Fortune telling proved a popular activity for many during this year’s US Open. Many players, fans, and media took up as much time proclaiming with certainty the future of tennis as they did participating/watching/covering the actual tournament itself. But when all was said and done, did the final results actually show us the future to come, or prove instead that the future is now?
After Croatia’s Marin Cilic won the US Open title, my father, a casual tennis watcher asked me later, “Where did this guy come from?”. That question, more or less, was repeated at length by many after Cilic blazed serves past a likely dazed and exhausted Kei Nishikori to a straight sets win in their first ever Grand Slam final. Cilic, who admitted he was prepared to leave on the second Tuesday (and why not given his recent history in majors) became invincible allowing him to not drop a set during the quarters, semis and finals.
While Cilic, now working with fellow Croatian and former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, posted good results earlier this year, very few (ok, almost nobody) expected him to win the whole thing. During the one-sided final, not a first in Grand Slam history, so many expressed, or even begged for the return of the “Big Four”. While that quartet may still return to dominance over the ATP, it’s looking less and less likely for a variety of reasons, including age, injuries, and the fact that the rest of the tour isn’t as awed by them as they once were.
Cilic, being placed in the position of temporary soothsayer, tried his best to sum up this tournament after his win.
“In one way, I mean, a lot of guys are saying people would like to watch top four guys much more to extend their streak at the top and to extend their run at the Grand Slams, because, I mean, they attract the most, the fans and the TV, and everybody else. But sort of one day definitely they gonna go out and there’s gonna be a need for somebody else. I feel this time, this year — I mean, I think the guys from second line were a bit lucky because Andy Murray was also having trouble with his back; Wawrinka was up and down with his tennis after Australia; few other players were not playing at the best all the time. And Rafa is not here. So that opened a little bit the gate for everybody else. I feel it’s gonna definitely be much bigger competition from next year. I feel the guys at the top are gonna pull the other guys, too. I think the game of tennis is definitely going to evolve much more.”
The idea of evolving, or not, is also something the women’s tour is dealing with after World No. 1 Serena Williams won her 18th Grand Slam title. Nothing was a given after Williams crashed out of the last three Majors earlier this year. But when the majority of her potential foes exited New York early, it didn’t leave too many left to challenge her. Gal pal Caroline Wozniacki certainly earned her spot into her second Grand Slam final, especially after her three set win over Maria Sharapova. Still, this felt like Williams’ event to lose. Some will argue Williams had it a little easier since she didn’t face a top 10 opponent during her title run. But neither did Li Na in Melbourne nor Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon. Is that, like Cilic’s assessment of his own event, a trend becoming the norm, or something else?
Simply put, with all of the upsets in the women’s draw, very few of the top names capitalized. Many veteran players found themselves losing at the hands of much, much younger opponents (a few of those losses were quite embarrassing frankly). Those fresh faces were immediately hailed as the next stars of tomorrow, although there was little proof any of them would actually achieve anything more than just their one upset.
While that has been par for the course this WTA season, it’s starting to look more and more likely that many WTA veterans, still seeking their first ever Grand Slam title, will never win one while players like Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep are much closer to doing so. Or, that we’ll continue seeing more surprise and one-time wonders like Francesca Schiavone, Sam Stosur, or Marion Bartoli, who like Cilic emerge from sort out of nowhere with an unlikely burst of two weeks of inspiration, to claim their unexpected place in the victory circle.
When Williams, after taking her 18th Grand Slam title, stood for photos with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, it felt very appropriate, and not just because of the special number. Evert and Navratilova, winners of 18 major titles each, fueled each other to greatness during their rivalry that defined their era. Williams herself has had only fleeting rivals (Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters, to name a few) before a variety of reasons forced them off the stage. Victoria Azarenka, who challenged Williams in the past two US Open finals, though deemed a potential new rival, bowed out early this year.
As Williams, who admitted she’s already thinking about Grand Slam number 19, looks ahead to next year, the question remains: Who, aside from herself, can stop her from reaching that number or higher? Will Williams, whenever she does end her career, truly end up defining her era as a “league of her own”? And if she does leave, would that mean the return of actual rivalries or will we end up with a rather unpredictable tour with multiple winners in a “first among equals” scenario?
That scenario could well become the norm also for the ATP post “Big Four”. Rafael Nadal, absent from New York, famously predicted earlier this year at Roland Garros, that he and the other members of the “Big Four” wouldn’t be around in 10 years time. That timetable seemed likely several months ago. Or will it get moved up based on what happened in New York? And when the “Big Four” do depart for good, who or what will take their place? A new “Big Four” or just more random faces?
Some fans will embrace that no doubt, while others might get tired of that quickly. Cilic was correct that having an established group/rivalry/etc. does sustain and generate interest for fans, television and of course, the all important sponsors and advertisers. Random out of the blue winners, while fun to watch happen, can only sustain passing awareness among casual fans and not long-term interest. Dominance, whether in the form of one woman or four men, might have become old for some, but not often enough for the invested many who have cheered their wins and cried during their losses over months and even years.
Seeing Marin Cilic in Grand Slam finals may become the new norm. Or maybe it won’t. Williams, who turns 33 later this month, may just keep collecting more Grand Slam titles even as those “new stars of tomorrow” morph into “whatever happened to?” status. Change is a constant. Trying to predict it with certainty, especially in sports, is almost always fraught with peril and usually mistakes. But if you really want a solid, confirmed 100% full-proof answer of what will happen next season, consult your local tarot card reader, Runes caster, chicken bones thrower, or a nearby tennis fan.