‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,” declared Lord Tennyson. “Takes its time about it,” any tennis fan might mutter. There has been a log-jam at the top of the men’s game for years now, and if, for a variety of reasons, the women’s game has seen a good many different champions in the four Slam tournaments, it is nevertheless the case that Serena Williams has won 23 titles: seven Australian, three French, seven Wimbledon, six American. She not only has more singles titles than Roger Federer, she has also won 14 in doubles, which the leading women, unlike the men, still play. The tennis authorities may be getting worried. I think they should be. The men’s game has been dominated by Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka for a very long time. Wawrinka has never shone at Wimbledon. Nobody outside the other four has won there since Leyton Hewitt was the champion in 2002. In fact since Djokovic and Murray came to maturity (a little more slowly than Nadal) only two players outside the magic circle have even reached the final: Milos Raonic, beaten by Murray in 2016, and Marin Cilic who lost to Federer last year.
Wimbledon will be a success no matter who is or isn’t playing. It’s an institution as well as a tennis tournament. But if tennis is to have a wider appeal, it is soon going to need new champions who catch the imagination. Federer will be 37 later this year; so will Serena. They are surely soon to enter the twilight zone. Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have all had badly damaged bodies and undergone extensive repairs. Except on clay, Nadal is vulnerable. Djokovic has given signs of regaining his confidence and form. Murray’s future is uncertain. One senses that if he is to return to the top, he may have to adapt his style. Federer’s renaissance followed the hiring of Stefan Edberg as coach or adviser. Edberg was the best net-player of his generation. He urged Federer to come to the net more often. Shortening points would allow him to lengthen his career. Federer took the advice, arrested his decline and began winning titles again. Murray has been a masterly defender, but this means a lot or running, a lot of very long points.
There are lots of good young players, but that’s been the case for years. We are told that X or Y is the future, the next big thing. But the years slip by, what was the future becomes the past, and the “next big thing” – Grigor Dimitrov, for example, Raonic too, perhaps – hasn’t arrived.
Here in Britain Murray does seem to have a successor in Kyle Edmund. He may be a Tim Henman (six Slam semi-finals but no final) rather than a Murray. On the other hand he may be fortunate in his timing. Just as Murray might have won more than his two Wimbledons and one American title if he hadn’t been up against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, so Edmund may find that he will not face quite such stiff competition in his generation. That said, we’ll have a clearer idea of his progress when he plays Djokovic in the third round today, though any judgment must be tempered by the reflection that Novak is still some way short of the form that made him the No 1 player in the world for a couple of years. Edmund could certainly have had a much easier third round draw, but if he loses we shall be back in the old sadly familiar pre-Murray, pre-Henman, position of having no British player, man or woman, in the second week of the Wimbledon singles.
If the men’s game has been pretty well a closed shop at the top, the appeal of the women’s game has suffered from the inconsistency of so many players. Admittedly Serena Williams has been likely to win any championship when she is fit and in form, and she has dominated the women’s game even more completely than Federer the men’s. But, beyond her, or when she has been absent, the leading titles have been won by a bewildering number of different players over the last decade, and it’s fair, though sad, to say that very few of them have made much of an impact on the public.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s and into the present century, the women’s game was as popular, entertaining and fiercely contested as the men’s. There were keen rivalries: Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong, Evert and Martina Navratilova, Martina and Steffi Graf, Steffi and Monica Seles, the Williams sisters and the two Belgians, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Few in the present generation seem to rival such players in either consistency or personality. One has the feeling that when the Williams sisters eventually retire, few except tennis obsessives will recognise their successors.