENNIS TRAGICS ONLY!
Naturally, the retirement of Serena reignited the debate about who is the GOAT of tennis.
At the risk of continuing an ultimately unresolvable debate, I make the following observations:
1. It is dangerous to conflate the Men’s and Women’s games when considering the GOAT question. I know in this inclusive age it is a necessity, but, for mine, it is a clear case of “apples and oranges”- one GOAT for each is appropriate.
2. Tennis is a particularly difficult sport to nominate a GOAT, because of the legacy of the amateur era. How many GS titles would Laver have won if he did not turn professional, but then again how many would Roy Emerson have won if he had? Many people, whose judgement I respect maintain Seixas, Gonzales and Hoad were better players than Laver. For players caught in the crossover era, especially Margaret Court how do you rate many of Australian Open titles given the relative paucity of world class opponents that Court competed against?
3. The evolution of the game and the Grand Slam calendar in the Open Era also makes for distorted statistics- the Bill Tildens , Suzanne Lenglens and Helen Wills Moodys of this world were unlikely to travel to Australia in their heyday, so again how representative are their statistics?
4. Should the achievements of players in Doubles be a relevant factor? To some extent yes, but not overwhelmingly. Prizemoney won is the reddest of herrings in the GOAT debate.
5. The intangibles are relevant : changing the game, contributing to its popularity, personal qualities and longevity all contribute to the assessment.
6. Should one judge the quality of the opponent in assessing the GOAT? How many titles would have either Chris or Martina had won if the other had not been on the other side of the net? In that regard, Djokovic and Nadal have arguably defeated a higher calibre of Grand Slam finalists than Federer, but, as it is often said, you can only play who you meet. Can you compare a Chris v Martina final in Paris vs Graf beating Zvereva in a double bagel ? How can one rate a sisterly victory by either Serena or Venus against the other?
7. How do you truly compare players across eras given the manifold differences in racquet technology, playing surfaces, diet et al? Would Laver have won a Grand Slam if 3/4 of the tournaments were not played on grass?
So, the GOAT debate is on one level futile, because the debate really becomes one about criteria as much as the players. I am not sure Olympic titles should count for much. Weeks spent at No.1 is for me a more relevant criterion.
For me, the salient question is which player has, at the height of their powers, dominated the sport more than any other?
I think Margaret Court’s streaky record at Wimbledon works against her being considered the GOAT, although her 1970 Grand Slam was heroic. Sadly, for Margaret, I think the Open Era must be judged sui generis.
In answering my cardinal question, I have reached the following conclusions.
MEN: Federer and Nadal: Federer for his glorious run from 2004-2007 when he won 11/16 of the Grand Slam titles on offer, except the French. Nadal for his unprecedented domination of the clay courts- no-one will win 14 Grand Slam titles at one event ever again and because of his win/loss record against Federer. And Nadal has triumphed at least twice at every GS. So , too has Djokovic, but his selfishness and faux regard for the history of the sport diminishes him for mine.
WOMEN: Navratilova and Graf. Martina for 59 Grand Slam titles in the Open Era (18 Singles, 31 Doubles and 10 Mixed) and her domination of 1983-1984- Six Grand Slam singles titles in a row (only accomplished by Maureen Connolly and Margaret Court) PLUS a Doubles Grand Slam and winning streaks that will probably always stand: 74 for singles and 109 for doubles amidst her career 167 singles titles and 177 doubles titles. Graf for her 1988-1989 run- a Golden Grand Slam plus 5 GS titles in a row for a two-year haul of 7/8, plus being the only player, male or female, to have won four of each Grand Slam title in the Open era. From 1982-1985,Martina won 10/16 of the grand slams; from 1988-1991, Graf won 9/16.
So, here are my GOAT rankings:
=1 Graf/ Navratilova
4. Serena Williams
5. Maureen Connolly
6. Suzanne Lenglen
7. Chris Evert
8. Helen Wills Moody
9. Billie Jean King
10. Monica Seles
=1 Federer/ Nadal
=10. Tilden/ Lendl