Finding contentment in the chaos that is women’s tennis

By Preethi Ramamoorthy

The US Open this year was supposed to be the unfurling of Novak Djokovic’s immortality, chasing a Calendar Grand Slam and a record-breaking 21st title. Tennis cognoscenti argued about just how washed out it would be as crowds returned to nil star power — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Venus Williams were all absent for the first time in 25 years.

But the enduring storyline is of the emergence of fresh, charismatic talent on the women’s side unleashing a distinctive sort of chaos. Only this time, chaos led to hope and reassurance for the future.

The women’s Next Gen

Since 2017, the men’s tour has tirelessly marketed its ‘#NextGen’ campaign, a year-end event created to showcase its young crop. Finally, a leader has emerged from the pack in Daniil Medvedev, who defeated Djokovic in resounding fashion, signalling a real generational shift in men’s tennis that has been several years coming now.

But the WTA doesn’t really need a splashy tournament or hashtagged extravaganza to build hype for its young players. They tend to go out and do it on their own. Exhibit A: the emphatic, definitive and astonishing exploits of teenagers Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez at the US Open. In a closely fought final, Raducanu emerged victorious. It felt like the earth shifted a bit under New York.

In tennis, critical acclaim is cyclical, often spurred by the defeats of legends. Federer’s early popularity came on the back of his win against Pete Sampras. It has, therefore, become something of a cardinal rule that the Next Gen must play and beat the veterans, instead of coming to the top after they have naturally faded.

This is why Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu’s title wins over Serena in 2018 and 2019 matter. A few years ago, one way to understand women’s tennis was to divide players into two groups: Serena Williams and everyone else. But not anymore. For fans of Serena and casual watchers of the sport, the wins might appear to deprive the world of history. But it is really a revelation, much like the recent triumphs of Raducanu and Fernandez. Their wins offer a sense of contentment: women’s tennis after Serena will not be starved of superlative star power.

Collapsing constructs

But the same could not be imagined of the men’s tour after the Big Three, until recently. For more than a decade, they have shut door after door on young stars-in-waiting who have tried to claim Grand Slam glory. In 2020, Dominic Thiem, often dubbed the eternal Prince Charles of men’s tennis, finally managed to break down the walls of the Big Three hierarchy — but without beating a single member of them. It felt exciting, promising and disappointing all at once. With Medvedev’s win, however, it seemed the sun had well and truly begun to set on the empire.

Then again, this US Open showed what it would be like if we chose not to focus on constructs like ‘Big Three’ or ‘William Sisters’. These ideas in subtle ways direct how we think about tennis. Certain names shine brighter in draws wherever they’re placed. Tournaments become less about pitting a variety of talent from across the world against one another and more about micro-battles between a select few. These ideas need to lose their validity, because they no longer subscribe to what we can expect from a tournament. The 2021 US Open, in that regard, was a much-needed inflection point.

It is the start of a fresh decade, and the depth of the women’s field is such that a player you haven’t heard of today can win a Major in the next two years. Some would argue that this is the problem with women’s tennis: it is too unpredictable. But this is the chaos that is inherent to the sport, and we need more of it. We need this new grammar to capture the men’s tour, too. There are countless opportunities to seize and openings to exploit. It is uncertain and confusing, but it is also thrilling because it is full of possibility.

preethi.r@thehindu.co.in


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